When I was very young my first brush with health science probably came when I almost gave my mother a heart attack. I was about 3 years old and had just completed a very safe, supervised swim with my father in a motel pool while on vacation. I was picked out of the water, had my inflatable floaties removed, was dried off and given a robe. Everything was going fine until I noticed something floating in the pool — a beach ball we’d forgotten. I couldn’t leave it there so I wasted no time in going to retrieve it, hurtling from the deck headfirst into the pool. My parents didn’t notice until I was airborne, hanging in space and time, dangling above a pool replete with threatening danger and certain death.
The scream my mother let out was unrivaled — I think we had to reimburse the hotel for the mirrors that shattered. In a split second she felt the ache of losing her son; the crippling fear for the worst had engulfed her. My father, who had begun walking towards the gate, came hurrying back about to jump in, wallet and all (he didn’t have a cell phone…still doesn’t actually). But they didn’t need to rescue me. The scene that met their tear-filled eyes was their son, floating by equal parts the grace of God and the buoyancy of body-fat, inefficiently but deftly stroking across the pool surface towards the desired object. They watched agape as a three-year-old swam and reached a beach ball.
My mother’s heart started beating normally again, but, needless to say, I was in trouble. Such an action simply wouldn’t be permitted again. Nonetheless a valuable lesson was learned – I could swim, no floaties required, and the water was fine. I never would have known unless I had jumped in. As a long-time lifeguard I do want to clarify — DON’T leave children unattended by pools, and DON’T chase objects caught in rip currents. The practical application of this story is far removed from the pool, as you’ll see shortly. As it happens, I still do quite a lot in and around pools, having swam competitively in college and coached teams ever since, and I think this stems from an underlying confidence I find in the water. It was far harder building that confidence in other environments.
At graduation ceremonies we gather to recognize just how awesome our classmates are, and so if you’ve graduated this year, way to go — you rock! It is not trivial and should not be taken for granted that you’ve made it out alive. Graduation is a time of circumspection — we are all made to examine ourselves, our accomplishments, our prospects, and our futures and this can be humbling. Many students might harbor a feeling of unfinished business; when being assailed by countless congratulations it is easy to begin to believe they are superficial. Without the sure-fire confidence required, the future of a PhD (or an MD or PA) can be daunting. Sure, you could survive on a closed course for school, but what will happen once they let you out the gate into the real world?
My friends in the medical profession are forced to spend at least two years in clinical rotations. I’m told this doesn’t help prepare doctors for their first patient as much as you’d expect it should. There are no steps through the shallow end but rather it feels much more like a plunge into the deep end. Inevitably, doctors all seem to recognize a moment in which they felt that they were in over their heads and the only option was to kick harder, push for the light, and try to get stronger – and after that moment they found confidence to carry on. You can’t cling to the side of the pool, you have to jump in. This is true for all professions; it’s especially true for individuals who don’t have a career plan. What comes next in life will almost certainly be more difficult than what we have now. Comfort breeds complacency, and greatness is no acquaintance of either. What comes next will be new and unknown, and probably uncomfortable; new challenges loom, and we may want to cower before them, but instead we must trust our training. The next step will be a challenge, but that is the hallmark of growth, and we take that step because we must believe that we will be better for doing so, and so will the world around us. The best move you can make standing on the pool deck is to chase that beach ball and take the plunge.
My most recent brush with health sciences, far less taxing on my mother’s heart, came in my graduate school career, conducting research for my PhD – I swapped the chlorine water for hydrochloric acid and my SPF for PCR. It was a tough decision which I made at the end of college, and the program I chose seemed intense. I had to jump in and get wet.
I don’t think my thesis was ground-breaking – I studied tissue engineering in orthopedics, and I did so in large part because of my parents. My father had a spinal fusion when he was in his thirties, and my mother has had arthritis since her late teens. I wanted to do something that could help them, and if I couldn’t I would at least demonstrate that their struggles had a profound impact on me. It was a decent project that I cobbled together and it taught me how to think, but I don’t see it revolutionizing the field or curing either of my parents. Part of me feels a remote sense of failure, that I had built up my project to be the Titanic and it had in fact sunk. However, there is an eternal optimist in me that forces me to refute this. I think everyone could apply to the following points to themselves which I used to bolster my confidence:
- Completing this degree gave me a direction. My thesis helped me choose a career path. Talking about science has always been one of my favorite activities. Turns out doing science doesn’t even make the top 5 (making puns, playing softball, coaching swimming, and eating dessert all get the nod first). But I respect science research, now more than ever, and I believe it is essential. More importantly, I believe I can convince other people of how essential it is. Having an inkling of purpose is a most welcome feeling.
- Completing this degree improved me mentally, socially, and strategically. My thesis made me a stronger thinker, a better scientist, and lifetime research empathizer. Solving problems is an art, regardless of the content. Reading scientific papers is both a hard-won skill and a legal form of torture. If I can take what I learned in my PhD and use it to make research easier for someone else, or if I can accurately communicate the message of others’ work then I think my doctorate degree was time well spent. Making research accessible to everyone is the only way it will survive.
- The grass is always greener. I had friends approach me after my defense to say they thought my work was really interesting, and they refused to believe that their work was superior (even though it clearly was). Sometimes, we can be most critical of ourselves, and our failures can seem larger than our accomplishments. Becoming an expert means that you know too much about something, so allow others to give you perspective. Take graduation as an excuse to count your successes. We should all be proud of ourselves, if only for a moment.
- I want to do better. I think a lot of advice in the medical research field can be coalesced into two points – keep the patients at the center of what you do (in research or practice), and never be complacent. For me, I feel the second point more strongly. My thesis was an accomplishment, but I want the next endeavor I set out on to be better, to overshadow it, to fill me with more pride, and to inspire more improvement. We should all want our trajectories to be upward.
The hard part is after having gone on my supervised swim for the last 6 years I’ve been picked out of the pool, had my floaties taken away, been dried off and given a big fancy robe and now it feels like I’m looking out over an ocean of uncertainty, not sure of the waters ahead, and hardly as care-free as I was at age 3. Now I’m the one who feels like I might have a heart attack! Many of you may be moving to new cities, preparing for total immersion in a field you hope you’ll excel at, and you might be worried about just staying afloat! But across those waters of uncertainty I can make out a new beach ball, bigger and better and harder to tow back to shore, and that same instinct in my head is telling me I have to get it.
Graduates of all ages, you’re all standing on your respective pool decks, staring across bodies of water of different sizes. Your beach balls are bobbing up and down, tantalizing you, and they could be blown out of sight in a moment. Your adult minds are struggling to compute whether you can get to it in time, whether the very act of jumping in will push your beach ball away! Know that you are stronger now for the time you’ve spent in school. Know that you already have the ability inside you to reach your beach ball. Know also that failing to get the first beach ball you chase is fine! Once you miss, float on your back, catch your breath, and climb out so you can get the best vantage point for the next one to come floating by. In life there will be many toys floating across the pool, and you will have to decide which are worth going for – but no matter what, the only way to get to them is to jump in.