my PhD, a mountain

I think mostly in metaphor. Especially for concepts that I struggle to wrap my mind around, reducing them to pictures makes them  fold up into pocket-sized pieces that fit nicely into the cupboards of my world.

This week, the metaphor I kept returning to –  my PhD is a mountain.

You know, the ones that look majestic in the Instagram shot – with triumphant hikers perched dangerously on cliff edge (see above) – but in reality, are simply a mass of identical looking trees on a steeply sloping mound of black dirt.

OK, you’re not making the connection. Let me explain.

One of the most epic mountains I’ve climbed (and by climb, I mean take a chair lift up, then scurry down via a labyrinth of WW1 tunnels) was among the Dolomite mountain range in Northern Italy.

Fellow travellers we had met over a meal of hearty casunzei at our Refugio (mountain hut) told us about this hike, outlined the trail for us to follow in blue pen.

“You’ll go through this pretty meadow with the mountains on your right and after about 500m, you’ll see the chairlift,” they assured us.

It was easy. All we had to do was follow the line of blue pen through the meadow.

We found the meadow, no problem. Even a trail my sister and I were convinced was the right one.

We charged ahead, full of confidence. That is, until weedy grass began to creep into the well-worn soil and we were more meandering towards a direction we convinced ourselves was right.

Holding the map in front of us, the blue trace now appeared more thin and untrustworthy than I remembered it being.

We eventually turned back, after admitting humbly that we had no clue where we were going.

The best way I can describe the feeling of starting out my PhD is by referring back to that experience.

I read the literature, scrolled through countless drug release curves, the multi-coloured confocal microscopy images of cancer cells being killed.

I planned out my experiments in great detail, drew up a timeline of when I would reach which important marker.

It’s the mountain in all its glory. It beckons at you, taunts you with its majesty.

You have your extra-light titanium walking poles, your Uniqlo dry-fit thermal underwear, your stash of Cliff energy bars, your annotated rain-protected map – what could you not conquer?

But, soon after venturing bravely into the first unmarked trail, you are lost among the forest of pine trees. All you see are the twigs poking out from under the brush, the layers of slowly decomposing leaves.

You have no idea if you are indeed making progress up the mountain, or simply walking in circles. The tree you just passed looks hauntingly similar.

And so I felt, after three runs of trying to repeat the exact protocol of my PhD predecessor, but ending up with giant clumps of particles that in no way resembled the nicely coated ones in the JACS paper.

The hard part is not the failure. I’m fine if things don’t work out; it’s part of the process.

What is discouraging is having no idea what could have possibly gone wrong.

I mean, if you follow the instructions, shouldn’t it produce the same result?

If I had just followed that traced blue line, shouldn’t I have gotten to the chairlift?

So, this is why I felt I have been trying to chart my way to the top through an impossibly dense forest this week.

I got overwhelmed by how many possible trails there were, and how little information I had to make a good decision. I didn’t want to have to walk down a trail, only to find it be a dead end.

I’m sort of sitting on the soil, leaned up against bark, trying to breathe in deep the rich scent of pine wet with rain.

To be honest, I’m a bit tired of climbing this trail. My boots are caked with soil.

Thomas Edison once said that “our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

I really hope he’s right.

It’s interesting. I was reading “The Creative Habit” by world-famous choreographer Twyla Tharp, who explained that strokes of genius do not come by chance, although they can sometimes feel that way.

But, when we keep showing up – a writer to his pen, a dancer to her barre, a pianist to his scales – that’s when we open ourselves up to the breakthroughs of creativity.

The creative habit is to just keep showing up.

I like the analogy of a mountain, because I think it applies in more ways than one.

Yes, there is the frustration of boots hitting soil over and over again when all you want to do is enjoy the breathtaking grandeur of reaching the top.

But, there is also the joy of discovering a hidden trail that led to a tiny lake no one else had ever chanced upon. You did, though.

And there are the people you meet along the way.

The eccentric mountaineer with his shorts hiked up mid-thigh, bandana pulling back locks of overgrown hair.

The ambitious family with four young children in tow, one of them strapped to the father’s back, sleeping.

The retired couple, taking it slow as they fulfill their lifelong dream of spending their years walking mountains together.

I like to think of my PhD that way.

It is frustrating when I feel like I’m moving at a worm’s pace (seriously), when experiments fail for no reason known to humankind, when I feel like I’m the only person who semi-cares or is even semi-able (semi being a serious overstatement) to fix anything.

But I commit to keep showing up to lab and pulling those purple rubbery gloves over my hands.

For the tiny sliver of hope that I will one day reach the top of that mountain, but also not have missed all the hidden lakes and beautiful people I encountered on the way there.

Please hold me to this.

Being lost is productive.

I’m probably far too sure of what I’m for most of the time, missing all kinds of wonderful twists and turns that would delight me and serve the world because I am too busy plowing straight ahead with my blinders on.

For now, I’m going to tolerate the floating feeling that accompanies moments like this of not knowing, buoyed by a hope that there is something wiser beyond the horizon of my understanding.

-Courtney Martin, ‘On Being’

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Vivienne Tam is a PhD student in Materials Engineering at McGill with loves writing, thinking deeply and tinkering around with various creative activities (cooking, knitting etc.) when not in the lab doing experiments. You can find more of her writing on science, faith and finding beauty in unexpected places at:



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