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This week's guest blogger is Kristin Lammers. She has an MS in chemistry from Rutgers University and is currently a PhD student at Temple University in physical chemistry. Her thesis work is on environmental chemistry and CO2 sequestration.
I recently read Jade's post about what she would want to study if she wasn't working in the biotech industry. She indicated that she would love to research multiple sclerosis and this has motivated me to share with you my perspective on life as a graduate student. In actuality, we may all go through the thought process of questioning our current path in the sciences. This is usually catalyzed by some experiment gone wrong or when we are in the “negative region of the sine wave”, which is quite a common case in graduate school. However, my perspective really isn’t too far of a stretch from the life of a graduate student, just that there is one extra hurdle to deal with, and maybe an extra abundance of caffeinated drinks. I have been “blessed” with (a) MS. Yes, the degree in chemistry and the autoimmune disease, multiple sclerosis. Interestingly enough for me, I received both at the same time of my life. I initially played off the symptoms as a “pinched nerve” from either playing soccer in the hallways of the science building as the usual grad student stress reliever (and for the built up excitement for the now past World Cup in Germany) or wearing the ever present ultra-heavy polka dot backpack that contained my life. It wasn’t until I had a date with the “human NMR” machine (aka MRI) and a wonderful call from my now defunct doctor to my lab office, that my attempt at processing my own symptoms, as if they were a set of experimental data along with observations to be processed, came to an end. Yes, the diagnosis via a good ‘ole phone call to my nice little cozy office with nice stenciled flowers suddenly no longer seemed cozy, but rather lonely.
Next, came a wonderful, unexpected 3-day vacation from grad school and supplemental teaching at a county college at an all-inclusive hospital where I was the experiment and could be probed by an unlimited number of instruments! People waited on me, fed me food, wheeled me everywhere and did research on me! Beats my lab experiments! However, the fun ended when I got tired of being a pincushion. The vacation was losing its appeal by the time we got to probe my spinal fluid. I mean, biochemistry was never my thing, but don’t they have a better test for these proteins, white blood cells, immunoglobulins, etc.? Not to mention the middle of the night visits from nurses trying to give me mysterious injections of unknown identity to me creeped me out. Needless to say, after this “vacation,” another one soon followed for recovery. I should have even taken an additional one after I received the nice little bill I accrued during my surprise vacation. To this day, I am still trying to figure out what was covered and considered “all inclusive”. Good thing I had “supplemental” teaching during my first stint in grad school.
Life shortly reached a steady state equilibrium, except for the fact that now I wanted to learn more about drug delivery and research a doctor who prefers meeting in person to discuss my health. Self-injections of these disease-modifying drugs are not my thing, nor will it ever be. The nurses compare the regularity of shots to becoming like “brushing your teeth.” So not true.
Shortly after getting acquainted with the now regular “shot night” and entering a PhD program, I resumed life like nothing had happened to me. Fortunately, my stubborn personality came in handy, I was determined not to look weak or let anything slow me down, especially as a “newbie” in the new graduate school where I had to start all over again and prove my hard work. That alone was stressful enough. By the time summer came after a very stressful first year, a gentle reminder came. Not in the form of MS symptoms, but from those darn shots I detest. I had an injection site reaction, which resulted in unsightly (and untimely) abdominal necrosis, along with the most painful experience I have ever experienced. Simple coughing induced pain. This “very rare” side effect cost me about a month absence from school (and many copays). Figures, I was actually on an RA for the first time. Despite the common side effects that still persist (which I thought was evidence for the medicine actually working, no?), I appreciated the clinical tests and relevant p-values and carried on.
This experience was not only a reminder, but also the beginning of my “MS guilt.” I went to Catholic school all of my life; I didn’t need any more sources of guilt. Unfortunately, the guilt and paranoia began spreading in my life along with the curiosity (or should I say “nosiness”) of fellow, competitive graduate students. Those who bragged about the “extra long days” and such were the first to point out my “disappearing act” due to my inconvenient, but frequent doctor appointments. Perhaps they were upset I didn’t notify them along with my advisor? I, as a person who unfortunately cares too much about what people say about my reputation and such, struggled to learn not to care and focused on putting my energy towards my research. Yes, it kills me (and still does) when some mornings it’s hard for me to get out of bed and even harder to deal with judgment and speculation of others on this “weak and lazy” habit of mine. In the end, my frequent self-reminder that my research is not going the way I like it (more frequently) should bother me the most. Yes, graduate school is very stressful and leads a viscous cycle of “going to bed late to catch up on what you didn’t get done all day because you stayed up late the night before,” but I can still be a graduate student without living in that cycle. It’s hard, but I do my darn best to get in the lab, get my work done whether my reaction wants to or not (which I’ve accepted as well), combat my sleepiness spells with some form of caffeine and call it a day, because when I get home, I am “pooped” and can’t afford to miss out on dear sleep. I am very selfish regarding sleep and there is nothing that deserves my time more than my very own bed. Sure, there are days that I have more energy than other days and that’s when the world needs to watch out, for this is when I make up for my slow and unproductive “foggy” days.
Of course, according to my fellow grad students, being tired, stressed and worn out is “part of graduate school experience.” I agree and certainly do not discredit them; it certainly takes a lot out of a person. If it were easy, then everyone would be on this journey. However, the moment someone acts like a sole victim in this “whole graduate school” process and discredits me because apparently they have the “nastiest and most exhausting” schedule as if it’s some competition, hits me personally and downright bugs me. For the most part, I usually respond to this recurrent situation just with silence. I don’t want to play the same game; I just hope and pray they look outside the box one day and understand there is always someone who has it worse than you. That is what I do, (or at least try to do) and it gets me moving. Despite my frustrations of my “invisible symptoms,” I resist the urge to have a self-pity party and recognize that it could be so much worse. Years ago before treatment, it was “diagnose and adios” -yup, definitely not my life slogan. I figure it this way, if I have the determination to go through grad school for multiple degrees than I need, then this experience will make me a stronger person to do all that I want to in life, despite what MS may bring my way. MS changes a person. It causes one to rethink plans, goals and dreams. Some changes may be relatively small or significant, but it will NOT stop me from attaining these aspirations. I have thus far and will continue to overcome this “perfect storm,” which is my perfect analogy for this situation: a genetic predisposition along with some virus/environmental factor that activates this disease of unknown origin thus far. Honestly, I sometimes read more (thanks to Google reader) journal articles on current MS research than for my own research project! I am thinking something along the lines of drug delivery will be in an inspiration for my required and doomed original research proposal. Perhaps it will even be what I should have or will study instead of my current research.
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I found in my PhD hunt that the people who complained the most about long hours and how much effort other people were putting in were also the sloppiest and least secure. Personally, as long as you come in and get your work done, I don't think it matters how many hours you spend at the bench. People really should mind their own business in that regard. It also probably wouldn't hurt to let at least your boss know what's going on so that he's understanding if you're not there working when he stops by.
Thanks again for doing this post Kristin!
Your drive and bravery are inspiring. Does everyone in your class know about your illness now?
Taking care of yourself physically is exactly what you need to do. I think this experience of learning how to ignore negativity from other people and not care about what other people think will serve you well in the future in your career. It takes people a long time to learn that lesson, if they ever do at all.
I really enjoyed your post – thank you for sharing.
People who brag about long hours do not deserve the attention they seek. Honestly, quantity does not begat quality and neither does physical presence mean work is being done. If you cared to look closely at these self-proclaimed workaholics you’d probably find they spend a lot of time on FB. Don’t underestimate the value of reading and thinking. I wasted far too much time doing experiments like a headless chicken because I afraid to devote a day here and there to reading and planning! Grad students in general do not read and write nearly enough.
Be aware of the lab culture, but try not to get too caught up in the silly games and competitions – easier said than done! And remember Grad school should be fun so take the time to enjoy it.
Thanks so much for the comments, along with the motivation, inspiration (especially Jade) and this opportunity. I have told my lab mates that I am close to or who I can relate to. I found it helpful for my peace of mind and in case anyone was looking for me, I had my back covered against the nosy ones. I have also told my advisor for the same reasons and I felt it beneficial after my many dr appointments and month long absence. He completely understands and I am fortunate to work with someone who does.
Yes, I agree that people need to learn their own business, especially there research business. I agree taht others who "brag" about long hours either wasted the day away doing who knows what. I can say after beginning to not care about others (yay!), I am a lot happier and I actually appreciate the science more and have fun in grad school. Cliche, I know, but it really does make a difference. I also like to note that I like the term "lab culture," that is precisely what it is. Maybe grad school is part learning this. I can already see it in retrospect of the past 3 years and even at my other school.
I certainly agree with the statement on underestimate the value of reading. I struggle with that to this day, despite being aware of it! I thought it was my only me, but I would catch myself sometimes "being in the lab" aimlessly doing something. Maybe this comment will be more motivation to strengthen my practice! :)
Thanks for the comments!
Kristin, I am so happy to have come across this post. Thank you for your lightheartedness and frank approach to balancing graduate school with MS. Yours is an attitude that I hope to maintain as I enter my first year in a PhD program with my own autoimmunity. You are the first testament to the feasibility of this venture that I have found, and I very much needed that boost.
I am so glad you found it! (and helpful and entertaining). This site is great; not only for its news, but blogs by people with similar situations in graduate school. I am so glad I was able to reach out to someone who is in a similar situation. I hope you don't encounter the negativity, but if you do, just move on and let it make you stronger. Hindsight is 20/20 and I found this to be true after the fact. Good luck on your journey and enjoy every minute of it!! Maybe you can blog sometime!! :)
Are you on twitter? I hope you will keep us updated on how you are doing. I'd like to hear more about your progress and challenges and root you on too.
I do not have twitter, but I follow you guys on facebook. I will try and comment when needed. Thanks so much for your concern! Take care.
Many thanks! I post in my own blog, the link to which is in my profile if you are interested, but since my topics are often so specialized I don't really write in the big leagues. I contribute to Benchfly every once in a while... :) Best to you.