Around 10:30 last night, I found myself staring at a submit button. This submit button was small, humble even, yet clicking it was kind of the equivalent of jumping out of a plane. That submit button would send 3 messy, painful applications to 3 different MPH programs–all of them programs I would love to get into. There’s something funny yet nerve-clawing that my top 3 were all due on the same day, that I had to submit those before I was really ready, before I’d even sorted out some last details of graduation from NMU. The feeling as I submitted them was not unlike the feeling I had at commencement: a sense of vague, dull panic twining sinuously around a cloud of this can’t actually be happening.
But it did happen. I submitted. The world moved on and I moved with it.
I don’t know what my chances are of getting into any of those programs. I am skeptical, yet optimistic, as I am with many things in my life. I would be thrilled to attend any of the three schools; I looked through their programs carefully, painstakingly even, consulted my research advisor and my life/academic advisor alike. I had my professors look over the rough draft and the less rough draft and the final draft of my statement of purpose; people on Twitter who I love and respect offered input as well. I looked at the cities in which the schools are located (I’ve only visited one of the cities in question, and even then, it was a brief flurry of activity at the airport and then a long drive out of the city). I have friends in all three states, though that doesn’t necessarily matter–when I moved to Marquette, I knew no one, and was profoundly lucky that I had friends from Michigan who had friends who lived in Marquette who were willing to pick me up at the airport and help me carry my stuff into my new apartment. Every camp I’ve ever worked at, aside from the summer I spent in Virginia, I went into the job not knowing anyone. I’m not afraid to be a stranger in a strange land.
…which is good, because in so many ways, my decision to apply for MPH programs, rather than continuing on with microbiology, is the very definition of being a stranger in a strange land.
Sometime in February of 2014 I found myself lurking in the hallway outside of my research professor’s office. He had emailed me for a meeting, because the following conversation had occurred a few days before, and he had begun to worry a bit:
Me: “Do I actually need to graduate with a degree in microbiology as opposed to regular biology?”
Him: “Well, no. You can do what you want to do even with gen bio, your coursework is still micro-intensive.”
Me: “Cool. I’m dropping biochem.”
Him: “Okay…wait, what?”
Me: “I GOTTA GO TO STUDENT SERVICES BYE!”
I heard him mutter “Dammit, Nikki!” as I scurried out of the department.
So there I was, lurking in the hallway, waiting for him to return from whatever he was doing. Another professor in the department, whose office was a few doors down from his, came out of her office. “Are you waiting for ____(PI)?”
I said, “Yeah, he wanted me to come see him. I’m stressing him out.”
She laughed. “What did you do?”
“I dropped biochem.”
She considered. “I don’t really blame you. But do you NEED it?”
I thought about it. “I guess…if I were going to be a microbiologist, then yes, but honestly, Dr. Cool Prof? I don’t think I want to be a microbiologist. My desire to do microbiology is not enough to make the misery of biochem worth it to me.”
She smiled. “Come on in. Let’s talk about this.”
The conversation ranged over several topics, but there was one moment I remember in particular. She leaned back in her chair and she gave me a sympathetic smile, and she said, “You aren’t very happy in any of your classes. When you talk about them, it’s obvious that you’re just not happy.”
She was right. I wasn’t happy. Oh, I loved working in the lab, and I liked biology, and still do–I still find it thrilling to learn new things about how the natural world works. I was taking general microbiology that semester with one of my favorite professors in the department, and I adored her teaching style. But actually learning the material was hard for me in that class and many of my other biology classes was often hard for me, in part (a large part) due to the way it was taught. The diagrams of little blobs and bits fitting together were meaningless to me unless I could talk about them, make them interactive somehow–and even then, they were still sometimes meaningless, if the concepts were too abstract. The main thing that saved me in that particular class was that my adored microbiology prof recognized that I needed a different way of teaching, and willingly gave her time to sit in her office with me, talking about the material, digging through publications and the internet as needed.
I had gone into microbiology because I was interested in infectious diseases. I was interested in infectious diseases because I was interested in people. When I read John Tayman’s “The Colony”, I was moved by the descriptions of life on Molokai, and the public health decisions that had led to the creation of the leper colony stuck with me, disturbing and unsettling me, for weeks after. I wanted to study diseases so I could help people. But in my biology classes, we kept talking about tiny, frustratingly abstract cellular functions and mechanisms. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I felt trapped. I’d committed to a biology degree, I was going to finish that goddamn biology degree, come hell or high water. If it took me ten years to do it (…yes) I was going to finish.
The semester ended, and I got another C in another biology class. My professor told me my grade was not a reflection of how hard I had worked or how much I had learned, merely a reflection of the points I’d earned on my various assignments and exams throughout the semester.
Bitter northern winter finally grudgingly gave way to mud season and then to pale golden summer. My research project in the lab came to a quiet and unceremonious end, and with it, the last vestiges of my vague thoughts of continuing on with my masters’ at NMU. I was frustrated in many of my classes, but in the lab, even the concepts I didn’t get were still satisfying rather than stressful. There were things I could do, tangible, physical things I could do with my hands, that would chip away at the clouds of confusion and bafflement that enveloped these abstract, microscopic concepts I was struggling to understand. I could hone my techniques, do western blots and PCRs, plate cells and run gels, and understand a tiny bit more each time. But when my research project ended, I began to consider other options.
I don’t remember a specific point where I started thinking public health. I think it started, as many of my major life decisions do, as a vague and nebulous thought circulating in the back of my mind inspired by one small but poignant moment. In this case, it was definitely a class I took my first semester at NMU. BI 295, Disease in Society. It was a special topics class being offered for the first time, by one of the most beloved professors in the department. I took it cautiously–I had been burned by special topics classes before. This time, however, it was perfect. The class was entirely based on group work, on three different groups tackling the biological, epidemiological and sociological impacts and significance of each disease we studied.
There were many moments in that class that had great significance to me. But there was one in particular that really struck me, and continues to linger to this day. The last disease we studied was the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It came time to give the group presentations on the disease, and the guy who was giving the presentation for the microbiology of how HIV/AIDS works was talking about how the disease is spread. He talked about needles, unprotected sex, and bodily fluids, and made some offhanded, snarky comment about people being idiots. Our professor was patient, and kind, but she also wasn’t going to let that fly. She waited till he was done, and then said, calmly and yet pointedly, “It’s very important that you all know this: if you go into medicine, or public health, or any kind of job where you have to treat people, it is so important that you set your judgment aside. You have to help people, and you have to do it without judging them.”
That struck some marrow-deep chord in me, one that continues to hum to this day.
I went to my research professor in August to talk about grad school. I was still trying to figure out what to do with all the time and energy I’d put into trying to be a microbiologist, and one of the programs I was looking at was technically in public health, but featured a lot of laboratory work. I asked him for his input, and he considered. “Well, I know you can do the lab work. Even if you don’t know how to do something, you’re tenacious enough that you’ll figure it out. Your science background is good. But honestly, you have people skills that not everyone has. You have really good people skills. And I think that you would do best in a program where you can talk to people, plus I think you’d be happier.”
I recognized a truth in his words, though I wasn’t in the habit of thinking I have people skills. In fact, I never really thought that I had people skills to speak of until he pointed it out–if anything, I thought I had room for improvement, because I’m really quite introverted and can be shy, especially in groups of more than three or four people. But I did recognize that I can talk to anyone, and am good at getting along with and working with other people, and that perhaps my love of group work is somewhat unusual.
My next stop was with my beloved microbiology prof a few days later. I had written a rough draft of a personal statement and wanted her to look it over and give me feedback, and, if we’re being honest, to also soothe my anxiety. My last semester at NMU had begun and it was already pressing down on me like hot, thick air without enough oxygen content. I told her about the schools I was planning on applying to, and asked her to read my statement. After we had discussed the statement of purpose, I said, “I…how do I know I’m making the right decision? I thought I wanted to be a biologist, but…I was kinda wrong. I mean, I love biology, you know I love biology, but it hasn’t been the best fit for me.”
My prof smiled. “Let’s consider this. You’re very good with big-picture stuff and pattern recognition.” It’s true, it’s one of the good things about life with ADHD. “You’re good with statistics.” Also true, I zipped through the class with ease, and even enjoyed it. “You have great people skills.” There was that phrase again. “You can talk to anyone, and you’re very good at making people feel at ease.” Well…okay, she’s not wrong. I do talk to all kinds of people, and I work really hard to make people feel comfy. “I think, personally, that you would do very well in a public health program. You would need all of those skills, pattern recognition, stats, looking at the big picture of community health, and above all else, talking to people. If you were, say, an epidemiologist, you would use those skills all the time.”
Something clicked in that moment. Something very important. This professor was pretty special to me. I had long admired her as a scholar and as a professor, and in taking a class with her, had come to sincerely love her as a person–we had a ton in common, and frequently brief visits during office hours turned into “oh my god we’ve been talking for two hours! I’m so sorry!”. And all of this, in spite of the fact that I had struggled and occasionally outright failed in her class. She had never lost faith in me despite my struggles, and her faith in me lifted me up at times when exhaustion, frustration and pure misery threatened to drag me down somewhere dark. She had been a devoted mentor, and she believed in me, and saw me perhaps more clearly than I would ever see myself. She knew my flaws–but she saw what I could do, and saw how I might just get there.
“So basically…this entire time I thought I wanted to be a microbiologist because I was interested in infectious diseases…I actually wanted to be an epidemiologist?”
She smiled. “I think so. I think you would honestly be really great at it. And if you need a reference, just let me know.”
I stopped. “Wait, seriously? Even though I made a C in your class?”
“Oh, yeah. Your grades don’t really matter to me. I can write about you as a person. I know what you can do.”
I left feeling absolutely elated (and very nearly teary-eyed). And I began to work on a list of MPH programs to which I wanted to apply.
There was still a little nagging hint of doubt. I needed some kind of proof. I’ve always been a skeptical, questioning sort; that and my sense of wonder are what sparked my love of science in the first place. I didn’t know what kind of proof I needed, what kind of sign, but I knew I needed one. That proof came about a month and a half into the semester. We were working on proposals for our senior capstone projects, and I was beginning to panic. I was trying to write up a proposal based on my research in the lab, and was floundering miserably. Not only was I not comfortable writing about the project, I didn’t like writing about it. There were too many tedious technical terms, and even though I had been working faithfully and tenaciously on the project for over a year and a half at that point, I still didn’t fully understand it. And as the deadline crept closer and closer (…and then passed) I realized: I’m never going to do this kind of work.
I threw my half-finished proposal away. I wrote a proposal for a metadata study on community-based prevention of dengue fever in under 6 hours and turned it in to my professor, all smiles, completely unconcerned about the fact that he would have to dock a few points for it being late by a few days. I didn’t care. Looking through epidemiology literature was comfortable in a way no other aspect of biology had ever been. It was comfortable, and it was exciting, to see the possibilities for how we could fight disease at the community level, how we could apply those tiny abstract cellular functions and then expand them, use that knowledge on a broader scale, at the level of people.
I found my way. Now we wait for the next journey to begin.