fresh breath

God always knows what you need.

This semester was expected to be the worst, the hardest, the most demanding and grueling semester I would have in college – I was so nervous. Since my freshman year I have been dreading the fall semester of my junior year. It was set up to be the semester where I would take the most upper level science classes at once and still try to maintain my sanity and all the other crazy things that college students do. Maybe I went into this semester with a bad attitude, or at least a pessimistic attitude – one that expected the worst. I am so delighted, blessed, and truly thankful to say that this was indeed not the worst semester of my life; in fact, it may have been one of the best but for many different reasons. Academically, I studied smarter (AKA less, shorter, more focused) and enjoyed my classes more because everything I loved about biology and chemistry came together finally! I also spent more time doing things that made me a happier person (yoga, hanging out with my friends, taking time off, going to the lab). I think God strategically placed people and events in my life to buffer the ride that was expected to be pretty uncomfortable for a while. I think God knew I needed a support system, people to lift me up and cheer me on and remind me why this is worth it, and He gave me that. He gave me that in my roommates who have often seen me studying with frustration and then later baking dozens of cookies to decompress; He gave me that in my cherished best friends who remind me to stop, go out for dinner, enjoy a glass of wine, and do something fun and relaxing; He gave me that in my mentor/boss and coworkers at Vanderbilt who showed so much grace and support by allowing me time to study, focus, and take off when I needed it; He gave me that in my (now) boyfriend who endlessly encouraged me through countless physics problems, biochem exams, late nights and early mornings, and who never forgot to make me laugh in the middle of the chaos; and He gave it to me in my family who never failed to call, check in, and send me prayers when I needed them most. So, yeah, God knows what you need. I say that not because I saw what was happening while it was going on in my life – no, there were definitely times when I wanted to give up and felt completely unmotivated – instead because He was always there, working in me and around me and through me and through others to me. Sometimes what you expect to be a big, bad terrible storm turns into a beautiful, refreshing spring shower – it brings you flowers, sunshine, and a breath of new life. I sit and reflect on a semester that was a whirlwind, a serendipitous whirlwind of unexpected friendships and newly minted forever memories. I blinked, and it was suddenly over, my expectations were wrong and this time I was happy about it! But my, how I have been shown that the God I love, cherish, and serve, will always know what you need. Not only that, but He will abundantly bless you with what – or who – you need.

resilience

Humans are incredibly resilient. Probably more so than we recognize and acknowledge. We are resilient on both a personal and macroscopic level. We fight back, bounce back, and spring forward into life with a renewed strength. After everything has been drained from us and we are emotionally empty, somehow, we progress forward into a new wave of perseverance. The past year of my life has undoubtedly been the most difficult of the 21 years I’ve been living on this beautiful planet. I experienced moments of true darkness. In those moments, I felt internally shattered as I tried to piece together my external façade so others wouldn’t see my hurt. Strangely, the past year was also filled with remarkable moments of happiness and joy, strength and compassion, and unrequited love and friendship. This is what brought me through the valley and into the light. Macroscopically, I see Texans pushing forward as they reenter their homes and towns to find devastation and obliteration after a natural catastrophe stole their peace. They are not stunned into sadness but have the strength to carry on and rebuild. There are innumerable circumstances in the past – the World Wars, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, so many more – where people, who are inevitably limited and fragile, overcame grim and unsettling circumstances. They faced their darkness and broke through barriers of paralyzing fear. They depended on each other for comfort and strength – for friendship. Humans are amazing. I don’t think this resilience is a numbness of life that looks like an escalator we jump on to move forward, without any input from ourselves. I think this resilience is filled with a small glimmer of light – called hope – for a better future, for brighter days ahead. It looks more like an infinite number of stairs where we’re not afraid to take the first step on. We’re not afraid because we look back and look around us and see similar expressions of the same thing. We see brokenness and desolation, but hope. We’re not alone, and we never have been. You are never alone. You are resilient.

It may feel like the situation is inescapable and draining the strength from you like a vacuum; I promise it is temporary and controllable. Look up toward the stairwell and see others around you who have pushed through brokenness to find the strength. I personally believe hurt is relative and not absolute. Your hurt is as justified as any others. Likewise, your strength, maybe buried deep within, is just as available as any others. Trust in God who brought me out of my darkness, trust in friendship and love, and remember that we’re an inherently resilient people. We withstand the afflictions of disease and heartache, of destruction and despair, of loss and broken dreams. Yet we still find the strength to laugh with our friends, find purpose in our lives, and begin the journey out of defeat. We are incredibly resilient, and that is worth celebrating.

power of words

The power of words. We often say that words are powerful, that they are able to transform the world, and I think we want to sincerely believe this. I also think we say a lot of things that we want to believe but struggle to fully support. In today’s society, it seems that action is valued more than words. I’ve always been told to “pay attention to how someone treats you, not what they tell you.” This is great advice that I’ve always valued. People can say a lot of things. They can say that they like you, are happy for you, or support you but truly their actions are what enforce these sentiments. But should we totally discount words? Should we be so jaded by the broken promises and empty declarations that are given to us in this world that we don’t even bother to care for the words others tell us? I romanticize things too much to think this way. I’m a classic optimist. Because of this, I’m led to believe that words are very powerful, even more powerful than action. This morning, I sat thinking about the young lady who coerced her boyfriend to commit suicide. How powerful her own words were. She was served a 15-month sentence; she had no weapon for evidence, was far from the crime scene, and unfortunately left questionable doubt in the jurors. I’ve been grappling with our justice system quite a lot here lately, internally, so I’m not sure what I would have done if I had to make a decision in that case. Sometimes I think about our criminal justice system and become appalled, as if I am viewing this world from the sky, watching how we treat other human beings – that’s another topic for another day though. Nonetheless, I am convinced that her words powerfully persuaded someone else to take his own life; and that is worth talking about. This case raises the awareness of how powerful our words are. We can use our tongue to convince someone they’re insignificant, unimportant, or inferior. Conversely, we hold a powerful tool to lift people up, enlighten, and encourage. Our words matter.

I remember with high acuity the times that people said something that penetrated deep and hurt who I am. Sometimes, words cut deeper than a real knife ever could. I would never punch someone, especially someone I love, but maybe I do mindlessly let my words hurt as bad as physical wounds? It’s hard to think like that. It is painful to imagine our words causing pain to someone else, but they do. We separate what we say and what we do so well in this society. You can post all you want on social media, but it doesn’t necessarily follow what you do. Likewise, it makes sense that we are more inclined to ascribe meaning to physical punches than verbal ones. If I hit someone, I leave a visible mark of the damage I’ve done. When I shame someone with my words, though, the mark I leave is invisible. This translates to the unquestionable nature of a physical illness (measurable diseases, like atherosclerosis or hypertension) versus mental illness (less objective measurements like depression or anxiety). Why does this dichotomy exist? Why do we delineate between what is seen and what is said? Haven’t we observed the cruel effects of cutting language and mental diseases, both of which provoke beautiful, purposeful lives to truly consider their worth on this planet? Shouldn’t we start talking about this? I think this case of a young girl strongly persuading her boyfriend to kill himself should wake us up but not come as a surprise of the power of words. Instead, it should serve as a reminder of the power we have to convince and convey ideas, true or false, harmful or helpful. I think this issue moves beyond merely being nice to others but speaks of the false authority we give to tangible, physical qualities (punches, heart disease) over more abstract concepts (language, mental illness). What is the best way to eliminate this dichotomy? I don’t know. But we can always start by talking about it.

experiments

There’s this fleeting moment during an experiment, almost every time, where I stop and think I have completely messed up. I spent the past three days preparing to run an RT-qPCR (real time quantitative polymerase chain reaction if you’re interested) to see if our gene of interest is overexpressed in certain heart tissue. After 15 hours of work, today I put my eyes down, made sure I was ready to go, and began working with the tiniest volumes to prepare the final reaction. I manually pipetted into 96 wells twice (so 192 times). I was so focused on not messing up (this was my first time doing qPCR solo and they gave me the big experiment. . .) but that malevolent little thought rushed in once again. About halfway through the entire process I thought, oh no, you’ve messed up. What was the last sample used? Did you put the right primer in? Is the volume correct? Literally, every worst-case scenario entered my mind. In these often-had moments, I question my process, my accuracy, my proactive thinking, even my basic skills. No matter how confident I am, in these moments I lose all confidence and question things I know to be true. This happened to me today, and I’ve been experiencing this long enough to have mechanisms to mess-up-proof my experiments (like labeling everything, being very intentional in where samples are placed, and using my pipette box as a roadmap for where I’ve already been on the plate). Importantly, I catch my mind while immersed in this doubt and assure myself that I haven’t made a mistake, that I have been very cautious and attentive, and that I am doing just fine. If you’ve read this far despite nonsensical lab stuff, thank you. I realized that this self-initiated doubt is not confined to research but is universal in all of life.

How often am I moving right along, doing just fine, everything is working out, and my mind says to me, Oh no. You have really messed up. You’ve made a big mistake. Everything you’re doing is wrong. I’ll admit, very often. We have experiences, trials and errors, that guide us in life. We make decisions based on knowledge and feelings that we have previously experienced (either in hopes to feel or not feel that way in the future). For the most part, I’d say we are not blindly navigating through life without any guidance (like that cherished from friends, mentors, learning from past mistakes, intentional thinking, etc.). We live like skilled researchers, already filled with the knowledge of how to do our task or with the capability to obtain what we need to know to carry on. It is not that we are taking the wrong path or doing the wrong thing. It is that our minds are telling us that we are. Self-initiated doubt is a destroyer. In the middle of my experiments, it causes me to question what I know is right. In the middle of my life, it causes me to question my actions and pursuits. I so often am living my life, completely satisfied and happy, when that deceptive voice urges me to question everything. Unlike my research skills, I’m not as disciplined to channel my confidence and squander the doubts. This parallel became so clear to me today – doubt creeps in everywhere and to everyone (well, to me at least). Instead of worrying about everything I’ve done wrong or may do wrong, I hope to instead take a note from my laboratory self and remember that I’m capable, skillful, and perfectly fine carrying on in the way that makes me happy. While this example is very specific to my experience, I feel like anyone can think of a place they are skillful (on the court or field, in a job, as a mom or dad, in any hobby) where they don’t let doubt affect their ability to do that skill well. My hope is to live my life a little more like that so the nagging worry and unnecessary questioning don’t invade my happiness and peace of my mind. I guess I hope to live like a crazy scientist that trusts her hand, her skills, and her process – because we all deserve the peace of mind that comes from confidence and self-assurance.

Google searches

I just Googled “How to know to pursue an MD-PhD.” Then I stopped, stepped back, and laughed at myself. How in the world would a quick Google search give me any kind of reliable, meaningful, and honest information about such a big – and personal – question? It was so absurd that I actually laughed out loud to myself. While a funny example, I took a peek at the other auto-fill suggestions that Google supplied as I was typing: “How to know about my future” or “How to know if you’re in love” or “How to know to trust someone”. I thought about how deep, and complex, those questions are and, consequently, how deeply we yearn for quick and easy answers to them. I’m convinced that we all long for easy answers to hard questions. We desire for someone to tell us what to pursue in life, who to marry, when to make big investments, when to change careers, etc. Maybe you don’t wish for answers and enjoy the waiting game, but most of us would love to have an infinite collection of those answers at our fingertips. They make life simpler, less stressful, and more predictable. They make things easy.

But we don’t. We don’t have the answers to life’s big decisions – like whether or not to spend 7-8 years in school pursuing an MD-PhD or when to get married or when to change careers. We are sometimes lost, indefinitely, for answers at all. After I did my quick search and realized how silly it was, I thought about how blessed I am to be in a position of such difficult decisions. I am okay with not finding anything that resolved my questioning at the end of that Google search. I’m okay because I understand that we have hard decisions in life because that means we are living it, robustly and consciously. We are not sitting around waiting for life to happen but are instead posed against challenging and thought-provoking questions; if you’re asking when to get married that means you appreciate and are active in the process of finding lifelong love. If you’re worrying about a career change, it means you are thinking about the condition and happiness of your future. I am considering “next step” decisions in my education, and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to consider those options. After my quick-and-easy Google search, I, unsurprisingly, didn’t find anything that answered my question. I found some helpful sites with anecdotal advice or frequently asked questions, but ultimately these hard decisions are answered based on our own considerations, life experiences and goals, and provisions for what we consider to be important and meaningful. Instead of mindlessly searching for answers, on the internet or otherwise, it may be better just to have a conversation with someone – yourself, a friend, a mentor – about why you’re asking that question and what are the considerations that led you there. In life, it is okay to not have answers to these questions just yet. I really believe they are coming and only require patience, grit, and perseverance before they show up in full view. Sometimes, all it takes is a silly search on the internet to remind you that life is far more complex than Google can answer, and that is perfectly okay.

imperfect

Social media paints layers onto our lives that are flawless, perfect, and fantastical. Many talk about how our Instagram feeds are “highlight reels” of everyone we follow, and this is so true – why would anyone want to flaunt their mistakes, imperfections, and difficulties? There are some people who do “keep it real” but even then, it is always in the context of a happy ending or an edited, attractive picture. I follow a few who bare it all without reservation, and I applaud them and thank them for their sincerity. If I’m being honest, though, probably 95% of the images and messages I see online are glowing with happiness and success, highlighting beautiful faces and bodies, and exhibiting the highs of life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this! Life is beautiful and should be celebrated as such. It only stings on the days when nothing you do goes right, you fall into the sticky trap of comparison, you cry because of loneliness, you learn of sad or heartbreaking news, you feel unattractive and tired, or you just downright have a bad day. Except for those days. I would argue that more times than not a pretty picture is covering up layers upon layers of real, true human flaws and imperfections. We are not perfect people, and I’m tired of acting like we are. I’m tired of trendy photos that I hope will get me likes, or posting photos that I think others will find interesting. I am tired of narcissism running rampant through online outlets, making young girls feel the need to flaunt their bodies to attract boys or post photos with silly captions to fit in. The stakes are high when it comes to social media – what will other people think of this? Will I look trendy? Will this impress people? Am I going to be accepted if I post this photo of myself? These are things I think all the time, and I have a feeling I’m not alone. I am trying to use my social media to grow readership, but in all honesty, I would still write even if no one read my writings (and, in fact, I do write things that I don’t let anyone read). I write because I love it and it is an outlet for my wandering, captive thoughts. Despite this, the truth is that I am human. I have bad days where I feel overwhelmed, inept, and lonely. I have days were my world feels shaken and hopeless. I have days where I feel unloved and unappreciated. I question my choices, my circumstances, and my feelings all the time. To act like things are all good, all the time is unfair and inauthentic. No one lives that way. So, if you’re like me, out there reading and seeing images of beautiful people with their lives perfectly held together with a smile and a list of accomplishments, please know you are not alone and that you are not the oddball out. I am right there with you, holding my head high on the days I feel inadequate and exhausted and bowing down in thanks on the days I feel untouchable and accomplished. The good outnumber the bad, but the bad enable me to fully appreciate and experience the good. Feeling uncertain makes the times I feel certain even more confirming and exclamatory. Feeling inadequate intensifies the times I feel competent and appreciated, successful and rewarded. Feeling alone makes those times I am surrounded by friends and laughing with sincerity even more sweet. All of these things make me feel innately human, wrapped up in the whirlwind of life; sometimes bound to reality by the steel anchor of defeat and other times floating in the clouds with the kite of triumph. It’s all a balancing game, and I’m here to proudly admit to feeling down some days. I am here to forgo what others want to hear and will instead speak the unwavering words of truth: we will fall, hurt ourselves, experience the pain, dwell in the defeat, and then pick ourselves up, wipe off the hurt, and smile for others to see how far we have come, what we have accomplished, and how cool we look doing it. Just don’t forget that before that ending occurs – the part you see on Instagram and on Facebook – the first few steps have already happened and will happen again, too. It may not always be pretty but it is simply the circle of life; despite the hard days, we are all so blessed and should be thankful we get to live it.

remembering names

I write this (admittedly random) post as somewhat of a disclaimer, an apology, and a public service announcement. Everyone has those qualities about themselves that are of utmost annoyance. (Admit that you do.) For me, my inability to remember names really causes me a lot of grief, stress, and embarrassment. People laugh whenever I say to them, “It is so nice to meet you! I will try so hard to remember your name, but please forgive me if I don’t.” The truth is, nine times out of ten I do forget that person’s name and have to battle the shame and humility of asking again. This really isn’t a good quality to have. People like it when you remember their names, naturally, and it may come across as an insult if you don’t. This post isn’t a “I struggle with this but here are three things to do so you don’t”, because I haven’t figured out how to remember people’s names. If you know a way, please enlighten me.

Let me start by explaining why I don’t remember names. First and foremost, I feel that a name is somewhat meaningless and insignificant. I could meet you and say my name is Samantha and then proceed with every other accurate description of who I am without changing anything about who I really am. A name is a label, literally, and I don’t think labels are as important as the objects they describe. You could call my coffee “valendwarf” and I would still love it because I love the object of coffee, not the name that it holds. So when I meet someone, yes, their name is often the first fact I learn about them and often the first I forget. The other stuff, the good stuff, is what matters so much to me. I care more about a person’s interests, passions, ambitions, relationships, and every other aspect of their life way more than a name. SO forgetting a name isn’t as bad as it seems – it just means someone is paying more attention to the other details that are more important.

I have tried ways to remember names. I first Googled, “Ways to remember names” which later escalated to a frustrated, “Why do I forget names?” search. These two proved to be helpful as I was met with some useful tips. Some of the most common ones include things like as soon as you meet a person, connect their name with a physical quality about them. Sarah has red hair and blue eyes. Or connect their name to an aspect of their personality. Auguste is very outspoken and likes to talk. Another helpful tip I’ve discovered: use their name almost immediately in a sentence. I have found that this actually is helpful. I don’t know the psychology behind it, but it seems that by taking an external, arbitrary name and internalizing it into your own vocabulary helps establish its importance in your short-term memory and later long-term memory. This reduces my rate of forgetting to about 50%, which is a big increase from 90%. Nonetheless, these little tips are helpful but not totally effective.

I guess I’m trying to say, if you forget names, don’t beat yourself up about it like I do. Maybe it just means you’re more interested in the other aspects of a person instead of a simple label they use. I love meeting new people and hearing about their life and goals and personality, but I hate forgetting names. It is one of my worst qualities and something I hope to improve on. If you have tips for improving this, let me know – and I’ll try to remember your name 🙂