When To Call It Quits
By Megan Elder
I woke in the early hours of December 14th, 2009, to the dreaded sound of the phone ringing. In my sleepy rural town (Stirling, New Zealand: population 306), the phone only rang that early for two reasons: either one of your sheep had gotten out and was causing a nuisance, or an elderly relative had passed on. As my youthful attempts at adopting a pet lamb had been suppressed, sadly this call had to be the latter. I recall lying in the dawn light, ears perked as I listened to the questions, heavy silence and sobbing drifting down from my parent’s bedroom. After what seemed an age, my dad had wearily padded down the hall, entered my room and dispelled any lingering doubts: my Grandmother, who had recently suffered a series of large strokes, had passed away.
I remember feeling helpless as I grieved with my family, unable to do more than make cups of tea and try to stay out of the way. As tends to happen at a wake, I found myself in conversation with my second cousin once removed: mine had just been appointed Professor of Quantum Physics at the University of Sydney. I heard the passion as he spoke of his work and realized for the first time that scientists weren’t demigods but simply people who loved science, and who were lucky enough to follow their passion as a career. I knew I wanted to be a scientist following the realization that if I worked hard enough, I could maybe help prevent what had happened to my Grandmother happening to others.
I wanted to be a doctor when selecting my university courses just days after the funeral, and soon I toddled off to the first semester of my medical degree. Sitting in a lecture hall alongside 2000 others it quickly became apparent that my strengths did not include memorizing notes. In fact, my mind was like a sieve, where facts dripped through unimpeded and it was the unanswerable questions that remained.
I knew I wanted to be a scientist when my favorite professor offered a summer internship to study the biological mechanisms of memory in her lab. While my work never made waves, it made me certain that this was where I belonged.
I knew I could be a scientist when I began my PhD. I worked earnestly, tirelessly for the goal which I was now so close to realizing. I gained funding to intern at a lab headed by an intensely passionate woman and got to see what was possible if you just worked hard enough. I established techniques. I read and wrote. I taught. I lived, breathed and loved science.
I knew I finally was a scientist when I took my postdoc position in New York City. I was free to explore my own ideas and science was almost instantaneous. In New Zealand you wait for reagents for six weeks, here it was six hours. Halfway around the globe, this world was endless possibility and I embraced it all.
I knew I had to stop when I burned out.
My research had raised questions which (I thought) could alter the way scientists understood Alzheimer’s. I wrote applications for grants, fellowships and awards to investigate further, but no one wanted to fund me. I began to question everything- was it me? Was my CV too weak? Should I have stayed longer hours in the lab? Did I have what was required to succeed in this game? I travelled home to my sleepy rural town and had the chance to view the realities of academia without the rosy hue of adrenaline. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
I knew I didn’t want to be a research scientist when I sat down to write this narrative. I will always have a deep love for discovery. I know the attributes I possess- a burning desire to help, the knack for problem solving, an appetite for hard work and the willingness to take opportunities- would serve me well. I just refuse to believe that, contrary to what is drilled into every graduate student, becoming a tenured professor is the only path that is open. So, while I’m not certain what career I will end up in, I do know what I want to be.
I know I want to be happy.
Megan Elder is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Center for Neural Science at NYU who is attempting to understand early pathological changes in Alzheimer’s disease. She is grateful for each and every experience and knows that the next career step (whatever it is) will be a good one.