Monday, February 11, 2008

Ph.D. or Bust

Some people renew their wedding vows. I renewed my commitment to finishing my doctorate.

I have been in my neuroscience graduate program at Northwestern University for about four and a half years now. In that time, I’ve managed to complete my coursework, serve as a teaching assistant for a gigantic undergraduate biology course, and qualify for Ph.D. candidacy (making me an official “Ph.D. candidate”). Joyfully, I am an author on a recently published paper, my very first research publication! This is all very well and good, but the last few months of my thesis research have been brutally unproductive. I wish I could say they’ve been unproductive because I was busy playing Nintendo Wii or building snowmen or even just baking cookies. The truth of the matter, though, is that I’ve been busting my butt trying to finish experiments for the resubmission of my first-author paper.

My research advisor and I submitted this paper for the first time back in September 2007. A month later, we received a set of reviews from anonymous colleagues. The reviews were very odd: one review gave us far too much credit, saying that we had demonstrated certain things that we really hadn’t demonstrated so much as suggested as possibilities. The other review, while probably more accurate, was scathing and demanded that we produce an enormous amount of new evidence to support our hypotheses. My heart sank as I read the second review because I knew, from previous failed experiments, that it was going to be very difficult to produce all the results that would be necessary to please this reviewer.

I didn’t know that I would spend the next four months struggling to produce anything at all.

I nearly quit graduate school a few weeks ago. I didn’t really think I had the inner strength to enter the lab the next day, to try again. But I did. The next day, I did it again. And I keep going back. I keep trying. There is no magic in what I do; it’s simply persistence and a nagging ability to see hope in spite of the darkness. I have always been able to see the good and the bad in everything, and I always chafe when I’m expected to see something in less than its whole form. I now see my thesis research as a diamond-in-the-rough, a gem that has yet to be cut and polished to perfection. It is my job to do the cutting and the polishing, but there are a lot of craggy edges and dull surfaces involved here. It’s not always clear which experiments will yield crucial insights and which ones will turn out to be trash. Lately, they’ve all been trash.

Even so, it would be wrong to say that the last few months have been a waste of time. I have learned quite a bit, and in my more optimistic moments, I can say that my struggles now will pave the way to success in the future. In my pessimistic moments, I say, “Eh, forget it! I’m outta here!”

During these times when each day is a struggle, my daily routines fortify me: breakfast, reading the first e-mails of the day, the afternoon snack, the walk home at night in the cold, crisp winter air. I cook more when I’m struggling in the lab; in my kitchen, I can produce. I’m not much of an emotional eater, but I am an emotional chef. Puttering in the kitchen soothes me as much as a long walk does. Good food sustains and nurtures me physically and emotionally. It’s enough to get me through these dark days.

I think our struggles shape our characters; it is during the hardest times of our lives that we learn who we really are. We take what comfort we can, in whatever form it is offered. It is essential, however, that we are able to take care of ourselves. And I think that by being able to take care of ourselves, we are able to teach others how to care for us. This knowledge—of caring, of nurturing, of loving—is the stuff of which wisdom is made.

I like to think of myself as routine-oriented rather than routine-driven. I like routine—to a certain extent. Being the circadian biologist that I am, I like a good solid sleep-wake cycle and a predictable eating schedule. But I also like to stay up late sometimes, or eat a big brunch in lieu of breakfast and lunch. I like vacation days when I only eat two meals because I’m just not interested in eating three whole meals. I like the routine of a caffeinated beverage in the morning—something warm, maybe a little sweet, soothing and yet eye-opening at the same time. I love a good cup of coffee or tea. But most of all, I love my chai latte.

Now, I understand that there are people out there who actually don’t like chai, the spicy tea of Indian origin. These people puzzle me; what I really want to ask them is, “But have you tasted my chai latte? Because my chai latte is the stuff of which dreams are made: a richly flavorful tea blend with a shot of spiciness, a swirl of orange, a touch of sweetness, all balanced and blended together with a generous pour of milk. It’s heavenly.” Like a wish granted by a genie from the magic lamp, I perfected my chai latte formula over years of playing with chai, green tea, milk, and sugar. The recipe below is my favorite, and it’s good enough to comfort me most mornings.

Rose-Anne’s Perfect Chai Latte
Serves 1

Normally I roll my eyes at any recipe that calls itself “perfect.” How ridiculous! When it comes to cooking, there’s no such thing as universal perfection because every person’s tastebuds differ. This recipe is my perfect chai latte, the one that I like best. Feel free to play with it and make it into the chai latte that suits you best.

1 cup of fresh cold water
1 tea bag of Celestial Seasonings India Spice Chai (this chai is available in regular and decaf formulas; I always buy regular because I like the caffeine)
1 tea bag of Lipton Orange, Passionfruit, and Jasmine Green Tea
1/3 cup milk
1 rounded tsp. sugar (I like “hippie sugar,” large crystals of unrefined cane sugar)

1) Place the cup of cold water in a small pot or a teapot. Bring it just to a boil. While the water is heating, place the tea bags in a large mug with a spoon in it.
2) Pour the hot water into the prepped mug. Swirl the tea bags around and let them steep for ~5 minutes. I always plan to steep for 5 minutes, but while I’m puttering around and getting my cereal ready, 5 minutes often turns into 7 or 8. It always tastes fine to me.
3) When the tea is done steeping, lift the bags out of the water, use the spoon to press any liquid out of them, and discard the bags. Add the milk and sugar to the chai. Drink. (Of course, at this point, you can add more milk or sugar if you like. Sometimes I even add a tiny splash of heavy cream! So good.)

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