Notes from Boston
Rain hammered in consistently in Boston for the week I was there. It was cold without a hint of the sun. Despite the uninspiring weather, the city was reverberating with a youthful verve. I was in Boston to meet faculty and students from MIT and Harvard, and a bunch of start-ups. Innovation powers Boston. It’s perhaps one of the few global hotspots where academia and industry fuses into one another naturally. Universities professors are rewarded on incubation, research has to have a commercial application, and students are encouraged via means of several business plan competitions and seed funding to start their own ventures.
The fine thing about chasing ideas is that while doing so, the disparateness of its originators recedes in the background. A good idea is a great leveller: it doesn’t matter if the conceiver is of a different race, religion or sex. I met some odd collaborators in this visit. For instance, there was a 60 plus ex-Management Consultant working with an undergrad Chinese student on shaping a new form factor for drug delivery. Another team was an all girls’ one with two second generation Indians and one Chinese from MIT working on an innovative delivery device. They had already secured a funding of more than a million dollar for their venture.
I also met Chris, an American, of Korean descent. I’d called him the night before to schedule a meeting and he came in a crumpled white shirt, noticeably unwashed, with rumpled hair. He looked around, and not finding anything better, peeled off a Post-It to wrap and throw his chewing gum. He sunk in the chair and stretched back, while I stood in front in my polished shoes and sharp suit judging his appearance. He seemed not to notice, or perhaps he had become impervious to it. He pitched a brilliant idea, one that he had thought through and carefully nurtured for over a year. By the time he was done presenting, I was left impressed.
Though I had decidedly kept the thought at bay, and was careful not to discuss American politics in my meetings, I was left with a lingering feeling that Boston is thriving not despite but primarily because of brilliance of the minds of the young students who come from all over the world to study and make this city their home. A curb, or even a suggestion on unwelcome, would dry the brain gain that America so benefits from.
What a loss that would be.
Despite the cold misty mornings, the varsity rowing teams don’t lax on their backbreaking morning practice. By the time I was on my breakfast table next to the window overlooking Charles River, various teams – of girls and boys, lone rowers and full teams – were already in the water stroking their pedals in tandem with a piston-like precision. Next to it on a guide boat is usually the coach shouting instructions from a speaker. Watching them practice with such fervid zeal, I reflected on my IIT days. Sports were big in campus; games were sharply contested and saw a fair share of audience, rivalries between hostels was serious business.
Later, when I walked into the MIT building, with its labs and open collaborative spaces, I thought about how similar an environment IIT aimed to provide. I even sat in a class, trying to relive the bygone days. IITs, MIT, Stanford and similar schools are successful not because they shape brilliant engineers and researchers, but because they are able to attract the best of the minds in the first place. Getting into such schools is like winning a lottery, a more or less sure-shot way for a middle class family to climb up socially and economically.
While such an education should be accessible to all, the challenge to maintain the uniformity in quality and experience means that only a few limited institutes with access to resources and autonomy are capable to do so. Scaling up high quality education is a worthy challenge for any nation, albeit a darn difficult one.
Boston, being a city full of students, has a large number of cafes and food-trucks that offer terrific food at reasonable prices. While there are several fine dining options as well, I decisively aimed at smaller joints frequented by the students. One such is Clover, next to the MIT coop, which started as a food truck serving vegetarian food. It has now expanded into a brick and mortar café with a long queue of students and professionals lining up to grab vegetarian sandwiches. Then there is a bakery chain called Flour serving delicious sandwiches and soups for fewer than ten dollars each.
Over the whole week, I ate at many such unique joints, which are difficult to find in guidebooks. An easy way to identify these nuggets is to stop a student on the way to ask for recommendations. I couldn’t try all the recommendations I got, and am carrying back a list that I hope to go through next time I am in Boston. But I am also sure new ones would have popped up by then.