Retrospection is a funny thing. It often causes us to jeer and heckle at our past tribulations, trivializing our obstacles and exposing our past naivete. As my girlfriend always reminds me though, hindsight is always 20/20. It is always in reflection that we think our panic attacks were a tad bit over-dramatic and that our reactions to our dilemmas were rather disproportionate.
A year ago, in this very time frame, I felt I had reached the nadir of my educational/professional life. I had just graduated in May of that 2009 in a particularly volatile period where the economy was the antithesis of booming and when a Bachelor’s degree (as pertaining to the world of science) became the new GED–useless if this was your final destination, but necessary if furthering your education. Since May, I had spent the next four months looking for a job, rather ironic considering in my last year of college, I held down 3 jobs on top of being a full-time student.
In addition to being jobless, I was falling behind on handing in applications for grad school. I was also slowly being excommunicated from my parents who saw little good in my declaring a year off, something not very many of my friends or family had ever done. Pretty soon, I was dirt poor and could not pay my rent, had about 20 job interviews that all proved to be futile, and was making a rather deplorable case to my parents on why taking a year in between undergrad and grad school would be beneficial.
In retrospect however, my parents were placed in a bit of a conundrum, as any parent would be when confronted with a child that is embarking, in their minds, on a path towards destruction and doom. Nevertheless, they tried to understand even when everything I stood for made little sense to them, and I can appreciate their motives even if I can’t always understand their actions.
In a couple weeks, my luck was about to turn. A connection I made through mutual friends told me about a job at Northwestern University’s medical school. The downside was the fact that I would have to leave Madison, the city that’s acted as my foster parent for the past four and half years. Not only that, I would be living at home, an action that conflicted greatly with how I always pictured life after college. My year off was dedicated towards taking a stand on my own. Moving back home felt like putting on training wheels back on this bike I’ve been learning how to ride independently. But this was a time of desperation and desperate measures do not call for the luxury of having options. With my bags packed, I left the city that became my new home for the home that I grew up in.
Back in Chicago, I got the opportunity to work as a lab technician in a gastroenterology lab. My primary investigator’s sole purpose was to develop ways to administer vaccines orally through the use of probiotic bacteria normally found within yogurt and cheese, that would help incorporate these vaccines within their genomic make-up. The idea behind this is that vaccines within the gut would be able to elicit a much more robust immune response than when one receives a shot. This could revolutionize the way the entire world receives vaccines. Imagine a world in which public health workers could tackle malnutrition as well as strengthen immune systems with one swift approach. We may very well be passing up injections for a smoothie to protect ourselves from biological threats.
As novel as as the approach was, the lab was an entire mess. The primary investigator had a vendetta with everyone in his lab until I was the only one left. In a span of a couple months, I went from relishing to regretting my decision to take this job. I wasn’t learning lab techniques in a manner that was conducive to my growth. Everyday was a labyrinth of sorts, trying to make it haphazardly to the end of the day without getting tangled a in a mental dead-end of sorts.
On the Monday, February 15th, I decided I didn’t want to wake up to more misery, so I never left my bed. I wrote an email within the week saying that I quit. In retrospect, I wish had left on better terms, since garnering a reference and benevolent relationships can never hurt. However, I was tired of playing referee in a laboratory full of toddlers. I moved back to Madison within the next month and got a temporary full-time job in the mail room of a government agency. It wasn’t the perfect plan. To someone in my position, this may seem like taking a step in the opposite direction of progress, but I honestly could not have been happier. I had time for school interviews, putting finishing touches on scholarship applications, catching up on some leisure reading, and loving my year away from school.
Sometimes progress is all relative. What looks good on paper doesn’t always feel good inside. At the end of the day, you have an obligation to yourself to take part in experiences that restore your sanity, develop your mental faculties, and allow you to grow. I’m not saying that working in the mail room was the perfect strategic ploy to make something of my year off, but the unperturbed environment allowed me to tap into learning more about myself and achieving a state of mind I wouldn’t have received at such a high-profile job. Do I wish that things could have gone better? Perhaps. If I had continued working in the lab, the situation might have intensified or it might have improved. I could’ve taken part in an effort that stood to change lives for the better, but it might’ve been changed mine for the worse. I could’ve contributed greatly to the world of research, but I would’ve lost something within myself doing it. In retrospect, I don’t think I could’ve been who I am today without having gone through the year that I did, and that’s a lesson that’s been imbued within me over time. Retrospection without regrets. Now that’s something I can live with.