Lab Rats

The road not taken

When a Ph.D. proves elusive

Christina Rush 15 June 2006

Case closed: things don't always turn out as you planned

I’ve seen far too many succeed in science, despite a clear lack of intelligence or diligence

Boxes and more boxes.

I sit amid a hurricane of boxes, half filled, half spilled, waiting for me, and the decision I must ultimately make. Will I be selected for the editorial internship in New York City at Nature magazine? Or will I drive back in a panic to Montana, once my home, for some semblance of normality? I moved to Memphis nearly five years ago, a girl trying to be a grown-up in science, secure in the dream that I could become the scientist I knew lived inside, in the Ph.D. I felt I could easily obtain.

I graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman Montana in 2001 with a B.S. in Microbiology. Not to sound too geek-like, but I was the president of the microbiology club. Just to keep us not-so-nerdy, I took the money granted to the club and used it for tours of local microbreweries as well as a trip to Yellowstone Park, where we marveled over every colony of thermophilic bacteria beneath our feet. In the spring of 2001 I applied to graduate schools throughout the nation, ready to face what came after free beer and sulfur-springs. Very quickly, I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis.

Unfortunately, things did not quite go to plan once out of my home state. Of the good memories, only one surfaces, of spotting fireflies for the first time, marveling at their glowing bodies, seeing in my mind the scientist who took advantage of that feat of nature in their experiments. Of the bad – well, those memories overwhelm.

While graduate school demands so much, life always seems to seep in, somehow, someway. Shortly before arriving, my boyfriend at the time proposed and, unwisely, I accepted. Shortly after, planes smashed into the twin towers in New York, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. The world changed in a day, a day my school ignored. Classes went on as usual, no one seemed to care about the one American in the classroom who had family in New York, no one seemed to notice the white-faced, frightened girl in the back of the room, pen frozen in hand, notes forgotten.

The year moved on: research rotations, qualifiers, a wedding in Montana. Although seeming to calm down, another cog in the wheel tore through the stillness as my new husband left, activated by the National Guard just six weeks after we married. Alone now, I struggled to grow those protein crystals, deal with the deaths of my grandfather, and a beloved uncle. My mentor allowed no time for mourning; in fact, she cornered me in the lab screaming into my face that if I left, there would be no project when I came back.

I’m still not sure if I made the right choice. I stayed, and published in Nature, but I never had the chance to say goodbye to two very beautiful people. Another year, and my husband came home, a different person – or perhaps the differences were in me. We grew apart, my mentor began to publish my work without my name on the papers, and I was admitted to Ph.D. candidacy.

A divorce followed shortly after leaving one lab for another. Although acting upon my Ph.D. committee’s advice, I feel I left too quickly; it was too soon to have gone running to a new lab without a working project, especially with a broken heart. No crystals grew this time, no-one came to heal my heart, time passed and I slowly felt myself beginning to fall.

Surprisingly, five years have now passed in pursuit of a Ph.D. However, I feel I have failed, or rather, life has taken some extraordinary turns. I suppose I should have expected this. Now, I am a woman. A woman and a scientist. While I have not yet secured that elusive Ph.D., I have at the least finally come to the realization that I will one day be the scientist I know I can be. Until then, I shall write up the masters, pack those boxes and turn toward the literary side of our shared profession.

An internship at Nature hopefully awaits in New York City. I don’t know if I’ll get the position, although the interview went well. At this point in life, I feel only two things determine where one will go in a scientific career, luck and stubborn determination. Sure, you should be smart, you should work hard, and you should do your best, but I’ve seen far too many succeed in science, despite a clear lack of intelligence or diligence. Perhaps I sound bitter, or maybe it’s just the Memphis heat, and the pain in my back from moving boxes all day. Either way, I’m looking for some luck now, because I’ve got plenty of stubborn determination to lift the heaviest loads, even if my back hurts.