The Cost of Calm

“Whoever said money can’t solve your problems,
Must not have had enough money to solve ’em”
-Ariana Grande, “7 Rings”

With mental health struggles so prevalent for graduate students, graduate programs and support networks are putting extra emphasis on mental health awareness.

My graduate program offers workshops and counseling to its students, providing training and information about the resources available within our institution. I have attended workshops on meditation, the importance of being aware of your own mental health, and mentally preparing for big presentations. The university’s recreation center also offers yoga classes, for a small monthly fee.

We’re taught that daily factors affecting your mental health include diet, sleep schedule, human contact/communication, and work load. To a certain extent, we have control over most of those elements. However, when we lose control over the last one, work load, we must find an outlet.

Every student is different in the way(s) we manage our stress. It is up to us to determine our preferred coping mechanism.

Some seek professional services through counseling or therapy. Some find solace in support networks on social media. Some keep journals to put words to everything swirling inside their heads.

While I do some writing, I, and many others, prefer more active pursuits. Some of us make regular trips to the gym, others go to yoga or meditation classes to clear their heads. A couple of my classmates take pole dancing classes and highly recommend them. A few other students sing in a local choir or play in an orchestra.

I know others who have taken up boxing or gymnastics, empowering activities which require a completely different skill set from what is utilized for their research.

All of this is to say that students exploit highly varied outlets to separate themselves from their work and take care of their mental health. Unfortunately, many of these endeavors cost a decent amount of money, making them not accessible for every student who wants to participate.

I grew up in an incredibly thrifty family. Both of my parents paid their own ways through university because their families did not have the means to do so. For them, growing up without money meant that when you had it, you saved it. I was raised with that mentality and, as a result, spending any amount of money over $50 is a mental hurdle, especially for things that I don’t “need”.

I recently started taking yoga classes at a studio near my house. These classes are more expensive than the ones offered through my university’s rec center, but they’re more varied and conveniently timed. With a student discount, classes cost $85/month. This may not sound like a lot of money to some, but to someone making $32,000/year and already paying a mortgage in addition to normal monthly expenses, $85/month can be a fair chunk of change.

This fee for classes is, admittedly, pretty low compared to more selective options (i.e. offered in fewer locations), like boxing or gymnastics. In addition, stipends in our program are very generous for PhD students, but expenses beyond necessities are a struggle.

The mental hurdle I had to jump to get here was that I don’t “need” to take these classes. I could stretch at home, I could go to my rec center’s classes, or I could find a different outlet that didn’t come with a monthly fee.

My instinct to not spend money is so ingrained that it risks my overall well-being. I have to convince myself that the cost of the activity is worth the benefit I will get out of the activity. Even then, I ask for a free trial period to take as much time as possible before I put any money on the table.

It is likely that my mental obstacle courses are particular to me, but I know that concerns over personal finances are common with grad students. I worked for a few years before grad school so I have a safety net. Many other students aren’t so fortunate. They started grad school immediately after undergrad, with no savings or are financially responsible for family members/children.

These are struggles we handle individually, prioritizing where best to spend the money we have. Increasing graduate student stipends would be a welcome financial relief, but that is not a path likely to be taken with increased tightening of research budgets. I would like to see better education for students interested in budgeting their finances, and greater acknowledgement of the funds needed by each student to find and pursue their own outlets for mental health security.

Inherent Creativity in Science & Tech

I recently finished reading another book recommended by a career/professional development specialist. This one, titled “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel H. Pink, presents evidence of why “left-brained” jobs are becoming obsolete (in the U.S.A.) and recommends skills that can be developed for individuals in those careers to become more “right-brained”.

While “left-brained” and “right-brained” are not physiologically accurate (pretty much everything we do requires both hemispheres of our brain), the author uses these terms to describe the amount of creativity required to do that job. Examples of left-brained jobs given include lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. While I cannot speak to the day-to-day activities of lawyers or accountants, as I have no experience with those professions, I can speak a fair bit to the skills required to be a software engineer/programmer.

My Bachelor’s degree is in Biomedical Engineering, which required me to take courses in Java & MATLAB programming. The book’s author on a couple occasions also categorized science as a left-brained field. Based on my experiences in the science and tech, I fundamentally disagree with Pink’s assertion that people in scientific and technical fields lack creativity.

I hope that Pink’s beliefs that science and tech don’t inherently require creativity is due to an insufficient understanding, rather than willful ignorance, or what those fields entail. Generally speaking, scientists and programmers are presented with a problem and tasked with discovering or creating a solution. In the case of science, unsolved problems include climate change, limited natural resources, everything we don’t yet know about the human brain, and countless others. In software programming, unsolved problems may include incorporating a new feature into a larger existing software package or creating the next big social media app.

**I apologize that the relative significance of the example problems given for science and tech are starkly contrasting, but I am not personally familiar with the big-picture questions programmers are trying to answer. Feel free to educate me in them.**

Ultimately, the solutions to all of these problems will require creativity to both think up and design experiments to test the solutions. In science, we use experiments to answer small parts of a larger question. It requires creativity and intelligence to think of the fastest and most accurate ways to answer our question given a limited number of resources (e.g. money, time, personnel, equipment, etc.). In programming, they use different coding languages and progressive logic to come up with solutions to their problems.

Two different programmers given the same problem are highly unlikely to write the exact same code as a solution. Both will be able to understand what happens in each line of code and how that contributes to the outputted solution, just as scientists understand how each experiment answers a small part of the larger question.

I would also like to note that especially good experimental designs and software code are commonly described using the same terminology as is used for art and music: elegant, cohesive, balanced, creative, complementary, imaginative, etc. This is not a coincidence.

I found reading Daniel Pink’s superficial assessment of science and tech to be especially frustrating because, while the book is not new (it was first published in 2005), I’m sure that many people outside these fields hold the same misunderstandings of what kinds of people do well in science and tech. I want creatively-minded free-thinkers to know that they have a place in science and tech, and are very likely to thrive here. Even more so, if they don’t already, I want scientists and programmers to recognize and celebrate how creative they really are.

I Make People Uncomfortable

I recognize that I have an imposing stature. I am 5’11” (1.80 m) tall and was, up until a year ago, fairly overweight. Outside my family, I grew up surrounded by people who were smaller than me. Between my size and my love of school, I became a social outcast at a very young age. I had friends, but I never really felt accepted. I didn’t find a group of people who I connected with until my junior year of high school and I am still very close with them to this day. Unfortunately, my social awkwardness has never gone away.

I don’t mean to, but I intimidate people. I cannot hide my size, I maintain an athletic physique, and I don’t hide my intelligence. Growing up, it wasn’t cool to be smart, especially for girls. I tried to hide my intelligence for a short while but quickly realized I would never be “cool”, so I moved on and did my own thing. I, like most people growing up, tried to change things about myself to be more likable. It wasn’t until the past couple years that I truly embraced my awkwardness, focusing my energy on becoming person I wanted to be, rather than who everyone else wanted me to be.

I am not good at small talk. I find it to be an inefficient form of communication. However, I recognize that it is necessary for general social interactions, so I deal with it for as short a time as possible. I love talking to people, I just prefer to have meaningful conversations because I find those foster the interpersonal connections that lead to genuine, lasting friendships.

As a result, I have very little hesitation about bringing up topics that have made other people uncomfortable. These topics commonly include politics, religion, philosophy, morals, and personal information. I share my perspective for every topic I bring up, so it is never a one-sided conversation, nor do I every want it to feel like I’m interrogating the person I’m speaking with.

Recently, the conversation topics that make people visibly clench are feminism, women’s rights, and sexual assault. Not that those topics were regularly discussed before, but their presence in the news has people extremely on edge. That hasn’t stopped me. I want to know what people think. I want to know who in my life is paying attention to it and who is choosing to stay out of it. For the latter, I want know why those people don’t want to be informed or have an opinion.

I recognize that there’s a lot to keep up with, but I think it’s incredibly important to stay informed and have an opinion that can be defended.

No matter how difficult the conversation, I want people to know that they can talk to me about anything. I do my best to express my opinion without judgement or accusation, but my perspective is relative to my own experiences. More importantly, I respect that others have had different experiences from me.

The more people are willing to have uncomfortable conversations, the more normalized those topics become. Maybe if these topics were normalized, people wouldn’t be afraid to express their opinions, tell their truths, or share their stories.

People Over Politics

I have never been sexually assaulted or raped. I have been harassed, stalked, and patronized, but nothing that has given me nightmares; just the nature of being female.

There are probably many reasons why I haven’t been the target of a sexual predator (anyone who commits assault/rape is a predator), but any justification of my good fortune, I feel, removes responsibility from the attacker. For too long, it’s been the victim’s fault for putting themselves in a potentially harmful situation, rather than the predator’s fault for committing the act.

While I don’t have first-hand knowledge of such trauma, I have watched the toll its taken on close friends. I have done my best to help them, in the seemingly feeble ways I could: I listened, I supported, and most importantly, I believed them.

It’s been strange for me to watch everything unfold since the Harvey Weinstein scandal and resulting #metoo movement because I don’t understand why so many people don’t believe the victims. What’s worse is the backlash victims face when they do have the strength to come forward and seek justice. I can’t fathom how anyone can witness the aftermath of sexual violence/trauma on the victims and not believe them, let alone ridicule or threaten them for coming forward.

My issues with specific people’s reaction to and treatment of victims has reached a new level of concern when watching how politicians have reacted to and treated the accuser(s) of Brett Kavanaugh. Responses have ranged from refusing to believe them, patronizing the victim(s) by suggesting they must be confused or “mixed up”, to wholy ignoring the accusation(s) for the sake of politics.

All of this leaves me wondering about where we, as a society stand. Where is the moral/ethical line in the sand about how we treat people and what behavior will we permit, and what accusations/actions cannot be ignored? At what point does someone’s character and actions outside the job preclude their ability to do or warrant their removal from said job?

I am choosing not to discuss the legal/justice system’s role and responsibility to treat victims fairly and respectfully, because that, as it exists, is a different kind of disappointment.

I am addressing my concerns to politicians, political pundits, and members of the public who are prioritizing politics over people. What will it take for victims to be taken seriously, recognized respectfully, and treated fairly?

Seeking A Balance

I am not great at hiding my emotions. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. As a result, people who know me well can quickly figure out when something is wrong.

At dinner with my parents last week, it didn’t take long for my mother to ask what was bothering me. I’m convinced that she always knows when something especially good or bad has happened to me. Thankfully, she doesn’t always ask for details because she trusts that I will tell her about what’s happening in my own time.

The thing bothering me last week continues to keep me down. I feel like I exist in two lives, and they don’t seem to want to go well at the same time. I have a professional life and a personal life, and they haven’t really intersected for the past couple years.

A month ago, my personal life was going well, but my professional life had slowed down significantly. On the flip side, for the past few weeks, my professional life has been going well, by my personal life has taken a dip.

This is not a shocking problem and I am far from the first person to be facing such difficulties. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make me feel any better.

My personal life had been going well because my grandfather had been pretty healthy and I had ventured back into the world of online dating, with some initial success. Everything else in my personal life stays relatively constant.

Just life every other foray I’ve had into online dating, it only took a few weeks for me to lose all confidence in the system. Between unsolicited dick pics, 30 year old guys still trying to figure out their lives, Trump supporters, and guys just looking for something “casual”, I started dozens of conversations that all ultimately ended up the same way.

A couple friends from school found their current significant others online, so I know it’s theoretically possible; I just haven’t been so fortunate.

My professional life hit a slump while I prepared for my first committee meeting and planned out my first experiments. Since my successful committee meeting, I have had the time to start my first set of experiments. They are nothing too exciting and things in the lab rarely occur as desired/intended, but I’m happy anytime I actively have work to do. In addition, I’m really looking forward to some upcoming academic events in the next month, so I hope this positive momentum continues for at least the next month.

As I wrote about recently,  my work successes have been juxtaposed by my grandfather’s declining health. This has undoubtedly made it more difficult to celebrate when things go well in the lab. My grandfather is doing surprisingly well, and I want with every fiber of my being for him to continue to improve, but every day brings new challenges and surprises.

My inability to find a positive balance between my personal and professional lives has required more of my energy than I have to spare. I want to find a balance where both of my lives are constant and moving in a desirable direction. I am not looking for perfection, just an improved status quo.