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Iris Lan's resume might read like that of a typical Harvard academic superstar, but her attitude is anything but. An Advanced Standing senior, Lan will receive her B.A. in physics, chemistry, and music and a master's in History of Science today. She won a Hoopes Prize, is recommended for summa in physics/chemistry, and will start at Harvard Law School next year in a joint J.D. and Ph.D. program. Furthermore, Lan is taking the MCATs this summer, so she can go to medical school and eventually become a professor in medical ethics.
"I'm not sure what kind of career I want, but I figure `Just go with the flow,'" says Lan, who will be studying health policy and economics in graduate school. "I'm sure if I study hard enough, something interesting will come up."
The child of two professors--her mother in computer science, her father in mathematics--Lan is modest, even self-deprecating, about her academic abilities. She insists that she "flunked" an IQ test she took as a child and claims that her elementary school teachers "would be surprised" to find out she was graduating from Harvard. To hear Lan tell her story, her life has merely been a series of interesting, and fortuitous, accidents.
Lan studied ballet for 10 years, eventually ending up at the School of American Ballet in New York City, before she got "kicked out" because her 5'3" stature was considered "too short" for a budding ballerina. But this setback did not deter Lan for long. "I went next door," Lan recalls matter-of-factly. "Next door" turned out to be the Juilliard School of Music, where Lan studied viola and piano, performed at Lincoln Center, and eventually produced a prelude for the viola quintet and a chant and recitative for the viola and piano. These works were recorded on an album and sold in record stores nationwide.
Lan's creativity found other outlets as well. She enjoyes making clothes from McCall's patterns and built a motion sensory lighting system for her New York City apartment so she wouldn't waste electricity. The lights turned on automatically "whenever you walked into the house" and turned off automatically "when it didn't sense motion for like 10 minutes." "I don't know if that was even legal," Lan recalls with a laugh. "I hope my [former] landlord doesn't read this."
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in 1995, Lan took up organ-playing at Memorial Church, and served as president of the Society for Physics Students. Lan also learned to tango so she could choreograph Stravinksy's tango from 1940, which she researched for her thesis.
Like the tango, Lan insists that many of her current interests and projects were picked up quite by accident. She is teaching herself Japanese because she won a summer fellowship from the music department to study the culture of the tango in China, Japan and Taiwan. She brushes up on high school German to read the papers of Einstein, Bach, Mozart, and Brahms in their original German, and she is currently composing a piece for chorus and orchestra in Chinese because her mother happened to be "listening to a lot of Chinese music" when Lan went home to New York City to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Lan speaks about her projects with the enthusiasm and slang teenagers might use to refer to the latest fashions or music videos. She says that her Chinese composition will be "really cool" and declares with the insolence of a Vogue fashion editor that she is drawn toward shorter pieces because "symphonies are just not in anymore."
In her own way, Lan is very hip, say Uche A. Blackstock '99 and Oni J. Blackstock '99, who attended Stuyvesant High School with Lan. "She has a unique fashion sense," says Uche Blackstock. "She'll wear these mature floral scarves with these overalls with Tweety Bird [on them]. It personifies the contradictions in her personality. Iris is this young-looking woman with this big, brilliant mind."
"[But] she's not like a lab rat," Uche hastens to add. "She never stresses herself out. She just does things for the fun of it. My mother always called Iris a Renaissance woman because she was so young and [already] doing such interesting things."
In fact, Uche says that Lan's friendship took on a special poignancy when her mother was battling cancer last year, and Lan would always take time to inquire after the twins' and their mother's health. "She'd always give us really beautiful birthday cards and Christmas cards, and that meant a lot to me," Uche says.
It is this unique combination of brilliance and empathy that friends insist makes Lan so special. "Iris is so brilliant," the Blackstocks both say. But at the same time, "she finds special things about everyone, even if it's the silliest or most insignificant thing to you. She's someone I know I'll be in touch with for the rest of my life."
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