Friday, December 22, 2017

One year into PhD - my BTS experience!

Dear readers,

I apologize that I stopped writing since last year. I don't have any great excuse other than poor planning. I was lost on my way to understand marine biology. As you might be knowing, I switched field, moved from my focus over bacteria and human disease related studies to climate change and marine biology. However, my research focus continues to be in molecular biology. Long story short, I was learning all about climate change, ocean acidification, ocean, marine animals in the past year. I even learnt how to spawn and culture oysters. How cool is it? Not cool?! Well, I think it is cool! 

I can setup mini Ocean acidification systems which mimics the future acidified ocean conditions; I even gained some plumbing related skills. This was totally a new experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I had a tough summer in a rural fishing village in China, learning how to grow oysters from the Chinese oyster farmers (for those who do not know what I am doing: I am doing PhD at the School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong and I went to mainland China from Hong Kong Special Administrative Region *SAR* for performing experiments). It was such an awesome and scary experience at the same time. Travelling to a remote village in China which is not possible for any common traveler or tourist to go to, without knowing Mandarin, was a mind blowing experience. To give a brief view of how this village looked - imagine a street, one street near sea side, and there were only two restaurants, and the food they served was very different from my taste (Wait, don't imagine fancy stuffs, this was NOT FANCY at all). Okay, fine, enough background, here we go, I ramble about my one year PhD experience...

Importance of language and communication for mental health


From my China experience, I realized how important communication is for the mental well being of  humans. Imagine, you are in a place where nobody speaks your language, you can not communicate to anyone, neither talk nor understand their language, also added (dis)advantage, you can not read any signs as everything (buses, shops, most importantly the menu cards in restaurants! :( ) is written in Chinese. Literally, you need to rely on your "own version" of sign language which the locals might not understand as the signs that you use might totally mean something else in their culture! 

A picture of the room in which I grew oysters.
Location: A village ( I really do not know the Chinese name)
 near Zhanjiang, China. 
I was thinking it would be easy to survive in China as I already managed to live happily in Hong Kong for months. I did not think that not knowing the language would affect me mentally, but it did! Thanks to Michele, my friend and lab-mate, who came with me to China to perform field experiment. She can speak, a little Mandarin and Cantonese which the locals understood. She helped me in communicating (translating) and she was the only one in that village, that I can talk to! But, imagine I can not always talk only to her, I wanted to talk to the locals as well,  and it was never possible.

In the first few weeks, my brain got so confused as it could not make sense of what people are speaking around me. I started feeling like "I am so dumb" that I can not understand the language. In the first few days it was so stressful as everyone around me was planning to setup the experiment, while I just stood there not understanding a word of what they are planning. I even made some mistakes due to communication gaps and misunderstandings. All these mistakes, made me feel like I am worthless of doing anything, and depressed. 
Tip 1: Communication with your PhD supervisor should also be top priority. 
I slowly started adjusting to the place, Mandarin did not sound like an alien language anymore. Surprisingly, sometimes I was able to partially understand the context of the conversations happening around me. Now, I know few words in Mandarin like "Chifan - Eat (very important :P), siasia - thanks, dhuve - yes or okay, shuve - water, hai shuve - sea water, moolie - oyster, ma - at the end of a sentence is a questioning word". I know few more words, but "hello, this is not a how to speak Chinese blog post".

Blood, Sweat and Tears! BTS!


(No, not the Kpop band or any other music band)

Being from India, I can not eat "just boiled" vegetables or meat without any added spice! I mean, there was some sauce and chili added, but that was not enough flavor for my Indian tongue! In the first few weeks, the lady in the oyster farm (where I lived and conducted experiments) cooked really good food, as she was cooking for "foreigners" for the first time, she put so much effort. I enjoyed the food for the first few weeks, however, adding oil to my language problem, the lady started to "just boil" the veggies and meat after two weeks (or at least it tasted so to me). 

It was so depressing that I can not speak, can not eat good food, but need to do so much physical work to feed my oysters and grow them. I literally needed to feed my oysters several buckets (approx 20 liters each) of algae twice a day. Until this point in my research life, I was this girl, who used to  work wearing a fancy clean "white" coat in molecular biology lab, never used to doing physical work. Time changed, and in China, I was, far away from home, doing physical labour work, everyday, changing water and feeding my animals when I do not feed myself proper food. This work was so depressing for me, it was such a good experience, that I can closely relate to people who do tough physical labor on a day-to-day basis and empathize (I know, I talk about being depressed, and contrast, talk about good experience in the same sentence). How difficult it must be for them! After all, growing oyster was an important skill that I needed to learn for continuing my PhD research. 
Everything in life happens for a good reason after all, the trouble we go through today will definitely aid in molding our better versions in future. 
I realize, months after returning back to Hong Kong (HK), "I am really capable of adapting to any extreme living conditions". Oh wait, did I tell you, the living condition and infrastructure at the village was also not great! There was sudden typhoon, heavy rain and adding to the sad story, we (Michele and me) both got Athlete's foot infection (I never knew about this infection before in my life) as we were always working in sea water. If you thought the athlete's foot infection occurs when you are literally so dirty, it is not the case! One can get athlete's foot infection if one is continuously working in infected water areas. The workers in the farm had the infection, and somehow we managed to get infected from them, thanks to all the heavy rains and sea water! Our infection was not advanced stage like the ones you find in "google search results" (I know you googled it, no? okay, go now, google and come back here), ours was starting stage. Luckily, we took care of our infection in the early stage by washing our legs with Vinegar, keeping our foot dry and by wearing water boots whenever we stepped out. I spent some nights, late nights (say 2 AM), changing sea water for the tanks in which I grew my animals (I do not understand why there was sea water available only during odd hours in that farm, something to do with the tide levels, but I do not understand why they couldn't store the water!), all dirty soaked in sweat and sea water, really depressed, crying to sleep. It was truly a blood (the infection part :P), sweat and tears experience! 


I survived my first year! 


After all the hard work, I collected the samples required successfully and left happily back to HK. Also, took a nice one month break after summer and went back to India. I processed some of my samples, and successfully passed my probation seminar as well. Now, I totally understand why everyone was saying "doing a PhD is not easy". Yes, it is not easy, sometimes you might doubt if research is really your passion when the time gets tough. Yes, it can be really depressing even when you are working on your dream job, but, 
"hey, success does not knock our doors on a Sunday morning, it comes to people who are ready to experience - blood sweat and tears!" - Kanmani (haha, I always wanted to do this)
It is okay to cry (which I do all the time, does not mean I am weak!), it is okay to take a little step back, relax and rest, but, it is never okay to give up! One lesson I learnt in my first year PhD is, work is important, being passionate is more important, but never at the cost of my happiness, family and personal life. I learnt to work, not to impress anyone, but just to satisfy myself and my curiosity. Striking a balance between research life and personal life is what I learnt during this one year journey. After being away from home (India) for a year, I realize, I value 'people in my life' more than anything. However, there is no compromising on the career path, I am so greedy that I want to be happy and successful both personally and professionally. 
Tip 2: Avoid things that make you sad. Paradox: sometimes working towards your passionate goals can also be tough and make you sad, don't give up during those tough times! 
I hope next year, 2018, is a highly productive and successful year for me; for you too. Let us all work towards our happy lives! Happy new year 2018!

*For fun*

*New year resolution: #1 Write here in my blog more often*

*You know what was my last year new year resolution? To brush twice a day :P Serious, it is so difficult to brush when my bed calls me to cuddle, but I did well this year, I brushed almost everyday twice, except two or three days :P *

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