China Scholars Program: East Asia Through a STEM Lens

The following reflection is a guest post written by Mallika Pajjuri, an alumna of the China Scholars Program and the Reischauer Scholars Program. She is now a student at MIT.
group of students taking a photo in front of a building Mallika Pajjuri (woman standing to the far right) with her floormates from Baker House in front of MIT's Great Dome; photo courtesy Mallika Pajjuri

I grew up with STEM as my backbone, my crutch. My parents met in engineering school, and the childhood they gifted me with was one filled with opportunities to get my hands dirty. The identity I built for myself was defined by asking questions about snail slime, aphids on roses, simply everything about the “hows” and “whys” of the biological world around me. And not once did I think to steer my gaze elsewhere in hopes of enriching my worldview. To an elementary school Mallika, understanding science and science alone would gift me the tools to solve the world’s greatest problems.

So, of course, it confused me to see my dad, an equity analyst focused on the semiconductor and green tech industries, travel so often to Japan, China, and Korea. Hands filled with stuffed animal pandas wearing qi paos, he would talk on and on about East Asia’s incomparable ability to merge the old with the new: cities at the forefront of tech innovation were sparkled with architecture and customs from lineages spanning thousands of years. My dad sold the intrigue. Not in an orientalist way, rather through a deep appreciation of recognizing the past in an effort to rebrand the future. I just had to get my peek.

I started learning Japanese in fourth grade, Chinese in seventh, and was in love with the languages. They were logical, pictographic, and simply scientific. But the classes were one-dimensional, one-epochical almost, if that’s even a word. What they were able to capture in unraveling the past did nothing in describing the translation to the future. I wanted to get a grasp of contemporary issues to eventually find ways to apply this newfound information to my STEM pursuits.

Fast forward a few years, a semester of SPICE’s Reischauer Scholars Program under my belt, I loved my experience with the SPICE program so much that I had to return for a second program. Naturally, I applied to SPICE’s China Scholars Program (CSP) my junior year of high school, and compounded with classes like AP U.S. History and Honors Chinese, my worldview felt interconnected. Everything I was studying added to an accumulated web of information, weaving connections between economics, public policy, technology, and culture. I wrote my final paper on how bureaucracy, educational equity, and green technology could help China establish itself as the (not a) global superpower, and it had quite honestly been my first exploration in drawing conclusions between seemingly disparate fields. For someone who had conducted many science research projects in the past, CSP and its instructor, Dr. Tanya Lee, challenged and stretched me in ways I never thought possible.

I’m currently studying Materials Science and Engineering and Bioengineering at MIT, but my love for STEM is bolstered by a global lens.
Mallika Pajjuri

At MIT, we’re taught the merits of collaboration through group-based projects and exceedingly difficult problem sets. However, I often doubt the translatability of this approach in the real world. Students of similar academic backgrounds collaborate on similar projects with similar solutions. The web of information synthesized by students of different majors is undeniably extremely useful in developing real-world solutions. Completing CSP through a STEM lens was a unique way of doing just that. I met students from Virginia all the way to Hong Kong who were passionate about everything under the sun. The variation in perspectives livened discussion boards, and I could almost liken the completed responses to a mosaic: each student had their unique piece to offer, such that the image created was one of heightened clarity. Since then, I’ve taken classes on Chinese, on economics, and even on how to stage revolutions, all as a result of understanding the merits of cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural exploration. And who knows, I might even minor in Chinese to pay homage to the language that shaped my worldview.