October 3, 2013

WHAT’S UP DOC?: The New Normal

Print More

By DEBBIE TSENG

A little more than a year ago, I wrote about how a breast cancer scare changed my perspective about my health and gave me a greater understanding of the reality of the disease. After my surgery, I thought I could rest and heal; then everything would return to normal. But nothing ever really went back to the way it was.

Healing was a difficult journey. I returned to the bench as soon as I could, since I was in the middle of a rotation and wanted to complete my project with positive results. However, my incision did not close properly and one afternoon I stumbled to the surgeon’s office with blood-stained gauze, a little lightheaded and a lot more terrified. The on-duty nurse kindly reassured me that, though open, the cut was uninfected and that I had to be careful not to strain myself in the lab. “What good is a scientist without the capability to vigorously pipette or make up liters of buffer?” I thought to myself. Nevertheless, I slept motionlessly on my back and attempted to pipette with my left hand.

The mental block was a little harder to deal with. Research had always been the straight and narrow path; I was trained in rigorous science and expected to continue on the road to academia. But it became very true, very fast, that my heart was not on this track anymore. Going through my breast cancer scare made me thankful for the days I had and also made me reevaluate what I wanted in my life. I always knew that I had a love for writing, and now there was an even deeper sense of conveying the hope of science to others affected by disease. It felt as if I had run into a brick wall.

Some of these bricks were literal, physical entities. Job internships are hard to come by as a graduate student; obtaining one is almost as difficult as making the time for it between productive hours at the bench. Career centers at academic institutions have less support for non-traditional career paths. There are student loans that will need to be paid soon after you leave school.

Other bricks are emotional and mental hurdles. Both of my parents were the first in their respective families to attend college and immigrate out of their home country. After finishing his Master’s degree at Syracuse, my father drove from New York to California while my pregnant mother flew across the country to meet him there. At that time, my father did not have a job offer in hand. They did not have things we now consider necessities, such as air conditioning in their second-hand car, their own place to live or health insurance. When I first heard their story, I thought it was crazy. But as it turns out, they just had a lot of faith. And thus, I grew up with traditional values, an emphasis on the importance of higher education and the strong will to accomplish whatever you put your mind to. The thought of leaving without my Ph.D. went against every principle I believed in. I felt I would be a disappointment to the people who had supported me so far and to the ones I cared most about in life.

I struggled long and hard with these nightmares and every possible permutation of “what if” scenarios. What if I stayed and constantly regretted the decision not to go? Is the grass greener on the other side? What if this is the other side?

The first hurdle is the most challenging to jump over; you can spend months philosophizing about what to do and what not to do, but there is no substitute for finding out what is right for you other than jumping head in and actively reaching out toward your goals. I found scientists who had transitioned out of research after graduate school, set up informational interviews and started applying to jobs with reckless abandon. I also spent my late afternoons at the patent office to learn about commercialization and intellectual property work at a university. Through this, I gained both an understanding mentor and an appreciation for science at a different level.

I knew a few things when I started reaching out into the unknown. I knew I did not want to leave science behind just yet. I wanted to write in some capacity. I wanted to interact and communicate with various groups of people, whether it be the general public, researchers, funding sources or clinicians and their patients. I wanted to be involved at a place that firmly believes in using science to make a difference in the world. I wanted to make my own happiness . . . I suppose those were more than just a few things.

Most responses to my proposal were calculated and realistically sobering. Sometimes a job is just a job. Your dream job is just that — a dream. The first job is always a stepping stone. But sometimes life, as entropic as it is, will surprise you greatly with how well certain pieces fall into place. Now I am entrenched on the other side, working in communications for a company that actively uses science and technology to understand the complexity of cancer and develop comprehensive therapies for patients. I am still surrounded, just in a different capacity, by deeply intellectual, generous and passionate people who strive to accomplish great things with great science.

And as much as I wanted to, I didn’t get to leave my pipettes behind immediately. My immersion project involved a few weeks at the bench with the discovery and innovation group, learning how an idea develops from a pod to a blossoming novel therapy. I look back on my years in graduate school and see it as a blessing — both in how it trained me as a scientist, and for the personal experience which gave me a new perspective on life and led me to where I am today.

Debbie Tseng ‘13 graduated with a Master’s degree in biomedical science from Weill Cornell Medical College and now works in scientific communications at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals. She may be reached at dtseng@merrimackpharma.com. What’s Up Doc? runs alternate Fridays this semester.