Sunning the skeletons

Taking them out of the old dusty basement for some sunshine.

I’ve buried certain issues deep in my heart and only discussed them with a select group of individuals, my best friend, my doctor, and the caretaker amongst them.

In preparing this article, I’ve gone through six drafts, and all of them were rants of the injustice of what I had faced in the year of research work that I did in between graduating from my degree course and starting my PhD course. However, whilst I was having a conversation with a friend about a completely unrelated topic, I realised that the central issue was the same: conflicting values.

The group at large might not hold the same values that I hold, but when everyone around you seems to subscribe to that same set of values, it seems as though my survival would be compromised if I don’t conform. And as I’m writing this, there’s a nauseating sensation rising from my stomach up to my throat. I’m not sure if the nausea is coming from having to change my perspective, or is the nauseating feeling that comes from having to play by the (what I perceive to be twisted) rules of the group. And there’s an even darker revelation; most of the people engaged in the game aren’t even aware that they’re playing it.

I realised soon after leaving the first group that I might have had a hand in perpetuating a lie. Although I was being lied to as well, my hands had participated in creating evidence to support that lie. I felt guilty of my actions, a sense of hopelessness in the situation, and offended that I was kept in the dark for such a long time. Had I seen the earlier version of the manuscript… Sigh — it’s water under the bridge now.

The second group left me feeling guilty for cleaning out and discarding samples that were contaminated by fungus, because “the reagents were too expensive”, and “the cells took too much time to grow”, and “we don’t have enough time to re-grow them”. The dressing down and reprimanding that I got left me feeling sad, a sadness that hung like a permanent fog. I didn’t quite understand why I was being scolded. The nail in the coffin came when I was told to continue analysing samples from fungus-contaminated samples. BY then, I had stopped questioning, put my head down, and plotted my escape.

I also felt constantly under threat. People around me have worked hard, but their work will never be published because it would never get accepted by a high-impact journal because of a whole host of reasons, such as timing, or it was no longer interesting to the big journals. I asked myself, did I really want to graduate with no publication at all? It was too risky. Furthermore, I did not like the idea of putting my future into the hands of others. Success or failure, it’ll be up to me only. It’s my PhD project. I will take full responsibility for it.

I also felt that I could no longer trust the work of my hands. After having generated material to validate candidates genes that were not even statistically significant in the screens, after having done the testing on the fungus-contaminated samples, and handed the results over to my supervisor and knew that it was being used for an update report/manuscript submission, I felt that I contributed to a lie. I felt that I was the one that fudged the data. I was the one that was lying.

There were a whole host of other problems that caused me to rotate labs during that one year: not wanting to work with a finicky cell type; not discussing the results the we got from the material I generated making me feel neglected and reduced to a machine; wanting to work with stem cells, which is my all-time favourite theme; offered an interesting project that utilised latest technology, CRISPR screening… These were justifications I gave to myself to make me comfortable with running away, but I never addressed the emotional hurt that I had experienced whilst I was working with them. I was adept at running away from my problems, rather than facing them squarely.

After the caretaker took me in and started showing me how science really should be done, I was convinced that there was another way, a better way, a purer way. At the same time, he also showed me the lies that got past the gatekeepers of the journals’ editors and reviewers.

The discordance between my past and my present, my reality and my ideal began to create cracks in my mind. Within me brewed an emotional tempest that I could not quell, nor understand. Some time in October last year, I spiralled out of control, into depression.

It’s been a long, long journey for me to get here. For me to finally have the lucidity to organise my emotions, and write them down. For me to finally have the courage to face these skeletons in my basement, and have the courage to sun them outside in the open. And perhaps by keeping them exposed to the elements, these dry bones would some day return to the earth.

My doctor and my caretaker have taught me that as scientists, we should ideally critique the science, but not criticise the scientists. It is not our place to judge their character, or their actions, as Jesus had taught us. Even from a non-biblical perspective, criticism of character goes nowhere, and helps no one. Only love for people, objective guidance in the critique of the science, and the patience to constantly be there for people, will we change the world for the better.