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I Research Diseases for a Living. This Is the Hardest Part of My Job.

Three years ago, I was sitting on my bed reading for a particularly undeserving class, in desperate need of motivation. That entire year I was in the midst of what can be best described as “the snowball effect:” one frustrating situation would be compiled by the next and I kept feeling too tired to take charge of my life, too overwhelmed by small, menial errands that took up all day and stressed me out all night. I guess nearly all young adults can relate to that.

It wasn’t until I clicked a link on my browser that led to me planning my postgraduate studies, which in turn introduced me to immunology.

Now I am a young researcher in the field of immunology, constantly reading scientific papers, trying to understand the literature available and — hopefully! — coming up with unanswered, or should I say “yet to be answered” scientific questions. This is exciting enough. Well, for some. I am one of those emotional people who still sees the people even when everyone else sees the molecules or the signaling pathways or the statistical analysis.

I like to think that people like me make excellent senior researchers but lousy young scientists. I don’t mean that people such as myself are originally bad at science, don’t get me wrong. I just think the sensitive ones, the ones with a skill for compassion and the ones who suck at compartmentalizing, may feel they are a little in over their heads when they are asked to have their attention completely and utterly fixed on laboratory science. I identify as option D: “all of the above” and then some.

I currently study autoimmunity and cancer biology because those are the two main areas of interest in my lab. I’ve done well at school, I achieved every academic goal I’d set for myself and I’ve always taken pride in my intelligence. But, unfortunately, none of it translated into anything resembling coping skills once I joined the world of “real adults.”

I was suddenly expected to be a scientist and person all at the same time. That’s tough if your subject matter is human beings. More specifically, parts of human beings. More specifically, diseased parts of human beings.

One time I was asked by my elementary school to talk to a classroom full of third graders about what it’s like to be a biologist focusing on research related to a disease. I, of course, played up all the good parts: I get to work with smart people who challenge me intellectually, I get to read and learn constantly, and if I’m lucky I get to make a difference in the world. I downplayed all the pitfalls of my job. I omitted to reveal that my days aren’t scored by happy, optimistic rhythms. I didn’t tell them that to get to my lab I have to walk the busy corridors of a huge hospital every single day, where people are in pain.

Then it was question time. I got some I was expecting, like “Who is your favorite scientist,” “Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist,” etc. But then a little girl asked me whether all the sick people my lab’s research endeavors are trying to help boosted my motivation to work harder, or made it more difficult because I knew all the bad things they were going through. And my 24-year-old self could not come up with an answer. 

What happened was what usually happens when you least expect it: The truth came out. I heard myself saying that no one had taught me how I should be feeling about this double-edged situation. I felt like I had to blame my teachers because they are responsible for everything else I know, so it must be their fault I have no answer to that particular question. I felt like I should defend myself for not knowing what was right to feel. I am sad for people who are sick. It is supposed to motivate me to work harder, to be better. But the truth is that, for me, at this point in my life, caring can be an obstacle at my job. It’s something that holds me back or, at the very least, slows me down.

And I don’t think I am the only one who feels that way. I think some researchers block out the endgame, the “finding the cure, the drug, the panacea” mantra on purpose, so that they can function. Because it’s hard to see the dying cells and the dying person stitched up in the same tapestry and still remain focused on your research.

For those can do it while they are still young, I say both “good for you” and “I am so jealous of you it hurts.”

But biology is all about striking a balance, finding this special equilibrium. However, there is also a certain fluidity that is supposed to effectively create change, one way or another.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to concentrate solely on pursuing answers to scientific questions without letting myself see the patients and their families as well. I don’t know if I want to, either. I just know that I will go to my lab tomorrow. I also know that I wish the diseases I am studying now and the ones I will be studying in the future didn’t exist. And maybe, then, my emotional range wouldn’t have to be broad enough to accommodate this feeling of not quite knowing how you should be feeling, all the while thinking that no matter how you feel you are in the wrong.

All I know for sure is that I am motivated now. I grow more motivated as I get older. I don’t sit on my bed reading out of obligation anymore.

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