(Summer ’11) Saba Mohsin ’11

Saba Mohsin ’11 along with Amrita Karambelkar is working with the Ministerio Ciencia y Tecnologia in Costa Rica to design and run a high school Young Talent Club.

August 7nd, 2011

The End of an Era

You will have to forgive the [long] overdue but compulsory final post, but this has been sitting somewhat unfinished on my desktop for quite some time. A little reflection made me realize that its about time I finally say goodbye.

Although its been a while, I can’t really say that I’ve forgotten how wonderful those last few days in Cuidad Quesada really were. With the Talento Joven 2011 officially out of our hands, I was able to spend my last week with people that I had come to care for an unreasonable amount. Even now (months later) its difficult to describe to someone how transformative the experience was for me without sounding like a nutjob.

My family — Xinia, Rolando, Maria Jose, and little Luis Alonso — will always be family. My colleagues — los tutores, Randall, Alejandro, Wayner, Rogelio — have become good friends. Don Rigo and Silvia will always make me smile. And 80 little chinguines from all over the country gave me hope, happiness and a whole lotta love.

A few days after her departure, Amrita sent me an email describing her return to the US and preparation for med school. There’s really only one other person in the world who understood what it was like to leave so I’ll let her speak for me:
“What I do miss, and will continue to miss, and so will you probably (besides all the amazing people we now know) is this summer experience and Costa Rican culture. We had an unbelievably, eye-opening, life-changing, magical, Mafia-playing, Richie-bullying, pillamadaing, dancing, frijol-filled summer. In the company of truly beautiful people who became dear friends and who loved us. We were immersed in a culture of unimaginable happiness, kindness, and selflessness. It’s not something that is as easily found in the US, though it exists. This was truly the best summer of our lives.”

Pura vida.

August 2nd, 2011

Sand, Reunions and Angels

Enough with the work, let’s talk about other stuffs.

Right after the closing ceremony at HP, I was picked up by my host family and the five of us made for the beaches of the westernmost province of Costa Rica: Guanacaste. After a 4 hour drive, we arrived to their family-owned cabin where the entire extended family, including at least half a dozen kids, had beaten us there.

After a good night’s sleep — my first in weeks — our first stop was Playa Flamingo, where Rolando took a cat nap and the rest of us took a walk on the warm sand. Maria Jose and Alonso kicked a ball around and I took advantage of the beautiful weather to snap some photos and dip my feet in.

After a few hours of messing around, Amrita and her host family arrived and everyone under the age of 22 decided to enjoy the waves. That day, I reminded myself that even a lazy day at the beach in which nothing at all is accomplished has its merits.

After a quick stop at home for lunch we next went to Playa Hermosa, tourist hotspot and enormous beach. We played in the tidepools, collected shells and witnessed a beautiful sunset.

Before it was time to go, I was struck with the sudden urge to take a jumping picture with the other girls. We spent about twenty minutes and a large chunk of my memory card trying to snap the perfect photo. This is the best we could manage:

Unfortunately, Maria Jose doesn’t get as much air as we were hoping. Our final stop that weekend was at Playa Matapalo which sits nexts to a very swanky resort and was the venue of a wedding that day. Just as the desire to crash the wedding began to overcome me, it started to rain and that fire was pretty instantly extinguished.

The evenings back at the cabin were relaxing and just what I needed after two weeks of sleeplessness and go!go!go!. I made a new friend during my two days there but I fear that he may have liked me for other reasons:

(Note the laptop case)

Harry Potter and Captain America
One of the first full blown reunions we had after the end of the campamentos was a strategically planned get-together to watch Harry Potter Book 7 Part 2. Amrita and I boldly bussed our way to the Multiplaza del Este and met up with the remainder of the gang to witness the End of It All. Although the movie itself left me wanting a little more, the company was more than I could have asked for.

Our second movie-related reunion was a disguise for me to see some of my favorite pupilos. We met at the Mall of San Pedro and bought tickets to see Capitan America in 3D. It being the weekend and all, there were a lot of sold out screens and long lines and we ended up with mediocre seats not entirely next to each other. Upon realizing the movie was in Spanish I thought “crap, now I really have to pay attention” but I was able to follow the movie just fine. At the end of the day, I was just glad to see Carlos and Monchito again.

Photo cred: Amrita Karambelkar

Hanging with the tutors
In reality, the rest of our stay in Costa Rica was just a series of reunions and excuses to hang out with the tutors. I stayed at Yana’s house for nearly a week and Carla’s house for another few days and got to know both of their families.

We took a MICIT-sponsored trip to Lanotech, the national biotech and chemical engineering lab. We hung out at Mau’s place and played Pictionary. We took a tour of la Universidad de Costa Rica and later of el TEC Sede Cartago as well. We had fast food, went to bars, went dancing and everything in between. They were immersing us in the Tico culture and I could not get enough of it.

Il Pomodoro
Once all of our work at MICIT was completely taken care of, Amrita and I invited all of the tutors out to dinner to explain our plans for the future of Talento Joven. Over Italian we discussed the proposed schedule of 2012, the new coordinators and volunteers, who would be in charge (since Randall was leaving MICIT and taking a new job). It was rejuvenating to see all of them take such keen interest in what was coming next and I realized that these campamentos were not just my baby but theirs too. I ended the night with such hope and excitement for the next camps and knew that we had started something that would last.

Photo cred: Amrita Karambelkar

Photo cred: Amrita Karambelkar


One of our trips with the tutors was out to Puntarenas, a beach-town two hours southwest of San Jose. This trip included my first taste of the infamous Churchhill, a snowcone-esque treat with ice cream and condensed and powdered milks. It was not as I expected it to be but yummy nonetheless. We walked along the pier:

We played in the sand:

Tried to bury Richi standing up:

Wrote messages to the heavens:

And in general goofed off until the sun went down and we were too sandy and wet to do anything else.

Randall’s reunion

Even before Randall decided to take his new job, he planned a final barbecue at his house way out donde el diablo perdio su chaqueta (better known as “in the boonies”). We managed to all fit into Mau and Vicko’s cars and drove another half hour from central Cartago. We were given a tour of his property and I snapped some photos while the sun was still up.

The view was utterly breathtaking and I quickly understood why Randall chose to live where the devil lost his jacket. I’d probably lose mine there too.

Randall’s crib really was perfect for hosting an evening bash. We had an entertainment room all to ourselves where there were all the amenities one would require at such an event. There was a pool table:

A music system (with projector screen):

and a grill (with cooks included):

The night was one to remember and is just the way I would have wanted to spend my last few days with some of my favorite people south of Mexico.

La Romeria
Perhaps my most memorable night of the whole summer was the night of August 1st when I joined over a million Ticos as they marched from their homes to the Basilica of Los Angeles in Cartago. Since I was too chicken to start all the way in San Carlos (over 100km away), I met up with Richi, Yana and Juan Jose in San Pedro and we commenced the 23km journey from there at 9pm.

We walked alongside hordes of people from the very start and the crowd just got more and more dense the closer we got to Cartago. Soon the streets were not for cars but rather for pedestrians and eventually we began to overflow beyond just the streets.

We did anything we could to keep ourselves busy. We played Contacto!, sang entire songs, and learned a little bit more about Catholicism (and Islam too). We came across some interesting characters like German German in his bright green morph suit (he insisted that was his name):

We even stopped for some food and drink along the way. On a particular snack break for chorreadas, I proved that maybe 23km wasn’t enough exercise as I broke clear through a 2-by-4 that had probably been holding up heavier things in its lifetime.

Once we left civilization about 10km into the walk we found ourselves with sparse lights and hardly any food vendors. This meant we were officially outside the city of San Jose. There were more and more Romeros at every step, converging from all parts of the country.

A few more kilometers later, the air was brisker and foggier meaning were definitely approaching “Mordor” as many Cartago natives like to call it. To affirm our suspicions, we were greeted by large sign just as we entered the city limits.

Here the crowd got a bit unbearable and we had to resort to grabbing each other’s arms in order to stay together. Luckily, Yana doesn’t take no shit and got us through without a hitch.

Finally, 5 hours and 23km later we arrived to central Cartago about two minutes away from Silvia and Don Rigo’s house. Here’s what we saw:

Obviously, after walking so far I wanted to go inside to see what the fuss was all about. There were two lines to enter: one to enter on foot and one on your knees. I didn’t feel particularly adventurous so we went for the shorter, less painful line.

After a quick trip inside, we realized we were starving and went looking for some sustenance. A few blocks away we found a warm, cozy restaurant where we had hot chocolates and empanadas to tide us over until the next day. It was 4am. Juan Jose and Ricardo were doing great at that point:

Yana and I were not:

After our late meal, we went to the central park and curled up next to a tree attempting to sleep. I might have managed about a half hour of sleep but the frigid wind and rock mattress made it tough to rest much even after our long night. We waited just long enough for McDonalds to open across the street and went there for hot tea and a bathroom break before heading back home on bus.

My time in Costa Rica was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. Each experience, each person I met, each new place I went showed me how much there is to appreciate in this world. I see now why Costa Ricans are the happiest people in the world.

July 14th, 2011

Closing ceremony – HP

One the camps ended, we weren’t given much of a chance to recover before we had to fill up a bus and make our way to San Jose for the closing ceremony. The event was held at Hewlett Packard – Costa Rica, one of our sponsors for Talento Joven and eager host for the day.

Seeing the kids again

As soon as Campa 3 ended, all of the students, tutors and S.A.C. got into a bus and left el Tec Sede San Carlos which had been our home for the last two weeks. We arrived at MICIT about two and a half hours later where a horde of students from Campas 1 & 2 were waiting for us. Before I could even register what was happening, dozens of students that I had already started to miss climbed into the bus and greeting me with a huge grin and besito+abrazo combo. It was a pleasant surprise for my exhausted self to be reunited with all the chiquillos and it quickly brought me back from the near-dead state I had been in through most of the morning.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski

Photo cred: Jorge Isaac Sandoval Sandoval

Applying what they learned

The agenda for the afternoon was simple. After some light snacks (not a entire lunch as we were misled into thinking) we were to hear from a series of speakers, ranging from the head of Human Resources to different project managers and the like. The objective was quite clear: Talento Joven involved a lot of pretty smart cookies and they wanted a bite.

Photo cred: Mari Quesada

We all took a seat and were warmly welcomed to their facility and given an introduction to HP and what their work entails. The presentation was informative but what made it really great was the fact that the kids asked questions and were actually interested in what they were being told. They wanted to know what they, as chemical/mechanical/aerospace/electrical engineers could bring to the table and really truly wanted to know the answer.

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski

Perhaps what made me smile most that afternoon was the onslaught of text messages I received while the speakers were doing their thing. They were all along the lines of: “Her slide has too much graphical noise, its detracting from her content” or “He’s fidgeting” aka things that told me that the kids had really learned something during our How-to-do-a-powerpoint classes at the campas. I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that I had created a monster (61 of them actually) that from that day forth would never ever ever settle for anything less than a superb presentation.

A world of opportunity

There was never any doubt in my mind that these kids would figure out what they are good at and what they love to do and spend the rest of their lives doing it. For some of my kids, that process started today. They all met Alejandro Cruz, the Minister of Science and Technology and a very hardworking fellow (shown below with Aishah). For students looking to get involved in science and engineering fields, thats an invaluable contact to have.

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski

Not only that, the kids all knew Randall and Alejandro, our campa supervisors and 12 university students (plus 3 more) that had all gone down the path that they are looking to go down very soon. They had at least a dozen numbers/emails/Skype usernames that they could go to at any time for anything. Talento Joven was starting to show how it was making a long-term impact on the students.

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski


After two weeks at el Tec in San Carlos, this day was helping me see the big picture all over again. I was able to evaluate what we had done in the past few months and I was pretty damn pleased with it. At the end of the afternoon, I was asked to say a few words and I think my speech (found here: http://web.mit.edu/sabamo/Public/Costa%20Rica/) pretty much sums up how I was feeling at the time.

Photo cred: Mari Quesada

Photo cred: Israel Chaves Arbaiza

I think Nicole from Campa 3 said it best when she explained to Jossette (also from Campa 3) that 5 of us were the past, present and future students of MIT.

Photo cred: Jossette Quesada

I will miss them

Después de todo, it was finally time to say goodbye. This was the part I was dreading more than anything else but it began with taking hundreds of pictures with all of the kids and by the end of it all, my cheeks were a bit sore.

Photo cred: Jorge Isaac Sandoval Sandoval

Photo cred: Israel Chaves Arbaiza

Photo cred: Israel Chaves Arbaiza

Photo cred: Jossette Quesada

After/during photos I tried to tell every one of my kiddos how much they meant to me and that they could count on me for anything. I used a Spanish phrase that I hear a lot in Costa Rica “estoy siempre para servirte” and I hope they understood how true that is. Now that I think back on it, I bet HP felt really awkward turtle watching us laugh and hug and cry together while they stood to one side with their suits and pamphlets. At the same time, I hope they saw how remarkable the kids are and they must be quite proud to know that they played a part in shaping their futures.

Photo cred: Jossette Quesada

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski

Photo cred: Aishah Buttowski

I don’t know when I’ll see them again but that day was time for me to let go and trust that three days is enough time to make up someone’s mind. It was a time of fulfillment and anxiety as I sent them back to their daily lives and hoped that they would never forget how much they have to offer the world and that nothing at all should get in their way. I had to believe that they too could see the future that I saw in them and that they would not be afraid to run after it.

July 13th, 2011

Campa 3

Luckily and somewhat surprisingly, both Campas 1 and 2 ended with all of our tutors and students intact. But the final stretch required that we run at about 200% and with that in mind we dove headfirst into our third and final camp.

Full house

Again, we experienced some gentle overlap between the camps but this time, we thought we knew what we were doing. In fact, we had to be extra alert since we were told that there was some history between students of Campa 2 and of Campa 3. With that in mind, juggling the two groups became a thing of far-fetched strategy to ensure that our top-secret curriculum was kept as confidential as it had been the first two times. We herded the Campa 2 group into the lab to pick up their parachutes and filed them the long way to the buses to avoid colliding with any of the Campa 3 kids in the dining hall.

Once Campa 2 departed and we were left with our final batch, a quick headcount confirmed our worst fears: there were too many of them. We were operating in moderately sized lab spaces and were limited to groups of about 20. This gang included 26. On the verge of panicking, we decided instead to split the entire set right down the middle and run two camps in parallel. That meant we were instantly down to half the manpower, half the breaks, twice the lectures and about a hundred times the odds that something would go wrong. I’ve said before that I like a challenge and this revamp of our schedule tested that out just perfectly.

A creative bunch

Although parallel lab modules was tricky when it came time to regroup, we managed to keep the two sets of chicos pretty engaged without letting them realize that we were improvising like whoa. Actually, this bunch did a pretty good job of keeping themselves busy.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

This crew hardly seemed like they even belonged at a science camp. In fact, they might have been on a lost bus headed to drama camp that stumbled its way onto the Tec campus. We had some singers, actors, dancers and even an impressionist or two.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Keeping up with the likes of them was no ordinary task and for the first time in a long while, I had to turn my right-brain on and flip it all the way to the max. Not only was I having to explain hydrostatic pressure but now I was doing it to the cast of High School Musical.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

The importance of rest

When I said we’d be going at 200%, I had no idea that we would literally need to be going at 200% for Camp 3. With minimal breaks and all the multitasking, most of our tutors ended up looking a little like this:

This was the first time that our performance was starting to turn a little bit downhill and even with the limited manpower, we had to demand that tutors that were free go to take naps. At least two or three times I had to have the following conversation:

Saba: “Are you helping Amrita with this module right now?”

Tutor: “Yes, I’m supposed to be here.”

Saba: “Can she do it without you?”

Tutor: “Well, umm, yeah probably.”

Saba: “Great. I order you to go take a mandatory break for the next 3 hours. You may not be seen in a laboratory or learning space and I forbid you to assist any student or fellow tutor in that time.”

Tutor: “But wait, I like being…”

Saba: “Now”

Tutor: ” 🙁 ”

Me in the biotech lab

Now I’d like to think I am not often out of my element but the moment I set foot into the biotechnology lab at el Tec, I could swear the earth trembled a bit. I was born and bred a mechanical engineer and anytime you start talking about kinases or stoichiometry, my brain goes a little bit fuzzy.

Nonetheless, splitting the kids in half meant splitting the tutors in half and that sent me with Amrita’s crew to try and transform some E.coli. Since I had somewhat done the module before I wasn’t completely useless but at the same time I preferred to let the tutors handle any questions. Instead, I kept an eye on the plasmids:

Amrita was definitely the pro so I let her run the show and was on standby in case anything needed to be centrifuged or labeled. I just liked to sit around in a lab coat with safety glasses on pretending like any wrong move could ignite an explosion.


As with the elevator pitches, Powerpoint presentations became a part of our curriculum that none of the students ever expected, yet all mastered within just a few days. On the last day of every camp, we took them to the computer lab and gave them about an hour to create the most dynamic, kick-ass technical presentation of their lives.

They were told all the tips that S.A.C (Saba, Amrita and Carla) had accumulated over the years and expected to deliver a high quality 3-5 minute presentation at the end. No graphical noise, no blocks of texts, no unnecessary color. Just straight up Motivation-Hypothesis-Method-Results-Conclusion like any good engineer/scientist has been doing his whole life. For a group of super creative kiddos, this was both a challenge and a time to shine.

Tutors take the stage

After seeing the drill twice before, the tutors became pretty comfortable with the way the camps ran. They had seen the lectures, they knew what kinds of questions to expect and they knew the material like the back of their hands. With all the experience and the fact that they were brilliant anyway, they took over our lessons plans and started to run the modules themselves. In fact, I am almost positive that if they hadn’t, S.A.C would be dead of exhaustion. Ricardo and Juan Jose ran the E.coli lectures and were sure to add their own touch with smiley face bacteria and pop quizzes throughout the hour.

Anna rocked the How-to-give-a-presentation presentation and included a sample “what not to do” slide which, along with some giggles, got the kids thinking on the right track.

Dennis and Amanda took the Hero’s fountain under their wings and talked about Bernoulli, Pascal pressure, what happens if instead of water we have oil and everything in between. In fact, they ran the lecture better than I could ever have done and left me grinning with excitement the rest of the day.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Finally, we had Vicko take over Carla’s aerodynamics lecture for the parachutes. He somehow explained everything in a way we never would have thought to do and the estudiantes picked it up in no time. Israel (not pictured) followed up with the How-to-do-a-technical-drawing lecture and, once again, did not fail to impress.

As Camp 3 wound down, I became happier and sadder at the same time. Sure the tutors were starting to fill our shoes and we were become more and more obsolete in the process (part of the plan) but this was the end of an era, albeit a short one. I had spent the last 250 hours teaching, eating, sleeping, dancing with these guys and it was almost over. I was not okay with that.

Photo cred: Mauricio Soto


The last thing on the agenda at the end of every camp was a short session to let the chiquillos give us some candid feedback on the camps and on Talento Joven. We kind of put ourselves on the hot seat and requested that they lay all the cards on the table and these are some of the things we heard:


– Too much food

– The San Carlos heat

– Not enough days


– Being able to talk to the tutors 24/7

– The hands-on approach to science and engineering

– The non-competitive environment of the camps

At one point, Randall asked a group of kids how many of them felt like they thought a science or engineering career was right for them and all of them raised their hands. He then followed up with “How many of you learned that about yourselves here at Talento Joven” and all but one of the students raised their hands. It was quite remarkable to see the change we had made in such little time and I was thrilled to see how unbelievably excited and energized the kids were. During their short winter-break, these kids were giving up precious time to be at the camps and none of them was regretting it. I could not have asked for a better way to end it all.

Photo cred: Victor Estrada

Photo cred: Israel Chavez

Photo cred: Nicolas Lopez Cruz

Guest post: Ricardo Alvarado, ITCR Cartago

An Insider’s Scoop

Ok gang, you’ve heard a lot of jabber from me so it’s about time you get a new perspective on Talento Joven. Here a few words from one of our tutors:

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What about me?

Hi everybody! My name is Ricardo Alvarado (a.k.a. Jiu jitsu-ka teddy bear boy…actually just Saba calls me like that…). I’m 21 and I live in Cartago, place which most of my friends know as “Mordor” but don’t worry, it isn’t such a dangerous place although I can tell you could bore to death in here ha ha. I study biotech engineering at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica. Why did I choose that career? Well, it is because I love what it implies, I simply love it. From genetic engineering to biomedical research, from bioinformatics to virus research, those sorts of things have certainly amazed me since I was pretty young.

This fascination for science was what moved me to volunteer in this project named “Talento Joven”. I knew in there I would recall my own love for science and engineering in the youngsters’ eyes. With that in mind I ventured to go with all to the camps and…what did I get? Be murdered by Amrita, bullied by Saba, almost burned by one of my pupils. WTH?!? I’m just kidding; actually these camps were the best that I could hope for!

What about the tutors?

The other tutors are amazing guys. People from mechatronics, informatics, electronics, chemical engineering, natural sciences, occupational security, physics and, least but no less, electromechanical engineering (Vicko would kill me if I don’t mention his career ha ha) all in one place! I couldn’t get enough of them, brilliant and really hilarious people that end up being my friends.

What about the girls (our coordinators…don’t get me wrong ha ha)?

But what can be said about Amrita, Carla and Saba? To put this simply these girls rule! Just as you read, they are the best. Before I went to the camps I couldn’t imagine what kind girls were about to lead us those two weeks, but after I got to know them I realize how funny, smart, kind and enchanting people they are!

(That doesn’t mean they cannot be scary too…just let Saba ask you if you are the assassin and you will know what terror is! And also NEVER trust Amrita when you play Mafia…she is not the innocent girl that she pretends to be! We just never saw it coming; her bloodlust got us even before anyone could realize the thread of her “innocent” smile!)

What about the youngsters?

Well, that’s enough for the grown-ups so let’s continue with the important ones. Let’s talk about the kids. At first I thought it might be kind of hard to keep the interest of the kids in the modules by 3 days, however, it was completely the opposite. The kids had hunger for science and thirst for knowledge. Their eyes began to shine every time they do something that challenged them (that was exactly what I was looking for!).

When I gather with some of them to talk about whatever involves science, in a matter of seconds the rest of them surrounded me staring their serious but at the same time curious eyes.

Our relationship with the pupils grew even stronger each day. Mmm no, actually it wasn’t like that. Our relationship with those kids grew exponentially as each hour passed!

We taught and helped them with the modules.

We ate together.

And had lots of fun with them!

From just some high scholars they became our pupils, from pupils they became friends and from friends they became almost our sons and daughters (our “hijos” as we usually said) ha ha but it was really like we had tons of brilliant and curious little siblings all around us.

What about my conclusions?

It appears to me that the conclusions of these camps are obvious. Great tutors + amazing coordinators + outstanding kids = A TOTAL SUCCESS! These camps were the best that I could bet for my mid-year vacations. I volunteered to teach some of what I knew to the kids and end up being taught by them. In synthesis I got a lot more than I gave!

All of us tried to put in them the seed of science and they grew in us a huge plant of selfless and fulfillment. Mmm…now that I think of it that phrase is a little bit too corny XD…but it is the truth. I would gladly continue to volunteer to camps like these and help those kids to see what a marvelous world science can be.

July 10th, 2011

Campa 2

In accordance with the mayhem that has been the last few weeks, Camp 1 of Talento Joven had not even ended when Camp 2 began. In fact, Camp 2 started without us…


We got back from a zip-lining trip with the kids of Campa 1 to find that the bus of students of Campa 2 had already arrived. We got off the bus to 22 new faces, looking at us with curiosity and skepticism and wondering what the heck was going on. The kids were sent to the dorms to settle in while we went with our first crew to the dining hall for one last meal.

Honestly, I was quite attached to the first bunch. They were reserved but worked hard and were ambitious. They were respectful, followed instructions and were perfect pupils in every way.

These new kids were different. They were rowdy, they were social, and they didn’t take crap. Much less of them were from scientific high schools and the rest came from ordinary and very-much-not-scientific high schools. These kids were sassy and from the first moment I laid eyes on them, my nerves told me that Campa 2 would not be as easy as I had hoped.


After a night of introductions and rest, Campa 2 started off as the first had — with icebreakers. All 22 of the newbies were taken out to the courtyard and thus began a huge game of El Gran Viento Sopla better known to some of you as “The Great Wind Blows”. Indeed, the magic of this game transcends even the language barrier and before we knew it, we had nearly 40 people running around, laughing, tripping over each other and starting to build a community. It was this notion of community that I had been hoping for from the start and even with a much larger group of students, the transition had begun.


Campa 2, along with an increased number of students also featured an increased number of modules. The crowning glory of our lab module set was one run by Amrita involving an E.coli transformation. With the help of Ricardo, Janna, Juan Jose and Amanda, students were taught about about plasmid integration within bacteria and how an Ampicillin resistant strain of bacteria can grow on agar plates that have Ampicillin.

Once the chicos understood the science, they were taken to the biotech lab and given gloves, goggles, a lab coat and a protocol. Some of them knew what was going on and felt right at home while others couldn’t even tell the upside of a micropipette. Regardless, they all struggled and several sealed agar plates, a broken thermometer and small fire later each one of the kids was incubating their very own Amp-resistant bacteria. Like a boss.

This module confirmed my earlier suspicions of these kids: they were a handful. They had too much energy, too much fun, too much everything. And having 22 of them meant all hands on deck for the tutors….


Campa 2 was the first chance I got to take the role of profe and teach a class. Let’s just say I was a touch below terrified to take the stage. Not only were these kids smart, they were cheeky and probably wouldn’t be ok with just an average lesson on Bernoulli or ideation. Regardless, I gave it my best shot.

My first and only module was a Hero’s Fountain but not just any ol’ Hero’s Fountain. This one was MIT style. The kids were given all the required materials and a diagram of the fountain and had to build it and figure out how it worked within the hour. Some of them struggled with the schematic:

Others tried different ways to get it started:

And yet others were utterly bewildered:

Until finally, one of groups figured it out!

And a fountain was born! This moment was perhaps the most beautiful part of all of the camps: when one could watch a student build and disassemble and dissect and analyze a system to death and finally, FINALLY see the solution materialize in his eyes. It’s like a mini-englightenment and I had the pleasure of witnessing it almost 22 times. It looks a little like this:

Of course, then the kiddos took it to the next level and started asking “What if I do this instead….” or “What if this part is bigger….” like any engineer should do. It was wonderful and I felt like a proud mama.


Anyone who has ever spent an extended amount of time with a group of 10 or more peers knows the uncanny and undeniable appeal of Mafia. I assure you that in Costa Rica, the same allure exists and we were sure to take advantage of it every chance we got.

In no time, we were killing Vicko, blaming Juan Jose, forgetting about Amrita, and everything in between. I realized that not only were these kids sassy, they were sharp. They knew how to talk you into things and talk themselves out of them. I was impressed.


Part of being locked up with a bunch of other kids involves blowing off steam and our team allowed for that with a little bit of dancing. This was done in two different ways: we teach them to dance and then they teach us.

Amrita and I introduced every group of campers to the madness that is bhangra and after a short demo, taught them the 1 minute choreo that left everyone sweating and panting and begging for repose. We had to describe each step a bit differently than we were used to (pollo, medusa, bombilla, sol, avion…) but they got the hang of it and absolutely friggin loved it.

After our intense lesson, the kids somehow managed to have enough energy left over for round 2: spanish music. I have an eerie suspicion that everyone born in this country is born with rhythm and so the kiddos attempted to teach me salsa, merengue, cumbia and even some native dance styles. The only weapon I already possessed was bachata but from then on, I had a full arsenal.

Aguas termales

At the end of each of our camps, MICIT funded a half day trip for all the kids and tutors to La Fortuna, tourist hotspot and a must-see for anyone with a sense of adventure. For Campa 2, we went to Ecotermales hot springs and spent the afternoon lounging, playing Contact, sipping on fruit shakes and living the life on MICIT’s tab.

Not a bad way to end the week, right?


In Campa 1, I witnessed the tutors assume the position of role model to their students and it made me proud. This time around, they evolved from being colleagues to dear friends.

During the bacteria module, 2/3 of the tutors had to stay behind due to the size capacity of the biotech lab. It was during this time that they decided to test out the Hero’s Fountain on their own. They were great guinea pigs and after an hour or so they decided to supersize the fountain and create a geyser-like superfountain. Much to their disappointment, the fountain did not erupt like Volcan Arenal but in the process, I grew to love their curious, fun-loving and exuberant personalities.

To kill some more time later, we played the game Quien Soy. Once I figured out I was Snooki, I had a blast trying to remind Vicko of the names of every Teletubby and to convince Mau (aka Homer Simpson) that he was not Pac-man. This was one of the first times that I had spent time with the tutors outside of the classroom and I felt right at home.

Here, Amrita and Magaly practice the cup game that Alejandro so mercilessly introduced to us:

Here, Vicko rests while the students construct their parachutes inside:

And here, Ricardo reminds us that although he is a teddy bear, he is not to be messed with lest his Jiu-jitsu/Aikido training get the best of you. Sorry Juan Jo, but he beat you fair and square.

After a good deal of shenanigans with a healthy mix of trust and support, this group includes some of my closest friends here in Costa Rica. More and more, I am closer to believing that by some sort of miracle Randall was able to find the 12 most talented, hard-working, caring, selfless and truly remarkable people this country has to offer.

A change of heart

These three are Carlos, Bryan and Jose Ramon better known as Carlitos, BrYan and Monchito. They hail from Liceo Julio Fonseca, one of the non-scientific colleges that Carla so kindly explained to me is actually pretty hood. In fact, it was likened to the Bronx and at first glance thats exactly the impression they gave me.

A few candid meals and a couple nights of goofing off later I realized that these were some of the smartest, most respectful, most responsible kids I had ever met. Their energy was not something to be afraid of but rather something to appreciate and over the course of the 3 days I realized this was the case with all 22 of them.

This bunch was something else. They kept me on my toes in the best way. They made me laugh and made me think. They saw me for what I was: a 21-year-old who is just luckier than most and has a lot of things to talk about. Not an alien, not a saint, not a genius. Maybe a few years down the road, they won’t be so very different from the person I am now — maybe they’ll be better. From what I’ve seen in them, I sure think so.

July 7th, 2011

Campa 1

On this day I am slightly less sleep deprived than I have been in the past few days so I think its as good a time as any to update you on how Talento Joven — and in particular, Camp 1 — is going.

Getting Started

The morning of Day 14, Carla, Amrita, and I moved into Tec housing for college professors and affiliates where we will be staying along with Randall Pacheco Vasquez, the guy in charge of the camps on MICIT’s side. We brought enough things to last us two weeks since the three camps will run consecutively (very much so, actually) and settled in before the storm hit.

We had spent the week scoping out the campus, the student dorms, the classrooms, and the dining hall and scheduling and planning and troubleshooting and re-planning and shuffling and re-planning as much as possible and now it was showtime. Late in the afternoon, Randall brought us a bus of 8 tutors and 14 students and Camp 1 of Talento Joven had officially begun.

Career Skills

Much to the surprise of our students, we began the camps with elevator pitches. Many of them (including the tutors) had no idea what we were talking about but after some examples and personalized coaching, we had a roomful of confident, assertive and might I add, highly accomplished prospective scientists and engineers talking themselves up like nobody’s business.

They talked to CEOs, professors, presidents, ministers and everything in between and little by little we watched as their increased confidence let them unleash the passion for science and engineering that each and every one of them has. It was a start and it was already going well.


The chicos first module was the design and construction of a parachute made of balsa wood, plastic wrap and hot glue with a twist — they were making each other’s parachutes instead of their own. A two-hour design process turned into a 4-hour frenzy in where the perfectionist in each of them came out and demanded more, better, stronger, lighter. Instead of ending the day at 6pm, we paused for a quick dinner and returned to the design studio (aka Aula 10) and stayed until almost 9pm adding the finishing touches.

Testing parachutes the next day was an impressive sight. There were successes and failures but in the end, everyone learned more than they might have expected. Doing a technical drawing requires precision, reading one requires intuition and we developed both in the lab.

Solar Power

The second module involved concentrated solar power, which sounded cool enough to keep them excited during the 3 hour build even though there was doubt that there would be enough sun to test them the next day.

I sat with little Ricardo and found the equations and foci for several parabolic reflectors. They all scribbled notes all over their notebooks, nailed a wooden scaffold together, calculated more foci, tossed their designs and opted for new ones. They were working like real engineers and ending with a bunch of sweaty, sawdust-covered chiquillos was just perfect.


Five times a day, I got the chance to sit and take a break with the kids and this was one of my favorite times of the day. It was over a meal that I met the San Pedro kids and Miguel, all of whom were an endless stream of questions about MIT, Pakistan, the US, what I like to do and everything in between.

Meals are when we get to overeat and take a mental break. We get to stop being teachers and pupils and laugh at each other as peers. We get to realize that we’re all within a few years of each other and talk about things that matter and things that don’t. They say that your muscles grow the most when you’re not working out and mealtime was when the growth happened.

The Volunteers/Tutors

At the start of Camp 1, Amrita, Carla and I ran the show and had 22 helping hands whenever and wherever we needed them. Although they knew very little about the curriculum and even less about their role in it, the tutors were smart, respectful, hilarious and completely devoted to the kids.

Anytime we entered a room to start an activity, the tutors would quickly scan to make sure their kids were ok and then spend the majority of the hour answering their questions, giving suggestions, blowing on hot glue, chatting, sawing wood, and in general making sure they were doing great. Each tutor was assigned two young’ns to take care of and by the end, they were their “hijos”. They tracked the progress of their hijos and swelled with pride when their parachute was the last to hit the ground or when a frustrating hour of brainstorming finally led to a groundbreaking design. They clapped the loudest when presentations were delivered well and came down hardest when it was time for critiques. They are the ultimate role models and if even one of these kids ends up like any of my tutors in the next few years, I will consider Talento Joven an absolute success.

The Kids

Karen, Damaris, Irene, Brandon, Jose Miguel, Miguel, Fabricio, Liz, Ricardo, Maria Jose, Andrey, Javier, German, Jean Carlos — each one of our kids is special and each one has more potential and heart than I could have hoped for. Yes, this batch were our guinea pigs but in three short days every single one of us became part of a family and I am thrilled to watch them grow into hardworking, successful, noble people. Our three days with them made the last three months of frustration and planning completely and utterly worth it. To say that I was sad to see them leave would be quite the understatement but I feel lucky and humbled to be a part of their lives.

July 1, 2011

Out of the frying pan

This last week has been one of the busiest times of my life (and that’s coming from a recent MIT grad!). Since our camps start in a few short days, this is crunch time and our preparation has been a bit of a roller coaster.

San Carlos

Last week, I was spending my days in San Jose and my nights in Cartago (about 45 minutes away) in the home of Silvia and Don Rigo. Since then, I have relocated to San Carlos — which is a 2hr+ drive from San Jose — to start preparing at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica where our 3 science camps will be held. Since day 6, the three of us have been living with three different host families, each of which is the home of a student that will be attending our camps.

My new family includes Xinia, a curious and loving mother and Rolando, a silly but quiet and caring father. I have a little brother named Luis Alonso (13), who is about 4 inches short for his age but makes up for it with an insane amount of stamina that allows him to bike and rollerblade for hours at a time. Finally, there is Maria Jose (15) a friendly and driven attendee of a colegio scientífico and future camper. These four have welcomed me into their home with open arms but unfortunately, my work schedule has made it nearly impossible for me to spend as much time with them as I would like.

Colegio Scientifico

Costa Rica has a system of science high schools throughout the country, home to about 400 of the country’s most brilliant students. Students are chosen via a very selective merit-based process and experience a pretty rigorous high school career. After year 1, about a quarter of the first years are cut (according to grades) and the remaining students are allowed to return for the second and final year of the high school. Carla’s host brother Ricardo and Amrita’s host sister Liz are both second year students (2 of only 9) and Maria Jose just passed first year and was selected to stay for year two.

Suffice it to say that our three compañeros are smart cookies. But the stress of their education system is undeniable and I wonder whether they are lucky or not to be a part of it. Regardless, they are very gifted indeed and with such supportive families I’m sure they are bound to do great things.

Daily Life

I’ve learned a little about language already, but this past week was learning about lifestyle. I’m finding out about what ticos like to eat and how they treat their guests. I’m realizing that they are hospitable beyond reason but also aggressive behind the wheel. I’ve taken a bus, train, taxi and know how much each should cost me if I’m not getting ripped off. I’ve had guanabana, carambola, and ras in the form of fruit drinks and can identify the coins by feel alone. I’m even starting to enjoy the taste of coffee.

On day 9, we went with Doña Lucia to a construction warehouse, a stationary store, a supermarket, a lumberyard, a shipping store, and various other vendors on a massive hunt for materials. During a pitstop, I managed to snag the following photo of an ad for feminine products.

Mujeres mas seguras. I like that.

El “TEC”

The Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica (better known as el Tec) has been our home base for the past week. We’ve been working with the director of the adjacent science high school, Wayner, where our 3 chiquillos attend. He, along with a marvelous Doña Lucia have been invaluable in our search for materials, lab spaces and the occasional coffee and cheese break. They receive about 3 emails from us daily, requesting new sizes of nails, more rubber hosing, a drill, agar plates, and basically anything else you might imagine in a lab. On day 8, Wayner took us on the grand tour of the campus and showed us around the biotech lab where our E.coli transformation lab module will be held.

Crunch Time

A long time ago, the plan was for the three of us to arrive with almost a month before the start of the camps, so we would have enough time to prepare, troubleshoot, meet and discuss. Along the way, the plan changed to less than two weeks and that has made days 8-12 a bit of a nightmare. Everyday, the three of us wake up at 5am, eat breakfast and get on a bus by 6am and take the half hour trek to el Tec where our compañeros are finishing up the last week of classes. Our workday starts at 7am and goes to about 5:30pm when we take the bus back to the terminal and get home by around 6:30. The day’s work involves running around the entire campus, finding out that some things won’t work and our schedule has been changed without prior notice. It involves testing modules and hoping beyond hope that nature and science decide to cooperate with us on the day of the camps. Here, on day 11, we’ve turned Randall’s bathroom into our official lab testing space.

I won’t lie, it’s been frustrating. Things we took for granted are now proving to be great challenges and the enormity of teaching 65 of the most brilliant high schoolers in the country (in Spanish) is finally sinking in. There’s a lot riding on the success of these camps and if we mess up, a whole heap of people will be let down. Overwhelmed is a bit of an understatement.

The Volunteers

On Day 10, Carla, Amrita and I took a 2.5 hour bus ride back to San Jose for an informal rendezvous with our 12 university volunteers. We all met at MICIT and headed to Pizza a la Leña with Randall where we introduced ourselves and explained to them our hopes and dreams for these camps. Here’s half the crew and coincidentally, its the boy half. From left to right we have Dennis (who gives hugs), Victor (at 25, the veteran), Ricardo (the biotech engineer who loves death metal), Mau (majoring in computer science and saxophone), Israel (at 18, the baby) and Ronald (the physics guy who will debate politics with you without even knowing your name).

Not included are Amanda (the rogue), Magaly (the one with perfect english), Yana (the one who invited us to stay with her someday), Katherine (the only computer science girl), Anna (the safety-conscious one) and Juan Jose (the agreeable one).

These were a dozen smart, driven students (many of whom were older than us) and the first thing we were made to understand was that, for some reason, they trusted and respected us to the utmost level. We’re from MIT and, according to them, it was an honor that they were even in our presence. I can assure you that most of this crew was smarter than I am but because I was wearing a Brass Rat, I was in charge.

This was unfamiliar territory. It’s one thing to be seen as perfection when you walk into the developing world where there is no water, no education and no infrastructure but when you become responsible even though you may not be the most qualified, that’s a weird feeling.

Since then, I’m trying simultaneously to assume this responsibility and redefine my role in this process. I don’t have all the answers, I just have questions that they haven’t tried asking yet. I hope they realize that before the campers get here.

The Big Picture

Today was the inauguration of our camps and our first public appearance. We met with the Minister of Science and Technology, the rector of the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, the manager of the Banco Nacional and the director of Human Resources at HP. All around a pretty big-shot bunch.

After a rough week and some breakthroughs and letdowns, I had gotten a little short-sighted. The inauguration and seeing some of next week’s campers made me realize my role in this project. These are going to be Costa Rica’s first ever science camps and they will be run by a Pakistani, an Indian and an Salvadorian. If that’s not crazy, I don’t know what is.

A few pictures, a video, an interview and many thank-yous later, I finally backed up and saw the big picture. Its not about whether or not our modules run well next week, nor about whether my grammar is ok in the lectures I give. It’s about 65 high school kids and 12 college whizzes who want to make history and I’m sure as hell not going to stop them.

June 23, 2011

Coffee, Sulfur, and Rrrrain

Today’s post will involve some miscellany but I’ll tell you how the last couple days have been going (in no particular order).


If there is one defining feature of the Costa Rican landscape, its the stretch of volcanoes that runs right down the center of the country.

In the central part of Costa Rica, there are 4 biggies: Turrialba, Irazú, Barva, and Poas which is the home of the largest crater in the world. On Day 3, my supervisor Randall thought it would be cool to show me Poas so we borrowed one of the ministry’s cars and chaffeurs (Oscar) and made for Volcan Poas. On the way, we passed some coffee plantations and I learned about cafe Arabica.

After stopping to check out the coffee beans, we continued onward and upward until we reached Poas, which was enormous indeed.

The crater spews its fiery sulfuric rage all day long and it blankets the surroundings like a cloud. We also checked out a large sulfur lake nearby (note the smoke) but couldn’t stick around very long because of the afternoon rain that always hits.

And when I say rain I mean rain. Like typhoon style. We hurried back to the car and decided that the rain meant our adventure was over so we made our way back to Alajuela and then San Jose. On the way, we stopped for a Costa Rican snack: chorreadas (sweet corn pancake) with natilla (cream). I would have taken a picture but I was kinda overwhelmed by its beauty and ate it in about 90 seconds. Food coma struck and the drive back was a bit fuzzy.


I have forgotten how to roll my r’s.

Those of you that have taken a spanish class might remember having to practice the either-you-can-or-you-can’t feat of rolling r’s. I remember realizing early on in my journey to trilingualism that speaking Urdu at home with the folks made Spanish a breeze. I spent 4 years in high school pretty proud of myself and how good I thought I sounded. I was basically a natural.


Here in San Jose, when I say words like ‘chorreadas’ or ‘Randall’, I get the look that says “Oh you poor estadounidense. You probably learned Spanish from a Mexican or a Nicaraguan. Tsk tsk.” Any lingering hope I might have had that one day I will fool these ticos into thinking I could be a tica too is instantly crushed the second I open my mouth.

So I’ve been training. I’m learning to swallow my words and rattle the r’s. I’m trying to sound less like a motor and more like a vacuum cleaner and I think I’m getting closer and closer every day.

Silvia and Don Rigo

As I mentioned earlier, my host parents are wonderful. They both speak English but insist on speaking to me in Spanish so that I may be able to practice, bless their souls. Silvia has a Master’s in Economics from somewhere in the Netherlands and Don Rigo owns his own construction company. On Day 4, they took me to out to see Cartago, the area where they live in Costa Rica. We started in Orosi:

We had brunch near a national park overlooking the town of Orosi.

We went to the reservoir you might be able to see in that first picture of Orosi and then then two took me to the lodge where they were married three years ago (March 14th).

These are the two most stinkin cute, hopelessly in love people I have ever met in my life. They cook together, walk a few kilometers together every morning before work and have each other stored as “Amor Mio” in their cell phones. Their happiness is kinda contagious and living in their home has probably made me healthier and added at least 10 years onto my life. Unfortunately, after Day 5 I’ll be leaving to live in another part of the country and will leave these guys and their blind dog, Conan, behind. I have loved living with them and have learned everything I know thanks to them.

June 21, 2011

Project Intro

Buenas. I’m writing from Costa Rica, where I’ve been for only two days but still have a lot to say about it.

I’m here working with el Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnologia (MICIT) on a new project of theirs called Talento Joven (meaning “Young Talent”). The goal of this program is to encourage students to want to become scientists and engineers. Simple as that. All too often, you will hear a straight-A-gettin’, science-olympiad-winnin’, geeky-MITesque high school student say something like “I love chemistry, but I can’t do it as a job” or “My dad says if I become an engineer, I’ll be the only girl”.

Say what?

I, along with over 60 members of the smallest ministerio in the country, think thats bollocks. So where exactly do I come in? Well, there are 5 components to this Programa del Talento Joven ranging from science fairs to a web platform for students and mentors to share ideas. One of these components is a series of 3-day lab-intensive science camps where groups of about 24 brainy high school students will come and do science and engineering like they’ve never done before. Straight up.

MICIT has really outdone themselves with this one. We’re talking university lab spaces, solar power harvesting, 12-hour workdays, E.coli transformation, and boatloads of fun. We can also look forward to having a team of 12 brilliant Costa Rican university students from schools such as Universidad Técnica Nacional, Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica, and Universidad de Costa Rica. These guys are the secret weapons of our group.

These dudes are few and far between in a country where only 30% of college graduates do engineering or science. They live this stuff. Better yet, they used to be these high school students that were facing the tough decision of “what do I do with my life?” and they chose engineering. And with their help, Amrita Karambelkar (MIT ’11), Carla Perez Martinez (also MIT ’11) and myself will go science-camp-counselor-nutso on these kiddos.

Its been less than two days since I arrived here in San Jose and I’m already stoked to see what’s next. I’m working with some passionate, creative, and ambitious folks here and I have a feeling this’ll be pretty good.

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