Background (I will eventually stop giving this, but for the time being it is fairly relevant): I am a first-year in the Program in Chemical Biology. Since the relaxing of the Rackham restrictions, I am going to be the first person in my program to take candidacy in their first year. Additionally, I have my very own REU minion for the summer, and she's doing great work spearheading a project that I didn't have time to work on my own. Like most things I do, she's a rewarding time commitment. Also, I'm the Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee for Rackham Student Government, and we are trying to do some really important, behind-the-scenes things for the University as a whole. If you want to know about some of these things, I encourage you to come to my office hours, at noon on Fridays at Ashley's and have a beer with me.
This is the companion post my last post on deadlines, which was really about packing yourself full of responsibility. If you haven't, you should go back and read that because it will be topical to this one. Go ahead, I'll wait. Anyway, like I said I am doing candidacy, which is something that all Ph.D. students should understand and empathize with. This is about how I went from having a nervous breakdown, to being completely manically Zen, in about 24 hours. I'll try to be succinct and spare you the nitty gritty, the stuff I wouldn't tell my best friends.
Setting the scene: I had worked 80 hours the week before this, and a 80-hour week before that, and was coming up on 70 hours now. My home life was suffering, my RSG responsibilities were being set aside, and forgetting to eat until 8 or 9 pm had become a regular thing. I was having to go through extraordinary measures to fall asleep, a sort of somnolescent sledgehammer. I was considering seeking medical advice. From Friday morning, to Sunday night, here's my story:
Friday, June 29th, 9am: I go to Journal Club group meeting. I don't really have a chance to read the paper, because I started making the presentation at 11pm the night before, but I wanted to present it because it's directly pertinent to the project that my minion is working on. So I cut and past the figures, cursorily read the paper, and then start inserting my own background and relevance. I go to bed sometime around 3am, fall asleep sometime around 4. I stumble terribly over the Western blots, the IPs, the qPRC of the Nature Chem Bio paper, but then finish strong with some chemdraws of some of the complex post-translational modifications of cysteine, and the relevance of our project, a live-cell fluoresence imaging probe for sulfenylation (-SOH). I feel like I've failed terribly for stumbling over the paper I was supposed to be presenting, and apologize profusely.
Friday, 10am: My minion and I go on a scavenger hunt for chemicals that are interesting for the reaction that I'm working on. In the Chemistry Department, there's an online inventory list of chemicals for every lab, so we go hunting for electron-deficient benzaldehydes. As I pick through the jars, bottles, and vials, I am just looking at the same ones maybe three or four times over. I decide I need to systematize my approach. We find 11, almost every one we're looking for.
Friday, noonish: I begin to notice my ability to form cogent sentences is decreasing. Nouns are the hardest, and I'm left to using 'that' and 'it.' I'm a relatively well-spoken person, so this is somewhat alarming. I think only my minion notices. I skip my RSG office hours at Ashley's to work.
Friday, 4ish: Before starting 11 reactions, we begin a test reaction with 2,4-pentane dione and benzaldehyde. In the 1961 Tet. Lett paper we're working from, it says that the solid-supported alumina catalyzed Knoevenagel reaction should be complete at RT in 5 minutes. I smoke a cigarette, do some other stuff for a bit, and 10 minutes later we elute the reaction with DCM. The eluent is clear, and the NMR shows only starting materials. I also begin noticing that I have begun to misplace things, and spend an abnormally large amount of time looking for them. I imagine this is what ADD is like. As I am not normally ADD, this is doubly alarming. I think only my minion notices. She helps me find things, like my pipettes and flasks.
Friday, slightly before 5: I submit my Rackham blog post on deadlines and responsibility right at the deadline. I read it over, though not carefully. I decide it's good enough.
Friday, 5ish: My minion leaves, and I am absolutely useless in lab. I can't complete simple routine tasks like evaporating solvents or running a column. I am losing things everywhere. It takes me fifteen minutes to find the thing that I am looking for. By that time I've forgotten the task I was trying to accomplish with the item I was looking for, so I put it down. With great effort, I decide to revisit the benzaldehyde reaction, but put it on a 93 C heat block. It immediately turns pale yellow. From my previous experiments with this reaction in other ways, I know that the pure version of this is yellow. I wait. I try to do other things, but cannot literally concentrate on remembering the task enough to start the task. This is what I imagine a combination of ADD and Alzheimer’s is like, and that thought is enough to make me panic.
Friday 6pm: It is distinctly more yellow. Ok, cool, I say. Let's run the rest of 'em. I start the other ten reactions. Immediately upon putting them on the heat block, they turn yellow. Besides doing this, I Alzheimer’s around lab for three more hours, essentially figuring out how to put the stuff into my bag and change my shoes to go home, at which point I leave work and walk home. I try to focus on the walk, the feeling of walking on the way home. Simple moving is a mind-clearing pleasure.
Aside: This is what I imagined happened to Robert Persig's Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In his search to define the concept of Quality, the source of all thought and emotion, he lost his house, his wife, and his job as he climbed higher and higher into the metaphysical mindscape. He eventually lost his mind, and his very personhood as he went through electroshock therapy to erase the person that he was and replace him with a new person that doesn't climb metaphysical mountains. Though this book inspired me enough to ride my bicycle by myself along the antiparallel route that he took, in reverse, from San Francisco to Minneapolis and on to Ann Arbor, I would rather not revisit this part of his journey as well.
Friday, 9:15pm: I get home and there are people there. I decline to try some ice cream from the Washtenaw Dairy, even though I don't actually think I've eaten all day. Our guests leave, and I begin to talk to my wife. It's the first good conversation we've had in months. It's one of the best conversations we've had in our seven and a half years together. I tell her the above symptoms, and then begin to tell her that I think I'm not doing so well. Then I proceed to tell her with all certainty that I'm really not doing well. I am overcommitted, overworked. I am a wreck. I almost cry, which is a big deal for me. I ask that she give me ultimate leniency for the next two months until I finish candidacy. I tell her I can endure anything for two months. I tell her that I am going to say no to a lot of things, and she agrees. I tell her I am going to talk to my advisor as soon as possible to try and make it right. I feel better after this conversation, but I try to fall asleep at 3am and only get to bed at 5:30am.
Saturday, June 30th, 8am: I wake up. Wide awake. I've promised my wife that I would give her a valuable three hours of yard work, and so after some coffee and chatting about how good last night was, I get to work sawing dead branches from the tree in the front of our house. I should mention that I'm a pseudo home-owner, and that we basically rebuilt our house from the frame and foundation last summer. I pull the branches to the back yard, arranged so that they would be easier to mulch with a woodchipper for our garden. It's damn hot. I'm having a good time sawing. Simple work is good. Simple movement clears my mind. I feel better than I did after work yesterday. I can endure two more months of this. I had recently received a text reminding me that my first roommate and climbing partner from when I was a grad student at Berkeley was coming into town with his wife and new baby. I say that they should come over and see our house, which they hadn't yet. I tell my wife, and she agrees.
Saturday, 1:15pm: My old roommate calls from Dexter and asks if we had anything to eat. We currently have a garden that's producing more delicious kale than we can handle. Most kale is bitter and tough; ours you can eat raw, and it's like hearty lettuce. I have no idea what kind of kale this is. I ask my wife if we have food to feed them, and she says yes, so I invite them over. They'd be here in about 15 minutes. She asks me to clean some of the cosmetic tree branches and what-not from the front yard, and I say no, I'm going to go shower and change. She says and does some things that are very inappropriate that I am going to gloss over here. They were especially inappropriate given my state, even more so given what we had talked about literally not twelve hours before that. I am shaken beyond words. I am shaking uncontrollably.
Saturday, 1:30pm: I have cleaned up the purely cosmetic yard debris, showered, changed, and am sitting on my bed trying to stop whole body tremors when my friend, his wife, and seven-month old baby arrive. I get it together. We eat lunch, and I am reduced to holding my coffee mug with two hands so that I don't spill my coffee. Even so, I do spill a little. I don't think anyone notices that anything's wrong, but there are sounds in my ears from my brain screaming. It was a pleasant lunch, and we showed off the house, and our garden, and took some group photos. It was really nice. I can't stop shaking. After they leave, I, at length and very calmly, explain to my wife why what she did was so inappropriate. She says she's sorry, and I begin to feel better.
Saturday, around 3: I walk up to lab. Thankfully, my PI's there, and we talk about science and papers and the current lab environment and what not. I begin to tell him some of the things that are going on, sparing him the nitty-gritty. What he does is nothing short of a miracle. I cannot emphasize that enough. He jolted me out of this headspace and set me on the fast track to getting myself in order. He gave me three things to do before candidacy: run this screen with 11 compounds, get an NMR, do a crossover experiment. That's it. That's all I have to do. I don't have to do all the things. I just have to do the three things that will determine whether or not the mechanism is intramolecular, and works; or is not, and doesn't. I told him I was kinda on the fence about going to my cousin's wedding in Hawaii for a week, five weeks before candidacy. He told me, yeah, do it! He says, why did you even think about not going? He says, seriously, work less. In ways that I cannot even begin to describe here, I am so incredibly fortunate to have such an amazing PI. I actually begin to feel better.
Saturday, 6pm: After the utter abominable failure I was in lab yesterday, I decide to try to do one routine thing very well: I decide to purify a compound. This compound, a cysteine joined via a thioester to a pyrene, has been my workhorse for the last month and a half. I am doing chemical methodology development in the tradition of HTS screening and SAR studies. My first screen consisted of 528 reactions, of which one unique molecular scaffold hits. In the follow up screen of this compound, I run 96 reactions, of which the two electron-poor are hits. The 11 darker yellow compound on the heat block are varients of the electron-poor motif, and so I anticipate I will screen 264 more this week. That was one of my three tasks. Along with all the miscellany, I will probably run a thousand reactions before candidacy.
More important, perhaps of utmost importance: this probe is going to be one-half of a crossover experiment that I need to provide suitable evidence to determine the mechanism of my reaction. For crossover experiments, I need it to be exceptionally pure. 100% pure. I will do whatever it takes to have it pure, because there is no grey area in the mechanism of my reaction. There is no 'partially intramolecular' or 'pseudo-intramolecular'...there is only intramolecular, and there's not. Heads we win big, tails we lose. I have had trouble with random fluorescent spots in my control, and so I wanted to be very careful when I ran this one single column. Keep in mind, that I still had every single symptom of my recent near-nervous breakdown: with my shaking hands I couldn't spot a TLC plate worth a damn. I couldn't concentrate for 3 seconds. I was still misplacing things all over the lab. But I was feeling better. All the unreasonably high expectations that were only in my head were gone now. I wanted to make a pure version of this probe, and since I now had only three experiments to do before candidacy, I wanted to do it right. So I ran my column, slowly, carefully, awkwardly. I had to force myself to pour the right solution into the right beaker; often I did not. I had to flush the column and start again once. I made a remarkable number of mistakes, but each of them yielded valuable information. My carefulness paid off. I completed the task, and learned much from the careful completion of the task. If there's such a thing as a Zen moment, it's that.
Saturday 9pm: The last thing I remember to do before I leave lab is to check the catalyst-free control lane of my 96-reaction TLC. It's identical to the others. I am stunned. The pattern of reactivity was entirely scaffold-dependent. The reaction works without a catalyst. That consideration never factored into my hypothesis. How simply remarkable. I decide to run more controls in the future.
Saturday, 10-on: I go to a housewarming party for someone in my cohort. It's an enormous amount of fun. The fog over my mind has lifted, and all the restrictions on speech and memory gone. The only thing left is the energy, and it's put me on my A-game, which is a sight to behold. I feel amazing. Did I mention I'm going to Hawaii for a week, five weeks before candidacy?
Sunday, July 1st, 1pm: I roll out of bed, all groggy-like. I eat a whole half of a sandwich. I start writing this blog post, to try and capture what happened.
Sunday 4pm: I go to play in my Ultimate Frisbee league, and we play amazingly well. I get an Ultimate crush on a girl on the other team who took down over half the points on her team, skied three of our (taller) guys, and won the spirit game of Ninja at the end. What an Ultimate badass. After the game some friends come over for porch beers, and my wife and I stay up until 3am talking. I'm rubbing off on her. She's not sleeping either, and talking with a level of excitement that is rare for her. We're inventing a webcomic in our head. We're designing a dream house. We're cuddling like kittens. I stay up until dawn, get an hour of sleep. My wife wakes up early too, and we watch the most recent episode of True Blood before we get up for work.
About a week later I crash out and resume a normal sleep schedule.
I spent three weeks on that manic tear. When I finally did go seek medical advice, my resting heart rate was measured at 110 bpm, my resting blood pressure at 180/110 mmHg. On an EKG the nurse actually caught my heart skipping a beat. I slept maybe 1-3 hours a night and ate under 500 calories a day. I lost over 20 pounds, almost getting back to my high-school wrestling weight. I couldn't stop talking and had to actively restrain myself from overwhelming those in my company. It was an interesting period.
Perhaps the most interesting part was that it was all in my head. All this stress, all this energy, all these hours in lab, they were nothing more than self-indulgent over-motivation. I can only fault myself for putting me in that position, but then again, I am proud to say I also took every step to fix that problem. When it came down to it, the solution was simply this: talk to good people. Communicate honestly with people who care for you. They're the ones who will tell you if your reality is skewed, if you're doing too much, or too little.
They're the ones who can give you advice from their different experiences so hopefully you don't have to go through the same things they did. Lean on your friends when you need them, and do the same for them when they're going through hard times.
Another way of saying this is: use your tools. All things are tools, and I mean that in the most pure of senses: everything is useful. Learn when to take a break, or push hard, or call a friend, or have a beer, or play Frisbee, or tear the world apart doing everything, or focus on one really simple important task. But also, all tools can be abused, so don't take too much of a break, or push too hard for too long, or be overdependent on your friends, or drink too much every day. Be able to work 80 hours in a week, but for the love of Lilith not every week. If you can recognize a problem, and find the appropriate tools to solve it, then you can probably get past anything. Especially candidacy, and perhaps even the Zombie Apocalypse.
Reminder/shameless self-promotion: My RSG office hours are at noon on Friday's at Ashley's. Come talk about the issues, whether they be with Rackham, the University, or personal. I'm not CAPS, but hell, at least you can drink with me.
About the Author
Chris Tom, Ph.D. Student, Chemical Biology
Published in: Student Voices