Sunday, October 30, 2016

An Academic Journey: The Great Struggle

This is my second time around for graduate school, and I feel as if I'm facing the same hurdles. There is the omnipresent feelings of ignorance and incompetence that never seems to go away. An offshoot of what is commonly referred to as "Impostor Syndrome," I feel that I am not capable or competent enough to be where I am right now, and that I've somehow only managed to succeed via a combination of random circumstances and appearing to be more capable and intelligent than I am. I do not consider myself exceptionally intelligent. I have a middling intellect at best, probably characterized by a terrible inability to focus. Compounded with mental health struggles, it makes me feel like a constant outsider in this world of highly motivated, highly intelligent individuals who all seem to be entirely more motivated than I am, and definitely seem to be adjusting and learning at a far faster pace. 

Worse than feeling too stupid to be here, and like this is an opportunity I am entirely undeserving of, I think the biggest challenge is the constant loneliness. It comes in many forms, but it never seems to be too far from the leading edge of my train of thought. In some ways, being a graduate student is terribly lonely... often at the times when you wouldn't expect it to be. Part of this may be my own social incompetence, which I will readily admit is likely a contributing factor, but I feel it as an offshoot of the above issue: I'm not on the level I need to be to connect to anyone here. The social isolation is mostly a minor, inconsequential thing... but I'm only human, and sometimes there is a desire for those brief sparks of human interaction, and they are not forthcoming. The program is relatively small, and the labs tend to be more tight-knit cliques. My current rotation is nearly finished and I'm just now getting to a point where I feel like the members of the lab acknowledge my existence as more than an extra pair of hands to do grunt work. My cohort isn't much different, and I keep failing to see any of the expected camaraderie that you hear so much about. We're not getting together to discuss intellectual ideas. We're not even getting together at a local bar to have some drinks and complain. There is no social aspect to this, other than what they try to force through mandatory seminars, offering free food and occasionally free beer, which almost instantly disband after the beverages and snacks are gone. The social framework doesn't exist, and it means that all of the time spent in the lab, in the classroom, in seminars, and at the campus for anything, is essentially a solo venture. 

Outside of this, I admit that I was hesitant to return to this area, where I had spent four years handling mental and physical health issues in unhealthy ways, surrounding myself with unhealthy people, and essentially forcing myself into isolation. The associations between then and now are not entirely lost on me, though my brief time as a graduate student in Baltimore was equally as lonely. I know this sounds like some sort of middle school emo rant, and that isn't the point. The point is that not only do you need some sort of active social framework, but having that without any understanding of what you do is draining.

I am fortunate. I have two very good roommates. I have known one of them since middle school and the other since I was a lowly undergraduate, and the living arrangement is absolutely optimal for me. Even in the area, there are people I know who I would call my friends without hesitation... with the acknowledgment that there are certain limitations to the word in that context. Within that small group, socialization is minimal-to-nonexistent. Between scheduling and other responsibilities, and my own admitted inability to be good company, it isn't like I see them very often, or interact with them, or really as if there is much of anything that exists there beyond the vaguest hint of "well, I know you, so that's something." It can be a bit frustrating, I suppose. A tad be exhausting, even. Loneliness is not a low-energy state. Hell, it would even be nice to be acknowledged as existing every once in a while. 

Now, I've written before about transience, and I think you also have to acknowledge another factor of social interactions... shit just happens. Relationships of all types suffer because of graduate school. I don't speak to my family as often as I'd like to. Friends who are far away are harder to keep in touch with, even the ones who aren't already notoriously bad at just staying in touch in general. I try to, the same way I try to interact with people in my local (I hesitate to use the phrase) social circle, but the results are appreciably dismal and disheartening. The people I regularly interact with are all in a professional context: the students I TA for, for example... or the PI in the lab I work in, or my professors or academic advisor. None of those people are my friend, nor will they really be my friend. Maybe that's a cynical way to examine the personal-professional disconnect, but I consider it a very important line to draw.

Another level of loneliness that I see around me is the disconnect in knowledge and interest. Academics are essentially examining minute details and become very hyper focused on their niche of study. I think this is partially true of every academic endeavor, but in the sciences it becomes even worse because competence in science is so often treated like magic. Even the people I know who are interested in science have a hard time with explanations of what I do, and what I'm learning, and what I'm interested in. Often, their polite questions have to be met with gross oversimplifications and a subdued passion to prevent them from getting bored, or assuming that I'm showing off. The further you get, the harder it is to talk to people outside of that world about what you actually do, and what you're interested in. It's frustrating, because you want to be able to just gush with all of the passionate, nerdy excitement that drove you to graduate school, but you also kind of want to have people not treat you like a mutant. And not the cool kind of mutant. 

Even now, I write this because I want to express some small part of how isolated I feel. Sitting in this dark little room, on this uncomfortable futon that will be my bed for the conceivable future, I've arguably been productive today, but entirely I have been sad. I feel as if the time commitments and stress are causing me to lose sight of the people who are important... and on the flip side, as much as it sucks, nobody likes to be around someone who is constantly such a downer. That's on me. Graduate school can entirely be terrible for your health and welfare, and destroy your relationships, and your mental and physical health. I've been through that before, and I honestly feel as if this is just a repeat, only on a much longer time scale since this is a commitment for most of a decade. I'm not sure if I'll have anyone around me to call my friend when it's all said and done, at least not of the current people I'd like to say are my friends. I'd make some clever analogy about binding energies and enzymatics, and how ligands bond, then disassociate, or whatever, but I'm not that clever. Some of it is probably in my head. Some of it is probably just because I'm a miserable person to be around on a good day. Hell, I may even be right about some of it. The important part, though, is that regardless of its reality, I feel it, and experience it in my head. 

So please, be mindful of the things you may have to sacrifice to follow your dreams and do what you love. Try not to get too caught up in your own bad headspace, and don't psych yourself out. Vent when you need to, and find healthy outlets when you can. Graduate school is hard enough, and you will definitely make it harder on yourself than it ever needs to be. My hat is off to those of you who manage to do it, while staying healthy, having hobbies, and developing friendships. For the rest of you, who are more like me... well, let's just keep doing the best we can, and keep hoping we don't come out the other side too messed up.

Monday, October 10, 2016

On Misogyny, via recent events (Guest written by Alex)

Today's blog is a guest piece by a very dear friend of mine, Alex Schober. The topic is misogyny, and comes to us in light of not only recent events, but also due to the myriad of responses that she has received for speaking out. I will offer a gentle warning that she doesn't I offered to let her tell her side here, and she gladly agreed. So here, in her unedited words:

"In light of the events that have surfaced due to the leak of Trump’s misogynistic comments towards women, I wanted to write a very real recounting of my experiences with men of this nature and girls alike. I wanted to wait until I've received enough responses from my girlfriends but also until I think I've included every single time I've been sexually harassed. In all honesty, though, I don't think I'll ever be able to remember everything that has ever happened to me and due to the backlash I’ve received from family, friends, and strangers, this needs to be posted now.

What I'm about to tell you are things I've kept quiet and have only jokingly brought up to people in hopes that they'd tell me I wasn't wrong for thinking all these things were messed up. But no one ever did. And it took me years to realize that these things were messed up and were never my fault. I will start off mild and progress to more disturbing detailed events. I realize that for some of you, this will be uncomfortable to read and to others, paling in comparison to what has happened to you.

As an American, I am fully aware and comfortable with the fact that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I know some of you will confront me privately and advise me to take this post down. I won’t. No matter what you tell me. Because I’ve remained mostly silent most of my adult female life, and if this is the type of man who could potentially be leading our country in just a few months, I need to speak up now. And I’m not afraid of who I offend in the process because I’ve suffered from these things in silence while you could sit idly by in blissful ignorance.

Here are just a few events that stick in my memory:
1. Just 2 nights ago, I went out drinking with friends. Over the course of about 30 minutes, 6 men grabbed my hips and began grinding behind me without my consent. This has happened anytime I've ever gone out dancing with friends. Meanwhile, I politely ask one attractive man if he was single and would like to dance with me.

2. Countless times while out at a bar, or even minding my own business walking down the street, I've been told that I must be a kinky girl because of my red hair. With special emphasis on the sexual acts that I must undoubtedly love to perform or have performed to me.

3. I had a guy that I've never met or talked to in my life grab me at the bar and pin me against the wall and began making out with me. I couldn't move and tried biting him to stop. Many people were around and no one stopped him.

4. After turning down men in any situation, I've been told that I'm deplorable, a slut, a pale bitch, that no man will ever love me, been forced into a hug or a kiss, etc.

5. When I was 15 working at a grocery store, there was a customer that would come into the store and stare at me until no customers were in my line. He'd then come through buying a single item to tell me something sexual. One time he saw me in multiple places in the store and said "you really get around don't you?" he proceeded to do this to multiple other women. Management never asked him to leave.

6. I was sexually harassed by not one, but two of my bosses. One would rub my inner thigh and massage my shoulders and kiss my head while calling me a sexy girl. The other would hit on me daily. I brought this up at the dinner table one night and the issue was dismissed because the man was an upstanding citizen in our town.

7. I was stalked for 2 weeks by a man that would wait for me at the same corner I walked by daily on my way to school. Everyday he'd follow behind me, eventually whispering sexual fantasies to me. After 2 weeks I told him to leave me alone. He then proceeded to chase me across the street into the school. No one offered help as I ran by with this man screaming behind me about how “no woman ever wants him”.

8. As I got out of my car after getting home, a man was walking down the sidewalk towards me so I smiled and nodded nicely. After I was past him, he said “ ’sup bitch” to me. I turned around and told him it was rude to call a girl a bitch and he proceeded to yell and tell me I’m a psycho emotional bitch and to calm the fuck down. I should be flattered he’s hitting on me.

9. During a study session with a friend, he began taking his clothes off out of nowhere and asked me to give him a blowjob. He told me I couldn't blame him for being curious since I willingly came to his room to study. After seeking out multiple rooms that were full of people, leaving only his room to study in.

10. Was told by a boyfriend while crying about the anniversary of my friend's death that I would feel better if I just stopped crying and had sex with him. I said no, he continued to take my clothes off.

11. A guy I was friends with was sleeping over at my apartment and was uncomfortable on the floor and asked if he could sleep in the bed with me. I said yes. He proceeded to feel me up against my continual requests for him to stop. I had to hide and lock myself in the bathroom for 2 hours before I came out. He was still in my bed waiting for me and didn't leave until a guy friend asked him to leave for me. While talking about this recently with a friend, she told me the same situation occurred to her. When she went to authorities about it, no one took her seriously and told her she was asking for it since she allowed him into her bed. He told her “I could rape you and you can’t even say it was rape.” He has raped multiple other women and they are all too scared to come forward about it. He is a free man still today that I see on dating apps all the time.

12. I ask girls constantly if they could count on their fingers and toes the number of times they’ve been sexually harassed. None of them can. It requires more than 20 phalanges.

I hope that at least one person reads this and can either relate, or have their mind changed about the rape culture that is so prominent in our society. The way Trump had so nonchalantly detailed that he could “grab a woman by her pussy” and “kiss her neck” without her saying no due to his status is disgusting. As a friend of mine so eloquently described, merely talking in this way about women perpetuates this rape culture because hearing men talk in this way makes young boys think it’s okay to perform these actions later in life.

Many of you use the argument that saying is different from doing. In a sense, you are not wrong. But hearing the same things stated over and over again in light regards, while men laugh and high five over it begins to set the belief that this is okay. Eventually these boys or men will act on these things, while some won’t and I get that. I am not generalizing the whole male race. In fact, all the men I find myself close friends with agree with what I’m saying. This is actually a huge disgrace and offensive to men as a whole who understand that women do not deserve or want to be treated in this way.

Many of you also use the argument that thousands, even millions, of women have purchased 50 shades of grey and read it with delight and envy. This is true, you are not wrong. The distinction that you are not aware of in this situation is that the character in this book is consenting to a very clearly laid out set of rules. This is a kink that many women and men find joy in and that is their own business. This is not the same as a stranger forcibly touching a woman he doesn’t know. No woman enjoys this. None.

Many of you have also said that women are not innocent to talking the way Trump had in private. Indeed, there are always exceptions to every rule. However, when I talk to my girlfriends about a man I find attractive, I do not go so far as to say “I could just grab him by the dick and fuck him if I want to. I wouldn’t even wait to do it. Because I’m an attractive, intelligent woman.” Instead, I say things like “he’s so hot, I’d love to see him without his shirt on. Oh the things I’d do!” If you can’t see the difference in these two statements, you need to do a tad bit of reading to understand why they’re different.

To those of you who have made it this far, thank you for reading. I’m open to whatever comments you may have. However, I will no longer feed into anyone defending Trump’s actions."

I find that in my own experience, making excuses for this kind of behavior is utterly reprehensible, and inexcusable. It dismisses the experiences of women and denies them basic human compassion and dignity. To attach this kind behavior to all men is an insult to any man who simply thinks that women should be treated like people instead of objects. To participate in, or justify this behavior is abhorrent and despicable. I won't say more, because her perspective is the important one, though I encourage others to share their views and stories as well.

I would also like to once again thank Alex for her willingness to share!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

An Academic Journey: The First, Hard Steps

I know that I'm a little bit behind on this whole blog thing. I do have a good reason though: in the last 2 weeks I've had my first 2 exams as a PhD student, plus started my first lab rotation and written my first 2 papers, plus a problem set and a presentation. I guess you could say that things have been a little hectic, but honestly, it really just reminded me of how much I love the feeling of hating every single thing. 

That sounds like a weird way to put it, but even at my lowest I've always found something kind of comforting about being in that highly activate, stressed out zone. Not sleeping, or taking care of myself properly... stressing, rushing from thing to thing, and being constantly exhausted, frustrated, and a little sad... all of those things feel like home. I guess that's part of the life you sign up for in your PhD. You are pulled in all these different directions and expected to just handle it. Everyone is stressed, and I'm not sure if anyone if their first 4-5 years of it can ever actually say that they're completely happy. Not that they're unhappy with what they do or the choices they made, but it really isn't that easy. You're expected to learn a lot, on top of a lot of things you're kind of expected to know, no matter what your background is. You are constantly learning new skills, learning new jargon, reading technical articles about a wide variety of fields, and generally you are doing the things you want to do. That's the best part, honestly.

So my first rotation has been a little rough... I feel as if there wasn't enough of an introduction in these first couple of weeks to really make me feel involved with the project or the people. Part of this may just be me, but I'm not even 100% sure that I know everyone's name, and I definitely do not know half of what is going on, or why I'm doing half of what I'm getting trained to do. I'm vaguely aware that it has something to do with neural development, but there isn't a lot to be said for that when all I do is rotate between sitting in front of a cryostat for hours and doing immunostaining for hours.

Something weird, as a complete aside, is the amount of small downtime you get when you're running experiments. Let the thermocycler run, let your antibodies sit. Take the 40minutes to read a paper abstract, because this isn't your field of knowledge, so that's about as far as you'll get before the timer goes off and you have to rush to do 2minutes of work before waiting for another hour. It makes the day feel kind of wasted, because all of the free time you have is broken into these small morsels which are hard to really arrange anything into. I'm sure it is a skill which develops with time, but for now I feel like making that time productive is a real challenge. I know it's definitely an expectation.

Different people handle it differently. I definitely feel like the odd man out in my cohort, and I know some of the responsibility for that rests on me. I have very little motivation to get to know my cohort because we aren't really working on the same things, and also I'm already not exactly the overly friendly type. The few people I do regularly interact with are either professors, my wonderful roommates (the ones who are barely ever home and so essentially it's like living alone with part time ghosts) and the students I TA, who are not my friends. The social aspect, so far, is the biggest struggle for me. I know the classwork, I can learn the technical skills (and pretty quickly too, I may add) but I'll be damned if I have any urge to strike up a conversation with anyone on any topic that isn't necessary for me to perform my function as a PhD student. I don't feel involved, or like an assimilated member of the department. Again, once I'm in a lab full time working with a permanent PI, the rest will come and I'll get lost in my own little world. Each lab is a little clique, and when you're just rotating through, you and everyone else knows that you're just a transient visitor, helping them build their project in exchange for learning to do the things that they're doing. It's currently an exchange of goods and services. The unfortunate downside to that feeling is that it makes it hard to integrate yourself properly into a lab that feels nice. None of it feels especially welcoming, and I don't feel any warm feelings towards them... so I'm not sure how to successfully translate that into a permanent lab. I suppose we'll see.

Besides rotations, exams were very reasonable. A lot of repeat material, not even especially more in depth. Though, to be fair, I did already get my masters, so the classroom portion is definitely a review of a review of a review. I don't especially enjoy class, though I don't dislike them. Not having that many is pretty great, giving me way more time to focus on the technical learning that I really am excited for. I suppose the problem is how important they are to the first year, and how necessary it is to really maintain that high academic standard that is so arbitrary, especially given the way the material is tested. I suppose that begins to delve into issues of education, which I am utterly ill-equipped to speak on... so I won't. Still, don't underestimate the importance of the classroom, or the joy of being able to translate that knowledge into a tangible result in the lab. It's an absolutely great feeling and is essentially addicting. I want to do more sciencey things, all the time. I want to be immersed, and it feels like right now I'm just dipping my foot.

Finally, I want to touch on some issues that I see as very rampant in graduate education, which nobody really talks about: alcohol, and mental health issues. They bear discussing for many reasons. The obvious reason is their relationship to one another. Alcohol is often used to self-medicate, and it doesn't help that it is seen as the most common tool of socialization. From beer and wine at seminars, to journal clubs and lab meetings at bars and pubs, to graduate students socializing over alcohol, it's a part of graduate school culture that is almost essential to partake in on some level. It hardly ever gets acknowledged, though. The same with the mental health issues facing graduate students. There is a lot of pressure to present yourself as a smart, well-put-together individual who is doing what they love. This ignores the sacrifices you make to get to the program, the sacrifices you make to your time and relationships to focus on the program, and all of the stress and frustration which comes from dealing with failed experiments, the stress of studying, TAing courses, and trying to figure out the rest of your future. Anxiety and depression seem to be laughably common at the graduate level, but it's like some dirty little secret that nobody ever talks about. 

We need to, though.

These are things I will approach in more depth soon, because they're important topics. For now, let's suffice it to say that the good fight is being fought, and it is brutal and dumb at times, and oh-so-worth it, especially once you get that first taste of "Wow, I can really do this."

I can, and I will, and I wouldn't want it any other way!