Rays of Light: Allen Wang

Hometown(s): Bettendorf, Iowa/Qindao, China

Current Location: Cambridge, MA

Current/Upcoming Role: Master’s Student at MIT/Roboticist at Boston Dynamics

Nominated By: Ben Bruster

Reason for Nomination: Allen is an incredible human and one of my best friends! Over the past 10-11 years, it has been my complete joy to learn alongside each other, to grow as friends, and to inspire one another to, in every sense, to become better people. Allen is one of those rare friends you can call day or night, rain or shine, and freely talk about anything. Honestly, some days, I am not sure where I would be without Allen.

Though it seems easy to laud Allen for his intellect (Hell, he goes to MIT and has won international awards in team robotics competitions), it even easier to overlook his character. Self-effacing and conscientious, he naturally diverts his attention and concern to others. Put another way, he deeply cares for those around him. While attending Iowa State University, for example, he dedicated long hours, volunteering for Crisis Text Line (a suicide text line), to support others through their most difficult moments. All the while, his life was already jam-packed with courses, work, research, and the busyness of college life. Truly, this instance typifies his character and resolve to, “Be the change he wants to see in the world.”

Of course, I could go on. But I need not. Across all areas of Allen’s life, he is making a major impact. Often, on his own accord, he does not receive recognition for these successes, however.* Thus, I have nominated him as this week’s Ray of Light!

*P.S. For this same reason, Allen only answered some of the questions I posed to him. According to him, he felt that he had already “humble bragged sufficiently.”

A Short Bio.

Allen Wang was born in Qingdao (also “Tsingtao”), China a large coastal city, located southeast of Beijing. Shortly after his birth, his parents left China for the United States, where they aimed to establish their young family and author a new life. For his first two years, then, Allen was raised by his grandparents in China. And though he remembers little from these years, he still feels the difficulty of that time. “Most East Asian families of my parents’ generation,” he writes, “aren’t particularly physically affectionate; I think a lot of children of first generation immigrants from that part of the world struggle with that.”

As a result, Allen feels he spent a good portion of his younger life trying to get in touch with his emotions, to feel in ways that he often didn’t as a child or youth. Being separated from his parents at such a vulnerable time wasn’t easy. This fact, combined the challenges and uncertainty of young life, as well as the adjustments he made to life in the United States, forced Allen to grow, solve problems, and display resilience at a young age. In effect, if Allen wanted to learn something or try something new he often taught himself, and felt it was his responsibility to do so. In so doing, he learned that hard work, dedication, and critical thinking are integral to overcoming obstacles and chasing one’s dreams. Of course, these capacities have proven very useful to him with time, too. Further, it’s not surprise that when Allen answered the question “When you were a kid, what did you want to be,” the answers “scientist” and “spaceship builder guy” neared the top of the list!

Allen and his grandmother. Photo courtesy of Allen Wang

After graduating from high school in Bettendorf, Iowa, Allen attended Iowa State University. There, he initially studied aerospace engineering but also pursued other interests, including: mathematics, economics, various social sciences, and even counseling. When it came time to apply for graduate school, however, he circled back to his resolve to ‘build spaceships.’ After this, he committed to study aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

But, as often happens with life, things changed. Soon after arriving at MIT, he began to see his interests shift towards robotics, especially the mathematical foundations of algorithms to make things move. Allen joined and, quickly, came to anchor MIT’s Driverless team in its first year. He worked with his classmates and fellow team members to develop a self-driving racecar that eventually placed highly in international robotics competitions.

Presently, Allen feels truly excited for all that life has in store. Upon graduation with his Master’s, he looks forward to joining Boston Dynamics as a roboticist. A renaissance person, he enjoys learning about and discussing science, history, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and more. In his free time, recently, he also picked up the bass guitar and joined a band with his buddies. For him, playing the bass has “been tons of fun,” even if he still doesn’t consider himself much of a ‘rock star.’ Nevertheless, he is excited for music to be a cornerstone of his life moving forward.

Allen (far right) playing bass during a recent show. Photo courtesy of Allen Wang

Q & A: [The Not So] Serious

BB: If you were stuck in a giant vat filled with a substance—either chia seeds, peanut butter, or Jello—which substance would you choose? And how would you escape?

AW: That’s going to depend on how I’m stuck! Am I immersed in Jello/peanut butter/chia seeds Han Solo style? Is it just up to my chest?

If I’m immersed, I think I’ll have to go with Jello; it seems like the easiest medium to escape from and not asphyxiate in. Chia seed is tempting, but I seem to recall piles of grains are shockingly hard to make a dent in.

If I’m stuck in it up to my chest, I’ll want to know more about the context. Can I expect imminent rescue? Can I expect any kind of rescue? If it’s down to survival, I’ll have to go with peanut butter since it has the most calorie content per unit volume. If not, Jello once again for ease of movement.

***

BB: In what important ways do you see that you have grown since graduating college and starting graduate school?

AW: Man, that’s a tough one. Part of me wants to say I have more perspective on what matters in life, but I also feel like I was very adamant at the beginning that I would maintain a healthy relationship with my work and a healthy lifestyle but had to completely relearn that lesson. That being said, I’ve spent a lot of time working with other people on much harder problems, and I’ve learned a lot about working with others in difficult/high stakes situations.

I’ve also learned a lot about communicating from my heart and being open and honest even about unsavory feelings. Any kind of relationship works 1000x better when everyone understands how everyone else feels and you can establish good faith.

***

BB: Imagine you and three famous scientists (dead or alive) were trapped in a space shuttle, circling the Earth, indefinitely. What three scientists would you pick? Why?

AW: Carl Sagan for his heart and soulfulness, Von Neumann for endless interesting discussions, and Erdos for his amphetamine-fueled mathematical genius and whimsy.

While we’re resurrecting dead people, I’d also want a conversation with Evariste Galois. As a teenager in the early 1800’s, he made foundational contributions to modern mathematics, but died at age 20 in a duel over a girl of all things. Looks like he forgot to think with his head that time.

***

BB: Allen, I understand that you enjoy explaining complex, scientific concepts in laymen’s’ terms. So, if you could explain one topic or phenomenon to anyone, what would it be?

AW: Science is not a source of absolute truth, but you should hold scientific knowledge over any other form of knowledge. Science is not some magical spell cast by wizards; it is the product of human beings working tirelessly to discover new knowledge, poke holes in existing knowledge, and fill those holes with new discoveries. It is an error-correcting process through which knowledge can be obtained and predictions about the world made. Being a process undertaken by humans; it is only as good as the humans who undertake it. Thus, it is of utmost importance that scientists hold themselves to the highest standards of ethics when practicing it.

It requires us to throw our arms up in the air and surrender our prior assumptions of the world. Instead of making claims, we ask questions. The irony is that, by doing so, scientific knowledge gradually makes better and better predictions; sometimes it’s so good it’s just more convenient to treat it as “absolute truth” because, for all practical purposes, it is.

***

BB: I understand that you have developed a passion for playing the bass. What got you into this? And when you plan on quitting your day job to pursue music?

AW: I’ve been playing guitar since pretty much the end of Junior year of college. A buddy from Iowa State who also came out to grad school with me started a band last year, and he needed a bass player this year, so he invited me to join!

***

BB: If you could give one piece of advice to anyone, what would it be?

AW: Always make decisions with your head, but don’t forget to listen to your heart. Disclaimer, I suck at taking my own advice!

***

BB: Laurel or Yanny?

AW: Is this 2018?

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