Jingwen Zhang '18 - Introduction

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What: Biology major; editor-in-chief of The Amherst Student, the college's student-run newspaper; member of Amherst Christian Fellowship; member of the biology department's student-faculty committee; Biology 191 lab TA; pre-health (on the pre-med track)

Where: Home is near Columbus, Ohio

When: 2014-present (senior)

Why: (Mostly) to learn! Amherst has made me learn in so many different ways. To learn about the stories of others on this campus. To learn about the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. To learn to love the people that I've met and the friends that I've made. And (very importantly) to learn how to manage my time as a typical overcommitted Amherst College student.

I hope you learn something while you're here, too. Even though I'm already a senior (and that's pretty scary), I still definitely do not have everything figured out. But I'm still trying, still exploring — and still learning — and I'd like to invite you to join me through this honest account of my life here at Amherst.

Reach out to me at jzhang18@amherst.edu if you want to chat!

Olympics Craze, Chinese New Year, etc.

We may have had an Olympics-themed party at the Powerhouse a couple of weeks ago, but the Winter Olympics fever didn't really start until more recently. Over the last week, the TVs in the gym are tuned to NBC all the time, as are people's individual screens on treadmills. I helped out with newspaper business last Tuesday night to the backdrop of men's halfpipe on the office TV (which is actually quite nice). For the last few days, a few friends and I have been further holed up in the office watching events on the ice, which are always amazing in their athleticism as well as beauty.

In the case of one certain friend (pictured), these Olympics-watching sessions consist mostly of intensely fangirling over highly decorated ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. (As of two days ago, I'm a ShibSibs fan, won over mostly by their utterly pure and wholesome YouTube channel.) 

virtue/moir

Another big event that happened over this past week was Chinese New Year on Friday. While I was sad that I couldn't celebrate with my family (as was the case for the last several years now), it was somewhat made up by the Chinese Culture Club's celebratory event where they put the annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala on a giant screen and served a good amount of fantastic Chinese food. The advertisement of free Chinese food drew in a massive number of students of all backgrounds, but after the initial rush subsided, many of those remaining were there for good conversation and the rest of the Gala (or for the forthcoming hot pot). It was my once-a-year chance to wear a red-and-black blazer fashioned with fabric with embroidered Chinese designs that is "fusion" enough to look modern and snazzy but still a little too flashy for everyday wear, in my opinion.

Also important was that I went to see Black Panther with a friend - we caught a cheaper showing at 10:55 a.m. on a Sunday, and the theater was still packed. It was pretty incredible and definitely very different from most superhero movies - there is a good amount of high-tech fighting, but the storyline is more compelling, and the different characters prompt an examination into the complexities of loyalty and identity, as well as the indelible mark that our environments can have upon us. If you haven't seen it - go! With this and The Post, I've now gone to the theaters twice in one semester - a record-breaker for me.

With that, I'm going to back to the start of my decently busy week while watching the free skate for ice dance and staying awake to the tune of the Black Panther album by Kendrick Lamar!

Snow Day, Icy Week

Last week's weather was so weird, I was just glad to have gotten through it with no bruises and broken bones. The temperature plummeted, we got a snow day that turned into one of those disgusting wintry mixes, leaving everything covered in a casing of ice for the next couple of days. It was beautiful! Also potentially deadly.

This was the view from the McGuire Life Sciences Building, where I pretty much live these days, looking out over the Greenway dormitories. Every branch on this tree is totally covered in ice.

Icy

Speaking of living in lab, I had a really long experiment where I had to go in periodically for set timepoints. I was walking to and from McGuire at 6/6:30 a.m., when I saw these fantastic views that I never get to see otherwise. I'm the opposite of a morning person, so I finally got to see what I've been missing out on. There was also something peaceful and tranquil about the relative emptiness of the campus at the time.

sunrise over stirn sunrise

early morning jchap

At the end of the week on Friday night, a few friends and I piled into one of the school's vans (that students can check out and drive themselves) to go for tea in Northampton at a place called Dobra, which has a bunch of specialty teas complete with page-long descriptions of their unique qualities, cultivation, place of origin, and so on. It's as hipster as places in Northampton come, and it was a really fun time. 

dobra tea

Then, on Saturday evening, I got to see a friend (who, as an artist, goes by C-Flight) perform some of his own rap songs at an event featuring two other guest artists (Mari and Dezmond). It was a good time, and the crowd might seem small, but it's actually a pretty decent turnout for a school as small as Amherst College. I was really struck by the creativity and talent of these guys who are pretty much my age - I mean, everyone is unique and talented, etc., but to be able to work a crowd so naturally and to perform with apparent ease is usually something acquired with hard work, and I was super impressed.

mari at the powerhouse

Winter Fun

The third week of classes is starting, and I've settled into the routine of the semester.

Having Mondays and Fridays without classes is nice, but I'm not used to going an entire day with no scheduled classes, and I'll often have a freak-out moment right in the middle of an experiment in lab ("Wait, am I actually missing my philosophy seminar?!"). Of course, these days off are precisely meant to be spent doing thesis work, which I've actually made a decent amount of headway into. 

Though Amherst is a small town, it doesn't cease to surprise me. On Saturday, I was studying in the library area of The Lord Jeff, the college-affiliated inn on the edge of the campus and very close to the town center. When my friend and I stepped out around dinnertime, it was dark and the snow-covered town commons was glowing with warm yellow light. I'm still not sure what exactly the event was, but hundreds of paper bags lit up from inside by candles were set in winding paths, and there were people walking around, taking photos and enjoying the sights. There was even a bench made of carved ice - not sure where that came from. We took a spontaneous 15-minute detour and walked along the paths of lights and took photos, too.

Winter Fest

Later that evening, we went to a party of sorts put on by Student Activities (or some other department of the school) with a Winter Olympics theme in the Powerhouse, one of our main event venues (yes, it actually used to be a powerhouse). There was an attempt to make snow by spraying out foam and bubbles from a second-floor machine, and the food was just cold greasy pizza, but I have to admit, that was some of the best lighting and music I've ever heard at a college-sponsored event. Dancing and having fun was a great break from the day that we spent working.

The Powerhouse

But these are, of course, the "fun" highlights of my days. Sandwiched in between are classes, meetings (so many meetings this week!), and many lab hours. Less fun to read, admittedly, but it's currently looking like a much more balanced and well-rested semester than most past semesters have been - and for that I'm really glad!

Last First Week

Life's been hectic, and I haven't been able to blog as often as I should (or would like to!). While the end of interterm was fairly calm, my last first week of undergrad was anything but. 

I remembered worrying last weekend because I actually had no idea what my schedule was going to look like, due to some last-minute drops and waitlists as well as changing my mind about the subjects I wanted to spend my precious last semester studying. Ironically, I only had to choose two courses, since my biology thesis accounts for the other two. Still, it was agonizing to choose classes for the last time. I wanted to keep a few days class-free for the sake of potential long experiments or hours of thesis-writing, so I actually had nothing on my schedule Monday and went with a friend to pick up other friends from Boston. Tuesday, however, I woke up early and "shopped" classes from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. (Never doing that again...not that I have a choice.) Amherst has a "shopping" period where you can just drop in to whatever classes you want to try out or just experience, which is especially nice for the people (read:me) who are frantically trying to put their academic lives together.

By Wednesday night, though, I was pretty set on my classes. I'm taking a Tu/Th class called "According to Science...," a class listed in the biology department taught by a visiting biology professor. It's basically a science communications class, which really resonates with me both as someone majoring in the sciences and also passionate about journalism and the craft of writing. On Wednesdays, I have a long afternoon seminar in philosophy on population ethics. I'm excited - and also hoping that it's not too "deep" for me - I was never much of a philosopher, but hey, when am I going to get excited about thinking deeply after I graduate?? (It's also listed in environmental studies, which makes it less scary.) Then, on Tu/Th, I also have a half-credit hip hop class, which leaves me absolutely exhausted.

Besides classes, I had been focusing my efforts on putting together my presentation for my thesis committee meeting, which took place on Friday - right afterI fell victim to a bad cold. My throat, initially soothed by a cough drop, gave way somewhere during my discussion of what I was going to do next with my plants. The meeting went all right, but after that, I crawled into my bed and barely left until today. Recovery is important, y'all! That's a lesson that took me a long time to learn, and - perhaps due to the results-driven nature of being a student at Amherst College - I still have to intentionally try not to feel guilty when I find myself being less productive when I'm recovering from sickness.

I'm getting better now, thanks. Well enough to catch a viewing of "The Post" after church with a couple of friends. It's about Katharine Graham, who owned The Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate scandals of President Nixon's term, and who - despite sometimes being doubted for being a female leader - led the paper through some tough publishing decisions that were ultimately vindicated in court. Even though I retired from newspaper (and wow, it's really odd being free on Tuesday evenings for the first time since freshman year), this really resonated with me. 

The Post

(Photo: Shawna Chen '20)

Now it's time to gear up to my last second week of school! Stay warm and healthy, and if you get flu-like symptoms, please don't WebMD them like I did. (You - and I - know better. It'll just convince you that you're about to die.)

Returning for Interterm

I'm back on campus! That was quick - even though I left my last entry quite abruptly. I went straight from finals to a family vacation and back; I was scheduled to return on 1/4, the day of the "bomb cyclone," and needless to say, my East Coast flights weren't making it. Luckily, I'm here now and all settled in to continue research for my thesis. 

(Weather report from campus: This morning, when I saw it was 18 degrees F (11 with windchill), I thought to myself, "Wow, it's really warm.")

Amherst's interterm brings together a small group of students who are on campus for various reasons during this time of year while others may be at home resting or traveling or doing something else. Right now, many fellow seniors are working hard on lab work, writing, reading, etc. - all for the sake of our honors theses - and there are underclassmen here who are doing research for professors as well. Also, students are here completing the EMT course run by ACEMS, athletes training and practicing, and people taking various not-for-credit courses offered during this time. These classes have a wide range of topics, such as photography, web programming (which I signed up for), cultural competency in health, and personal finance. 

Though the college is already really small, I actually enjoy how there are even fewer people around during interterm. The campus is a lot quieter and cozier. There's been a steady trickle of people returning for interterm, and more will definitely follow.

Currently, I spend much of my day in lab, reading and writing as well as conducting and planning experiments. While I'd always thought of my thesis as something that basically lasts forever, that I have all the time in the world to do and write, nothing could be farther from the truth. It's jarring to think that I'm already halfway done with the biggest project of my senior year - and of my college career, and maybe my life so far, who knows - and that the experimental part is mostly complete anyway (since I have to spend some weeks just writing, too). 

Applying to jobs at this time makes me feel similarly. I am beginning the process of searching and applying, and though I've received many jaded words of wisdom about I won't hear back what I want to from 99%+ of those places, I still have to press on and apply, because what else can you do? This past winter was comprised of many "What are your post-grad plans?" questions from others, and now it's finally time to really step up and figure that out for myself. 

The prospect is daunting, but exciting - as college and so many other life experiences have been.

'Tis the Season

The season - that is, finals - draws ever closer, and I’m finding myself juggling tasks, obligations, academic assignments, etc. harder than ever.

It's funny – a friend, who’s also an upperclassman, and I were discussing the feeling of impending doom that’s so easy to get when finals draw near. Watching a pile of to-dos grow larger and larger before your very eyes is very daunting. (Right now, I’m looking at an ecology exam, presentations and essays for Chinese, a long history paper and the introduction of my thesis, with barely any time to catch my breath at the start of break before moving on to the ever-intimidating job search.) Yet, somehow, we get through it every semester.

Admittedly, I’m lucky this semester because some of these assignments can be completed in the comfort of my home, which is where I’m headed as soon as reading period starts. While my friends have pointed out how lucky I am, this scenario is highly unusual for me: for the last few semesters, I’ve always had the misfortune of having to stay at school for exams or other assignments until just two or three days before Christmas. There wasn’t even enough time to get into the holiday spirit. This semester, I only have one exam-based class, and that test is on the last day of classes. I see this more as compensation for the last few semesters, where I trudged my way through final after final as my friends left campus one by one.

This has been a week of change for me, personally. Yesterday, the last issue of The Amherst Student for this semester was published; it was also my last issue as editor-in-chief. As is customary, I wrote a farewell letter that was reflective and also forward-facing, and that led to hours more of introspection, feeling a bit empty inside now that my most time-consuming activity has abruptly wrapped up, etc. I can’t complain at all about being able to sleep comfortably and soundly on Monday and Tuesday nights rather than worry about publishing on Wednesday, but there’s something I’ll oddly miss about being in the office.

Yesterday was also exciting in that activist and journalist Shaun King came to visit in an event organized by some of the college’s various groups. He spoke in Johnson Chapel, where most of our “important” events or high-profile speakers generally give their talks, and the entire room was packed with students not just from Amherst but from the rest of the Five Colleges. This was a very interesting event for me; as someone who’s aware of Shaun King only from Facebook and what one might consider his social media-based activism, it was refreshing to hear him give what was almost a lecture in real life using both his own experiences and his acumen as a history major back in college.

shaun king

Unfortunately, I had to leave rather early (he apparently spoke for 2.5 hours or something!), but it was definitely one of the memorable, thought-provoking events that I enjoy so much about Amherst.

Thanksgiving Break

After a much-needed Thanksgiving break, we’re back at school for the final stretch of the semester! My break was not the most restful, as I had done extensive travelling during this time. The purpose of my travels, which were funded by my Schupf fellowship (more on that later), was to conduct some archival research for the History of Therapeutics seminar that I’m currently taking.

I started off by going to Yale in New Haven, visiting the manuscripts and archives portion of their gigantic Sterling Library. Here, a professor once taught physiology—and later history of medicine—who was a good friend and longtime correspondent of one of the key figures in the development of penicillin as a drug, which is one of the core issues that I’m looking at for my project. Next, I went to New York, saw some friends over the weekend, and immersed myself in the Columbia Health and Sciences Library archives when they opened on Monday—I was particularly happy to find a set of relevant papers and notes on lectures given by a female doctor, Hattie Alexander, at a time when authoritative voices like hers were still few and far between.

Then came the exciting and very new part of my trip: I got on a plane late at night and went to London for the remainder of break! This was a city—and a country—that I’ve never been to, so I was particularly excited. Also, London (and British culture at large) is so present in American pop culture that it felt weird, at once familiar yet strange, to be in that city. I loved it, though; coming from New York, particularly, the public transportation system in London was heavenly in its clear organization and efficiency. I spent many hours in the archives at the library in the Wellcome Center, which is an institution that also boasted a museum full of exhibits and information on the history of medicine and current medical trends as well as artifacts and collections from the trust’s original benefactor. It was, in short, a (do-not-touch and no-photographs-please) playground for anyone with an interest in medicine and leaning toward understanding history.

Beyond collecting information on hundreds of pages of archival material that I now have to organize into a coherent final paper, I also had time to make my way around the city and immerse myself in these new sights, particularly before I made my way up to the Wellcome Library every day and after I left for the night. There’s not much to say about this part, except that I drank in more new sights and sounds and smells than I did water (I have a problem with staying hydrated while travelling) and that every bit of it was incredible. And, of course, I took many photos, some of which I’ve added here.

london

london

london

All in all, it was a fantastic trip and wonderful learning experience—and after hearing about some of my friends’ adventures in Europe gone awry, I’m glad I didn’t lose anything important (except when a woman walking really fast on the Millennium Bridge bumped into me, sending my lens cap flying, and I watched helplessly as it rolled over the edge and into the Thames).

Returning to the subject of my funding: I’m a Schupf Scholar, there’s a few students who receive this distinction in each class year—thanks to alum Axel Schupf, we get grants to investigate questions or do more learning on our own on whatever topics interest us. In this case, I had been interested in this topic for my history seminar (antibiotic resistance and scientific development) to begin with, but I came away with a far greater appreciation for history research, as well as a sense of knowing these historical figures in science almost personally—and reading about their family lives, their dry senses of humor, their academic spats over credit and authorship have provided for me so much context in which I can think about their many achievements.

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Nearing Break

There's a busy and nervous sort of energy on campus these days — it's the energy of too many people having midterms, papers, and other assignments due, people trying to fulfill all of their responsibilities before the long-awaited Thanksgiving break next week. For the first time in my undergraduate career, I wasn't one of the people running around and suffering death by classes. As someone who's had 2+ STEM classes and 2 lab courses for five semesters over the past three years, this semester — with only one non-lab science class that had already had its second midterm two weeks ago — was my own long-awaited relief. I suppose it doesn't really count as a lab-free semester, since I'm writing a thesis, and I'm spending more than an entire course's worth of time in lab.

The past week was a rather frustrating one in terms of the wet lab portion of my thesis: while I spent many hours preparing for and running experiments, I gained very little workable data in return. The positive side of the issue was that I finally sat down with my thesis advisor, Professor Jeong, and had a very candid discussion with her about my frustrations. I walked away from that talk feeling a lot better despite my experiments going sideways. As she — and my mom, whom I'd called about this — both reassured me, no one was expecting an undergrad to write a Nobel-worthy thesis, and the most important part of the entire massive year-long project was to learn how to do things and also how to fix things when they go wrong. 

Over the weekend, I watched a record two whole movies (so much free time!!): "Thor: Ragnarok" (highly recommend) and "Spotlight," the 2016 winner of the Oscars' Best Picture, which is about the Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team and really tugs at my journalism heartstrings (this is my second time watching it, and I suspect I'll have many more to go in my lifetime). I also went to the annual Fall Formal event held by the school, which took place in a rather weird but interesting venue this time — the Beneski Museum, with live music from a quartet of my friends and hors d'oeuvres circulating around the massive statue of a mammoth that's now become emblematic of Amherst College. 

Speaking of fall, the season's brightest colors in New England are drawing to a close. It's one of a long list of things that make me nostalgic and hyper-aware of the passage of time these days — fall in New England is famously beautiful, and with my post-graduation plans up in the air, it may be a while before I see these sights again. Below are some pictures I took of the surrounding mountains from the first-year quad under wildly fluctuating Western Mass weather conditions.

fall

fall

Nosedive into My Week

This is my first time posting this year – my first time posting on the admissions blog as a college senior. Sounds cliché, but time flies! If you’re reading this as a prospective student, I’m getting major senior feels (and also thesis-ing – more on that later), so take my ramblings with a grain of salt, please.

It’s been a long week so far. (It’s also Monday. Well, Tuesday now, technically.) Today, I spent a decent chunk of my time in lab, working on my biology thesis, trying out a new procedure that neither I nor my advisor have done in the past. It didn’t exactly yield the best results, but that’s science! In all seriousness, one major lesson I’ve had to learn (and am still learning) as a student who’s done her fair share of lab research is that one has to get real comfortable with the prospect of failure. Developing this comfort, as well as infinite patience in dealing with assays and samples, is still a work in progress for me.

Between my two periods of lab time, I also attended a really fun event put on by some student leaders of the Asian Students Association. It was a cooking night, where they had set up a ramen bar as well as catering from a local Indian restaurant, and we could build our own ramen cups or pile curry on top of basmati rice. Our dining hall, Valentine (or colloquially just Val), is definitely not the worst of campus dining halls – but once you’re a senior and your brain has already synced to the predictable pattern of Val meal menus, variety is a relief. And this was some really good variety, too. Afterward, students, staff and faculty present were split off into groups to get to know each other and talk about questions pertaining to Asian identity (and Asian food!), but I had to bounce early to get to a film screening for my history class.

This class, which has a really long course title but is just called Therapeutic Transformations for short, is a history seminar taught by a professor here (John Servos) who specializes in history of science and medicine. As a pre-med student who’s also passionate about science, his classes have been really great ways for me to take a look at subjects so familiar to me from a different perspective. We had some pizza (yay, second dinner!) from Antonio’s, a beloved nearby pizza joint, and watched an old black-and-white British film (“The Third Man”). After that welcome break, it was back to lab for me.

In the next couple of weekly entries, I’ll take you through the finer details of what I’m doing: my classes, my thesis, my extracurricular activities, as well as some introspection on what brought me to Amherst and what I’m taking away.