On Thursday afternoon, I will stand up in front of my thesis committee and try to convince them that in August, they should give me a PhD.
This meeting is a Big Deal. It’s a game-changer. If the committee agrees with my timeline, then I’ll be sitting pretty: do experiments until June, write thesis in July, graduate and party in August. Done. If the committee does not agree, things could get ugly.
One of the things that is so scary about being a science PhD candidate is that there is no standard formula that tells you when you are finished. It is wholly unlike any other educational experience I’ve ever had. The uncertainty about finishing is fine if you are happy and like what you are doing, but I’m not always happy. There have been days, weeks, months when all I wanted was to GET OUT. I have gone through phases during which I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be a scientist. I have come up with alternative career plans in case this whole PhD thing didn’t work out. I have cried many, many times about graduate school. I even started this blog as a way of reclaiming my voice after feeling trampled by science. To say that I am relieved about the prospect of graduating is an understatement. I am relieved, elated, OVERJOYED by this prospect. Between that and spring, creeping up so slowly here in the Midwest, I am happier than I have been in months—maybe even years.
Yes, this meeting with my thesis committee is a Big Deal, but I’m not worried about it. I believe I have accomplished enough to warrant graduation. I’ve earned a grant, published papers, and most importantly, I’ve learned how to think like a scientist. I AM a scientist, inside and outside the lab. Whether or not they put three little letters after my name will not change way I think about the world. It will change the way the world thinks about me.
I have long thought of myself as a resilient person. I am also, however, a bit of a Chicken Little, always worried about what bad thing might happen next. Being a Chicken Little is exhausting. But as a scientist, I am a professional Chicken Little. It’s my job to think about what might go wrong with an experiment, and then I have to think about how to design my experiment to deal with that possibility. The longer I do science, the more at ease I am with this process. The fascinating part to me, though, is that the longer I do science, the more I realize how very little control we have over the things that matter most. Almost three years ago, I lost a beloved college professor to cancer. Medicine could not save him. Medicine couldn’t even predict how fast the cancer would take him down: they told him six months, he was dead after two. Losing Ned broke my heart. He wasn’t just my professor. He was my mentor, a father figure, a dear friend. He is the reason I’m earning a PhD in neuroscience. By extension, he’s the reason I met Matt, a man who reminds me of Ned so deeply that it’s hard not to think that we were meant to meet on one cold December evening in 2005. Matt and I met just six months before Ned died.
Ned’s death still haunts me. Life is fragile. But I think Ned lived his life knowing full well that someday he would die. Rather than being afraid of death, he loved every minute of his life. He bought a Harley and loved riding it around. He taught his students brilliantly; he loved us and he loved being a professor. He loved Albion College, and Albion loved him right back. Ned loved the idea of love; he told me that he and his wife had a phrase to describe how amazed they were at their relationship: “The reality is better than the fantasy.” Ned was a family man. He and his wife were crazy in love with each other, even after twenty years of marriage. Between the two of them, they had four children from previous marriages. Ned and his wife adored all the kids. I imagine that their home was a very happy place to be.
It is hard to believe that Ned’s really gone because I feel his presence so strongly in my life. My atheism, my compassion, my enthusiasm, my resilience—all of these things were sculpted by Ned. I was good starting material for him, no doubt, but I would not be the same person now if I hadn’t set foot in his Philosophy 101 class almost ten years ago. I think Ned and I recognized a kindred spirit in each other; we took a liking to one another almost right away, and we stuck together until he left this world. My world is greyer without him in it.
I like to think that Ned would be really proud of me, so close to finishing my PhD. He would laugh if I told him that I’m thinking about studying courtship behavior in flies after I graduate. When he was alive, he was greatly amused by my fly pimping. I spend much of my work life facilitating sex, albeit between insects, not people. I think he would have loved to learn more about what flies can teach us about ourselves, or at least our genes. Ned loved to learn.
Although finishing my PhD is a Big Deal, it feels like small potatoes compared to what I’ve already done. I’m ready to graduate. I wish I could share this time with Ned. I wish he could listen to my public thesis seminar in August, I wish we could share a Scotch afterward, I wish we could talk about motorcycles and Europe and love and sex. I wish he was still here. But he’s not. From here on out, it’s just me. And even though I don’t like it, I know I can do it. I just wish I didn’t have to do it without him.
* * *
Ned loved to cook. It was another thing I loved about him. He loved simple food and complex food. He loved pizza and beer, meat and seafood. He loved the heat of Indian and Cajun food. Ned taught me that tastebuds don’t live very long, probably because they stand a good chance of being killed by a toxin. Ned also gave me my first lesson about how spicy food releases all sorts of feel-good chemicals in our brains, so Cajun food might really be addictive—cayenne pepper could be a drug!
I love spicy food too. I’m about halfway through my very first bottle of red crushed chile peppers, a spice I’ve come to know and love in recent years. But cayenne pepper is good too, especially in a sweet-spicy chickpea stew that’s just perfect for serving over rice with a dollop of yogurt. I don’t know how Ned would feel about this dish—it’s one of those sweet meets savory combinations, and not everyone goes for that. But I do, and this dish gets bonus points for being an easy, middle-of-the-week dinner, something you can throw together while you nibble on an appetizer and unwind for a while.
I’m really bad about following recipes exactly as written, even the first time I make something. This stew is no different. But I think it’s fair to say that this recipe is forgiving because I haven’t made it the same way twice yet, but it’s treated me very well nonetheless. So I encourage you to follow your gut and your tastebuds—make this recipe your own. Ned would approve.
Moroccan Chickpea Stew with Carrots and Raisins
Adapted from Vegetarian Times
I love sweet-spicy-hot food. Thai food is a good example, and so is this Moroccan-inspired stew in which chickpeas, carrots, and raisins are simmered together in a broth rich with cinnamon, cayenne, and cumin. Oh, this is so good, much better than it deserves to be because it’s really a snap to make. I like to serve it over rice. Finally, don’t forget that spoonful of yogurt on top. Tangy yogurt complements the sweet heat of this stew; it seems to bring all the flavors together, like a conductor with his orchestra. It’s lovely.
For the stew:
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tsp. ground tumeric
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 14.5-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 medium to large carrots, ends trimmed, peeled, and sliced into thin rounds
1/4 cup raisins
2 cups vegetable stock or water
Salt and pepper to taste
Handful of fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped (optional but very tasty)
Rice, such as basmati
Plain yogurt (I like the option of adding more yogurt to my portion as I eat my way down, so don’t be skimpy here. I’d recommend maybe 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of yogurt to eat with the whole pot of stew.)
1) In a soup pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes or until it has softened and has a bit of color. Add the garlic and sauté for another 30 seconds or so. Add the spices and sauté, stirring frequently, for another 30 seconds until fragrant and toasty.
2) Stir in the chickpeas, carrots, raisins, and vegetable stock or water. Cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes, or until the carrots have softened to tenderness. Stir occasionally while the stew is simmering.
3) Into each serving bowl, place a scoop or two of rice and then ladle the chickpea stew over the rice. Sprinkle with some fresh cilantro leaves. Serve a bowl of yogurt at the table to let eaters add yogurt on top if they’d like.