This past weekend, I received an e-mail from the rock star researcher who has been heavily recruiting me for his extremely prestigious – and formidable – lab. He suggested I attend a talk by one of his grad students concerning a project trying to pin down a gene that codes for a particular enzyme.
Now, I had pretty much decided to go with the less prestigious (and also less strenuous) appointment that was more in line with my current interests. But I do generally find these sorts of talks interesting, and I have more stamina now since the most recent nerve ablation, so I figured there were worse ways to spend a Tuesday afternoon. Plus, it might be an opportunity to talk to the rock star about why I was considering other options.
Of course, I still hadn’t figured out exactly how I was going to explain to Aerosmith that I planned to tour with The Black Crowes instead. (Er, no offense intended to either band.) There are conventions and protocols, and I don’t know any of them; one wrong move and I could wind up with nothing at all. Both researchers are professors here, where I am currently matriculating, and what’s more, they are colleagues, whose work occasionally overlaps.
And to be fair, the rock star reached out to me first, and is honestly the only reason I’m even considering pursuing a science master’s degree. Moreover, he has continued to court me heavily; perhaps it’s just a personality difference, but the same cannot be said for the other researcher despite my indication of interest therein.
Recognizing that I’d need some assistance as to how exactly to navigate this labyrinth, I emailed a mentor professor to see if I could stop by her office to get some guidance the week of the lecture. It seems ridiculous in retrospect to think that she’d have a moment of spare time Thanksgiving week, but whatever the reason, we were unable to hook up.
So I put my trust in the universe (or rather, tried to gird myself against whatever fresh anvil was about to land in front of me) and went. I had a class next door and was thus the first to arrive, and I took one of the seats near the back so my rolling backpack would be out of everyone’s way. As I watched the small, half-lit lecture hall start to fill, I realized that everyone there was a graduate student or a PhD. It was the first time that I’d been in such a setting, and it actually didn’t feel all that weird. I got some curious looks from a few of the other students, but I fell in to chatting with someone next to me, and before I knew it, the power point was blooming on the screen.
The lecture was even more interesting than I expected, and to my surprise, I was actually more or less able to follow the gist, although much of it was over my head. Emboldened, I saw a graduate student I’d been meaning to talk to about her work and was headed in her direction when the rock star walked right up to me and cut me off. After the briefest of pleasantries, he asked, “So, have you decided?”
Here we go. I took a deep breath, “Well, I’m definitely applying to the graduate school…”
I paused, trying to find the right words to elaborate, and he barreled forward, “Great! I’m very excited to have you in my lab; we’re actually already planning a space for you. Particularly if what everyone says about you is true…”
What? I smiled in spite of myself. “What? You asked about me?”
“Oh yes, I’ve been doing my homework on you. Everyone is telling me, ‘oh yes, she’s very bright, she’d fit right in…’”
Oh God. This was going to be harder than I thought. I attempted to discourage him from this line of conversation, “No, no, I don’t need to know what they’ve been saying…”
“So are you still planning to work with us in January?”
Finally, an opening. “Actually, I wanted to tell you that I’ve found a surgeon who thinks he can fix my shoulder, and I’ll be going in for surgery January 13th, so I’m not sure if…”
“Oh, that’s not a problem, you can just come in before the surgery and then come back once you’re recovered. Let’s see, January…” he pulled up a calendar on his phone. “You said the 13th? Here, you can work the week beforehand, starting January 5th.”
I had no argument for that, but managed instead to turn our chat to the lecture, a topic that despite barely following the content, I was much more comfortable discussing with him than, say, just about everything else. After a few minutes, I agreed to get in touch with him in the next few weeks to work out the logistics, and made my escape.
As I dragged my backpack down the handicap ramp towards the parking lot, my head was spinning. What the hell? I mean, this was an anvil all right, but instead of pulling me up short, it had vaulted me forward, towards a path I had already pretty much decided – for excellent reasons, I might add – not to walk down. I got that feeling again of the ground pitching under my feet. What was going on here? How was I supposed to know what was the right thing to do? Which signals was I supposed to follow? My two major life lessons were in perfect conflict: do I not bite off more than I can chew or do I not force my life away from the direction in which it’s headed?
A big part of me wants to just slide like a marble into this groove that’s being created for me and take the prestigious lab appointment. Yes, it would be physically demanding for me, but it’s also the path of least resistance. And it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I tried it out in January (and possibly beyond) and then decided it wasn’t going to work. Not even if I’d already been accepted to the program; it wouldn’t be the first time a student has had a change of heart, and I would know long before much time or money had been invested.
Still, I felt it would be unwise to upend all of my [quite valid] concerns about my physical capabilities based purely on the day’s new information. I decided that if I was seriously considering it, I ought to at least bone up on what the lab has been doing and see if any of it appealed to me personally. So I set myself about delving into the more lengthy of the two papers that he had suggested for me to get caught up on the last few years of research.
The article was long and challenging. The writer minced no words, and I had to open a new text window for notes so I could keep running track of all of the different enzymes and intermediates, and their significance to the pathways in question. It was more mentally taxing than the other researcher’s work, but I made it through the first two sections before getting sidetracked. Then I found a reference to the genetic disorders associated with a lack of one or another of these enzymes, and decided to take a break and peruse the internet for a sketch of their history and pathologies so I could get some context.
What I found was sobering. In fact, some of it was horrifying. Even mild presentations of these disorders cause bouts of extreme pain and significant neurologic events. A certain congenital form of the disease is disfiguring, excruciatingly painful, and fatal. The intermediates of the pathways are toxic, and a build-up results in the sufferer being poisoned to death by his body’s own metabolic processes from the inside out. A few treatments can slow the disease’s progression, but they carry dangerous side effects, and can only be given short-term or intermittently; there is no cure. Fruits of this lab’s research could offer the first real hope for sufferers of these diseases.
That got my attention. Actually, I haven’t been able to think about much else since. All of the intricate, precise, step-by-step modeling I’d been taking notes on has acquired a sudden urgency. This work is important. It is more than important. What those people go through, being attacked by their own bodies, millennia of evolution gone horribly wrong by the draw of a bad genetic lottery ticket – there must be a way to help them. That researcher, his passion, his determination… out of context, I couldn’t understand it. But now I get it. I feel it.
And I realize that something’s been missing from all of my deliberations about my post-graduate plans. Given enough desire for something, I will work my tail off, but thus far, none of the numerous opportunities presented to me has sparked that kind of interest. But reading the descriptions of these disorders has ignited something in me that I haven’t felt in years. I could get passionate about this. In fact, I already am, and not in a maybe-this-would-work-for-me sort of way, but in an I-have-to-do-this sort of way.
While that’s been disastrous for me in the past, it is at least possible that this experience over the last year has alerted me to the need to stay in close touch with my body’s physical signals, so I know when I need to step back and recharge. And if I am able to do that, and if the young orthopedic surgeon’s unorthodox procedure can fix my shoulder, then it seems to me that maybe, just maybe, the more challenging opportunity is the one I’m supposed to take after all.
Because as I’ve mentioned a lot lately, I’m tired of everything being such a damned production. I’m tired of having to wrestle and massage and manipulate circumstances in order for me to be able to manage them. My condition makes some of that inevitable, but it still feels wrong every time, and I still approach it reluctantly and only after all other options have been exhausted. Here, for the first time in what seems like forever, I am finally presented with a situation where all I have to do is let go of the rail and roll downhill.
I thought the other lab appointment was the right thing to do. But despite all of the advice, and my careful lists of pros and cons, this appointment is the one that feels like the right thing to do. It feels like letting go; letting go of all of the anger and angst and anxiety about why my injury happened, letting go of the feeling that I’m wasting my life and my talent, letting go of the big empty hole in the middle of me that I haven’t been able to fill. Finally, something where all I have to do is put my head down and follow the road.
Of course, the work itself will be incredibly challenging, and mentally and emotionally exhausting. But the other stuff, the logistical stuff, the having to smooth and divert and rearrange the parameters of virtually every single task that’s handed to me; in this case, at least, there won’t be any of that. I won’t have to scope it out first, or make sure it comes with bumpers and ramps, or work out plans B, C, and D before I embark on plan A. I can just go in and do what I’m supposed to do. Just like everyone else is doing. It’s all I’ve wanted, since this whole thing began. Since before this whole thing began, even. To be just like everyone else. Not special or different or needing to go a different way or find a different method.
I barely dare believe it. I remember, many months ago, one of the ladies in my support group came up to me when I was feeling really low, and said “I know something really good is waiting for you. Deep in my heart, I know it.” My eyes filled at the time; it just seemed impossible.
But now the impossible seems possible. And it doesn’t even involve me having to choose correctly. There’s a door open, and a bunch of people on the other side encouraging me to walk through it. And that’s all I would have to do. Just walk through.
And I think I should. And I think maybe I will.