Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

A Guide for Plotting the Rest of Your Life, Terrifying Your Neighbors


I’ve spent the past few months in this exceptionally weird, expansive state of nondecision. There’s a scene in the last episode of the West Wing – someone’s trying to decide what to do after the administration ends – and the resident curmudgeon replies: “You’re a woman with a lot of options and you’re acting like the world is backing you into a corner. Maybe you should stop bouncing, pick something.” Ugh. Exactly. I’ve watched it a billion times and yet still couldn’t manage to pick a thing. (For what it’s worth, the way I feel about jobs has helped me understand how the rest of you feel about Tinder.)

Talking and kvetching about, I’ve gotten the sense that this is everything-is-possible paralysis runs particularly rampant in early-career global health and development circles for a few reasons:

  1. People tend to be drawn to this realm out of a compulsion to address particular problems, but when it comes to translating that into a functional career, there are fifty different ways to work on the same thing. (You come out of an internship in undergrad struck by the problem of antimicrobial resistance, say – but do you work on drug pricing? Pharmaceutical incentives? Behavioral research? Medical research? An intervention-based startup to improve compliance? Russian prison reform?)
  2. This space is also overwhelmingly interdisciplinary (epidemiology bleeds into biosecurity which bleeds into soft power and regional dynamics, which bleed into U.S. foreign policy…and that’s just my weird corner). In my experience and perhaps in contrast to other arenas, this actually gets worse with research-oriented graduate education.
  3. There’s also the problem of a hiring bubble: students emerge from MPHs & similar programs with concrete experience and hard research skills, feeling capable of doing a lot but mismatched to market dynamics or otherwise priced out (expected to intern after a master’s, etc).

I’ve also been getting a lot of emails asking for general career advice lately (which I am still totally happy to answer, eventually). But when wait-I-need-a-job season started in full force around February I had no idea what I was doing & so felt like the falsest prophet. Once I figured that out, the process I came up with was so clarifying that I thought a generic guide would be a useful standing resource.

big picture glance.jpg
Buckle up.

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Chaos Muppet Strategic Planning

On Leaving, Pt. 1

When I was 17 I went to one of those info sessions on Rice that I’ve since helped host as an alumna, in a hotel ballroom and on a dreary day. I don’t remember much (re: anything) from the actual talk. But I remember two of them women who had signed up to speak running up to each other and reacting in precisely the way women react whenever they come across a good friend who they haven’t seen for a while in public and at random, and I remember that one of them was married to the third presenter. And I remember the man sitting next to me, San Antonio-southern, drawling “Goddamn those Rice people just stick together, don’t they, and don’t shut up about it.”

I had driven over the summer prior, wandering campus for 3 or 4 hours unattached to a tour, and summarily dismissed the school as “too rich” for me (again, teenage impressions are ridiculous). My mother had to drag me to the info session and I had planned to spend it texting. But that comment piqued my interest, lodging itself inside my brain, and in the year that’s passed since I graduated – since walking across campus twice at 3 a.m. the night before in a cataclysmic downpour, since lining up in a 6 a.m. haze of coffee and champagne, since absolutely not tearing up nope I wouldn’t do that during the Martel de-matriculation – I’ve found it to be absolutely true.

Some examples: I wind up in fragmented versions of different college friend groups weekly. I wound up in Durham for 48 hours, posted a picture on Facebook, and had a fellow ’12 grad message me within 15 minutes offering to show me around during his finals period. In keeping with our normally steady stream of communication, I texted a grand and hazy total of 32 pictures from the morning of Beer Bike to my former co-coordinator, who was stranded in Japan. I’ve had lunch more times than I can count with people I knew-of-but-didn’t-actually-know while a student and they’ve all been great. I wound up working somewhere where my boss, our president, and four other colleagues all went to Rice and where our board is on the Rice board. Six months after graduating I formed a company with a fellow Martelian I somehow wasn’t friends with until my senior year, prompting every unsuspecting acquaintance we’ve had from college (a Martelian in Amman, a fellow Global Health minor at Baylor, a guy I talked to for 30 minutes once my freshman year) to come out of the woodwork with a new way to support us. I flew halfway across the globe and ran in a Hanszenite from my advising coalition.

Anyway, maybe it’s me – my career path and those of my closest friends are related or overlapping to a degree that treating graduation with any sense of finality last year seemed frankly ridiculous. But for whatever reassurance it provides the 2013 set of grads, I’m happy to anecdotally attest that the see-you-later cliché rings true, and graduating from Rice should lack a since of finality. Something in our weirdness forces us to coalesce.

On Leaving, Pt. 1

In the midst of midterms…

…I’d like to take a quick break, because I just want world to know what incredibly cool bioMEMS research is being done on point-of-care diagnostics. Let’s start with pretty colors, courtesy of the Folch lab at the University of Washington:

This is a brief visual example of the things you can do when working with micro-scale volumes of fluid. Some of the standard rules of working with liquids disappear for a bit, allowing intermolecular forces to do their thing and largely subverting turbulent flow. Why on earth would you want to work with such small volumes of liquid, and how are they useful in medicine? Part of it involves (as always) cost reduction.

Most blood diagnostic tests involve seeking out a protein and tagging it to check out under a microscope. This is often done using animal antibodies which, as far as I gathered from that one time someone spilled them in lab, cost roughly a billion dollars to purify. When you can gather enough relevant information using a small amount of reagent, you’ve got a more affordable diagnostic test – and in all likelihood, one that doesn’t take up much room.

Here’s the dream: lab-on-a-chip. Low-cost tests the size of a credit card, with an inlet for blood or saliva, blister packs for the required reagents, and some sort of visual indicator for results: PERFECT for rural or low-resource settings and at-home tests. Practical problems include heat protection and storage (as with vaccines); current research problems include isolating and amplifying desired diagnostic indicators from the low concentrations in which they are typically present in the bodily fluid of interest.

But for each time someone solves the concentration problem, the potential payoff is huge. There’s a tremendous difference between simply dropping blood on a chip and spending days – and personnel and glassware, neither of which might be available – on sample preparation.

And that’s why I go to my 9 am class.

In the midst of midterms…

Rice Admissions

It’s been about a week since I’ve had to do any data analysis, so I thought I’d throw some in for kicks.

Undergrads at Rice like to say they don’t care much about rankings, or hold much credence in them; this is true until we’re #1 quality of life or #1 happiest students, at which point my facebook feed blows up with links to Kiplinger or Princeton Review. I’ve never tried to lie about it – I think Rice is beyond excellent, and I love seeing that validated numerically by whoever’s putting together the stats. Anyway, we’ve spent the past few years tied with Vanderbilt at #17 in US News (and behind Brown and Cornell, seriously?), and I think this is the year we’ll jump up to top 15.

This is where it started: numbers for Early Decision applicants came out last week. And…well, damn.

Here are some numbers from 2007 onward, with 2012 projections in red (all of these are from press releases the school puts out during each admissions cycle – feel free to go to the main site and search away).

Class size is the key. Though our acceptance rates have declined as our applicant pool has grown, Rice has also been undergoing a period of undergraduate population expansion – my class of 2008 is about 200 students smaller than the class that just matriculated (yes, I hate expansion, thanks for asking). This growth has done a lot to mask the increase in competitiveness. Last year, for example, admissions failed to anticipate the increased yield, and we had to kick off upperclassmen to make room for 51 extra freshmen. We’re aiming for a total undergrad population of 3,800, so I’m guessing they’ll drop back down to a goal class size of 950.

Acceptance rate is where it gets tricky. 17.5% acceptance is what you get if you follow the acceptance rate trendline, but we go all the way down to 15.6% if you follow the applicant trendline and calculate backwards using expected yield (which I think is the more valid method).

None of this is good for those vying for a spot in the class of 2016, but I’m calling a huge jump in rankings and looking forward to seeing Prez Leebz’s efforts pay off.

Rice Admissions

I got bit by the startup bug this week.

Lots of tangentially related events and happenings floating around as of late. Things are Stewing.

1. Elevator Pitch competition: stellar. Winning things helps, lots; having people who have successfully launched products excited about scoping us out, providing feedback, handing us cards, telling us our project is the one that actually piqued their interest – so, so fantastic. We’re at a great place right now – lots of hustle on multiple fronts (design, IP, FDA, software, conferences).

2. Relevant Forbes article on innovation and profitability.

3. Great video of a Jobs-run (I know, I know) brainstorming session.

I got bit by the startup bug this week.

UNESCO. Too long for the Twitterz.

At lunch with Arthur Lenk yesterday (thanks, Baker Institute!), someone inquired how he (Israel) felt about the US pulling their (22% cut of) UNESCO funding after Palestine was admitted as a full member nation . He brought up the obvious valid point – what happens when bids to other multinational organizations succeed, and when we “have” to cut funding to, say, the World Health Organization – and then proceeded to scold voting parties for not considering the result of cutting US funding.

Are you kidding me? That’s the problem? That other member states care less about international research or cultural preservation or AIDS treatment or global vaccinations than acknowledging statehood? Absolutely not. It’s a huge and conscious “fuck you” to hypocritical, contradictory US policy. No better way to do that than to call a bluff.

(Al Jazeera)

UNESCO. Too long for the Twitterz.

A Love Letter to the OEDK

I have exhausted the number of places on the Rice campus in which I can expect to productively accomplish any given task. My personal room? Too risky at late hours – things like blankets beckon. Our suite’s common room? Too lush, too classy – good for mindless tasks, including all things involving spreadsheets (BIOE 444, anyone?), that can also be accomplished with wine as an accomplice. Martel commons? Perhaps once upon a time, before it became better suited to hurried lunches and dancing on tables and lots of yelling. Fondren? You’re joking – if sophomore year didn’t ruin that for you, you either weren’t there enough, not hooking up in the stacks, and/or doing something wrong.

So I retreated to the barest block of campus, and became hopelessly enamored. Basic definition: what makes for an effective work space? As far as I’m concerned, the relevant factors can be broken down into several categories, which I’ll describe as follows because, fuck it, it’s 3 a.m. and I love OEDK.

1. It makes you want to work
I am writing this at desk 2D. Should I get up and wander 20 feet, I could play with:

  • A slow-drip IV that operates using mass balance
  • A salad spinner fitted with centrifuge tube inserts
  • An infant pulmonary assist device that operates using water pressure
  • A huge $7,000 check  won by some team last year at the national ASME competition
  • 3 different neonatal incubators

Every single one of those things makes me want to be better – to spend absurd hours creating things on par with what twentyyearoldswhcouldhavebeendrinking have created. More so than this – an inspirational setup – the building itself is raw and spare, uncomfortable. Lights go off when you stop moving. You don’t sleep here. You stay up all fucking night and fiddle and perfect and learn to work for yourself and don’t fucking quit. I napped in the golfcart once last semester, but they’ve since gotten rid of it.

2. It makes you better at working
There is free coffee, so long as you’re one of those people capable of doing dishes. I can reserve a conference room, write on the walls, hook up my music to the room’s speakers and set the display to respond in tune. Did you miss the walls part? Just checking – it’s a real thing. The best is when you’re in the zone and your friends wander past and leave you messages, written on the (glass fishbowl) outside in reverse. That’s part of the point, though – have your privacy within purpose and reason (noise considerations, etc), but don’t fuck around. Instead, we encourage productive distractions in keeping with the larger mission of the space.

Prime example: the magazine rack. I may be the only person who uses these, but particularly when ChromeNanny is up and running, a 20 minute break is fantastically spent flipping through Wired or The Economist or The New Yorker or Foreign Affairs. The mere fact that some of these selections are even available here means the world to me – they imply a larger field of impact for the more tedious aspects of engineering work.

3. It provides a supportive community
I’m watching freshmen play with linked sections of PVC pipes and I honestly have no idea what the fuck they could possibly be doing. A team I bonded with over 4 a.m. coffee sharing is working on a presentation in the computer lab behind me. My orientation week co-advisor spent five nights last week working in the computer lab and I forcibly introduced myself to everyone on his team and two others, and the two BIOEs from my year I didn’t know, and that guy who looked lonely. I hate using “networking”, child of more toolish departments, as the applicable term here. If I see someone making something cool and I don’t know what it is, this is the place to ask – while the doing is happening, while ideas can be exchanged, while they look like they need a break.

Just talked to freshmenz. They’re working out the joint structure for a Strandbeast. YES, absolutely. Perfect.

A Love Letter to the OEDK