• Omar Rutledge

2021 in Review: Part Two

Updated: Jan 16


Last Snow in April

This begins Part 2 of my review of my experiences of 2021. It can be read independently of Part 1, but I highly encourage you to take a look at that entry as it might help place some of the events in this post in a better context. Without further ado, let’s begin with the Spring Semester of 2021.


Spring Semester – Feb-May 2021

As part of the requirements for graduation, each student must teach two classes during their second and third year in the program. During my second year in 2020, my class was cut short during the Covid shutdown and other Teaching Assistants helped to cover for me as I had to find a new place to call home. In the Spring of 2021, we were fully-remote and the department had learned a few lessons from the Fall semester of 2020, which was also fully online. Things were going to be much smoother.


I chose to teach the same class I taught last year, Introduction to Psychological Science. It is a large course with around 200-300 students each Spring, so the professor has a team of assistants to help reinforce the course material. Typically, there are two classes and one recitation each week. The professor teaches the two classes, and the Teaching Assistants (TAs) review the course material during the recitation. Prior to coming to MIT, I had only seen this teaching approach in math classes which needed reinforcement with a recitation taught by a TA, but this course (and really every undergraduate course at MIT) is quite challenging for new students to the field, so these recitations are very helpful for the students.


This course had 10 TAs with one PhD to manage the TAs, which seems like a lot, but it was absolutely necessary to make sure we divided the work evenly and receive the support we needed. The work was quite involved. Not only did we need to attend the classes to make sure we knew what was taught in class, but we needed to synthesize our own class to reinforce what was taught on a weekly basis for thirteen weeks. I was lucky that my recitation was on Friday after both classes had been taught on Tuesday and Thursday, but some of the TAs had their recitation on Tuesday, which meant they needed to predict what would be taught on Thursday. Luckily, we had our PhD Advisor who could help.


Most of the material was the same as prior years (not much changes in the foundations of psychology from year to year), and our professor recorded his classes from prior years, so we could reference those if we needed to. The TAs rotated responsibilities each week from preparing the week’s slides to preparing quiz questions and managing online activities during the class. Each week, one TA would read the assigned book chapters, watch the prior year’s videos, and create an hour-long class that would reinforce what was taught that week. After a review of the slides on Monday, they were distributed to each TA to teach for their own recitation.


During each class taught by the professor, two TAs would be assigned to monitor and respond to questions asked by students online. There were multiple things happening at the same time as the professor was speaking, including a chat channel for the students (which was quite entertaining at times), and an online forum to formally post questions, so the TAs were there to help handle these other things. It was a different dynamic than the normal classroom, to be sure, but it felt a lot more interactive in this format. I really enjoyed the design of this course.


The last responsibility the TAs shared was of writing questions for the quizzes that were administered every couple of weeks. That was pretty challenging since we moved to a new online book this year and needed to create new questions that hadn’t been tested. It’s always easy to ask a question when you know the answer, but the real challenge is in writing a good question that makes the reader think critically when they are just becoming familiar with the material without being so hard that only an expert would know the answer. It’s hard to judge accurately when we are actually becoming an expert, but, of course, that’s part of learning how to teach effectively.


I took my role quite seriously, as I usually do. One of the first things I did to improve my online teaching was to buy a green screen for the Zoom presentations. Zoom had just come out with a function to allow a slideshow to be presented as the background for the Zoom window, and I had been watching a lot of educational YouTube videos where green screens were used and they looked so professional. Since no one else was coming into the office, I took up the rest of the room with a giant green screen. I bought some small lights and set up a little studio in my office. I was ready for online class!


My Teaching Studio

Additionally, I didn’t simply take the slides that were given to me each week and present them as they were. I wanted to keep the appearance similar between each recitation, so I always modified the slides to match my theme. Sometimes I wanted to highlight additional material, or take something out to spend more time on another topic, so inevitably I ended up reading the material and preparing my own version of slides each week. Of course, the overall material was pretty much the same to maintain consistency between TAs, but I always put fun questions within the slides so I could have a more interactive class. Zoom also has the ability to take polls during the meeting, so I would prepare five or six questions for each class to help reinforce the material. Active learning, they call it. It’s much more work to prepare for each class, but if the idea is to convey the material so that it can be retained, this type of teaching is pretty effective. I started my class with an MP3 of a favorite song as people joined the room, then started teaching at 5 after. "MIT-time". I’d go through the slides, asking questions along the way, and then finish with a short review at the end.


Given all of the preparation work that was needed for my recitation on Friday, each week was blowing by very quickly. Slides would come in on Monday, unless it was my week to prepare them for everyone, which meant I was creating them on the weekend. Classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Writing quiz questions in between. Last minute edits to the presentation Thursday night, teach on Friday, then do it all again the following week. The reading and quiz questions were pretty time-consuming, but the greatest amount of work came in grading, especially for the written assignment.

Each TA had about 30 students, and for quizzes, it was easy to grade since it was administered online, but the writing assignment needed to be reviewed individually, and let me tell you, most freshmen, even at MIT, are not great writers. I’m not saying I’m a wonderful writer at all, but I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things about scientific writing over the years. However, having the perspective of reading material written by new writers was both enlightening and excruciating. The assignment was to take a look at a few scientific papers and write a 2- to 3-page paper supporting or refuting a prompt provided by the professor. The enlightening part was seeing how different students would come up with different reasons to support their claim. This was helpful because I could see their level of critical thinking and be able to provide feedback to help hone in that skill. It was sometimes excruciating because it seems that the proper use of English in writing is probably least developed in high school these days. As a freshman, I took an English composition course that changed my life forever. I realized quickly that I did not know proper English and that my high school failed me. With strict adherence to rules of English grammar, my professor helped develop my writing skills in ways that continue to have an effect today. After reading the first drafts of the assignment, I desperately wished each of my students took a similar course.


With grading the written assignment, I had to decide whether it was important to review each grammatical mistake or just gloss over them since I had limited time. I decided that if I glossed over the mistakes, the students would just keep making them. However, since this wasn’t a composition course, I wouldn’t take off points for grammar. My hope was to help make each student a better writer. Some of the papers had a lot of comments and marks, and I thought that I would get a lot of push-back from the students once I handed back the first drafts, but surprisingly, many of them commented on how thorough my grading was and were thankful for it. I’m sure many of these students have been the top of their class wherever they came from, so when they got a paper with a bunch of red ink, it may have been a bit shocking. Several students set up one-on-one meetings with me to help understand how they could improve. Again, I was just so amazed at how engaged these students were. I think they could tell that I was dedicated to their learning, so it was wonderful to see them be responsive to my suggestions.


Ultimately, the course was a great success. We were able to teach a large number of students to think critically about psychology, and I really hope I helped inspire a few of them to continue their studies in the field of psychology and neuroscience. The course evaluations were pretty interesting to read at the end of the semester. I certainly felt validated. Of course, not everyone responded, and of those that did, there was still room for improvement, but overall, I think they got something out of the class and enjoyed the process. I’m glad they like it. It was such a pleasure teaching them.


Course Evaluation by Students

In between all of the teaching responsibilities, I continued to work on the Stanford coil project. During the IAP, I spent time re-coding my data so I had a better understanding of the many simulations that I had performed. At this point, we are talking about more than 100 simulations. With the data better organized, I set out on figuring the best way to present this coil to the world. Ideally, the coil should be published in a highly-reputable journal on MRI hardware, but unlike my first coil which was published in the Journal of Magnetic Resonance, this coil was being analyzed through numerical simulation only; there is no functioning prototype built at this time. Typically, this is a major disadvantage in the world of MRI hardware. However, given the depth of this analysis, it may be irrelevant if I can craft the right framing for the publication. The key was to find other simulation-only articles in reputable journals to see how they described their devices and simulation results.


After a good look at the literature, there were only a handful of good simulation papers. All of them described the electromagnetic performance of their coils in such detail that only a numerical simulation can provide, such as the presentation of the electric and magnetic fields during the coil’s operation. In addition to having a solid written description, each of the papers had a large number of color figures and tables. In fact, the authors made the figures in each publication so that they alone could tell the story of the paper. If I wanted to publish my coil with simulation-only data, then I needed a lot of pretty pictures. So, for the Spring semester, my goal was to thoroughly simulate my coil in a number of configurations to demonstrate how my final model is the best performing one.


I had spoken to my advisor at Stanford about my part in the Reimagining Public Safety event, and he asked if I’d be willing to give a talk to the Radiological Sciences Laboratory about my experiences becoming a scientist. It would primarily be an audience of grad students and post-docs. I thought that was an interesting proposal, and certainly one out of the norm for the RSL. Most of their presentations are scientific in nature. This would be quite personal. We talked about a presentation that I gave when I first came to MIT to fellow students about my life story. Back then, I felt so awkward talking about myself in a presentation format. However, since I had given that talk, I had the material already in a PowerPoint, so perhaps I could modify it for this audience and improve it through some of the lessons I learned from the first presentation. He agreed, and at the end of February, I presented how I am becoming a scientist to the RSL.


It was still such a strange feeling speaking about myself in such a public way, especially about some of the traumas I’ve experienced in my life, but I felt it was necessary to explain the dark parts along with everything else to show how it shaped me into the person I am today. I wanted to share the human part of my struggle, not just the pretty academic path. I didn’t know how the audience would respond, but when I finished, there were so many questions and responses from many of the attendees. We all realized that everyone has had challenges along the way. Absolutely everyone. We are all trying to forge ahead to become a scientist, and things happen along the way to try to knock us off our path. It seemed that, perhaps especially because of the pandemic, many were wondering if they were doing the right thing in pursuing their dream. My hope was to inspire the audience to keep going, never forget their motivations, and be the best that they can be. I received a few emails from audience members after the event, and it seemed a few were quite moved by my talk. That’s great! What a wonderful opportunity that was.


Back at MIT, I was contacted by the School of Science to do an interview for a news article in March. They heard about my research ideas through my fellowship awards and watched the public safety webcast, so they wanted to do a little story on me. Again, I was being asked to talk about my life in a public manner. This time, to an unknown number of readers for what could be a very long time online, but at least it would be focused on my research goals rather than my entire life. During the interview process, I started to feel more comfortable describing my experiences and motivations for research, and as they were drafting the article, they allowed me to participate in the editing. Overall, it was a pleasant experience, and I think it was a good article. Here’s a link to the article published in MIT News in April.


Throughout the semester, I was maintaining a regular presence with the Student Veteran Association. The Executive Board held weekly meetings, and I enjoyed attending them. As I was ramping up my involvement, I started to learn more about what the SVA had done in the past to try to raise awareness of our veterans to the MIT administration. There were a few meetings held in prior semesters, but there seemed to have been a lot of hesitancy on the part of the administration to try to resolve some of the issues veterans had at MIT. For example, the Yellow Ribbon program was woefully underfunded for MIT’s tuition and the GI Bill certification was a complete mess. Since there is no centralized office to handle student veteran issues, there was no way to get administrators to address them. After attending many of these weekly meetings, I started to think that the SVA could be the agent of change that we are hoping for. We just needed to be more organized. There had been some form of student-led veteran’s group at MIT since 2016, and while these issues had been long-standing, it didn’t seem that there was an effective strategic plan in place to get these issues addressed. There were some minor wins, including an increase to the Yellow Ribbon Program, but there was still a lot more work to do.


The SVA is one of possibly hundreds of other student-led organizations at MIT, and they are all managed by the Association of Student Activities, or ASA, who publishes guidelines on student group management. They made an announcement in April that all student groups needed to have elections before Commencement Day to replace any graduating members. This was a bit of a shock to the Executive Board, who had just been elected in January to replace those who graduated in December 2020, but we needed to comply with the ASA guidelines. This meant the leadership positions were going to become available. Could I lead the group towards a better future? I thought about it, but I was reluctant since there was already a leadership team. If I were to step up, someone else would have to step down. At one meeting it was brought up that maybe I could run for President of the group. After some discussion with the current President, and a subsequent nomination by another board member, I decided to run for President of the MIT SVA. After a discussion with the current President, he stepped aside and I ran unopposed. At the end of April, I was President-Elect of the group.


I didn’t officially take over as President until after commencement, but I already started thinking about a strategic plan. As usual, I took the responsibility seriously. What was the SVA going to look like at the end of school year 2021-2022? What did I want to accomplish? How did I want to do it? I took a page from the business world. I developed a strategic vision and a mission statement in May. I wanted to grow the size of the SVA membership to include all veterans at MIT, and I wanted to get veteran services up to the standard that many other institutions of higher learning have set. The mission was centered around three main ideas: build community through holding social events, advocate for student veterans to the MIT administration, and disseminate useful information to the veteran community through regular communication. I held individual meetings with each of the Executive Board members to consult with them and make sure we are all on the same page, and then we took a little break for the summer. The real work would begin in the Fall.


You may remember that I was hit by a truck while riding my bike back in 2019, as noted in this prior post, and due to Covid, I was unable to schedule a time to get my shoulder repaired. The vaccine became available early in the year and I was able to get my two shots in March, so by May, I was ready to take a look at my shoulder. By the way, did you know that both Pfizer and Moderna have offices within one block of MIT? Pretty wild! For my shoulder, the first step was to see just how bad the injury had been. After a CT arthogram, we found that the accident caused the labrum of my left shoulder to rip apart, which was the exact same injury that a prior surgery had repaired. I needed to have the same labral tear repair surgery that I had in April of 2019. I knew I wanted to go on a road trip during the summer since we had a vaccine, so I decided to wait and get the surgery as soon as I returned. It was very uncomfortable having my shoulder feeling so loose and out of place, but at least now I had a plan for fixing it.


Moderna and Pfizer near MIT

That pretty much wraps up the Spring semester. As you can see, it’s been quite the busy year so far. There is a reason why I haven’t had as much time available to keep up with the blog, but I hope reading about my adventures has been entertaining. More to come! Stay tuned for the next post covering the summer of 2021.



-Omar

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