Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Scientiae: Moving Forward

How are you moving forward in life? Are you close to your degree, tenure, sabbatical, or summer holiday? Is that paper almost ready to go out the door? Is your baby almost potty trained or are you training for a marathon? What keeps you moving forward in your science, work, and life? Is it the drive to cure a disease, make the world a more sustainable piece, or discover something that no one else knows? Is it the promise of exciting data at the end of a long assay? Is it the thought of people calling you Dr.? Is it your daughter's smile when she wakes up in the morning, or the enthusiastic tail wagging of your dog? When things get tough, how do you motivate yourself to move forward?

The "moving forward" theme is an appropriate one for this time of year. After a two-year break while working as a research assistant, I once again find myself in step with the academic calendar, when May marks the end of the year. It's a bit unsettling to think that school has been the major focus of my life for so many years. When I was working full time, I felt a bit of resentment when I didn't get a summer vacation -- but then, I didn't really take summer vacations in college (I spent each summer taking classes, doing research, or both), and I'm not getting too much of a break this year, either.

Even so, I've finished the first year of my PhD work. That is such an exciting accomplishment. I haven't taken my written qual yet, but based on my grades in my classes I'd say I'm doing well. For someone who spent many years as a squeaking-by slacker, and made some rather embarrassing grades in college, this is a big deal. I spent much of my academic career feeling smart, but not particularly successful. Now I'm actually feeling a little hint of pride in my accomplishments, which is a good feeling, although I worry about things going to my head. When I receive independent confirmation of my success, like an A in a course or some praise from a professor, my self-esteem actually seems grounded in reality.

Related to that self-esteem is the idea that I might actually be of use to other people. In the lab, I'm starting to come up with my own ideas for experiments. In other academic settings, I've been elected as a student representative on my program's executive committee, I'm working with a cool group of students from other departments on an interdisciplinary journal club, and I'm looking forward to TAing my first class in the fall. All of these things make me feel like I'm part of a team, doing important work that might even have some impact on the outside world. My ideas might contribute to a publication, a policy, an inspiration. And, in my personal life, I recently heard from my aunt that my teenaged cousin declared a science "major" (her high school has students on different themed academic tracks). I'm sure I can't claim to be the sole determining factor in that choice, but I like to think that I've been a good role model for her, and that I can be there to offer her advice as she continues her education.

Overall, I'm in a good place right now. I have new challenges to face in the next year, and I continue to fret over failed experiments, family crises, and the legions of bugs that have settled in my kitchen, but I draw strength from some great support systems. Quals and roaches had better watch their backs.

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