Rising Through Dark Times

by Anurag Srivastava

“I want to quit everything and go back to India”, I said to my PI one afternoon in May. The devastating second wave of corona in India had impacted me badly. I had lost friends, relatives, and many people I knew to Covid. I was already struggling with my project and the imminent threat of the ongoing pandemic made it even worse. One of my closest cousins was fighting for their life post-Covid infection. I was almost broken mentally and emotionally. I was unable to focus on my work and was missing deadlines which led me to often not showing up in the lab.

A week previously, I was lost but the backing from my PI changed my state.

When I spoke with my PI, I was restless, after listening she asked me, “What you can do even if you go back to India? Most probably nothing.” Somewhere deep down in my heart, I knew that even if I go back, I would be of no help as I am no medical doctor. She continued. “Let’s plan your things and I will give you few tasks to complete in the coming weeks.” Her first task for me was to finish a poster before the deadline. She said to me “that you already have done the work, you just need to add the finishing touches and it will be all completed.” I sat down in my office and started working, and I was amazed by her constant support. She would come to my desk to enquire about my progress and how I am feeling. Once I finished the poster, I felt a big sense of accomplishment. The feeling of worthlessness subsided.

I expected that all the tasks would be related to my research. However, she stumped me when she said, “Anurag your hair looks like a bird’s nest, I have no doubt that even your room will be a royal mess”. She pointed out the physical aspects fuelling my negative emotions. “Go and get a haircut, clean your room over the weekend.” The next day, I made a ponytail and came to the lab. She commented “Anurag, new hairstyle? You need a haircut.” I laughed and felt so good with the kind of concern my PI was showing me. My next task was to complete a review article that I had worked on for a very long time. She recommended I focus on one thing at a time and hit small targets. This helped and by Friday, I finished one of the review chapters sent it to her. Over that weekend, I got my haircut and cleaned my room.

The feeling of worthlessness subsided.

A week previously, I was lost but the backing from my PI changed my state. I also wanted to see my PI’s reaction after the haircut, as I was a bit worried whether she would notice or not. I was lost in my thoughts when I entered the lab on Monday. As I walked to my seat in the office, I exchanged “Buongiorno” greetings with my PI. She looked excited, her eyes lit up, and said “Buongiorno Anurag, see now you look much better and more positive.”

I had always admired her research guidance, but this new empathetic side of her when I was at my lowest gave me hope. The reassurance I got from her felt like my parents saying to me “Don’t worry, I am there for you, nothing will happen.” Sometimes these empathetic reassurances motivate the graduate students and make them work harder.

Anurag SrivastavaAbout the author

Anurag Srivastava is a 3rd year Ph.D. student at the University of Turin, Italy. His research focuses on the immunotherapy of pancreatic cancer. Apart from his research, he is involved in mentoring students for higher education, and career guidance. He enjoys reading non-fiction and poetry. Anurag is passionate about cooking, science communication, and encouraging more empathy and compassion in science and academia. He has published stories in Science and The Cancer Researcher.

About this article

This is one of our shortlisted entries for the second EACR Science Communication Prize. Choosing a winner was incredibly difficult and we’re delighted to be able to share our amazing shortlist.