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Storytelling

Two days ago, I told my post doc (a post doctorate researcher who has been guiding my research) I was worried about my progress in lab. He responded with, “don’t worry, you have a great story.” This was not something I hadn’t heard before, but it dawned on me that every researcher is essentially a storyteller.

The end result of research is the production of a paper. Research is useless when hoarded and kept secret; it aches to be revealed to the world. On a practical level, this does two things 1) increase the general knowledge of society (http://gizmodo.com/5613794/what-is-exactly-a-doctorate), but more importantly 2) provides a marker for progression for the researchers involved.

The irony is that when most people undertake a science PhD program, they can expect long hours in lab and social interactions to be limited to literally a handful of people. Awareness of current events and ability for small talk persists, but your entire world essentially boils down to a tiny corner of the universe. You are a prospector kneeling down in the middle of an enormous river, sifting through the mud, hoping to find a nugget of truth. Well, prospectors of truth is definitely too grand of a description for scientists, so I’ll go with prospectors of stories.

The centrality of storytelling to a researcher is really unappreciated, unless you watch a presentation. It truly is a performance. Each sentence is balanced for time, each slide represents months of colossal effort, the body tenses with excitement and joy. Speech will accelerate, words will collide, and arms will flail.

Could you expect anything else? On a daily basis, more often than not, experiments are frustrating, painful, and disappointing. But in these moments, it is as if all the frustration, pain, and disappointment of the past months are bottled up and instantly converted to joy. Its as if the researcher is calling out “Here I am! See how I have solved the universe!” No matter how little the project may seem to others, there is such a pure sense of accomplishment that comes from this.

Some days when I feel like I am trudging through work, it is the reminder of this feeling and the urge to tell a wonderful story that drives me.

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Lab Monkhood

My name is Jon. I once read that a graduate program was a monastic experience and that has strangely stuck with me. By extension of this quote that makes me a labmonk.

I am a biological sciences Ph.D student. I made this decision after truly believing that I had found my calling. There is some strange thrill to studying pathogens. You trace obscure acronyms within cells as they battle the acronyms of the pathogens that surround them. The molecules kiss and hug one another while the two (host and pathogen) are locked in some sort of molecular duel to the death. At least, thats how I imagine it.

However, I am just a beginner: a first year. So far I have spent my days either in class or in lab. I require this training to build up the vocabulary and the tools to observe these battles on my own, without additional explanation. During the latter, I find myself with short gaps of time: not long enough to study, not long enough to read papers, barely enough to do anything really. Instead, I let my mind wander.

I actually am a Buddhist, sort of. My parents, especially my mother, are strongly religious. She had this passed down by her own mother, my grandmother, and subsequently my mother attempted to pass this down to me. So in 2004, I shaved my head and became a monk for ten days. My mother said this was for gudo (or good karma) and also it would make both her and my grandmother very happy. At the time, I didn’t care so much about the good karma, but I did want to make my grandmother happy. I learned Buddhist prayers and some scripture, ate meals according to the Buddhist monk traditions (meals only between 6am and noon that had been given as alms), and most importantly, I learned to meditate. I learned to go deep into my own mind and wander.

This wandering, I suppose, is the intersection of my two stories and the reason I have decided to start this blog. Meditation and lab work are strangely similar in that my thoughts have some how reached out so far and wide that my head is filled to capacity. This blog is both a remedy to my overexpanding mind and a record for what stories may come from this mind of mine. I hope to look back on this one day in the future, not for a particular reason, but for an insight into myself.