Reflections on Year One as an MCB student
In August 2009 I packed my 2001 Honda Civic as full as I could with my possessions. I hopped in and set off from the eastern-most point on I-90 on my first cross country drive. About 11 days later (having seen Niagara Falls, Chicago, lots of nothing, the Badlands, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and a good friend in Montana), I rolled into Seattle. Apart from interview weekend, this was my first time in Seattle. I was greeted with a stormy rain shower as I found my way to a rented room in a house which I had seen pictures of on Craigslist. My housemate (and landlady) was out of town for a few days so I introduced myself to her two gray cats, found my room, and settled in.
The next day I found myself feeling very misplaced. I had a nagging sense of, “What am I doing here?” I didn’t know a single person in Seattle. I went for a run; no matter which direction I ran from my house, I had to climb absurdly steep hills. The bus system was most baffling of all. Each bus route had its own set of intricacies; some buses stopped running at 6pm, others at 9pm, others changed their routes at 7pm, or turned into other buses, or stopped in different spots. Some buses required paying when you got on, others when you got off, but only until 7. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but people in Seattle were different from people in Boston. There was a kind of reserve, and yet cashiers routinely asked me somewhat personal questions like “What are you doing later today?”
I had spent the summer traveling in South America, and now found myself rusty with regards to science. All of a sudden I was in the midst of a series of retreats; science from morning to night. I was trying to make head and tail of the talks and posters around me, trying to pick a rotation. I was also surrounded by people who all seemed to know what they were doing, were highly motivated, and worked harder than I had ever thought possible. “What am I doing here?”
I had worked as a tech for two years in a malaria lab; this is where I discovered my fascination with pathogens. I had no formal background in microbiology, but I wanted to “try out” bacterial pathogens. I picked a bacteria lab for my first rotation and jumped into the bacterial pathogenesis microbiology course. I was utterly overwhelmed. I was reading reading reading to try to catch up. Luckily, the more I learned, the more fascinated I became by bacteria (which, as it turns out, are not at all similar to the parasites I worked on as a technician). When I finally started following enough to think critically about the science going on around me, I was hooked. I ended up doing both my second and third rotations in bacterial pathogenesis labs as well.
In between the feeling lost and feeling misplaced, I discovered amazing things. Peaks Frozen Custard, Ravenna Park, Schultzy’s, hiking in the Cascades, autumn sunsets over the Olympics, the Burke-Gilman trail, dim sum in the International District, the breathtaking view of Mount Rainier driving south on I-5, interesting independent movie theatres in Capitol Hill, and geoduck. Other grad students were always up for going on hikes or checking out a new bar or just hanging out and sharing rotation experiences.
As the quarter drew to a close, I was counting the days until winter break when I could finally hop on a plane back to Boston. I craved the comfort of cuddling with my childhood pets, baking Christmas cookies, and shoveling snow. A family friend came over for Christmas dinner and said “Oh wow, you just finished your first quarter of grad school – congratulations on surviving!” I was confused, “Did my mom tell you I was having a bit of a rough time?” “No she didn’t say anything, but everyone’s first quarter of grad school is terrible.”
I was hearing this from everyone – fellow grad students, college friends, family friends. My confidence started coming back – my first quarter, it seemed, had been pretty normal in the scheme of things. By the time my vacation was over, I was ready to go back to Seattle, ready to get started in a new lab, and looking forward to seeing the gray cats again. I was dreading the, “Where are extra pipette tips kept?” routine that comes with starting a new rotation. Thinking of meeting new people and then instantly peppering them with questions (“How do you do this?”) was somewhat exhausting and learning a new project was hard work; but having a chance to start fresh took some pressure off the previous rotations and was also exciting.
The funny thing about rotations is that ten weeks goes by quickly in science-time; most people seemed to be finally making progression the last week or two as things started wrapping up. Yet when things are not quick clicking, ten weeks can drag and drag. No lab is perfect, but most people seem to find a lab in which they can see themselves spending several years in. One important thing I learned about myself is that the more happy and relaxed I am, the more time I spend in the lab and the more inspired my ideas seemed to be.
During winter quarter the friendships that had begun forming in the fall became stronger, I started to really know my way around the city, and I was starting to find my way around the Health Sciences building (!). The Seattle weather was definitely gloomy at times, but mild. Just when in Boston I would be begrudgingly preparing for the longest, barest, coldest stretch of winter, the first blossoms started in Seattle. Spring went on for month after month, each month bringing a new wave of flowers, and finally culminating in glorious summer.
By the time my third rotation started, I had the routine down. I settled into my courses, and even found time to volunteer at the annual BioExpo. This time around, I was anxious for the quarter to end so I could join a permanent lab and actually get started. During the second half of the quarter people started making the Big Decision; we picked our teaching positions, and several people started thinking about moving to new apartments.
Now that year 1 is over, I am in a permanent lab and am starting to establish longer term patterns, which is at times a little alarming after a year spent hopping from place to place. It feels great to have a real home; when my parents came to visit in June I proudly showed them around the city, which naturally included a tour of Theo’s Chocolates. I have a lab home too – I am on the lab meetings roster and have regular lab chores which is somehow incredibly comforting. Even if I don’t always know what I’m doing, I work harder than I ever thought possible, and I am motivated and driven by my passion for science, especially bacteria. Thinking back to the retreats last September, its both amazing and hilarious to think that this year when I see the Microbiology posters, unlike last fall, I’ll hopefully have some (somewhat intelligent?) questions to ask, and might even follow a talk past the first three slides.