I am equal parts excited and filled with dread as I open the door. The operating room is abuzz with activity, everyone hurriedly working to complete their duties during the operation. I focus on keeping out of the way of the ordered disorder, and avert my eyes from the patient on the operating table. I have a job to do, one that does not involve fixating on the unwelcome flood of memories rushing over me. I am here to watch a sample collection—where tumor tissue is collected during an operation (with the patient’s consent) that we will utilize in my thesis laboratory to study molecular markers of cancer. But as I stare at the patient on the table, it is hard not to put myself in her shoes. Specifically, it is difficult to not remember being in her shoes, 10 years ago.
I came to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine with a passion for cancer research. This passion emerged when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 13, and the quest to rid the cancer raging in my body turned into a larger goal of delving into the scientific mechanisms of cancer and learning how to defeat it. As such, when searching for a laboratory to join for my doctoral work, I was ecstatic to join a clinical research laboratory that studied my cancer: thyroid cancer.
At first, in my lab, I felt I was ahead of the learning curve—I was already familiar with the disease progression and all the jargon encompassing thyroid cancer, as I had lived through those words when they were used to describe my diagnosis and prognosis as a patient. Similarly, I needed no external push to excite me or involve me in the research. As a scientist, being passionate about the field you have chosen to study is absolutely vital. It is that internal drive that gets us out of bed in the morning the day after an experiment has failed, propels us through weeks of troubleshooting and optimization, and motivates us to share our ideas with others. Being personally affected by the disease I study, I have an extremely high internal drive that propels me forward in my work, as well as a strong background in the field.
While my cancer experience has been extremely valuable to my thesis work thus far, I also realized that day, while standing in the operating room, how working on a topic that hits close to home can be potentially harmful. As a scientist, I have to stay objective in my work, since it is crucial that researchers not be biased towards hoping for a certain experimental outcome. I have to distance myself from my project enough that I do not risk biasing myself to my results. When reading literature on thyroid cancer, I must remind myself that I am reading these papers for my project, and not for personal use. I cannot forget that my personal experiences are not necessarily representative of what every thyroid cancer patient goes through, and my research must reflect a largely diverse population. As we say in science, “we need more than an N of 1”, meaning that we must study more than one person/patient to draw any significant conclusions. I cannot be that N of 1.
My first time in the operating room I had to excuse myself and sit down in the hallway outside. The smell, memories, and sights were too familiar. Although I have since adjusted to the operating room, it was a welcome reminder that a little mental distance is necessary. Being passionate to fight this disease due to my own battle is helpful as far as providing me with a source of drive and determination, but it can also impede my work and act as a hindrance if I do not approach the juxtaposition of work life and personal life carefully. I am thankful for the opportunity I have to pursue what I am most passionate about, and the reminder to be a scientist first and foremost.
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