Like a fire needs flame

I couldn’t sleep, it felt like my whole body was burning. Except this wasn’t me at the lowest point of my PhD. I was in early Spring 2018, long after the emotional immediacy of grad school had blurred into a memory chained to someplace else. I was in Atlanta, lying in a bed where I could no longer hear Amtrak trains hurtle by in the darkness. Why was my skin on fire?

The answer was perhaps more wrenching second time around. In grad school I’d become so stressed that my immune system lost control, causing hives to erupt over my body. This time I’d come home from my first jiu-jitsu class where I was introduced to the new martial art and practiced some throws, joint locks and grapples.

My skin was burning because it had forgotten what it felt like to be touched.

***

I asked this question before my PhD, during, and in its fading days. Could I recover from this? I’d seen too many broken and bitter grad students – even among those who made it to the end. I’d reconfigured my life so all my energy and hours went into the lab, I didn’t know if I’d remember how to twist it back.

That’s the question I came to Atlanta with: Was the PhD a blip in my trajectory, or was it the new direction? Could I re-access the person I was before – diverse hobbies, useful volunteer roles, high physical fitness – the person I saw as productive and happy? Would I know how to have an existence that didn’t orbit my research?

My burning skin answered my question.

You can starve yourself of something for years at a time, until you lose the memory of it.

But your body can always remember.

TMAC Promotion Sept

Belt Testing Sept ’18 | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

I’m not one for excessively sentimentality – that’s still too American for me. But martial arts – here, in this city – is important to me in general and specific ways.

It’s important to be physically active. It’s important to have hobbies. It’s important to try new things. It’s important to get out of the house and meet people.

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Courtesy of TMAC (Apologies. I don’t have any footage of me kicking ass. If/when I do, I’ll share it.)

Martial arts is a great sink for my energy and focus. I’m not a natural fighter, same way I wasn’t a natural dancer. So I train, practice, adapt and try again. I hold a million technical reminders in my head with every pattern: hands here, weight here, feet here, knees here, fingers here, elbows here, neck here, left leg here. Everything must be accounted for. I know I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll always be making progress. That’s the balm to research uncertainty right there!

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Right down the line | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Traditional Far Eastern martial arts like karate & jiu-jitsu do have strong honour codes, dojo etiquette, and emphasis on obedience/self-discipline. Sure, yeah. By the time we get to adulthood most of us have already wrapped ourselves in too many honour codes, veering into self-denial instead of self-discipline. Martial arts is also the space where you can be playful and have fun. We spent one karate class wrestling each other off a large mat. Know when I last did anything like that? When I was 8 and trying to wrestle my brother off his bed. I’d spent the intervening years pretending like I was too old for those dumb games…when of course I wasn’t. Why would I deliberately choke off my sense of play, when it’s so fundamental to what we are as humans, as animals?

TMAC Iron Warriors 2018

Special guest seminar Sept ’18 | Photo courtesy The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Let me put my own basic needs first. It’s never too late.

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I bless the rains down in Atlanta

Don’t bother with waterproofs in Georgia. Get caught in a summer thunderstorm and you’re getting soaked. Waterproofs just leave you at the uncomfortable ‘partially-damp & itchy’ level of wetness. Let the rain soak you instead: it’s less like being under a warm shower; more like floating in a warm bath. I’ve been caught in those thunderstorms when I was out walking. The sidewalks turned to rivers – I splashed along up to my ankles in lukewarm water. Atlanta drivers – oblivious at the best of times – sent plumes of water breaking over me as they passed. By the time I got home to towel down the rain had stopped, the sun was pounding down, and half the deluge had already evaporated.

Southern thunderstorms are quite something. I love them.

***

I’m dealing with a professional upheaval right now. I’m not in a place where I can talk about it (yet) because (i) I don’t want to jinx the good stuff (ii) hindsight makes it easier to write an intelligible account that people would actually want to read.

Anyway. Here’s a bullet point summary of the things I’m balancing that I can talk about:

  • Communication & Marketing for Women in Bio-ATL. They’re a professional organisation bringing together all “bio” and “bio-related” folk for networking/professional development. I’m creating event flyers & email promo.
  •  Emory Postdoc Science Writers Fall 2018 magazine. I’m reprising my role as Editor for a “microbiome”-themed issue. It’s great to see the postdoc team grow in confidence with their science writing: tackling unfamiliar topics, longer article forms, letting their personalities come through (we’re often taught to repress personality in our academic writing).
  • Wikipedia Fellows Women in Science cohort. There are several programs trying to boost the representation of female scientists on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Fellows program is being rolled out by WikiEdu, targeting scientists who belong to professional organisations (e.g. the American Chemical Society). So I’ve been part of a summer program learning how to edit Wikipedia – something I’ve never thought much about, but is easier than I imagined. I’ve expanded several “stub” articles, and created a brand new Wikipedia entry for a scientist in my field whose omission from the platform was suitably glaring.
  • Freelance science writing. I had an article idea I felt inspired to pitch to an online science magazine. Much to my surprise I received a reply several days later encouraging me to submit the full thing. It’s a beast: I’m chasing down scientists in 4 countries for interviews, and collecting lots of crunchy numbers to back up the point(s) I’m trying to make (not all of the information is displayed to the public). This kind of science writing exercise gives me a massive kick – it’s stressful, but it activates so many regions of my brain at once. I can only hope the article inside my head eventually matches what I commit to writing.

***

It’s a busy time. Evidently I like being busy. You’d hope I would.

Beneath the bubble and frenzy is an undercurrent of fear and anxiety. I’m trying to reposition myself into a new professional lane, aware that I don’t have the luxury of unlimited funds or time. I’ve also got plenty of handicaps that make getting what I want harder than it would be for others. The stakes are higher in some of the projects than others. If my freelance article gets accepted it’ll make it easier for me to successfully pitch future stories (editors always look for previous published work).  If the article is killed it brings me back to where I was before, with an additional dent in my self-confidence. It’ll also decelerate my income flow, which is I need to keep a tight watch over.

I know the point I lose confidence and momentum is when I’ll fall. So I’m pushing forward and filling up my Moleskine planner with reminders, deadlines & To Do lists. It’s been several years since I wanted to fight for a city with the ferocity I’m fighting for Atlanta. That alone tells me I should fight harder.

Chemist in the White City

“When I came to Georgia State from Georgia Tech I was so surprised. People would talk to each other in the elevators – it was so friendly here! The atmosphere was really different. And of course, at Emory they’re snobs towards everyone else.”

At least five pairs of eyes – all belonging to academics from the two “Georgia X”s – turned to look at me. [Emory University] it said on my name tag. On my behalf of all employees of the second-biggest employer in the metro Atlanta area, I shrug-nodded diplomatically.

“With reason, I guess,” the Georgia State employer added.

I’m not here to discuss university rankings in the metro Atlanta region – beyond saying there isn’t that much difference in rankings between Emory and Gatech. What I’m here to say instead is that my first reaction to seeing Emory was “Damn, this is a nice campus”.

They’ve got a tasteful white marble theme going on. There are unifying architectural principles that link old and new buildings. It feels…refined. You can understand why hanging out on Emory campus brings out the inner snobs in people.

True story – I went to Georgia Tech campus to interview a scientist. Google Maps pointed me to the wrong cluster of buildings, so I had to ask for directions. “Just head out that way. You’ll see a kinda ugly brown brick building looming in front of you. That’s where the Center is.” I proceeded to get even more lost after those words of wisdom…because every Gatech building is an ugly, looming, brown brick building. Lady, you didn’t narrow it down!

Sorry. I didn’t set out with this blog post to trash the “Georgia X” universities. Instead I wanted to show photos of my favourite Emory campus views.

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Emory School of Medicine

My favourite building is probably the Emory School of Medicine. It’s grandiose; its two wings tower over you and sweep you in as you approach. It feels like an important building, even before you know what exactly it contains.

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Brumley Bridge

I made a point of taking these photos early in the morning, because sunrise makes Emory campus look great. They’ve got several large bridges on campus, this one is the prettiest.

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View from the Chemistry Department

Emory campus is crammed onto its Druid Hills perch – a swanky North Atlanta suburb. This hidden hill gives lots of these cool level changes and perspectives.

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Emory’s Main Quad

This is what I mean by architectural unity and thematic marble. Lots of white and peach.

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Lullwater Preserve

Emory also owns the expansive Lullwater Preserve, a chunk of woodland surrounding a lake and river. This is one of my favourite spots within the Preserve. Atlanta doesn’t go for waterways. Rutgers has the Raritan, Philadelphia the Schuylkill. I grew up on the coast with a garden that almost reached the sea – I need some proximity to water in my life. Here it is, in the middle of Georgia.

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Lullwater Preserve

You can cross the river via a Temple of Doom-esque swinging rope bridge and get to the abandoned tower across from the waterfall. It has its charm. I once saw a fashion shoot take place here: it featured a smoke machine and a tattooed girl holding a >2 metre yellow snake. That’s the sort of gritty vibes this place gives off.

 

The PhD Legacy: Some Nights

If I could distil 4.5 years of a PhD into a 4.5 minute song, it would be a tune I half-heard one morning at the gym. I hadn’t heard it before, and I was sufficiently intrigued by caught lyrics to hunt it down. When I heard the whole song – direct from my laptop to ears – there was a deep resonance.

“Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck,

Some nights I call it a draw.

Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle,

Some nights I wish they’d just fall off.

There were many nights during my PhD I’d stumble home late. My last reserves of energy had sputtered towards cleaning my glassware for tomorrow. I would either feel the glow of satisfaction from a completed task and encouraging result, or a dull pulse of despair knowing I’d stayed late for the sake of reactions that failed.

Nights were never my biggest PhD problem. I slept well, never built up a sleep deficit. In the first two years I lived on campus, a safe 5 minute walk from work. Cook dinner, nip back to lab, knowing I’d spend the evening with company.

“Some nights I wish that this all would end, ‘cause I could use some friends for a change.”

I knew what I was getting in to with an American Synthetic Organic Chemistry PhD. I was warned about The Hours. I was warned about The Hours in this particular lab. I was quick to give up my evenings and Saturdays. After a while I gave up my Sundays too. If you only have one free day per week then you can’t go anywhere or do anything. You’ve killed your extracurriculars, you’ve choked off your social circles. You may as well go back to lab.

Philadelphia was only 90 minutes down the road. That city and its people was the reason I came back to the Eastern Seaboard. I wanted the magic of 2009-10 back. Couldn’t have it. If I’d done my PhD in the UK and scheduled US summer trips I’d probably have spent more time in Philly than I did living in New Jersey.

“But I still wake up…”

The only thing in my life for 4 years was that PhD. And I wanted it to consume me. It was easy to find purpose: I understood the justification for our research, I saw we were going after hard challenges. I joined in, beating other research groups to the punch with my keynote project. Our group won several races to the press and improved upon concepts more elite labs had already disclosed. We were scrappy and smart. The group coped with stress by evolving in-jokes and delicious dark humour. When talking amongst ourselves about our boss we’d always title him “your boss”. Lines of dialogue from our PI or former group members would be quoted for years as punchlines or linguistic shorthand. We built our own language of references, riffs, Mandarin or Hindu interjections, and comprehensive verbal takedowns.

Getting my research moulded into a publication was a thrill. Three first-author papers (2 submitted during my PhD) is not a large number…but Goddamn they all felt delicious. I savoured condensing years of work into a concise table; when I looked at the NMRs of my products I pored over the clean beauty of their flat baselines. When I think back to the conferences I attended off the back of publications, the memories have a dreamlike filter, like the lighting of Midnight In Paris. Late nights laughing in bars, the adrenalin of personal connections running through my veins as I grinned myself to sleep. The PhD hits & highs were addictive.

I’ve already spoken about the lows. I went down far enough into Hell that I emerged blinking out the bottom. Worse things happened to others. Some were in my department. Some in my lab. I wasn’t always happy, but I wasn’t always miserable. The lows of mid-grad school faded from my present state – my emotions ended up more positive than negative.

“So this is it – I sold my soul for this?”

When I transitioned into my end game the come-down was brutal. The rest of my lab had moved to another university over the summer. I was left in an empty lab, an empty office. I’d proved the points I needed proving. Whatever force of nature that had carried me for 4 years faded away. No need for late nights or weekend work. No rush to generate large quantities of data. No pressures. I could breathe and look at my life.

Was the PhD worth it?

I’d systematically destroyed what had given my pre-PhD decades their meaning. Diverse, separate friendship circles. Challenging extracurricular activities. Culture. I’d cut back on blogging during my PhD not because I didn’t have time to write, but because I’d lost my voice. The words wouldn’t come. My voice has always been strongest on paper, and I’d silenced myself. Over the years I’d met people whose PhDs had hollowed them out, who seemed broken. Was that now my existence? Would this particular PhD even get me the lifestyle I craved? Had it been worth it?

“When I hear a song, it sounds like this one”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have doubted my ability to bounce back and revert my life to its pre-PhD patterns and values. But if I won my PhD, crossed 9 state lines, then immediately attempted to scrub the experience from my mind…was it something I should have pursued at all? Can my PhD benefit me when I half-pretend it didn’t happen?

I don’t know. New experiences reframe old ones. Wounds heal. Scars look cool. I don’t need to package myself, my identity or my emotions into neat labelled boxes. Stuff just is. Perspectives are built to move.

“Some nights I always win.”

Midday in the Chem Lab of Good and Evil

“I’m sensing internal conflict when you talk about your career aspirations.”

I took a long drag from my cranberry juice.

“…Yeah.”

We were in an artfully-dimmed speakeasy bar on the outskirts of one of Atlanta’s northern satellite towns. I was here doing something close to, or in mimicry of, professional networking. I always figured networking was for the folk who looked comfortable in power suits – not me. But since anonymous online job applications were now striking me as as a fools’ game, I was sincerely trying it.

What I’ve realised about moving around cities and continents is that I can assess my “fulfilment” and “happiness” at each stage of my life with a few outcomes: do I take up new activities, and do I build new friendship circles? It’s all about creating a unique set of good experiences you associate with a particular location. In Philly there was dancing, hiking and a book club. In Basel there was running. In London there was an intense tourist program. Here in Atlanta I’m doing martial arts and building up a professional network bound into the fabric of the city.

I didn’t network during my PhD. Not with any vigour. I’d feel more affinity for the New Jersey suburban realm if I’d tried to connect with professionals outside the university, instead of just with fellow grads in the program. Which isn’t to downplay the value of those grad school friendships. But now all my buddies are getting their PhDs and scattering across the continent. I sunk 4.5 years of my life into a single town, and now have no reason to hold on to it. NJ wasn’t really a “bad location” – it just feels like a misuse of my time not extracting more value from it.

So in Atlanta I’m swinging back to my usual approach: dig in. Meet people. Draw on their experiences, needs and advice if necessary. Although I’m at the “whoah she’s introverted! end of the extrovert-introvert continuum, I don’t mind meeting new people. In fact, the controlled environment of “networking” suits me. Those strangers want to chat with you. Their conversations are concise and to the point. You’re expected to circulate, not hold someone’s attention for an hour. No one is drinking heavily or playing shitty music, the space isn’t too loud or crammed. I bought 200 business cards, a shiny card holder and practiced extracting the holder from my pocket without breaking eye contact/conversational flow. That’s a networking skill right there.

Some people have networking miracle stories (“They told I was getting laid off so I left to get coffee and as I was standing in the queue at Starbucks I got talking to the guy behind me and he said his company was hiring and he’d take a look at my CV and after they hired me I learned he was the CEO.”). I’ll let you know if something similar happens to me. Right now, meeting a lot of random people generally has helped me connect with a key subset of people. Drinking a couple of post-work fruit juices and chatting for ~90 mins has helped me articulate what I was looking for in a career (if you can’t articulate what you want, how can you expect to get anything?) and nudged me into several proactive steps. AC: if you’re reading this thanks for your time and ear. I also appreciate that you said a bunch of nice things about my business card design and ‘social media strategy’ (I’m glad I possess anything it can be identified as a strategy!).

***

I don’t have anything important to say about my martial arts progress. But there’s a comment I need to publicly address. When I posted that recent photo of my karate/jiu-jitsu class, a friend jocularly commented: “Don’t tell me you have to try and beat up those massive guys!”

Rookie misunderstanding.

Big guys are the easiest targets. For some reason they feel bad about deploying force on a woman, so they hold back. Sure they’re heavy…but they make a real satisfying THUD when you throw ’em on the ground.

Dude, it’s the women you gotta watch out for.

They won’t hold back a single muscle fibre. They won’t feel compunction whacking you. They’re smaller and bonier than the men. You ever been caught by a bony edge? I’ve met women who are 90% bony edge and sharpen their elbows before class. Some of my biggest, most persistent bruises were given to me by female martial artists. They’re fantastic.

Martial arts requires this combination of strength and dance-like grace, neither of which are my natural attributes. I feel as if maybe I can learn both…but progress is incremental.

 

Word Play. Part 2

He is the man I met 5 years ago! Does he recognise me?!

That’s a dumbass question for me to ask. Of all the (valid) things you can say about my appearance, “quickly forgettable” isn’t one.

It’s August 2017 and I’m at the ACS National Meeting in DC. The stress-fog of my PhD has risen – it’s only been a couple of weeks since my lab & PI moved to a new university, leaving me behind to write up my thesis. It now feels like the end of the grad school line, and I need to strategise my next steps.

I had time to kill, so went to book a drop-in resume review at the Career Fair. By chance there was an ACS Career Counsellor waiting around when I signed in. When I saw his badge I recognised M from a workshop I’d attended at the ACS Meeting in Philadelphia –  Fall 2012. Before I’d been admitted into any PhD programs. We’d chatted about PhDs and career options, then exchanged some emails afterwards.

Given M’s reticence as we sat down, I figured he was probably trapped in the same etiquette twilight zone as me (“I recognise her! Does she recognise me?!”), so I spoke up.

“…I, um, think we met at an ACS meeting a few years ago…”

“So we did, Claire.”

If you remember the career advice someone gave you 5 years ago, it’s worth asking them for more.

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At the ACS Meeting in DC, giving out advice in my role as a SciFinder Future Leader | Credit Linda Wang/C&EN

I started to talk about the intersection of writing and science as the place where I thought I wanted to be. M remembered I told him the same thing 5 years ago. I know people whose “dream career” changes every month. My plans shifted in focus, the details jigged around…but the central notion remained consistent: I wanted to write.

The drop-in resume review didn’t cost anything, but M then asked the question that would have made our chat worth the money: “Well, have you talked to any science writers at the conference yet? There are plenty of them around.”

The question provoked mild outrage, put me on the defensive, and was answered with a lame excuse. I didn’t feel READY for that kind of commitment. ‘PhD Student’ was my comforting umbrella label. It was broad and amorphous. It wasn’t a label that pigeonholed or restricted. If I was going to walk around introducing myself as an “aspiring writer” then that’s what I BECAME. I lost the freedom of future career ambiguity. I couldn’t roll back self-identification mid-way through meeting someone important.

And yet by the end of the conference I’d cornered and pounced on a science writer. I knew M was right. Even if I was making a career mistake, I could never become a professional writer if I refused to identify as one when it mattered. The science writer advised me to get some articles published as a base to chase higher-profile opportunities. Student newspaper science stories counted, they told me. As you can see in my “portfolio” blog tab, I took their advice. It worked.

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Shot from the 2012 ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia. Proving I’m good at attracting the chemistry paparazzi… | Credit Linda Wang/C&EN

It will be a while before I can tell you if I chose the wrong label…but that’s not really the point. I’m grateful to M for challenging me – I needed the shove. If you don’t commit to a career track you’re never going to move far along it.

This city makes me look like a decent driver – and other reasons I love Atlanta

“I’m moving to Emory University in Jan 2018.”

“Great! …Where’s Emory?”

“Oh, its in Atlanta.”

“Brilliant! …Where’s Atlanta?”

This was the type of conversation I had with my non-American friends last year. I can’t take the moral high ground because a few years ago I wouldn’t have been better-informed.

I knew Atlanta was a big city. I’d never felt compelled to visit it as a tourist, but I’d never heard anything awful about it either. When I was listening to Marketplace on NPR I heard a segment about Atlanta as a emerging transportation and business powerhouse, which intrigued me.

When I told my savvy American friends about the move to Atlanta, there were two common replies:

(i) “Oh, I visited Atlanta once…AND I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT.”

(ii) “Oh, I passed through Atlanta airport once…AND I ABSOLUTELY HATED IT.”

As I packed up my life in New Jersey, I figured that if I made it out of Hartsfield-Jackson Intl Airport alive I’d be in for a positive experience.

***

Nights that are alright for fighting: most of ’em

Now and then I’ll walk into a room and feel deep relief. These people are my people, I’ll realise. You can’t predict or articulate after the fact what it was about the circumstances and personal chemistry, only that it fit and you knew so immediately. That’s how I feel about my martial arts. I could have walked into any other martial art school in this city and it wouldn’t have clicked. Conversely, I could have walked into a Crotchet Support Group and experienced a more forceful connection. You never know in advance.

I’m probably getting better at deploying marital art prowess on 12 year olds…but now the 12 year olds are getting better at fighting me. My push-ups remain pitiful and I can’t even fall to the ground right…but my enthusiasm is unwavering. I got promoted to yellow belt in karate recently, and intend to move higher.

TMAC Class

I need to work on my game face | Courtesy of The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Big City Nights

Atlanta meets my criteria of “a proper city”. In a city I should be able to walk to the supermarket and coffeeshops. I should have access to serene greenery. I should be able to dine on Indian-Mexican fusion cuisine for lunch and vegetarian Soul Food for dinner. If so inclined I should be able to waste my weekend in a 24 h Korean spa, cinema complex, hipster coffeeshop, or the Target ‘scented candle’ aisle.

Atlanta has drawn in people from across the USA. It doesn’t feel like a “Southern City”, although an hour’s drive will take you to the site of recent alt-right rallies. Recent as in ‘last month’. Within Atlanta these past 6 months I’ve had more contact with successful, confident non-white professionals than I did in all my years on the East Coast. Which I think is great.

It’s a shame I’m not connected to other cities the way I was in the NJ area: it’s a three hour drive to the nearest large towns or cities I could conceivably want to explore. The Southern public transportation system never recovered after Sherman tore up the railways. But on the plus side, Atlanta covers all the basics of what I need.