Saturday, November 7, 2009


Today marks the one year 'anniversary' of my dissertation defense. I think for most people D-day is an intense and emotional day. It is the culmination of years of hard work, commitment, frustration, successes, doubts, failures, beer bets--and that's just the research.

Generally in my program, and especially in my lab, there was rarely a question of whether your committee was going to pass or fail you. This removed some of the tension associated with the event--despite my adviser joking at group meeting the same week that the event would hopefully be cause for joyous celebration. Even so, the thought of standing in front of your peers and mentors explaining, in less than an hour, what you've contributed to science over the past five years is nerve racking. I was one of three grad students that started in Bear's lab the same year. I was the last to defend, and the other two had already gone to their respective postdocs in distant states.

My preparation for my defense that day was this: I didn't show my face on campus until an hour before my early afternoon defense. I didn't look at the presentation. I went for a run. Then I went to my favorite coffee house for breakfast with my dad and uncle who had driven eight hours for my defense and with my husband. I knew that I had the presentation down cold. I knew all the data. I knew the mechanisms. I had spent a lot of time immersed in the central questions, pondering and thinking, over the past years, and very intensely in the past months. Spending time rehashing everything that morning would only serve to stress me out further. I was nervous enough without that.

When I did arrive on campus, I pretty much bypassed my lab altogether. I setup my computer in the lecture room, checked the lighting, made sure the laser pointer and remote for the computer would work, that the animations were fine. And then I tried not to think about it. My lab, my committee members, and a few other colleagues filtered in. I did not freak out when one of my committee members was a no-show because I knew that I had my quorum. And again there was no reason to stress me out further.

Bear gave me a very complimentary introduction. I was touched, although he came pretty damn close to making me cry. I stood on the opposite side of the room from computer (and coincidentally, my committee); I had planned this so I would not spend my time getting tangled in cables or staring at the computer screen. Initially I was so nervous my hands were shaking, but after about five minutes or so, I settled in and settled down.

I think most students dread the closed session with their committee. There is something dark and ominous about it. The truth is, I actually enjoyed the closed session. My committee members were the traditional older, white, tenured professors, which I think many students associate with cranky and confrontational--especially with female scientists. But these men were fantastic--thoughtful and engaged. We spent the better part of an hour speculating and debating hypothetical mechanisms for a phenomenon I had observed, not in a way that was confrontational but rather collegial and intellectually stimulating. It was the kind of moment that captured the essence of why I chose grad school in the first place.

It was great to have my family there, especially my dad and husband. They had both been wonderfully supportive throughout grad school, listening to me go on and on about things and people and policies that they knew nothing about. It seemed right that they get to experience that big day and the subsequent celebration.

There was one thing missing that day. My mom. She had died just a few months before, after fighting cancer for nearly two years. I spent a relatively small percentage of that time with her. Some days, even now, I regret not taking more time away from graduate school to spend with her. Yet before that thought can even fully form, I remember how important it was to her that I finish what I started and that I not let her disease interfere. She decided early on that she was not going to let cancer keep her or those she loved from living their lives. A nurse, she worked full-time in an oncology clinic until a week before her death. Just days before her death, she was protesting that I had chosen to postpone my defense, even for a couple of months. She was certain that I could do great things, and she'd be damned if anything stopped me. She bragged about me to the MDs she worked with and the MDs who treated her. That's what mothers do, I suppose.

It still seems wrong that she wasn't there to experience the fulfillment of a work that she supported for so long. Honestly it hurts more now than it did a year ago. Maybe because there were so many other emotions vying for my attention a year ago. Maybe because the second year is so often harder than the first. Either way I look back on that day and experience the definition of bittersweet. Maybe because this past year hasn't been a picnic. But hopefully, next year I will be able to look back on D-day with a little less bitters and a little more sweet.

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Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

I'm so sorry that your mom couldn't be there. I'm sure that she would be very proud that you accomplished what you set out to do. I've heard that grief isn't linear; it's more of a spiral. A spiral in that you'll revisit things on different levels over time. All that to say, that I think you have reason to hope that next year you'll be able to look back on D-day a bit more sweetly.

Candid Engineer said...

Your mother was so proud of you, that is so wonderful to have that kind of support. I'm sorry that she couldn't be with you when you defended, but of course you defending was just what she wanted (and of course she knew that you could do it).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this. I read your posts out of order (I read "The Morning After" first), and I'm glad you left this up. I think you might be right about the second year after losing someone we love being harder - I struggled with similar emotions on the anniversary of my Grandmother's death.
That said, I can't imagine losing my mother, or how that must feel, but I second the comments that I'm sure she was very proud of you.

biochem belle said...

Thanks for the sweet comments, ladies!