Oh the Places We’ll Go

Aaron Solomon, left, in the lab

Aaron Solomon, 2017 Scholar

Oh the Places We’ll Go 

It’s a good thing the Marshall Commission doesn’t background check its applicants as far as the second grade. If they did, they might have discovered the criminal past that led me to the Marshall Scholarship. Theft is something they teach young in Montessori school. Or rather, the Montessori method dictates you teach yourself—and I just happened to have in-born kleptomaniac tendencies. The year is 2002 and second grade me had just escaped from my Montessori classroom with a packet of test tubes stashed in my backpack. Crippled by the fear of getting caught with my illicit tube trove, I hung a quick right down the hallway and onto the waiting yellow school bus before my teacher could discover my act of larceny. I couldn’t relax until I made it into my house, but it was worth it. I wanted those test tubes. For science.

My youthful scientific shenanigans did not stop there. Three years after the tube heist, I crashed parts of my school computer system by asking some machines on our rudimentary network to numerically approximate pi to a couple billion digits. As always, Windows XP let me down. 

Eventually, my lawlessness and insubordination gave way to productive science, which, admittedly, is mostly lawlessness and insubordination. In high school, I grew enamored with genetics and biology. In college, I learned how the power of big data and machine learning might be brought to bear on the greatest healthcare challenges of our generation, thus uniting my computational and biological minds. After years of exploration, classes, and internships, I decided that fusing these fields to better health and humanity was my vision for the future. 

The Marshall Scholarship places a premium on visions like these. In our applications, Marshall Scholars pitch ourselves as agents of change, penning post-scholarship plans that chronicle our hopes to build meaningful technology, policy, art, and literature. Some of my Marshall friends seek panaceas for the world’s refugee crises, while others are dedicated to building rockets that will lift humanity into the beauty of space. 

These pursuits are the result of self-reflection and experience. The youthful ideals that led me to tinker with test tubes and embrace a lifelong love of exploration gave way to internships that refined my goals and elevated them to actionable visions. Yet despite years of honing these goals, many Marshalls find themselves pursuing remarkably different paths from the ones they envisioned before the scholarship. In my year alone, artists have become hard-core computer scientists, business students have enrolled in architecture programs, and a friend who once spoke of finishing a PhD now seriously plans to move to Thailand and live with elephants. 

The Marshall is undoubtedly an accelerator for well-defined visions. It provides access to world-class universities and an alumni network second to none. Yet the disparity between many pre-Marshall visions and post-Marshall plans suggests that one of the most useful elements of the scholarship is its role in enabling each of us to critically reconsider our long-held plans. The Marshall imbues each of us with a global perspective by connecting us to British society, academia, and industry while we study in the United Kingdom. It also serves as an oasis in time and a marketplace for the rapid exchange of innovative ideas. Free from the rigid structure of undergraduate education, Marshalls leverage these new paradigms to design more informed and effective futures. This opportunity to weigh, consider, and pivot is by far one of the most valuable aspects of the Marshall. 

2017 Class Secretary Aaron Solomon (left) with 2018 Class Secretary Nick Schwartz

For some, this time is well-utilized to realign academic goals with personal values. One of my closest friends, Noam (2017, Emory), has spent his academic career delving into pure math and number theory. He originally planned to spend two years in the UK cramming arithmetic geometry into his brain before returning stateside for a pure math PhD. In the UK, however, free from the immediate pressure to apply and commit to further graduate school, Noam decided that a continued pursuit of pure math was an insufficient embodiment of his personal commitment to social justice and his desire to do good. He has now dedicated his mathematical skillset to analysing the intersections of technology, policy, and equality, and hopes to work on issues such as ending gerrymandering using data science and mathematics. For Noam, stepping out of the tunnel vision of undergraduate life into the expansive potential of the Marshall enabled him to reimagine his future and work towards maximizing his potential to better society. 

Noam’s pivot aligned his academic talents with personal values but was also influenced by the visions of his peers. With its continual whirlpool of ideas and passions, the Marshall community is uniquely suited to fomenting discontent within one’s own subject. Over the past year and a half, I’ve watched Marshalls slowly nudge the academic interests of their peers simply by spending time together and sharing new ideas. Bleary-eyed conversations on early morning trains to Scotland have led to a wealth of cross-subject collaborative efforts. In the 2018 cohort, Jamie Kwong (2018, University of Southern California) and Erika Lynn-Green (2018, Yale) are using their respective backgrounds in war studies and medicine to explore the role of health policy in the deterrence versus disarmament debate. Amongst my own cohort, David Elitzer (2017, Brown)—who studies the protection of cultural property—and Erin Schulte (2017, Arizona State)—who studies economic development and information technology—recently developed a new website for visualizing US troop deployments around the world and educating the public about their use. These collaborations epitomize the role of the Marshall in inculcating scholars with new ideas and enabling them to pursue new visions.

Even amongst scholars who find their long-term visions unchanged, the Marshall experience helps clarify how best to pursue our goals. When I applied for the scholarship, I envisioned my post-Marshall plan as a PhD or MD/PhD in machine learning, followed by a career spanning start-ups and industry in biotechnology, national security, and artificial intelligence. I stand by these goals today, and much of my Marshall experience has both deepened my commitment to and endowed me with better tools for pursuing them. But my time in the UK has also given me pause to reconsider how I might better integrate other areas of interest into my future plans as well. Conversations with resident military artificial intelligence guru David Wagner (2017, Air Force Academy) have redirected my thoughts to the intersection of artificial intelligence, war, and terrorism. As a result, I’ve revisited some of my prior work in anti-terrorism software development. Talking with Noam has led me to think about the interaction of data with government and privacy regulations and caused me to consider new avenues—such as law school and policy work—through which I can bring about needed change at the intersection of machine learning, global security, and medicine. 

Ultimately, kleptomania is a hard thing to shake, and mine has followed me to the UK. Only now, instead of pilfering test tubes, I grab onto ideas and skills that help me define my path forward. I am extremely lucky to have an opportunity like the Marshall to shape my personal vision and to be both surrounded and influenced by such incredible people while doing so. I have developed an unrelenting expectation that Marshalls can and should act as agents of good. Believing in their goodness contextualizes a crucial element of the Marshall ideal: that the Marshall is an investment in an individual rather than an idea. Though the visions of Marshall Scholars may grow and morph over time, scholars are selected because they use their skills to do good, wherever they find themselves. By leveraging the global context and exploration incentivized by the Marshall, I have no doubt that all of us scholars will find our paths to critical positions that utilize our passions and skills. Coupled with my enduring belief that Marshalls are good people who will use their talents to do great things, this knowledge makes me incredibly grateful to be a Marshall and unendingly enthusiastic for what all of us have in store for the future.

Aaron gliding off into more U.K. adventures

* I remained crippled by guilt over my test tube theft, especially after shattering one during an experiment at home. After a week and a half of being morbidly guilt-ridden, I confessed my crime to my mother, and we returned the tubes—some stained with methylene blue from my experimentation—to my teacher. They were returned to the rack where—as of my last visit—they remain to this day.

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