By Samantha Khoury
My working day commences at the wee hours and concludes before the sun casts a long shadow on the sundial. I admit they are not entirely conventional working hours but in the morning the mind is clear and uncluttered and the noise and interruptions are non-existent. A good Columbian coffee adds an azure-like clarity to the morning hours which I treasure.
My PhD responsibilities are planned in advance.
The complex ones are planned a week in advance and the simple ones days in advance; a goal-setting attitude I learned early in life. Specifically speaking my days can be classified as “clinical testing days” and those “composing my PhD dissertation days.” True to their nature clinical testing lasts for months at a time so they are an imperative in my schedule.
The intensity of the day actually leaves you with both pain and pleasure.
My “do it now” hours are completed by 11am, just in time for a coffee top-up. You need a straight head whilst analysing and formatting the masses of data generated throughout the morning so my 2nd cup and last cup is both hedonistic and institutionally imperative.
As statistical analysis is churning, I break to meet with my supervisor for a “consult and concur” on what requires further exploration. I plan experiments to address those questions and “statistic variations” to run the following morning. This streamlined approach allows one to troubleshoot whilst maintaining a high level of productivity. The intensity of the day actually leaves you with both pain and pleasure.
There’s a form of brain-chaos when different ideas and actions take a life of their own yet a mystical satisfaction always ensues after a job well done. But when writing, the day is more methodical, so again, my clarity is found in the morning hours. My writing turn-over is longer chiefly on the first draft; I take my time so as to gain perspective and reduce the demand on my supervisor’s precious time.
The highlights of my day are rather simple:
- Time in lab – Freedom to listen to the loud dialogue or whisper of both brain hemispheres. Analyse, methodical troubleshooting, improvise or innovate, gather results, rinse and repeat.
- Discovery and imagining promising use for observed outcomes.
- Mornings and alone time for structured introspection; not navel-gazing.
- Perpetual “creation, upkeep and destruction” discussions with my supervisor.
- Tête-à-tête with far-afield or non-science acquaintances for an alternative perspective.
- Early night.
There are also many challenges and they are unpredictable.
Thanks to chaos theory, no challenge is the same. If it was, then a formula or a pill would have been invented or a “Dealing with Challenges for Dummies” book would’ve been written to deal with these “known” challenges and move on. I view challenges more like driving. When you drive slowly, the obstacles (which are without doubt along the way) are far and between but as your speed increases they start to appear at a faster rate which sometimes can lead to the wrong perception, thinking that you must be doing something wrong for these challenges to impose themselves one after the other with an uncanny repetitiveness. But the opposite is true.
My supervisor plays a big role in helping me appreciate the difference between the “obstacles” obstacles and the opportunities “disguised” as obstacles.
Peter Ustinov once said that “Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth” and the same can be said about the road blocks that I face in my day-to-day work. How else can I understand and solve a problem and move to the next if I don’t grab the bull by the horn and deal with each problem until the “hidden variables” are demystified (forgive the strong metaphors but you get the drift.)
My supervisor plays a big role here too in helping me appreciate the difference between the “obstacles” obstacles and the opportunities “disguised” as obstacles. Seeing the difference is an “optical” art that I’m learning fast. So you don’t need to be a renaissance man or woman to know that scientific “obstacles” are a pleasure to deal with. The “real” obstacles (read opportunities) are usually the “political” ones where reaching out to fellow humans is a prerequisite for a successful outcome. This can be tricky, hence the “political”.
Take scientific funding for example. Despite the incredible benefits scientific achievements bestowed on humanity, a strong case to fund science will need to be made every time to persuade institutions, governments or VC’s to invest in pure or experimental science.
So these obstacles (opportunities) have and will always be with us, lingering from our “research days” to our “business days.” In a way it’s Darwin’s revenge, not natural selection per se but artificial selection at its best where preparedness and opportunity take precedence, leaving the “unmerited” ideas on the historical footnotes. It’s a tough world but with the right attitude and affirmative teamwork, a scientific “Cambrian” explosion is just around the corner!
About the author
Samantha Khoury is a Cancer Researcher at the University of Technology Sydney and Visiting Postdoctoral Scholar at Stanford University. During her Ph.D, she co-invented a world-first blood test for oral cancer with her supervisor Dr Nham Tran. Understanding early enough the importance of crossing-over from bench top to real-world patient-saving applications, Samantha also invests an inordinate amount of time communicating, researching and networking with ideas enablers across the divide.
Read more stories of PhD life on The Cancer Researcher.