Un-becoming a Scientist

My sister and I at BSUH Special Care Baby Unit

For lots of my friends and family, it’s a bit of a shock when I tell them I’ve decided to quit science and start a medical career. I spent most of my life wanting to become a scientist, I’ve spent six years specialising in genetics, and now I decide to rip up my plans, get another revolting student loan and start from scratch!? Am I mad?

I guess there’s two reasons for this change, firstly I want to be a doctor, and secondly science turned out to be not for me.

During my time as a PhD student I felt the foundations of who I am shift considerably. On my first day as a PhD student, my face was shining with excitement, I was ready to put in the hard work, to contribute towards the mountain of knowledge that underpins our understanding of the universe. I was expecting to be welcomed into the scientific community, to collaborate, share ideas, design experiments and ultimately to discover stuff. But I was also moderately realistic, knowing that research is a fickle creature and often your hypothesis turns out to be complete bird terd.

On top of that, I was very focussed on my own successes. I didn’t have a lot of care for the dilly-dallying of humans, with their ridiculously flawed political systems, corruption and currency. I didn’t even really feel I was human, I was a Scientist.

And oh my, how much that all changed in the last 4 and a half years of my PhD. The biggest change for me was losing my Dad. I was in my little student house at Cambridge when I got the call from my Mum saying it was advanced stage 4 colorectal cancer. I felt confused, sick. Anyone reading this who has experienced the terrors of cancer knows that disarming, disorientating feeling. But I remained fully in denial. My whole life, if I had wanted something, really, really wanted it, I had always got it. I would argue, study, fight, raise funds, whatever it took. I really wanted my Dad to be okay, so he must be, right?

After many walks in Kew gardens with my family and many confused evenings in the lab frowning at the mechanisms that might be those malfunctioning in my Dad’s cancer cells, I finally found myself in Kingston hospital facing the worst. And as it was, we got in the car home that night with only four family members instead of five. It tore us apart.

That was the summer of 2014. The shock from losing my Dad would stay with me for two years, but in the immediate aftermath I simply I stared down our little garden in Southwest London for a month. And then returned to the lab.

The lab. A place of where 95% of your experiments fail, where you barely speak to anyone all day and where you are persistently ignored, where you must miraculously be successful using every ounce of your energy or die trying. Least to say, I was not impressed by the paper-chasing, profit-driven, egotistical behaviour I saw.

At a friend’s viva party, I recommended him to take some time off after him finally finishing his PhD that day. He was in lab every day including weekends, he looked ill. He needed rest. He glanced nervously sideways at his boss, and said

‘er no, no champagne for me, I’ve got to be in early tomorrow. For the paper.’

I registered my dismay. His health and happiness were worth more than a paper! And in response, his boss leaned over and glaringly said to me,

‘See. That’s a real scientist.’

Fuck this, I thought.

All this time during my PhD, who had I really helped? What was I really working for?

In stark contrast, my sister, an intensive care neonatal nurse, was working hard every week to save the most vulnerable lives. I had to see what her work was like, and so one winter I found myself in Brighton and Sussex University Hospital (BSUH) special care baby unit. The little hearts beating in the tiny little persons, within their plastic incubators broke my heart but I found a deep respect for the nurses and doctors caring for them, and a raw fascination for the process of their diagnosis and treatment.

By this point, I was a different person. I had faith in my physical capabilities in terms of accuracy and dexterity, I knew I could stomach the vast amount you need to know to be a doctor, and I was ready to face the agonising emotional strain of working in healthcare. It had taken being treated like an idiot for four years of my PhD for me to finally realise that I was clever. I had also had a window into the NHS, and into suffering. I knew I could be a good doctor.

I’m so delighted to be starting medicine, and particularly delighted to have been accepted to study at Swansea. I’m so excited to learn everything I can about the human body. And I’m happy to be going into medicine as a graduate student, with the insight and understanding I’ve gained during my years studying for a PhD.

So it turns out unbecoming a scientist for me meant I found what I really want to do, it was medicine. I feel like taking off my Scientist hat has enabled to me to put on my Human hat, and I can’t wait to get started.

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