Overwhelmed: Stories about being in over our heads

This week, we're presenting stories about times when science is just too much.

Part 1: Fiona Calvert is a crier — but when she starts her PhD, she promises herself she’ll never cry in front of her colleagues.

Fiona Calvert is a third-year PhD student at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute where she focusses on the role of the immune system in Alzheimer’s disease. She uses stem cells to understand how genetic mutations can affect the functions of microglia, a vital immune cell in the brain. As well as being fascinated and constantly amazed by the biology of the brain, Fiona is also passionate about science communication and loves any opportunity to talk about the wonderful world of microglia!   

Part 2: After graduating with his PhD, Shane Hanlon struggles to find balance in his science career.

Shane M Hanlon is a scientist turned communicator who masquerades as a storyteller. He got a PhD studying frogs and turtles, tried his hand in government, and is now a scientist who teaches scientists how to talk to non-scientists. Shane is also DC's oldest (but not bestest) Story Collider co-host & producer. He happily lives in Virginia (but still loves DC), tries to get outside with his partner and dog as much as possible, and is medicore at writing witty biographies. Find him @ecologyofshane.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Fiona Calvert

I’m a crier.  I cry at anything and everything.  Any extreme emotion has me sobbing.  In fact, there are two things I do that I know make me cry and I refuse to give them up.  Number one, when I have the flat to myself, the first thing I do is put on my pajamas, put on Grey’s Anatomy and prepare to sob. 

Number two, my car.  I’m all for saving the environment and really want to participate in my work’s eco-friendly car-sharing scheme, but I can’t.  There's nothing I like more than, after a hard day of work, getting in my car, putting on those power ballads and sobbing through my twenty-minute drive home.  It’s essentially my therapy. 

So yeah, I love to cry.  I find it cathartic.  So when I started my PhD I knew I was going to spend four years crying. 

And I didn’t make it easy on myself.  I am doing a PhD in an area I don’t have a background in.  I work with stem cells, which are notoriously fiddly and frustrating to work with.  And I thought it would be fun to learn how to code while I was doing this at the same time.  So yeah, I expected to feel overwhelmed and frustrated and to be in tears for four years. 

But when I started, I promised myself one thing.  I would always cry in private.  Not just those kind of small tears where a few teardrops roll down your cheeks and then you man up and move on.  Not just those.  The full-on meltdowns.  I would always make it back to my car or the ladies’ loo if times got really, really desperate. 

You see, I started my PhD not that long after the whole Tim Hunt thing happened.  For those of you who don’t know, Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who in the 2000s won the prize for his work on cell division.  So he's pretty famous.  He caused a little stir when in 2015 he was giving a speech to female journalists and scientists.  And, to cut a long story short, he was quoted as saying, “Three things happen when girls are in the lab.  You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” 

I never really thought of myself as a woman in science before.  My undergrad was pretty mixed, my PhD cohort is almost fifty-fifty, and at the institute I work at there are plenty of badass female scientists to look up to.  But unsurprisingly, something about that comment about crying really struck a chord with me.  Suddenly I felt this fear.  I was so aware of my ability to cry.  And while many other women took to Twitter to hit back at Tim Hunt and prove him wrong, I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, my God.  I’m that stereotype.  Criticism definitely makes me cry.” 

So suddenly I felt this pressure, pressure upon myself and this pressure to not let women in science down.  And I promised myself I would always cry in private. 

I managed for a while.  You know, I worked really hard to fight back those tears in the moments where I would normally well up.  And not just the little moments.  Even those really big moments.  Like when the cells that I spent three months engineering all died.  Or when our minus-80 freezer broke overnight and we came in in the morning to find a puddle of water, even then I made it to the toilet to cry. 

Then a year ago I broke my promise.  Like really broke my promise. 

I have my first year report due later that day and I’m feeling pretty good.  I have a draft submitted, my supervisor is reading it for one last time, and I’m just about to get in my car and I hear that ping of an email in my inbox.  I check it and my supervisor has left me an email to say, quite casually, that the analysis I've been learning to do for three months is probably wrong and we should remove it from the report and replace it with this new analysis that I have no idea how to do. 

Now, like I told you, I’m learning to code.  Me not having a clue what I’m doing is not unusual in this PhD, but in that moment I feel so overwhelmed that the tears start flooding.  Then I get in my car and, as per usual, I cry for that whole twenty-minute drive. 

But something is different.  When I pull into the car park and I start walking to the café, I can’t stop crying.  So now I’m in my work café crying my eyes out.  I really wish I could tell you it’s that crying you see in movies where tears silently and dramatically roll down my cheeks and no one notices, it’s not.  I am ugly crying.  That kind of crying where you're wailing out loud and you're sweating because you're crying so much.  I've got the snot too.  The snot is running out of my nose but I don't care because I’m crying. 

And you probably think, uh, she's crying in the café, at work, at peak morning coffee time.  It can’t get much worse, right?  Wrong.  Through the haze of my tears I spot my worst nightmare across the room.  My supervisor.  I try hurriedly to wipe away the snot so he might not notice but the panda eyes and the sobbing are a dead giveaway.  I’m upset and he knows it. 

Photo by Claire Haigh.

Photo by Claire Haigh.

He starts to approach and my heart sinks.  Now, he's at my table and he looks confused, concerned, maybe a little scared.  He looks at me and says, “Do you think we should go somewhere a bit more private to talk about this?” 

At that point I’m crushed, because his opinion of me must be an all-time low.  He thinks I can’t cope with this PhD.  Suddenly, all those comments from Tim Hunt flow through my mind and I feel like I’m crying for the original reason.  I’m crying because I’m embarrassed.  And now I’m crying because I’m letting women in science down. 

And I realize my PhD supervisor, he's never had a female PhD student before and I can’t imagine his previous male PhD students doing this. 

So we find a meeting room and now I’m at that hyperventilating stage of crying.  You know, the time when you're like, “I-just-can’t…  Uh-uh.”  I’m doing that.  I’m trying to explain what’s going on and, after a very long time, interrupted by many sobs, I get my words out. 

I tell him that I feel like I can’t do this.  I feel like I’m not learning this quick enough.  And this new analysis, I have no idea what it even means. 

And then there's this pause.  He looks at me and he's freaked out.  Then something amazing happens.  My supervisor responds in the best way possible.  He's kind.  He's calming.  He's reassuring.  He even musters up the courage to joke that of course I’m crying when my idiot supervisor emails me on the day of hand-in asking me to redo everything.  And he reminds me that what I’m doing is hard and it’s not something I’m going to learn to do overnight. 

He then takes time out of his busy schedule to sit with me and work through this analysis.  As we work through it together, and he's not getting frustrated when he has to tell me how to do things that he's told me a hundred times before, I realize there are little bits of it that I do know.  There are bits of it I can do.  It reminds me that I am learning, slowly, but I am learning. 

And I get my report in on time.  It is, by far, not the best piece of work I've ever written but I think it’s probably the one I’m most proud of because that’s the overwhelming feeling I have about this PhD, pride.  I have never had to work so hard or be pushed outside of my comfort zone or felt like I couldn’t do something more than during this PhD. 

And it’s small wins like handing that report in on time, or differentiating my stem cells for the first time, or getting that piece of code to run error-free.  Those small wins remind me that not only am I going to do this, I’m going to kick ass while I do it. 

Now, a year on from that very public crying experience, I’m pretty grateful that it happened.  As far as I know, my supervisor’s opinion of me hasn’t changed.  He still pushes me and wants me to learn and treats me the same as he does with everyone else. 

And although I had cried many times in private before, this first public experience taught me a lot.  It taught me that while there are men in science that are assholes, not all men believe what Tim Hunt said.  That is in no way the majority. 

It also showed me that while a PhD often feels like this giant solo expedition, it’s more than okay to ask for some help. 

Most importantly, it showed me that who cares if I cry at work.  If a man feels uncomfortable with my crying, that is his problem, not mine.  Being a woman in science comes with a lot of obstacles, challenges, and judgments but me crying does not make me a bad scientist and the weight of reputation of women in science does not rest solely on my shoulders. 

Now, I am proud that my PhD makes me cry.  I am proud that I do something that I love and feel is worthwhile enough to cry about. 


Part 2: Shane Hanlon

I’m sitting in the living room minding my own business, beer in hand, when one of my partner’s friends comes up and asks me, “So Shane, what do you do?” 

I've been dreading this question but also expecting it.  I live in DC, a town where stories about professions are traded back and forth like currency.  People are trying to constantly one-up each other with these exchanges, like Venmo interactions.  But I realized, for me at least, the answer to this question isn’t so simple. 

I have a PhD.  I did the grad school thing.  I studied amphibians and reptiles.  If you ask my parents what I did, I counted frogs and turtles, which is kind of like saying the Cubs will win the World Series or that congress will pass a bill.  It happens; it’s just rare. 

So I ended up getting my PhD and after I graduated I was at a crossroads.  I loved and still love research.  I loved the ivory tower, the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge, the flexible work schedule, but I always wondered what kind of an impact was I making? 

As scientists, we prepare, we execute, and then we publish our research.  And we start all over.  But how often do we step back and ask why?  Why am I doing this?  Where is this research going?  What difference am I making?  I wanted to figure that out so I left the ivory tower, again, not because I hated academia but because I wanted to see what else was out there.  I wanted to do more. 

I moved to DC to do the equivalent of a policy postdoc.  Then I did another pretty prestigious fellowship and then I was promptly unemployed.  Grad school does not teach you about unemployment and it hit me hard.  I had done all the things, though.  I had published a bunch, I got grants, I taught, I did the research, all of those things, but I just didn’t know what happened.  I went from being on top of the world to being unemployed and living in my brother and sister-in-law’s spare bedroom, doing my damnedest to disclose neither of those facts on OKCupid dates. 

And I was just left wondering why?  What happened?  Did I not network hard enough?  Did I not pass out enough business cards?  Did I not wear a nice enough suit?  And this sounds ridiculous but I was lost, adrift for the first time outside of the ivory tower. 

It turns out that I don’t do so well when left to my own thoughts.  So in order to kind of get out of this funk and fill the unemployment void, I picked up some side hustles to help pay the bills and to, again, kind of get out of this funemployment, which, by the way, is a horseshit term. 

I taught a course in rural Pennsylvania where I got to go out into the wilderness with students and teach disease ecology, which was great because it got me back to research and it got me out of the unemployment funk.  I ended up writing questions for Science Bowls and I worked on a policy panel, kind of a mock science policy panel. 

I ended up picking up a side job at the zoo where I get to take mostly kids behind the scenes and get really up close and personal with the exhibits, with the animals.  And then we spend the night at the zoo camping out in tents on the lawn.  I will tell you hearing lions roar, wolves howl, seals bark and DC traffic all in the same thing is an experience that I won’t soon forget. 

I love doing all of these things but it wasn’t until I got my current fulltime job that I felt truly settled-ish.  When it came time for me to cull all of these side hustles now turned extracurriculars, I couldn’t.  Something wouldn’t let me quit them.  I felt like the lead in a Nicholas Sparks’ novel.  I worried that I was a grass-is-always-greener guy. 

I remember when I was applying to jobs, I would apply to something and then I would find something that I liked more.  And I would think, “Oh, well, I hope I don’t get that other thing that I just applied for because I like this thing more,” which was ridiculous because I was unemployed. 

But I remember talking to a friend at the time and he happens to have the worst case of FOMO I've ever seen in my entire life.  FOMO is the fear of missing out, this idea that people are out there doing things, having fun without you.  I don't have FOMO or at least the classic sense of FOMO.  Few things make me happier than hanging out on a Saturday night with my partner and my dog non-euphemistically Netflix and Chili. 

But I thought about it so he wants to do all of the things and I want to do all of the science things.  And he has FOMO.  Oh, shit.  I have science FOMO. 

This got me thinking about another all too popular feeling especially in the sciences, impostor syndrome.  Those ideas of not feeling like you add up to things, not feeling like you're worthy, not feeling like you're good enough are felt by so many people as we progress throughout our careers.  I didn’t necessarily feel like that when I was a researcher, or at least I didn’t think I did.  I probably did, because we all do.  We just think it’s normal because that’s how science works. 

Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

Photo by Michael Bonfigli.

But I felt it when I left academia.  Not necessarily that I wasn’t good enough but that I wasn’t doing enough.  I think part of this stems from academia itself.  As an academic, we are free to and encouraged to do all types of different things.  You have to teach, outreach, research, whatever it might be.  But in the private or corporate or government sectors, your role is usually more clearly defined, and that’s fine, but I think that’s why I wanted to do more things.  I wanted to keep doing all of the things. 

All of those side hustles, I’m still doing all of those things.  I keep adding stuff to it.  I helped start DC Story Collider after I got a full-time job.  And I love doing all these things.  Don’t get me wrong, but I think I would feel guilty if I didn’t do them.

And that’s what it comes down to.  It’s guilt.  I feel guilty often, almost always.  I need to do all of these things because, if I don’t, I worry about disappointing myself.  I worry that if I don’t do anything and everything, I'll be less of a scientist or maybe even less of a person.  I used to joke around in a non-joking way that I worry when I’m not worried about something.  My anxiety tends to drive me but it also feeds me. 

Now, I know that this isn’t probably the healthiest of behaviors.  I’m not advocating for this.  I’m not trying to defend this.  Maybe I am a grass-is-always-greener person.  But I want to say that I think that no matter what I was doing, no matter what sector I’m in, whatever field I was in that I would still want to do all the things no matter how burnt out I get. 

And I often fly too close to the sun, I would still want to do all the things.  Even though the motivations behind this are not optimal, the results are.  I have found a way to take all of this guilt, this worry, this concern, this doubt and turn it into a force for good. 

Back in that living room with all of these thoughts rushing through this head, my head, this now-friend staring at me thinking, “Is he going to answer me anytime soon?”  I realize something.  What do you do?  For me, that’s a loaded question.  I do all sorts of things.  Science FOMO has given me the drive, the opportunities, the motivation to do more in science, hell, more in my life that I would have ever thought possible.  I don't think I'd be here today without it.  I am confident in the decisions I've made regardless of the motivations behind them. 

So when people ask me, “What do you do,” well, not enough and more than I should, and that’s okay.  Thank you.