Podcast: Jenny Meanwell: Using Intuition in Tutoring and in Life

Join me in today’s conversation with Jenny, an archaeologist and material scientist teaching at MIT and tutor at Signet. Discover the insights on following your instincts, fueling curiosity, and crafting your own destiny. Don’t miss out on this exhilarating conversation that promises to inspire and intrigue!

TRANSCRIPT

Jenny Meanwell: 

But science is often way more intuitive than people give it credit. And most scientists are so incredibly curious about everything and the world around them. And therefore let other people have their own curiosities and random little things that sparked their interest that that was really, really appealing to me.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, folks, welcome back to the podcast. Here we are, at the end of May, I hope everyone had a really great long weekend. This week, I’m excited to highlight signets longest tenured tutor Jenny meanwell. She started with Signet before I even joined Signet back in our fledgling startup days. And Jenny does a little bit of everything she I mean, herself is an academic. But she tutors test prep, math and science, she can do general homework help, she is probably our single best tutor who forms these really long term relationships with students, you know, she’ll start with them in sixth or seventh grade and continue with them throughout high school, partly because she’s just an awesome person that people love having on their support team. And partly because she has such a versatile set of subjects and expertise. And today, I asked her to join me on the podcast to talk about her own academic path. And the really interesting work that she does in archaeology and material science, because I feel like that was a dream of mine when I was a little kid, and also how she approaches working with students, and what her feelings are on the balance between kind of science and art. In her work, we talk a lot about intuition, and how that’s led her to some really great things and of course, great relationships and great results with students. So take a listen. I’ll see you on the other side. Jenny, thank you so much for joining me today. Of course, I’m really excited to talk to you because as long as we’ve known each other, I actually haven’t talked to you about many of these things. So I feel like I’m going to learn a lot about you today. Let’s start by hearing what it is that you do now. And then we’ll back up and talk about how you got there.

Jenny Meanwell: 

Okay, so I am an archaeologist and a material scientist. And I teach at MIT teaching mostly undergraduates and graduate students about archaeology and how material science can help archaeologists understand how people in the past, worked with materials, thought about materials experimented with materials, and use them to do everything that they needed for their daily lives. So I do a lot of work with things like pottery and cooking pots and storage jars. But I also work a little bit on architectural ceramics. So plasters and concrete and things like that, as well as pigments that people use to decorate things.

Sheila Akbar: 

It is so fascinating. I’m sure most kids went through this phase, but I definitely had a phase where I was like, I am going to be an Egyptologist. And I remember, we were doing a unit on it, maybe fifth or sixth grade. And I was like, I’m totally going to do this with my life. I figured it all out, you know, fifth grade me being really enthusiastic. And I had this friend who was like, you know, by the time you’re a grown up, and you’ve done all the school that you need to do to become an archaeologist, we will have found everything. And I remember being so crestfallen. And thinking, wow, she’s right. There’s just we’re going to know everything by the time I’m 22, or whatever it is, which of course so naive, there’s still so much for us to know. And even with the things that we think we know, there’s all this new technology that helps us no more, no better understand context, all of these things. So you’re living my dream. I feel like Did you always know you wanted to be an archaeologist?

Jenny Meanwell: 

I did not. If you had asked me when I was five or six what I wanted to be when I was you know, grew up. I would have been very mad at you for asking that question and expecting me to be able to answer it. I I always had a really hard time with knowing what I wanted to do. But I grew up with both of my parents knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives from very, very young ages. My mother was already volunteering in the field that she went into when she was an elementary school. And you know, my father, same thing had a dream when he was a kid and went off to do that and so I was always very interested in archaeology. But I don’t think I really considered it as a potential career until I was getting ready to go to college.

Sheila Akbar: 

So tell us a little bit about that you’re in high school, maybe the picture is getting a little more clear. How did you decide on MIT? And how did you pick material science.

Jenny Meanwell: 

So it’s actually incredibly funny story, because a lot of it was totally random. This was I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. And this was basically pre internet. And so when you wanted to think about colleges, and you wanted to think about majors, you went to the library, and you checked out a book, which used to list what majors were offered by, you know, the 1000 colleges or something that were in the book. And so I did that. And I went through and looked for what schools had anthropology and archaeology degrees, I knew I did not want to go to college, particularly close to my hometown. And so I was thinking about going far away. And MIT was on the list. So I went on a long college tour with my mother over the summer, we saw a bunch of places, we took a bunch of tours, had some very strong impressions one way or the other about places that I liked places that I didn’t like, and really sort of fell in love with MIT. It’s not the prettiest campus, but I really liked their attitude. And I really liked the way the admissions department wrote materials and sent them out. The same year that I applied for MIT, they were sending things like we really want to get to know you. And please write us extra essays, so that we can learn about you and know you as a person. And I also got a letter from another Ivy institution, which shall remain nameless, which boiled down to, we get 1000s of applications, and you’re not going to make it in. So maybe you should just not return this application that we sent you. We’ve seen a big uptick, and we don’t really want this one back. So I was like, Okay, I guess I’m crossing that one off my list. And ended up coming into MIT, not realizing that in the years between when the book of majors was published, and when I got to MIT, the archaeology program was disbanded and was

Sheila Akbar: 

Oh, my God.

Jenny Meanwell: 

So, you know, I showed up as a naive freshman wanting to do archaeology. And the archaeologists had all just moved departments. And we’re in the process of organizing the degree, but didn’t really have it going yet until my sophomore year. So I chose the school based on vibes and where I thought I would fit in and, you know, the interactions I had with people and staff, and got lucky that they managed to get the archaeology part up and running by the time that I did, and that majoring in it. But you know, the fact that it was in a material science department, I didn’t realize when I was applying.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s so interesting. Also, I want to like, just pause it and go back to something that you said that the way MIT admissions communicated with you really resonated with you. And there are folks out there who will probably say, Oh, you silly teenager, it’s marketing, of course, it’s going to sound good to you, right. But the fact that you are getting communications from a bunch of different places, and you can tell the difference between them, and some spoke to you, and some really turned you off. That’s really important to pay attention to. Absolutely, because colleges spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of students they want to attract, and how do they attract them well, through their marketing, and the marketing needs to speak to the person that they want, and not speak to the person they don’t want. Right? So the way that that, you know, admissions brochure, or the essay question, or even the admissions blog, or their Instagram page, speaks to you or doesn’t speak to you actually tells you a lot about where you might be a great fit. Right.

Jenny Meanwell: 

I totally agree.

Sheila Akbar: 

So that’s great. Glad that that actually shaped where you went. And yes, I am glad that they got their ACT together. By the time you had to pick a major. Okay, so you’re at MIT, you’re studying materials science, what happens next?

Jenny Meanwell: 

So I studied the program. It’s a great program. It has a bunch of material science classes, but also includes some anthropology, some archaeology, some geology, I took took classes at Harvard, I took classes at BU, I spent a semester at Oxford because there was an exchange program with material science there. And I realized pretty quickly in undergraduate that there’s nothing you can do with this if you don’t either leave archaeology or get a graduate degree. So ended up applying for grad schools. And there are really very, very few institutions worldwide, even that do a good job of bringing the sciences and archaeology together, especially 20 years ago, when I was applying for grad school. This is starting to change in Europe, it is not really hit the US in the way that it has in Europe. And so I really felt like I didn’t have a lot of options. I did apply and get into some regular, I say regular, but some mainstream archaeology in anthropology, PhD programs, but ended up coming back to MIT for grad school because it was the place that I could do the kind of work that I wanted to do.

Sheila Akbar: 

And how did educating others factor into what you saw yourself doing in the future?

Jenny Meanwell: 

So I have to admit that the coming to the educating other people was a little bit later, it was something I picked up more in grad schools and in when I was deciding on where I was going to go. But part of an archaeology degree is going and doing field work and running groups of people. And I was in a small village in Mexico, and all of my workers were local families. And I had, you know, a couple of teenage girls and a couple of elderly gentleman who were my field workers, and I had to teach them everything, right. They didn’t know how to do an excavation, this was all brand new to them. And I just found between that and starting to TA that I really enjoyed explaining to people how things worked, why they work, things like that.

Sheila Akbar: 

And when did you start tutoring?

Jenny Meanwell: 

I think it was like my last two years of grad school, something like that.

Sheila Akbar: 

And what like, what sparked the desire to do that? I mean, besides the fact that grad school doesn’t pay, and you’re living in an expensive city.

Jenny Meanwell: 

I will admit that definitely had influenced my choice. Yeah, I mean, obviously, I needed a second job, I could have done all sorts of different things. But I found that I really enjoyed working with students. And I really enjoyed the opportunity to keep working with the same people for long periods of time, like I had done in the field, you know, I was there living with them for six months, and seeing the changes seeing the growth, it’s it’s really fun, and it’s really rewarding.

Sheila Akbar: 

It’s interesting that you say that, because in addition to being our longest tenured tutor here, right, 16 years or something like that Signet longer than I’ve been here, you also we, you know, have noted this, from very early on, you have the longest student relationships, you are so good at cultivating long term relationships, where you work with one student over the course of three or four years, and develop a really close relationship. And you also to your credit, can handle so many different types of subjects, that you are almost always the best fit for that person when they need to add on something else, you know, you can do everything in the STEM fields, you can do a lot in the testing side. And you’re so versatile in that way. So that brings us up to kind of today, right? You are teaching at the university level, you are still running these digs over the summer, you’re tutoring with us. You know, on the personal side, when you have a family of your own, your child is about to go to high school, which is blowing my mind. But I’m curious how all of these experiences both your learning and teaching experiences and even your parenting experiences influenced the way you think about how you work with your individual tutoring students.

Jenny Meanwell: 

I think I always did this sort of instinctually. But I’ve gotten more deliberate about it about learning what’s going to work for a particular person and sort of learning to adapt to the different ways that people learn things, understand things, how their thought processes work. I worked with a pair of siblings where I worked with both of them for many, many years and one of them was incredibly organized, very linear thinker, we had to do everything very step by step, you know, basically writing algorithms and making sure that everything was happening in order for her to feel comfortable that she understood what was going on. And then her brother was the total opposite that, you know, very intuitive thought leaps all over the place, which is honestly the way that I think naturally. And so it was great fun working with him, because we could just like jump all over the place, and it was great. But you have to figure out what’s going to work for the person that you are working with. And it’s definitely easier I will say, working with students who are my client than it is working with my son, for example, because, you know, I’m mom, and obviously, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But,

Sheila Akbar: 

One thing that really strikes me and I think it’d be interesting to hear you react to is when people kind of think of, I don’t know, a stereotypical MIT, undergrad, a person who studied material science, who did a PhD in material science, also at MIT, their first thought is probably not Oh, I bet that’s a really intuitive person, they’re probably thinking of somebody who, you know, maybe is a little bit more rigid, systematic analytical in their thinking. So when you were saying, when you visited MIT, you, you got these sort of good vibes, and you felt like it was a place where you could you’d like their attitude, right. And I’m curious how this like intuition has played a role in your education, even in places where we think like intuition doesn’t have a role.

Jenny Meanwell: 

Yeah, I think people are often surprised at how much intuition and yes, you have to back it up with some amount of systematic data at some point. But science is often way more intuitive than people give it credit. And most scientists are so incredibly curious about everything in the world around them. And therefore let other people have their own curiosities and random little things that spark their interest that that was really, really appealing to me. Just like, you know, there’s often a lot of overlap between people who are good at math and people who are musicians, right, that there’s something there. And I think it is important to, if you don’t think that something is going to be comfortable, yeah, do some more homework into what’s going on there and pay attention to that.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I love that. It’s like, you know, we often think there’s this like, well, it’s like a false divide between art and science, right. But in fact, that intuition, I think, you know, I’m not gonna be able to cite a study here. But, you know, research would show that intuition actually comes from, you know, years of you absorbing data, and being able to kind of act on that make a decision on that in the moment, it feels like intuition, or the Insight is coming from somewhere we don’t understand, right? But it’s because your brain is so good at recognizing patterns, that you are able to rely on it instinctively like that. But you know, you don’t have to be devoid of intuition in order to be a good scientist. In fact, your intuition can be a really great guide for you in the sciences. That’s, that’s wonderful. Well, I think that’s a really great place to leave it. Um, thanks for your time. Well, that was nice. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Jenny and her path and have taken some things that you can apply to maybe your path or how you work with your kids. Before I go, I do want to highlight the next set of free events that we’re doing here at Signet for the month of June, we’re going to be focused on college essays. So stay tuned for a lot of content about that, you know, what our admissions officers are looking for? How do you go about picking a topic? What should your writing process look like? Because this is so different than what students are used to writing essays at school. So I’m in the midst of this with all of my juniors who are about to be rising seniors, the school years almost done. And we’re having a lot of fun just exploring topics and sharing stories that can highlight various values that they want to be central in their application. So stay tuned for that and check the show notes for the link to register for the free event on June 17. And you can also register for the recording. All right. I hope to see you there and I will talk to you next week. Thanks everybody.

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