This year has been a year of exploration and finding myself.
Many of you reached out after my decision to forego medical school in January, and I am incredibly grateful to have such a wonderful virtual community of support in my readers.
I thought that was the end of my self-discovery for the time-being, and that I had a clear direction for the next few years of my life. What I didn’t realize was that it was only the beginning of my inward journey; that it would be messy and imperfect and sometimes uncomfortable along the way.
While I’m sure I have a lot more to learn, I can say that I’ve come out to what seems like the other side, and have more clarity in my life than I’ve had in a long, long time. I’m excited to be finally listening to my intuition and allowing myself the freedom to go all-in with the work I truly love.
In the interest of continued transparency, I’m literally laying out much of the last few months of my life on the table. I don’t necessarily feel the need to justify these very personal decisions to anyone, and I know that many people won’t even choose to read it. But I do feel that this is helpful for my own mental processing of the last few months. If you’re just interested in what I’ll be focusing on in the near future, feel free to skip to the end.
Letting go of med school — to start a postdoc?
In early January, four months after completing my PhD, I decided to forego med school and withdrew from the University of Illinois dual degree program. It was a major decision, and in many ways, was quite a shock to my identity. For the past four years, my sense of self had been strongly defined by being an MD/PhD student, despite never having started any medical coursework.
When I took the MD away, I think I needed something else to latch on to. It was clear there was something deeper that I wanted to pursue, and I had no shortage of things I wanted to learn, but part of me also felt guilty for letting go of med school, like I was taking the “easy” way out.
I thought that a postdoc would fulfill a lot of the things I wanted to learn, while still providing an opportunity for upward institutional growth, and would be doing something equally as “hard” as med school. I actually didn’t fully let go of the MD until I had the idea of a postdoc to fill the void that it left. And for a minute there, I’d really convinced myself that a postdoc was the right path.
So, I contacted a number of potential postdoc advisors, had several of my professional contacts kindly send recommendation letters on my behalf, and set to work on crafting my research presentation for postdoc interviews.
A framework for self-directed learning
Shortly after my blog post announcing my decision to forego med school, I received a nice note from one of my long-time Patreon supporters (thanks, Philip!). He had noted the undercurrent of “unschooling” in my article and suggested that I might like the book “Ultralearning” by Scott Young.
I downloaded the audiobook and devoured it over the next few days. The basic premise: Ultralearning is a strategy for intensive, self-directed learning to acquire new skills and knowledge. Using this approach, the author learned the entire MIT Computer Science curriculum in less than a year, became nearly fluent in several new languages, each in less than three months, and learned quantum physics – all without the structure of a formal educational institution.
I resolved to spend more time during the remaining months of my gap year applying the Ultralearning principles, blogging, and creating lots of new content, at least “until I found a postdoc position that I could get excited about”. I downloaded a few textbooks on Immunology and started mapping out a plan for learning other subjects as well.
Ideas of using Ultralearning to study everything from the workings of the enteric nervous system to medical microbiology, create an array of advanced gut courses, improve my public speaking, and even write a book started to come to me in my free time. I was hooked. This was the structure I had been lacking for the past few months.
Unpacking a few mind ruts
Shortly after this, a good friend of mine helped me realize how much of my self was still wrapped in the approval of others. I’d unpacked some of this already over the months preceding my decision to forego med school but didn’t realize that I still had quite a ways to go.
I also started to unpack the productivity obsession that I had built up over the past few years – the need to constantly be doing to feel good about myself. What served me extraordinarily well during my PhD years, when I was trying to balance several part-time jobs, my graduate research, and writing this blog, came back to haunt me when I didn’t have things to constantly be busy with and could only reasonably do deep work for 4-6 hours a day.
I took a lot of time for meditation, journaling, and reading. I listened to a few psychology books that helped tremendously. I grieved the loss of my previous self and my past relationships as they were. I finally had labels to understand what I had been struggling with and was able to stop blaming myself and others and start to set healthier boundaries for what to share and when. I accepted that this would likely be an ongoing process, and that I would need to revisit these strategies from time to time, but I felt more mentally free than I ever had in my life.
My first postdoc interview
Fast forward a few weeks, and I had my first postdoc interview at the University of California Davis. Even before my visit, I knew that this was probably going to be my top choice among the labs I was considering: it was an outstanding training environment, would provide the opportunity to publish in top scientific journals, and was a research area I was particularly interested in. I’d had some positive email communication with the PI and thought it was likely to be a great fit.
Upon arriving, my husband and I immediately fell in love with Davis. The weather was perfect, the coffee shops some of the best we’d ever tried, and the town incredibly cute and walkable, with a beautiful arboretum greenbelt that stretches across the entire south end of campus to downtown. In a lot of ways, it reminded us of everything we loved about Urbana-Champaign and more, with an added California vibe.
The next morning, I met with a number of current postdoctoral and graduate students in the lab, who shared some recent cutting-edge insights from a few of their latest projects. I gave a one-hour seminar to the entire lab group before lunch and more meetings with graduate students, before ending the day with an interview with the PI.
The interview stretched two hours as we geeked out on a number of things, and I left feeling like the day went quite well. Yes, I’d have a pretty steep learning curve regarding some of their animal models and would need to secure my own funding, but the hours were flexible, the mentor was extremely personable, and I genuinely felt like the lab would be a perfect fit – that is, if I wanted it.
Seeing the forest, not the trees
After the long day of interviews, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Here was this amazing opportunity – the pinnacle of everything anyone could want in a research lab – and yet, it somehow seemed even farther from what I wanted, and what I had hoped to get out of the next few years.
I consider myself a very rational person, and this had really seemed like the right path. I met up with Steven for dinner that evening, and he knew, too, that my excitement for the position had vanished. But why?
“The challenge we all face is how to maintain the benefits of breadth, diverse experience, interdisciplinary thinking, and delayed concentration in a world that increasingly incentivizes, even demands, hyperspecialization.” ― David Epstein
More than anything, my visit had been a stark reminder of the narrow focus of a research lab, and the even narrower focus of a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher within a given lab. This is somewhat by necessity, of course – it takes a great deal of knowledge and expertise in a particular area, and in the techniques necessary to study it, to make ground-breaking strides in the modern world of science. Such is the world of academia.
But 40 plus hours per week of academic research, studying a single tree and every gene knockout and molecular technique under the sun to study it – as a postdoctoral researcher or, someday, faculty member – would inevitably leave little time for understanding the entire forest, synthesizing insights from the many different areas of gut health research, and doing the blogging and speaking that I enjoy so much.
So how could I have not seen this coming? Re-reading the article I wrote two months ago affirmed that my reasons for foregoing medical school were very well thought-through. My reasons for doing a postdoc, on the other hand? Not so clear. In retrospect, it’s obvious that self-directed learning was the optimal path for me. After all – what I wanted most was a broad understanding of gut health (including microbiology, immunology, physiology, and microbiome medicine) and to share new insights through my blog.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes” – Walt Whitman
For some reason, I thought a postdoc would help me to accomplish the aforementioned aims, while also affording me some semblance of academic identity and upward direction. The truth is, I’d really lucked out with my graduate research lab, in terms of its slightly broader scope, immense flexibility with my schedule, and the ability to mentor undergraduate research assistants so that I could spend less time at the lab bench and more time immersed in the literature, learning more broadly about the microbiome and gut health.
I’ll probably write an entire article on my PhD experience at some point, but if I’m honest with myself, it wasn’t really the research that I loved so much about graduate school – it was the skills, confidence, and opportunity that it gave me to broaden my horizons and pursue what really interested me. I guess I just needed to see firsthand what a postdoc would be like to listen to my intuition and confirm what I knew deep down all along.
“Career goals that once felt safe and certain can appear ludicrous […] when examined in the light of more self-knowledge. Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.” ― David Epstein
Impact outside of academia
By pure coincidence, the day after my interview and this realization, I saw the film Fantastic Fungi. My husband and I had wanted to see it for a while (it’s only available at select viewings right now but is every bit worth it), and it just so happened to be showing on our last day in Davis. Seeing the incredible visuals of the mycelial network beneath the trees only brought home the interconnectedness of everything and the importance of forest-level systems thinking.
Even more impactful for me, though, was the film’s coverage of Paul Stamets, a largely self-taught mycologist who has become one of the most influential leaders in the world of fungi. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, independent research, and collaborations with university scientists and clinicians, he is leading a powerful movement to improve our appreciation of these organisms. Watching the film, it was immediately evident how much his joy, humility, and passion just seem to radiate into his work.
I sat in the theatre for a good ten minutes after the film, trying to integrate everything from the past few months. I didn’t need to be deep in the weeds of a single research area. I didn’t need an MD, or a postdoc, or a faculty position to make a significant impact in science or medicine, or to have a place in the scientific community. I really just needed to follow my natural curiosity and the passion that led me to start learning and writing in the first place.
Gratitude: bringing it home
“The life spent in doing what you love is a different life indeed from putting yourself out for hire to the highest bidder.” – Laurence G. Boldt
In all of my soul-searching, I had overlooked the one thing that has brought me the most joy the past two and a half years: this blog.
For some reason, I was never able to give myself completely to the idea of full-time blogging, teaching, consulting, and independent research until I’d eliminated the traditional paths. Perhaps it was my ego still getting in the way. Perhaps I didn’t feel like this blog was “enough” on its own. Perhaps I just didn’t feel deserving of getting to do work that I love full-time. I’m still not quite sure.
But once I gave myself permission to lean into it, I realized that this – this is truly the place where I know I have the greatest impact, the greatest ability to learn and teach and transform lives. In the words of Greg McKeown:
“Only when you give yourself permission to stop trying to do it all, to stop saying yes to everyone, can you make your highest contribution towards the things that really matter.”
This blog – and serving you – is what really matters.
I am so grateful to have this platform to share what I truly love doing most. A sincere thank you to each and every person who reads, shares, or supports my work, and makes it even possible for me to do this full time.
Thanks also to my amazing husband and to everyone else who has supported me on this journey.
I’m incredibly excited for this new freedom to learn, to write, and to create more value for others. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect from me in 2020 and beyond:
In the short term: lots more blogging and 1-on-1 consulting, the launch of new gut courses (coming very soon!), finishing up analysis and publishing our AIP study, and launching a podcast!
In the long-term: thinking more broadly about how we can support long-term gut health, dusting off a citizen science project/startup that I almost launched last year, and pursuing more independent research or collaborations with university researchers.
On the personal side, I’ll be focusing on continued self-discovery, making more efforts to build community, and hopefully getting back to competitive soccer :)
As always, I’d love to hear what aspects of my work you value most, and how I can best serve you in the years to come!