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MIT student compiled data on peers’ choices of underwear

MIT wears pink undies on Wednesdays, and other revelations.

An MIT student has compiled a trove of data on her peers – the kind of info one might otherwise get only with a pair of X-Ray glasses.

In a Monday night post on the MIT Admissions blog, 24-year-old computer science and molecular biology student Lydia Krasilnikova released the findings of her research into what Massachusetts Institute of Technology pupils are hiding under their pants.

Her “MIT Underwear Exposé” is an in-depth look at hundreds of students’ underwear choices by color and pattern: dorm-by-dorm, major-by-major, gender compared to gender, the young and green students and the seasoned older ones. All that irresistible data is compiled into dozens of colorful charts and graphs, which she drew by hand.

“I think the pictures in the pie charts kind of provide a sort of visualization of dorm culture in a different perspective than you usually get,” Krasilnikova said in an interview. “A dorm’s culture is really hard to put your finger on, so it’s fun to see a sort of different kind of picture. I like the colors.”

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The experiment offers a window into a quirky subculture on a campus that has more than its share of quirks and subcultures.


For starters, the info comes not from some kind of campus-wide survey, but from analyzing the 5 GB worth of old emails stored in her inbox, she said.
It’s apparently a decade-old tradition at MIT for students who send messages in certain student-run email lists – to do things like promote an on-campus event or report a lost iPhone - to tack a note at the bottom about the color underwear they’re wearing at the time they send it.

“As a sign of respect, and kind of an apology for bothering everyone,” she said. “I get tons of emails every day with underwear colors at the end. It’s a lot of fun.”

Krasilnikova hasn’t spent all of her time at MIT fixated on undergarments: she’s currently working on her graduate thesis, for which she is analyzing data tied to the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa.

But once she learned about the email list culture flourishing behind the scenes at MIT, and the many mentions of unmentionables, she thought of a statistical analysis “immediately,” she said.

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There were lots of revelations in her research, which she admitted is not exactly scientific, given that she’s taking her peers at their word.

Men in the study wore just as many colors in their underwear as women do. The silliest undie choices – wacky patterns and cartoon character prints - came on Sundays. Almost all the entries for animal prints came from biology students.

“Wednesday was the day when pink peaks as an underwear color,” she said. “You might recognize that from ‘Mean Girls.’”

And as MIT students age, she said, underwear choices become less, well, exciting.

“It’s kind of sad actually. The kind of boring, grown-up colors go up and fun kind of dies,” she said. “Every year that you’re at MIT the proportion of underwear that’s blue goes up.”

She also built a “sorting hat” tool modeled after the enchanted talking cap in the “Harry Potter” series that decides which of the four houses characters at the magic school Hogwarts will join.

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In her version, students can plug in the color underwear they have on. Her program then uses something called Bayes’ theorem to determine the likelihood that they’ll end up in one particular dorm or another one.

“I hope that no one actually uses this to make a decision about where they’re going to live,” she said. But, she added, at least one student has written her to say her sorting hat’s prediction was spot on.

In a short time, Krasilnikova’s underwear experiment has gotten a lot of attention. She posted it to the school’s admissions blog, which is an MIT-sponsored and largely uncensored board for students to write about what it’s like to go there, on Monday night.

It’s since been shared dozens of times on Twitter, by students, alums and others. It rocketed to the top of the MIT subreddit and the front page of a worldwide Reddit page for data geeks, and by early Tuesday afternoon had been viewed more than 13,000 times, according to stats she shared from Google Analytics.

Among readers and promoters of her research? MIT faculty and departments, she said.

“Which is kind of hilarious and incredible and amazing,” she said. “My mind is blown.”


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