Friday, June 06, 2008

I don’t know if I can do this anymore. The last three weeks have been so bad, and things are only looking to get worse. I haven’t blogged about them, but I think a little bit of backstory is important.

I’ve known for some time now that the lab was going down. It used to freak me out, and then eventually things were so bad every day that I became immune to it. A few months ago, we lost all of our money, completely (we haven’t had a funded grant in over a year, and we’ve been living off the scraps). The lab is down to Kim and I, who are both paid off of a departmental training grant, and Ming part-time. As time went on, we were told that the lab would exist until maybe December 2008 or so. I guess the medicine chair could pull the plug any time, though, so we are at his mercy. December 2008 was supposed to be fine because Kim was done then, and I was planning to go back to medical school in November. And my training grant appointment was up in September, so we’d only have to find funding for two months.

Then all hell broke loose. I was having difficulty registering for the summer. I emailed the physiology secretary to ask about it on May 15. She told me that she had given me the wrong class, and since I was off the training grant as of June 1st, I should register for this other class.

Wait, what? I thought I was funded until September.

Dr. B was at a conference, so I couldn’t compare notes with him, but I emailed the secretary and asked if she had any info. She didn’t.

So Dr. B was back on the 19th, and I told him what the secretary had said about my appointment. He was surprised, as was I, and said we’d figure something out. That afternoon I met with one of my thesis committee members to ask if she had any ideas about what I could do to get my project working. Basically, things have been horrible since I got back from maternity leave, and without the funds to buy all new cells and start over, I’ve been forced to try and finagle with what I have. It’s not working. She gave me some ideas. I also told her about the funding situation, and she told me that it’s Dr. B’s job to figure that out, not mine. That gave me some hope.

Well, as soon as I got back from that meeting, Dr. B came to find me. Instead of trying to find more funding, he suggested I find a plan B. He gave me this long speech about how it’s ok to change my mind, how it’s difficult to have a family and a career, and it’s natural if I want to quit. He asked me if I knew what would be involved in quitting the PhD and going back to med school. I told him that I was pretty sure I’d have to pay my way, and I may even have to reimburse the MSTP a little for things like my computer, etc. I wasn’t 100% sure, and he asked me to talk to George and find out. He asked me if I wanted to continue in science, and I said that after everything I’ve been through, I still like science. I don’t think I was to do 100% bench research, but I still get excited by new ideas and seminars and papers. I was hoping that I’d be able to combine the clinical and bench work a little more. But I wasn’t ready to abandon it completely. He told me that I could always come back to it later. He told me to consider what was best for my family.

I was flabbergasted. I was hurt, angry, upset, defeated, and completely shocked. What was best? Why would I kill myself over a crappy project I didn’t even want for four years if I wasn’t willing to finish it? I’ve got less than a year to go, and I am going to quit now? Why would I do that? If I stick it out, I go back to med school for free, finish up with an MD/PhD from a good program, and leave myself open to options. If I quit, I pay $40,000 a year for med school, no longer bring home a stipend (small though it may be), have to explain for the rest of my life why med school took me four years longer than usual with nothing to show for it, and potentially have to start the PhD all over again if I ever wanted to get that degree. Am I an idiot? (caveat: if I were not near finished, I would have taken my papers and walked that day. I should've walked three years ago. But I'm too close to the finish line now to just walk away.)

I was completely crushed. Part of me knew this was coming from the idea that if I quit, Dr. B didn’t have to figure out how to keep me going. He’s given up completely. And it’s more of a hassle for him to try and find me funding (and space, now that it looks like I won’t be done on schedule) than if I just left. Then I wouldn’t be his problem anymore.

I emailed my MSTP director, and this is what I said:

Hi []. I know this is probably the worst time to try to meet with you, but I am in a rough spot. Dr. B has run out of funding, and I am also ending my two years on the Physiology T32 training grant. Dr. B and I had thought that the training grant support ran until September—I was notified last week that my appointment ends on June 1st. I talked to [other director] via email, since he is on my committee, and he states that there is no way to have additional training grant support because of the MSTP limits. So, I am out of funding.

The other issue is that Dr. B is slowly closing the lab. I do not know how we are being supported now, but there are only two of us left (me and a pediatric endocrine fellow supported by a training grant). We have enough money for basic supplies, but the lab will likely be closing down soon, possibly as early as this summer but likely in December (when the fellow is done).

In addition to funding and lab closure, we’ve hit a major hurdle in my project. Our antibody has suddenly stopped working, and we need it to finish up a series of experiments that would be the crux of my paper. We are trying everything to get the antibody issue fixed, but without it, there is a large gap in my project.

I have resubmitted my first original paper that I wrote in Frank’s lab and finished after he left. I will hopefully hear something on that soon. I need another first author paper to graduate according to the physiology requirements, and that is what I am working on.

Seeing as how everything is falling apart at the same time, Dr. B asked me to consider a Plan B. His idea of a plan B is for me to leave the PhD phase and go back to med school. He stressed that this would be worst case scenario, but that it may not be a bad idea to plan for it, just in case.

I do not want to quit the PhD, and I would like to finish as soon as possible. If we could get the antibody working again, I would hopefully finish experiments in a few months and finish the paper. I had initially hoped to graduate with the PhD before November, but that is getting less likely by the day. I personally don’t have an issue if I can’t graduate until next year, but my funding/lab situation may not make that possible.

So, in order to be fully informed, I would like to know what would happen if I need to quit the PhD and thus leave the MSTP program. I understand that I would lose funding and be responsible for medical school tuition for the third and fourth year. What other issues would it entail?

Let me stress again that I do NOT want to leave. I am actually heartbroken about the entire situation. Although I have had an extremely rough series of situations in the PhD, with Frank leaving and then basically having little to no option in choice of lab or project after he left, I am still interested in science and hope to pursue it in some fashion once I graduate. If there is any way to stay in the program, I’d like to explore that first. But if there are no other options, better to be prepared.

If there is any time in your schedule to meet to discuss options, I’d appreciate it. My next committee meeting is on June 3rd, and I’d like to be able to have some options ready for my committee. This has all happened rather suddenly, and I am scrambling to get as much information as I can in a short amount of time.

I know things are very hectic with you, so I will make sure I can meet with you any time you are available.

Thanks so much []. I hope we can get something figured out.

The director responded that he couldn’t meet now, but he included the other director on the email. He and I met, and he said again that although MSTP didn’t have any actual money to fund me, they would put pressure on physiology to work it out. Again, I was told that it was Dr. B’s job, not mine, to work this out.

Easier said than done. Dr. B did not make a single phone call or email on my behalf. I talked to the training grant director, the finances secretary, and a whole list of other people to try and get information. Dr. B would ask ME if I heard anything.

I talked to the director of my physiology program as well, about both the funding issues and the experimental issues I’ve been having. He was fairly upbeat and told me to hang in there. I was actually a bit shocked by this—he was the one at my last meeting that was being really nitpicky. But he told me that the endgame is always the hardest, and I should just work as hard as I can to finish up.

By this time, I was freaking out a little bit less. I had talked to enough people that said they were going to make it work. I knew I was in for a $400 a month stipend cut coming off the training grant, but getting paid some was better than not getting paid at all (or having to pay them $40,000 a year).

Wednesday, June 4th was my committee meeting. It was supposed to be Tuesday the 3rd, but at the last minute Dr. B couldn’t do it because he is gone every Tuesday (meanwhile, I knew that, and I had been reminding him for MONTHS of the date because I knew we’d either have to change it or he’d have to cancel clinic). Wednesday I already had a meeting from 12-1 and another from 3-5, so we sandwiched in my meeting from 1:30-2:30.

That day, I got back from my lunch meeting at 1 and was rushing to get my computer and everything ready for the meeting. Dr. B comes by and says he’s been looking for me since yesterday afternoon (again, I’ve been going to the VA clinic every Tuesday afternoon for SIX MONTHS). He pulls me aside and tells me again that if I want to tell my committee I want to quit, he would support me. He tells me he knows how hard it is for women scientists because he did a sabbatical with a woman scientist. Even though she was the star scientist, and her husband was just ok, she was the one that always had to leave when the baby was sick. He said he had no idea how she did it. He also told me a story about how, in the 60s, when he was a med student at Hopkins, the dean approached him and asked if he wanted to join their new MSTP. He had done a lot of research and seen how people killed themselves in the lab, so he said no. Plus, he was on full scholarship, so there was no financial incentive. He said he hated how time dependent MSTP programs are and he didn’t think it produced good scientists. He said that ultimately he finished med school, and during residency he decided to get his PhD the old-fashioned way. He said I could do that too if I wanted. He said again that maybe this wasn’t for me and maybe I should just quit “for my family.”

I had finally gotten to a place with all of this where I had basically blown him off. For almost two weeks I had worked to move past the first time he told me to quit. And now, ten minutes before my meeting, he brought it up again.

I could feel myself starting to become emotional again—angry, sad, hurt, etc. I tried to push it down, and I went to my meeting. Committee meetings usually start with a 5-10 minute session where the committee meets without the student, then the student gives a 15 minute presentation, then there’s a discussion, then a period where the committee meets with me and not my advisor. Well, that initial 5 minute session without me turned into 35 minutes. I could feel my anxiety growing with each second. I was standing in the hall, waiting so long that a nice woman asked if I wanted a chair or a glass of water. How sad is that?

When it was finally time to give my talk, I could tell that the committee didn’t want to spend a lot of time on it. I had talked to all but two of them individually, so they mostly knew my situation. I did spend some time on some of the specific experimental issues I was having. As is usual, Dr. B was questioning my rationale more than my committee was. I expected that, and I had answers to his questions. I got a little bit of help from my committee as far as brainstorming for specific trouble spots.

At the end, I was asked an open-ended question, something along the lines of “Where do you see this going” or “how do you think things are going.” I said that, with every passing day, my goal of going back into medical school in November became less and less likely. I said that I didn’t care so much when I went back, but I was worried that anything past November may not be an option. When someone asked me why, I said, “Because I may not have a job.” By this point, I was choked up but forcing myself not to cry. When someone asked why I may not have a job, I decided to not go into all of the issues (as recommended by several of my committee members prior to the meeting—they all said not to talk about it). I said that it was well known that the lab was closing and that the money was gone—Dr. B even verified it. Again, they told me that as long as I was making progress, they would find a way to fund me.

That was supposed to make me feel better, but it didn’t. That whole making progress part is one big loophole. I feel like I have made no progress since I’ve been back (not for lack of blood, sweat, and tears). And like I told my committee, what happens if another three or six months goes by without things working? What then?

Since my committee talked so long without me at first, we didn’t have time to talk without Dr. B there. They just suggested that either I email them and let them know I got the antibody to work, or we meet in six weeks and game plan. In the meantime, they want me to go through a bunch of projects in the lab that never got published that I worked on secondary to someone else and include them as chapters in my thesis. It’ll be tough—Sriram’s stuff is a mess, but I’ll give it my best. They also said to let them know what happened with the paper I submitted from my old lab.

After my thesis committee meeting, I had to dash over to another mandatory meeting. I got back from that about 4:15, and I was filling Kim in on my meeting when Dr. B came by. He told me I did a good job, and he took my hand. I had said at the meeting that I was panicked about my project. Dr. B told me, “I knew you were concerned, I didn’t know you were panicked.” At this point I started tearing up again, and Dr. B actually gave me a hug.

That was a light bulb moment for me. I realized that he’s not trying to be a class-A jackass. He generally thinks he’s being supportive. I do think some of it is that it is easier for him to get rid of me, but I think that he thinks he is giving me an out. He doesn’t realize the financial or professional ramifications of quitting the PhD with less than a year left. He thinks he is helping me.

This doesn’t make the situation any easier on me, but it does make me feel differently about him. I think he’s clueless, not mean spirited. He has no idea what is really going on. And he thinks the simplest answer is to walk away.

Since my meeting on Wednesday, things have gone from bad to worse. I heard back yesterday on my paper with Frank’s lab, and it was bad—even worse than the last place we sent it. We had rewritten it to try and circumvent some issues, but in fact we made it worse. Part of the problem is that we are refuting a finding seen only in vitro, and our in vivo model doesn’t agree with that. Issue is, it was a big-name lab that made the initial finding. But we have multiple methods that come to the same conclusion, so I think we are right. We may just have to keep sending it out until someone believes us.

And then, this morning, I found out that my cells are contaminated. This has been a long and drawn out issue—cells I had in the liquid nitrogen would grow, but not make antibody. So we bought new cells. And the day after we bought them, the CO2 tanks in the culture room went out and every single cell we had growing died. So I had to call and beg for new cells, since I hadn’t gotten to split and freeze my newly ordered cells yet. Those cells came Wednesday. Today I was ready to split them to freeze some, and they are contaminated with yeast (Dr. B thinks it is mycoplasma, but you can’t see that at 10x magnification, and you can see this). The water in the incubator was contaminated, and it got into my cells. So I had to sterilize everything, and now I am trying to decontaminate my cells. It’s $400 to order new ones, and we don’t have it. So I’ve got to try and get this to work.

It has been the most frustrating few weeks of my life, and it doesn’t look like it is getting any better. Thank god we sold the old house. Losing $400 a month in stipend and still having two mortgages would have killed us. It’s still going to be extraordinarily tight (like parking a 30 minute walk away so I can save $75/month in a parking pass). But at least it won’ bankrupt us like it would have with two mortgages.

There’s been another issue brewing the last several weeks as well, but that’s for another entry. I can only emotionally do so much at one time.

The synopsis is: for now, they are going to try and fund me. No one has talked about what happens after November when I can’t go back to med school yet. I think they are in denial. I don’t know how long I have this funding, or what the definition of progress is, but I know I will be at work every minute I can spare until I am done. And that sucks, because I really hate being here. But I hate being here so much that I will do everything in my power to be done. I just hope that’s enough.

It’s just been so hard for me. And when you hear something enough, you start wondering if it is true. My entire life, I’ve been groomed for science, and I’ve been told that I am good at it. Now, I have someone who is supposed to be my mentor telling me that it’s not my thing, and maybe I should give up. The first time I heard it, my stubbornness came out. I thought, “I’ll show him! I’ll go out and have my own lab and be so successful!” Then I thought about how I really don’t want a lab, and I began thinking that maybe I should quit. I wish I would’ve quit when Frank left—I would’ve only lost a year, and I’d be in residency now. But now, to be so close, I just want to show that I can do it. Maybe that isn’t the best motivation. And I know that finances shouldn’t be all of it either (although come one—even if it is a year of pain to stay in the lab, it saves me $120,000 before loan interest). I know that I should have that drive to WANT to do research.

It’s just that my entire PhD has been a battle. My first project was at least clinically relevant in Frank’s lab, but then he left. I never wanted to join Dr. B’s lab, and I definitely never wanted this project. But here I am. And I’ve done everything that’s ever been asked of me. I’ve tried my hardest, but sometimes things don’t work. And this isn’t working. Personally, I don’t think it’s fair that people who are handed projects and finish their PhD in 2.5 years (it happens—there are two in my program) or people who only need to submit, not even publish, one paper to graduate (common in other departments at my school) are awarded the same degree. I’ve learned so much, but I don’t have a lot to show for it. Does that mean I’m less ready to be a scientist? Absolutely not. If anything, I’ve had to brainstorm and troubleshoot, which makes me more prepared. But here I am, still struggling, still no graduation date in site.

I’m just so emotionally drained right now. And nights like last night, where I get home and all hell is breaking loose (we had a flood from our freezer last night. At least I rescued the frozen breastmilk) make things so tough. I feel like I have no part of myself left to give. I know it sounds trite, but I feel like lab kills me a little more every day. I hate coming home and being drained. Sophie is such a joy—I want her to have the best of me. But I have so little left to give. And Tim’s been trying so hard to fix things. Him having no control over this wears on him too.

I just feel like the universe is crapping right on my head. We are healthy and alive, which is good. But the last year has been taking such a toll on me. Kim in the lab thinks I am jinxed. Just when she says at least things can’t get any worse, they get worse.

I am really trying to look on the bright side. I am an optimist at heart, and stubborn as a mule, and those are both qualities that have been completely necessary to me not jumping ship a long time ago. I just really hope things turn around soon.

1 comment:

  1. i'm so sorry that this has turned into such a mess for you. everybody is right though - it's not your responsibility to find funding. i hope that everything works out for you, and i will be thinking of you.