The scientific method behind burnt mozzarella sticks

The scientific method behind burnt mozzarella sticks

The scientific method behind burnt mozzarella sticks

The story of how my rogue oven eased my anxiety about graduate school

December 1, 2022 | Bailey F.

Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences

How many of you know how an oven works? I mean, like, reallllyyy know? Personally, I do not, and yet here I am, a graduate student at MIT. 

I am a first-year student pursuing a Ph.D. in marine geophysics as part of the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences department. Coming into the program, I—like many other students—felt a sense of anxiety and imposter syndrome. I was jumping right out of undergraduate into a field that was relatively new to me, and I was nervous about my lack of background knowledge of core concepts compared to the other students entering the program with me.

How could I ever possibly be successful on this path? These general anxieties of graduate school and my field were all swirling around in my head as I began my move to Cambridge. 

I decided to sign a lease for an on-campus, furnished apartment at MIT for convenience. Upon arrival to Sidney-Pacific (the graduate residence), I was pleasantly surprised by how large my room was and by the fact that the apartment was supplied with a complete set of furnishings. The first couple days of the new place were great: I had a large location for alone time, cool AC to counteract the brutal heat of the Cambridge summer, and comfortable furniture to relax in. Everything was great. It seemed too good to be true.

On the third day, I decided to treat myself for surviving my first few days in a new area by cooking the greatest snack of all time: mozzarella sticks from your local Target’s freezer section. I walked into my kitchen, grabbed the box out of the freezer, and carefully placed 10 sticks across my baking pan. Looking at the directions on the box, I read that I needed to cook the motz sticks for 10 min at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Easy enough. I turned and walked over to the oven to set the preheat temperature only to stop in my tracks.

The temperature labels on the oven knob had been completely worn off. 

A close-up photo of the oven knob with all text worn off.
The infamous oven knob. 

How was I supposed to make sure that my mozzarella sticks were cooked properly? 

I figured the safest bet would be to turn the oven knob halfway. So, I set the oven temperature and let it preheat. After several minutes, I figured I would give it a go, and I placed my sheet of sticks into the oven. I set my timer for 5 minutes to be extremely conservative and decided to begin organizing my room in the meantime. 

After approximately three minutes, I smelled smoke. I walked out to see a nice billowing cloud of gray emerging from the oven. In a panic, I grabbed my oven mitt and pulled the pan out. What I found were the remnants of 10 mozzarella sticks, burnt to a crisp. I quickly placed the pan on the stove and turned the stove fan onto its highest setting. I also grabbed the nearest flimsy cutting board and began fanning the smoke detector to ensure that it would not go off. (Don’t worry SidPac residents, I am shockingly not one of the people who has set off the fire alarm in our dorm, waking every single resident at random hours of the night). 

After a couple minutes, the smoke cleared and my heart rate relaxed. I discarded the blackened sticks and spent the rest of the evening relaxing and recovering from my near-fire incident.

Given the fiasco, my roommate decided to go out and buy an oven thermometer. With the thermometer in hand, I spent the following day running tests on the oven in a classic scientist move. I have summarized my results in the following cartoon. 

An illustration titled "My Oven Temperature Diagram." The illustration shows the dial of the stove, with indicators for the temperatures that don't follow a standard numerical order: 600 degrees Fahrenheit, 400 degrees Fahrenheit, 500 degrees Fahrenheit, 550 degrees Fahrenheit, and so on. Multiple numbers are repeated. A red arrow points between 600 degrees Fahrenheit and 400 degrees Fahrenheit, reading "Sweet spot: 350 degrees Fahrenheit."

After my experiments, I felt ready to try baking again. I confidently turned the oven knob slightly past a quarter turn clockwise, waited a few minutes for the oven to preheat, and cooked my new batch of mozzarella sticks for 10 min. When my timer rang, I pulled out a perfectly cooked, golden brown batch of sticks, ready to be enjoyed. I’m not sure what was more satisfying, the delicious snack or the satisfaction of knowing that I conquered the illusive oven.

Now, why is this story about burnt mozzarella sticks important to my journey here at MIT? 

Well, here is what I came to realize: I only know the very basics when it comes to ovens. I know that they heat things up, I know how to set the temperature, and I know the general safety procedures of adding/removing items from them. But I don’t know all the detailed complexities of the machine. I don’t know the name of most of the components, I don’t know the voltage path through the heating elements, and I certainly don’t know how to fix a blown thermal fuse or faulty limit switch. Yet, after completing some testing using the knowledge I do have, I was able to come up with a solution that was very useful to my everyday life. 

Even in my short amount of time here at MIT, I have been bogged down by the realization of my lack of knowledge and the pressure of feeling as though I need to already know every single detail of what I am studying. But, at the end of the day, I need to do what I did with this oven, which is to trust that what I do know and what I will learn throughout my Ph.D. will allow me to solve problems and come up with important solutions. 

Although it is much easier said than done, I need to stop comparing myself to others and focus on myself and the skills I do possess. Focus on what you do know and use that to figure out how to learn what you don’t know. This lesson may be small, but I think it will go a long way for my next 5 years in graduate school. 

So, now that my rogue oven has given me this important life insight, I think it is time to believe in myself, buy a new box of mozzarella sticks, and finally submit that maintenance request.

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