It feels like I defended my PhD yesterday, but I just celebrated three months at my current job! There has been much transition in the past few months (even in the past week as I change teams at work) and I feel like I'm finally emerging from the seas of change and processing some of it. This blog post is going to be an attempt to consolidate thoughts that have been swirling around in my head around finishing my PhD, starting a new job, and working through what I sacrificed in the pursuit of a PhD.

First off, I love my job. My days are spent writing and creating scientific content for pharmaceutical companies who are sponsoring cutting edge clinical trials. I then get to communicate the results to healthcare providers who can make use that of information and make a difference in the lives of their patients. I utilize my love of reading, writing, and understanding complex scientific ideas every day. The work I do feels like the perfect fit for my strengths. Working with a team has been a dream. Surprisingly, even though I read and write all day I still love reading in my spare time which is a blessing.

It is weirdly surreal to be done with my PhD. This is mostly because it was a five and a half year process, but also because it is done and I am done. Until leaving academia, I did not realize how much the academic environment negatively affected me in a myriad of different ways. I'm lighter, freer, and so much happier now. There is a sense of silent confidence of finally reaching a goal I have been working towards since a teenager. While it feels amazing to be here right now, I have been pondering the adolescence I sacrificed in the pursuit of this 10-year-long goal. 

People who knew me in high school and college would tell you that I had a goofy side. When I started college I felt like I had to hide that goofy side from everyone except those I was closest too for the sake of seeming more mature. Then during grad school, that goofy side was further buried under stress. In the past three months my goofy demeanor has returned and even been present to those I do not know well which is a sign of growth and less stress. 

Part of me wonders if this is me finally embracing the adolescence that I neglected for years. Ever since I was in high school, I have always been striving towards the next thing. I still participated in the typical high school things like prom and I had amazing traveling experiences during high school and college, but I was so focused on what was to come. My desire for checking off boxes and pursuing a goal wholeheartedly has helped me get where I am now. But it caused me to push myself to finish high school early and then have my next step to grad school lined up without taking a breath in between. I worried that taking off time to consider what I wanted to do next would derail me from my 'full steam ahead' attitude.

At the start of college 10 years ago, I wrote this blog post about living a double life - one life as a mature 18-year-old college student ready to take on the world and the other life as a fresh 16-year-old who was still a giggly girl. Reading this post 10 years later, I realized how much I stuffed my adolescence down a deep, dark hole within myself because I was so young finishing high school, going to college, and starting grad school. Being around peers 2-8 years older than me caused me to put on maturity like a too-big shirt. 

As we mature, we often place less emphasis on imagination which can be detrimental. I just started The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk and just finished The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture of Crisis by Dr. Karen Swallow Prior (to be published on August 8th). Both of these books are linked by the concept of imagination. Dr. Prior writes: "Imagination is central to the way we think, the way we go through our days, and even the way we believe and enact those beliefs." Dr. van der Kolk adds: "Imagination is absolutely critical to the quality of our lives... Imagination gives us the opportunity to envision new possibilities. If fires our creativity, relieves our boredom, alleviates our pain, enhances our pleasure, and enriches our most intimate relationships." In short, imagination is important and it does not thrive in environments of stress and burn out. I think I am just now rediscovering my imagination after finishing grad school. This has been evidenced by a bandwidth and desire to blog for the first time in three years, in moments where I just look off into the distance and smile because of where I am, and in the strong desire I have to read my Bible and study scripture. 

Having finished this PhD journey, I feel like I can finally live life in my 20s because this huge stressor is out of my life and I can be a carefree adolescent again since I reached my goal. I feel like I can let my imagination run wild as I envision new possibilities like Dr. van der Kolk said. However, living like I'm in my 20s feels far fetched. I still live in fear of people 'discovering' my age and treating me differently because of it. But at the same time I want to just rip off the bandaid of that knowledge so I don't have to keep tiptoeing around the truth. 

My goal was a lofty one, and on one hand I believe I had to sacrifice elements of my adolescence to reach this goal. However, it makes me question if such things should have been sacrificed, and if I could have found better ways to relax and to cope through the weight of responsibility. My parents never pushed me and tried many times to help me not feel the weight I solely put on myself. The moments when I question my past encourage me to look at where I am now and see how those decisions have played out.  I'm proud and thankful of where the Lord has brought me in finishing my PhD at 25. I'm not special, but I feel unique in where I am because of my age and it's high time for me to stop feeling shame about being young.

A part of me still mourns for the younger version of myself who forced herself to grow up too fast to fit into the life she desperately wanted to have. I have that life now, and I am grateful for the choice 16-year-old me made, but also sad at the weight of the world she carried for future me. If I were to go back in time, I'd tell little Emma to enjoy the small moments and not focus so much on the future. The contentment for where I am right now is incredible and I wish 16-year-old Emma had felt this contentment and hadn't strained and strived so much. I wish she had been a child for a little longer and let her imagination run free. 


    As the year draws to a close, I enter a predictably pensive mood brought on by ever-waning daylight and chilly evenings forcing me inside with a cup of tea and prompting reflection on my growth as a person this year. In 2020, we have all come face-to-face with frustration, sadness, worry, anxiety, and discomfort. For me, this has been a year of discomfort and learning how to sit, embrace, and become friends with it . 

For me, this has been a year of discomfort and learning how to sit, embrace, and become friends with my discomfort. 

    For as long as I can remember, when something challenged my worldview, I was unable to think or move on until I figured out how to assimilate the new piece of information into my existing mental framework. Once I had a rational explanation, I could catalogue that thought away in my mind and let go of it. But for a while, answering a question would consume me. It was not that I had to go write a treatise on 'why the sky is blue' but more that I needed to have a mental pathway to explain something shocking. I feared if I did not answer the question or address the thought, my whole existence would implode. I'd be left with an existential crisis. 

    This need to explain my unanswered questions seems to be a good thing; however, many times my desire for an answer right away prevented me from truly understanding an issue at hand and learning from it. Ultimately, I would run kicking and screaming away from having to sit in a pit of discomfort and confront realities that new information uncovered. Interestingly, this year has taught me that the cognitive dissonance I run away from can actually lead to a lot of growth if I wrestle with it. Through multiple difficult situations this year I have seen this in action. 

The cognitive dissonance I run away from can actually lead to a lot of growth if I wrestle with it

    This year, I have been continually forced into areas of discomfort which has greatly challenged me. In January, I painstakingly troubleshooted code and wondered if I would ever graduate. In February, my husband went to Germany for a month leaving me and my people-person personality on my own. In March, we had to shut down all lab research and transition to fully working at home. In April, I grappled with the potential that graduation could be delayed due to COVID-19. In May, I realized the depth of systemic racism in our country and am still working to understand it. In July, my boss told me that I needed to 'sit and wrestle' with my data and think about it deeply so I could understand what it meant. In August, my grant proposal was due, requiring hours of digging into the literature to find an idea. September brought a period of depression where all I could do was read my Bible, clinging to the Lord being my only way through. In October, what I thought was a stomachache turned into appendicitis which brought physical discomfort to the plethora of mental and emotional discomfort the year has piled on. 

    I do not list these off to play the 'worse-off' Olympics but instead to share that all of these situations have not been comfortable for me. All of these instances involved me digging my heels in the sand, screaming at God 'WHY!?', only to be shown that these experiences were there for a reason. Ultimately, they grew me as a person and helped me realize that there is much to gain by being in an uncomfortable phase. 

These experiences were there for a reason -  they helped me realize that there is much to gain by being in an uncomfortable phase. 

    If someone else had taken over my coding project, I would not look back with such pride in my achievement to figure out the problem. Had I not wrestled (and continue to wrestle) with my thoughts on race and really sought to dig deep into better understanding that, then my heart would not be as burdened as it is now. If I chose to use my period of depression as a time to mope and complain then I would not have emerged from a time I felt my lowest in complete and utter awe of God and His faithfulness to me. I also would not have realized how crucial it is to acknowledge when you are going through something hard as you keep pressing on. 

    This year has taught me the importance of not just dealing with discomfort but diving into discomfort. Difficult days in my life are never easy to face, but I'm hoping that 2020 will give me perspective for the future. I want to look back on this year of discomfort with fondness because I know that hard things continue to grow me as a person and grow me closer to God. 


    I have been forced to admit my limits. Recently, I found myself convicted by both how much I rely on myself and how hard I push back on accepting others’ encouragement and help. This conviction stemmed from the realization that I am quick to help others in their times of need but reluctant to accept the help of others or even admit to others when I am struggling. 

    A few weeks ago, I laid on an operating table while surgeons prepped to remove my appendix. A persistent stomach ache, a negative COVID-19 test, and complete lack of appetite landed me in the emergency room on a Thursday evening. Thankfully, I mentally prepared for the possibility of an emergency room visit so my being there was not a shock. I also feel like the ups and downs of 2020 as a whole conditioned me to roll with the unexpected because both my husband and I handled the whole ordeal in stride and without stress. 

The ups and downs of 2020 as a whole prepared me for the unexpected ordeal of having my appendix removed

    After a successful surgery, I quickly realized how much I took for granted being able to use my core in basic everyday movements. I could not lay down by myself, I could pick anything up off the floor, I was not even supposed to lift a milk carton. I came to a humbling realization -- how quickly I am rendered “useless” and how much I had to rely on my husband and his care for me. It was a humbling realization of how little I could do for myself.

It was a humbling realization of how little I could do for myself

    Friends and family kindly offered to bring meals, and I accepted. There was no way I could cook, and my husband was already sacrificing much to take care of me. At first it felt odd to accept others ’help, but it blessed us immeasurably both in meeting a need and in seeing those around us joyfully rise up to meet it. 

At first it felt odd to accept the help of others but it blessed us immeasurably

    Most of the time, I can get away with my valued self-sufficiency, but when I physically could not function, I was forced to admit my pride could get me nowhere. I pride myself on my abilities to complete tasks, stay organized, and not inconvenience others.  However, that pride  only serves me. It does not seek to empower others who desire to help or encourage those who wish to fill an unmet need. 

When I physically could not function the same I was forced to admit that my pride could get me nowhere. 

    When I choose to be by myself and refuse to ask for or accept help when I really need it, I defeat the purpose of community. It is like standing on one leg and trying to walk - you can not do it! It is a common mantra to say that we would 'die for our friends.' This resonates with many because it signifies an underlying, hard-to-sever bond between two people. If we are unwilling to tell those close to us what is going on or that we need help - what is the purpose of the strong bond? 

If we are unwilling to tell those close to us what is going on or that we need help then what is the purpose of a strong bond? 

    Acting “strong” all the time is ultimately detrimental to both you and your friendships. No one person is meant to live this life alone - we are designed to live alongside other humans. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of a strong community. Fighting against that need for community damages your friendships too: it demonstrates an attitude of mistrust (that they will willingly help you) and uneven scales (you do not want to be beholden to them).  At the end of the day we are meant to give and to receive.

At the end of the day we are meant to give and to receive.

    From one self-sufficiency-loving person to another, I would encourage you to let your friends into your life and accept the help they offer. I have been so encouraged by those who have given of their time, resources, and pantries during this time. It has reminded me of my own limitations and how sweet it is to be blessed and loved by others.


    She walks out of lab thinking "wow, I'm not here on the weekends - does this mean I'm not a good scientist?" 

    In the meeting with his advisor he hears about the progress of other grad students and wonders "will I ever make progress like them?"

    After attending her friend's fantastic seminar, she feels dejected because her project is not that interesting, and lacks a coherent story. 

    Self-doubt and the trap of comparisons is rampant in grad school. In grad school, the temptation is strong to compare your progress to the progress of others. Others are publishing papers, giving talks, writing up their thesis yet you sit on the sidelines cheering them on while simultaneously thinking you are a failure. Grad school is a unique time where there is no timeline. Ideally, you would like to graduate in 5 years but are fully aware that graduation depends on your research cooperating. As the word research implies - you must re-search often. This desire to compare comes from the unpredictable nature of grad school, but as an American culture we are used to predictability. 

Self-doubt and the trap of comparisons is rampant in grad school. 

    For 12 years of your life you are buffeted by a structured school environment that is built upon clear, achievable goals. College expands this safety net and is programmed in a way to allow you to finish in four years. Even if you do not finish in four years there are measurable steps to reach the finish line. Contrast this with a science Ph.D. program where you enter with a graduation goal, but are utterly in the dark of what it will take to get there and how long it will take. 

    For the first few years of your Ph.D. there are landmarks for you to follow: pass your classes, take your written qualifying exam, and defend a proposal at your oral qualifying exam. However, once you reach those goals the next goal is to graduate and depending on the program graduation requirements can be very different. There is a dedicated team of other Ph.Ds who form your committee and assess your progress. However, the goal of 'graduate' seems nebulous, unachievable, and difficult to process when you are in the throes of research. 

    I would argue that the comparison game stems from the lack of measurement present in the later years of your Ph.D. As you trudge through the trench you look around for someone, anyone to see how far you are along and how much farther you have to go. However, this desire, while understandable, leads down a path of hurt, jealousy, and bitterness. 

However, this desire, while understandable, leads down a path of hurt, jealousy, and bitterness. 

    Pursuing a Ph.D. in most fields involves many instances of groping around in the dark by trying a bunch of different experiments and hoping something works. This often leads to people describing the first 3-4 years of grad school as the bottom of an exponential curve where your accomplishments seem small and the hill you have to climb steep. The last 1-2 years of grad school are that peak of the exponential curve - things are working, you see progress and light at the end of the tunnel. 

    When looking around at other grad students most of us forget that we are all at different places on this curve and the curve does not directly scale with time. We talk a lot in science about defining your variables and if you want to compare two things statistically they must have the same base variables. Yet, when we compare ourselves to other grad students we do not consider this fact. This means that a 3rd year grad student should not even compare themselves to another 3rd year grad student because their projects, advisor, and timeline are different and thus can not be compared

When we compare ourselves to other grad students we do not consider that we are comparing totally different variables. 

    The comparison game is fun for no one. When I fall into the trap of comparisons I doubt myself as a scientist, worry that I am not doing enough, struggle with imposter syndrome, and ultimately start to harbor some bitterness towards the person I am comparing myself to. Those who we compare ourselves to are almost every time not as successful, ahead, or on top of things as we perceive they are. Yet, we place them on this pedestal that is unstable for them to stand upon because they are not perfect. 

Those who we compare ourselves to are almost every time not as successful, ahead, or on top of things as we perceive they are. 

    When the temptation comes to compare yourself to others I would encourage you to reach out to those who seem to have it all together and honestly say that you are struggling with comparing yourself to them. 9 times out of 10 they will assure you they are also struggling and comment on something they see in you that they compare themselves to. This is not a method to fish for compliments but rather is a way to break that cycle of self-doubt, misperceiving others, and imposter syndrome. Existing too long in the trap of comparisons can wreck your self-esteem and cause you to hate science - it is important to find ways to stop yourself from falling in this trap. 


Taylor Swift's most recent album Folklore debuted a few weeks ago and I have throughly enjoyed the more folksy direction she has taken. In one song, cardigan, Taylor croons 'when you are young they assume you know nothing.' I heard this line and my heart skipped a beat. My mind flashed with visions of people informing me in my past that I was 'too young to go to college', 'too young to have this job' or 'too young for me to trust you'. 

My mind flashed with visions of people telling me in my past that I was 'too young to go to college', 'too young to have this job' and 'too young for me to trust you'. 

To give this more context I am four years into a Ph.D. program and I am only 23-years-old. I graduated high school at 16 and college at 20. I'm two years younger than most of my peers. I have always been mature for my age which is one reason that many people are unaware of my age and in some cases it's been better to keep it this way because people can be cruel.

I have been ashamed of my age more times than I can count. There have been too many instances of someone treating my differently or never looking at me the same way again. In one of my first college classes at N.C. State I was told to do everyone else's work because I was young and thus had to be a genius. I have been discriminated against because someone on a hiring committee knew my age and thought that I wasn't capable to have a job that I was well qualified for. My life experience has been questioned because of my age and I have been discounted even though I have gone through hard things as a young person. 

My life experience has been questioned because of my age and I have been discounted even though I have gone through hard things as a young person. 

We often think that with age comes maturity and in many cases this is true. However, maturity and age do not have a one-to-one correlation. There are people that are old and not smart and also people who are young but mature. There's nothing wrong with either of these extremes but it would be unfair to say they do not exist. We do not call out the old people who are not smart to their face but why is it acceptable to tell a young person that they do not know much? 

There is definitely some age-related experience that must be gained by living life. You do see more when you live more. However, to discount someone just because of their age points to underlying insecurities of the accuser. The insecurities of others coming out in their treatment of me because of my age have hurt me more times than I care to recall. 

There is a place for age-related experience to play in someone's life but to discount someone just because of their age points to underlying insecurities of the accuser.

Thankfully, many in my life have sought to encourage me in my pursuits and have walked alongside me during the difficult times of me wrestling a feeling I was out of place because of my age and that I did not belong. I have been immensely blessed by these people and comforted by their encouragement of me to keep persevering through the hardship. 

I do not say all of this to establish myself as this wise, young sage. On the contrary, I am the first to admit that I am young and that I have much more to learn but that itself is an example of maturity. What I will not do is handicap myself because of my age. I have done that enough and felt waves of shame about something I can not change. 

I have felt waves of shame about something I can not change. 

One of my favorite Bible verses growing up was 1 Timothy 4:12 "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity." When others tried to limit my abilities because of my age this was the truth I held onto and continue to hold onto. Ultimately, my age is just a number and the Lord will use me no matter what that number is. 


Ever since high school I remember people telling me "I'm surprised you like *this thing or that thing*, I would never have expected that of you!" As the years pass this has become such a common occurrence that I don't bat an eye. However, as I begin to think through these phenomena I am intrigued at what is going on in others's minds behind the scenes.

As human beings we like to put other human beings into boxes. "She's a preppy girl, he's a jock, he's an athlete..." and so on and so forth. This innate desire to stereotype others is almost like a form of compartmentalization but for other people and not ourselves. Normally, we compartmentalize to avoid dealing with something. This can be helpful to allow ourselves to not think about work, focus on tasks at hand, and avoid being paralyzed by something difficult going on in our lives. Compartmentalization can also be used to rationalize conflicting information and I would argue this is what we do when we see someone that doesn't fit in with our stereotype of them. 

I'm a study in contradiction.

I'm a Christian but I'm also a scientist. I majored in Genetics but also English. I love to jam out to some hardcore dubstep but thoroughly enjoy embroidering and listening to classical music. My two favorite book genres are Fantasy and British Literature. I have a nose piercing and a shaved side of my head but love to wear dresses. I weight-lift but get so excited to have a new color on my nails. 

Throughout my 23 years of life, I have elicited many surprise reactions from people if they know only one side of the coins above and find out the other side. Honestly, I'm perplexed at why people respond this way since most everyone I know has unique characteristics to them that go beyond a stereotype. Why do we persist in labeling people if no one *truly* fits into the labels that we have affixed to them? I would argue that we are lazy and it's easier for us to stereotype someone than to try and understand their many facets. 

Knowing someone enough to learn their quirky characteristics takes a lot of intentional time and energy. It's not easy and it requires grace especially when you learn something about someone you don't like. Further, most people have a desire to be deeply known but feel shame at what others could find if they make that effort to know them. 

To be known, you must be willing to open up and share with someone else but sadly not every person is a trusty confidant. 

I have had many wonderful family and friends in my life who have made an effort to know my quirks,  support my contradictions, and show me that what I thought were contradictions were God's unique design. Once I learned to start embracing the seemingly contradictory sides of myself I was able to stop caring as much about fitting in the boxes others put me in and be content in who God made me to be. Besides that, I could empathize better with other people and realize that they too have characteristics that run far deeper than the stereotype I had of them. 


Check out the latest Steministas podcast about Alzheimers and Ultrasounds. You can follow me @geneticginger over on Twitter and Instagram

Everyone's worlds have been turned upside down in the past few months which has led to a huge shift in people's productivity. Bosses' and employees are adapting their work to be solely online, days filled with Zoom meetings are not uncommon, and everything seems to be moving slower than normal. With this new normal the message of 'not expecting a lot of yourself',  'give yourself grace', and 'just survive' have been spreading faster than COVID-19. For those of us who have had the ability to work harder, exercise more, create new things we've been told to 'stop making people feel bad' and 'take a break'. For the first time in my life, I've felt that being an overachiever is frowned upon.

I've always been an overachiever. I pushed myself to graduate high school at 16, finished college with two majors at age 20 (one of which was added for fun) and now I'm three years into a Ph.D. program in the sciences. I lead a small group, host a podcast, aim to read 52 books a year, and try to exercise 4x/week. I don't say this to promote overachievement - it comes with its costs since the potential for burnout is high. People have always been supportive of my nature to push the boundaries of my time, energy and effort - until COVID-19 hit.

My first week or so of quarantine was a period of adjustment as I began to process my new normal. However, after this time passed my overachiever habits kicked in. I set up a new exercise plan, began reading more books than ever, dedicated 40 hours of my week to work, set up walk/talk calls with friends, spent more time in bible study and prayer, applied to several conferences and prioritized science communication. I don't share this to brag but to illustrate the point that I've been my most relaxed and most productive since the start of graduate school. I acknowledge that I'm in a very fortunate position of not losing much income and having a job during this time. However, no one should be made to feel bad for accomplishing goals and making progress.

The articles encouraging people to not expect much of themselves during this time and to just 'survive' the pandemic always left a bad taste in my mouth because I'm thriving during this time. I began to question if I should be feeling worse about the situation that we've all had to deal with. There have been a few days of anxiety and on those days I'm a huge proponent of giving yourself grace when you need but most of the time when I'm feeling down I need stop feeling sorry for myself and do something. This isn't always the answer to my anxious days but getting outside of my head helps me more often than not.

Even before the pandemic, I hid my productivity and efficiency from people. When I do choose to share a personal accomplishment often I'm returned with a half-hearted 'that's great for you...'. Repeated instances of this happening has led me to hold back numerous work/personal/outreach/exercise accomplishments. No one likes to be around someone who is consistently making progress in areas of life where they also want to make progress.

Ultimately, I've had to accept that these judgments from others come down to them choosing to not celebrate in the success of others because they desire to have that success for themselves. We should strive to encourage and uplift everyone around us at all times - not just when we're feeling great about our life. When I'm in a rut in life, praising someone else's success can be hard to do but in the long run it deepens my relationship with that person, shows them I care for them at all times, and helps me see that there's more to life than just me.  Making others feel bad about their accomplishments doesn't produce good soil for a relationship to grow and instead produces bitterness and anger.

There is lot for all of us to learn during this pandemic - empathy being foremost. It's important to not judge others based off of what they are or aren't doing but instead to seek to understand them and support them no matter what.

To those of you who are overachievers, keep doing what you do! People will judge but you're not responsible for their judgments. You're responsible for your actions and your attitude and at the end of the day you have been given the capacity to handle many things at once and do great things so use that well. To those of you with overachievers in your life, encourage them and acknowledge the work they do. It means for a lot for their work to be seen.


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