Sometimes I forget the reason why I’m in Europe in the first place. In the midst of hopping every few months between France and Belgium for work, I have been mesmerized by the discovery of the backyard which is Europe. Somewhere along the road, I think I am slowly starting to forget that my purpose here is to get my PhD.
Wait, what? PhD, that can’t be right…
But indeed, something struck me like an epiphany last week, as I was working in the lab. PhD…that’s serious business. I have to write a thesis and defend it in about a year and 8 months…um, whaaaaaaaat?
Usually I get shocked by sudden realizations when things don’t work out at the lab, leading to frustration. And indeed, work hasn’t been proceeding as planned lately. I also noticed that I’m almost halfway into my supposed 3-year PhD, and it’s a little scary to admit that I don’t have nearly as much done as I THINK I should.
Of course, all my friends see is me travelling here and there every weekend, enjoying the freedom of the “European lifestyle” and experiencing what the world has to offer. No one really sees between the weekends, where hours are spent on trying to get one process to work, where frustration and disappointment turn into silent curses, where time is too precious to lose.
Just some thoughts…let’s reflect on them with a walk through a weekday in the “real” life of Annie.
Annie’s desk at work in Belgium…messy or not?
When there is nothing to worry about, it’s so easy to say, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” (Matthews 6:34). However when it does strike, worrying can be so nerve-wrecking. When I have to delay an experiment because a chemical is out of stock or an equipment is booked, I can’t help but worry about the progress of my work.
Let’s get some good ol’ liquid nitrogen.
Then again, the strange thing is that I usually DON’T feel the pressure that a PhD student should be feeling, which ironically makes me worried. Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me, and I begin to ask myself questions. Am I not trying hard enough? Am I not doing enough work? Is travelling during weekends too much? Should I be working on Saturdays as well? Am I ever going to publish any papers? Am I going to have enough to show at the end of my PhD to warrant the degree? What is the purpose of all of this???
Why, you look sleepier than I am, little guy.
One thing I’ve learned from being in Europe is to notice the tiny things around me that make life a little better, even in the lab where I work every day. The other day I noticed that the two meters attached to the argon tank formed two funny looking eyes, and though it was a tough day, it made me smile.
Soxhlet not dried? Miracle accomplished.
Learning to be thankful also alleviates stress significantly, especially when we learn to be thankful of each small accomplishment that we managed to achieve, or things that just WORK. Friday morning I arrived at the lab to find that my acetone Soxhlet rinse, which had been running overnight, was still running. I’ve had occasions where the acetone has completely evaporated despite the cooling mechanism – not what was supposed to happen – so I half expected an empty flask roasting in the heat. I was surprised to find something that actually WORKED for once, and I just felt…thankful. For once I didn’t have to rush to get my probably contaminated samples out of the apparatus.
Beware of PIRANHA! Approach with care…A LOT of care.
Working in a chemistry lab also developed a sense of paranoia in me. Did I inhale enough toxic silane to cause brain damage? What if that liquid nitrogen pipe explodes and I freeze the entire lab? What if the glass breaks while I’m preparing piranha solution and I lose a hand? Keeping these hazards in mind, though, also prompts me to be much more careful with what I do so I don’t hurt myself and others.
Ready to do some gas phase silanization? Don’t get the pipelines mixed up!
It reassures me, however, that I still enjoy doing what I’m doing. You enjoy your work when you’re okay with being busy. You enjoy your work when you look forward to the challenge of planning. You enjoy your work when you find a tiny tingle in your heart as you learn something new at work (like SEM or confocal). You enjoy your work when you’re smiling, maybe subconsciously, while you work. I think I still enjoy my work, thank God.
Aside from the main lab shown in the pictures above, I have to work in a cleanroom. Now, I have a love-hate relationship with the cleanroom. Sometimes I really look forward to doing work there, but sometimes I just loathe it. The reason why I don’t particularly like it at times are as follows.
- It’s in another building. Not a problem unless it’s raining/snowing and I have to transport samples in between the labs…
- It’s not really “our” cleanroom. Even though the operators are super nice, there is still something about working in a “common” lab that makes me feel uncomfortable.
- I can’t listen to my music while I work, because of #4.
- I constantly look like someone who is working on developing biological weapons or something, like this…
I swear they put the mirror there so everyone can take a self-portrait as they pass by. This was taken in last May, but I still look like this every time I enter the cleanroom. When you put on gloves and work in the cleanroom all day, your hands can get all sweaty…yuck. Oh, but those goggles saved me big time. I was filtering PMMA in toluene when the syringe burst, spraying the solution all over my face, but thanks to the goggles at least it didn’t get into my eyes, and I am not blind. Ever since that incident I wore goggles every time I did anything in the lab, no matter how small (re: paragraph above about hazards).
Hmm…which buttons do I press?
The X-ray reflectivity machine is probably one of the most used machines in my work. Here’s one of my other irrational paranoia. I am always worried that I’d forget to turn off the shutter and that when I reach my hand inside to change the filter, the X-rays would burn my hands and I’d become permanently disabled. Of course I wouldn’t even be able to open the door without the whole machine shutting down, if I did forget to turn off the shutter…
Friendly note from the supervisor: DO NOT STEAL MY STUFFS!
Note to self: Try not to get in trouble with the supervisor, although if I ever do, it’s probably not because I stole something from the X-ray machine…
Warning warning, danger danger! Kudos to whoever designed this 😉
This is seriously one of the best programs ever designed…in terms of amusement factor. Aside from this humourous warning, there are a bunch of others, such as this one. Bonus points for being run on an old-fashioned Mac!
Sometimes I just want to press this…no WordPress pun intended.
And right now, I feel like I’m entering my almost-mid-PhD crisis. It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that I’m ACTUALLY almost halfway through…whoa, whoa, whoa, hold it there for a second. Isn’t it a little too fast?! I really do get the urge to just press that big red emergency button and say…STOP! Just…PAUSE! Slow down for a moment, I’m not ready to continue. My experiments aren’t working! I don’t have results yet! I’m not ready for my confirmation exam! I don’t know what I’m doing! Ahhh!!!
Can I just sleep now?
At the end of the day, life goes on whether we get desired results or not, and I cross my fingers and hope for the best while trying different alternatives to make things work. I suppose having to toggle between two countries does make things slightly more complicated, though that was expected at the beginning, when I decided to take on the challenge. I do get somewhat tired though, with all the moving around. It seems like I’m living the life of a snail, carrying a mobile home on my back.
The journey will continue. Endure it, embrace it, love it! Annie will do it! 😉