DPhil Diaries #6

There comes a time in your PhD journey when you just have to put your head down and work your ass off to get the whole thing done. I’m right smack in the middle of that period. Most days all I can think about is how to analyse my data, how to write it up, what figures to create, how to prepare for my viva etc. Sometimes I wake up early in the morning and start working straightaway. Even my dreams seem to revolve around neuroimaging markers and statistical analyses! I described it to my wife as having numbers almost bursting out of my head unless I process them systematically.

Which is why I’m a bit more agitated these days, something unusual for me if you happen to know me. This morning I went to work wearing a Liverpool jersey. Usually there’s no one around especially in the morning on weekends, but today there were a few contractors fixing the electrical wiring in the building. One guy saw me and immediately said “I don’t like the shirt you’re wearing!”

Now, I’m normally a polite person, but I really had to restrain myself from saying “Do I look like I give a f**k what you think? I don’t like your face either!”.

Instead, I simply replied “That’s alright”, and shrugged my shoulders. Don’t like my jersey? Tough, but that’s life for you mate.

I wonder how many people run into mental health issues while doing their PhD. Certainly it looks to me that quite a lot of people in academia are anxious and depressed. One person I know told me that half the people in his Master’s programme have sought help for mental health issues. On the one hand, this is good, the fact that there’s less stigma associated with seeking psychological help. But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder, what on earth is wrong that half of the cohort find that they NEED psychological support to begin with?

This is where it helps to have accumulated some years of working experience. For me specifically, it helps put things into perspective. Doing a PhD is not a life-or-death thing. Trust me, I’ve been in situations where it’s LITERALLY life or death, for example when you’re performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on someone, or trying to decide whether to pursue more aggressive medical therapy or continue with comfort care only.

I think it’s good that Ramadhan is coming. Hopefully I will be able to find some peace and tranquility during the blessed month, in order to sustain myself as I strive towards the end of my PhD journey.

Pleiades

The Pleiades

I took this picture from my living room window earlier. Because the night sky was very clear, one can easily see many constellations including Orion, Taurus, and Ursa Major. What caught my eye was a cluster of stars seen on the right side of the picture: the Pleiades.

The Pleiades

From Wikipedia:

The Pleiades also known as The Seven Sisters, Messier 45, and other names by different cultures, is an asterism and an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus. At a distance of about 444 light years, it is among the nearest star clusters to Earth. It is the nearest Messier object to Earth, and is the most obvious cluster to the naked eye in the night sky.

The name sounded familiar. I realised I had heard of the Pleiades being mentioned in a hadith by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh):

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

If the din were at the Pleiades, even then a person from Persia would have taken hold of it, or one amongst the Persian descent would have surely found it.

Sahih Muslim, The Book of the Merits of the Companions

Awesome, huh?

DPhil Diaries #5

There’s a great quote in the movie ‘Gone In 60 Seconds’ by Memphis Raines (played by the one-and-only Nicolas Cage) that goes like this:

Without disappointment, you cannot appreciate victory.

Let me tell you this: the above line is just as true for doing a DPhil as it is for stealing cars!

Late last night, I finally got one of my analysis scripts working after struggling with it for the last couple of months. I still need to do some tests to make sure that the data generated by the script actually makes sense, but so far everything looks good; in fact, I can’t wait to show my supervisor these results next week!

Anyone who’s done any sort of research work can tell you that progress is often slow. Days, sometimes weeks, go by without you getting any meaningful results. And yet, every now and then, you do score a tiny victory along the way. How you value these moments says a lot about how well you are suited for life as a scientist. Often, these results don’t mean anything to anyone without specialist knowledge of the field, but you as the researcher should be able to judge how important your work is in the grand scheme of things.

Being able to put things into perspective is important because you will inevitably face many challenges and disappointments along the way.

My biggest disappointment right now is with how difficult it is to get proper equipment for my research work. I’ve been using an ancient (by now) MacBook Pro from 2015 for most of my neuroimaging analysis and it is painfully slow.

I can’t help but wonder: why is it that people can earn tonnes of money doing relatively unimportant things? I mean, sure, I suppose being a banker is somewhat important, but ultimately it’s just shifting money around for other people. Compare that with trying to understand a disease, or developing a treatment for a medical condition, and to me at least, it becomes obvious how these things are more important than simply looking after money. Despite that, I find myself having to beg for funds to buy a new laptop to do my analysis. To me, this shows how little the world values our work, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not fed up with this nonsense.

One way to deal with this disappointment is to tear my eyes away from the research work and gaze instead at my surroundings. I went out for a jog this morning. It was cold, -1 degrees Celsius, and I don’t think we’ll have that many more frosty mornings like these before spring kicks in. True enough, there were pockets of spring in and amidst the frosty landscape, for anyone willing to stop awhile to let everything sink in.

Oh well, c’est la vie, as the say. Without disappointment, you cannot appreciate victory.

Cutteslowe Park
Cutteslowe Park
Cutteslowe Park
Cutteslowe Park

Oxford University Parks

Few things are better for the tired mind than strolling through nature, which was why I found myself, the day before Storm Eunice made landfall, walking through the University Parks. I’m not quite sure why it’s ‘Parks’ and not ‘Park’; seemed to me it was all part of the same park, but it is what it is.

I don’t know about you, but I’m the sort of person who likes reading the plaques on the benches, so naturally I was very excited when I found one dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien (see below). Further down the path, there was another one dedicated to Marcus & Sue Dutton, two people who clearly loved the park as much as anyone did. The River Cherwell was swollen from all the rain we’ve been getting recently, but despite the light rain there were plenty of people wandering around the area. All in all, a beautiful park (or Parks!); definitely worth seeing especially since you can easily nip into the Museum of Natural History afterwards.

Memories

M3: Daddy, my armpit is broken!

Me: Hmm, I think you must be the first person in the world to have a broken armpit then.

M3: It’s OK, I fixed it by tapping it a few times.

These are the fleeting, blink-and-you-will-miss-it, moments that I am desperately trying to retain in my mind. As someone who studies memory and all the wonderful ways in which it works (or indeed, fails), I am well aware of how precious these moments are.

John Gruber wrote something around Christmas time last year that really resonated with me. It was actually something he had written 10 years before, but any parent will tell you this holds true for them too. It’s worth quoting in full:

Late last night, inspecting Santa’s handiwork, a simple thought occurred to me. A decade or so from now, when, say, I’m waiting for my son to come home from college for his winter break, and, when he does, he wants to spend his time going out with his friends — how much will I be willing to pay then to be able to go back in time, for one day, to now, when he’s eight years old, he wants to go to movies and play games and build Lego kits with me, and he believes in magic?

How much then, for one day with what my family has right now? How much? Everything.

The truth is, I’m the luckiest person in the world today. I hope you are too.

How much? Everything. As good an answer as there can ever be.

Alas, we can never go back in time. That’s why I sometimes find myself hugging my son as he is fast asleep, smelling his hair, trying my best to commit that fragment of olfactory information to my long-term memory, hoping to be able to recall it one day, far from now, when the boy has left the nest and has gone on into the wide world to have his own adventures.

What would I give to be able to return to this quiet moment where everything seems frozen in time, and things are just perfect as they are?

Everything.