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From a paper plane to a jumbo jet

Can you remember that day, a long time ago, when you stood up on your feet and performed a couple of trembling, insecure steps for the first time? No? Me neither. But there are numerous narratives from my family members, describing that revolutionary moment and how I landed with my face against the floor shortly after. A few years and many experiences later, I find myself in a quite similar position: Doing a PhD in cancer research. On every step of the way, smaller or bigger challenges await. And what history has taught me so far, is that you need to face each step ahead as a toddler. With excitement and courage despite your fear of the unknown. After all, as a PhD, you are asked to think in the same visionary way as a toddler who can picture a paper plane actually reaching the sky. You are asked to create universes that never existed before.

Frequently, while in the lab performing experiments, I find myself silently singing 'Highway to Hell' by AC/DC. I don’t know whether this song comes to my mind because the tempo and the rhythm keeps me energetic and focused or because, after a busy day in the lab, I actually feel like I’m in hell and the lyrics speak directly to my soul. Perhaps the impostor syndrome has struck you too. There are days when you may feel completely useless, not ready to bear the responsibilities, less smart and qualified than the rest of your peers. Remember that you are not alone. Thousands of PhDs have the same fears and agonies as you. A PhD is not a stroll down the park where every 100 meters you find yourself shouting “Eureka”! Nevertheless, remember that whatever you contribute to your field does matter. Even the smallest progress adds up to a big result. Don’t be afraid of failure. It is rough seas that make the sailor.

Speaking of rough seas, since I started my research career as a PhD, I observed that I would feel exhausted, stressed or have the blues more frequently than I used to (and it’s not only because I’m an early ‘90s kid simply getting older). After discussing it with other colleagues who felt the same way, we attributed this to the constant pressure caused by our job’s high demands. What I found out along this journey is that the worst thing you can do when you feel tired or run down, is to ignore the signs, hide the elephant beneath the carpet (well, labs don 't have carpets but you see where this is going) and stick to your schedule. What you may simply address as “a rough day, week or month” may actually indicate signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder or depression in some cases. So please listen to your body and seek help for any physical or mental issues you may face. Your community should support you and always put your health as a priority.

As you may have noticed by now, all the different challenges you may face can be solved based on the same core idea: Communication! Share your problems, don’t be shy or feel guilty. Everything comes down to a state of mind. Being part of a team. Feeling supported. And by all means, celebrate every small step, every small victory and be proud of what you’ve accomplished. No child gave up on walking after falling down a dozen times. When I started thinking and acting like this, instead of considering myself bound to the holy duty of being unbroken, I found out the most important part of being a scientist. Among those geeks with the white lab-coats, I discovered my tribe. I made friends and I shared ideas that made my research better in quality and my everyday life more enjoyable.

The story that I chose to share today may not have been the most impressive. . You will find no fancy prizes, glory or heroes here. But you might actually find yourself among these lines. A strong and weak, healthy and sick, happy and sad, excited and scared, imperfect but committed human. Someone who wants to make the world a better place, no matter how high on the ladder they currently stand. A winner also when seemingly defeated. A PhD!

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