“I think his work will be regarded as a landmark in the field in the years to come. Without further ado, here’s Alex!”
My principal investigator (PI) had just given the introduction to my thesis defense. I was nauseated. Heart pounding. Head spinning. Four years of research has led up to this moment. I took a deep breath before I made my way towards the podium. As I gazed into the crowd of people that had pushed the room to capacity, familiar faces in the crowd caught my eye — my family, my friends, fellow graduate students, collaborators and lastly my fellow co-workers.
I’m going to miss all this.
Exhaling slowly, I finally managed to soak it all in and began my dissertation defense. Finishing graduate school has been a real mix of conflicting emotions. My last few weeks in lab were spent trying to hold on to and relish every moment. I would tease the lab techs I had grown to know that time was running out to blame everything on me. I appreciated the little things: the mice trying to bite my fingers off, my PI endlessly revising my thesis and even the mundane pipetting.
One of my last tasks was to clean out my bench and organize my notebooks. Flipping through the pages, I reflected on my growth as a scientist and as a person. I had overcome failure after failure to start my own project, learned and perfected techniques I hadn’t heard of before graduate school and made lasting connections with my colleagues and co-workers. These experiences fuel my desire to remain in science, but I can’t linger in the past. I closed my notebooks and stacked them on a shelf. I must now prepare for the tough transition back to medical school and finish my medical education.
I cannot help but feel a little bit uneasy about the coming changes. The last standardized test I took was Step 1 in 2016. I have forgotten the feeling of sitting down and studying material until I knew every detail. When I transitioned into graduate school, I traded computer exams for experiments, standardized exam books for lab notebooks and listening to lectures for preparing my own. There was suddenly no clear metric to measure my progress. Instead, progressing forward sometimes meant scrapping plans and starting anew. After four years of adapting my schedule based on the results of my experiments, I once again look forward to having a guided regiment based on monthly shelf exams and the ever looming threat of standardized tests.
While schedule changes will surely be challenging, I face perhaps an even bigger challenge of adjusting to my role in the hospital. On the surface, there may not seem to be much of a difference between being a graduate student in a lab and a medical student in a hospital. I worked with lab techs, post-docs and principal investigators similarly to how I’ll be working with the nurses, residents and attending physicians.
However, the hierarchy in science is fluid. I was considered an expert in my field and openly challenged my principal investigator when he gave me experiment ideas and designs. In fact, he welcomed my questions, criticisms, and input. With limited clinical experience, I’m hesitant to act similarly towards my attendings. Depending on the rotation and attending, instead of asking questions and offering critiques, I will have to hold my tongue and accept the established practices and protocols set in place for me. I won’t have to learn from failure, but this will surely frustrate the inner scientist in me. I can only look forward to when I’ve risen up the ranks and can start to question and implement change to set hospital protocols.
Change is a constant in life. Although I face another hard transition, I am genuinely excited to start clinical rotations. I’ve been dreaming about this moment ever since I declared I was pre-med in college. All the organic chemistry, pharmacology and pathophysiology that I’ve learned has led to this moment where I can finally enter the hospital as a full-time student. I am far from where I need to be to become an independent physician-scientist, but I embrace the challenge ahead of me. The clinical years will only grow me as a person, and I look forward to what lies beyond them.