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  • Nirali M

HBS PhD Student | Harvard College '17 | Director at Lumiere Education speaks on Study Abroad.

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Undergrad - Harvard University - Bachelor of Science (B.S.)

Current Role - Director at Lumiere Education

LinkedIn -

"For grad school, especially Ph.D. programs you want to prove that you know what you’re getting yourself into. You want to be able to talk the talk that they’re speaking to you."

Interview Part 1: Personal Educational and Professional Background

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself, your story, your background, and the driving themes and values that make you who you are today.

I am currently a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. I am also the Director of Lumière Education which is an Education Social Enterprise that helps students research with top researchers around the world. Before that, I was a consultant at Mckinsey, and I also worked for a startup university in Vietnam called Fulbright University Vietnam. For my undergrad, I was at Harvard College.

One of the big things in my family's life and mine has been the impact of higher education. The big family story is that my grandfather, a German Jew, in the 1930s never got the opportunity to study at college because of the holocaust. My dad grew up poor in Hawaii, so he never had many educational resources growing up. When he was about to enter college, his dad passed away and so he started diving into studies to live in the memory of his dad. Throughout it all, the theme of education has been crucial in my family and, so, I am really excited to talk about this. For me and my family, for the past few generations, education is and has been at the center of everything that we do and have done

There are 2 quick moments to touch on in my life. The few years before I entered Harvard as an undergrad and then my experience after I left Harvard are very connected.

I grew up primarily in Missouri which is a rural part of the United States - right in the center. To be honest, I was not a good student, I was pretty mediocre. One of the big things that changed my life happened around the10th grade. I had pretty bad grades until then and I had this teacher who took me aside and said, “Stephen, I feel like you're not living up to your potential and you're not really applying yourself.” I really wanted to go to this AP class which is one of the top classes in high school. My teacher said that he's not going to let me do it until I prove to him that I deserve it. That really changed how I saw myself. I had always given myself excuses in life and I stopped doing that. I started focusing on school and started thinking about elevating myself by going to a top university.

So I took a gap year in high school and moved to Taiwan where I lived for a year as an exchange student. I went to a public high school in Taiwan and studied in Chinese. Then I came back to high school as a super-senior, I was 19 which does not look good for anyone. But then I applied and got into Harvard. So that was a big moment.

Another big, important moment was when I was about to leave Harvard. I knew that I wanted to do a Ph.D. at the business school. I was thinking about directly applying to the Ph.D. program but my amazing mentor called David said, “Stephen if you want to answer big questions about the world you should go and experience the world first.” I thought that was good advice.

So I tried to make an academic structure even outside of school. I would break my 3 years into 2 semesters. One semester I would try to understand what big international corporations were like and the other semester I would work to see what startup institutions are like. In my first two years, I worked in McKinsey, and in the second half, I worked for the startup university that is an ambitious educational project in Vietnam. The past year I applied to Ph.D. programs and I was happy to get into HBS and I returned to Harvard.

I think those are the two pivotal points in my life.

2. How did prepare yourself for the admission process at Harvard? McKinsey? Fulbright University? What made you stand out from other candidates in each of these competitive environments?

I don’t like to leave things up to chance. When I was a sophomore, I started thinking about how I can position myself. (For colleges) in the United States is a whole package. If it was just academics it would have been tough. My bad grades were what went against me. So, I started thinking about how to stand out and how to make up for these grades. I decided that I was going to do 3 things:

  • First thing was to start getting good grades. So I started diving into academia. I went from being the class clown to being the most intense person in the class. I would spend 5 or 6 hours memorizing for this social studies quiz and I could recite to you paragraphs just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.

  • The second thing was around testing. I needed to have strong test scores so I spent 200 to 300 hours prepping for these standardized tests. I ended up getting a perfect score on the ACT because I took it multiple times and was obsessed with it, not because I was smart. I just really put in practice.

  • The third part was the story. How do I tell an interesting story about myself? The Taiwan Gap year story helped too. Another big part of me was that I loved language learning. I loved Spanish and it was one subject that I was good at. So that was how I thought about Undergrad.

The Graduate school was very different. Undergrad is about a package and you are telling this narrative - it is not so much about the individual. Grad school, particularly Ph.D. programs, is about the person’s specialty in the field. I had really strong mentors in my undergrad who supported me in the Ph.D. process but I was also very clear in knowing everything about the program that I was applying to. I spoke to 60 or 70 people including professors and grad students. I had a phone call every night for like 6 months. I was accepted to all the programs I applied to again not because I stood out in any remarkable way but because I knew exactly what the program was. I ended up choosing Harvard. I don’t think that I am particularly special but I was always into the idea that if you push yourself you can make stuff happen. You have to put in the time, you need to have a strategy and things will turn out for the best.

3. How did you cope with rigor and competition once admitted? How did you motivate and upskill yourself?

I am very goal-oriented but not very competitive. I usually try not to end up in a place where it is a zero-sum game. There are a lot of really smart, hardworking, and talented people out there and chances are that if you are going head-to-head with a ton of amazing people, you might win but also you are probably going to lose. I like to do stuff that doesn’t feel competitive but is value-adding. I studied Statistics which is rigorous but also kind of fun. I did not get into any of the competitive clubs either at Harvard so I spent a lot of time building a student organization that is still today at Harvard called the “Franklin Fellowship” with a few of my friends. I try to avoid coping with rigor and competition and I try to play in my own pool which I think is more fun.

4. Is there any advice you would like to give to students wishing to apply to Harvard for their Undergrad or Grad School?

I would give very different advice for students applying to undergrad and grad school.

For undergrad, the most useful advice would be how you can meet the academic bar. You need to be excellent but you also don’t have to be ridiculous you need to show something unique and interesting. That was my strategy, I wanted to hit the academic bar, do well enough in my GPA, test scores but then I also wanted to be that student that loves languages and volunteering.

For grad school, especially Ph.D. programs you want to prove that you know what you’re getting yourself into. You want to be able to talk the talk that they’re speaking to you. For example, I study organizational behavior which is the study of organizations. If a student told me that he is interested in the study of teams and another said he is interested in the study of ‘Meso Organizational Behavior’ which is just a term that exists in my field, then I would know that the student who used this specific term would immediately be in my inner group. So, you need to do your leg work to understand the language of the people. That’s the advice I would give for Ph.D. programs - I know this and I want to do this. Regarding MBA programs, I haven't applied to any of them but I think that it is closer to undergrad.

Interview Part 2: Lumière Education

1. Can you throw a little light on Lumière Education? Its background and what makes this venture so special for you?

Lumière Education is a social enterprise focused on making research opportunities available for talented students from around the world. We have our flagship program called the Lumière Research Scholar Program in which students work one-on-one with a research mentor for 10 weeks. These mentors are researchers at places like Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, and are top researchers in their fields; they help students (high school and undergrad) work on an independent project. So, the students are developing their own independent project and they are not necessarily pipetting for their researcher, they’re really developing something unique.

Building upon the story I had mentioned earlier of my grandfather being unable to go to college because of the holocaust, there is another piece around it which I think is really important. It is of the experience of his father, my great grandfather, a famous physician and researcher who wrote several books in Germany. His research was around ‘making the study of the human body understandable for other people.’ My dad grew up poor and when he was about to get into college, his dad passed away. For me, I think the importance of this story is how my dad lived through his dad's memory and started working in a research lab in psych, fell in love with it, and then eventually went on to do a Ph.D. and become a professor.

In my case, my life was changed when I was working with Professor David Garvin at Harvard who was a researcher at HBS. He is also the reason I am doing a Ph.D. today. So Lumière research Scholar Program is all about a student having the opportunity that I got, that my dad got and my grandfather did not get - which is diving into a research area of interest and passion and having a mentor who can help guide you in that process.

2. Why in your opinion is ‘Research’ important? How does undertaking a research project help an individual personally, academically, and professionally?

Let me break that question into 2 parts.

Why research is important to you when you are thinking about your next steps may be in school or grad school

In terms of the next steps, research shows a level of academic rigor. If you are doing academic research in an area, it reflects a real level of curiosity about the world. Research reflects your interests and shows a level of academic excellence and curiosity that you would not have otherwise had.

The 2nd sub-question I would address is why research is important in general - its impact on broader society and yourself

In terms of your own development, research is not only important to you but also to others. Humanity makes progress by understanding the world and answering questions about it. For example, our ability to approach genetic diseases change because of research that happened across labs in Berkeley or Harvard, or MIT.

The learning is also extremely valuable for you as an individual. The skills you develop are really focused on being able to answer and create a distinct question and think rigorously. It is all about how do I ask the right question and how do I answer that question and that is exactly what I did when I worked in Mckinsey. It is much easier to go to a very deep level of rigor and then go back out and say “I now know how to cut corners” than it is to start with cutting corners and then try to go deeper.

So, if you are thinking about your own learning, even professionally, doing research allows you to work with the most rigorous people. Then you can always step and recognize how to use 20% of your efforts to get 80% of the answer, but you do this from a place of knowing what a world-class answering and question asking looks like.

3. What is research? What are the major types and methodologies associated with it?

What are the major misconceptions related to it?

The biggest misconception about research that I often see is that it only happens in a wet lab. When people think of research, they think about a crazy scientist with white hair and a face-mask, pipetting away. That form of research is called lab-based research.

Other areas include quantitative research which is my area of expertise where we look at large or small data sets to answer questions about the world.

There's qualitative research like anthropology and sociology in which you are talking to people and trying to understand the person’s experience.

Then there is theory-based research which is about proving some axiom about the world or trying to weave together different arguments to come to a new theory. Mathematicians are theory-based researchers as they are not looking at data but they are trying to improve a theorem or prove something that allows us to generalize some results to the world.

One of the best things about Lumière is that we have a lot of students who are interested in sciences and we have amazing mentors in physics, math, etc. But we also have students approaching research in a subject that they know but haven't done research in before. We have one student researching protest movements in Hong Kong. Another student is working on the economic impacts of different regulations on labor outcomes in India. That is really interesting.

The biggest misconception about research is that it is just lab-based research for a few discreet fields but it is much much broader.

4. What is it that you need to ask yourself before you choose a research topic/methodology/ project and mentor?

This is where most students get stuck. The answer is in understanding that science today is essentially structured in ‘communities of learning.’ If you think about how do we know what is the frontier of a current science you realize you need to know what is the accepted state of the art to ask a new question. I see and have heard of a lot of students who have gone out and done research on their own which I think is very admirable but unlike creating an organization where you can try to solve a problem because you have a unique perspective given your resources. With research, I think it is really hard to do that without understanding what has come before you.

Thus, the first step before asking a question is understanding what exists out there and what is the state of art already in the field. One of the best ways to do that is by having a mentor. Another good way is by reading deeply into the topic and trying to understand what is happening out there. That preparation piece is essential for you to be successful in doing research.

5. How can one become a research fellow for Lumiere Education?

We have a competitive application process as our mentors are amazing and we are looking for students who we think can work well with these mentors. We have an application form on our website; I encourage people to apply if they are excited about research. To stand out, we are looking for 3 traits - academic excellence, curiosity, and drive. We have different cohorts that start at different periods during the year.

So to apply, think about how you can highlight curiosity and drive. Ways to do that is by talking about things that really interest you and by being very specific about the things that fascinate you. I had a student who spoke about ‘the Economics of street food sellers’ and she spoke about the incentives they face. That reflects the curiosity she had about the world. She had studied Economics at a high-school level, not driven that deep, but she had already started to apply that to people she saw around her on the streets. That is a great way to stand out.


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