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Separation Anxiety

Hector Hernandez

When I arrived at the Institute five years ago, I was eager to dive into the MIT experience. The diverse scope of scientific and social topics gave me a glimpse of the ongoing and evolving impact MIT has in the world. I finally found a place that kept me engaged and focused with its relentless pursuit of knowledge and excellence. Excitement pumped in my chest, and interest glimmered in my eyes.

As I near graduation, I feel conflicted about the degree of my success, because the measure of success in any scientific field is dictated by the publications an individual accumulates.

How can six years of hard work lead to this feeling of dissatisfaction? I chose to work with some of the brightest, most dedicated minds in biochemistry trying to understand the underlying questions of enzyme specificity and regulation. I thought in my infinite ignorance that I could make a big contribution to the questions surrounding my topic. My hubris has stretched thin, and I am left with the actuality of my tenure at MIT.

But am I here to be the bright shining light in my field, or am I here to gain knowledge and wisdom? Knowledge allows me to identify emerging problems that need addressing, and wisdom enables me to differentiate between just another experiment and the one that will help unify and galvanize my field of study. But is this pursuit of knowledge limited to one’s focused field of study? I think that the more aware you are of trends in other fields of research, the better equipped you are to analyze and reach conclusions in your own area of interest. Knowledge is gained through experience or study. Wisdom is the ability to utilize knowledge gained to reach insightful and educated hypotheses about the world around us.

If this is the goal of graduate school, then why do I feel so despondent? The small timepiece on my laptop now reads 4:41 a.m. I continue to toil, awaiting the results of my experiments that could lead to a moment when I can say “now I have found something worth sharing with others.” Because of the nature of the question, progress is carried out in small increments. It seems that for every leap taken, there are slides and slips that continually return you to a place that is just a small step from where you started. I have gained considerable knowledge these last five years — much more knowledge than I thought possible. There is an extensive list of things that do not work. Knowing what not to do is much more educational than knowing what to do. But there are no journals of failed experiments. There is no great deposit of information about what not to do when performing experiments. This is left for each individual to figure out. How do we recognize that experimental failure is acceptable and necessary in the laboratory?

What about all the other experiences I have had outside of my research? Those encounters have presented opportunities for growth in a safe environment where the penalty for committing errors is relatively low. The exposure to different facets of life as an academic has prepared me as no laboratory experiment ever could. But this component of my education is not viewed as a set of experiences that lead to the successful pursuit of a degree. They somehow detract from the completion of the task at hand.

I think of my passage through MIT and how it has not been a direct, uninterrupted journey to the end. It resembles the trail of a blind man who stumbles through perilous territory. I have been elated and deflated by the successes and failures along the way. They say the last six months are the worst. Despair and abandonment seem to be your constant companions. I consider myself fortunate to be able to draw from all my experiences at the Institute. My hope is that the knowledge gained at the Institute will translate into wisdom. I have agonized over whether I have the grit to direct not only my own path, but the paths of individuals whom I mentor and guide. It is easy to give advice when things go well. Only time will tell.