Cheers to the memories that will never fade

What defines the worst or best day? Is it based on whether or not you cried, or whether you made money or lost money? Maybe its based on how much work you have been given, or how stressed that made you feel. Well, for me its based on how I feel when I lay my head on my pillow at night. So, here’s my story on a very interesting day in academia but this isn’t an abstract, you’ll have to read the whole story to work out if it was the best day, or the worst…

In my old lab, a lot of the machinery was communal, meaning that we all had access to them, and it needed to be booked beforehand. Being valuable, you needed to be trained on these machines before using them by yourself. So let me introduce you to my favourite machine, it has multiple SEPARATE parts, extremely FRAGILE syringes, glass and THOROUGH cleaning processes, I present to you…the ITC machine! Or, in full, the isothermal titration calorimeter. This machine is important in understanding the nature of biochemical reactions.

The ITC machine is old, it’s got its own issues too. For instance, its handle is attached to a part that holds its fragile syringe. Let me draw a picture for you. Its silver, and thin. Think of a lollipop stick, but much thinner. So, its handle is always getting stuck and being gentle is the only way to get around it. That means, no twisting, pushing or pulling. Seriously, this machine should come with its own warning book.

Picture: The syringe, gets inserted into handle.

After being trained on this wonderful machine, which I might add, is the ONLY machine that everyone used for this specific experiment, I started running my own reactions by myself.

Do you think you know where this is going?

On one particular morning, I decide to run an experiment and as usual, the machine and I were on the same page…UNTIL…it was time to insert the handle (which holds the “world’s thinnest syringe”). Now, I had been warned that if I feel like the handle is stuck, I should just pull it out and try and again. And what did I do? Exactly that. You thought I broke the handle, didn’t you?

So as suggested, I brought the handle back up and tried once again, but as soon as I felt an “obstruction” I brought it up again, my impatience growing as I attempted to go for my third time, but I stopped. I just stopped and froze, and my eyes widened.

When I looked at the syringe before trying again, it had bent! And it definitely was not bent when I inserted it into the handle. This is what I said, word for word in this moment, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god”. It was like when you win a public competition, or you got an award, my heart started to beat faster, my cheeks started getting warm and my mouth, dry. Except, the feeling was the complete opposite. As I continued saying, “Oh my god” in a panicky voice, I lowered the handle and removed the syringe. It was bent. So, I should probably “unbend” it right? So, I did… And to my relief, I fixed it!

Yeah right, I wish that’s what’s happened.

No, I didn’t fix it. Instead, the “world’s thinnest syringe” which was bent, was now split into two pieces because I tried to UNBEND it!

And there it was, the worst moment of my academic career. I stood there, with these two tiny pieces in my gloved hands and stared at it until my vision got blurry and the tears started coming out. After a two-minute cry, I wiped my face and took the slowest walk to my supervisor’s office. Just my luck, the head of the unit was in the office too. I slowly approached, discussed the situation and apologised profusely. I like to think that they admired my honesty because they didn’t reprimand me, in fact they said it was okay and mistakes happen.

I used my puppy eyes filled with tears to tell the rest of my lab the sin that was committed, and again, was so appreciative for their support, they hugged me and said it was okay, BUT I’m pretty sure they were all annoyed (I would be too). Although I had butchered the poor syringe, I was lucky in 3 ways:

  1. My supervisor was supportive
  2. My lab co-workers were supportive
  3. There was an older, extra syringe 😊 (but I did not know this until after I broke the syringe). Seriously, thank God, because it costs approx. R50 000!

And that, was my worst day in the lab. When my head the pillow that night, so did my tears. I have learnt from this experience, even when you feel at your lowest, you remember the lesson (that is, pretend all machinery in the lab are like flowers, BE GENTLE) and know that life has to move on, that’s the only thing that makes it better.

I can laugh about this day now, but I guess that’s the beauty of life, right? You’ve got to have bad days in order to appreciate the good ones. Of course, I had “best days” too, but we’ll leave that for another time, spoiler alert, it involves a Masters degree and a distinction.

Light at the end of the computer…

Some questions are difficult to answer or even think through.  One of those questions is what has been my worst and best day in academia?

Where do I even start? Don’t get me wrong, I have not had so many challenges that I can’t count them, nor am I ungrateful. But, how do I choose the very worst, or the very best day out of many years as a student and many experiences both good and bad? Let us start with what was probably the worst day…

During my Masters, I can safely admit that I was a workaholic and maybe I will develop into one again. However, I am glad I had a break between that period and my PhD. I worked more than 15 or 16 hours a day and got a maximum of three hours of sleep. Some days were better than others, and between the hectic hours, I went to the gym for at least one hour. I worked from 8am to almost 3 am on good days 8. One of the quotes I often hear used is ‘It takes 21 days to make a habit’ – Unknown, so this working pattern became a habit even though it was excruciating.

I have narrated that I overworked myself. To be honest, I do not know why I did this, but maybe because of peer pressure from my other lab members. Anyway, one night around 3am I packed my backpack ready to go to my room in the residential areas.  In my unconscious state, I went on with my routine like I normally would, shut down my laptop, packed up my mouse, and put away everything else. As I closed the computer, I heard an unfamiliar sound, but I ignored it, I was very tired and just wanted to sleep.

The next morning, I felt as rested as I usually was and came back to campus with all my energy. As I opened my laptop, the first thing I noticed was that the cable of my headset was between my screen and laptop keyboard. Hmmm. I ignored that, and I switched on my laptop. Only to find, to the shock of my life, the compressed headsets had cracked my screen, I do not know where the pressure came from but it did. Mind you, I was broke, fixing a screen would have cost around R1500, I had deadlines, I had stress. I cried, I thought of solutions and I had anxiety. It was one of those stressful situations that I couldn’t even use work to escape from because the ink had spread all over the screen. Fortunately, in a week I fixed it, even though it was one of the longest weeks of my life.

It can only be a coincidence that one of my best days happened just a few months after the incident. As I said I had deadlines, one of those was the submission of my first review paper to a journal, which my supervisor had asked me to a few weeks before my laptop incident. After fixing my computer I did manage to submit it. Then one day, one random morning after all the submissions and editing I received an email that my paper has been accepted for publication. This was my first paper and because I sometimes can be emotional, I cried.

I had previously heard stories of how a paper can be rejected multiple times and get re-submitted, but mine was only rejected by one journal and then accepted. This was one of my highlights as a researcher and it gave me hope to strive for excellence and write more. But most importantly I learned to not let each day define me, either bad or good. The same computer which through my carelessness decided to crack is the same one that helped me write a paper that later even gained attention and won an international award. There is light at the end of the computer…