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Guilt Trip

“Oh my god! Welcome back! How was Kenya? Was it soooo amazing?”

 

What a loaded and unavoidable question. For the last month every single person has greeted me with that question and I still haven’t come up with a good answer. “It was… weird” doesn’t really cut it, does it? Especially when everyone just wants to hear some derivation of “It was magical and I am a better human now!”

But since I am pretty much incapable of sugar coating things just to satisfy people, it’s hard for me to choke out a “It was magical!” because it wasn’t. It was frustrating, disheartening, lonely, and emotionally turbulent. To be fair, it was also beautifulinspiring, and grounding and I do indeed think I am a better human now. I have a much greater appreciation of the scientific topic I am studying, the people it impacts and the work that goes into collecting the samples I utilize. It’s just that the positives and big picture takeaways don’t erase my feelings. They do however make it “worth it” whatever that means.

Being an American scientist in Kenya was frustrating in more ways than I can begin to explain. Aside from the obvious social, economic, and health injustices that I was only pseudo prepared to encounter, the work cultures of Americans and Kenyans are just so incredibly different. And of course being a woman in science just sucks all the time- though I’ve now discovered that it sucks for different reasons across the globe (awesome). I have tried in safe spaces to talk about my feeling and experiences in order to tease them apart. It’s so hard to be critical of another culture without sounding like a god-damn racist. But what it comes down to is that science operates as it’s own community and being critical is an integral part of our cultural norms. So in Kenya I was basically dealing with an ongoing culture clash between American, Kenyan, and scientific cultural norms. I’ve tried to explain this below because I think it’s important to consider for the posterity of international collaboration but the tl;dr is: Science abroad is confusing and draining if you aren’t culturally prepared. But, and this is a big but, it is so worth it. Which means that we need to figure out how to talk about it.

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I ate lunch here every day (mostly by myself) either reading or writing in my journal

I am fairly well traveled. I just need to state this for the record so that people know my level of naïveté going into this summer. I’ve been to 26 countries spanning 4ish continents. I have even worked in a non-English-speaking lab abroad before. I’m not a noob. And I genuinely like traveling! I am super interested in the customs and people of each new place I go and I try to absorb as much as possible. Usually this means shedding my American tendencies and spending more time listening than speaking. Obviously I still fuck up and say or do the wrong thing. Case in point, I didn’t realize showing your knees was such a big deal in Kisumu or I would have brought different clothes. But for the most part, I defer to locals whenever possible. The last thing I want when I travel is to be that American traipsing about reinforcing the ignorant, close-minded, patronizing archetype that has come to be so prevalent on the world stage.

As a lab guest in a country where there is already tension between Americans and locals, being sensitive and not overstepping my bounds were initially my first priorities. I was in Kenya, however, to train others in techniques that I am an “expert” on. This automatically put me in a power dynamic that directly conflicted with my general outlook as a traveler. I was constantly struggling to maintain a balance between knowledgeable teacher and gracious guest.

Situations would arise in the lab that I felt could be done “better” and each time I would have to think to myself “is correcting this necessary to protect science or can I let it slide?” That is a tough question for a young, idealistic scientist such as myself. In the core of my body I feel the need to protect the purity and sanctity of science. I am fiercely devoted to my field and I get very angsty when I feel that something may set back progress in TB research. When I saw something in Kenya that I felt could be done in a different way, every fiber in my being would tighten. I had to remind myself that just because it’s my way doesn’t mean it’s the better way. The end result may be the same. So unless something was truly scientifically wrong, I bit my tongue. I’m not going to lie. it broke my heart a little bit every time I let something slide.

Of course it wasn’t any better in the instances when science was indeed in jeopardy. First, that is a terrifying realization to make. Second, no one likes having to correct another human (Well some people do but those people are sadistic weirdos). It is uncomfortable for both parties and more often than not it ends up with hurt feelings. There is an art to correcting another person without making them feel like shit. I tutored and taught for years and I mastered that art with my students, but that’s because I had become familiar with them. I knew how they thought and how they would interpret my words and actions. Plus most sixteen year olds in America are similar enough that I could predict reactions and appropriately give guidance, even with new students. I didn’t have that same rapport with the scientists in Kenya so I couldn’t adjust myself to them. And because of cultural differences I couldn’t even begin to guess how they would react. I knew very little about Kenyan cultural norms except what I had read on the internet- which like, how reliable is that really? I felt woefully unprepared to handle such situations. I still have no idea how I was perceived by my lab mates. I may have been a total asshole the entire trip and I’d never know because they were too kind to inform me.

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So many feelings…

Trying to balance a requirement for scientific rigor and an acceptance of differing cultural norms is a gut wrenching position to be in. It was even harder for me because I was doing it on the fly with limited prior cultural awareness. I had to decide in the moment whether this was a battle to pick and how to pick it. I almost never had enough information to go on and I fucked it up more than once. There were times when I regretted speaking up because it was unnecessary and just drew lines in the sand. There were times when I wondered if I actually should have been tougher because no one listened to me. There were times when I knew I had hurt another scientist’s feelings and I wondered if it was worth it to hurt them in the name of science. Of course no one makes the right choice 100% of the time but I was wracked with guilt for weeks worrying that I had been too tough, too inconsiderate, too lax, too sensitive.

After my trip I was able to debrief with two women that I admire a great deal- my boss and a CDC director based in Kenya. I explained to them the scientific situations that had arisen and the way that I had decided to address them. I also shared my frustrations and concerns about culture clashes in the lab. They commiserated with me, encouraged the strategies that worked and gave me advice on the situations I hadn’t handled well. It was a lot of “yea that happens” and “you did the best you could” and “it’s up to them now.” It was affirming to know that I wasn’t alone in my experiences, but also a little frustrating. Like why didn’t we have this conversation before I left? I would have been so much more prepared! It’s not enough to say it’s different. You need to know how it’s different and how to deal with those differences. It would have been so much less emotionally tumultuous, and probably more productive had I known these things before hand.

I think about the fact that I’m pretty well traveled and I still sucked at this. It makes me worried because most biomedical grad students were science majors in undergrad and probably haven’t had a world cultures or world history class since high school. I guarantee that most grad students, if sent to work abroad, would be just as culturally unprepared as I was. And to be honest it scares me. It’s so detrimental to science and therefore global health! Like, what if I had just been flat out insensitive? That happens all the time when people travel! And while being an asshole on vacation is not ideal, it’s also not the end of the world. But in science being an asshole could result in a bridge burned, a collaboration lost, a cache of knowledge left untapped.

An on the flip side, what if I hadn’t been able to talk out my feelings when I returned. Would I be left with a sour taste in my mouth? What if I continued to spread that amongst the scientific community? Would people stop sending students abroad? Would scientists stop wanting to go abroad? Would the chasm between the ivory tower and the grimy real world continue to separate us?

I have no idea what the solution to this is, other than a little bit of candor. So I’m going to spend the next few weeks sharing stories and reflections from my time in Kenya. Not all of them will be pretty or uplifting. I hope people reading understand that these stories are not meant as an attack or an insult. I’m just trying to provide an authentic picture of what it means to do field work. Spoiler, I didn’t skip around fields in Kenya befriending small children and curing TB with my amazing intellect. I did however learn a lot about Kenya. I did in fact make a small dent in the scientific problem. So for all my griping, it really was an incredible and fulfilling experience and I hope to return.

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Sunset over Kisumu and Lake Victoria
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Universities are Like Onions, They Have Layers

Image result for ever after princeI keep thinking about the feudal system and that Drew Barrymore movie Ever After (spoilers ahead). The prince spends the whole movie being challenged by Drew Barrymore about his outlook on ruling and peasants and stuff. Awesome! Meanwhile the servants and peasants have no idea that the prince is having a come to Jesus moment. The whole movie the servants still have to work for mean old Anjelica Huston’s character and that creepy guy with the villain stache. Their lives still suck and that’s all they see. Now presumably at the end he implements some kind of princely policy to make their lives better, but there has to be a trickle down effect before they feel it. Who knows how that would work or how long it would take or if the Anjelica Hustons of the kingdom would even listen! All the while the serfs and the peasants of the kingdom would go on believing that there was nothing more to their lives.

Now I’m not saying that academia is like the feudal system or that grad students are like serfs. I’m just posing a question about hierarchical structures… Does it matter if the king thinks it’s cool for the serfs to learn to read if the nobles and knights aren’t on board?

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The academic training structure for PhD students is built on the apprenticeship model and subsequently struggles to train modern scientists for the current job market. While some universities cling to this tradition and refuse to consider “alternative” careers, many (I won’t say majority, because let’s be real) are at least trying to modernize and get with the times. Emory (thank god) is one of them!

Emory has one of the few NIH funded Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) programs which exists solely to expose young scientists to careers outside of academia and help foster skill sets necessary for those careers. We also have a very active graduate Alumni Office. Not only do they organize a set of programs called Pathways Beyond the Professoriate which I am SO about, but they also support anyone who wants to plan a career related events with alumni. I have relied on their support to plan 2 such events for my program. So, yea, Emory as an institution is already doing a pretty good job and I definitely take advantage of that!

Unfortunately, as with any centuries old organizational framework, there is only so much a single piece of the system can change without radically overthrowing the whole thing. Before I postulate as to why, it’s important to understand the organization of PhD training. Like feudalism, academia has a hierarchy. That’s not too surprising, most organizations are hierarchical after all, but academia is rife with them. There is the professorial hierarchy, the administrative hierarchy, the graduate school hierarchy, the student organization hierarchy. Seriously every person falls into at least 2 different sets of tiered structures. Universities LOVE a good org chart. It’s a whole thing. Anyways, as with all hierarchical institution, certain layers interact more than others based on their placement in the hierarchy. Again, duh! Grad students are at the very bottom of the graduate training pyramid and at Emory (though there are, of course, parallel structures at other institutions) this is the order of the layers in the training pyramid. Get ready for alphabet soup because academia also loves acronyms!

Layer 1: The Faculty

Obviously my advisor is a part of this layer and I will talk specifically about her in a later post. (FYI, my advisor is INCREDIBLE and the main reason I feel confident doing this internship, but I digress.) “The faculty” as an overarching term that includes other students’ advisors, the people who taught all my classes, PIs that I do lab meetings with, my advisor’s collaborators, my thesis committee, etc. etc.

Layer 2: The Program

I am getting my degree from the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis (IMP) Program, but I could be getting it in anything really and it would be the same. Every program has a Program Director, a Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), an Executive Council and a Program Administrator (PA), all of whom oversee students in some way or another. They keep track of my coursework and make sure I’m fulfilling all my degree requirements.

Layer 3: The Division

The IMP program is under the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (GDBBS) which also has a Director and a bunch of administrators. This “umbrella” program basically lumps together PhD students in related programs (cancer, neuroscience, microbiology, genetics, immunology) and divides them from those in disparate programs like art history or business. Since a lot of the requirements, coursework, and experiences of PhD students in the GDBBS are similar, this standardizes things to some degree. The GDBBS squad does a million things and just generally advocates for division students in the greater academic and scientific communities.

Layer 4: The Graduate School

The GDBBS is a subdivision within the Laney Graduate School (LGS) which includes every student getting a PhD, no matter what program. The LGS has a Dean and full staff divided into a number of offices that do everything from finance to programming to alumni relations and fellowships. They also handle anything that applies to all graduate students from ethics and teaching training to our base salary and health insurance options. They keep the graduate school running.

Layer 5: Provost? Stuff like that?

Honestly I know there are all kinds of people above in this layer, but they are so unknown to me that I’m not even going to try.


To my knowledge, Layers 3 (aka the GDBBS) and 4 (the LGS) are SUPER supportive of students like myself.

The Director of the GDBBS is a firm supporter of training for alternative careers. In fact he runs the BEST program mentioned earlier. He also happens to run my fellowship program. Not only do I see him every week but my fellowship is structured to foster dialogue so he always knows how we are all doing and what we want to do with our lives. Basically, we are all homies. This means that we have had numerous conversations about internships, my goals, the state of graduate training, etc. I know he supports this decision because he knows I’ve put a lot of thought into it.

I mentioned some of the LGS wide programming at the beginning of this post, but it’s more than just programming. I’ve worked with the women in the Alumni Office- Robin and Katie- on a couple of events and they have been so helpful and supportive over the years. Robin also comes to all of the Graduate Student Council (which I’m on the board of) general body meetings to make students aware of opportunities and programming. They really make an effort and I think students see that. I also(now) know that the Dean herself helped arrange this opportunity. She’s been in dialogue with my internship boss for years trying to figure out some of the logistical details, which is just crazy because she has way more important things to do with her time.

Layers 1 and 2, on the other hand, are a mixed bag.

It’s important to know that this is not an Emory specific thing. This is just how Academia (capital A) thinks. Even in institutions like Emory, which has amazing programming, there are, and perhaps always will be, hold outs. The key here is that these hold outs are in the layers closest to the students.

I’m lucky because I knew the big shots in the upper layers would support my decision. I felt sheltered from dissenting opinions. But I only knew that because I was crazy involved in extracurriculars and attended every Emory event related to biotech starting in my first year. And I only was able to do that because my advisor is super awesome. She has shielded me from a lot of blowback which has given me leeway to make the connections I needed at Emory to do this. I’m thankful for her, for upper management and for sticking my nose into a lot of people’s offices over the years.

Most students aren’t as lucky. They get sequestered away in lab day 0 and end up down the path to academia by default. For many students there is so much pressure from Layers 1 and 2, that they don’t feel comfortable even exploring other options. And this is happening everywhere. I met a girl from another university at a conference recently. She was adamant about going into biotech down the road, but then insisted that the only way to get into industry was to do an academic postdoc which just isn’t true. She got into a (sort of) heated discussion about it with one of my friends who just looked at her and was like “you’re brainwashed.” She was and she isn’t the only one.

The same students feeling pressure from Layers 1 and 2 often don’t get the opportunity to interact with Layers 3 and 4. They don’t get to hear from on high that it’s okay to be “alternative.” And when you don’t get to hear from the big wigs that what you are thinking is okay, you start to second guess yourself. You get brainwashed. You get stuck.

I hope that when I return, I can change some people’s minds in Layers 1 and 2. But more importantly, I hope that I can show other students that there are people that will support your decisions. You just have to find them.

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The Apprentice (Not Affiliated with Donald Trump)

In a previous post I made the claim that grad school is rigged against internships. I standby that claim, but will now qualify it with a “…if you are getting a PhD.” If you’re a PhD student then you know exactly what I mean and can scroll down to the complaining part. But if you’re not, then that may be confusing. Internships are, after all, a normal part of undergraduate education and often an integral component professional graduate curriculum. Medical students do rotations, Law students do internships, Public Health students do practicums. Even my mom, who went to culinary school, had to stage at a restaurant before she officially graduated. Each of these “internships” takes students out of the campus bubble and places them into a real grown-up professional setting. Are internships often just BS grunt work? Yea sure, but they are also the ONLY way for students to figure out wtf they actually want to do with their lives. PhD students, in contrast, do nothing of the sort, because we aren’t real students.

A PhD is not a professional degree. It’s an apprenticeship. Or at least that’s how it was originally developed. For centuries, science education was structured like other trade crafts (think blacksmiths back in the day. Ooh or knights and squires. Basically anything old-timey). A baby scientist worked under a master scientist (referred to as a Principle Investigator or PI) in an academic institution learning the trade of science. Eventually the baby scientist would blossom and mature into a mini me of their PI, thus entering academia as a grown up scientist. Under this sort of system, PhD students don’t need job training because the PhD itself is the job training. We are expertly prepared to become academic PIs… and for centuries, this system worked.  Now, however, there are a number of alarming trends in academic science that undermine this system.

  1. There are more PhD students than there are academic jobs so a lot of PhDs will be “forced” to do other things with their lives. See these reports by Nature, The New York Times, The Atlantic or if you’re a sucker here’s the primary data and some modeling to back my claim. Obviously this isn’t news to anyone. And yet no one is doing anything to deal with all the “unsuccessful” PhDs who don’t get academic tenure positions.
  2. Academic jobs are becoming less and less appealing to PhD students. Everyone’s reasons for wanting to leave academia are differentrampant sexism and sexual harassment, no time to start a family, competitive hostile workplace, crappy pay, lack of fulfillment- but we all want out.

The problem is that we don’t know how to do literally anything else with our lives. Many students don’t even know what “out” looks like. What does it mean to be a science writer? A consultant? A patent lawyer? A political advisor? Literally no one knows!

We know we need to be trained better for the real world . The University knows we need to be trained better. The National Institute of Health knows we need to be trained better. The job market definitely knows we need to be trained better. But no one can agree on what that means because the apprenticeship model has made our path to degree so fundamentally at odds with taking time to do something like an internship.

First of all, we don’t really take classes. I was finished with my required coursework after my second year of grad school and that was considered *A LOT* of coursework. Unlike students in undergraduate or medical or law programs, I’m not being provided a formal classroom based education. This means there is no such thing as summer or Christmas or spring break in PhD school. The most annoying thing is when people not in PhD school ask me when my spring break is. THAT’S NOT A THING! And no I’m not “still in college” and I hate you for saying that. We are not on a school year schedule. We are on a regular work schedule, but without the benefit of weekends. There are also no weekends in PhD life. Every day is a Monday. Every day is also a Saturday. You do what you have to and hope you don’t get yelled at. I am lucky because I can work remotely so I get to go home for holidays, but that’s not because it’s Christmas break. It’s because I’m analyzing data between opening presents and Christmas Dinner. Some of my friends aren’t even allowed to take a long weekend without officially asking for time off from their advisor.

So what the fuck do we do with our time then? We *~*research*~* which for science PhD students really just means we do grunt work in labs to generate data. (I, for example, spend my days pipetting (think of a tiny scientific turkey baster) translucent liquids from one vessel to another and then play with a laser machine. Super exciting stuff.) We need this data to graduate so it does in fact benefit us, but mostly we get data on behalf of our advisor and ultimately The University. Anything we create, discover, imagine, patent, etc. during a PhD belongs to The University. Which means that The University often views us as employees.

And then there is the money situation… Unlike graduate students in masters or professional programs, we don’t pay our own tuition. TBH I don’t actually know who does pay for it, but I suspect it just get’s written off in a ledger somewhere. Hence the whole 2017 grad tax crisis. But it’s mostly not sketchy because, again, we don’t really take classes. And since we are pseudo employees, we also get paid a small stipend, unlike other graduate programs. This is super awesome because I could not have afforded 6 years of higher education on my own, but it also means that we have zero bargaining power with regards to our training. Students paying tuition can demand a service be rendered to them in return for their money. I pay nothing, therefore I can demand nothing. Not that I don’t try of course.

All of this makes us a weird group of students.

Are you really a student if you don’t take classes? Technically yes because every semester I have to enroll and pay student fees (even for the crappy campus gym swarming with undergrads… I’m salty about that).

Are you really an employee if you get a degree at the end of this whole thing? Maybe yes, because we get paid a sort of salary (though the bank would beg to differ when you go to get a loan). It’s a no man’s land of training which limits our options. How do you justify a long term “break” when your thesis work is one continuous process that requires you be in a particular location and especially when The University is footing the bill for the whole thing.

Honestly, universities are still trying to figure that out. Some are better than others. I will give Emory credit for at least trying. The logistics might be a complete mess but at least internships are allowed and enough people in the administration support them to make me feel okay. Plus, there is a policy in place that allows students to take a leave of absence for up to a year at a time, no questions asked. That fact is SUPER important because there are an astonishing number of people in academia that fundamentally believe that PhD students should spend every waking hour in lab and anything- be it coursework, networking, exercise, even sleep- that keeps them out of lab is a grave sin. Breaks are not acceptable. Work life balance is not acceptable. Internships are certainly not acceptable.

Which means that regardless of your university policy, a lot of things have to fall in line to make returning from an internship possible. You have to have a PI that supports you, a program that allows you to leave, a project that can be paused or worked on remotely, and of course an actual internship opportunity. And in practice you need to make sure those first three are in place before you ever even APPLY to an internship or else you are going to burn bridges. So as righteous as it might feel running away middle fingers in the air yelling “It’s MY future goddammit!” keeping the peace is best for everyone involved.

Being “Alternative” is Such a Buzzkill.

Who knew that when I enrolled in a PhD program in immunology, I would also become a manipulative bureaucrat? Like seriously, the amount of plotting and scheming that I have done in the last four years is astounding. I am now an evil mastermind capable of maneuvering through administrative wormholes and manipulating circumstances to serve my own ends. What exactly are those ends you may be wondering? What devious and subversive plan have I been concocting in my laboratory? My current plot is… to do a summer internship #GASP. I know right? Really counterculture subversive stuff there. Except for a PhD student, it sort of is. In fact, any career outside academia is legitimately labeled an “alternative” career as is any student pursuing such a career. So yea, I’m alternative. Sometimes it sucks.

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In my new company swag

Today was the first day of an internship at a small biotech company called Aptose Biosciences, which was founded and run by an Emory alum. The company is working on small molecule inhibitors for hematological malignancies (aka cancers like leukemia and lymphoma). For the next 3 months I will be working with the company lab team to better understand the mechanism of action of 2 particularly promising drugs (Apto-253 and CG-806) by probing the signaling pathways their targets are involved in. I signed a non-disclosure agreement which means that I can’t say much else, but the point is that by the end of summer I will be privy to how a potential drug goes from discovery through pre-clinical studies.

Considering the fact that I have always wanted to go into biotech following graduation, I had been contemplating doing an internship for a while now. I had looked at a number online and even started applying! Then I noticed a nondescript email sent out through my graduate program listserv with a posting for a paid internship at a biotech company in San Diego. The posting was *super* vague and sent out amongst the million other emails we get about fellowship opportunities that everyone normally treats as spam. I’m pretty sure no one paid attention to it except for me and I only noticed it because I zone in on anything and everything related to biotech that comes through my inbox. Anyways, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Not only would I get paid, but housing and travel were covered, and I’d get to be in California for a whole summer! Most importantly though, it was being offered THROUGH Emory which meant that someone in the administration was already on board. Everyone wins! I get training pertinent to my career. Emory looks good by showing off my education while strengthening connections with successful alumni. The alumni gets cheap labor for a summer! Sounds like a good deal for everyone right?

And yet there were So. Many. Obstacles. Some were just kinks that needed to be worked out as the first student to do this internship, but others were very much not. In fact it was such a hot mess, that we were still sorting out details up until I got on the plane from Atlanta to San Diego this past Friday. I was so certain the entire opportunity was going to blow up in my face that I kept it mostly to myself. I only told a handful of people I was even applying and even then I would always say things like “I’m pretty certain” or “I may be gone.” I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

 

It seems silly to be so hush hush and nervous about something as innocuous as a summer internship, but the reality is that PhD programs are kind of rigged against such activities. Not only is the entire PhD institution not built for such a thing, but the attitude and mentality of those in academia is prohibitive in ways that you can’t even imagine. I got so much push back the last couple of months that it truly felt like I was doing something blasphemous. It was emotionally taxing being so excited about something and then having everyone else be a total buzzkill. I often wonder if someone less intense and stubborn than I am would have just caved to that pressure. The thing is, I know I can’t possibly be the only PhD student that has felt this way. Just like I can’t possibly be the only PhD student who wants to do an internship that is actually relevant to their career goals. As such, I’ve decided to document the experience for posterity’s sake. There will definitely be a lot of bitching and a lot of bragging but hopefully there will also be at least a little bit of advice for future “alternative” PhD students like myself.

Neglected Corners of the World

A church sits in the middle of a veritable jungle- worn down, but welcoming with massive green doors propped wide open. A queue of parents and children wait patiently outside for us. Perhaps it’s my bias, but all of the parents look a little bit nervous. We are here, after all, to poke and prod their kids in the name of science.

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The scientists I’m following around for the day are a part of a field team from the Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) lab at KEMRI. They have driven close to two hours to come to this church today and will come here again in exactly one month’s time. Tomorrow they will drive to another church in another village. In fact 16 days out of the month these dudes journey around the county, going from village to village collecting data and samples. They’ve been doing this for over a year now and will continue on for another year. Super. Tedious. But it’s necessary because their study population is children under five. You can’t exactly expect kids under five to trek to the nearest medical facility once a month. And since part of the study’s goal is to determine patterns of parasitic infection, it requires checking in on these kids at many different time points over the course of multiple years. It’s a labor-intensive project, but absolutely critical.

It’s important to understand that in places like Kenya, the burden of parasitic disease falls heavily on small children. This is due in part to the life style of young children (i.e. they traipse about playing in contaminated water and eating things they shouldn’t) but also in part to the lack of immune response to such bugs. As children get older they build up a tolerance of sorts. Unfortunately this takes forever and is never good enough to prevent future infections. If children reach a certain age, however, without dying or being permanently disabled from one of these infections (morbid I know, right?) then they usually have a robust enough immune response that they actually appear asymptomatic. Many adults don’t even know when they are infected with a parasite. Because of this, many parasitic infections were thought to be unimportant and therefore have been “neglected” by the scientific and medical community for decades.

“But what about the children!!!” you may be asking. My thoughts exactly! There have been a number of public health endeavors spearheaded by WHO, executed by NGOs, and the Gates Foundation and backed by Big Pharma (I’m putting it out there in the world that this is my dream career). This has done wonders to minimize the impact of parasitic infections on young children, but they still persist. That’s why studies like these are important. This team is gathering medical information (fever, weight, hemoglobin levels, etc.), immunological samples, and behavioral information (bed net use, travel history, etc.) in addition to testing for parasitic infections in these kids. Importantly, they also provide treatment whenever a child comes up positive.

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Which brings me to my day in the field and our little makeshift doctors office…


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IMG_5904Church pews are placed on one end of the porch so parents and children can rest while they wait. The Community Health Volunteer (CHV) sits with his neighbors, casually chatting with them. I can’t speak Luo (the local language) but I get the feeling he is trying to distract them with idle talk. His tone and mannerisms suggest banter.

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Two chairs are set up in the middle of the porch, one for a parent and one for a KEMRI scientist. He communicates to each parent in turn the goal of the study, explains what will occur at this visit, takes down information about the kid and obtains consent. As at the CRC, this consent is predominantly obtained using fingerprints instead of a signature due to illiteracy.

Nurses Station-

The child is then passed off to a third member of the KEMRI team who takes the kid’s weight and temperature. He is young- younger than me- and is currently getting his undergraduate degree in public health. I can’t help but be reminded of my trip to Honduras to do medical triage as a sophomore at UCLA. Except that I got to go back to California at the end. He doesn’t. This is his country and his people.

Doctor’s Office-

IMG_5907At the far end of the porch, the main scientist has a table and one of the big plastic boxes that were so common at the CRC. At this final station the parent and child are reunited and sit for a set of diagnostic tests. Each of these requires a tiny amount of blood so the KEMRI scientist has to prick the kids’ fingers with a small needle and then transfer their blood onto a microscope slide and into the cassettes of the rapid tests. It’s not painful, but it certainly is frightening for such young kids. Most of them cry or scream, both in anticipation and from the shock of the prick itself. No wonder the parents looked nervous. For the most part the dude’s demeanor- calm and encouraging yet firm- settles them down. And when that doesn’t work, we resort to baked goods. Just like the lollipops in pediatricians’ offices back home, it works like a charm.


We made it through 10 out of 11 enrolled children with a reasonable amount of screaming. Parents were provided with cupcakes, juice and medication for the kids and then everyone went on their way. It was weird to watch them all walk off in different directions, each disappearing behind a wall of foliage. After they all left, the KEMRI team and the CHV sat down to discuss the last child who had not shown up.

The thing with CHVs is that they know all the dirt. This is one of the reasons they are so invaluable. It turns out this kid’s mom has been a consistent problem for the study. He reminded the team that the last time she didn’t show up until two hours after the designated time slot. Luckily he knows where she lives and it’s not that far. So the team decides that rather than waiting for her to show up, which could very well never happen, we will go track her down. We pack up the necessary equipment and head off- on foot.

IMG_5932We must have looked so ridiculous wandering through the countryside. For starters, none of us were appropriately dressed for a walk through the jungle. The guys on the KEMRI team were all wearing khakis or slacks with polo shirts and I was the only person wearing any kind of appropriate footwear- converse. On top of all that, the undergrad was carrying around a scale and one guy had a big plastic tub with all the diagnostic tools. And of course there’s the small issue of being accompanied by a random white chick. Super inconspicuous, I know.

Not too shockingly, a local stopped us on our walk and demanded to know what we were doing there. There is a lot of mistrust between locals and the medical community. And while education efforts have helped counter misinformation, the tension still exists. This is another reason why it is absolutely critical to work with a CHV. They can act as a moderator, which leads to a more productive dialogue in situations like this.

Eventually the local man understood that we were there to benefit the community. His attitude towards us warmed instantly and he started shooting the shit with the KEMRI guys. [At least I assume that’s how it went down. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I could tell by their tone, his change in demeanor and their eventual shared laughter.] At some point the conversation turned to me. There was a great deal of gesturing and nodding and then something was settled. The KEMRI dude turned to me and said he wants to show you his dinner.

IMG_5926I turned back to the local man who procured a rather large fish from the plastic bag he was carrying and started pointing out features on the fish while rambling in Luo. The KEMRI team explained to me that he was describing the differences between Nile tilapia and Nile perch. They also told me he had just caught this and was very proud. It would feed an entire family after all. The man started gesturing to me and for a second I feared he wanted me to touch the fish, which I super did not want to do. I guess he was just asking if I wanted to take a picture of him and his fish. His earnestness and pride were so endearing that I obviously obliged.

We continued our stroll and about ten minutes later, had to turn off the main road to continue into the actual village. Sometimes there was a path. Sometimes there wasn’t. Regardless, the CHV led us swiftly through a series of huts and small farms. We wound through the village for about 20 minutes catching the attention of a number of women washing clothing and children in school uniforms.

Eventually, we found the boy. I will call him Lincoln so as not to provide any personal information. I doubt any of you will try and track him down to leverage this story against him, but it’s good practice. Lincoln was playing in the yard of his home wearing worn out beige pants and a cardigan. His pants were too big and kept falling down and his cardigan was buttoned only at the top so that his belly stuck out. Many kids have big bellies but Lincoln’s was also slightly distended, a sign that he may be in fact be malnourished. He’s only 3 years old.

The minute he saw us, he fled into the house, pants sagging. Unfortunately his mom was nowhere to be found. We did, however, find his grandmother and only slightly older sister. At least I assume it’s his grandmother and sister. Again, no clue! After a little bit of discussion, the grandmother gave us consent to collect data other than the blood tests while we waited for one of his parents to show up. Lincoln, however, had other plans in mind.

The head KEMRI scientist started asking survey questions, while the undergrad attempted to find a level place on the dirt to set the scale. We gave Lincoln’s sister a cupcake to go went fetch Lincoln for us. I could tell the minute Lincoln came over that he was going to be problematic. Despite commands from his grandmother and bribery on our part, Lincoln just kept trying to run away. Each time she grabbed him, he yelped and whimpered. His tantrum attracted the notice of other villagers and two young teenage boys in green school uniforms came to see what was going down. They clearly knew Lincoln and didn’t seem to be troubled by his wailing. In fact they offered to help with Lincoln and were recruited to weigh him and take his temperature. One stood on the scale and was handed a squirming Lincoln to obtain a weight differential. The other attempted to gently hold Lincoln’s arm down to pin a thermometer in his armpit long enough to get a reading. Both of these activities were wildly unsuccessful and led to even more screaming. Another two villagers- young men, perhaps early twenties- came to see what the fuss was and were again unfazed by the spectacle.

Keep in mind that I have no idea what anyone is saying so I was sitting there watching this child wail uncontrollably and was therefore just a tad concerned for Lincoln. Were we hurting him? Was he scared? Why doesn’t anyone care? At a break in the attempt to get measurements, I asked these questions. Nope. Apparently the kid is just ornery and cries at everything. I guess this explains why no one seemed concerned that he was throwing a Grade A tantrum.

Eventually his father showed up and Lincoln immediately simmered down. Our relief was short lived, however, since apparently the dad had no idea that his son was even enrolled in a study in the first place! The CHV and KEMRI scientists had to seriously back peddle and explain the study that Lincoln had been participating in for the last year and half in order to obtain consent yet again. Eventually it all worked out and an hour-ish later we left the village.

IMG_5937We had spent so long at this kid’s home that the CHV suggested we take a shortcut. So he turned into a field of some plant that is literally two feet taller than me and we spent the next 15 minutes pretty much bushwacking through the field. I tore my pants and ended up with a few nicks on my face from rebounding plants. I also instagram storied it because why not? For me, it was an adventure!

On the drive home, we stopped for Nile perch at a restaurant, which is a literal shack on the side of the road. I asked the scientists whether this is representative of a typical day in the field. Unfortunately it is. No shows are frequent and these data points are too important to just shrug off and too expensive to try and get on another day. Scientific study reasons aside, these guys also just care. They know that their visits are the only regular access to health care and treatment that these kids are getting. A no show is a missed opportunity for a child in need.

The scientists in turn asked me how I felt about the day to which I emphatically gushed “That was awesome!” I then corrected myself because that’s fucking tone deaf. “I mean… it’s not awesome that this is the situation for those kids or that you guys have to trek 40 minutes on foot to get samples. I just mean that it’s awesome that I had the opportunity to experience this and understand what you all go through.”

You know, I’m used to getting up on my little soap box to talk about parasites and tuberculosis- stats for the public health people, crazy biology for the basic scientists. Anything to get people to listen really. And that’s not a bad thing. We all do it! But it’s just so easy for our spiels to become a bit. You start every talk the same way and it starts to just roll off your tongue without you even thinking about it. After the hundredth time you become numb to what you yourself are saying.

That’s why I can honestly say that the single day I spent in Rarieda (the sub-county we were in) was one of the most important days in my graduate education, even though I did absolutely nothing scientific. After Rarieda, I don’t think I’ll ever be numb to the spiel. Because, now, when I talk about my work I think of Lincoln. I think of this KEMRI team and the church and the plant that smacked me in the face mid instagram story. Everything I say is now grounded in real people and real experiences and that makes all the difference.

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Mzungu and Karibu

As I drive onto the school playground, eleven and twelve year olds everywhere stop playing and stare at me through the open truck windows. A few beats pass as I make shy eye contact with a few of them. They all break into smiles, begin chasing the truck as we drive further onto the field and shout “Mzungu! How are you mzungu!!”.

“Do you know what that means?” the driver asks.

“It’s like foreigner, right?” I say as the nurses laugh and banter with the kids.

“Well yes but it’s more specifically a white person, like an albino”

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See, I’m not THAT white. Also I like elephants.

“Albino?! I am not THAT white!” I say stunned and a little wounded. For the record I am not super white. In fact, I am pretty damn ethnic. I perpetually look like I have a tan and in the sun I get so dark you can actually tell that I’m part filipino. Of course I live a gollum-like existence these days so I am a pasty version of myself, but pasty me is still pretty tan.

But what can I say? It’s all relative. In Kenya, I am white. I was an obvious outsider and not just when I showed up at the neighborhood middle school to collect samples. I was an outsider every day in Kenya.

Being a visitor in a lab is awkward. Being a foreigner, a mzungu, is stressful to boot. You have to balance your responsibility to your work with the fact that you are a guest on someone else’s turf. Add in a little bit of tension between westerners and Africans and that’s what I walked into this summer.

As the time went on, I built a rapport with most of the people in the lab, even going out with them on the weekends. But still, there were things that consistently reminded me that I did not belong.

  1. The language- While individuals would direct questions to me in English, banter and small talk amongst labmates was almost always in Swahili, which I do not speak. It is so isolating to watch the people around you having a conversation and be unable to participate. It is beyond awkward to have to sit silently while everyone else chats with each other. It would have been one thing if people in the lab couldn’t speak English (which was the case when I worked in China). I would have understood that because it would have been unavoidable. I wouldn’t have viewed it as a slight against me. But when everyone speaks lovely English (much more proper than my very colloquial California slang) and they still choose to speak in a language you don’t know, it’s hard not to take it personally. Especially when they all start laughing. Wow does the paranoia set in. “Dear god, I hope they aren’t talking about me! Don’t be so self-absorbed Taryn. It’s not always about you. But… But what if…” And because I was already so paranoid about being the obnoxious American, I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to speak in English just so I could participate. Instead I would put in headphones and focus on my work to seem like I was too preoccupied to notice. I guess it made me really productive?
  2. My lodging- I was staying in a hotel and no matter how nice a hotel is, it will never feel like “home.” There’s something about making instant ramen in a hotel room with no microwave because you are too tired to go to a restaurant for dinner that really makes you feel like a visitor.
  3. My commute- The first two weeks of my trip a KEMRI driver was picking me up and taking me to and from lab every day. That is not the norm. Only guests get chauffeured around like that. It felt so bougie and so self-important and I hated it. Especially since someone else would have to call the drivers to fetch me at the end of each day. The minute I found out that the staff bus picked up next to my hotel, I started taking that. It felt better to be using the same transportation as everyone else.
  4. My name- I never realized how much getting your name butchered can mess with your psyche. Apparently there is something really challenging about the name Taryn for Kenyan people. When I first arrived, a lot of people were pronouncing it Tary-in, which I actually sort of got and was okay with. I would say “close!” and correct them. They’d say it was a hard one. We’d laugh and get on with our day. But somewhere along the line people just fully gave up on using my name at all. When I’d introduce myself to people, they would straight up be like “no I will not call you that” because it was too challenging. The student I was working with started calling me by a Luo word as a pet name instead. And then at some point the director called me by my middle name- Alissa- and it all went downhill from there. No one ever called me Taryn again. From that point on, everyone called me Alissa. I still get emails addressed to Alissa. I’m not going to lie. It was pretty disheartening. This wasn’t like getting a nickname you don’t like. I had plenty of nicknames in college that I wasn’t super fond of, but they were all born from familiarity and closeness. Instead, this was like being told your name doesn’t matter. And when you grow up with an unusual name, it becomes a part of your identity so that’s a tough bullet to bite. I know that there was no malicious intent behind the name debacle but getting called by a name you don’t identify with makes you feel like you are a stranger to whoever is speaking to you.

I’m not going to sit here and pretend like I thought I’d be BFFs with the Kenyans. I didn’t. And I definitely did not want them to alter their routines to accommodate my insecurities. No one owed it to me to make me feel like a local because I wasn’t a local. I was a guest and they were treating me as such.

And that, perhaps, was the strangest part of all because Kenyan hospitality is absolutely incredible. The Swahili word karibu means welcome (both as in you’re welcome and welcome home) and it is totally the status quo out there. As a guest, everyone was so so welcoming.

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Out to dinner with the guys from lab!

Everyone wanted to make sure I was seeing the sites and getting souvenirs and trying all the local foods. Even little things in lab made this evident. People paid for my meals even though I insisted Emory was footing my bill. Grown men would squish in the backseat of the transport vehicles so I could sit in front even though I’m tiny and am the obvious choice for middle nut. One chick from lab took me shopping and helped me barter prices. The student I was working with went out of his way to show me his university and take me to the equator one weekend. He even drove me around the slums because I wanted to see them. Any thing I wanted to do, someone made sure I did it. I truly was well taken care of.

People were also so willing to share their stories and their knowledge with me. I learned about the politics, the geography, the home structure, the various religious practices. Any question I had from “Why are there cows in the middle of the road” to “Explain this whole wife inheritance thing?” people answered. As a friend of mine pointed out, it was more important to the Kenyan people that, as a guest, I come away with a strong sense of Kenyan culture than with a lot of data points. And I did. I was such a know-it-all on my safari with my mom, I’m sure I drove her nuts.

Still, I couldn’t help that outsider feeling and man was that confusing. Being lonely in a place where everyone is SO nice just feels totally unjustified. But it had nothing to do with them. And really it had nothing to do with me. It’s just the way it is when you drop into a brand new place where nothing and no one is familiar.

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Me and my Filipino mom at the Great Rift Valley.

I kept having to remind myself that my feelings were justified. It was okay to feel lonely because I truly didn’t know anyone. It was okay to feel isolated because I did in fact spend about half my waking hours by myself. It was okay to feel like an outsider because I am a part asian, part white chick from America hanging out in Kenya for the first time ever. If that doesn’t say outsider, then I don’t know what does.

I realized (too late) that in order to stop feeling guilty, I had to allow the contradiction to exist. Feeling lonely did not detract from their warmth or hospitality. Appreciating their hospitality did not detract from my loneliness. As it turns out, mzungu and karibu are not mutually exclusive.

Pole Pole aka Swahili Despacito

It’s a quiet Saturday in lab and I am completely alone. A timer goes off somewhere nearby, but it’s not for my experiment. I look into the hallway for the scientist it belongs to and he is nowhere to be found… That sounds way too much like the beginning of a bad ghost story, doesn’t it? My bad. I blame it on the fact that it’s FINALLY OCTOBER.

Anyways, I look into the hallway for the timer’s owner and he is still not back from lunch. Five minutes pass and another lab mate comes to tell me that the dude running the experiment wants me to do the next step. I grumble internally, put on gloves and then realize I have no idea what step he is on! It’s the protocol I have been training him on, sure, but today was supposed to be his first day solo. I was only there as a resource if he had questions, not to hover over his shoulder and nag him. Well fuck. Five minutes pass before I find out what step he is on and do it for him. Another five minutes before he returns from lunch (15 minutes late). He has no idea that I am livid so I try to control my temper and calmly explain to him that he should never leave an experiment like that because it jeopardizes the science. He uses the excuse that he knew I was here to step in. I dramatically remind him that I am leaving any day now and he will be alone with no one to help him. Perhaps my lecture was a tad over the top, but I’ve learned that if I am not dramatic then my pleas about timeliness fall on deaf ears. It’s not the Kenyan way.

Americans are very conscientious of time management and efficiency. I am guilty of this to an extreme. When I go to lab in the states my entire day is planned out in 15-minute intervals so I can simultaneously do multiple experiments efficiently and properly. I arrive exactly when I need to in the morning, I stay until the work is done, and I don’t come in again until the next experiment. Not so in Kenya. They do everything pole pole. Pole Pole is the swahili for slowly and probably the most common phrase I heard while abroad. Unfortunatley it is nothing like the Luis Fonsi/despacito version of slowly- sorry for that clickbait. It’s more like the idea of “island time.” Everything is slow and chill and laid back.

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Of course lunch takes an hour when you are being served an entire fish.

I would arrive with everyone else on the bus in the morning around 7:30 but be completely alone in the lab until like 10. Where everyone goes between 7:30 and 10 is a mystery I never managed to figure out. Then everyone takes a tea break sometime between 10 and 12 regardless of what experiments could be done that day. And a tea break is not like a coffee break in the states. First of all, it’s like 40 minutes. Second, it isn’t really an optional thing because if you schedule anything that interfere with taking a tea break, people get really upset. Later everyone takes like an hour-long lunch. Then maybe people will finally start an experiment.

It’s not that they are lazy because they aren’t AT ALL. They are willing to do work and often stay late into the evening to finish their work. It’s just that there is zero sense of urgency in anything that anyone does. Except drive. Kenyans are wild drivers.

Whenever I was multitasking, or doing more than one experiment in a day, I often got told to calm down because I was too stressed. Ironically those were the days I felt the least amount of stress. Those were the days I was in the zone. I felt productive and focused. Perhaps my energy seemed like stress to them. Or perhaps that laser focus that comes over me during a critical step in a protocol seemed like stress. I can’t be sure, but I definitely seemed like a crazy person to them.

I get the feeling that there is no underlying motivation for haste in the lab. Why does it matter if experiments go faster or are done earlier? The intangible “for the greater good” motivation doesn’t really work in a lab setting despite the fact that the bugs being studied actually impact the people doing the work. For the clinicians that tactic probably works because they immediately see the benefits of their actions and interventions. But the idea that your lab work will provide scientific evidence that down the line may help with treatment and prevention strategies, therefore the faster you do your lab work the faster your fellow man will see health solutions, is just a little too abstract.

Here at home people have deadlines, both personal and from grants/bosses/papers that encourage timeliness. I, for example, do not want to be in grad school for 8 years, therefore I will be efficient with my work so I’m not stuck at Emory forever. But because people get their degrees later in life and often concurrently have a job, they don’t feel that pressure. So really, what is the rush?

I tried to provide a sense of urgency and motivation by using “because I’m only here three weeks” and even that didn’t work. The response was categorically “well you just have to stay longer then” which actually sort of irritated me. I have my own shit to do and if you don’t want to take advantage of my expertise during the designated time frame then that sucks for you. The last few days of my trip all of a sudden people wanted to work with me and I was just sitting there thinking to myself “you guys had three whole weeks and you are just now realizing that you want me to show you how to make a graph on excel.” Ugh.

I learned to adapt to the pace by doing my work in the mornings (when everyone else is mysteriously missing) and then being available to anyone who needed me in the afternoons. That way I was productive (which I needed for my own sanity) but still felt like I was making training a priority. I also learned to adjust my expectations for what could be done in a day, a week, three weeks. I accepted that I had to be the one to adjust because I was the visitor. And for the most part I did.

Still, there are some things in science you just can’t be pole pole about and I tried to stand my ground with these. Certain protocols are timed for a reason and you can’t fuck with that shit. It’s like baking. You don’t look at a cake recipe like “oh 20 minutes in the oven… An hour is probably fine.” No, absolutely not. It was easy to be firm in these instances because you can explain scientifically why it must be that way. It was more challenging for the abstract time requirements.

You should do this today because it will help you in a week. You should do this this week because our advisor is coming in a month. You should do this this month because another grant is starting soon and you’ll be swamped in the fall. In these instances I tried to just gently nudge or suggest, but leave the ultimate decision up to them. Haste, after all, is an American value. Just because I see the advantage to a timely work pace doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the best way or the only way by any stretch of the imagination. I might internally rail at the thought of letting time casually slip through my fingers but that is my problem to deal with, not theirs.

At the end of the day though, it made me frustrated for science. There is so much knowledge to be gained, so much progress to be made, so many solutions to be discovered!!! A little bit of haste goes a long way. It also made me frustrated for Kenyans. Kenyans are already at a disadvantage on the scientific stage because of resources, government nonsense and a million other things. With a pacing differential between institutions in the states and institutions in Kenya, I wonder if they could ever “catch up?” That’s such a holier-than-thou thing to think, I know, but it’s a valid concern. If we care about capacity building (which I do), if we care about equalizing the scientific field (which I do), then we need to be thinking about these things. How can we work within their norms to push them to achieve their potential? How do we provide better motivation? I’m 26 so I sure as hell don’t know, but I’m going to try my damnedest to figure it out.

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Dinner would regularly take over an hour just because of the pace. I read 6 books in 3 weeks while waiting for food at restaurants. I also took a lot of food pictures.

Hakuna Matata

timon_and_pumbaaIt means no worries for the rest of your days. It’s a problem freeeeeee philosophyyyy. Hakuna Matata! Hakuna Matata. Hakuna. Matata. (Don’t pretend you didn’t just sing along while reading that)

I knew hakuna matata was a real Swahili phrase, but like, it’s also an actual thing. It’s not just a Disney thing or a tourist thing. People in Kenya actually say it. And more than say it, the people in Kenya actually live it.

I understand why a “no worries” attitude would be beneficial. Compared to my life, for example, people in Kenya have been dealt kind of a crap hand. If they got upset at every injustice, every setback, every inequality, they would drown in anger. Or at least I would, and that’s no way to live. You have to have a bit of optimism to get through all the bullshit they have to deal with. It’s actually something that I admire about the Kenyan people- their ability to find some reservoir of inner joy during an unfair shit storm and to ride that joy through the work.

During my first week, there was a cholera outbreak at a scientific conference in Nairobi that many people from KEMRI were attending. When speaking about it later, everyone was like “Oh it’s not a big deal, everyone was totally fine.” Literally the only thing anyone was upset about was that attendance at some of the poster sessions was low so they didn’t get as much feedback as they wanted. Let’s keep in mind that attendance was low BECAUSE PEOPLE WERE FUCKING HOSPITALIZED FOR CHOLERA but everyone just let that little fact glance off of them. Meanwhile I got like 5 travel alerts from Emory, a few emails from American coworkers and many many texts from my parents freaking out about me getting Cholera even though I was 5 hours away from the outbreak. So American.

On the surface a world where everyone is optimistic, carefree and doesn’t take life too seriously sounds quite appealing! And in the beginning, I was super about the attitude. I am a big proponent of the power of optimism, especially in a field as terribly disheartening as science. But as time went on I realized the difference between being optimistic and being carefree. Being optimistic is being able to find the good in a situation while acknowledging that the situation sucks. Being carefree is not caring, and sometimes not even acknowledging, that a situation sucks in the first place. I feel like the attitude in Kenya more closely resembles the latter. They let nothing bother them and they do not speak about negative things. It’s no fucking worries, all the fucking time.

And again, I get it! When things are out of your control what is the point in getting upset? But not everything is out of your control and in such instances not caring leads to complacency. You don’t have to accept every shitty thing that happens to you. Sometimes it is worth getting upset. Sometimes it is worth saying “this is unfair, unacceptable, and I will not stand for it.”

There was a little interpersonal issue that came up between one of the scientists I was training- Jeremiah- and another scientist who was basically being a schoolyard bully. I would get upset every time the other scientist was being unfair, but Jeremiah would remain calm and even a little DGAF about it. For two weeks we would have dead end conversation after dead end conversation with this guy. It seriously prevented us from moving forward in our work. My insistence and aggressiveness moved us little baby steps forward, but I could only do and say so much without coming off as the obnoxious American.

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So happy to finally science!

I was so flustered and Jeremiah just kept saying things like “It will all work out.” At first it was soothing but eventually I just snapped at Jeremiah and was like “Why do you think that? Why do you think it will work out? Because you want it to? For whatever reason that guy is being prohibitive to our work and you saying ‘it’s all good’ is not going to change that. I’m leaving. Soon you will be the only person here to stand up for your work.”

I think it sort of jarred Jeremiah to see me so angry and honestly, I still feel guilty about causing him distress. At the same time, I think it was necessary. Eventually he was willing to confront the other scientist about the situation, albeit in his own passive aggressive polite way. Small victories. I consider it a win and just hope he will continue to defend himself and his project against nonsense.

There will always be setbacks in science. A huge part of your development as a scientist (and a human really) is knowing when to face a problem head on and when to find an alternate solution. But if you can’t even acknowledge that a problem exists, how can you progress?

We talk so much about capacity building abroad, but we really only talk about it in terms of equipment, technical skills, and scientific knowledge. No one talks about capacity building in terms of soft skills, like conflict management. I wonder if that is because it comes off as trying to “correct” cultural norms that differ from your own. That’s probably just a little too messy for most scientists to navigate. I definitely felt that way and I internalized a lot out of fear of being insensitive.

As I said in a previous post though, science has it’s own culture. Perhaps in these scenarios, I should have been putting the science culture first? I have no idea if that would have been better or worse. All I know is that in the two months since I left, Jeremiah has done 1 follow up experiment on the stuff we were working on together. I know he has had other super important experiments to oversee and do in that time so it’s not like he’s doing nothing BUT in terms of our experiments, he hasn’t made a whole lot of progress. Being on the other side of the world it’s a little hard for me to figure out what exactly is blocking him. Is he out of reagents? Is he just busy? Or is the dude with the machine still being prohibitive? I texted Jeremiah on WhatsApp a couple of weeks ago to see if he needed anything and how things were going and he said everything was fine! So I still don’t really know what the block is! And I’m pretty sure he’ll never tell me because Hakuna Matata man. Hakuna Matata. Everything is fine. No worries.

P.S. I highly recommend this video as a pick me up to this post. Time 0:40

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