Jingwen Zhang '18 - Introduction

What: Biology major; executive adviser of The Amherst Student, the college's student-run newspaper; member of Amherst Christian Fellowship; member of the biology department's student steering committee; biochemistry lab TA; Reader to Reader mentor; 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!

Concerts, Defenses, and Food

This week was an extremely eventful one, since a lot of much-anticipated springtime events were happening. Most notably, it was the week of Spring Concert as well as of my thesis defense the very next day.

Every year, the college holds Spring Concert (as do many other colleges and universities), inviting singers that are generally minor celebrities pre- or post-peak. This year, one artist actually cancelled on short notice, so the school replaced her with Chelsea Cutler, who I knew somewhat from the Spotify "Pop Rising" playlist. She's actually also a student at Amherst College, though she's taking some time off to focus on music.

The scene was wild: her teammates and friends at Amherst turned out in full force to support her, as well as most other students who were curious about her minor stardom. Given that her songs are decently popular but not quite Top 50s level of fame, it was so cool to hear practically the entire venue belting the lyrics to her songs (or maybe I was just rendered temporarily deaf by a group of male soccer players next to me who threatened to knock me over every time Chelsea reached a chorus in her songs). I was really impressed by her voice; it's even better live than in her recordings, in my opinion. She even wore her Amherst soccer jersey as she performed. (Some other artists performed, too, but I didn't know very much about them other than that one of them was featured on "Broccoli," but I also saw Lil Yachty the weekend before, so...)

Chelsea Cutler   Chelsea Cutler

Along with all the other biology major thesis writers, I gave my defense the following day (Sunday). I think it went well, although to cram 100+ pages of content into 12 minutes was no easy feat, and I was talking rather quickly without giving myself a water break, so I may have choked on my "Recap of Conclusions & Future Directions," but ended up feeling really great anyway, because that was another big hurdle cleared! Afterward, we had dinner with faculty, followed by appetizers and drinks at High Horse, a chill but slightly fancy restaurant & bar in Amherst. This is what the Admission office and tour guides mean when they talk about "close student-faculty relationships"!

Bio Dept

Finally, to cap off my splended week (except today's Wednesday, so I suppose nothing's really been capped off yet), some classmates and I took our professor for dance class out to dinner. This is part of Amherst's "Take Your Prof Out" ("TYPO") program that students can take part in once a semester: at least three students can invite a teacher out to dinner at a local restaurant, and the school picks up the bill. We had a lot of fun with our hip-hop teacher, who's really chill, crazy talented, and very, very funny. We went to Johnny's Tavern, which is decently upscale for Amherst, and had a dinner consisting entirely of rich appetizers and a chocolate-y, melty dessert, which rendered me food-comatose for the rest of the night.

Johnny's Tavern   Johnny's Tavern

Still More to Do

It's surreal to think that we're less than two weeks out from the end of the semester - my last semester! I've had a few days of relaxation, but now it's back to the grind with one last burst of energy for my thesis presentation (or defense), which will be on Sunday. At this point, I know I technically know everything I need to say, but it's making a sensible PowerPoint presentation and presenting the highlights of my research in a limited amount of time that's the real challenge. But soon, very soon, it'll be done for real!

I think that turning in my thesis made me incredibly spontaneous. On Sunday afternoon, a friend and I were able to pick up a few tickets for a concert with Lil Yachty and Khalid at UMass Amherst that evening - and I went with it, because why not? I'm usually a huge planner, with things figured out days in advance, and can get a little melodramatic when my well-laid plans get disrupted last-minute, so this was a huge step for me. I had a ton of fun - I didn't really know many Lil Yachty songs, but I knew Khalid's hits and a few of the slightly lesser-known songs, and hearing him sing in person was pretty incredible because he's just inherently a great singer. 

(Here, too, I became really aware of the differences between Amherst College and UMass (or any other large college, really). There were way too many people to count milling about the Mullins Center, where the concert was held, and the mass exodus from the event space after the concert was a huge source of traffic for all the unlucky cars that happened to be passing along that road at that exact same time.)

Khalid

There were many other fun events this past week, too. We just had Admitted Students Weekend, which was the first such weekend in my memory that also featured terrible weather. Usually, it's a running joke that the weather gets better solely for the benefit of the prospective students - but no such luck this year. It's still cold, rainy, even snowy at times. (Note to prospective students: this is not normal! Usually, it's much warmer by now.)

Also, we had City Streets, one of my favorite food-related events at the college because the dining hall sets up different "stalls" or "stations" featuring bites of food from various cultures and regions. Among my favorites were the pork belly "tacos" (honestly, they were just baos), sushi with tuna, crepes, and endless ice cream from a local creamery. 

Yesterday, I went to a more sobering event: there was a vigil in memory of a student who had died recently, who was in my year, set to graduate. We've had several tragic losses on campus these last weeks/months. Yesterday's event was also intended by his parents to be a celebration of his life. Several of his friends, also my friends, spoke. I think it ultimately brought a lot of comfort to them to remember their good friend through reliving a lot of their memories together. Additionally, though I only knew him through one class, and some others didn't know him much at all, I think the huge supportive turnout really brought comfort to his parents through their pain, to see how much he was loved. Our college is one small enough that any such loss is keenly felt through the whole student body, and I think they understood, too. 

Finishing Thesis

Earlier today - at 5 a.m., to be exact - I turned in my thesis! I don't really know how to describe how I felt at the time; on the one hand, I was very conscious of turning in the biggest project that I've ever completed in my life. On the other hand...it was an electronic submission via email and therefore almost anticlimactic. But I'm not complaining: I staggered back to my dorm room, crawled into bed, and didn't get back up until an embarrassingly late hour. It definitely feels like a huge weight has been lifted off of me, even though I still have my defense and final submission and piled-up assignments for other classes to do.

I think the feeling of freedom and relaxation stems largely from the weather, as well. Lately, it's been unseasonably cold and/or gloomy, so today's mild, partly cloudy day was a welcome relief - it actually felt like spring! I believe this weather will be short-lived (sadly for those visiting for Admitted Students Weekend), but I'm trying to enjoy it while I can. So are these folks out on the quad today - this is a common sight in the spring (and fall) at Amherst.

Spring

Also, lately, Amherst has started off a fundraising campaign for "the third century of Amherst College," I think they're calling it. The college is holding nothing back for this - if you look closely at the photo above, there's banners adorning the lamppost (and basically every other lamppost on campus) promoting the campaign. Last weekend was the official start of the campaign, and one of the events was the renaming of Greenway A (one of the new dorms on campus) to Ford Hall for an alum who donated a lot of money (and also funded two science faculty positions or something). I stopped by the ceremony to unveil the new sign for the dorm - they even had a cake in the form of the building!

Ford Hall

Ford Hall

I'm pretty envious of students who will be here next year. With the new science center that will be completed over the summer, securing funding for these dorms, and all the special events happening out of the fundraising campaign - it'll be an exciting time.

Difficult Times

It's been an undeniably hard time for the campus, since a student passed away late last week. This added to the sorrow that many were already feeling because another student - whom I knew - had passed away just after spring break. During this time, I've seen people get together to express their grief and support one another through this difficult time, and I think (and hope) that most students have at least taken a moment to re-examine their lives and also take an extra step to take care of themselves and others.

This past weekend we at the Christian fellowship celebrated Easter in our usual way, though we did recognize the difficulties that a lot of people in our midst were experiencing because they had been close to the students who had died. On Saturday, I hiked with some people to the top of Bare Mountain at The Notch, which is part of the Holyoke Range, and got an amazing view of the valley below. It was my first time going up there with the trees still bare, so that was a rather jarring surprise. (If you squint and concentrate, you'll even see the top of Johnson Chapel as well as McGuire and Merrill science buildings at Amherst. UMass, with its taller building complexes, is easier to spot.)

View from Bare Mountain

On Easter, I got up early with some friends to go for a bagel run (to Brueggers, where we bought four dozen bagels from a cashier who was semi-irate because we basically cleared out their whole early morning stock). This, and some coffee and fruit, was in preparation for the sunrise service we have every year at Memorial Hill. It was church after that, then a long nap, and finally Easter Dinner. 

The weather has been casting a bit of a shadow over the campus (figuratively and literally); it's been wet and gray for several days. At least the grass is happy, I suppose. My thesis deadline draws ever closer (next Friday!) and I'll just be relieved once I turn in the biggest project that I've ever undertaken in my life.

Dreams

Things are getting super busy these days, with thesis and being a TA and a whole list of other obligations, but I'm still trying to take the time to do things that are fun and/or important to me.

For example, I got to meet Helen Zia last Wednesday!

Helen Zia, a renowned journalist, author, and activist who wrote the book Asian American Dreams (which we jokingly call the "Asian American bible" at Amherst, since Prof. Odo assigns it to pretty much every single one of his students) came to give a talk at Amherst. Prior to that, some Amherst students were randomly selected to have dinner with her at one of the local Chinese restaurants in town. Fortunately, I was one of the students at the table with her, and it really felt like meeting a celebrity.

Helen Zia

Dinner and a heart-to-heart with Helen Zia. Photo credits: Megan Do via amherstsays on Instagram.

Almost all of us at the dinner had taken an Asian-American studies class here and read her book. Over eggplant and Sichuan fish and other amazing dishes, we learned more about her personal history and stories - and got some advice from her, too. She is, I think, among the most influential Chinese-American voices (and Asian-American, in general) in U.S. history. Following the murder of Vincent Chin, she was vocal against the recurring failures to obtain justice for his death. Her talk in one of our auditoriums drew a fairly large crowd by Amherst standards; major props to the Asian Students Association for putting the long-awaited event on. (Side note: Former energy secretary and Nobel prize winner Steven Chu was giving a talk at the very same time. Very unfortunately, I couldn't be two places at once.) 

Because the push for Asian American studies and campus activism is - unsurprisingly - generally energized by the voices of students, and because we have so few professors teaching Asian American studies (two, soon to be three), we don't always get to hear an older, more experienced, wiser voice who can provide perspective and insight on our current situations. Zia, also a vocal LGBT rights activist, could tell us about similar problems she saw 30, 40+ years ago, and how people worked together to fix problems. She also provided frank insight into divisions and difficulties of the different moving parts of the civil rights movement, which can often be painted as one big, unified, harmonious push for justice. She had detailed - or at least touched upon - all these aspects in her book, but there's something about real-time spontaneity that leads to more humor and honesty. 

The night of having dinner with Zia, then hearing her speak to so many students - Asian American or not, vocal campus activists or casual observers, people from all walks of life - was a real bright spot in this past week.

Around the Northeast

Over the last two weeks, I've been running around to a couple different places in the Northeast (just New York City and Dartmouth, really) as the freedom of spring break was filled up by eating and thesis-ing (classic).

Let's start with blessed, blessed spring break. A friend and I took the Amherst spring break shuttle down to NYC on Friday night, and we stayed there until Monday afternoon. It was a much-needed break away from campus, full of amazing eats. My friend, who's also Chinese American, has never been to Flushing despite having interned in the city for two summers, so we took the train out there and ate through the New World Mall. I promise we did other things, but most of my photos are of food, so here you go:

soup dumplings   NYC matcha

(Left: soup dumplings from New World Mall, mmm. Right: lots of matcha - I'm tempted to make some pun about the recent Match(a) Day.)

When I headed back to Amherst, I was pretty tired, but I had no time to rest and relax because I had to prepare for an experiment that took me and another friend from my lab to Dartmouth College. This was for my thesis, and we were using a relatively new technology called NanoString nCounter that would give me a ton of gene expression data, which will (hopefully) be really useful for my analysis. That was the day after one of the several "nor'easters" that have hit the region, but the roads were pretty clear, though New Hampshire did get quite a bit more snow than we did.

Between instrument runs, I worked on my assignments, napped, and inched through my thesis. I also ate through Hanover with my friend, which was not very impressive, considering that the town is actually smaller than Amherst and comparatively very isolated.

Dartmouth library   Dartmouth gelato

(Left: the bell tower at Dartmouth's library. Right: gelato goodness.)

Returning to Amherst, I managed to get maybe a full night of sweet, solid sleep - but there's no rest for the weary, it seems. The urgency for my thesis has really kicked in now that I have only three and a half weeks until it's due. Whaaaaat? That's pretty crazy. But I'm confident that it'll all be okay, despite that it's due on Friday, (April) the 13th....

Thoughts on Thesis

I'm just a little more than a month away from when my thesis is due, and in the middle of late nights pipetting and entering data, I've had a lot of time to reflect on how it's impacted my senior year and my life in general.

A lot of these musings were also verbalized at a "Honors Meet & Greet" for the biology department, an annual get-together organized by the department's student steering committee (of which I'm a member) to allow current senior thesis writers and juniors considering writing a thesis to chat. In theory, a lot of juniors would come with many questions for the seniors to answer. However, there are fewer biology majors in the class below me with an unusually small proportion are considering writing a thesis, so the "Meet & Greet" had far more seniors than juniors in attendance and was more of a cathartic thesis emotional support session over surplus food.

As someone who's done a lot of lab work in the past, spending a lot of time in lab doesn't feel unusual or uncomfortable to me. However, there were others who hadn't done lab work in the past who had to figure out how to schedule their experiments or their other commitments around their lab hours, and also just get used to the sheer amount of lab work that was required for their theses. For some, the choice to write a thesis led them to realize that this is what they wanted to do for the rest of their life, confirming their desire to go to grad school and then into research. For others - like myself - this experience steers me away from that kind of path. To be clear, I don't regret my decision to write a thesis, since I like the idea of contributing to a broad scientific base of knowledge, and I also really enjoy working with and learning from my adviser. However, a massive, yearlong, largely independent scientific undertaking is very different from the neat, short-term summer projects I've done in my last few years. It's also way more complex than the simple and heavily supervised experiments that I did back in high school. 

The process of writing a thesis has also been extremely character-building for me, as corny as that might sound. I've had to become very familiar with how to deal with failure. Also, because I'm usually on my own when conducting experiments, I've learned to be resourceful, reaching out for help when I need it but also looking for the best way to proceed on my own whenever I can. There's a lot of zooming in and out that's involved over the course of an experiment - zooming in to examine and dissect the details of individual assays, then zooming out to realize what these results mean for the project as a whole and for the field in which my project is situated. Otherwise, it's easy to lose focus. These are all acquired abilities and skills that I'll probably carry with me into the future.

From speaking with other students, I was also reminded that other branches of biology have theses that look very different from mine. Many students working on projects based on observational data already finished their data collection back in the summer, and they're just crunching the numbers now. Others are constructing phylogenies, collaborating with people from other institutions, etc. There's no set definition of how a biology thesis should look or should operate. In the end, as one of the Writing Center staff put it in her talk during one of our seminars, "A good thesis is a done thesis."

A Taste of Spring

It's been unusually warm this last week, and it will be this coming week, too. I love when things start to thaw out - but not in February! Anyway, last Wednesday was absolutely beautiful with a high of 71F, I believe - I took advantage of a brief break in the afternoon to sit at the edge of Merrill Beach, the (slightly tongue-in-cheek) name for the red-brick, rock-filled, terrace-like structure of Merrill Science Center. 

The "beach" is accessible through doors on the third floor - It's basically the roof of much of the second floor, and overlooking it are the fourth and fifth floors of the building. The third floor is actually the ground floor when approaching the building from the north. (Many buildings at Amherst are weird like that - you never really know what floor the ground level is, because it's so hilly, and "ground" differs depending on which part of the hill you're on.)

Merrill Beach

Merrill Beach view

So many students took advantage of these days to be outside and run or just enjoy the sunlight. I didn't get as much of the outdoors as I would have liked because of - you guessed it - thesis work. (It's fine! I really don't mind the view from my narrow north-facing lab window!)

Speaking of spring - or, premature spring - Val, our dining hall, finally caught up to Lunar New Year (that is, Spring Festival) a week late with the return of the much-maligned Noodle Bar. Val meal menus rotate on a three- or four-week basis, so roughly every month, we'd get Noodle Bar, which was a collection of sticky noodles, tasteless broths, and bland seafood. No one would ever go, so the dining hall ended up removing that meal from the rotation last year to collective student applause. But this year, for the "Lunar New Year Dinner," they brought the Noodle Bar back. It was a bit better thanks to the broths and self-serve toppings, as well as the fact that the stir fry station was open at the same time so that we could cook a bit of flavor into the ingredients on our own. Still, it was jarring (and a bit funny for the upperclassmen) to see a long line of primarily underclass students eager to get a taste of Noodle Bar, which had essentially become a meme during its existence at Amherst College.

There were also some cultural celebrations in the dining hall that my friend - along with some UMass partners, I think? - had helped organize. This included a tea ceremony demonstration and calligraphy, which I was predictably quite bad at. (Pictured is my friend and her significantly better writing.)

Val CNY dinner

Besides the same old thesis/job search lyfe, I've also been spending a fair bit of time at the Cadigan Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. Though I'm involved in the Christian fellowship on campus, I'm actually there because I recently joined Reader to Reader, which is also stationed in that building. Reader to Reader is a nonprofit program focused on improving literacy in school-aged kids, and I just started as a mentor this semester. I've got four kids on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (I love the Harry Potter series - every time I read it, there's some new insight or realization that dawns on me. I was feeling a bit down yesterday, so curled up in bed with the book and finished the entire thing; it was downright therapeutic.) Plus, the program is part of the school's off-campus work study! There are many students who mentor through this program. Some friends of mine who recently graduated are working as coordinators at Reader to Reader, and the guys who run the whole show are the nicest people. I'm really kicking myself for not having gotten involved sooner, since it's such a low-stress job that allows me to work with awesome people while sharing an activity I love (reading - which I now have an excuse to do for fun!) with kids.

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!