There’s a period of academic hazing in a lot of science-related graduate programs, but once that gauntlet has been run, the remaining years may consist of little more than one or two months of mild, easily absorbed pain. Not even pain, really. Annoyances maybe? Yeah, let’s go with that. March is currently annoying me. April will be a nuisance. May, however, will be the hell bitch that fills her super soaker with maple syrup, then walks around the house squirting the windows. Nearing the end of the second year, all good boys and girls begin to formulate the research plans that they’ll follow for the next ~3 years, hopefully culminating in curing some disease, building a more absorbent chamois, or a Nobel prize in the discipline of their choice. The process is designed to change how you approach what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and the cognitive conveyor belt that you’ve gotten into the habit of using to formulate hypotheses. That’s a friendly way of saying MIND RAPE.
Not rape in a bad way, though. Good rape. Sure. The productive kind.
You’ll spend days and weeks preparing to propose experiments that, on the surface and in your little world, seem brilliant. Then one day, you’ll present them to a few people and they, having your best interests in mind, will deconstruct these ideas so thoroughly and with such astonishing ease and clarity that you’ll spend the evening sitting in your overstuffed chair, feet propped upon the overstuffed ottoman (the furniture, not a fat Turkish dude), staring at the ceiling and pondering the depth of your ineptitude. It’s all a lesson in knowing what you don’t know, and a very important one, at that. And yet, it sucks. That which doesn’t kill blah blah blah.
In the mornings I go to the gym and I remind my muscles that I’m still the one in charge. Then I go for a run, and my lungs take up the flag of my muscles and remind me that I’m not really all that. Having achieved political equilibrium with my body, I go home and walk the dogs. I like to put things in perspective on these morning walks as a way of reminding myself what matters. My life consists of waking up and doing things under my own power with no help. Later it involves dogs and coffee. Later still, I walk up the hill to a hospital where there sits a lab with a bunch of smart people who do things involving chemicals and electricity. At lunch, I walk home, make a sandwich, read, watch the dogs frolic hither and yon, one trying to tackle the other until the other grows weary of her insolence. I thank them for the show, return to the lab, *pour* *bzzzt* *shake* *MATH!*, then go home, walk the dogs, and make dinner or go have a drink with people or read or whatever. And sometimes for days and weeks on end, I read through endless scientific journal articles trying to figure out what to do next, how to do it, and what it all might mean.
This is my life. There are no burdens here. Not really. I’ve been burdened. I know what it feels like, and this isn’t it. Doesn’t even come close. There is no job that destroys the soul; no danger of becoming homeless; no worrying about food or water for you or others; no crushing depression or suicidal thoughts. I’ve dealt with variations on some of those themes, but not now. Not even close.
The acquisition of perspective, having already been established via the walking of dogs, can also be augmented through the writing of the background to your research. I deal with things involved with autoimmune disease. Autoimmunity is when your body tries to kill you because it thinks that you’re trying to kill it. That qualifies as a burden. The three primary versions of autoimmune disease upon which I focus are lupus, a rare disease called Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome, and retinal vasculopathy with cerebral leukodystrophy (RVCL). Lupus generally begins as skin lesions, but sometimes evolves into a systemic form that either attacks internal organs or manifests itself as chronic arthritis. Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome primarily effects newborns and tends to be either fatal within 12 months or leaves the child developmentally disabled to varying degrees of severity with a 25% mortality rate prior to age 17. RVCL is a particularly devastating flavor of unfair in that it strikes middle-aged people with sudden vision loss, strokes, dementia, and death generally within 10 years. There are no cures for any of the above.
These constitute burdens that no one deserves. They also illustrate excellent reasons regarding the necessity to understand exactly what you’re working on in your research. If you can appreciate the ‘why’s involved in what you’re doing, motivation toward thinking about the ‘what’s and the ‘how’s should never be a problem (i.e., what do I need to do and how should I go about doing it). Being forced to think harder in order to possibly relieve other people’s burdens is a privilege. It’s a huge bonus. Thinking is currently a living. It’s not, however, a burden.
Sir @ March 16, 2010