Commencement 2017: “Make Every Day Count”

by Mary Martialay on August 23, 2017

[We hope you enjoy this letter of appreciation and advice which graduating Rensselaer senior Christina Akirtava wrote to her "RPI Family."]

My father always told me “Don’t be ordinary, be extraordinary.” With these words in mind, I tried to make every day at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute count. Of course there were days I enjoyed with friends, or spent outside instead of doing work; however, all of my actions led to a well-balanced undergraduate experience that makes me the confident person I am today.

Being a first-generation child raised in the United States left me in the dark about a lot of things. Scrambling to understand the undergraduate application process was rather daunting. Yet, four years ago, I was lucky enough to have been accepted to Rensselaer to study bioinformatics and molecular biology.  At first, I wasn’t thrilled about going to school only 90 minutes away from home, and it rained on Accepted Students Day, which was not encouraging. But I grew to love being close to home and now cherish the Troy-Albany area. I learned a lot throughout my time here, and feel obligated to give my advice.

There are three major points I would like share: set goals; form connections with professors; and make supportive friends.

1. Set goals.

It is important to stay ambitious and have high standards. Going into Rensselaer, without any computational background, I knew the Institute’s unique bioinformatics program would be a challenge. As a result, I took extra steps to excel in my studies and registered for classes during summer and winter breaks. This allowed me to stay on top of my work and fit classes into my schedule that I would not have taken otherwise. By junior year, I had three required classes left for my major and completed minors in electronic arts and psychology. I also discovered a new passion as I earned a minor in astrobiology, which is one of the only five astrobiology programs offered in undergraduate schools in the country. Balancing different courses kept me sane and made me a more attractive candidate for other programs.

2. Form connections with professors.

The most valuable thing I learned from RPI is that connecting with your professors opens door you never knew existed. I realized this a bit late, but having support is essential. A famous quote I used to form my graduate essay was: ‘If I have ever seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ – Issac Newton. I was lucky enough to have Prof. Chris Bystroff as my undergraduate advisor, and professors Rick Relyea, George Makhatadze, and Donna Crone as mentors. My first research position was under Prof. Relyea. I worked alongside his team for the Jefferson Project of Lake George. Experiencing undergraduate research opened avenues I never thought possible. With the support of Prof. Makhatadze and Prof. Bystroff, I set up a one in a life time opportunity by landing a position under Dr. Winter at the Technical University of Dortmund, Germany Biophysics Lab. Taking a semester off to dive into pure research not only taught me endless biotechnical skills, but broadened my understanding of different cultures. I loved research so much, that coming back as a senior, I decided to apply for doctoral programs. Having grown close to several professors, I found unlimited support that I missed when applying as a high schooler. By the time interviews rolled around in January, I practiced enough mock interviews at the career center that I worried more about my interview outfits than the actual interview questions. Now with less than a month left to graduation, I am saddened to leave RPI, but excited to start the next chapter in my life. Pursuing my PhD at Carnegie Mellon in computational biology will be tough, but with endless experiences under my belt, I know I am well prepared. Looking back, my daily actions and connections with professors have kept my internal drive strong.

3. Make supportive friends.

As a last piece of advice, I want to stress the importance of surrounding yourself with supportive people. Having friends that will build you up and help you overcome stressful times is a must. So thank you to everyone who has been my friend, mentor, or advisor during my undergraduate career. Without your endless support, I would not have reached the heights I am at today.

P.S. Sleep whenever possible.

Sincerely, Christina Akirtava

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