There are moments in your life that are game changers. Sometimes they sneak up on you, quiet and stealthy and alter the course of your life subtly but significantly. Others walk right up and hit you over the head, leaving you dizzy and seeing stars.
If you are lucky, you can see the latter coming. (Other times, perhaps not). In these cases I believe you actually have the ability to wield some control over the situation. Last week I found myself staring straight into just such an opportunity.
A few months back I wrote about the thrill of discovery. What’s just as satisfying as making a discovery is sharing it with your colleagues. I was at a fungal biology conference last week and had the opportunity to stand on stage and present the work I’ve been busy with over the past six months. It was a strategic move – my mentor and I are currently writing up the manuscript and we wanted to break the news and gather feedback before we submitted.
I have very strong thoughts about how science should be presented. Which meant I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to meet my exceedingly high standards. Not to mention the mind-blowing nature* of my current work, and the pressure builds. And let’s not forget, I am a post-doc entering the job market and need to be unforgettable. This was perhaps the most important 15 minutes of my career to date. Maybe I’m being melodramatic, as I tend towards the theatrical, but this was a big deal and the reason I’ve had so many late nights.
For a while, I thought I was going to crack under all that pressure. I’m not sure if it was psycho-somatic or an actual illness, but I was sick to my stomach the entire 24-hours before my talk (and even several hours afterwards). I am embarrassed to even admit it, as I usually relish any opportunity to be in the spotlight. But I knew this was one of the defining moments. In fact, the last time I felt this type of pressure was when I was interviewing for graduate school. I was a naive 23-year old who had gone to hippie college and didn’t have a clue as to the academic architecture. I only had gotten an interview at Duke, as the other graduate schools I applied to flat-out rejected me, and I knew that it was my only chance to get into a Ph.D. program. I was sick to my stomach then as well. I even had to leave in the middle of my interview with the director of the program in order to run to the restroom to empty the contents of my stomach. But I must have done something right, as I made it into the program, and the rest is, well, history.
And I made it through this talk also. Adrenaline is a powerful anti-nausea drug. In fact, I am proud to say that I nailed it. It’s a moment in my life that I will never ever forget. I could feel the buzz of energy in the air as I was on stage – people really got it (one person told me later they could feel the hairs on the back of their neck rising as I was speaking). As I opened the floor to questions, the first response that I received was a marriage proposal (from an already married woman, but a proposal nevertheless). I couldn’t have asked for much more, except for perhaps a job offer.
It’s been a boost to my scientific self-confidence, which as been on a roller coaster ride for the past couple of years. And it feels damn good. Success is a mix of hard work and luck and I got extremely lucky to fall into a such a compelling project.
*For my nerdy science friends interested in what I am working on:
I’ve been working on a yeast species that is a human commensal and occasionally, if the opportunity arises can become pathogenic. For decades, its been thought to be an obligate diploid with no known sexual cycle (which makes genetics and molecular biology in this organism challenging). Recently a parasexual cycle has been described in which diploid cells mate to form tetraploid cells and subsequently undergo a non-meiotic process to return to a near diploid state. We’ve found that there is also a haploid state in the lifecycle of this organism. Not only will this greatly facilitate future genetic and molecular biology studies, it suggests that a haploid phase may be important for revealing recessive alleles, and thus exposing genetic variation for selection to act upon. Furthermore, mating between haploids cells can restore heterozygosity, a trait we observe readily in clinical isolates, that as been paradoxical given the propensity of this organism to undergo loss of heterozygosity events in response to stress.