Feeling both empowered and terrified as I drove into work, I looked up at the sky and started talking*
This is what it all came down to. 7 years in Baltimore, toiling for less than a living wage, trying to unlock secrets of the human genome and training myself to be a scientist. 7 years being summed up in a single one hour seminar given before the entire department, a question and answer session to follow with my dissertation committee.
I had come so far, yet I was frightened. As I drove into work, I started talking to myself:
Artful, you know more about this subject than ANYONE else in the room. You are an expert! You are the man! You are...completely pathetic and all by yourself. There is no one to celebrate with you when it is over. You are going to get into your car and drive to your best friends wedding. Jesus Christ...I have spent my 20s in school and have no one, and my best friend is getting on with his life and marrying the woman of his dreams. Where did the time go?
It has not SEEMED like 7 years. I remembered coming to Baltimore intending just to get my Masters as a stepping stone to going to medical school. I remembered moving to Baltimore right out of graduating from UVA and living in a dormitory a hop, skip and a jump away from Camden Yards.
When I first came to Baltimore, I remembered that I was amazed by the quality of individuals in my program. These were hardcore scientists, and I never felt that I measured up. Over time, however, I learned and became more adept at "doing the science." I mastered the fine art of immunohistochemistry, cell culture, and PCR. I KNEW the science backwards and forwards with my project.
My project...that in itself was a long road taken. Originally, I was looking at Peripheral Arterial Disease in the elderly and using a real patient population for my studies. I remember running people through stress tests and measuring their peak VO2. I remember administering resting metabolic rate tests to these individuals and learning how to take a blood pressure measurement manually while someone was on a treadmill. I remember meeting one of the best people I have ever met, someone I have since lost touch with-a very good friend. I also remember the day when my mentor lost his funding-2 years into my research. I had to start from scratch all over again, and I chose to go molecular.
The lab I chose was a good one, but the week before I joined, my new mentor lost his lab assistant of 9 years-the assistant had committed suicide. My mentor to be would never be the same after that. I became the de facto lab head, trying to work on my PhD while running the lab. I became frustrated, as I saw others in my department actually being trained and graduating while I was stuck in the lab. I was doing good work, yet my mentor never thought it was enough. I remember the day when I finally said ENOUGH! I scheduled a committee meeting, and at the end, one of the committee members told me that I was ready and I should write it up, My mentor was stunned, and I was elated.
I went on interviews for postdocs and accepted a position in Chicago so that I could be closer to my brother, who was starting his own fellowship. I was scheduled to move a month after my dissertation defense. I was scheduled to defend in September.
And the day before my defense, my mentor pulled one more cruel trick on me and said it was not good enough. I screamed to the heavens that night. WHY? I had endured so much. I had suffered. I had run the gauntlet, yet I was denied the last bit of satisfaction. I ended up moving in October, and I had to schedule my defense again. I remember the anticipation and the fear as if it were yesterday. I was staying at a hotel in town, and I had a rental car. The morning of my defense, I looked over my slides over and over again as I wolfed down breakfast. My stomach was uneasy, yet I knew that I would need my strength. I then got into my car and started what I hope would be the last drive I would have to make to campus.
Feeling both empowered and terrified as I drove into work, I looked up at the sky and started talking.
I went over my notes and then cursed the sky for putting me in this position. Where had the time gone? What happened if I did not pass? Would I have to move back here and start anew? Would I ever be able to go on with life? I felt so alone.
I arrived on campus and made my way to the seminar room. The seminar room was packed with members of the department. What I also noticed is that a lot of my friends were there, people who made the trip back just to support me. They took up the front rows of the room so that they could act as a line of defense for the hard questions. One of my best friends told me that if I was faced with the tough questions, I could look at her and she would nod her head in a gentle manner to assure me that I was doing fine.
I then gave the talk of my life. I do not know what happened, but I OWNED THE ROOM. Every snarky question that was asked by a faculty member was deftly met with sound scientific answers. My mentor even grudgingly had to admit that I had passed. The battle-no, the WAR-was over. I had done it. I had my PhD. I would always have it. I had not given up and fought the good fight. I was DONE WIITH SCHOOL (ok, maybe not).
Now, as I look back at those years in Baltimore, I cannot help but have mixed emotions. It was so much a part of my life-7 years in the same city meeting so many different people. Four of my best friends, 2 serious girlfriends, summer nights at the harbor, in Fells Point, in Canton, or in the mountains, winters spent struggling with the snow and the ice, never giving up and never surrendering my goal.
Since then, I have not gone back to my school. There are too many painful memories associated with it. Still, we all are the sum total of our life experiences. I would not be the person that I am today if I had not gone through my Baltimore experience. I would not have the friends I enjoy or my godson who currently resides in Florida. I knew moments of insane happiness and sadness in Baltimore. But the one thing Baltimore gave me that I have never experienced since and will likely never experience again was the high of seeing all of the signatures of my committee members on the dissertation passage report sheet. I HAD DONE IT! That is a high that made it all worthwhile, the only accomplishment in my life where the end was nowhere NEAR anticlimactic.
*I Stole the first line of this post from Stay Tuned, by Jennifer Weigel. This is part of Grace's ongoing Stolen Lines Experiment.