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.”