27 and a PhD

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The day I almost died

Another year passes, another accident anniversary.

You see, 9 years ago, while I was in my first year of grad school, I almost died in a horrific accident. I came out of it walking, conscious and well, only some minor bruising and whiplash. But it was hard to believe I made it out alive when people saw pictures and video of the event. It was Mother’s Day 2004 and I was on my way back to my PhD lab from visiting my family. I’d spent a good week with my loved ones, nursing a broken heart. I’d seen my ex, the guy who broke my heart not once, not twice, but three times. I was broken and I wanted to die. I was pleading with God to kill me, or to align the stars so I’d be in a horrific accident and would not survive. I wanted the pain to go away. I was tired of crying myself to sleep for weeks. I think I went to bed crying every single night, from February to April of that year. I lost weight, it felt like I’d lost my reason to live … or what I though was my reason to live.

Eventually I resolved to live and rise from the depths of my depression. Millions of hearts had been broken before. I was not exceptional. I was going through a rough period that a lot of people go through when they’re in middle or high school. But since I wasn’t allowed to date until I was in college (and with restrictions!), I was experiencing my first heartbreak in all of its glory. It was awful.

Seeing my family gave me some energy. But seeing my ex and his new conquest fueled my resolve to do kick ass science. To move forward, to publish, to get my name known by important people in my field. And it definitely fueled my desire to live.

And then there was the accident. And my life changed. I remember as everything was unfolding in the longest minute of my life, asking God for forgiveness. Asking God for a chance to prove that I could do great things. I was afraid to die. I was only 22. It was not my time.

And live I did. I only went to the hospital to get a neck brace and some potent pain killers. All X-rays showed no issues or broken bones. I was embraced by my family, with tears running down their faces. They’d seen the news reports of the accident. They could not believe I was alive. They were happy to see me. I was in shock. I felt like God had listened to me. And now I had to face the pain of the broken heart, and the survivor’s guilt and I needed to move forward.

And I went back to school. I dumped all my anger, my rage, my frustration and my despair into working my tail off. And half a dozen papers came out of that. Some with lots of effort and tears, some with seemingly no effort. I eventually went to therapy to deal with some of the survivor’s guilt, with the feelings of anger I still harbored towards my ex, of the feelings of inadequacy, of the imposter. I’m pretty sure I had some PTSD, judging by the bouts of fear I had for about 1.5 years after the accident. They uncontrollable crying and lack of sleep I got moments before facing the same situation that had almost killed me. It was tough. I’m still dealing with the remnants.

I lived through a rough time when my self-worth was shot. I found love again. I found my calling in science. I found two amazing jobs after one bad postdoc. I am married. I’m an auntie. I’m healthy and I’m working on becoming physically strong.

Now, 9 years after, I am happy and thankful for being alive. I’m happy that I didn’t die on that dark day in May. I’m happy to have a family that loves me, a job that needs me and fuels my interest in science, and I am happy I have a better man, a best friend, a wonderful murse ;-). I am resolved to not go down without a fight.

Sometimes life changes in an instant. And what we thought was our happily ever after becomes a nightmare. A broken heart, a cheating ex, an accident. They all happen at once and you’re left considering the what ifs, and now whats. It is worth going forward. It can be one hell of a transforming experience. And I am happy to be able to tell it.

Hang in there …. it does get better. I am living proof of it.

Updates and links

I keep having a hard time coming up with original content to write every week. Partly, it’s due to the fact that the semester has started, we’re teaching a course and there’s a lot of organization and planning to do. In addition, because we’re still a user-driven facility, we get requests to do set up experiments and equipment all the time. I’ve become the go-to person in the lab in terms of knowing where everything is, asking for quotes, helping to process data that only my immediate supervisor and I know how to process. While it is all good, it’s a lot of work. I’m barely thinking about academia these days. But I’ve kept writing here and there and now I’m sharing those links, in case you’re interested. As you may have noticed I’m also not tweeting as often, this is part of the whole “not having a clue” about what to write. I feel like I’m out of ideas, and/or fresh content. I find it sad. I wish I could talk in more detail about what is it that I do and what my job entails … but I’m just not ready to say who I am to the whole world. Anyway, here are some links of some of the other places I contribute to. Enjoy!

My reasons to move elsewhere in academia – over at Bio Careers

Little things I wish I’d known in grad school parts 1, 2 and 3 – over at 1DegreeBio

On gradually becoming an ally

Due to all the asshattery lately (not that I’m looking at you Chick-fil-A … nooooo, not at all) I am compelled to write about this. I’ve been silent (blog-wise) for a long time, and it’s time I write openly and proudly about it.

I was, at one point, a conservative (not fiscally, but morally). I was raised a Catholic (and I occasionally still go to church, but it has to be an inclusive one, which can be found in NYC, thank God). My dad is a self-defined atheist who is pissed at the Church, yet whenever I sneeze (or call home) he says God bless you. My mom is a very committed Catholic. I admire her dedication to the Church and to what she believes will bring her salvation. But I can acknowledge now that I had lots of issues with the Church growing up. I was baptized by the same priest that married my parents, I was in choirs growing up and even in grad school. I’ve participated in plays, prayers and everything under the sun. I know the prayers backwards and forwards, I’ve been there. But like I said, growing up I had many issues with the Church, which is partly why it doesn’t surprise me now that I rebelled.

I swallowed the Kool-aid that some “well meaning” old folks at Church made, mostly with their conservative interpretation of the Bible. I grew up believing that it was fantastic to get a job, but that it was an even greater honour to be a wife and a mother, and while my mother never professed submission to her husband, she did become submissive to her Church, something that’s still true to this day. Growing up I faced many challenges, particularly from a somewhat physically abusive father (he once punched me in the back so hard, my sister, a little girl at the time, had to beg him not to kill me … the next day I had black and blues all over my back). I excelled in school, was an obedient child, never had a boyfriend, never kissed anyone until I was in college. I saw things through the tinted lens of a very conservative interpretation of morality by the fellows at my local Church.

I grew up knowing that it was perfectly acceptable to believe that God created the Earth in 6 days and rested on the 7th, while also believing in evolution. There was never an issue there. I still don’t have much of an issue with it.

But growing up in that environment had a deep impact on me. The very first boyfriend I had, after so much prayer, so many confessions and so much Kool-aid, I slept with months into our relationship. I can see now that it was a natural reaction to all those years of having to hide my child-like curiosity about normal development and human relationships. I slept with him as a way of protesting my upbringing, but God-forbid I use a condom, that would have sent me straight to hell (and if I got a STD or a child, so be it, that’s my punishment for being a whore). I was submitting to my ex-boyfriend even when he wasn’t asking me to. In my mind I wanted to make things right. I thought that if I married him, even if I’d slept with him before, I’d still be able to “wash away” my sin and become a good Catholic girl once again.

That didn’t go as planned and I had to deal with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness once our relationship went kaput. In my culture and my family, many times, the value of a woman is attached to not having sex, being pure and chaste, not so much on the value of her heart and feelings, and accomplishments despite being perceived as a token latina by everyone. None of that matters, it’s the fact that you’re unblemished what is truly important. A man will sleep with many, but only choose a virgin … once you’re not a virgin, you’re a whore, worthy of nothing, especially love. I felt reduced to a membrane and whether it was present or not.

Little by little I started to wake up from the slumber. It was a tough path, I’m still walking it today. Eventually I began to accept a loving God that sees me as his daughter, as good enough, as long as I keep his commandment of treating others as I’d like to be treated. I believe that same God sent me a partner who understood what I was going through, and who challenged me (and still does) to do better, to be accepting, inclusive, to go beyond tolerance and help in the fight for equality, to combat the hate and rage that inevitably come from not conforming to the conservative lens we grew up under.

Honey can attest how stubborn I am, and how shocked I was with him when we first started dating and he wanted to discuss things like: how should pedophiles within the Church be dealt with (my old view: prayer; his view: prosecution, conviction, jail, restitution by the Church), with women preachers (me back then: hell to the no; him: why not? especially with the priest shortage!), equality, (me: AYFKM, haven’t we given those heathen enough! as it is, they’re going straight to hell, the Bible says so!!; him: we must fight to make sure EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE is equal, men and women, marriage (not “gay” marriage and “straight marriage”, just plain and simple marriage), and so on and so forth.

It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that the same oppression I’d experienced within certain communities in the Church and in society at large was one that people around me, because of their race, or who they love, were/are experiencing. I remember feeling sad, depressed (almost suicidal), by the fact that I was a woman, a horrible being, a whore within the Church for not being a virgin anymore. How much can one withsand when told “you’re not good enough, worthy enough, of love, respect, of basic rights and dignity because of who you are and choose to love?” I know not every Church or community is like that, I’m just pointing out how the conservatism of my old community influenced how I felt when I was in it. Once that  dawned on me, I realized that I was being the same kind of jerk to the rest of the world as the one I was running away from.

Honey says he’s proud of me for seeing the change in me, and in my capacity to accept and help defend the rights of those marginalized everywhere, but particularly by institutions with power, be it the Church, or a community of like-minded people controlling certain parts of government (or a school, a fast food joint, company, etc).

Little by little I realized and embraced that it doesn’t matter what colour you are, what faith you choose (or not) to profess, or who you love, but how you treat others, the kind person you are, to you and others, that is what matters. It was a long path, it’s still not done. I’d like to think there’s room to grow. But by becoming accepting of people with different backgrounds, faiths, beliefs, cultures and even who they chose to love, less hate, less anger, less anguish fill my life.

By becoming an ally of those oppressed, particularly in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite, transsexual/transgender community, by not standing with the oppressor, in whatever form it comes, I become a better person, I’m able to love others as I’m supposed to love and treat and do to myself. By acknowledging that everyone, regardless of their gender, deserves the right to live in peace, to be respected, to demonstrate that love, to commit to their partners, to become loving parents and by standing up when I’m called to do so, I become a better person … not only that, I ensure that those in future generations, will have access to the same freedoms and responsibilities as I do today.

It is not fair … in fact, it is pure idiocy to try and use every Bible trick under the sun to try to justify hate, to try to deny what is fair and just and to belittle, betray and deny others the same freedom to love, to take care of and create loving partners and families that they all, and we all deserve.

What I’ve said may have been said more eloquently before, but I had to get it off my chest. I won’t, I can’t stand for hate, for marginalization, for not defending and ensuring that everyone around me, regardless of how and who they want to express their love to, can do so. A few years ago I read a book called ‘Pornografía y vestidos de novia‘ (pornography and wedding gows, small essays on the dichotomy of being a woman and expected to marry in white but act like a slut behind closed doors, if you can get your hands on it, please read it). In it, the author mentions that the so-called traditional family model (mom, dad, son(s), daughther) … the heteronormativity, has proven its failure over and over, then why on Earth (said much more eloquently by Gemma Lienas) are we so darn stubborn and deny that loving, same-sex families have their chance at love and marriage and creating a family. Not only same-sex couples, but fathers that can provide a better future for their kids, grandparents who provide a supportive net for the family, in essence, anyone that desires to form a family, regardless of how fair away it seems to be from the “traditional” family. That I think it’s what finally put the nail in the coffin of my conservatism.

I’m proud of who I am today. I know I need and have much more growing up to do. I’m proud to be an ally in the fight (and defense) of equality, gender, marriage, racial and even class. I hope you are too.

Appearances elsewhere on the web

Someone asked on Twitter to post my entries on other online outlets. I have a tab where I post these entries, but I’ll also add them as they appear.

Here are my latest entries over at 1DegreeBio on things I wish I’d done or known when I was a grad student. Part 1 and Part 2.

Also, here’s my second entry over at the BioCareers blog.

Enjoy!

It shouldn’t bother me, but it does

Yesterday I mentioned on Twitter that I got a comment on the blog, on my most popular entry, about my writing/English. It shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did. I kept going back to it and what it meant. Was I, not a good enough communicator? I decided that I was, that I am at least a decent communicator, since that story is still my most popular. I still get comments on it, and even emails about passing the qual, failing it, and what to do next.

It is no secret that I’m not a native speaker. I grew up in a house dominated by the beautiful sounds of Spanish. I am not ashamed of my roots, nor my accent, let alone my writing. My blog does not pretend to be a full-on, super critical place to talk science. I do not blog about science, or the scientific process because I don’t feel like it. Plenty of people are already doing a fantastic job on that end, check my blogroll and/or my Twitter timeline and see how many RTs of fantastic people talking about science I share.

My blog was/is intended as an outlet to vent the frustrations of my everyday life as a scientist. First as a student near the end of her PhD, then as a frustrated postdoc, then leaving academia and getting a job as a staff scientist at a core lab. Not all I do is strictly academic, but I still do research. I just don’t talk about the specifics. That’s my choice. Life as a scientist is not all peaches and cream (feel free to check my posts from October 2010 to June 2011, what I call the epic job search of 2011) which is the main reason I blog.

I don’t need to be applauded or treated in a condescending way because English happens to be my second language. While it feels nice to be complemented on it, I’m not fishing for complements. I just want to be treated like any regular old human being, no exceptions, no special treatment. I decided long ago to write my blog in English to practice my writing, to keep those wheels moving. Sometimes it comes out pretty, sometimes it doesn’t. I write like I talk; what you get on this blog is what you get in real life, except, with much more profanity (I can swear in at least 4 languages). If my writing or my speech sound “funny” and you suggest I go back to school and take classes to improve it, then you’re ignoring that I am much more than my speech, my writing. I’m a scientist, a woman, I’m bilingual and damn proud of that. My pronunciation and syntax are still not perfect, and guess what? They never will. And that’s OK. What is not OK is to phrase a comment in a condescending manner, by adding the “but” in the middle of it. A “but” does not make it better, it makes it sound like there’s this sense of superiority in it, and that I’m less because I can’t speak or write like a native. I had great school and college teachers, and I’ve been complemented on numerous occasions on my grammar. I’m a product of public education in a dysfunctional system, and I am extremely proud of that and of all the teachers and professors who got me here.

I get it, it’s better to point out the failures in my way of telling my story, than to comment on the content of the entry, which is that I’m trying to give hope to students out there, to trainees of all sorts that it does get better, that failing an exam is not the end of the world, and that they too can have a story with a happy ending.

So, Dr. Peters, if my entries are long and scattered, if I end sentences in prepositions, or use apostrophes, commas and other types of punctuation wrong, that’s my choice and that’s my style. I’m frankly tired of people trying to feel superior by pointing that because I’m a latina, a woman and I happen to be fluent in more than one language, I’m still less. It’s tough being bilingual, or trying to pass like one. In my case it amplifies my feelings of being an imposter. But I’ll be damned if I let a “well meaning” comment stop me from blogging. In my view there are two choices, you either suck it up and keep reading, or you delete my blog from your bookmarks. It’s up to you. Till then, me and my funky sounding English will keep the ball rolling. In my opinion, there are many out there who can overlook my shortcomings with a second language and gather something useful from what I have to say.

Kind regards,

27 and PhD for over 3 years

Absence

I know I’ve been MIA for a while. I rarely get on Twitter these days, and I forgot to blog last week. In fact, I’m forgetting a lot of things these days. My apologies, it’s not on purpose.

It’s been crazy busy at work. There have been a few workshops and seminars to attend, followed by lots of data collection, instruments going down, my boss not getting one of his grants renewed. Oh, and the pesky impending move. In case you don’t know, one day I was happily typing away while I get an email from my roommate. The soon-to-be-ex-roommate says she’s pregnant and that her fiance is moving in, so I need to pack up an leave. In her defense, I’d only signed a 1 year lease. In my defense …. WTF? In case you can’t tell, changes send me into a panic and end up with me in a foul mood for weeks (ask honey … also, poor honey).

I wasn’t looking forward to moving for the 5th time (yes, fifth time) in less than 12 months. I finally found something, of course with roommates because who on earth can pay NY prices! Even the boroughs are shitty expensive, unless you move to less than reputable areas. Instead, I’ve moved into a truly tiny room, in a 3BeR/2BaR apartment where my cat can stay legally and I get to enjoy cable, dishwasher, on suite washer/drier and apparently less parking issues, though we’ll see about that. Yes, I still have my vehicle. Why, you ask? Because it still has ON tags and because of all this craziness, my always depleted savings account is now blank. It doesn’t cost too much to register (well, certainly more than in ON). I’m not looking forward to the colours of the stupid NY tag, crappy mustard and blue (what a crazy combination, it looks horrible!), but I have to do it by August, so it’s happening. After that, I’ll try to fix some minor things and hopefully put it on sale.

Also, this week I’m turning 31. I hate numbers that don’t end up in 0, 5 or are repeats (22, 33, 44, those are cool). I’m a foul mood, but it’s not your fault. I don’t hate my age, I just don’t like the 1 (I hated being 11, 21 was not so bad .. hello beer!).

Rambling, rambling, rambling. I know, that’s exactly how it sounds. All this to say that it’s not that I don’t want to blog, it’s not that I hate you all, I don’t. I seriously love getting comments and questions, even if it takes me forever to answer. I apologize.

I decided to go back to my mood meds. While I was in grad school I was diagnosed with severe PMS, or PMDD. I seriously had the most miserable two weeks before my period (seriously, 26 weeks out of every year, for the last few years). I got depressed, my chest was extremely tender, I would cry or fight for no reason, sometimes I even got a cold beforehand (for a whole year while in grad school I got sick every single month, the issue would resolve once my period was done … WTF?). I tried the birth control patch and a few other hormonal solutions to skip my period, but I only got shorter periods and my boobs were untouchable. I guess it’s some sort of sensitivity to birth control? I don’t know, all I know is that the Pill didn’t work for my period.

The mood/physical issues were serious enough to interfere with my life, to the point that I had to be out of the lab for a day or two every month. I took escitalopram, and it worked wonders, but that stuff was expensive. Then I switched to sertraline … it sort of worked. Then I got off completely. It wasn’t fun. Now that I have a FSA account and a non-crappy, non-grad school insurance, I can finally afford meds, and I’ve been back on escitalopram for a few months now. One of the side effects is loss of interest in things that I used to like … that explains (partly) my absence from Twitter and from the blog. I feel like I’m in a constant writer’s block. It’s not fun, but I prefer that to having the shitty feeling two weeks out of every single month be almost unlivable. (In case you’re curious, I did try fluoxetine …. I wanted to kill myself two weeks in … yeah, not fun to want to jump off buildings and bridges just because).

So, there you have it. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s not that I don’t care about blogging and tweeting. I love you and love interacting with you, but while taking care of my well-being, I get some of the side effects, which in turn affect my creativity a bit. I will continue to blog and tweet, and answer questions. It just may take a bit longer than usual.

Why do I write?

Around this time, 3 years ago, I was finishing up my PhD. I was working on my last 2 thesis chapters, my committee had agreed to let me go after serving my sentence doing what I’d proposed. I was interviewing for my postdoc in Canada, life was good. Two or so months later I started this blog. I didn’t know where it’d end up, or if it would even survive past my defense. I wanted to have a place to write my feelings, and bitch and moan about being a grad student (and later a dissatisfied postdoc), but I didn’t know if I’d have the stamina, time or interest to keep it up. After all, I’d started 2-3 blogs before, only to delete them later.

I can’t remember exactly how it started. I don’t know if I’d googled something and then found one blog that lead me to another, and another, and another, or if I’d simply just landed on WordPress and decided to open up a new shop. Hon had introduced me to WordPress some time before, and like I said, I had 2 other blogs, which quickly faded.

I wanted a place to post my feelings, put the words that were trapped in my mind, and hopefully find other souls, like me, who said “hey, I know exactly how you feel.” But I was also selfish (I still am) and wanted to be famous. I wanted to have a blog read by thousands of people, that would come and drool over my every word, picture and musing, and that I wouldn’t need to “work.” Sure, like that’s going to happen.

At times, I felt like quitting. Much like I’d done with Facebook (still hate it), I was comparing myself to other fellow bloggers. When they posted stats or when I saw streams of comments and links I felt sad, a bit depressed. It wasn’t happening on mine, and I thought that was THE measure of success.

In all that, a small little audience, and my interest on Twitter, collided. I started tweeting with a bunch of neuroscientists/pharm extraordinaires (I still do, ohai Dr. Becca and Dr Leigh and all you of neuro-amazing-researchers). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to divulge that I was a structural biologist, or that I was a disgruntled postdoc, but it slowly happened. Then I linked the blog and Twitter, and slowly but surely people started coming, and reading, and commenting, and RTing, etc, etc, etc.

I can’t say I’m an established blogger, God only knows that I’m very inconsistent and lazy, and that unless there’s a terribly extreme force pushing me, I won’t get out of bed and go to work, let alone blog.

But then, last week, something amazing happened. I was reading a mommy blog (an LDS mommy blog if you’re curious, even though I’m a liberal, disgruntled-Catholic) when something caught my attention. The writer was talking about some mental block while working her first book and quoted something that went like this: “write the type of book you would like to read.” All of a sudden it clicked (it being the reason).

Over the last few months my readership has increased a tiny little bit, more people comment, tweet, and especially send emails. I’ve had tweets, comments and messages asking the reason I write. Some of the reasons behind the blog are in the ‘about’ section. But the truth is that, after going through grad school with a good mentor, doing a postdoc with a relatively good mentor (except that I was most unhappy with the science and his way of mentoring) and going through a hellish job search (see posts from the first 5 months of 2011 for reference), I wrote and write the way I do because the things I talk about are things I’m curious about. They were and are things I’m interested. I love hearing and telling stories, but more importantly, the motivations behind those stories, behind change and the experiences that have made you and me be who we are today.

I write because some of the things I experienced were totally foreign to me, and even with a good PhD mentor, there were things I had to face alone and that were very unique to me (and to grad students and postdocs). I’m always looking for mentors, people I can look up to and aspire to be, people that are willing to take me under their wing and show me the ropes. Sure, I’m equipped to learn things on my own, but I will almost always prefer having someone there with me the first few times until I do things all on my own (and don’t break that pretty little 2.5 million dollar instrument).

The experiences I have under my belt, my triumphs and failures, and how candid I am, are for y’all to see. I try to be candid, much like the way I’ll tell you that tattoos hurt, or that even if I did some of my piercings, it still hurts like the mother. I try to be honest, to be open, because maybe if I’d had some of the information I (sometimes painfully) learned before, during and after grad school, I would have made different choices or at least more informed ones. I write the way I write because (besides being a narcissist), it’s the way I like people to tell me stories, to share insight, to let me know who and how they are. Because I hope that the way I write gives you a laugh occasionally, but also a bit of hope that things do get better and that there’s a way out. And that science is awesome, but it also has many fails, and that it’s not rosy all the time, but that you can indeed find a niche and flourish.

Those are the reasons for why I write, and for how I am (if you know me in the flesh). I write the kind of blog I like to read (except a bit of a more positive vibe, and less whining would be nice every now and then, no? And did I mentioned I was a narcissist?).