As a PhD student, I spend a lot of time in the lab, diligently working away on the next experiment. I fail, a lot. I forget chemicals, I am not delicate enough with the samples, I botch the statistical analysis. During the course of a day, I may speak with another student or my mentor, but interactions are seldom and fleeting. Like others, I am still new to science. And like others still, I am new to running.
I’ve been a scientist for others. I’ve been a runner for others. To complete a task, a workout, a day, knowing that your efforts were important and valued and directly impacted the success or failure of your team or colleagues — that is easy.
Now I complete experiments alone, carefully mounting brain tissue onto microscope slides and coaxing a glass opening one ten thousandth of a millimeter to a cell before breaking it and sighing into the humming void of the lab.
Now I run alone, dodging cars and potholes and thinking about the little boy across the street who hangs over the balcony and shouts hello to the passing strangers below.
Now I live alone, in a studio apartment in a city where I make up less than one-quarter of one tenth of one thousandth of a percent. I can go dozens of hours without touching another human: I dare you to test me. The UPS driver told me that people have bad days and honk at him and it’s all apart of the fabric of life here and I just stared at the logo on his shirt and wondered if he had touched another human today.
“In these overcrowded and dimly lit recesses of myself, it is easy to get lost and tumble down a rabbit hole of regret and fear while running, working in the lab or lying in bed at night.”
In just about everything we do, there is an element of loneliness. Science and running and life can all be really, incredibly suffocating. There are mornings when I wake up and struggle to breathe that first morning dust mixed with breaking dawn. There are strides during my runs when I can’t quite swallow and my inhalations deepen and my eyes bulge. There are hours I wonder if I can take another rotation of the clanking plastic fan in my lab and its humble reminders that there might be a breeze outside.
My research focuses on the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain after the onset of Parkinson’s disease. We seek to find differences in blood flow during distinct exercise types, whether the neurons typically damaged during Parkinson’s can survive a little longer, and if physical behavior and capability improves. Our projects are inherently translational, lending themselves to potential applications in humans–a hallmark that serves as the quasi-trade-wind in science.
I hold but hope that my projects, which involve a lot of abbreviations and niche techniques and polysyllabic descriptions, will one day have an impact on another human being; if I can’t touch them myself, to lay my hands on their shoulders and reassure them that their life is not moot and there are a lot of people singing their praises even if they can’t hear them, then perhaps my work can. I want to make this world a little easier for everyone. I want to know if delayed gratification can impact disease. I want to know if disease even bats an eye at delayed gratification.
Yet every day, I rise and step outside and breathe a little deeper and put one foot in front of the other in any way I can muster. I was taught, growing up, that delayed gratification was the most rewarding result, that opting for the tougher road and sowing the coarse loam would yield the most bountiful harvest. I feel that way about science. I feel that way about running. I feel that way about love and life and trials where we are pushed further than before.
“In just about everything we do, there is an element of loneliness.”
Recently, I raced my first half marathon. A couple weeks prior to that, I ran my first 10K. In both races, after the first mile, I was alone, stranded between groups of runners. It felt poetic, almost too right, to be racing against myself. There are miles, whether on a safety cone-lined race course or the muted streets, where the harsh streetlights mix with the softening morning sky, when I quietly slip away into the corners of my mind I oft ignore.
It’s there where I run my tongue over the words I desperately wanted to but never said to the girl I loved for so long, the same letters I wore endlessly into the insides of my mouth and let spoil there. It’s there where I replay the eye contact I made with strangers and wonder if my eyes showed that I care about them or if they saw anything behind these Spanish blue irises. It’s there where I wander in mental circles, swaying like willow branches between the future and my mistakes and that boy I kissed once and whether my friends understood how I felt walking into a bedroom 2,000 miles from home and how crushing the atmosphere felt.
“I find myself constantly reminded of the intimacy of our world”
In these overcrowded and dimly lit recesses of myself, it is easy to get lost and tumble down a rabbit hole of regret and fear while running, working in the lab or lying in bed at night. I got lost while writing this — I spent an entire afternoon in a coffee shop, staring at a blank piece of paper and my eyes flowed between clarity and a muddying of the table, my pen, my insides. I find myself constantly reminded of the intimacy of our world and the miniature biomes within: the comforting text message from an old friend, a high-five from a classmate after answering a question correctly, the virtual support of strangers online. I may feel alone but that loneliness doesn’t stifle my growth and pursuits, my failures and success; instead, it serves as a surprising tap on the shoulder, the gentle grasp of my hand across the table that says, “This time is yours but this world isn’t yours alone.”
As solitary as science, running and love can feel, there is a built-in community ready to prop you up and offer you the next experiment, the next step, the next breath.