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

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