06 Still Me
I’m officially a doctor! A few weeks ago, I defended my doctoral thesis at the University of British Columbia in front of my family, friends, and classmates. Over the four years leading up to my defence, there were many moments of joy, elation, exasperation, and exhaustion, some of which I discuss in our final episode of 2019. During this cathartic conversation, I share my reflections on my graduate degree, where I’m off to next, and what I would do differently if I had the ability to restart my degree. I hope you enjoy 'Still Me'.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thanks so much for tuning in for our very last episode of 2019! Today, I'll be sharing my PhD journey with you all with the help of my partner. You may know him as Igor—
Igor Tatarnikov: Hi everyone! I am here to reprise my role as interviewer, the asker of questions, and we kind of thought this was the perfect time to come back and check in, as you've recently wrapped up your PhD—
IT: —in Neuroscience.
AB: Uh huh! <Chuckle>
IT: And we've kind of chatted between us [about] what this has meant to you. These last four years have been an opportunity for a lot of growth and change, and change in your perspective of the world. It's a good time to refocus yourself and figure out what you've learned from the situation and perhaps pass on some wisdom to people coming after you. So, how does it feel to be done?
AB: It feels awesome! It's a huge sense of relief, mixed in with a lot of joy in realizing that this entire experience is so much bigger than me. I've talked about this countless times; this wasn't just about me getting a PhD. This is my mother getting a PhD, this is my brother getting a PhD, my dad, you, anyone who's close to me, all the people who've contributed to who I am as a human being. I just felt like this was such a big moment for us, so every time I realized I had finished, I kept on [saying], 'We did it, we made it. This is it. We did it!' And it just felt really awesome to have that and have people to share it with.
IT: Of course.
AB: I'm so excited to be moving to Edinburgh.
AB: I know! I secured a position with a phenomenal principal investigator at the University of Edinburgh, and I'll be starting in a couple of months now.
IT: It's literally less than a month. No, no... More than a month and a half. Sorry! It's not January.
AB: No, we're moving in in January. We have our tickets booked. We're starting to pack things up in the house, so things are a bit of a mess.
IT: My wires got crossed. I thought moving [vs] starting.
AB: Thankfully, we scheduled in—
IT: A bit of a break.
AB: —about four weeks, where we don't have anything to do, nothing planned other than finding an apartment. That'll be the number one thing on our to-do list once we arrive. How does it feel for you to know that I'm done?
IT: A bit of relief? To me, [it] was very much a foregone conclusion. I think I had much less doubts or fears. I'm glad that you're through this part of your life, because I know that it was definitely stressful at points, but I think you were definitely always your worst critic. You always came up with the worst-case scenario and were working based off of that.
AB: Oh, I'm very good at that! <Chuckle>
IT: I know you are, but over four years that tends to get very stressful and always expecting the worst is a hard life to live.
AB: Then you're prepared!
IT: I know that you're prepared, but it's very stressful. And that's where a bit of the relief comes from because it's such a big weight off your shoulders that you can now breathe normally, be excited, and look forward to the next steps. All of a sudden, it's not a week-by-week schedule of 'These are the things I have to do.'
IT: Now that the big secret is out and your thesis is gonna be published publicly, do you wanna tell everyone a little bit of what you studied or what your focus was? What are you the world expert in now?
AB: Those are big words! I studied traumatic brain injury, or as it's sometimes known—it's short form—TBI. What I was really interested in is what happens to your brain after you get hit in the head, which can happen if you fall down, it can happen if you're exposed to a motor vehicle accident, or even playing sports. What I did, along with members of my lab and collaborators that work closely with us, I investigated the behavioral and the brain pathological consequences of TBI. In terms of behavior, we looked at memory, we looked at motor changes, and we actually looked at delayed gratification, or some level of impulsivity, after injury.
The way that we looked into these changes after injury was using a model of head injury. We first demonstrated that this model was capable of replicating many of the features of human TBI, and some of them include the behavioral changes that I mentioned before. [We also replicated] some of the reported brain changes like inflammation in the brain and damage sustained by the axons, which are your information highway in the brain. Using this model—in the future—we're hoping that it can be used to validate promising drug targets and eventually ameliorate some of the behavioral and brain pathology that is associated with brain injury. That's what I basically did over the last four years. I helped other people with their projects as well, but the core of it was model development and validation for my work.
IT: How did you realize that traumatic brain injury was something that you would be interested in spending such a major part of your life studying?
AB: Kind of by accident! To be honest, when I applied to come to UBC, I didn't have the specifics of what I wanted to study for my PhD hammered out. You know this—I've talked about this before—but the professor who would later become my PhD supervisor emailed me. We started a conversation because she was interested in having me be a part of the lab. I was also interested in the work that she was doing pertaining to traumatic brain injury. Some element of generalizability in terms of the research topic was really important to me. I wanted what I was studying to be applicable to a lot of people. And it was disconcerting to me that so much research is done in diseases that should be investigated, but oftentimes they affect a small percentage or a fraction of a percentage of people around the world. For my PhD, I really wanted to kind of make a splash and do something that applied to anyone from across socioeconomic backgrounds, from across ethnic backgrounds, from across the age spectrum, regardless of where you grew up. Anyone can sustain a TBI. Some people are more likely to sustain a brain injury relative to others, but it really is something that can affect you. It can affect me, our parents, our children, our friends, no matter what. That was really important to me. Funnily enough, I had taken a course at BU in my last year where my final project was about traumatic brain injury in pediatrics. I just thought it was so cool, 'cause I had forgotten that I had done that. Then I went through all my files and I thought maybe it was a premonition. <Laugh>
AB: I've always had an affinity for this. We had the ability to choose any topic—
IT: It was kind of a research project at the end?
AB: Exactly, and it was a grad studies course. It was the only grad studies course I had taken at BU and I just happened to do that. Because I had done so much background research then, maybe I was already primed to like TBI. And if that's the case, I'm a hundred percent fine with that! <Chuckle>
IT: Yeah, to come back to what you've learned and what you've kind of gathered from this experience, what surprised you the most about the lab environment that you ended up in and the overall experience you see in grad school?
AB: I was just shocked as to how similar it was to Corporate America. My father was a part of corporate for quite a few years when I was growing up, so I was exposed to that society and knew what it was like. I knew what was expected of him and others around him because of it. I, for some reason—maybe ludicrously—thought that science and academia would be the antithesis to that. I thought everyone would be just, you know, working together, hoorah-ing, making sure that we're all supporting each other's findings and helping each other get ahead. And I honestly thought that the hierarchy of the 'old boys' club' would be much less present. Because that existed and I was aware of it fairly early on, I was for some reason, very protective of the undergraduates in my lab, and especially the girls.
Undergrads would come into the lab to work for work terms or to volunteer, but because of the mentality that exists in academia—and we can talk about this in a little bit more depth—there is a very obvious and unfortunate belittling of graduate and undergraduate experiences in labs. I didn't want to perpetuate that notion, so I found myself constantly checking in with them, making sure that they felt hard, making sure they didn't feel overworked, because as a somewhat marginalized group, I didn't want them to feel disregarded because they were at the bottom of the academic food chain so to speak.
IT: There is definitely this, 'You're either useful to me or you're not, and you're either dedicated or you're not.' And if you have chosen to make this your career, you're almost fighting the entire time to prove that you are dedicated enough, which usually involves sacrificing most facets of your life, because you need to be that person that is able to work through the weekend at the drop of a hat. If someone emails you at 10:00 PM saying they need this in 10 minutes, they expect you to be able to open up your laptop and do the things that they just asked you to do. And if you fall into the pile of not dedicated, it's almost crazy how quickly everything around you turns and how people almost stop mentoring you or check out because all of a sudden, you aren't willing to dedicate your entire existence to this.
AB: And it is a really delicate balance because I'm aware that people have lives outside of the lab, but you also don't want people to take advantage of your recognition of their lives.
AB: You do want people to still be present in the lab, and thinking about the material. You want to see people being proactive because science and most facets in life are so forward facing, and we're going a mile a minute trying to understand so many questions that haven't been answered yet about the brain that if you feel like someone is slowing you down, it can be difficult to reconcile that as well.
IT: Absolutely! I think it comes with the assumption that someone truly wants to be in this field and wants to succeed in this field. I think that's when there is some protection over work is needed. Whereas on the flip side, of course, if you feel like someone is not there, there is definitely a balance between devoting your entire life to it and having to sacrifice everything that made you who you are up until this point to work on this one degree, and then almost burning yourself to the bone trying to push it out, versus not breaking a sweat and taking advantage of other people's willingness to pick up the pieces around you because they know that it reflects poorly on them.
AB: Mm-hmm. And I know that more people are in the former than the latter. There are more people who are willing to make sacrifices, almost too much, and that's why I want to make sure I slot myself in and go, 'No, you need to have weekends! Go home at 5:00. Make sure you have something fun lined up. If you find lying in bed, watching Netflix fun, make sure you schedule that in.'
IT: Yeah, you find going out and dancing fun, schedule that in.
AB: Yeah, make sure that you prioritize your mental health [and] your physical well-being, because those do get pushed to the wayside when you are, again, at the bottom of the food chain in academia.
IT: Which is why people have grown to take advantage of it, because they know that these people have come into this because it's a passion, they're chasing a passion. They want to make a difference. They want to make a statement. They want to succeed and they're willing to do anything, as cliche as that sounds.
Taking all of that into consideration, everything we've talked about now, would you do anything differently now, if you knew what you know now at the start of your PhD? If you got a reset button—
AB: Honestly, that's a really good question. I got a lot better at doing this towards the end of my degree, but celebrating the small victories because a milestone is a milestone, no matter what. It doesn't matter if it's big or small, paper or not, getting through the week, surviving your experiments, making sure that everything was done well, and animals were taken care of, those are very important things to celebrate. Because our outputs are basically papers and manuscripts and maybe even your thesis, if you don't have [publications] regularly, you feel like you're not making progress, so I really do wish I had incorporated that earlier on and more frequently. I also wish that I never felt as guilty taking time off. In the week leading up to my holidays, I would feel awful. I would tell people, 'Don't worry. You can access me by email. I'll still be available. It's totally fine. If you need me...' Especially if you happen to schedule it right when grants are being written—and it always feels like grants are being written to be completely honest—
IT: Yeah, definitely.
AB: —it's really tough not to feel guilty, but you've put in the hours, you've put in your days, sometimes incorporating weekends as well, because you have to. I wish I didn't have that guilt, and I'm hopeful that, when I do start my postdoctoral fellowship, that I won't have that because maybe my mentality also will have changed. I am an employee. Yes, I'm still a trainee, but being in school is very different from being an apprentice outside of school.
IT: Coming back to a point previously about celebrating small victories, did you feel like the meetings gave you something to celebrate? It feels like that would be very much a check in: 'This is what I've done. Here's my little package, even though it's not a paper.'
AB: You mean lab meetings?
IT: Lab meetings, presentations at conferences, or even local little meetups that we had such as Pathology Day or something like that. Did those not feel like they were check-ins? Did they feel almost too stressful? You would think that those would be little milestones that you could celebrate, but did it not feel that way?
AB: They did feel like milestones. I never wanted to show up to the same conference with the same information year after year. I took pride in being able to do that three years in a row at Neurotrauma; each year I had something different. First year was one chapter [of my thesis], second year was a second chapter, and then third was a collaboration with an industry partner. It did kind of feel like progress, but at the same time, a poster's not a paper. In the time when those projects hadn't transformed into manuscripts, it was hard to feel celebrated. It was a thing that I had to do. Going to conferences was a thing that I was sent to do—do a good job, come back, hit the ground running, and continue.
IT: What about the small group meetings?
AB: It depended on how, I guess, I had been feeling that day. With animal work, you are spending months at times not producing results; you're doing work, but there's no evidence of that work being completed. At times when you would go around the table of, 'What's going on with you? What's new with you? Do you have results? You wanna put it up on the PowerPoint projector so that we can all see?' There were a lot of weeks I didn't have anything. My update was, 'Yep, still doing my work. Now doing more behavior. Now we're processing brain samples.' That kind of thing. At times it was helpful, and other times it was honestly a bit demoralizing because a question comes because there is an expected, positive answer of, 'Yes, this is what I have to show you.' And when you don't have that, you can feel bad.
IT: Fair. Academically though, what did you find was the hardest time in this? There's almost two simultaneous streams happening while you're in graduate school: you have your academics, you're trying to learn and master this field and become a world expert, and then you obviously have the physical experiments [you're] doing. Academically, what was the hardest time you found?
AB: I... I suppose I hinted at it earlier in our conversation, the period where you're just not producing. Because we have these tangible metrics of papers as evidence of your busyness, if you feel busy, but you don't have papers, you feel like your busyness is misdirected. You're not doing something right. There was a period of time where I had multiple projects going on simultaneously and none of them seemed like they were close to the finish line, and the questions keep on coming up, 'When is this being published? When is this coming out?' And the truth of the matter was neither was close to publication. Both were in the midst of being completed. That, for me, happened in my third year. Thankfully, I was also preparing for my comprehensive [exam]. It's weird that I say thankfully, but I think it gave me enough time to step away from the work, really admire how much I had learned in the last two to three years, and then come back with fresh eyes and go, 'This is actually a lot further along than I thought. Let's work on this. Let's expedite this work,' or 'Let's work on this simultaneously so that they finish around the same time.' I just had a much fresher perspective.
IT: What about personally?
AB: Personally, there are a few. I got very sick at the very beginning of my graduate degree. I started in September 2015—I think it was the first or second week of that month—and September 16th, if I remember correctly, is when I was so sick I had to go to urgent care. It was awful, and to this day I don't know what I was afflicted with, and the doctors didn't know [either]. I was a case study for a lot of the new doctors. They'd come and inspect me and go, 'Oh my God, we've ever seen anything like this before!' That was really tough to be completely honest. I had a conversation with my mom who came in from Victoria to be with me because I was miserable. Even though I told her I was fine, I think she knew I wasn't, so she came. We were sitting in the hospital and I thought, 'I'm either going to die or I have to leave this program.' I didn't know how to tell my PI that I had to leave, 'cause I had just gotten there and I thought, 'Oh my God, she believes in me. She trusts that I can do this.' Dealing with that very early on was tough, and then having to continue to go to class—I told one person who I'm very thankful was around for me—it was very tough.
Then later on, because we live in a scary society where, especially in the US, but [also] in other places around the world, people can harm you using guns. You can be in a very safe space, or what you thought was a safe space, and [people can] hurt you and violate that safe space. That happened a number of times when I was in graduate school, [it] happened beyond on an annual basis; I think it was every couple of months at a certain point. There was one point, I believe November 2015, where three really awful incidents happened, and I just thought, 'Maybe I'm not cut out for this because I care too much.' I'd come to work and people were fine. I thought, 'There must be something wrong with me. Why am I so affected by this? Why do I care this much about people I've never met before?' It actually stirred me and bothered me to my core. I don't think I ever truly got over it. I got better at <voice break> taking time to be sad. But that's the part of grad school people don't talk about.
We talk about the unhealthy work environment that sometimes arises in some labs. We talk about how, you know, the expectations are so malleable, but also very high at the same time. We talk about how you're in this very bizarre stage in your life. The vast majority of us are right after undergrad. We're between the ages of 21 and 25, so we're technically adults. We don't really feel like adults because we're students and we're not being paid like adults, but we also need to take care of ourselves, make sure that we're trying to save, think about the future and perhaps setting up families, that kind of thing. And you neglect to bring up the fact that the world continues to go on outside of your little bubble. For a long time, I just didn't reconcile those two things of feeling so strongly about people losing their lives in a way that I thought was despicable, and having to show up to work every day [while] trying to figure out how I fit into this big academic society at the same time.
IT: I found a lot of people just create a bubble around themselves and shut themselves away from the world for the duration of their degree.
AB: And I understand why. It is easier that way. And that was the explanation that I told myself for why people didn't seem to be as affected as I was. And perhaps they were... Maybe they were hiding it the way I was for a very long time. Maybe they would go home and cry. Maybe they couldn't watch the news anymore. I just cannot watch the news—cannot do it. Maybe people are having their own singular experiences and I'm just not aware of it, but it did feel very isolating at times. Then when it felt like people like me, people who look like me, people who dress like me, were on the receiving end of certain hostility around the world, there were times I felt alone because showing up at work, there was no one who went, 'I get it. I know exactly what you're going through right now.'
IT: What about the times that you were the happiest? Because this obviously wasn't just the worst time of your life ever.
IT: I don't think anyone can go through that. There's obviously... There must be ups! <Chuckle>
AB: There are ups for sure. I was lucky enough to find a work-life balance that worked for me, and part of that meant finding someone I wanted to share my life with. Not a lot of people get married in grad school—I did! And it worked out pretty well, I would say.
IT: I agree.
AB: So far so good. It's been two and a bit years. We're almost two and—
IT: Two and a half, yeah.
AB: Yeah, we're gonna be at two and a half in February, which is so exciting and humbling that we want to do this together. We're taking off on this new journey and trying to be as supportive as possible to each other's mental wellbeing and professional success and hope and dreams. I also started doing SciComm when I was a PhD student. Science communication was not something I truly ever thought about in depth prior to my PhD, maybe because I had something to talk about and I had work that I really wanted to share and make accessible, so I started doing that. This podcast started when I was in graduate school, in my last year, and I also had other opportunities to engage with the community through things like Curiosity Collider and Community Conversations, which was run by NeuroEthics Canada. That collaboration has fostered even more connections through science communication. It's been really, really special.
AB: As cliche as it sounds, I've appreciated the friendships and the connections that I've made probably even more than I had in the past because of what I've been able to go through. I have people that I can trust. I have people that can give me really good advice as well, and that's helpful. I have very wise amazing, extraordinary, insightful people in my circle, and I have never depended on them more than in the last four years. Even friends that I've met in other places, and we've maintained this international connection, I've been an admiration of those friendships. Basically since I started in 2015, those friendships have gotten much stronger. All of those things didn't get put on the back burner because I was doing my PhD. So, if there's anything I am proud of, beyond finishing, beyond writing the thesis, putting everything together and defending, I am proud that I am still myself. I probably have a lower tolerance for people! <Laugh> I find people a little annoying sometimes, but for the most part, I still care about the same things. I care about the same people. I care about justice and equality. I care about representation. I care about being more and representing more than just yourself. When you show up, you are your family members, you are your parents, your children, your friends, because you are an amalgamation of all of your life's experiences, and most of these experiences involve people.
IT: Of course.
AB: That's something that I take away with pride, leaving my PhD.
IT: Putting it all together, what is the advice you can give to, I guess, people pursuing this career, this path—
AB: Don't do it! Just don't <Laugh>
AB: Why? Why are you choosing this life? <Laugh> I guess it depends on what their personal experience is at the time. If they're having an amazing time in graduate school, they don't need my advice; they're doing totally fine. But if they're in a lull... You know, there are so many aspects to advice and [it's] part of the reason I don't like giving it in a blanket way... If someone perhaps is feeling the way that I felt, feeling like the world is moving in a way that doesn't bring you joy and you feel like you're this little person who can't make it all better, I would say surround yourself with people who actually think similarly, because then you can band together and do your little part. One of the things that made me feel better after the shooting in Quebec was actually going to a rally in downtown Vancouver. For the first time in a couple of days, I felt normal and human again. It was a sad get together because we were commemorating these lost lives, but I didn't feel alone. There were other people who felt sad, and for some reason it made me feel better that I wasn't the only person sitting in my room on a Friday evening when everyone was happy and going out. People feel sadness when bad things happen, and I know you don't wanna turn it into a pity party, but sometimes a pity party's healthy. I tell people that all the time: give yourself a pity party. Throw the best pity party ever, and then try to put yourself together, pick up the pieces, put it all together in a way that makes sense. Take the lesson from whatever has come your way and move forward. Don't move on—move forward.
If that is not the thing that's affecting you and maybe it's just the feeling of things aren't moving quickly enough— talk to other graduate students, talk to more senior people, hear the different stories of what graduate school looks like, because it looks very different to absolutely everyone. I have never heard of two individuals having an identical PhD or Master's degree. It just doesn't happen, whether it's incorporating length differences or the pattern of publication—no publication at all, many publications—where they ended up afterwards. There are people who decide academia is it for them—they wanna go the postdoc-tenure track-tenured professor route—and others who wanna go straight into industry. Some people wanna leave science completely, others wanna do science communication. There are so many lanes that you can take on this highway. None of them is wrong and it is okay to consider your options. And none is better than the other! Leaving academia is not a, 'Oh no. What happened?' It's a, 'If that makes you happy, that's phenomenal.'
IT: It doesn't even need the pre-statement. It just, 'If that's what you choose to do, awesome.'
AB: Yeah, I do want to incorporate people's happiness, because I think happiness sometimes gets overlooked. If you are happiest in academia and you've decided to pursue that, good on you. If you are happiest doing science communication and you decide to pursue that, good on you. If you wanna go and switch careers completely, you wanna go from geography to computer science, [if it] makes you happy and you have the ability to do it, good on you.
I don't like that there's this pervasive ranking of where people end up; are they happy? Can they sustain themselves? Good for them. Don't hate on people because it's different from what you wanted or what you expected out of your own life.
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: I would like to, again, thank the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health for their continued support and for making this podcast possible at the very beginning. They have been incredible, top-notch to have in our corner.
IT: Happy holidays!
AB: Happy holidays! All the best in 2020. We're back in January with a phenomenal interview with Dr. Angela Kaida. She's an associate professor at Simon Fraser University. I cannot wait for you to hear this interview. It was an absolute ball to record.