Thursday, February 25, 2010


During my sophomore year of college I took a class.


It was hard. I read more in ES210 than I did in any other class. I spent SO MUCH TIME in the library that semester. (Note: to English majors/minors, my definition of a lot of reading is probably not the same as yours, but I read a lot for this class. Seriously.) In addition to reading so much, I also was required to keep a reading journal. My professor collected said journal numerous times during the semester and then proceeded to grade it. It was a painful experience for me. At the time, I hated it. Hated writing in my journal. Hated it; hated it; hated it.

But the hatred and pain ended up being so worth it.

During my junior year of college, I was starting to think about my senior comprehensive college (commonly known as my "comp") and I had no idea what I wanted to do. The professor that taught my ES210 class and made me keep my reading journal encouraged me to re-read my journal and see if any articles or areas of research were of particular interest to me.

A single chapter of a book jumped off the pages of my journal. I had a direction... I didn't know what the future held, but I had an idea of which direction I wanted to go.

The chapter was from the book Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber. In short the book is looks at how environmental toxics impact human health. It is an eye-opening book and Dr. Steingraber is a wonderful story-teller. It was a page-turner. Seriously. The book interweaves Dr. Steingraber's own story as a bladder cancer surviver with the story of toxics in the environment and their impact on human health.

The book introduced me to the field of environmental health.

I was in love.

First it was the book.

Then a comp looking at the direct and indirect health hazards posed by intravenous bags used by hospitals. (Check out Healthcare Without Harm.)

Then an award for best comp in the department (yeah, me!!).

Next it was off to Emory for a masters in environmental health.

Then it was a move to DC to work on numerous environmental health issues at the national level.

I loved it.

And I wanted to learn more.

I got accepted into a PhD program to further study epidemiology.

Which brings us to the present day (more or less)... this past summer I accepted a position on a research team at school that would provide me with the research experience I needed, but wasn't focused on environmental health. I thought it was more important to build skills than to pick a project based on subject matter. This is all part of the give-and-take of grad school, right? Sacrifices have to be made in order for you to get through the program, right?

I thought so.

I went with skill building.

Ignoring my passion. Ignoring the subject that I love. Ignoring what I believe was my calling.


During the winter break 2009-2010, I started to ask myself what I was thinking. I was regretting my decision BIG TIME. I wanted to focus my dissertation on an environmental health issue.

So I dropped my dissertation project. I canned my general research plan. Deleted all documents related to the project.

And then I started looking for a new mentor and new project.

Two steps backwards to get one forward, right? I hoped so.

The process of dropping a dissertation project, being removed from my research team, and searching for a new project and funding was not without problems. I was scared being without a mentor or project. I felt like I was drowning. But then I had a heart-to-heart with the head of my department. Then I got introduced to an environmental and occupational health doctor in our department. And she told me about data she had from a case-control study looking at the environmental-gene risk factors related to bladder cancer.

Icing on the cake... there was funding to do the research.

So I'm out of the gates and running.

My dissertation will look at environment and genetic risk factors for bladder cancer.

I'm so excited. And feeling really blessed to have a wonderful mentor, great guidance from the head of the department, and a research project related to environmental health.

I feel like I have come full circle.

It was the spring of 1998 when I first read Sandra Steingraber's book. Now eight years later I'm focusing my dissertation on bladder cancer, which is the focus of one of the two main stories in her book. It feels like a homecoming. In celebration of this, I'm rereading Living Downstream. And enjoying it more than the I did the first, second, and third times I read it.

It feels so good to be headed in the right direction.


WASPY GIRL said...

Not to burst your bubble, but 1998 was TWELVE years ago!!! Can you believe it?

Congratulations on your topic. Trust me, writing on a topic you really like will make the dissertation experience so much better. I'm happy to hear your news.

Oh, and I'm thinking about running a 10K in late April. If you are looking for a race around then, come on out to Winchester!

WASPY GIRL said...

P.S. Thinking about the "comp," I really did learn a lot from that experience. More than anything, it prepared me for grad school by teaching me how NOT to approach a topic. So, there are lessons in everything I suppose. I'm sure there is one in your abandoned dissertation topic too.

slowly growing old together said...

Twelve years ago!

We are getting old. In some ways college seems SO long ago, but in others it feels like yesterday.