Showing that you can think (outside the box)


When I was in ninth grade, my rather cynical algebra teacher observed, “High school just shows that you’re trainable; college teaches you to think and innovate.” In many regards, this statement is accurate about the American education system and—I would argue—rightly so. To contribute something meaningfully novel to any field, one must thoroughly grasp its foundations and thereby appreciate what is already known. Furthermore, students must be able to communicate their thoughts and receive others’ ideas according to standard conventions. In this training environment, it is difficult to distinguish oneself. Yet a crucial corollary to my algebra teacher’s observation is that those high schoolers who do demonstrate that they can broaden society’s intellectual horizons early on will stand out.


As a high schooler, I certainly subscribed to this “training” mentality, swiftly mastering whatever my teachers threw at me and earning high grades as a result. Nevertheless, I was reluctant to take intellectual risks and attempt to chart new territory, and I wish I had had someone to help me unleash my academic creativity earlier on. A particularly poignant memory is of my AP U.S. History term paper, which I wrote on FDR’s New Deal and how it reshaped the American welfare state. Looking back on it as a Yale graduate, I recognize now that it was a dry and unoriginal argument. It was a safe topic and one on which I knew I’d do well. One of my classmates, who ended up at Yale with me, wrote hers on Gov. Gifford Pinchot and the end of Prohibition Era in Pennsylvania. (I grew up outside of Philadelphia.) Those who have lived in or traveled to Pennsylvania may know that the state has some of the strictest and most obscure liquor laws in the country. Gov. Pinchot is largely the reason why. Four days before alcohol became legal in Pennsylvania, he called a special session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly to establish the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB). Under these new regulations, Gov. Pinchot said, “Whisky will be sold by civil service employees with exactly the same amount of salesmanship as is displayed by an automatic postage stamp vending machine.” To this day, the sale of wine and hard spirits is still controlled by the PLCB. While we both received outstanding grades on our term papers, my classmate’s creativity and willingness to take a risk outshone my own and provided excellent fodder for a letter of recommendation.


During my undergraduate studies at Yale, it was impressed on me early on that we should not simply ask what we know but how and why we know what we know. Question everything. I also appreciated that the most interesting topics for new scholarship largely arose out of thoroughly understanding the background and asking good, well-informed questions. As a Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry major, I had a great deal of background material to master before I could start probing my own questions. However, as a Yale junior, I wrote a research proposal focusing on the function and pathogenic mechanisms of C9ORF72 mutations in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that featured prominently in my letters of recommendation to MD/PhD programs.


At Yale, I also found that my quantitative and scientific mindset enabled me to approach other fields in a unique way. Every semester during college, I tried to take at least one course outside of the natural sciences. In my final semester, that class was the History of the English Language. For my second term paper for that class, I wrote about the change in the inflection of the third-person singular of the verbs do and have. Modern English speakers, of course, use the –s ending for these verbs (e.g., he does, he has), yet earlier, these verb forms ended in ­­–th (e.g., he doth, he hath). Since this transition in verb inflection occurred from 1500 to 1700 and Shakespeare lived from 1564 to 1616, I wondered whether there might be evidence of this transition in his work. I found that, in the tragedies Hamlet and Macbeth, there was a statistically significant correlation between a character’s age and the frequency with which he or she used the –th and –s verb ending. This stroke of creativity certainly caught my professor’s eye.


Apart from my innate risk aversion, the primary reasons why it took me so long to start embracing this sort of academic inventiveness were that I had to learn it on my own and that I often simply didn’t know what I didn’t know. Once I knew how to ask the right questions and where to look, this sort of ingenuity came easily to me. One of the delights of tutoring for me is helping my students master the mechanics of high school and college and seeing that spark when the concept finally clicks—the sort of “training” to which my ninth-grade algebra teacher was referring. But I also seek to go beyond that base-level interaction with my students and help them pursue their own intellectual interests. And in doing so, I hope to be the person I wish I had when I was in high school, someone who would encourage me to take a risk and discover something totally new.

Charlie graduated from Yale College in 2016 with a B.S. in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry summa cum laude. He is now pursuing a MD/PhD and tutors math, science, and writing for high-school and college students. He is also passionate about history, particularly that of science and medicine.
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