identity

What if your identity

Is not found in the big city

But in a small town

Where few people are brown or black

But mostly different shades of white

And every day the sun shines down as they

Continue to fight the good fight

To pay the bills

And maybe some buy the pills

Just to get the thrill

To survive.

Not thrive, because that would mean breaking out

Of the shell that looked like hell

But to others looked like a quiet Main Street

And a few stop lights

And county fair nights

And a simple, little peaceful town.

Sometimes your identity is not in

Prestige and honor and fame

But in the sincere scene of a gathered team

To pray before a game

Or a group gathered to cry

Over a blown out flame of someone loved

Who just lost the fight.

The good fight.

What if your identity isn’t in big city skies

But catching fireflies

In the evening light

And yelling hey to the neighbor who just passed by

And leaving your doors unlocked at night.

I’m learning, though,

Your identity isn’t where you are

It’s who you are

It’s the stories you carry within you

Not the culmination

Of your awards and accreditations

But your soul

Your sense of why

Your sense of who you are.

No matter how far away you go,

Hold onto your identity,

like a rope,

steadfastly.

soul-work

Two days ago, I packed by bags and moved to Boston, MA. The night before was full of tears, happy ones and sad ones, long hugs, prayers, and motivating words. Honestly, I was completely terrified. And I’m working through those emotions and trying to allow God to guide my life, to dictate when and where I need to go to become the person He designed. It’s hard. I’m two days in, and I’ve already had to confront topics and conversations that challenge my thinking and address new ideas that I’ve never seen before. I welcome new ideas, and always have, but I trust that my roots are planted deep in my values—believing that those things that are critical to who I am are unchanging, unwavering. Some of the most important work I’ve been doing the past 8 years or so is establishing who I am, what I believe, what is important to me. It’s truly a dynamic process to lay down our foundations, to articulate what we find meaningful and important in life, and I’ve spent many nights, days, moments, and experiences trying to define those things for me. I’ve made mistakes, jumped into situations that eventually didn’t feel right for me, tried out a habit that was popular but didn’t speak to me, and made mistakes I want to forget forever. But all that soul-work was way more important than anything that I was studying in school—that stuff lingers long after the organic chemistry mechanisms fade into the dark crevices of the mind, never to be recovered. My advice to those younger people: focus on soul-work as much as “real” work. You will be challenged, confused, and overwhelmed as you transition into adulthood (am I there yet?) and that soul-work will root you to what’s important.

I’m doing a program called “Justice, Advocacy, and Activism in Medicine” or JAAM where we’ve discussed topics like racism in medicine, reproductive rights and justice, substance use disorders, abortion, transgender/intersex identities, and many more really heavy and difficult topics to grapple with. I was/am certainly overwhelmed, but I pray every night that God reveals himself to me over the next four years in ways I never imagined or anticipated so that I can better serve those people whose care will be entrusted to me. I pray that he surrounds me with people who will lift me up and challenge me, and that my relationships at home will be fortified because of a shared understanding and belief system. I’m incredibly thankful for Avery, my boyfriend, for being so supportive through everything we go through together and being the person I can debrief with when I need to. He is a wonderful life partner. I’m thankful for my parents and sisters for keeping me stable and showing me such strong love as I left home, reminding me how blessed I am to have people who care deeply for me. I’m thankful for this journey, even though I’m scared, nervous, and uneasy, because I’m also curious, excited, and hopeful.

I think my word for this year is “change.” Change can be hard—it’s supposed to be, though, or it wouldn’t be a transformative process. So much in my life has already changed, and I feel many years older now than I was at this point last year (and I did just turn 23…). I’m ready for the change, for the challenges, for a new adventure, for a purpose that is bigger than myself, for taking care of myself, and for never giving up hope that I can make a difference in some way. I’m immersed in a city that looks and feels quite different from what I’m used to, but I welcome the ways I can interact with its people, bring my own background and belief system, and engage spiritually with this place—hearing people, listening to their stories, meeting new friends, trusting that God puts people and places in my life at critical moments of change. I believe that every serendipitous encounter, conversation, thought, phone call, message or interaction is a part of a mosaic that eventually reveals the plan that God designs for us. That plan may be fixed before we are born or may be one that changes as we move through life—either way, I’m ready. I’m here, ready to learn, grow, change, transform, love, and hope.

thankful for the moment

I’m sitting in a hip, jazzy cafe in Palo Alto, California. I’m sipping on some water because I just indulged in a milk tea with boba that was absolutely delicious. I arrived in California this morning around 11:00am, after leaving my apartment at a shockingly early time of 3:30am (shout out of appreciation to my boyfriend, Avery, for waking up and driving me to the airport). All day, I’ve jumped from plane to plane, city to city, to finally land in this spot. This comfortable spot of sitting in a worn-out leather chair in a young and busy coffee shop in a beautiful city.

It is no accident that I’m here; it took years of hard work, focus, dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance to get to this place. It took planning, purchasing a plane ticket, organizing accommodation, and a lot of thought to get here. Yet, I keep thinking to myself, This must be a mistake. What if I show up to the interview and they say, “Sorry, we have no records of you. It must have been a miscommunication.” At least then it would all make sense. I don’t say these things to self-flatter or to self-deprecate, only to give a voice to my darkest fears in this moment. Tomorrow, though, I’m interviewing at Stanford Medical School and that is a reality I never dreamed of coming true. Flying in, over the beautiful city of San Francisco and after coming in from Los Angeles, I thought about my hometown and how drastically different this is from that. I feel like I don’t belong here, like it is all a big mistake and I’m the butt of the joke, but somehow I know this is where I’m supposed to be.

I’m overwhelmed with appreciation at how far I have come and how beautiful this moment is, like finally letting air out of a balloon that has been way too full for way too long. I never expected this moment, but I know I worked hard for it. I never felt entitled to anything but felt indebted to giving this dream everything I’ve got; I reflect on everything I’ve worked diligently for and how I have sacrificed some of the ordinary joys of a 20-something to make it this far. Those moments lost are worth it, because the feeling of accomplishment in this one is so, so sweet. I reflect back, and I feel grateful.

Grateful for the people who helped me get here, financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Thankful for the people who have continuously believed in me, even when I was down on myself. I’m thankful for the people who pushed me to keep going when I wanted to give up. I’m thankful for the people who let me cry on their shoulder when I needed to. I’m not in medical school yet, and I’m certainly not a doctor, but I think it is worth celebrating this moment, no matter what happens in the future.

I have no idea what will occur in the next few weeks, but right now, in a warm and inviting cafe in Northern California, I am so happy. Happy for opportunities, for growth, and for truly having the chance to chase my biggest dreams.

cancer

Today at work I got emotional.

I work in a cardio-oncology lab, and I spend most of my days writing and reading about cancer therapies, cancers, and heart disease. Sometimes, I write and read so much that I dream I actually have breast cancer, and I wake up gripping for reality and feel overwhelmingly thankful that I do not. I read about it so much that sometimes I forget that actual people get cancer, not just numbers and statistics published in journals, and I’m humbly reminded of this when I see patients in the clinic who cling to an unwavering hope. I don’t typically get emotional at work, because when I’m not sitting at my computer planning things or shadowing in the clinic, I’m working with mice that I’m treating with immunotherapy. While I do get attached to my mice and I’m thankful for the role they play in scientific discovery, they don’t typically make me emotional. Sometimes, they even bite me and claw at me and elicit a response very opposite of thankful. Today, though, I had a conference call with the physician I work with and a group of our collaborators from MD Anderson Cancer Center. We all got together to talk because we are interested in understanding why and how the immune system can fight off cancer. We as a cardio-oncology group are interested in the heart, and why some patients develop fatal heart disease when they receive immune-checkpoint inhibitors (a cancer treatment). This is what all of my research projects are focused on, and I’m very passionate about this topic. I think one day I may become a cancer doctor, or a cardio-oncologist, or continue asking questions like these, but that’s too far away for me to speculate. The other group, hailing from one of the most prominent cancer centers in the world, discovered immunotherapy and specifically how the immune system can attack cancer cells in the body. While I was a bit star-struck to be talking to people who have literally saved hundreds of thousands of lives, something every doctor or scientist dreams of doing, I was even more touched by their sincerity and care for patients. I think a lot of times people think humanity is heading in the wrong direction, but moments like these tell me differently. I’m reminded that biomedical research is truly a selfless act of love for humanity. If you have cancer, or if anyone you love has cancer, please know that there are scientists, physicians, pharmacists, students, and every part of the biomedical research industry who are out there working for you. Day and night, there are people thinking of how to combat the disease that maliciously steals our children, parents, friends, and neighbors. I’ve heard people jadedly and suspiciously tell me they believe that there is a cure for cancer that the government is holding it from us. This is incredibly discouraging to me, because I see the hearts of scientists and doctors who are diligently searching for cures and treatments. I see them behind masculine, poised faces, behind white coats and dress pants, behind strong words and distant demeanors; I see people who care for humanity and spend their lives working to cure someone they will never even meet. While most days I just let these encounters go unnoticed, today I appreciated that there is something incredibly powerful and moving in that reality.

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.

who you are

Your life experiences unquestionably define who you are and guide where you belong in the world. We are each given unique stories – challenges, triumphs, memories, passions – that aid us in figuring out what type of life we are to live. Since I’ve been in college, I have met people from SO many different walks of life, and it has been one of my favorite aspects of moving out of a small town and into a more culturally and ethnically diverse city. The people I’ve become very close friends with come from all over the world and from every background – Russian, African, Indian, Egyptian, Irish, Ukrainian, American, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, poor, rich, sick, and every quality or descriptor in between. The love I have for each of these people is specific and unique to the friendship that we share, and I’m so glad that I’ve come to know them and their story. Along this journey though, I often found myself asking “Who am I? Where do I come from? What characteristics define me?” and yesterday I again happened upon this internal self-discussion after a conversation I had with a friend in my lab. He very casually told me, “Mary, I can finally hear your Southern accent!” which lead down a rabbit hole of conversation on the lifetime struggle of talking with a “twang” and how “cute” it is (Ha). I told him that sometimes people assume others with a Southern accent are less intelligent, less capable, or have certain ideologies. For this reason, I had become accustomed to avoiding phrases that make me sound more Southern. What I have learned though, through encountering others that embrace and welcome their cultural identity, is that I am Southern and I do have a Southern accent. I was raised in a small town and my identity is comprised of those memories that I created as a child. I had this unnerving feeling when I entered college of not having an identity at all, not belonging to a defined “group” with certain values. I often felt like others were very different from me (because, well, they were and still are in many ways) and didn’t share a lot of the experiences I had while growing up. Instead of shaming away from this I began to cherish my own culture. I shared with people what it was like growing up in a small town in Tennessee (as compared to Chicago or Memphis or New York City). I delighted in the fact that I had (and have) certain challenges different from others and that those things make me, me. This acceptance and confidence has permeated into other aspects of my life. Previously at work, I sought to make myself very . . . uniform. I dressed simply and didn’t feel comfortable sharing the intricacies and details of my personality. This was largely in part because I worked with male supervisors and male colleagues and didn’t want to be perceived as less intelligent or less focused on my career. I’ve learned though, by being surrounded by team members that fully accept and cherish who they are, that who I am doesn’t negate my abilities but encourages them. Speaking of my passions and my childhood memories, wearing the clothes that make me feel confident and feminine, and accepting that I am an empowered, capable female, has strengthened my work ethic and confidence, not taken away from it. Yes, I wear eyeliner and like to do yoga. I didn’t take ten AP classes or go to a private, preparatory high school, but I do have the capability to learn and to succeed just as my peers do and have demonstrated that learning is more important than formal education. This is so important, because I really feel like people who may not fit into certain groups need to be encouraged to come from a position of strength instead of weakness. Don’t let the influence of those around you – their maleness (or femaleness), intelligence, appearance, or success – alter the way that you view yourself. What I have learned since accepting that I have a past that makes me better, not worse, and a future that is as bright as the person next to me, is that people love me and appreciate my work for exactly who I am. They like that I can have a conversation about growing up in a small town and how I like to enjoy myself in Nashville. Just because I wear makeup and have my hair fixed doesn’t mean I don’t get called on during meetings to answer hard questions or given hard tasks to complete. I no longer feel like I have no identity because instead of trying to create one that didn’t exist, I accepted the one I already have. There is great power in knowing who you are, growing in who you are, and loving who you are. Not only is there power, but there is indefinite peace.

thoughts on a beach

There are fewer things I want more than to become a physician — truly, when I survey my life for my heart’s deepest desires this worthy role sits at the fundamental core. But then I ask myself, why do I want to be a physician? I have always thought it not only wise but necessary to question every little thing. I was once infatuated with philosophy and while I don’t read it as often as I used to, the inquisitive and questioning nature it taught me never left my mind. So I ask myself – why do I want to be a physician? The answer is complex yet innately obvious to me. There is no short, one-lined answer for my reasons but instead a summation of all my unique life experiences that have lead me to this decision. I have explored other career options that align with my passions: I’ve thought of becoming a professor and teaching chemistry; I’ve considered going to graduate school and being a lifelong researcher; I’ve discussed working in industry as a chemist; I’ve toyed with the idea of being a science writer and journalist. I love teaching others and guiding people to discovering knowledge about themselves through learning difficult ideas and concepts. I think learning is one of God’s greatest gifts to man – I truly believe there is nothing that cannot be learned given enough hard work and time. I am amazed by the human body, the biological systems that work harmoniously within, and the chemistry that, literally, composes all of life and the physical universe. I love reading literature because I get to live through the stories of so many different people, experience their culture and hear their thoughts. I like doing science because it teaches me how to think creatively about the problems that are causing disease and illness. Research brings together the basic science of biology and biochemistry and allows me to do the thinking, the dirty work, and hopefully, discover the solution to a patient problem. But in my searching for the vocation I want to commit my life to, each of the prospective alternatives fell short in a specific and important way. For most, I could not help people in their most vulnerable state. I was missing the intimate and trusting physician-patient relationship that I was attracted to in the beginning. Medicine brings together all of the things I have found myself passionate about for such a long time: passions true to my being, woven into who I am and who I will want to be for the rest of my life. For me, becoming a physician has nothing to do with prestige, honor, or pay. No one in my family is a physician and I’m not being pressured down this career. It has everything to do with using the skills I’ve been blessed with to do the things I love to help others live a healthier life free of disease. I don’t just want to be a physician; I want to be an advocate, an encourager, a teacher, a confidant, a scientist, and a calming, present voice amidst the stormiest times of my patients’ lives. I want to inform and educate others about science and health and learn from those around me in every way I can. I want to write and read and maintain who I am in the long nights and ceremonious mistakes that a life of practicing medicine promises. I want to some day be a wife and a doctor and execute both in the best manner possible. These are the things I envision and hope for my future. So when I feel like my pathway becomes blurred by the constant lull within me to be better, do better, and achieve more I step back and ask myself – to remind myself – why I want to do this. I am journeying this path in life, not for anyone else, but to satiate my unquenchable desire for knowledge and service, challenges and relationships, through triumph and defeat – and that alone makes this pathway my own. I will not lose myself in the circuitous trap of comparison but will instead find myself lying with peace on this beach, reading legendary Nabokov, and dreaming of my future as an endless learner, a trusted confidant, and, ultimately, a healer.