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Untold stories: science's mental health problem

Chemistry by Weike Wang

Emma Grygotis 8 August 2017

www.lablit.com/article/928

Warped: graduate school exerts crushing pressure

As a graduate student and a fledgling writer, there is a special compartment of my heart reserved for the rare creature that is the well-crafted fictional scientist. The unnamed narrator of Weike Wang’s debut novel Chemistry is one such gem.

The story follows a Chinese-American Ph.D. student studying organic chemical synthesis. It opens with a marriage proposal, then follows her rapid downward spiral as she struggles to balance the expectations of her family and research with her own happiness. She narrates this journey with a mix of dry humor and chemistry anecdotes, constructing a portrait of a character so deeply absorbed in research that the barriers between herself and her work rapidly disintegrate. Life and chemistry are one and the same.

Perhaps it’s better to summarize our narrator’s story in her own words: "Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path".

Among the human challenges she is trying so desperately to understand: marriage, discovery, immigration, identity.

Among the scientific concepts she uses to contextualize her place in the world: light, whale behavior, radioactivity, rocket propulsion.

I won’t discuss much more of the plot because, for me at least, the draw of the book is all in its narrative voice (I should also mention that it’s probably won’t be a favorite if you’re looking for an action-driven storyline). In trying to articulate what I love so much about this character, I decided to take a look at what other people had said. A few choice adjectives, pulled from reviews on Goodreads and Amazon:

"mentally-ill"

"unlikable"

"clearly messed-up"

To be honest, those descriptions were a shock. How could anyone use those words to describe a character whose inner monologue is so relatable?

Some personal background. A year and a half into my Ph.D. studies (six months before my qualifying exam), I began having panic attacks. At work or in the car, sometimes in the middle of experiments, I would hyperventilate, shake, even lose the feeling in my hands. At my worst, this happened every week, and it was not unusual for me to lose days of basic human functionality, let alone the ability to engage in meaningful, productive research. At the time, I was convinced that there were only two escape routes open to me: to drop out or to die.

I’ve learned since that this is not at all unusual.

It’s nothing new to say that graduate school and science present steep mental health challenges. A commonly cited study, conducted at the University of California Berkeley, found that 47% of Ph.D. students suffered from depression. And while not everyone chooses to use the language of mental illness to describe these types of experiences, my subjective experience is that it’s far more than that.

The Berkeley report was just one of many places this issue has been tackled in recent years, part of a growing conversation that also includes countless feature articles, blog posts and Twitter hashtags. My generation of scientists has been fortunate enough to come of age in a slow but steadily shifting university culture that has allowed more and more academics to speak openly about these experiences, but still the problem persists.

Why? Why did I, as a baby grad student working in what I can only describe as an incredibly open, supportive lab environment, feel so hopeless and alone when so many people have been through their own version of the same exact thing?

The answer is, of course, complicated, but I would argue one reason is that while there are increasing numbers of people willing to share such stories, they are fundamentally very difficult stories to tell. We are trained as scientists to remove emotion from our analyses, but when it comes to the delicate balancing act of practicing science as a human, to take emotion out of the equation is a recipe for disaster. Pick a statistic, any statistic. It will never represent the complete truth.

Chemistry takes a fundamentally different approach. Wang holds degrees in both Chemistry and Public Health, but rather than the matter-of-fact reporting we expect from an academic, she writes in a stream-of-consciousness style that weaves between the personal and the scientific without boundaries. She gives voice to the inner thoughts of one struggling scientist in a way that is honest, raw, and immensely personal, resulting in an intimate look into a young scientist’s quest to find her place in the world.

"Sound doesn’t travel through space," she tells us. "Sound requires a medium, tiny molecules vibrating. Had I been shouting from a mountaintop where the air is thin, fewer people would have heard me. I did not think I was shouting. In my mind, I was whispering."

Another personal story.

I passed my qualifying exam. I thought the panic attacks would stop after that.

They didn’t.

Anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness knows how difficult it is to claw your way back to a place of health and balance, even after the acute crisis subsides (if you can even point to one). I tried the typical things – I went to therapy, cut coffee, meditated and avoided working on weekends. Nothing seemed to help.

Not until, somewhere in the cracks between lab work and sleep, I started reading. Voraciously. Mostly fantasy and science fiction, but really I turned to anything I thought might offer a brief reprieve from the reality of failed experiments and endless lab meetings. But at some point I realized that I was searching for something beyond simple escapism.

I needed to know I was not alone.

Stories are a safe refuge when reality breaks down and no longer makes sense. But while literature is awash with narratives about vanquishing evil and finding true love, far fewer chart the way forward when the only antagonist is yourself. The mind is a scientist’s greatest asset. What on earth are you supposed to do when it’s tearing itself to shreds?

The mind is a scientist’s greatest asset. What on earth are you supposed to do when it’s tearing itself to shreds?

Chemistry is a story I’ll hold on to for a long time – because it’s a beautifully written engaging read, but also because I think it accomplishes something vitally important. Mental illness is hard to talk about, especially for those of us with a proclivity for quantifiable metrics and elegantly crafted bar graphs. Stories like this are few and far between, but they are a valuable starting point for a more nuanced conversation about mental health that goes beyond simply recognizing that the scientific community has a problem.

Stories are a reminder. You are not alone.

Stories are a road map. There is always a way out.

Other articles by Emma Grygotis