Postcard from Edinburgh

So, nearly 6 months after I departed Scotland for Switzerland I came back. Then went away again.

My social geography has been completely uprooted: with graduation the Class of 2011 scattered like the four winds back to their family homes, on gap year adventures or new jobs. It’s difficult to keep track of where my friends are and harder to catch up with them all in person any more. Going back to Edinburgh & Fife seemed like the safest option, especially since I was aiming for late Nov when most folk would still be at university but not yet sitting their winter exams. I was only back for approx 4 days, but determined to make the most of it.

I’m at that stage in Basel where I can’t see what the outcome will be. I have bad days. Where all my work colleagues start talking in German over lunchtime and I feel like the freak for being the only one who can’t understand what is going on. When I feel like an unhappy outsider, who brought this upon themselves. I have good days.  When I introduce my work colleagues to some useless nugget of British language or culture: when I’m different but accepted. I have boring weekends. When I barely leave the flat and waste time on the computer, doing more damn grad school application stuff. I have awesome weekends. Where I go off travelling to some new city, or meet up with people and have fun in Basel.

The graduate school applications are never-ending. I’ve revised for the GRE tests…I’ve created the online application forms…I’ve written, re-written and final-drafted the personal statements until I can no longer tell if they make sense…I’ve got in touch with my referees on multiple occasions to communicate information…yet still the damn things are not gone. I have the two external funding applications to deal with – I’m still waiting to ensure that all the official documents have arrived at their destinations. It just never ends.

I need to go somewhere that I can get a sensible perspective and a chance to think….

Just off the Royal Mile

…I touched down in Edinburgh just before midday on Monday. This time around, the Easyjet flight was straightforward. I had a To Do list: random bits of shopping that I couldn’t be bothered doing in Switzerland because the goods in the UK were cheaper, a series of self-ultimatums regarding personal statements and important documents that needed sent. I had a list of people I’d arranged to meet for coffee/lunch/pub.

Princes St view of the Royal Mile

Edinburgh looked exactly the same as ever. It still has the capacity to bring up a lot of emotions in me. I still am very, very attached to the place.

Old College - University of Edinburgh

The thing is, that I really like Basel. It’s a pretty little city. Despite my derogatory remarks about it being a “provincial Europe town”…there’s a lot going on here (see my Surrealism In Paris post, etc).  I can’t complain about my accommodation, job or Basel Dragons Running Club.  It isn’t like I’m powerless to change my circumstances: I can afford more city breaks, I can attend more socials, I can do lots of…stuff. There’s nothing out of my control.

However…Unlike Philadelphia or Edinburgh, if I packed my bags and left Basel tomorrow – there wouldn’t be much incentive for me to ever come back. Switzerland was a calculated 12 month-contract – a way to kill time between graduation and a PhD. I want to do postgraduate study in America, I’m not really open to the idea of European opportunities.  I set up Basel to be transient – it thus feels transient. Either I shut the Hell up about it then, or I make the effort to settle myself.

Cowgate from George IV Bridge

The concept of “home” has nonetheless shifted to Switzerland. Edinburgh feels intimately familiar – but I’m so damn OLD compared to all the students in Bristo Square and Teviot. I’m wandering around the place wearing my University of Edinburgh Ballroom Dancing  Society hoodie…but I’m an imposter.  Shame on me. But while I feel displaced from my surroundings it doesn’t feel upsetting. If I want to spend more time in Edinburgh I need to approach the city in a different manner – that of a young professional, rather than a student. I can and will do that – but while I feel like Basel is my home, I’m not worried.

Edinburgh Castle

I’ve been quite blasé about my travelling and living abroad: I’ve spent plenty of time around people who’ve lived in multiple countries in their life. I’ve never had much trouble with getting jobs at my professional level, nor had major financial issues.  It’s quite a surprise to come back to Fife – St Andrews and Crail – to discover the people my own age who never left. My former schoolmates who are living in the same town they grew up in, doing the same type of unskilled jobs their parents always did. Who are unlikely to do anything adventurous with their lives. I find that quite difficult to grasp. I don’t think I could cope with that life. Not any more.

Living in a foreign country is difficult. No way around that. Yet it’s the sort of difficulty I wouldn’t want to ever relinquish. Not for anything.

View from The Mound

I stayed in Edinburgh. I danced. I drank my first decent cup of coffee in ages (at Black Medicine, Nicolson St of course!). I caught up with my friends. I bought a gorgeous ballgown for £10 from Cancer Research UK. I completed and mailed off my important documents. Having realised that I had precious few photographs of the beautiful city I’d lived in for 3 years…I wandered about with a camera in my pocket. It was a productive, enjoyable, relaxing little break.

Stockbridge, Edinburgh

And then on Friday morning I went home. Home to Basel.

“Surrealism in Paris”

I wouldn’t call myself a Neanderthal. I wouldn’t call myself a Renaissance Woman either. I classify myself somewhere between the scruffy scientist bound to the unromantic world of Laws and Equations; and the refined ballroom dancer who laahves the theatre, dahling.

I like Art. I like Culture. I am happy to spend a couple of hours wandering around a museum, even on a sunny day. If somebody invites me to a concert or theatre show I’m unlikely to decline on the basis of “It’s not my thing.” (However, it isn’t something I do regularly, or on my own initiative.)

Therefore, when I was invited by the Basel Area Social & Sports Meetup Club to go to the Surrealism in Paris exhibition at the Fondation Beyler, I thought…yeah, why not?

The Fondation Beyler is located in Riehen, Switzerland: an unassuming village set a couple of kilometres north of Basel, right on the Swiss-German border. It took me about 30 min to walk from my house. Despite it’s out-of-the-way setting, the Foundation has an impressive worldwide reputation thanks to its stellar collection of modernist art. Despite it being Sunday afternoon in chilly November, the Surrealism in Paris exhibit was crowded. Several of the people I attended the exhibit with had already been and decided that it warranted a second visit to try and take it all in.

Like I said, I’m not an art hound. I frequently worry about not “getting” a piece of art. Well, I guess I’ve never been trained in the matter. Going on a guided tour (English) at the start of my visit to the Fondation helped me a lot: the guide contextualised the Surrealism movement (from it’s origins in Dadaism and spread across Europe), the artists themselves and talked to us about some of the most significant paintings. After the guided tour when we were left to explore the art works further, I felt in a far better frame of mind to do so.

For instance – if you are told that the painting below is entitled “A Moment of Calm” and was created in 1939 by Max Ernst, you can begin to understand what it might be about, can’t you?

"A Moment of Calm" Max Ernst

Dictionary: Surrealism, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought. Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealism Movement. 

The Surrealism art is very dream-like. Inspired by Freud’s ‘Interpretation of Dreams’ the movement sought to express themselves in a way that mirrored the subconscious. The movement existed during a turbulent time in European history: founded after the First World War, and continuing well into the 1950s. Surrealism has its roots in rebellion against the status quo and can be seen as a voice of protest.

"The Dominion of Light" Rene Magritte

My favourite piece of artwork in the whole exhibit has to be “The Dominion of Light” by Rene Magritte. Magritte’s paintings are more naturalistic than the abstract works of Dali and many of the other Surrealists: however, they are also some of the most provocative. They are great juxtapositions in his pieces, often between the picture and its’ title. I must admit, it took me several seconds of looking at this picture before I worked out what was “wrong” with it. Kudos to Magritte.

 

Grad School & Their Return on Investment

A sort-of continuation from my previous post “Where Are All The Chicks?” in that it is also to be filed in the category of ‘My Current Mental State During Grad School Applications’. More in the series to follow, probably…

A former work colleagues of mine had been reading over a draft of a personal statement for one of my grad school applications. He wrote back to me with the following feedback (more or less):

“Look at it this way: what [the graduate schools] are looking for is return on investment. Firstly that you will successfully complete the program (which I think you demonstrate sufficiently), secondly that you will go on to do great things…”

…Damnit, he’s right. He’s totally right.

***

What is “Return on Investment”? Why are Grad Schools looking for it?

The Scottish Government is expecting a “return on investment” for the low-interest student loan it’s been giving me for the past couple of years: in a few year’s time when I’m making a certain amount of salary it is going to ask for me to repay the full value of the loan with interest. When it comes to Graduate Schools in the USA, the investment they want returned is a lot less tangible. They DO give you money but it’s a grant, not a loan. It’s a large sum of money they’re dishing out too: it covers tuition, health insurance and adds a bit on top as a living wage. It’s a large investment, and they want assurance they didn’t just throw their precious dosh down the drain.

If you read the Twitter newsfeeds of my targeted Grad Schools then you can find plenty of examples of Return on Investment: “Scientists discovered breakthrough ___.” “Alumni __ will be __ at __.” “Another victory for school’s __ team in League.” The Grad Schools are looking for students who will contribute to the university in some form. Representing your university at competitions. Making an important advancement to your chosen field of research. Maintaining links after graduation and contributing your skills. Helping to give your university prestige, media coverage and money.

The Grad Schools don’t expect all their students to become millionaires or Nobel Laureates. But they expect SOME element of success.

What it made me realise…

The AAUW International Fellowship I mentioned previously is clearly looking for a Return on Investment – ideally by advancing female equality at a higher education level. To help make their judgement call they asked for a lot of information about my background: my hobbies, activities and societies. The things I did outside the classroom.

I realised that I have been incredibly lucky. I grew up in an environment where I had whatever I wanted at my disposal. I had the luxury of free time for hobbies. My parents chipped in for backpacking/hiking equipment so that I could do the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme aged 14 upwards (getting Bronze, Silver & Gold). They footed the bill for clarinet tuition for a good number of years, though that had an upper limit it turned out. At university I got the full student loan: I didn’t have to work late nights in a bar to make ends meet, I could compete in x-country races or take part in debating tournaments. Because I was attending a good university with first-rate lecturers I didn’t have much trouble getting a strong degree and suitable work experience.

My grad school/fellowship applications are looking strong because I’ve had all these additional, wonderful opportunities. It won’t be hard for me to return all the investment there’s been made in my education. But HOW do I want to return their investment?

After I got my Gold D of E Award I’ve been helping out as a supervisor of expeditions up until the present day. I did Debating at university: I attended the rowdy socials, enjoyed the fun weekends at competitions…then helped to run the tournaments and judge secondary school debates. Looking at all these application forms made me realise that returning investment is a continuing chain reaction. I’ve been helped: I help others. I keep on helping long after the student loan instalments have stopped.

How can you advocate for your future self?

The rest proof of future dividends is undoubtably past behaviour. I must prove to the Grad Schools (a) I’ve done a lot previously to help others: offering up my time, resources and skills (b) I’m committed to lending a hand in the future whenever I possibly can. Showing plenty of examples of past activities and demonstrating an understanding of what you’re doing and why it helps others – that’s the secret.

My colleague mentioned in his feedback the other form of return on investment – that you actually finish the program of study. Yeah, that’s a pretty major thing. Don’t drop out of your PhD. The Grad Schools are looking for committed students who will generate valuable research findings: an applicant with plenty of work experience who has already published papers will make their guess a lot more educated.

Baby Steps in the Here and Now. 

A. Extra-curricular activities and positions of responsibility. Get involved, hone your Transferable Skills, work at ‘em…BUT…It’s about more than generating points on your CV. You need to show that you’re going to go out into the world and do good for others. That you will use what you’ve got to help people in need of your skills.

B. Come up with a long-term plan. What can you do at grad school to return investment? What can you do ten years down the line? How can you tie in your ambitions to benefiting your alma mater?

C. I don’t think the grad school application statements should contain lies or over-the-top exaggerations. Use what you’ve got. Lies and insincerity can be sniffed out.  I had to put my extra-curricular activities on the back-burner to ensure I actually GOT a degree. I was away in America for a year, that curtailed my time spent in elected roles. Selection Committees understand that student life means balancing priorities. Give evidence of future commitment in what you’re writing now.

Postcard from Berlin

Early Morning Brandenburg Gate

It was with rather high expectations that I made my trip to Berlin. When people tell you “Oh, you’re going to absolutely LOVE Berlin,” then you’ve got a lot to live up to. The guidebook sung its praises as “energetic” “irreverent” etc.

Well, maybe they were right.

Berlin is one of those BIG European cities. It takes you hours to walk between the main attractions – which are invariably grand architectural marvels – along the wide boulevards. If Big European Cities are your thing, you’ll love Berlin.

Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery

That said, Berlin has a lot of small details to look out for too. I’ve always held an interest in the Berlin Wall, probably because I was born the year that it came down: that makes it my token “Important Yet Relevant Historical Event”, Communism and the remnants of the Second World War become immediate history, and weirdly linked to me.

…I expected the Wall to be thicker. I guess more like the Israel-Palestine border wall, which we still see on the news. The Berlin Wall is quite thin, crumbling and threadbare at the various Memorial sites. It looks flimsy. But with the armed guards and “Death Strip” between the GDR & DDR border walls…I guess it didn’t need to be too solid.

For major nerd points, I stayed at the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy-themed Heart of Gold Hostel in central Berlin. I certainly can’t fault the place: the location is excellent, the rooms & bar area immaculate, the staff cheery…

Babylonian Processional Way - Pergamon Museum

Babylonian Processional Way - Pergamon Museum

The highlights from my Three-Day trip included:

1. Watching the sun rise over the Brandenburg Gate and nearby buildings on the Unter den Linden. I got off the overnight DB train at 7 am and discovered that Berlin is rather nippy by November (Switzerland, I take back everything bad I said about you. You’re WARM). I spent a lot of time on my trip drinking coffee & hot chocolate just to keep my body temperature up. Still, I reckon I survived.

2. The Pergamon Museum. I think that being a nerd makes you pre-dispositioned towards everything Ancient. I kept on with my Classical Studies for quite some time at secondary school (taking it over Higher Physics, which just goes to show…something); the allure hasn’t faded yet. So, you can imagine how looking around a museum specially devoted to large buildings from Ancient Greece and Babylon might excite me somewhat. Jaw-dropping, that is what it was. Berlin has quite an array of stellar museums on its Museum Island, as well as the Deutsches Historiches Museum and DDR Museum in the nearby area. I reckon I used my time in Berlin to get up to scratch on German history and culture quite well…

The Reichstag after hours

The Reichstag after hours

3. The Reichstag at Night turned out to be a great experience. I could only reserve an appointment to view the German Parliament and its glass dome at 8 pm on the night I was set to board the train home. Fuelling up on chocolate I ventured into the biting winter darkness to do the exploration. Totally worth it.

 

I’d like to come back to Berlin in the summer when temperatures are more favourable. There are plenty of riverways, parks (and a Schloss!) to explore, while Potsdam supposedly makes a lovely day trip. After exploring the dividing line of the Berlin Wall, I’m also rather eager to head out into Eastern Bloc territory…

 

Travel Essentials of the St Andrews Lynx

I travel fairly light. If I can avoid checking luggage at the airport then I will. If I can fit everything into a backpack then I will. I’m not sure how GOOD I am at travelling, but I’ve developed my own list of essentials to take when I strike off into the unknown… 

PASHMINA. My grandparents are of the generation where they still put on their best clothes to

In Chicago...with the Pashmina.

travel up (via train) from Bridlington to visit us. I have a specific set of travel clothes too – but I always dress downwhen travelling. That’s because I’m usually travelling in the cheapest way possible – overnight flights, waiting around stations for regional rail connections. I want trousers and jeans with big pockets to keep my camera, money and tickets securely close. I want long sleeves to stop me getting cold. I want thick hoodies & fleeces. However, the most vital

In London...with the Pashmina.

accessory is undoubtably the humble pashmina. It’s fine – no one will mistake me for a yah when I wear it.  It’s amazing how much warmth such a thin piece of fabric retains. It’s a lightweight accessory that functions as a scarf or shawl depending on the climate. It then morphs into a blanket or eye mask for dozing on the overnight legs. Truly wonderful.

COFFEE. Inevitably I’ll rock up at my destination at some ungodly hour with an inadequate volume of sleep. I’m a morning person, I can handle being up at 6 am on a Sunday morning. But there’s only so long I can go on an empty stomach. In the absence of a large bowl of museli…I have to ingest coffee. Ferocious black coffee….mmmm. (I never eat enough when I’m travelling, usually because I’m so damn stingy. That’s why I plump for the hostels which provide free breakfasts.)

COMFORTABLE TRAINERS AND ADEQUATE-LENGTH SOCKS. The way I get a feel for a new city is to walk about it. It helps me to orientate and take in the atmosphere and feel of the place. I’ll even set out to conquer massive metropoli (NYC’s Manhattan) on foot in this manner. As you can imagine, sensible cushioned trainers and long socks that protect the skin-shoe interface from blistering are a must. Blister plasters are a sensible inclusion too. Day 1 I’ll trample the city. Day 2 I’ll be knackered and take the tram. It’s OK, I’ve earned it.

DIARY. “One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” Quoth Oscar Wilde. Word.

Coffee...and diary. I know: I write really small.

CAMERA. I can’t claim to have any particular talent at taking pictures. But a pretty picture serves as a wonderful memento: it captures the mood of a place and documents the light and colours better than the eye ever could. I sometimes think of it as capturing little pieces of beauty as I go about the place. I’m not a camera snob – I tend to break or lose digital cameras quite easily. Most of my travels through America were recorded with disposable cameras. A quick crop smartened most shots.

TOOTHBRUSH/PASTE. You might think from the above anecdotes about dossing on overnight trains and shuffling around cities dressed like a pashmina-ed vagrant that I have no hygiene standards whilst travelling. Well, you’d be wrong: I have to have clean teeth. You can’t be caught wandering around strange cities with unbrushed teeth – that would be slutty…

CONTINENTAL GUIDEBOOK. Because usually when I’m off on an adventure, my imagination is suddenly fired about other locations I could be visiting next. A suitable European/North America, etc guidebook makes stirring reading back at the hostel that night.

Where are all the Chicks?

I go to lunch every day in the site canteen with my work colleagues. “Work colleagues” refers to the senior scientists in my Department: postdoctoral-level organic chemists with various office and lab-based responsibilities. I wasn’t entirely sure at the beginning if I’d be out of place amongst them, because I’m a 9-5 lab worker (a “lab rat” as I call myself) who is yet to obtain her PhD. However, I decided to take my chances with the Scientists. And it works out nicely.

...On the subject of gender stereotypes...Oh dear. Put it away love, PPE regulations require you wear trousers when handling carcinogenic reagents.

The thing I’m noticing though, is that most days I’m the only female at our table. There are several female scientists but in fewer numbers, so of course I’m statistically less likely to join them over lunch break. There are plenty of ladies working in our building, but the bulk of them are Technicians, who don’t need a chemistry degree to work in a lab.

Which is odd. At the University of Edinburgh there were plenty of females in my class. I’m not sure what the male-female ratio was for my Chemistry year group, but it wasn’t so imbalanced that I ever noticed.

I’ve been getting an application together for an International Fellowship from the Association of American University Women, and so have been reading up about “women in STEM jobs” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). So yes, right now I’ve got women scientists on the brain. And I have to conclude that there *is* a gender imbalance in the pharmaceutical industry: there *are* fewer senior female scientists, fewer female managers and a higher proportion of women in the lower-paid technician jobs.

…Why?

That stuff about women having brains which are not suited to hard (physical) sciences? Rubbish. With hard work, innate intelligence and a willingness to learn women can overcome any spatial awareness disadvantage they might possess. Like I said, I have lots of female chemistry friends from my time as an undergraduate: trust me, they were smart. They all got great degree results without breaking a sweat. The physical sciences never once disadvantaged them.

Alright then. Where did my graduate friends end up?

Well, we got an impressive mix of destinations. Some of my friends are taking gap years – a few looking for sciencey jobs, some undecided. A handful are back in further study – PhDs, teaching qualifications. A surprising number have ended up in non-science jobs.

Ernst & Young. Proctor & Gamble, PwC. I’m not even sure what these firms DO (accountancy?), but I’ve known about their existence from the start of my time at university. They recruit heavily at Edinburgh and have a year-round presence on campus: they give regular presentations, put up posters, give out pens at fairs and have their own Campus Brand Managers.  They claim to recruit only the most exceptional graduates from all disciplines; they offer very structured graduate programs and start the recruitment process in December for programs beginning next September.

You can see why smart graduates would be interested in applying for these jobs (a) they pay well and accept the brightest students (b) By March of your graduation year you’ll have secured a full-time graduate job, which is incredibly comforting to know (c) the recruiters are coming to you, you don’t even need to print out an application form! Some of my smartest chemistry friends have got places with these firms and are already kicking off their working life.

To compensate for the above "sexy female scientist" picture (and make this long post more interesting). Here, have a handsome man in a lab coat.

Thought Number 1. Perhaps the STEM industry is missing a trick. Would a stronger presence on university campuses and well-advertised elite Graduate Program (Dec deadline, first-class Honours) attract intelligent students of both genders in droves? 

Or is the problem coming much earlier in the pipeline? When people ask me what I do/what I study, I reply that I’m a Chemist. “Oh! I was never any good at chemistry at school…” is the stereotypical response. Usually from the females, I must admit. (Men don’t usually bring up their own competence in the sciences.)

Which I can’t quite understand, because chemistry at secondary school was one of the easiest subjects for me. I found it a lot more straightforward than English, Modern Studies, Home Economics or Mathematics. That was because I immediately clicked onto the fact that Science Is Just Memorising. Trust me, it is. The teachers have their list of Learning Outcomes for their subject…they cover all the learning outcomes, usually in a step-wise progression through the standard textbook. All I did was print out the bullet-point list of Learning Outcomes for Biology, Chemistry & Physics (“1.1. Metallic bonding is a bond between metal atoms.”) and memorised the list during the exam period. Straight A-student. Obnoxiously swotty. Et cetera.

Fortunately (a) Chemistry at university requires a lot more than that (b) the learn-a-list approach to sciences did not dampen my passion for chemistry, thanks to the chemistry teacher who showed me in his monologues where knowledge of science could take you. But yeah, if you just relax and realise that science exams are nothing more than memorising a list…suddenly the sciences aren’t scary or difficult.

Thought 2. The British education system probably needs a massive overhaul in its approach to science. But in the meantime, surely a smarter teaching approach and a splash of tutoring would make more secondary school pupils continue with sciences? Somebody needs to show all those girls that Chemistry is in fact easier than Home Economics, and tell ‘em that they are smart enough to be scientists.

Or maybe I’m missing out the most important bit. Getting into the position of a senior scientist doesn’t happen straight after graduation. To assume a position of supervisory/managerial responsibility in industry and academia you need a PhD. And a postdoc.

It doesn’t take much hanging around with postgraduate scientists (and if they tutor you and supervise your lab sessions you’ll have had enough exposure) to learn that PhDs are a bitch. You work rotten extended hours, your experiments have a habit of f*cking up precisely when you need them to work, in the top labs it can get competitive and hostile. You don’t have much (any) money, you don’t have a social life, if funding is cut (be it Department-wide or in your research group) you feel it. And I’ve not even mentioned the supervisors. Most benefits of a PhD come ten years down the line. Oh, and years. It takes 6-7 years to get beyond the postdoc, longer if you do your PhD in America.

OK, I don’t have any statistics on the matter. All I have in fact is a remark made by one of my work colleagues. One of the smarter and most trustworthy ones, which is why I’m referencing him. He noticed that the proportion of females – never high to begin with – dropped significantly when he moved from his PhD to his postdoc. It’s not just that women aren’t going into senior scientific positions, it’s that they are choosing not to qualify themselves for the senior scientific positions.

I’m wondering if the nature of postgraduate academic research puts women off more than men. If I want to be a senior STEM scientist then I need to sign over a decade to qualifying myself. A decade of being somebody’s lab rat for a shoddy salary and long hours that nobody will thank you for. A decade of being, well, a student. Could it be that women prioritise job stability and regular work hours more than men? Yes, at some point in my post-graduate life I’m going to say “Screw this, I want a real job. Treat me like an adult please, World.” Will I be more likely to say it before my male colleagues do?

Thought Number 3. I can see how mentoring & role models for female scientists would be useful not just in industry, but in the educational steps leading up to industry. For mentoring to work, it should be offered as soon as an undergraduate is thinking about a PhD/STEM career. The problem isn’t women dropping out of postgraduate study: it’s with choosing not to do it in the first place. 

I don’t claim to know the answers. But it’s giving me pause for thought…

Some Useful  Links:

Statistics from the UKRC, ways to get more women into STEM Careers, a RSC report on the retention of women during postgraduate study, the perspective of an actual female scientist, something for the Guardian Readers out there…

…and this is the worst argument for lack of women in STEM careers that I’ve ever read. Urgh.

…But Yes I’m Still Running

Heading off into the hills at the Devil's Burdens Relay Race

Running is far more than a form of exercise for me. It’s where I draw my self-esteem and self-worth from. It’s the first place I look when I need to find inner strength, motivation and hope in any aspect of my life. It has the power to make me feel so incredible; to make even the worst day enjoyable; to force me out of my comfort zone.

As I’ve blogged about before, I’ve been doing running for a long time. I’ve become good at it. Oh no, I’ll never be an Olympic athlete or a Marathon winner – I don’t have enough specialised training behind me to carry off something like that. On a local running-with-a-club and doing amateur races level…I’m good. Good enough for me. Good enough for me is more than good enough. I have bad days when I’m convinced I can’t do anything right, then I remember that I can run. I can screw up the rest of the day, but then go and have a strong run.

It’s to do with the endorphins. When you do particularly vigorous cardiovascular exercise, your body releases huge amounts of hormones. Of course, I’ve got to run FAST to get the full effect: but I float home from training on those nights.

It’s to do with nearly a decade of archived experience. I’ve run through snow, hail and rainstorms. I’ve gone out for what I assumed would be easy runs, only to tack half an hour on at the end to run up a nearby mountain (in the mist). I’ve dealt with stitches, injuries and fields of stinging nettles. I know what it’s like to get soaked to the skin – I no longer care if it’s raining when I head out the door. The running memories help me out in all sorts of challenging situations. They inspire me to keep fightin’.

I hope that everybody out there has at least one hobby/sport that they’re good at. Or maybe they’re just getting good at – it took me quite a few years to become a strong runner, after all. Just as a way of keeping the rest of your life in (a positive) perspective, and helping you get through the stuff that tries to knock your confidence. I reckon that’s one of my tips for a happy life, right there.

If anybody ever wants encouragement, advice or information about running…well, I’d be delighted to try and convert you to its wonders…