The Black Market at Harvard (for MIT students)

Last January, I started working in the CMB lab at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard.  When my lab started its search for summer undergrads, it was already late into the spring so my advisor asked everyone if they knew of any “good undergrads who didn’t have summer plans yet”*   I asked if they needed to be from Harvard or if they could be from MIT, and my advisor just grinned.

He apparently has a long history of hiring MIT people (from EC and senior house, unknowingly) and often says that he likes MIT students because they typically bring a “tech skillset and can-do approach.”  It turns out that even those who aren’t majoring in 2 or 6 end up with a lot of engineering skills by the time they leave EC, just from being around and wanting to help with cool projects.

I spammed a couple of EC hall’s mailing lists and poked a few people who I’ve worked on projects with and got an overwhelming enthusiastic response.  We ended up hiring 4 tetazoo/florey undergrads for the summer (and one Harvard freshmen), and the lab loved them.  

*Apparently at Harvard, most undergrads are better at life-ing than at MIT and they have their summer plans finalized over 3 months in advance.   But! There is an ample supply of good students at MIT who were too hosed to find jobs.

The black market

I do most of my work in the Harvard highbay, a giant warehouse space shared between professors who need to use construction equipment to do their experiments.   Most of the groups that work in the highbay are looking for people with a lot of engineering and building skills.

While I was working at the highbay one day, a professor from another group came over to me and asked in a sort of hushed tone, “Hey. Hey, are you the girl who got this group the… MIT students?”  I confusedly replied “yes” and he continued, “Do you think you could get me some… MIT students?  These Harvard kids don’t like to get their hands dirty.”

I told him I could send some students his way, and the whole thing felt like a sketchy drug deal. I realized at that point that I basically opened a black-market for MIT students at Harvard.

The best field trip

Two of my summer undergrads were in charge of this year’s rush fort, so during rush, my lab went on a field trip to the EC courtyard.  Around six members of the lab came to EC, and they were thoroughly impressed by everyone’s work. We even convinced the Harvard machinist to ride the rollercoaster!

The undergrads sent a special invitation to my advisor and his family, but unfortunately they were traveling during rush.  I found out later that my advisor was very sad that they couldn’t make it, especially since his 10-year-old son is enamored with MIT.  Apparently his son has decided that he wants to go to MIT, and was very excited to when he found out that “MIT” and “Massachusetts Institute of Technology“ were the same place, so he wouldn’t need to choose between the two in the future.

The black market continues…

After the undergrads left for the summer, there was a void in our hearts (and our labor force) so we started to look for additional undergrads.

I asked a few more people from tetazoo/florey to come by and visit the lab to see if they were interested in joining.  When one person showed up with a multi-colored mohawk and one of the men wearing a skirt, I could tell by the resentful look on one of the stoggier grad students face that he was thinking, “oh god, not more of these people.”  But the look quickly dissolved when they started talking about electronics, soldering, and cable testing.   The conversation was something like this:

Harvard Grad student: “We need to have these cables be very reliable.  I don’t really trust random people to do the soldering.”

Mohawk: “I have a lot of experience making cables. Actually, I used to work in a course 16 lab soldered cables to be used in aircrafts.”

Harvard Grad student: “Oh… you probably have more experience than me then…”

Man wearing skirt: “You need to test a bunch of cables? I have a cable tester sitting around somewhere. I picked it up at swapfest”

Harvard Grad: Pretty much just EE p00ned.

Basically these people were exactly the help my the lab needed, and we hired 3 more EC undergrads for the fall.  Later my labmates asked me where I find all of these people, and I told them, “I go to the EC courtyard and pick out the good ones.”  They thought I was joking, but that was actually pretty much my method.

2 thoughts on “The Black Market at Harvard (for MIT students)”

  1. great post rbowru! At the risk of embarrassing my child… You made such an impression on me when my daughter was at CPW some years ago. She had told me one morning that she spent part of the previous evening doing a girl’s ‘huge mohawk’ – “you use glue!” So, when I saw the huge mohawk at the activities fair pitching caving club I had to stop by and say, “I think my daughter made that mohawk for you.” We talked for a long time, you patiently answered all of my questions and you embodied all of the EC traditions of supportive, generous, gregarious, open, honest, energetic, and just a bit different (that mohawk was EPIC!) I walked away from that conversation confident that my daughter would live in EC and would love it. It has totally lived up to the picture that you painted for me that day, thank-you!

  2. Oh wow, thank you for the awesome compliment! I absolutely remember that CPW and our conversation that day. :)

    I have more to add to the story of mohawks and Harvard. While job hunting and after starting at Harvard, I was kind of self-conscious and let my mohawk grow out. Last week, I decided to re-mohawk because I was over do for a hair cut, and I was feeling really inspired by reading so many great posts on this site.

    My labmates reactions were significantly different than the reactions I’ve received at MIT. EC/MIT in general always really liked my mohawk, especially when I wore it up (including Sara Seager, an EAPS prof who eventually became my master’s thesis advisor). The most common reaction I’ve gotten at Harvard – even with it down – has been “that’s an interesting choice.” A girl in my lab’s mouth dropped in horror when she saw it. My lab’s admin reacted with an “oh wow,” and when I asked her if she liked it, she replied, “No” with a lot of honestly but felt bad so added “I think it might be a generational thing.” Not related to hair, but I’ve also been asked if the way I dress (cargo pants, t-shirt, leathermen, plus sometimes goggles and boots) is a “Raver thing? … Or just an MIT thing?” It made me feel awkward in a negative way.

    After being at MIT, I thought that everyone eventually out-grew the kind of judgmental feelings that exist in middle/high school about the way people prefer to dress (and if applicable, tread gender lines). I’m sad to keep being reminded that this is not the case by in the community of people who I work.