Life lessons from the laboratory (and beyond)

By Ruenda Loots

It’s that soul-searching, what-have-I-done-with-my-life time of the year. This year it feels more gut-wrenching than usual because 2015 was…unusual. A “not according to plan” year: not only for a struggling PhD student but for our universities, our country and the world. I still don’t have it all figured out but I have tried to extract some value from the chaos of this year.

feesmustfall
#FeesMustFall (Picture: Anthony Molyneaux/EWN).

 

Science in a time of load shedding

Remember earlier this year, when you would get up, brush your teeth and check the daily load shedding schedule? Although it’s a vague memory by now (and a false sense of ease), there was a time when our experimental planning was determined by Eskom. Yes, we complained when it happened but, like true South Africans, we ultimately made the best of the situation (“Power’s out – let’s go grab a beer!”). And, of course, we found ways of laughing during the disasters.

candlesIrregular power supply, slow internet, limited equipment, expensive orders and looooong delivery delays – practicing science in South Africa has its challenges. But this makes us a more resilient breed of researcher. Appreciate the challenges as opportunities to think outside the box (especially over a beer with your colleagues in the dark).

Privilege

Because when you think about the challenges of doing post-graduate research, you should remind yourself how lucky you are to experience those challenges. The #FeesMustFall protests this year have been a chilling demonstration that tertiary education remains an elusive privilege in our country.
As I reflect on my journey, I am humbled by and deeply grateful for the sacrifices of my family, each tax payer’s contribution to my bursaries and for supervisors who complete tedious funding forms. I am incredibly privileged to have studied at a world-class university under the guidance of renowned scientists.
The only way I know to show this gratitude is to be a mindful citizen who participates in real issues that affect those around me. I intend to share my knowledge, skills and resources as much as I can, for as long as I can, in this beautiful, evolving country.

When Life Happens

Because this is the country I want to raise my children in. When I decided to go take on this degree, I promised myself that I would not put my life on hold for the sake of research. So during my PhD I have worked part-time, taken other courses, married my best friend, took on grownup things like paying taxes, blogged about doing a PhD, adopted two puppies…and started a family.
As I write this last blog (and the last chapter of my thesis), I can feel my daughter’s heel kicking my ribs, like she’s reminding me of the two looming deadlines: finish the thesis & give birth. I’m not entirely sure which one is more painful, but I am grateful that I get to experience both of these life-changing opportunities.

Perspective

Like the bacterial biofilms I’ve been studying for five years, my research has taught me the importance of adapting to changing conditions and evolving to survive. Completing a thesis has taught me perseverance and patience. And parenthood is teaching me…every day.

Academic Perseverance: the time I quit my PhD

By Ruenda Loots

Although many people want to know how long it takes to finish a PhD, the more important question is “What does it take to finish a PhD?” Perhaps the most significant characteristic of successful post-graduate researchers is grit. Sticking to it when everything comes undone. And sometimes, picking up the pieces and starting again.

When the going got tough
When the going got tough

Two years into my PhD and the only word that accurately described my research to date was “abysmal”. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a microbiologist. I knew the project would be mostly microbiology but it sounded like an exciting challenge! The novelty wore off very quickly and what looked exciting 12 months before became an insurmountable mountain of work.

The theory eluded me. I could barely frame research questions because my fundamental knowledge was lacking. I would read the introduction of an article and feel so overwhelmed by everything I didn’t know that I obsessively downloaded every reference in the article, which in turn led me to download even more articles until I had folders in folders of unread articles that were labelled NB, Must read and Very Important.

The practical work intimidated me. Never before was I concerned about a sterile workbench. I was so paranoid I used to mark a 20cm ring around my gas flame with masking tape so that I wouldn’t accidentally move outside The Clean Zone (but since I had two left-hands it didn’t help much). I melted a couple of latex gloves onto my fingers that year.

Days became months with no progress, months became semesters and each passing calendar page made me realise: I can’t do this. I prepared to give up.

Leaving my (dis)comfort zone

Toronto skyline (Pixabay)
Toronto skyline (Pixabay)

Then, at the end of Year Two, one of my supervisor’s collaborators invited me to visit his laboratory at Ryerson University. I would work closely with a post-doc to learn advanced microscopic techniques which were vital for my research. I was just married and had no desire to leave my new happiness behind but I had no alternatives for my ongoing academic despair so I boarded a plane to Toronto, Canada, for the two-week visit.

Reflecting on the experience three years later reveals how valuable it really was. I established great relationships (scientific and social). The post-doc (now a close friend) taught me with great patience how to use a fancy microscope and more importantly how to do the very basics I had struggled with for so long. There are things that books and articles can’t teach you – an encouraging, open-minded mentor is the only way.

Zen and the art of biofilm analysis

Toronto Harbour (Pixabay)
Toronto Harbour (Pixabay)

Every evening I strolled through the unfamiliar city. One night I found “The World’s Biggest Book Store” and bought a book that changed my scientific career in the most unexpected ways. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance crossed my path at exactly the right moment. This book’s explanation of the philosophy of science, using a motorcycle as metaphor, stirred a passion in me that had been lost in the years of “I can’t do this.”

The solutions all are simple… after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are”

On my last night in Toronto I wrote a letter to myself titled: You almost quit your PhD. I wrote down all the things that scared me about the PhD. I wrote down all the things I couldn’t do. I wrote down all the fears of failure. I returned to Cape Town and handed the sealed envelope to my husband.

“Give this to me on the day I graduate, okay?”

I will read it at the end of this year.