Ever since April one year ago, when I last published anything on this blog I have been pondering one question in various forms:
“Will I be able to finish this PhD?”
That same question has also been asked by others. I’ve had a very caring person ask me to consider how much of myself I should be sacrificing for a PhD. But my motivation has also been questioned in a very harsh way, causing a lot of stress and anxiety.
Since I started my PhD in the fall of 2013 my family has gone through a lot, ranging from deaths to serious health issues to the births of 3 children, with more on the way. I have had a lot on my plate, to say the least. In the end it’s not a surprise that I’ve felt guilty of being distracted from my research. Our PhDs has a way of becoming the major thing in our lives. It’s even the only thing in some candidates life. But the truth is that the question isn’t if you have what it takes to complete your PhD or any other goal. It isn’t about why you can’t catch a break and focus all your attention on your work. In fact there is no question.
It’s just life.
Your life dosen’t enter a pause mode when you start your PhD. It keeps on going, sometimes at high speed and there is no getting off. You need to deal with the good and the bad as best you can. And you need to take responsibility for your own health and force the surroundings to realize that you are a person, and with that comes a life that has to be lived. Old-schoolers like to say that the PhD was the best time of their lives with freedom to do whatever excited them the most.
“You will never be as free as you are now”.
But even if that holds true for your research life it’s hardly ever the case for any other aspect of life.
I’m fantastically lucky to have two mentors that I can honestly discuss my PhD-life with. Recently they both told me: it’s YOUR PhD and YOUR life.
Take charge and make it work for you.
Now I’m here, looking back at my PhD and my life since the fall of 2013 and yeah, I’m proud. I didn’t deal well with everything that happened but I didn’t give up. And despite it all, I got a bunch of science done.
It was a quiet afternoon last week when I once again sat down with my best friend the microscope to look at some new samples. I’m currently trying to understand how a certain type of bacterium tricks our macrophages into believing it’s not really there. Macrophages are immune cells, the janitors or the body. They travel from the bone marrow to the tissues to clean up everything from dead cells to dangerous invaders. Some of these invaders are disease-causing bacteria that are able to evade detection and killing by our macrophages. I want to know how they do it.
For this specific experiment I was using macrophages with a GFP-tag attached to the protein I was interested in. This allows me to use a microscope to see if the protein in question is able to find the bacteria. If the protein appears close to or around the bugs it is a very strong indication that they are being sent down a specific pathway.
I was extremely excited about this. Over the last year I’ve found that this type of bacteria evade a range of proteins and it has led me to seriously question myself and my abilities. But from my own work and that of others we know of one specific protein that’s in place, the one guy who is actually doing his job. And if that protein is there, then this GFP-tagged protein would also be there.
So it was a quiet afternoon when I sat down with the microscope. And I could not believe it. Nothing!
And I mean nothing!
The protein that was so nicely targeting the control particles were nowhere near the bugs. Every scientist I have ever talked to has had this moment. The point during a project that if someone were to walk past the lab they would hear screams. Or possibly crying. Even hysterical laughter.
How DO you do that??
WHAT are you guys doing?
At that moment I realized that these bugs are invisible. Even though they glow so nicely red under the microscope the macrophages can’t see them. This realization does not in any way change my project, but it definitely changes the way I view it. I need to know why the proteins fail to find the bugs.
It’s a scandinavian fitness magazine aimed mainly at women and this month I’m on the front page. I know what you think. No. I’m not that woman who somehow looks amazing through the sweat (is that even sweat?).
Let me give you a list of all the aspects of my job as a PhD student that I love. It really is a great ride but also incredibly difficult and I find myself easily sucked into the dark thoughts of how this will never work out, I’m the worst scientist in history and my project is not worth doing. I think it is time to will myself out of the dark places and focus on what I enjoy:
– First of all I get to think. A lot. Almost all the time, every day. I think, ponder, question, wonder. It’s a privilege.
– I get to look closely at microscopic organisms. I love looking at things. There’s just nothing better than looking at something amazing with your own eyes. I get to see cells, bacteria and even proteins. Or I get to see the light that the fluorophores I attached to those proteins emit when I excite them.
– This brings me to attaching fluorophores to proteins. I’m excited about that. I get to glue molecules together!
Is science the only place where people work around the clock and feel guilty for not enjoying it?
In finishing one degree and starting the next I have been following several scientists in later career stages for inspiration and advice. Over the years their insightful blogposts have offered me valuable tips and ideas of how to approach my work.
A few years back I had a much more healthy perspective and would say -to others and myself- that I want do science because I love it, but I’m not going to hurt myself in the process. Lately I have been questioning if my demand for balance, for having a life and having interests outside of science somehow makes me a bad scientist. Am I undeserving of my place at The Bench if I enjoy writing popular science articles more than doing the actual science?
Yeah, it’s stupid. And yeah, I feel stupid for feeling this stupid feeling.
There are not many scienceblogs (that I have read) that combine discussing science with discussing life in science in a personal way. Most are either/or, but what if you want the input from other scientists on more than facts and the art of experimental design?
You might want to hear about careers, life choices and even … shoes!
You heard me.
And dresses, i.e. how to wear them under a lab coat and not look like you’re wearing nothing?
And why not talk about what inspire us outside the lab?
Looking back both 2013 and 2014 have had some very serious downs for my family. Combined with lots and lots and lots of work the last year has thought me some difficult but valuable lessons.
My wish for 2015 is to live and work based on these experiences – not too much work and more focus on life.
For the last two years I’ve followed the Thesis Whisperer’s idea of choosing a word for the new year, rather than a resolution. When considering words for 2015 I realized that in previous years my word have only been related to work, with a goal of me being better at my job. I still want to improve and grow at the science I do, but I don’t want this whole year to be defined by work. So for 2015 I’m proposing 3 words, one for work, one for my relations to the people in my life and one for myself – that is, what I want to achieve in my relationship with myself.
Work: Honest. I will be honest about what I don’t know and ask questions right then and there – no matter how stupid. And I will be honest about what I do know, no more «I’ve read that…» or «I think that…”
Family and friends: Present. Phone off and no more distractions. I will listen, answer and not think about work when I get a chance to spend time with my family or friends. The people in our lives are too valuable to not receive our full attention.
Myself: Kind. I will be kind to myself. This might be the most important thing I ever do, but it’s time to cut myself some slack and realize how awesome I am!
Whatever your resolutions are – or not if you don’t like them – I hope you have an amazing, happy and healthy year, full of awesome science and reproducible results.
We celebrated Christmas and New years in LA with candy from Norway, a little bit of work and a candy dispenser – with a little bit of sherry.