An island in the storm of life

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We asked you to share a significant challenge : This is an empowering story of Dr. Adriana Bankston who has not only shared her challenge but also provided also some helpful resources for the audience.

Finding an island 

My challenge comes from navigating both personal and career transitions at the same time over the past year. Here I detail the personal side. I have struggled with anxiety during this time, and likely also depression, even though I didn’t know how to label the experience. Mostly, due to a lot of life changes all at once, I became extremely overwhelmed and my life was on autopilot for about a year. I don’t know how I was living my life during this time. I felt as if I was in a fog, and my life was full of chaos, and generally out of balance. I was stretched really thin and eventually hit rock bottom. 

But let me step back and explain how this felt. Having everything thrown at you all at once in life feels like you are trying to swim in an ocean with big waves and just keep your head above the water. After a while, you become really exhausted and may even feel like drowning. Obstacles coming at you in this state of chaos may seem larger than they are, and your cognitive abilities are diminished when both physically and emotionally exhausted from merely trying to survive. I did not focus much on self-care, which hurt several aspects of my life. For a long  time, I felt unworthy of any love and compassion towards myself, which led to my lack of opening up to seek help, and that made bottling up emotions become worse. In this constant state of stress, I forgot what it really meant to live life to the fullest. In rare moments when I was able to catch my breath and come above the water, I felt like I was handed a raft, providing temporary relief until the next wave of the storm came over me again, and again, and again, almost every day for 6 months. 

During this time, I met someone who was an island for me, providing a safe and comfortable space to rest from the storm. This person was warm and caring when I needed it most, and taught me a lot of things about life during the short time we’ve known each other. Unfortunately, the emotional turmoil that I was experiencing eventually drove him out of my life. I hurt him a lot, and it makes me beyond sad. I had a very difficult battle to fight – while feeling like a burden to him, I was also drowning and searching for a lifeline which he provided. I eventually lost this battle. After a while, I could no longer rely on my own strength and leaned too much on him. I knew the right thing to do, but my brain couldn’t do it. That caused me a lot of internal conflicts and pain.  

For about 6 months, I was in a daily state of high stress and emotional exhaustion, eventually also causing my self-worth to spiral down to zero. I felt like the lowest person on Earth, and I didn’t even recognize myself and what I was doing to him. Eventually, I decided that I could no longer put him through that. That was my rock bottom moment. The way I treated him caused me a great deal of guilt. Losing this friendship is still one of the worst things that happened last year as a consequence of the state I was in. I’m now trying to forgive myself, which is one of the hardest things a human being has to do. It’s not often that we meet people whom we are afraid to lose, so why do we act in ways leading to exactly that? I can’t describe the pain this has caused me and how much I cried over it. 

Discovering the painful truth

As I read this post again a few months later, I blamed myself for a lot of things, as I realized how wrong I had been. A lot of this could have been avoided if I hadn’t been overthinking things and overreacting to normal situations. Depression and anxiety (or some form of both) really suck. They make you say and do things you don’t mean, and things that aren’t you. Things that will make you look back and think “did I really just do that?”. I single-handedly drove this friendship down the drain because of what was going on in my brain and making problems bigger than they were. Eventually this led to a never ending chain of negative events, and I was stuck in something I couldn’t escape. I knew it had to end, because that way of living was no longer working for me, and it was also unfair to expose him do that anymore. 

The really sad part is that he actually cared for me and genuinely wanted to encourage me, but  I did not see any of that since I was already in a very negative state. I decided that I didn’t deserve that kind of caring and that surely this person would soon see through me. So for his sake, I took matters into my own hands and decided to stop this cycle, in a less than graceful manner, being at a peak level of anxiety and stress by that point. I had to come up with something that would stop this from his end. The other sad thing is that I really wanted just the opposite.

A reflective look back made me realize why this happened:

  1. I never slowed down to assess the situation.
  2. I talked too much and never listened. 
  3. I wasn’t ready to stand alone. 
  4. I didn’t feel worthy to focus on myself.

If I had any insight whatsoever into myself, I would have realized these things sooner and acted on them. I now know that I had been a complete fool. So what did I learn? If you focus too much on what’s in your head without checking that against reality, you will eventually end up hurting a lot and losing a valuable friendship, possibly for no real reason. And that is truly tragic.

Choosing to be thankful

I’m grateful that he was in my life even for a short time, and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. He encouraged me to be the best that I can be, and to rely on myself because I was worth it. But did I see any of that? Nope. I was living in my own world, or in my own brain rather, and was out of touch with what was actually going on in reality. I lost something really precious due to my own flawed thoughts and assumptions- a friendship that I can never recover now, but which has shaped my entire life from this point on. I know that he would say not to focus on this. But I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t put my thoughts down on paper, because he really had such an impact on me. I suppose I wouldn’t bother to tell the world about it if this friendship hadn’t meant a lot to me, although I blame myself every day for not knowing how to treasure it in the way that I should have when I still had it. 

I’m again crying while writing this. He was someone who quite possibly would have done anything for me if I had asked for it. The kind of friend I had always hoped for. If you find someone like that, don’t let them go. Listen to them and believe them when they tell you what they are really thinking- I didn’t. I drew my own conclusions, and I let anxiety rule my thoughts and reactions. I let depression decide for me that I didn’t deserve him. I valued him, but didn’t show it. Talk is cheap, action is not. Don’t do as I did, because you will regret it. 

Choosing to be thankful is really tough. But I know it’s what he would say to do. No matter what happens in the future, I will forever be thankful for this time. I know that somewhere deep down, I had good intentions and wanted to do the right thing, and that unfortunately was not obvious. I know that he would tell me to be confident, and to focus on myself moving forward. I’m grateful for having met him and for what he taught me through this friendship, including the way I want my life to be in the future. I’m also hoping to pay this forward in my future friendships that I develop. But this one will always be special to me. 

Ending with some positives 

In the spirit of honoring this friendship, I will end with some positives that have resulted from it. To an extent, in addition to all my other personal issues which I didn’t detail here, losing this friendship was also a traumatic experience, and something that I still grieve today. And at the very least for him (and for myself), I’m going to focus on myself from now on, as he had encouraged me to do.

Part of this process of self-discovery has been trying to understand what I went through in the process and why I behaved the way I did towards him. I’ve now become interested in mental health issues. I’m plugged into a community of folks who study and write about mental health topics, or those who have experienced depression and anxiety, as well as authors writing about trauma, and their views on how these issues affect friendships. I have watched YouTube videos on some of these topics (bignoknow, The Anxiety Guy), discovered relevant podcasts (Let’s Talk about Mental Health; The Hilarious World of Depression) and online communities and groups, started journaling about my thoughts and feelings, and chatted with individuals who recommended useful tools such as meditation. I’m no expert at this, but in the short time that I have done it, I found a regular mediation schedule really helpful in getting in touch with myself again (The Mindful Movement; Linda Hall Meditation). After about a year, I’m just now starting to come out of this fog and remember who I used to be, and who I can be again. Meditation allowed me to slow down and reflect, and make decisions more in tune with my own beliefs. 

I’m also enrolled in a mindfulness meditation course (taught by Stan Eisenstein at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington) and have become more interested in how the mind works and how we can improve our mental well-being. I’m fascinated by movies and books with individuals who have undergone and overcome various traumas, and how their brain plasticity changed in the process. This makes sense for a scientist interested in the brain, who now wants to learn more about it from the perspective of the human experience. I don’t know where this direction will lead, but I have a feeling that it could open new doors. For now this is becoming a passion project and an opportunity to learn, but it may expand into something deeper as I continue to explore this area. 

Concluding with the silver lining 

I recently attended a book reading by James Gordon, MD, called The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma, where he noted that trauma is a part of life, and that sooner or later, we will all experience it in some form. He also pointed out that trauma offers us the opportunity to really change and grow through that pain, and discover who we are meant to be- and that part of that discovery is being of service to other people. Finally, he indicated that trauma can make you a better person. 

I’d like to think that this experience has helped me become a better person, as I’m striving to turn this situation into something that can help others moving forward in my life. Additionally, well-being and mental health are now topics of high interest to me, which I never would have gotten interested in, if it wasn’t for this friendship. I have met some fascinating people in the mental health field (Global Consortium of Academic Mental Health), and this new direction is giving me purpose as I continue  to learn more. I’m also growing more in a spiritual sense and I almost feel like a new person now. Part of what has facilitated a positive change is also listening to motivational speakers and some positive podcasts (On Purpose With Jay Shetty; Joel Olsteen Miniseries Podcast), as well as my local church community. I’ve now become a much more positive and compassionate person, which perhaps was always there but I had forgotten it under all of this chaos and pain.

In all honesty, it took me a whole year to smile again and to remember what it feels like to be happy. Feelings of depression and anxiety are no joke, and clearly they can affect your entire life, including important friendships. And while these issues may come up again in the future, I’m arming myself with the right tools to fight them, and aiming to use this experience as a platform for what is sure to be a new and exciting journey in my life. 

So I suppose there is a silver lining to this year of pain and chaos, and to this friendship in particular which has played such a large part in this transition point in my life, and will guide my future steps. Going back to the original metaphor, I now understand that instead of using someone else as an island in the storm life, I had to find my own island and be happy on it by myself. This will take a whole new level of strength that I’m working on developing now. 

This post represents the writer’s personal views and not the views of their employer, University of California.

Story of a significant challenge – I expressed more, I said “no”

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We asked you to share a significant challenge during your PhD : Real story from a PhD who chose to be anonymous

This PhD Story begins 15 years ago. I was a starry eyed 20 something traveling internationally for the first time to begin graduate school in the US. I was taking a flight from my hometown in India, a city of 10 million people, to a small Midwest university town to start what would be charted as an epic PhD. I would work day and night, make fascinating discoveries and publish papers that would be cited a million times. Or so I thought.

What ensued in the next year was far from that. Although I put in easily 12-14 hours of daily work, I soon realized something was not quite right about my PI. He was extremely controlling and soon started to dictate things I could or could not do even in my personal life. He followed me to events after work and prevented me from chatting with colleagues in neighboring labs. He would call me to his office where he would talk for hours about non-scientific things that often changed to peer-bashing sessions. This went on for months and turned me into a bitter and rebellious person. I expressed more, I said “no”, I refused to accompany him to lunches and dinners. This started to make things worse; I remember him not speaking to me before my first committee meeting. I got absolutely no feedback on my presentation. I kept everything to myself although I am pretty sure now my colleagues in the lab were aware. I confided in one friend who convinced me this was not normal.

Things took a dramatic turn one night. I remember telling myself through tears that I will get out of this prison no matter what. That if I was good enough, I could go on to do a PhD in another lab and still achieve my dreams and goals. That one year in a lifetime was insignificant. With tremendous support from my friend, I lodged a complaint with the Department Chair and University Ombudsman. I did not pursue things legally because I did not have the energy. When the ordeal was over, I was afraid of repercussions, but friends and colleagues who really knew me empathized and offered support.

I went on to successfully defend my PhD six years later from a different lab and a postdoc from an Ivy League school. Both my mentors focused on what was important – science, learning, growing. Although there definitely were frustrations, rejections and hardships, I never felt I was in a prison. I am now a tenure-track scientist with a lab of my own. I focus on science and take workplace harassment very seriously.

A story of significant challenge – Retreat, Retool, Return

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We asked you to share a significant challenge during your PhD : Dr. Christopher Rock’s challenge

Illustration credits – Sonia Bhase

Sparing a lot of the more tedious backstory, I’ll set the stage: I’ve been several years into my PhD, recently changed advisors so was giving my first update to my PhD committee under my new advisor. It had been a while since I met with the committee and wanted to get things in order. Thus, this meeting was to give a much-needed status report as well as lay down a roadmap for finally finishing up.

What happened was probably one of the poorest presentations in PhD history. So bad, in fact, that my committee asked me to step out so they could talk. When I got back, I was informed that it seemed I would need a huge amount of work; they had reviewed my classwork and pointed out that I could finish up things right now with a master’s degree. At that moment, I felt almost like I was in a “push your luck” game where you can either leave now with a washer and dryer set or keep in the contest to win a new car. I tried to keep my composure for the rest of that meeting and said I would get back to them.

That was such an incredible blow, especially when trying to kick things off with my new advisor. Was my work really of such little impact that it would take several more years to get to the finish line? Once the dust settled a bit from that, I met with advisor and he helped me go over what went wrong. My advisor was confident that the fault lay not in the content of my work but rather how I presented it. After going in detail with me as to all the issues with the presentation (many), he suggested I take a technical writing course offered at the school. Now, I always thought talking and writing were strengths of mine not weaknesses, but at this point I would do anything (but quit) to avoid a repeat of what happened at that previous update meeting.

When I went back to my committee, things were very different. I wrapped up the technical writing course that tackled all the major forms of communications from personal emails, to presentations, to manuscripts. I also used the time to talk with many of my friends who either had finished up or were working on their own doctorate. While each gave very valuable feedback and advise, two bits I found especially helpful. First was the importance of polished presentations from the actual slides to my own actions. As my friend put it: “when something is off about a presentation, they [the audience] get distracted; when they get distracted, they get annoyed; when they get annoyed, they get angry; and when they get angry, they are not going to be listening to you.” Second was about the attitude I should be bringing; I had previously designed my presentations almost like a lecture to my committee. But that is a mistake and I refined my stance to engage my committee like that what I sought to be, a colleague. The change was a bit more subtle than fixing alignments on powerpoint figures but of no less importance. To keep the story from going on too much longer, that follow up meeting went well and my committee was confident I would be ready to defend.

The message I would like to share from this story is twofold: first, communication is a skill that requires development just like any technical skill and I strongly feel is the most important one to acquire by the end of your graduate skill, it IS what differentiates you as someone with a Doctorate of Philosophy; second, the challenges that occur along your journey are the steps for how you grow so embrace them as opportunities (I dread to think what would have happened had I not been informed by my committee and advisor and was still using the same writing skills I had since undergrad). Oh, and the committee member who told me that perhaps I should quit now with a masters? He was the first one after my defense to shake my hand and call me “Dr. Rock”.

A Story of Challenge: Finding the balance between the ‘Ying and Yang’

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We asked you to share a significant challenge during your PhD : here’s Halley’s challenge

Balancing the ‘ying’ of personal life with the ‘yang’ of professional life is a big challenge, no matter which profession you choose. Finding this balance was extremely difficult during Ph.D. Today I would like to shed light on some of my personal challenges which affected my ability to get through graduate school.

I came to the USA to get a master’s in Biology and joined a newly established lab to complete my thesis project. Around the same time, I was dating my now husband who was living 500 miles away. My PI was very happy with the amount of work I put into my research and within a year I had enough data for a publication, thus I decided to pursue my Ph.D. in the same lab. At the same time, things were hunky-dory in the dating phase although it was a long distance. Anticipating that my husband would find a job near me, we decided to get married during the 3rd year of my Ph.D. After which the most difficult part of my professional and personal life began.

Unfortunately, after marriage, my husband was unable to find a job near me which was very disappointing. But we still continued our long distance relationship. I was traveling whenever possible which meant a lot of time away from the bench and thus my productivity significantly dipped. My PI was unhappy with my progress and was not supportive of me taking any time off. I tried to compensate for my absence by working very long hours in the week. Thus, extended hours during the week and traveling on weekends exhausted me. My spouse was very understanding and supportive for the most part but would be frustrated not knowing when I would be done with grad school. This uncertainty affected our relationship significantly. It looked like my marriage was falling apart and so was my life long dream of getting a Ph.D. I started suffering from insomnia due to constant negative thoughts and I was unable to focus at work due to lack of sleep. I was tired all the time and felt like a living dead person. Slowly I slipped into depression and hit my rock bottom. That’s when I realized that I need to get my life back together and decided to visit my school’s counselor. She counseled me to accept the long distance relationship by not forcing my husband to move near me. Secondly, she suggested to join group exercise classes and do mindful meditation for 20 mins/day to deal with my anxiety. To tackle my loneliness she suggested that I spend more time with my close friends. I started incorporating her suggestions into my daily schedule. I made sure to exercise 5-6 days a week, be more social in the community and incorporate some self-care. At first I found this new lifestyle changes to be very time consuming, but eventually, I started seeing positive outcomes. I was able to sleep better, my work productivity boosted and most importantly I saw a substantial amount of improvement in my personal and professional relationships. I bagged two small research awards during this period which helped to lift my self-confidence and improved my relationship with my advisor. I was starting to see light at the end of the tunnel and was getting my life back together slowly.

At times achieving my goals seemed impossible. However, by seeking help to regain my physical and mental wellbeing, I was able to finish my degree and sustain my marriage. Currently, my husband and I are living a happy married life and am working as a Postdoctoral scientist.

A Story of Happiness: Sailing through grad school in best ship ever – Friendship :P

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We ask you to “share a story of a particularly joyous moment in your Ph.D.” Here is Vaishali’s story:

Life seemed chaotic during Ph.D., and experiments always seemed to go haywire but my labmates kept me sane. Three of us joined the lab around the same time thus we all sailed through grad school together. I was lucky to have two of them around when I needed to vent, talk and discuss anything science or non-science ;). I looked forward to occasional lab lunches, Friday evening happy hours, dinners, celebrating bdays and festivals. One of my labmate would come up with hilarious one-liners, crazy jokes, and some unique dance moves …. so yeah there was no shortage of entertainment and comic relief in our lab. Sometimes we would have our 4 o’clock tea sessions where we would discuss anything from world politics to Hollywood/Bollywood gossip. So although Ph.D. was rough, having good labmates made it manageable.

I have moved almost every year of my Ph.D., but the best memories were created in apartment ‘North 906’. When I moved there in 2014, I was slightly nervous and apprehensive if I would get along with my new roommates, but little did I know, I was about to experience the best six months of my journey in the USA. Every evening I returned to an apartment which felt like home. We were 5 girls and there was never a dull moment in our apartment. We had a beautiful view of the parkway and huge patio. Evenings were spent at the dinner table, discussing our day/life in general and our conversations was supplemented with lots of laughter. On the weekends we roamed in the city, tried new restaurants, danced on Bollywood songs and of course, clicked lots and lots of pictures. We celebrated every birthday and festival, and I particularly remember the ‘Diwali’ party we hosted. The prep for the Diwali party started two weeks in advance, and about 20-30 people were invited for the grand celebration. I still remember how we all stayed up late, decorating the apartment with lights, making the canopy and planning games and of course dress trials :D. I will be forever indebted to these girls for all the happy memories. Eventually, all of them moved out while I stayed back, but our friendship still continues.

Strong friendships and reliable people make a difference especially when you are 1000 miles away from family. Fortunately, throughout my Ph.D., at every phase, I was able to find such connections. My friends always gave me plenty of reasons to smile and laugh, and to some extent, take my mind off the uncertainties related to work. Looking back I feel I wouldn’t have been able to pull through grad school without any of my friends. All the beautiful memories we created will now last me a lifetime.

P.S. I would have loved to share more happy memories associated with each of my friend here, but will have to refrain from doing so due to limited space and time 🙂

A Story of Happiness: Margaritas, Lakeside Epiphanies, and Tiramisu

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We ask you to “share a story of a particularly joyous moment in your Ph.D.” Here is Lena’s story:

In our lab, we always made it a point to celebrate every victory, no matter how small. Submitting a manuscript, exciting data, birthdays, travel grants, paper acceptance, seeing your name on PubMed for the first time–you name it, we probably had a Happy Hour for it.

For all the failed experiments (many…many failed experiments), disappointment, frustration, scrambling to meet last minute deadlines, and despite my mental battle throughout, we always had fun. Lab dance parties, happy hours, my PI playing circus music when we did something stupid, dressing up for Halloween, decorating for Christmas, and all the Mexican food and margaritas that Philadelphia had to offer.

We had fun.

But looking back, there wasn’t really any point during graduate school that I was experiencing anything even remotely resembling happiness.

The first time I remember feeling pure joy in my role as a graduate student was at a conference in Madison, WI. Meetings fill me with an energy that I can only ever grasp at in the lab, even in those moments of seeing exciting data for the first time, or having an interesting new idea for a project. At this meeting, I honestly can’t remember if I gave a presentation, or really any science in particular that I took away from that meeting, but it was the first time that I felt like I was part of the scientific community. In one of the last days of the meeting, I remember riding an escalator down onto a lower level of the conference center that opened up into a room that overlooked Lake Monona. It was golden hour; you could see hints of orange and pink in the sky, and the sun was shining over the lake and in through the glass, reflecting over the faces of my fellow herpesvirologists.

Up until that moment, I had considered leaving the bench, aiming to start a career in scientific writing or teaching. But it was in that exact moment I descended down the escalator that I knew I was right where I needed to be. That was the exact moment I decided I needed to stay in academia.

But the greatest moment of joy I experienced as a graduate student was, however cliche, the day of my thesis defense. Throughout my work, I was so hyperfocused on productively generating data that I rarely stepped back to look at the work I had done. But in that hour that I defended the work I had done over those years, I realized not only how proud I was of it, but that everyone around me, my PI, my family, my colleagues, and my friends, were just as proud and excited for me. This was perhaps that only day in my career that I didn’t feel like an imposter. The papers I published, meeting talks, travels awards, and the postdoctoral position I’d soon be starting–I earned them all. I can only compare all the joy and love I felt that day to what people might experience on their wedding day (my own included) or the birth of their first child.

It’s a hell of a thing to look around and see all the people that have supported you through some of the most difficult years of your life together in one place.

But it’s an even better thing when that place happens to be your favorite Italian restaurant in the city and you’re stuffed full of wine, fresh pasta, and tiramisu.

–Lena

A Story Of Challenge : My Tryst with Failure and Triumph

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We ask you to “share a story about a significant challenge you faced during your Ph.D.” Here is Vaishali’s story:

I was faced with umpteen challenges during the entire of my Ph.D. Each year brought with it a new set of problems which tested my patience and resilience slightly more than the previous year. But by far the most difficult challenge I faced was coping with ‘the imposter syndrome.’ I don’t know when it got triggered, but ‘I am not good enough’ was a very unpleasant feeling to deal with.

Somewhere in the middle of the 4th year I distinctly remember asking a colleague ‘I have zero confidence’ what should I do? I also remember googling frantically to find out if someone else doing their Ph.D. also felt the same way, but found nothing substantial. I didn’t even know that it was called ‘the imposter syndrome’ at that time. There was no one particular reason why I felt that way, but failed experiments and harsh words from my advisor made it worse. During my second year, I initiated two thesis projects, so a lot of groundwork had to be done in the 2nd and 3rd year. Needless to say, there were several technical problems which took many months to resolve. Despite all the hard work, till the end of the fourth year, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. The pressure of publishing also played a huge role in me feeling like a failure. Seniors Ph.D. students from our lab had several publications to their credit and had consistently published throughout their Ph.D. Thus the same was expected out of me. However, the technical difficulties associated with my projects significantly delayed my publications. Therefore, although, I had come up with novel projects, having no thesis related publications by the end of the fourth year made me feel inadequate, hopeless, frustrated and powerless.

I coped with my misery by enduring it and giving myself the hope that things will be better towards the end of my Ph.D. I gave myself a pep talk every single morning and mentally prepared for the day’s challenges. Also, yoga and meditation helped me to blow off some steam. Thus towards the end of my Ph.D. I was slightly more optimistic and happy. Although things weren’t exactly as I imagined, they were much better than before – I was accepted for a postdoc position in a lab where I really wanted to go, and things looked hopeful on the personal front. However, after my defense, there was a disappointing turn of events in my personal life. Besides, immediately after that, my paper was rejected for the fourth time in a row. Having endured uncertainties for 5 years with patience and resilience, I wasn’t ready for the personal setbacks yet again. My optimism very quickly turned into sourness, anger, and misery. The graduate school hangover was also difficult to overcome, and it took me almost a year to regain some perspective and make a fresh start. Since then, I have been sincerely committed to taking care of myself both mentally and physically. I exercise, meditate, read and draw inspiration from people who have turned their lives around under extreme circumstances.

I am sure most of us have at some point in our Ph.Ds have been miserable. Be it the pressure of publishing or not living up to your advisor’s expectations. However, is it normal to suffer like that during Ph.D.? If yes, why is suffering considered normal in academics? Is the Ph.D. process designed to make you feel like a failure? Why don’t we discuss our feelings of inadequacies openly with our peers? Are we ashamed of these feelings or we fear being judged? These are some of the questions I am still trying to understand and with more Ph.D. stories; hopefully, there will be some answers. Also, more often than not we underestimate how much personal life situations can affect our mental capacity to go through grad school and in upcoming stories we wish to throw some light on that as well.

So, this was a part of ‘my’ PhD story – but I like to call it my tryst with failures and triumphs. The journey ahead is probably not easy, and the path will still be rocky, but I know I will deal with it – because I have in the past 🙂 ‘KEEP CALM and U SURVIVED Ph.D.’.

A Story of Challenge: Lena Lupey-Green, Ph.D.

Challenge

We ask you to “share a story about a significant challenge you faced during your Ph.D.” Here is Lena’s story:

“I don’t remember when it first started. I think it was at the start of my third year of graduate school. That feeling of numbness, of absolute despair, that voice in the back of your head continually whispering “You are nothing”—you don’t ever forget that. But at the time, it felt like I was living in a dream. A nightmare, really, in which the Universe threw everything I had worked towards into a dumpster fire, and I was watching it burn for days, months, on end.

Each morning, I struggled to peel myself out of bed, I showered, I got back into bed where I’d lay for another hour or so before finally convincing myself to get out of bed (only after remembering my cells needed to be fed or they would die, ironically, since I was hardly caring for myself at this point). I caught the bus, and then the subway, where I had a daily stare-down with the ‘SUICIDE HOTLINE’ sign at the top of the stairway leading down to the platform. After anxiously trudging along the North Philly block to my building, I would get to my bench, and often, that’s where my day ended. I froze. There wasn’t enough energy in the world to get me to run a western blot, set up a PCR, drug-treat cells. And it’s not that I didn’t want to. I just couldn’t.

And yet by all accounts, I was a living, breathing graduate student doing experiments, producing data, giving presentations, meeting with my committee—I was getting by.

My PI and I were at odds over how to move forward with my project at the time; I felt stuck, and frustrated that we didn’t have the funding or technical skills to do the experiments we needed to do. Our assays weren’t replicating well, our alternative approaches had failed, and so had I—at least that’s how I felt. Perhaps the greatest plight of a graduate student is to equate experiment failure to personal failure. Nonetheless, my PI was frustrated with my rollercoaster of productivity, and who could blame him? When I could gather the energy to do experiments, I would spend weeks in a manic state working hours and days on end, until an experiment failed. And then I would promptly return to my state of mental paralysis.

Every few months, I would find myself sitting across from my PI in his office as he expressed his ongoing frustrations with my productivity (or lack thereof, if we’re being honest). The meetings always went the same—he would offer advice on how to be more efficient with my time, he would ask if there was anything he could do better on his end, I would break down into hysterical sobbing, he would hand me tissues, and we would come up with some sort of ultimately futile plan to improve things. I didn’t just feel like I was letting him down. I knew I was letting him down. I tried to quit more than once. “I just can’t do this anymore. I hate this. I hate it, Italo. I can’t even pick up a pipettor.”

I know now that I suffer from depression and anxiety. And in those third and fourth years of graduate school, I had hit rock bottom. And no one noticed. Myself included. Because feeling this way as a graduate student was “normal”. Every graduate student would tell you that this was just something that happened. Expect it.

I wish I could tell you that I got the help I needed, or that I developed some magical coping mechanisms on my own, but the reality is that none of that happened. I wasn’t aware of any resources available to me as a graduate student (nor did I have the time or energy to seek them out), and the only “coping mechanisms” I had at the time were alcohol, eating either too much food or not enough, and sleeping.

But as time went on, experiments began to come together, job prospects were on the horizon, and despite a series of panic attacks in my last month at the bench, things slowly got better. And when I finally sat across from my computer looking at my completed dissertation, I realized that somehow, through the mental fog, tears, pressure, and self-doubt, I produced a body of work that I was proud of. I realized that I didn’t hate research or academia or benchwork; I stuck it out because deep down, I am extremely passionate about my work. But when I asked my PI to write a recommendation letter for a postdoc position, he was understandably hesitant, but encouraging.

After defending my thesis, I took a month for myself which was perhaps the best decision I’ve made to date. I laid by a pool, I read books, I started practicing yoga regularly. But most importantly, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my time as a graduate student. And based on that self-reflection (my Jesuit education is showing…), I promised myself a few things for my postdoc:

1. I would no longer equate failed experiments to failure as a person. Troubleshoot, and move on. You are not your science.
2. I would set hard boundaries for work and home. Work at work, home at home.
3. I would prioritize my own well-being by setting aside time to exercise, eat properly, and address my mental health problems as they arise.

And so far, I’ve kept these promises to myself. I feel like a different person now. Experiments have failed, and the earth has not stopped turning. I work hard during the 40-50 hours I spend in the lab each week, but after spending an hour in the gym or practicing yoga, I go home and cook dinner each night for myself and my husband. I haven’t had a panic attack in nearly a year. And I wake up each morning excited for what the day will bring. I have bad days sometimes, but bad days don’t turn into bad months like they used to. I am grateful for my education, for the relationships I have built in the process, and for the path it has forged for me. But I don’t miss it.

I don’t remember when it first started. But I do know that its over. I feel alive for the first time in my adult life. I have an enthusiasm for the present and the future, and a reverence for the painful and trying past that has brought me here.

I’m not nothing. I’m something. I’m a wife. I’m a dog mom. I’m a yogi.

And I’m a scientist. A damn good one, too.”

–Lena

The Ph.D.s Behind ‘My Ph.D. Story’: Vaishali

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Girl in a New City

Hey everyone thanks for stopping by to read our blog. My name is Vaishali, and I am currently working as a Postdoc in the USA. I am originally from India (Mumbai) and came to the USA 7 years back for grad school. I still remember the day I got an admit in the Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program, it felt like I had won a battle, little did I know it was only the beginning.

I never thought that I would become a ‘scientist’. Back in the day, the middle-class parents in India pushed their kids to choose either medicine or engineering as a career option. Since middle school I was inclined towards biology, hence I thought studying medicine and becoming a doctor would be my only option. However, life didn’t turn out as planned ( when does it ??) and I ended up doing a bachelors followed by a master’s in biotechnology. By the end of master’s first year I was still debating on my next career move. I had very limited exposure to research then, thus pursuing an MBA seemed like a lucrative option for getting a well paid job. However in the consequent year I rotated in a Cancer Biology lab and that altered all my career plans. Those 5 months of research significantly changed my outlook towards science, and I realized that science was my calling.

I landed in the USA with a mixed ‘bag’ of emotions, happy to be granted an opportunity to pursue my dreams but it was extremely painful to leave my family behind. I remember being miserably homesick during my first week in the USA. I had a relatively cushioned and cocooned upbringing back in India. Needless to say, I had minimal experience in dealing with people or life in general. Living all by myself in a different country, not only widened my horizons but also gave me an opportunity to learn and grow from every person I met and build friendships from the world over. Thus I think coming to the USA is so far the best decision I have taken for myself.

My Ph.D. was challenging for varied reasons, some of which I will discuss in my story, but it transformed me as a person. I am still figuring out several aspects of my life , but my Ph.D. experience has empowered me to handle the upcoming challenges. At present, I am a happy postdoc. With some time on hand now, I can indulge in hobbies. In the past one year , I have actively pursued music by learning guitar plus Indian classical music and starting a small jamming group. So yes … music keeps me going. Also, I strongly believe in ‘giving back’ in my own little way and currently I volunteer as a mentor for underprivileged students at Freedom English Academy in India. I love interacting with these students, it gives me immense happiness and a sense of purpose. In the future, I want to continue doing something meaningful and thus I want to be a part of many more good initiatives as ‘My Ph.D. Story’.

I hope that our initiative ‘My Ph.D. Story’ will inspire all the current/past graduate students or anyone who is facing challenges and dealing with mental health problems. I wish you all, the very best in life 😀

–Vaishali

The Ph.D.s Behind ‘My Ph.D. Story’: Lena

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Curious Kid –> Cheerleader –> Scientist?

Before we start the show, we would like to introduce ourselves!

I’m Lena–one half of the team behind ‘My Ph.D. Story’. Tomorrow you’ll hear from Vaishali!

I grew up in the Sweetest Place on Earth–Hershey, Pennsylvania (and no, we don’t get sick of eating chocolate!). I spent most of my childhood galavanting about my grandparent’s farm, digging through dirt, swimming in the creek behind my house, and reading every book I could get my hands on. While I was a curious kid, I was also a weird kid. Why? Because when I grew up, I wanted to be a forensic pathologist…so that I could do autopsies. Also–something that always comes as a surprise to those who know me–I was a cheerleader from the third grade up through my freshman year of college. I still participate in alumni events with my high school and am always very excited to serve as a judge for cheer tryouts each year!

After high school, I went on to Saint Joseph’s University, where I began studying psychology, hoping to eventually pursue a career in cognitive behavioral research. After my first year, I realized my interests were more in line with studying biology, and thus began my official journey towards becoming a ~*scientist*~. I also picked up a minor in Latin, because why not, right?

During my undergraduate years at St. Joe’s, I began volunteering, and ultimately spending most of my free time, in a microbiology lab studying a fascinating little microbe called Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus. This wild little bacteria are essentially vampires–they suck out and feed on the cytoplasm of other bacteria, ultimately killing them. Since B. bacteriovorus is a bacterial predator, more recent work has focused on applying it clinically, environmentally, or industrially as a living antimicrobial agent, especially against biofilms. My work in John Tudor’s lab eventually resulted in an honors thesis in which I quantitatively assessed transcription profiles of genes required for bacterial predation. I credit Dr. Tudor, along with many other St. Joe’s faculty, for being incredibly supportive mentors and igniting my interest in microbiology research. I also met my husband while doing summer research, so there was more good than just science that came out of my work in the Tudor lab!

After graduating from St. Joe’s in the spring of 2012, I quickly headed off to graduate school at Temple University School of Medicine (now Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University) to study biomedical science. Through most of this, I was also working part time at the King of Prussia Mall at Madewell because I also have a serious retail therapy problem–it’s not the worst vice in the world?

To this day, I have mixed feelings about heading straight from college to graduate school, but more on that point later.

As I was finishing up my first two research rotations (the first was my personal nightmare, and the second didn’t have funding to keep me), I remember seeing a flyer for a seminar from a new professor–his name was Italo Tempera, and I can’t remember exactly the name of the seminar, but it hinted at an interest in studying transcription regulation in the Epstein-Barr virus, and I was fascinated. So I went to the seminar, and I knew that I had to work in that lab. I met with him a few days later and asked if I could join his lab. He said no. And I cried in his office…the first time we ever spoke.

But. With some convincing and a little luck (as most things in science go), I did join Italo’s lab. I spent the next four-ish years there studying the role of the human proteins PARP1 and CTCF and their role in regulating viral gene expression in Epstein-Barr virus latency and reactivation (you can read my work here if you are so inclined) I loved the work. I loved the people. But these were the most trying years of my life. I’ll talk more about this as we roll out our first story next week–the story of my own graduate school experience–so stay tuned.

After graduate school, I settled into a postdoctoral position back in my hometown! Over the past almost two years, I’ve been working at Penn State College of Medicine, continuing to study regulation of latency and viral reactivation of EBV. For now, I live outside of Harrisburg with my husband and our two French bulldogs, I’m an avid yogi, I enjoy cooking at home, I have an unhealthy obsession with Bitmoji, and my husband and I spend a significant portion of our evenings binge-watching The Office or Rick & Morty.

I’m sure as we work to build this community together, you’ll hear from me periodically. But, after Vaishali and I introduce ourselves, we want to really focus on you.

So stay tuned for my “Challenge” story this coming Monday, and my “Happiness” story next Friday!

Until then,
–Lena