Good afternoon everyone and congratulations on making the Dean’s List this past year. I’m Billy Rathje, and I’m a sophomore English Literature/Computer Science double major. I’ve been asked to share with you today a bit about my academic story.
When people ask me what I’m majoring in and I say English literature and Computer Science, 99% of the time the response is something like, “that’s a really unusual combination, why’d you pick that?” And I say the registrar put me in English by mistake. Don’t worry, that’s not really true. The registrar’s great. But that’s actually not too far from the truth. In high school I never thought I’d be an English major – I was set on doing Chemistry. I liked English but wondered who has time for similes and symbols… Now my stock response to the double major question is usually something about language – learning to read and write computer code isn’t too far from reading and writing about literature, and the better you get at it the more possibilities and answers you see in it. This usually works, except when I find out I’m talking to a linguist.
But I really have found that my interests over the years have, in fact, been marked by a fascination with the languages of different disciplines, people, ideas, and so on. It starts in my Sophomore year of high school, when the closest I was to declaring an English major was declaring that I wouldn’t be one. This is also the year I started a class that would evolve into four summers of research in proteomics and eventually bioinformatics, the distant computer science cousin of protein research, and which would lead me to apply for a Goldwater science scholarship earlier this year.
The class took place at the Oregon Health & Science University’s Casey Eye Institute where a group of five friendly volunteer doctors would gather on Monday afternoons to hand high school students bagels and medical journal articles. The bagels were tasty, the journal articles were at first tricky reads, and then I met my mentor, Dr. Larry David, studying disulfide oxidation in crystallins of the human lens using mass spectrometry. Despite the initially tough science work, this experience fundamentally shaped who I am today and how I solve problems. Larry is unequivocally the best mentor I have ever had – he treated me as if I already knew how to solve graduate level problems from day one, and while I couldn’t by day one or day two or even day thirty, over time I actually was able to grasp problems and eventually and independently discover their solutions. Larry’s respect for me as a scientist and a person - even as a sophomore in high school who knew next to nothing about proteomics, and even as he was working nonstop to direct the OHSU proteomics core, write grants, publish papers, and manage a research team - has been an incredibly generous gift. I never expected to work with a mentor who would drop everything to work on an experiment alongside me, and I am so lucky that Larry has invited me back to his lab these past four years.
But I kept engaging in problems in the humanities and the arts alongside the sciences. When I was in high school I wrote a full-length musical with my brother, Steve, that was eventually performed as a staged reading in Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of New Works. Writing the musical taught me a lot about overcoming obstacles. When I first started writing the musical my piano skills were virtually nonexistent and I had little formal training in music. By the end I wrote a 125 page piano vocal score. What propelled me through this four-year process was the initial creative drive behind the musical. I knew that I had music that I wanted to express but my piano and theory skills weren’t strong enough yet to express them. The frustration over this disparity between my ideas and the language I had to articulate them inspired me to learn theory and piano; writing the musical literally involved learning a new language. Because I was playing piano mostly in my spare time, though, it didn’t feel like work – it was like picking up a few phrases in a foreign language, trying them out for a while, and coming back to combine and rearrange them before learning more. And I think that this process of translating ideas to language, and the initial frustration of not knowing precisely how to get from point A to B is a frustration and an excitement that drives academia in general. When we come up with a new idea about an English or history text, or formulate a new hypothesis in chemistry, we don’t know how we’re going to go about proving it until, well, we’ve proven it. We may have a few ideas and some direction, but the road from the idea to its reality is marked by a huge question mark, not a clear, paved road with tall handrails. This uncertainty inherent to every academic project is what makes learning and academics so exciting – there’s always something new to work on, even when you think you’ve mastered almost everything. And while the uncertainty can at times be frustrating, yes, like when I had songs to write but no chords to play them, it can also be extraordinarily motivating.
I’ve been reading a book called “Imagine” about scientists who study creativity. They put people in rooms and try to induce aha-moments, which seems like an inherently odd thing to do. (I have to guess if you’re a scientist you start studying other people’s inspiration when you’re stuck on grant ideas yourself… like the writer who writes about writer’s block.) Anyway it’s a great read. There’s a section on the type of creativity my brother and I used related to improvisation – where people, usually performers, lower their inhibitions to create art on the spot without really thinking about it. I remembered rare moments when my brother and I produced entire songs in just ten minutes, and found that these involved, in fact, a form of improvisation. These moments occurred when we had mastered certain techniques – the end of act one, for example, was one of these. This was the halfway point in the show, and by then we had both become so immersed in the story and the music that producing a workable song was almost inevitable; it no longer took thought. But we couldn’t have gotten to this aha moment without a lot of “ugh” moments and “what were you thinking” moments and even “I quit!” moments leading up to it, and these were equally if not more important than those flashes of inspiration, because they mark the path toward those precious aha-moments were so cherish. And they should be embraced, too; they’re part of the process.
So when I applied to UPS I think I’d “declared” a biochemistry major and a music minor. Now I’m Computer Science and English. The change isn’t diametric though – I’m still straddling both the arts and sciences, but the disciplines have shifted largely due to the professors, students, and mentors I’ve met here at Puget Sound. I owe my English major especially to Prof. John Wesley, whose classes have set very high expectations but left the rest of the time open to the pursuit of original thinking. It’s been a nonstop exploration in creativity and problem solving, which is why I especially enjoy English. Before college the only British Literature I had ever read was Shakespeare and Dickens – it was the best of times and was the worst of times, and my English major was to be or not to be. Now I’m taking a senior seminar in Renaissance literature, which is my area of interest.
My interest in computer science developed differently and more sporadically. I had programed briefly in elementary school after attending a summer camp in game design. During the year I convinced my parents to sign me up for lessons with a tattooed, Portland State University student who’d ride his bike ten miles across town to teach some students from my school and me how to code and prep us for a robotics tournament. This initial foray into computer science was great, but my interest waned due to the absence of any computer science programs whatsoever in junior high or high school (the dearth of programs even in great schools is unfortunate). On a whim I decided to take a programming class in college and found myself remembering bits and bytes of code from years ago. It was then that I realized how integral language is to programming, and how much a programming language can stick with you – hmm… language is integral to English, and particularly striking metaphors and turns of phrase from plays and novels had also tended to stick with me. When I returned to Larry’s lab at OHSU for the summer, I proposed doing s computer science/bioinformatics project. I had witnessed over the past three summers how integral technology was to the study of proteomics, and even noticed that the nature of our data and the problems we investigated had evolved with new technology released each year. This didn’t happen over the course of years – after nine months of being at school I’d return to the lab and entirely new problems had opened up due to advances in technology. I wanted to be a part of this.
I started working with Dr. Phil Wilmarth, a nuclear chemist turned data and computer scientist who keeps an old Mac II he could still start up back at home and who bikes to and from work every day of the year, even when it snows. I was going to say I don’t know what it is about computer scientists and biking long distances through the elements, but then I realized it’s just a Portland thing. With only a semester of computer science under my belt, Phil asked me to learn a new programming language in a week and write ‘real’ software - software at least ten times the size of anything I had written in my classes.
Fortunately, between my programming class at Puget Sound and Phil’s extreme patience in response to my questions, I was able to make a lot of progress. After learning my second ever programming language in a week I was tasked with decoding how two different file formats recorded protein data. I also had to contend with the language of discriminant scoring algorithms, support vectors machines, and so on Much of the summer was like a language immersion class really... it was like studying abroad in my own backyard, and the most important phrase I learned was “I don’t understand – I only speak English.” But Phil dutifully and patiently translated the language of the distant computer science cousin of protein research, and I found that we really did make progress. Phil and I are preparing a scientific paper documenting our findings, and we are preparing a poster at the meeting of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry. I was really in the right place at the right time with this project, and I was incredibly lucky that Phil was prepared to mentor me before I thought I even knew how to code.
I recently applied for a Goldwater scholarship using our findings. The Goldwater scholarship is awarded to students for scientific research. Sharon Chambers-Gordon, Director of Fellowship and Scholarships, whom you should all thank for organizing this wonderful reception and should get to know if you don’t already, encouraged me to apply for the scholarship before I started working with Phil. I submitted it recently and am waiting to hear back by the end of the month. I really encourage you to start working with Sharon if you haven’t already – she knows about scholarships and fellowships for almost any area and will work with you personally to help you decide what to apply for and when.
Between Phil’s mentorship and some more programming classes, I felt that I had gained the independence to learn yet another type of programming: iPhone app development. I spent about four weeks during winter break developing a graphics manipulation app called Circle Draw. I had tried app development two times previously and given up without writing much code at all. After working with Phil and taking some more classes, however, jumping into a new language and pattern of development – while still intimidating – felt finally within reach. I made progress slowly but consistently this time. Sure, I was absolutely ready to give up on at least two occasions, each of which I managed to resolve just as I was going to call it quits.
And I had some momentary quibbles, like when I almost submitted the app for review before realizing that you could delete menu items with the delete button. And then there was the moment when Apple alerted me that I’d need to make ten different sized logos, which was perhaps the most challenging part of the whole process because my art skills are truly abysmal (some kids are the last picked to play doge ball – people ran when I came to play Pictionary – really, they evacuated the building. I’m not saying anything about doge ball). Then when I thought I was done – and nobody tells you this part about app development until it’s too late and you’ve written all the code and think you’re finished– I had to submit the app to Apple for review. After multiple emails with cryptic headings like, “you’re app will require additional review time,” which I learned through the internet meant anything from eternal app limbo to legal troubles, it finally got approved. My software had actually made it through without crashing or breaking, and was now ready to contend with the likes of Angry Bird and innumerable Gangnam Style apps. But Apple’s store is truly amazing – one thing I never expected was that my app would reach people throughout the world, from Thailand to the UK to Mozambique and so on. It’s really inspiring what software development can let you do today – its not just about code.
So I tried to cull one piece of advice from all of this, and had a lot of trouble choosing one (much like my major). Everyone’s academic experience is different, but I want to share what’s worked for me. My best experiences have come from trying something that I thought was impossible at the time, from contending with the prospect of failure. I didn’t assume that because I hadn’t taken the same classes that juniors and seniors had that I could not start doing research as a freshman or sophomore – I could, and I think almost anyone can, and in many senses research can and should rely on knowledge that has to be acquired on the job so to speak and not collected from coursework. I didn’t know how to write music, but that didn’t stop me from writing a musical. It’s cliché, but dream big. And when I do find I’m talking to that linguist who shoots down my pseudo-linguistic answer to the double major, I just say, I couldn’t imagine studying anything else. It’s also cliché, but college is too short to not do what you love. So go talk to a professor about a research project as a freshman, go join that club you’ve wanted to but never did, go apply for that writing position even though you’re a science major, or research study abroad opportunities. The best way to learn, I’ve found, is to just dive right in. Thank you very much everyone, and enjoy the rest of the Dean’s List Celebration.