Updated: Jun 7, 2020
Today, it is exactly a year since I graduated from my Ph.D. program in Biomedical Sciences at UMass Medical School. I started the program about 12 days after I graduated from college. Others took the time to enjoy themselves over the summer, celebrating getting done with college, one of the most significant milestones in most young people's lives. Being the first one to attend college in my family, graduating was a significant achievement. I had failed to get my parents over from Zimbabwe for the ceremony, so I had my dear friend Lorencia with me. It was bittersweet! My mom had spent the day celebrating alone at home, even bought some chicken and soda, and danced the night away to music from her favorite, Simon Chimbetu.
20th of May 2012
Here, I was supposed to leave the college campus the following day before noon, and where was I to go? I ended up spending the next ten days with an acquaintance, sending emails to UMass looking for housing, but with what money? I had barely graduated since I had to pay all my family contribution arrears, or I was not going to get the diploma. Lucky for me, there was a lady whose husband had died in spring, and she wanted to visit her family in another state for the summer and wanted someone to take care of her house and her cat. She worked at the school and allowed me to move in rent-free from June to August. I was happy I had found housing, but she had lost a husband, the father of her child, and her life partner. I had found fortune in someone else's misfortune. Sad as it was, there was nothing to be done. It was during that summer when I found my love for cats.
That was 2012. I had graduated college on the 20th of May, and by the 2nd of June, I was already in lab doing a research rotation for my Ph.D. studies. I could not afford to enjoy the summer and bask in the sun with some college friends and reminisce. Despite all that, I was extremely grateful. I had a roof over my head. I had food to eat. I thought I was ahead of my peers since I had already started my rotations and had made written plans on how I was going to graduate in five years!!
Little did I know that I had embarked on the most arduous journey of my life and that it would take me an additional two years in addition to the five I had written down. At first, everything went well, and my rotations were successful, at least I would like to believe they did. I never checked my evaluations. I just knew that if I did not get an email from the dean, I was doing well. I would check my transcript at the very end of the semester in a bid to not stress myself meanwhile. In early 2014 I joined a lab, and I had the best supervisor any Ph.D. candidate could ask for. He was straight to the point, just the way I like it. He took the time to teach me the very basics: enzyme restriction digestions, polymerase chain reactions, mouse genetics, dissecting mice, making mouse embryonic fibroblasts, the list goes on.
My first primary task was to make a mouse model to use for my projects, and the recently described CRISPR technique was taking over the world. It was fast, cost-effective, and it was the most groundbreaking and revolutionary gene editing technique in science. However, making one of my models using that technique turned out to be a nightmare. It never worked in my hands. After a year, I finally got it, and I was ready to start doing actual experiments. It was exactly at that time I started having mold contamination in my incubators. I tried every fungicide on the face of the planet, nothing worked, and time waited for no man. I became stressed, and nothing I did worked for the next year and a half. By the time I got a new incubator, which is quite expensive equipment, it was already early 2016. I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and stopped my appointments with my counselor. Due to all the setbacks, I added a year to the initial five years I had set for myself in the beginning.
It was at that time, my supervisor called us for a meeting, and as soon as I sat down, he announced that he was leaving the school and to take a position elsewhere. It was one of those positions that one could not say not to, a once in a lifetime opportunity. In that moment I stopped breathing, and I could feel my brain becoming oxygen-deprived and instantly I started having a headache. My mind raced. I do not remember what happened after that. I know I took my stuff and went home. I was happy for him, I just did not know how to feel about what was going to happen to me. It turned out I was to be left in another professor's lab, and my original supervisor would come back a couple of times per month to check on my progress until such as time as graduation arrives.
I quickly became responsible for ordering all my supplies and take care of all my equipment since I was the only student in the lab. I had to read so many manuals on how to operate equipment and take classes on how to use things like purchasing platforms the school uses. These were things I never used to worry about before. I was used to asking my supervisor what to do, and since he was knowledgeable in our research area, he had answers to almost everything. Now, I had to come up with most of the experiments by myself. It also did not take time to get used to my new supervisor, who is one of the nicest people I have had to work with. Since he studies neuroscience and I was doing cancer biology, we learned most of the things together, and we figured most of the stuff as we went along. My supervisor kept his word and came almost every month to check on my progress. Surprisingly, once I got settled in the new lab, I started making so much progress. Because of the changes that had happened, I added another year to the six years I had written down. It turned out having my supervisor leave, enabled me to become more independent and I saw so much growth in myself as a scientist. It was a blessing in disguise.
2nd of June 2019
At this point, most of my classmates started graduating, and inside I was worried that I would be the only one left. For some reason, I did not want to be the last one left. I pushed hard, and once I was left with a few experiments to do, I asked for permission to graduate, and last year on the 2nd of June 2019, I finally graduated after seven whole years. I started graduate school on the 2nd of June 2012 and graduated on the 2nd of June 2019, exactly 7 years. I had a few things to do, and I needed maybe four to five months and I would be done. With the immigration environment we currently live in, the OPT I needed to continue working did not come on time. So soon after graduation, I had to stay at home. Eight days after the graduation ceremony, I lost my father to progressive supranuclear palsy. I felt like my world had come to an end. My father was my biggest cheerleader, and I knew he was one of the few people I genuinely loved beyond any worldly thing or being I can think of. I was heartbroken. Fortunately, I managed to carry on after gaining the understanding that this very life with live, does not belong to us but to God. It is God who gives and takes life. I realized that if I decide to grieve for months or years, nothing was going to change. Instead, I chose to be grateful of the fact that I had grown up with both my parents alive. Some were not so lucky.
2nd of June 2019
Late in the fall, I came back to the lab. I had to teach at a local college for some time to compensate for the months I could not work because of the OPT that came late. When I was able to submit my manuscript, It was already 2020, and the coronavirus was raging in China. I thought like the MERS and SARS, it would go away, and life would carry on as usual. The day I got my peer review comments from the journal I had submitted my paper to, was the day our lab closed. I could not address the reviewers' comments and resubmit the paper until last week. Things have not worked as I had planned since I am still here and it has been a year since graduation. All the plans to start post-doctoral studies seem so uncertain with labs not sure how the pandemic is going to affect research funding. However, I choose to stay positive. I know that sooner or later, another opportunity will present itself if I continue putting myself out there. Whenever I start feeling like I am a failure, I quickly try to erase such thoughts. I once never thought I would get an opportunity to attend college, let alone be where I am today. I am grateful for the gift of life and for being here to write this.