I’m coming up on the 6-month mark of my PhD research in Brisbane. And I have NOTHING to show for it. I can say that calmly now because I’ve spent a good month panicking about it already. I haven’t published any new papers. I don’t have any numbers to crunch or any points to plot. I have more holes on my coffee punch card from the cafe in our building than I have PCR gel images. And yet I’m done beating myself up about this perceived lack of achievement (or at least I flirt with the idea of being done with it, as I stare into my frothy coffee). Because I’m starting to appreciate research for what it is, and that’s a whole lot of activity even when there appears to be nothing happening. There is a reason that research is so slow. Looking over grant proposals in the past, I often wondered how it could possibly take a group of intelligent researchers so long and so much money to study what they’ve set out to study. But six months of nothing has made it obvious to me: for every mosquito experiment that is published, there were tens or hundreds of experiments before it that didn’t get published. There were mosquito colonies established, mosquito colonies killed, mosquitoes that failed to produce eggs, failed to mate–you name it. In research there are DNA primers that don’t bind, primers that bind to themselves, primers that bind at mysterious temperatures. There are plans to do field experiments and plans that literally get rained on. Or there is a cyclone (like last week). The amazing thing is that through all of these twists that most people would find terribly annoying, researchers persist. And the cool thing is, well, I’m starting to be able to identify as one of those researchers. Granted, there’s nothing to show for it. But I guess I’m finally okay with that.
First point: It doesn’t work. So look elsewhere if you’re looking for a real guide to becoming superhuman (http://www.wikihow.com/Pretend-to-Be-a-Superhero).
I’ve powered through January and the first part of February without letting any emotion bubble up. I’ve gotten a lot of work done, made many plans, and come up with a better idea of my career path. I’ve exercised regularly, I’ve budgeted scrupulously, and I’ve indulged minimally. I even bought a book written in German and read a few pages (this is big). But actually I can’t say that I’m proud of any of this. Even though these were the very things I strived for, now they seem meaningless. Because in the process of becoming superhuman, I lost the soul, the funk, the zeal, whatever you’d like to call it…the vibrancy of being human.
There’s something really appealing about feeling nothing. You can appear strong and confident to everyone watching (or at least you think), and you can even do a good job of fooling yourself sometimes. You feel limitless in your ability to take on new things. Sometimes it feels like there aren’t even enough new things to take on for you to keep your rush going. Last week I wrote to the coordinator of my Ph.D. program with a detailed plan of my next five years of research. Her response essentially said to chill out, that she will work with me to achieve my goals when the time comes, but that it’s too early to be worrying about it. This was upsetting, because I wanted to worry about! I wanted to plan the future with cold clarity. In that future world I’m the star of my own show. For the soap opera that is presently my life, I barely got a callback. Knowing that the present world outside is painful or scary, I thought shutting down emotionally and becoming a superhuman seemed like a good plan.
The only problem with that is that you can’t selectively shut off feelings. Out with the bath water goes the baby. Start replacing cocoa-dusted cappuccinos with low-fat Greek yogurt in order to become more awesome, and you might feel healthier, but are you really? What if when we follow these crazy superhuman ideals of the grocery-store-check-out-aisle magazines, we grow further from our real selves, we run 30 minutes a day farther from the nest of comfort and sensuosity that nurtures our souls? What if, as model Cameron Russell admits (http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html), the closer you get to superhuman, the worse you feel? The art of being sensuous, of accepting our humanity, is an art that merits more attention among today’s fast-paced, strive-until-you-make-it, dehumanizing messages. I’ve decided–at least for today–to take off my cape, add another sugar to my cappuccino, and return to being “just” me.
I had been driving myself crazy for the past month worrying that I wasn’t accomplishing enough while here in Germany. I had made game plan after game plan to try to make the most of my research experience while earning plenty of course credits to transfer back to Miami. I was worried about timing, about what people would think of my work ethic, about money. Then on Friday the guy who has been my kind of mentor in the lab for the past month, an Italian-German student in the final year of his Ph.D., stopped me and changed my whole experience here for the better. I had just come from this Molecular Biology class, which I hated and which was going to mean way too much study time, I feared. I had come into the lab and was sitting with my mentor as he contemplated whether to drink his cold coffee from the day before when I decided to ask for his perspective. I said, “I’m in this Molecular Biology class, and it’s really complicated and detailed and I have to study a lot. It’s so boring. Will I really need to know this amount of detail in my field?” He replied that molecular biology is always useful and of course applicable to what we are doing and then asked, “How many days is it?” I answered, “Well, it’s a semester-long course. It’s every day for a semester.” “A whole semester!?!” he exclaimed. “No way should you do it!” I laughed uneasily, wondering how anyone would get through college on that stipulation alone. He went on, “I thought it was for a few days or something. You should definitely not do it. I will tell the boss if you do it and he’ll have you kicked out.” He laughed. I laughed too, relaxing a bit more. I explained, “I just feel like this whole year will be a waste if I don’t at least earn some credits and do some important research.” “You worry too much,” he answered. “The purpose of your year here should be to have fun and to travel. You’re looking at going to see some labs in Greece and France. I think this is good. Your focus should not be on finding the best labs; it should be on location. Do they have anything in Spain? You speak Spanish.” I laughed as the worry clouds started to clear from my head and my shoulders began to relax for the first time in weeks. He went on, “Do you guys really care so much about work in America or what?” I answered that we very much do. “Well you’re in Europe now,” he assured me, “so you should adapt to the mentality of Europe. Travel and try to relax. You have your whole life to worry in America if you want to.” He was right. I knew he was right. And after almost three months in Germany of stress, a light switched on thanks to him, and since then I have been happy.
Let’s not lie to ourselves. It’s hard to learn a language. No matter how many Rosetta Stone levels you download illegally, no matter how many foreign films you try to absorb while reading the subtitles, you cannot just pick up a language. I speak Spanish fluently and am not so bad at Portuguese, so I’ve been told many times over the past few years that I have a gift with languages, that I can pick them up so easily. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent. But I don’t buy that any more. Now when people ask me how I speak Spanish so well, I no longer shrug as if some language angel has come and touched me on the shoulder. I tell them the truth. I’ve been learning Spanish for ten years. I had better speak it well! And during those years I wasn’t just staring at the books on my shelf or occasionally visiting the local Mexican restaurant (although great queso dip!) with hopes of someday knowing it. It took hours of tedious study. But more than that, it took thousands and thousands of really embarrassing situations. And it took a perfectionism that drove me to never stop listening to the language’s nuances. It took a lot of effort, patience, and courage. Why, then, did I think that learning German would be any easier? It’s not even a Romance language. I mean, if you’re in a pinch, you can throw in a French word and if you’re really lucky, it will be one that German has borrowed. Saying English words with a German accent is utterly fruitless (although we all still try it!). So why did I think I could just let German “happen to me”? If you haven’t guessed already, I’ll tell you: It’s not “happening”. In nearly every sentence I speak, there is a key word for which I do not know the translation. Extremely frustrating. But I just keep going to class expecting it to hit me one day. “What am I doing wrong?” I think. I’m not doing the three things I mentioned that are essential for learning a language: 1) a ridiculous amount of self-study of grammar and vocabulary, 2) putting oneself in as many over-ones-head conversations as possible, and 3) active listening, which involves full attention to pronunciation and syntax details and a willingness to retain and later look up the meaning of new words. This evening I was blessed with an over-my-head conversation. A guy from Yemen, who lives on my floor, sat down to have tea with me and spoke with me in German about our goals, our tastes in food, our understandings of religion, etc. His German was much better that mine, so he corrected me a lot, and it was so helpful! What is the best thing to do when you’re grunting senseless pieces of forgotten vocabulary to a native/proficient German speaker? Be humble, smile, and say, “danke” when corrected. You have to do it now. You’ll have to do it ten years from now. You earn a language over time and never fully. Sometimes I think a language requires even more devotion than a religion does. But on the bright side you see your progress much more quickly. : )