Pilgrimages and Holy Sites

My wheels of steel, Saxon, has finally found his purpose.

There was a bit of reluctance on my part to drive on the motorway. Going at higher speeds is kinda risky, driving for several hours at a time becomes a feat of concentration and endurance. British motorways are organised: fastest cars keep in the centre lane, with slower traffic on the outside. You overtake by passing on the inner lanes only. In contrast, American motorways are freeways: free-for-all-ways. Drivers zigzag and weave in all directions, there is no strong correlation between your speed and which lane you feel entitled to. The whole thing looks rather intimidating. I have no smartphone or fancy GPS systems to guide me: if I got lost, I’d rapidly get really lost.

Yet unless I braved the motorways, even through ownership of Saxon I would still be trapped. The “safe” roads led me to nothing but suburban mall wastelands. Risks would need to be taken.

It would be a waste of my time driving to New York: tolls on the roads, bridges, tunnels, everywhere. The real pressing need I had was to drive South. By regional rail it would take me 90 minutes – up to 2.5h if I needed to access a suburb – to get to Philadelphia. In a car that time was shaved to an hour, and less if I only needed to reach a suburb.

I’ve now driven twice to Philly and back. To my surprise, the motorway part isn’t a big deal: people do drive like lunatics, but I guess that I’m a lunatic (New Jersian) driver myself now. I can certainly anticipate and react to their crazy slaloms across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. Navigation to Philly is really easy: follow Route 1, then switch to 95-South when it becomes available. Barely 30 min later and you can see the Philly skyline. My strategy for getting back is still evolving: twice I’ve pre-emptively exited  the freeway into the suburban idyll around New Brunswick, and stressed a bit in the hope I was on the correct road to get back to familiar territory. Next time I should have it figured.

It may seem over-sensitive for me to call my newly unlocked travelling ability as “empowering”…but it really does feel that way. Before, Philly was a hassle to get to – a long boring train ride away – and I would go months and months without visiting. Now, I can get there in barely an hour, have a full enough day there (long enough to see people, wander around, maybe waste time in a coffeeshop), then get back to New Brunswick with a late afternoon/early evening to spare. The nostalgia hasn’t felt as painful these last two visits: I may still be able to maintain a meaningful connection with the city after all.


The time, I invested a little time in a trip to the Swan Memorial Fountain. It was a glorious day – no-jacket weather – and I needed to walk off my lunch. Where else should I go?

The Swann Memorial Fountain

The Swann Memorial Fountain

Since 2010 I’ve visited this city at least once every year. Only the yearly trips when I flew in from other countries, other lives, I would always go back to this spot – to sit with my feet in a fountain and contemplate. There have been stresses and uncertainties, but those leave me at the fountain.

I’ve been struggling for my current research project for almost a year. It has worked, then failed when I thought it would work. It has progressed slowly – any slower and you could label it a dead end. If this project works, if it works in an efficient and reliable manner, then it could lead to some good publications for me. As yet I’ve not hit the benchmark that would prove such a thing, although I’m not far off. Running up dead ends, wasting time on countless side projects, spin-offs and new ideas is emotionally and physically draining. There is nothing else in my life besides grad school: my self-esteem and moods have become pegged onto my research, fluctuating with it on a daily basis. I can run from hope to despair in less than 24 hours. For the most part I am confident, but I’ve had a bad couple of weeks with disappointing experiments to process and bounce back from.

Right now a side project has given me cause for hope. I have a handful of results that are good and I’ve established are reliable. Yet I know that any experiment (and I have to run the important ‘killer’ experiments as soon as possible) has the power to crash my project and invalidate my good results. As yet, no failsafe benchmark has been reached.

Going to the Swann Memorial fountain helps me. Maybe the waters are holy. In any case, I was able to soothe the darker emotions and refocus myself. What needs to be done, what I mustn’t lose sight of. Calmed and empowered, I head for home.

Sunshine in my veins

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. I feel it in the air, summer’s back in reach…


It feels as like I am Dorothy; having just touched down on Oz, technicolour has suddenly been switched on to my world. I find myself walking about my usual business and spontaneously grinning. Why? Oh, no reason. Just that summer is coming.

There have been a number of years where I’ve felt distinct worry, unhappiness and despondency during the winter months. It’s happened often enough that I termed it the “winter darkness”. This year everything seemed to be fine…it was just when the sun started showing and the warmth  crept back that I realised just how much of a dulling effect the short nights and cold have on my mood.

Walking home at night last week there was a moment where I almost saw the fireflies. They aren’t here yet. Not for another few months. But I can sense their impending presence. And that too makes me happy.

Although I bitch about the snow, wet chills and biting winds, I think that I need winter weather in my life. I would struggle to live in Hawaii, Florida or California. Without winter darkness, I never truly appreciate the summer.

Summer is not just a time of warmth and light. Summer is when Things Change. My life is still tied to the academic calendar: degree programs, jobs and migrations all switch about then. Although many good things end, many good things begin, too. Even when the best things end, I’m reminded of the summers past when better things always began and when I survived the cycles of change.

I am all about summer.

Rituals and Sacred Spaces

Today was a good Sunday. The snowfall on Friday left me very disappointed, but it seems that we have Spring Weather once more. The snow melted, and today was 100% sunshine, warmth, birdsong. Sundays are the day when I should be completely out of the lab (I say “should”, even though I know that rarely happens) and use the opportunity to regenerate.

I went to the gym, snuck into their on-site sauna for a wonderful 20 minutes. It doesn’t pack all that much heat, but the warmth is enough to soothe me. I wasted time in a coffeeshop, ran through a To Do list that I’d been neglecting for too many weeks (grading, ordering Lapsang Souchong tea, booking flights, tax return) and took it easy.

Coping with grad school means knowing how to turn off the stress. On the weekend nights – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – I like to light candles or burn incense. I’ll turn off my cold bedroom lights to leave only the warm glow of my nightstand lamp. I’ll drink a cup of green tea, chamomile or Rooibos as one of the last things I do before sleep. I think it must be a ritual; a programmed way of releasing stress. I know it works, because I sleep very well.

Heat and fire. Candles and saunas.

Food is part of the ritual, too. Going to a restaurant where the servers recognise me (“Long time no see.”) and know my preferences is very soothing. I prefer to eat vegetable-heavy meals, the more vegetables I eat, the clearer I feel inside.

Veggie pho. Eggplant in garlic sauce with string beans & bak choi. Pad Thai. Paneer, sag and chana masala.

Most of the time I would say that I am doing well in grad school. Although it is tough, I don’t think my experience is a bad one. I’ve heard plenty of genuine horror stories (many of which were firsthand accounts), and I’m grateful for what I have.


Does anyone else have any “Grad Life Rituals?” What are the little things that keep/kept you sane during your PhD?

Cracks in the Darkness

The light will always find a way in, eventually. Sometimes you just have to look for it. 

|A. Nothing On, But The Radio|

Let me tell you one of the best things about owning a car. It gives you an uninterrupted, gently forcing opportunity to listen to the radio. My father could drive from our home in to St Andrews in 15 min at a push. But the drive could also be extended to 30 minutes so we could listen to comedy shows on BBC Radio 4: I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, The News Quiz, and Just A Minute. A late-night program on the World Service about Middle Eastern facial fashions once sustained my mother through an entire festive season of social chat.  Although the crisp English tones of the British Broadcasting Corporation are something I miss, I try to adapt to my surroundings. It turns out that NPR (National Public Radio) is a good substitute for BBC Radio 4/BBC World Service. Several times I’ve parked at my chosen destination, only to kill the engine and spend a few more minutes listening to the culmination of a particularly entertaining anecdote or dispatch.


|B.  Red Hot Saunas|

There is this thing I like to do in NYC. I’ll trek down Manhattan to an unassuming Avenue where I will enter the Russian & Turkish Baths to burn up a good chunk of a Sunday afternoon. There are a lot of sauna complexes in New York (I’m aware that most of my Edinburgh-based readers will assume I’m talking about brothels) – some are deliriously swanky, others are shamelessly indulgent. I’ve yet to find one that packs as much heat as the R&T Baths. There’s a seedy, underground-neon-lit vibe to the place; clientele ranging from rabbis to hipsters, with all intermediate points…but that just adds to the charm. There are two steam rooms, one feels like you’re sitting inside a kettle, you can barely see an inch in front of your nose. There are 3 sauna rooms: the first one smells of warm sandalwood, the second has the power to make you uncomfortably hot after a few minutes, the third is hotter than the fires of purgatory. But in a good way. The sheer force of heat in the saunas relax me completely. In between bouts I will lounge on the decks, nothing whatsoever going through my head. It’s brilliant.


|C. Long Time Coming, But Now The Snow Is Gone|

I’ve set my alarm to 6.30am once more and seem to be disciplined about getting up instead of switching the alarm off. Why? Well, I know that shortly after I finish my breakfast I will be able to look out of my window and see the first glimmers of blue in the black night sky. Before I’ve even reached the bottom of my morning espresso the sun will have risen. I love this time of year – knowing that the days are getting longer and the light is getting brighter. That even if there is darkness now, soon there will be light.

Black Soul Coffee

Right now, black coffee consumes me. I think nothing of reheating day-old filtered coffee in the microwave, often 1-2 cups per day. I know I should switch it out with tea sometimes, but my body needs to taste that nasty dark bitterness.  I equilibrate with the dark bitterness within, I guess.

Honestly, I’m a mess of bad habits right now. My worst vice is regularly (i.e., more often than not) going to the lab on Sundays. If I was to give a prospective PhD student one piece of advice it would be “Don’t work 7 days a week – take a day off to refresh yourself”. Do as I say, not as I do, folks. Granted, I don’t work as long or as hard on the weekends (…usually): I give myself the luxury of checking Facebook during the daytime on Saturdays & Sundays, and I may well head out for a long lunch somewhere off campus. But at this point the PhD and Chemistry research is just…something that I do. Being in the lab is just…something that I do. There isn’t much of a distinction between “work” and “life” – it’s balanced in the sense that work is my life.

The PhD was always going to feature some sacrifice. As soon as I articulated my desire to do a PhD in Organic Chemistry I was warned that it would consist of 12 hr days, 60+ hr weeks. I never liked the idea of that, it was only after a lot of exposure to the concept that I finally made peace with it. Swallowed the bitterness, if you will. I’m an ambitious person, I wanted publications, prestige and a strong CV. It would be almost impossible to get those things in the Synthetic field without joining a 12/60 lab and matching that work ethic.

Yes, I’m envious of my friends in 9-5 white collar jobs. Yes, I feel sad that I had to give up travelling, dancing, doing lots of fun stuff. The hope is that I will (eventually) get it back. I have a clear idea of the kind of professional I want to become, and the kind of lifestyle I want to live. When I walk through Philadelphia I remember.

Despite all of this, I’d still say that I am happy. I’m in a lab that I enjoy being in. I don’t stress about money (I had 6 months in Edinburgh of full-time money worry: it made me appreciate financial security). My overall stress levels aren’t especially high and I’m not at risk of burn-out. I don’t have any pressing fears or uncertainties about what is coming next (there was a fair chunk of that when I was in Basel. Again, I can feel its absence).

Grad School Cycles

She only sleeps when it's raining...

She only sleeps when it’s raining…

Grizzly, drizzly weather today. If I’d realised how bad it was outside I wouldn’t have got behind the wheel to brave the freeway. Still, I need the practice of driving in rougher conditions, so I went to pound stress out at the gym, before heading out to the mall zone to get groceries and enjoy a veggie Indian buffet lunch. By the early afternoon I retreated into my apartment and decided to stay put for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t that long ago since my last Crunch Time. Now it is hurtling back at me: the second and final half of my candidacy exams. This time the focus is on my research – what I’ve done and where I’m going. If my written proposal and PowerPoint defence aren’t up to scratch, then I leave the program with a Masters degree this summer.

That said, there isn’t a huge amount of ambiguity or stress here. I managed to prove last semester that I could hack candidacy-level exams: my committee & PI were pleased with how I did, the latter has expressed the opinion that they aren’t “too concerned” about my upcoming exam. At this stage, as long as I put in a solid performance I will be set for the rest of my PhD.

The challenge comes with getting my research polished. I’ve got “results” from the project I’ve been working on since last summer: not good enough for a publication, but good enough to indicate that it will be possible to get them up to publication quality.

When you’re in the middle of a PhD, you are navigating through a dense jungle of research space, only able to see (metaphorically) a few paces ahead of you. You’ve no idea what the bigger picture is, and making progress on your project is often a case of hacking your way through what seems to be the path of least resistance. Except that you switch your path constantly, left for a bit then right.

As such, I’ve amassed a decent quantity of data, but I need to sort out the bits that are useful (a lot of stuff I tried doesn’t add anything to my “results”) and fill in any gaps that I missed. And I want to give the impression that instead of flailing about blindly in the jungle for 9 months, I was actually following some kind of rational agenda.


My research productivity is a cyclical thing. What usually happens is that I will have 1-2 weeks “on” – I get fired up about a new lead, or become particularly frustrated with my lack of progress, and spend a lot of time in the lab, running a near-constant stream of experiments – followed by a week or so “off”. I can’t sustain the “on” mode for very long, and so my productivity eventually ebbs. There are times when I’m staggering about the lab late at night, wanting to close my eyes but pushing myself to at least tidy up and prepare for another intense day tomorrow. There are times when I walk through a wing of the department and it looks like I’m the only person in the building. There are also times like today when I take a full day off or get home in time for dinner.

Part of adjusting to grad school is accepting that I can’t be perfect. I’m not a human being that’s capable of working “on” for the entirety of their PhD. Nor do I think I’m completely capable of working at a flat rate of productivity – it’s something that surges and abates. Even when I’m “off” I don’t think that I can be classified as “non-productive”, I’m just not operating at full capacity.

I’ve become a lot more organised and productive as my PhD progressed. At the start I wasn’t efficient enough to do what I can do now: run a reaction, work it up and purify it in succession on the same day. It used to be impressive when I ran 3 column chromatography purifications in 1 day – now I can run 4 per day without too much undue exertion. Sometimes it’s the silly little things that accelerate or stall my overall productivity – do I have enough clean glassware, for instance.

My strategy in the lead-up to my candidacy exam is to just go with the flow. I can sense that next week will be “on” – it is the final week before teaching resumes, so I have a clear run at the research. I’ll try to avoid burning myself out, or getting too frustrated with the “off” mode.


It took almost half a year from the jolting realisation that I needed a car to the point where I held the keys to Saxon in my hand. Along with the smugness of finally having achieved something that every other adult managed to achieve in their late teens already, I felt a relief that I could finally switch out my deadlocked, trapped existence from something a bit more satisfying.

Quickly, I realised the truth. I’d been too eager to pin my future happiness on a definite object, and I’d missed the obvious signs:


I can take my car to the large supermarket. I leave the campus and pass through a couple of miles of suburban order before hitting the major traffic arteries and the Mall Zone. The vista of malls, superstores, drive-throughs and pokey restaurant strips fans onwards in all directions. Beyond that? Suburban order until we come to the next Mall Zone.

And that is the American heartland.

It echoes back to when I first touched down in the USA and was lodging in an apartment complex in King of Prussia, PA. Heavily jet lagged, I staggered along the road side (no pavements, I had to skirt up the embankments and duck around metal crash barriers) to the supermarket to buy some food. A Google Search had told me that the largest mall on the Eastern Seaboard was located in King of Prussia…that was it. Again: the suburban order of prim little houses followed by the soulless grey concrete of the Mall.

Americans love their shopping malls. I wouldn’t post a status on Facebook explaining that I was “going to the supermarket”, but it would be well within my rights to fore-post about a trip to the mall (an exclamation mark or two is the de rigeur accompaniment). No one of my American friends would consider it untoward if I shared with them a selfie during said mall trip (I’ve yet to see anyone post a selfie from their supermarket excursions). I can tell you with authority that some young Americans – presumably without much life experience – would consider the mall a prime location to (i) take a date (ii) “pick up chicks”.

To me however, there is no soul or personality in these retail wastelands. There is no allure or excitement out here. I turn Saxon around and drive home.

If I had a chance to meet my younger self for a coffee as she pulled together her PhD applications – and I think she was quite open to advice at that time – I’d probably have warned her. “Look, kid. The PhD is going to burn up a lot of your time and energy, so much so that you’re going to be spending almost the same amount of (per annum) time in your beloved Philadelphia during the American PhD as you did when you were domiciled in Europe. Except that instead of being able to spend your weekends people-watching in Edinburgh coffeeshops, cycling around London or swimming down the Rhein, you’ll be stuck on a university campus in the middle of a mall strip non-urban deadzone. For what it’s worth, you may as well just apply to cities all over the States. You liked Austin and Chicago, yeah?”

Which isn’t to say that I regret my choice or fault my reasoning in the application/decision-making process…but it would have been nice to have given myself a better class of choices.

2015 comes with hope, though. If getting a car isn’t enough to escape, then perhaps a chance of address will bring an improvement.