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Finding Comfort with Uncertainty

Andy Chen '16
Andy Chen '16

I left Hamilton in May of 2016 with plans to attend a Ph.D. program in bioengineering and to start an NGO in Kenya with Leonard Kilekwang ’16. As is the case for many new graduates, I didn’t end up doing that, exactly. I’m still not quite sure what I’m doing now, and only two years out it seems a bit premature for commentary on post-graduate wandering. But I think that’s okay.

I spent my post-baccalaureate summer learning more social entrepreneurship with Cyrus Boga ’90 at Skidmore College and HBX CORe, an introduction to business module. Shortly after, I found myself no longer wanting or planning to pursue a Ph.D.

I was accustomed to an academic lifestyle and decided to fill that space with the comfort of a familiar academic calendar, so I took graduate biology classes at Harvard Extension School for fall term of 2017. I liked it. In January 2017, I flew across the Atlantic and met with Leonard in Kenya. Our public health NGO, Tecnosafi, started off well, with much support from the Levitt Center and The Resolution Project. During this time, with sparse electricity and internet, I also completed CS50, Harvard’s largest class and introduction to computer science. As our data collection came to a close and our initial pilot started, however, in June of 2017, I had to leave Kenya and return home. My grandmother had died, and there was a lapse in Kenya’s political stability from the incipient elections.

Following a summer of uncertainty, I made an abrupt decision to move to Boston and enroll in a Master’s program to study bioinformatics, eventually taking courses at Harvard Extension School, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Harvard Kennedy School. In this time, I’ve worked in the Whited Lab at Harvard Medical School; with C16 Biosciences, a Harvard-MIT synthetic biology startup that would get accepted to Y Combinator; and with HarvardX, where I help develop data science coursework.

The small size and inclusiveness of Hamilton meant I could stop by Commons at any time and find someone to get lunch with. My experience at Harvard, a massively decentralized institution with multiple schools of disparate academic foci, over ten times the size of Hamilton and on an urban campus, has been quite the opposite.

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I think the single hardest part of graduate school has been the loneliness, as much a function of graduate studies independent nature as of the institution itself. Transitioning from the heavily community-based society of rural Kenya probably didn’t help. Academics and biotechnology career trajectory aside, interactions with two organizations, and a few other graduate friends, have been fundamental to my social well-being in graduate school. I serve as a teaching assistant for CS50, whose enormous cultural impact and social circle of its own is an exciting new avenue to explore, and I am furthermore grateful to have stumbled onto the opportunity to support and implement a water catchment project in Mkutani, Tanzania with Harvard’s chapter of Engineers without Borders.

After graduation, I intend to travel more while I can. Medical school and/or biotechnology or data science startups might be in the future for me, but honestly I have no idea and I’m just taking it one step at a time. There’s a lot to do out there and it’s scary, but that’s part of the fun. Finding your place in the world is hard, but having friends to help you do it might just be the most important lesson I’ve learned in grad school.

Andy Chen '16 is a 2016 graduate from Hamilton College, where he concentrated in biology and minored in linguistics. He is currently a bioinformatics Master’s student at Harvard University and works in the Whited laboratory and at HarvardX. In the past, he has worked in the biotechnology and public health spaces in Cambridge, MA and West Pokot, Kenya respectively, and hopes to contribute to large systems organizations focusing on bringing biotechnologies to developing regions.

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