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Love songs to MIT, puzzles

Two young adult novels by alumni embrace MIT’s nerdiness.

Gloria Chao ’08 always found it hard to explain her Taiwanese family’s eccentricities to her friends. After her husband pointed out the parallels to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, she set out to showcase “the good, the bad, and the hilarious” by writing American Panda (Simon Pulse, 2018), a novel about a Taiwanese-American MIT student.

With a math and science background and no formal writing training, Chao was nervous about giving up her career as a dentist to write. But she realized she had unique experiences to draw from: “I owned the nerdy humor,” she says. “There’s a joke about local vs. global maxima I’m particularly fond of.” She also used her biological background to talk about the discovery of apoptosis and describe the smell of a gross anatomy lab (spoiler alert: it smells like corn chips).

“In many ways, American Panda is a love song to MIT,” says Chao. “One of my goals was to break down some of the nerdy, all-work, Big Bang Theory sort of stereotypes and show the depth of our students and campus.” The heroine, 17-year-old Mei, is semi-autobiographical, and multiple scenes, including one involving a Taboo game and one in which Mei is made fun of for not having seen Star Wars, were dramatized, but based on truth. Chao considers MIT a character in the book. “It was the perfect place for Mei to find herself, because MIT encourages students to be themselves no matter what that looks like,” she says. “It was where I found myself.”


In 2015 Wall Street bond trader Chris Babu ’97 was stuck on the New York subway at rush hour, thinking up math puzzles to intrigue his eight-year-old daughter. He suddenly got the idea to write about teens who had to journey through the subway, facing deadly consequences if they couldn’t solve brainteasers at each station.

The resulting book, The Initiation (Permuted Press, 2018), taps into MIT’s puzzle-solving ethos—and gives readers the option of solving as well. “By incorporating problem solving into a novel, or some might even say disguising it within a novel, I wanted to share how and why the experience can be both satisfying and empowering,” Babu says.

When Drayden, the main character, has just 10 minutes to solve a “multiple hats” problem that has everyone guess their hat’s color, he “suffers through a range of emotions, from ‘I’m not even sure this has a solution’ to ‘This is so unfair’ to ‘We’re screwed,’ before gathering himself and working through it,” says Babu. “That was pretty much my experience on every test at MIT.” But just as Babu applied MIT-style perseverance to writing a book while working on Wall Street, characters pushed to the brink in The Initiation can do great things. “MIT certainly makes you realize what you’re capable of when you push yourself,” he says.

Recent books from the MIT community

Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data
By Mariel Borowitz ’06
MIT Press, 2017, $40

50 States of Gray: An Innovative Solution to the Defined Contribution Retirement Crisis
By Arun Muralidhar, PhD ’92
Investments and Wealth Institute, 2018, $19.95

Flexibility and Real Estate Valuation under Uncertainty: A Practical Guide for Developers
By David Geltner, PhD ’89, professor of real estate finance, & Richard de Neufville ’60, SM ’61, PhD ’65, professor of engineering systems
Wiley-Blackwell, 2018, $75

The Pope of Physics: Enrico Fermi and the Birth of the Atomic Age
By Gino Segrè, PhD ’63, and Bettina Hoerlin
Henry Holt, 2017 (paperback edition), $18

The Beautiful Brain: The Drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal*
By Eric Newman ’72, SM ’72, PhD ’77, Janet Dubinsky ’72, Larry W. Swanson, and Alfonso Araque
Harry N. Abrams, 2017, $40

*On exhibit at the MIT Museum this year

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