The mountain air dehydrates you, burns you up if you’re not careful. The cashier eyes my sun-reddened cheeks as I hand over the cash for a bottle of aloe vera. But while others complain of headaches and nausea and the thinning air, the only ill effect I’ve suffered is a lack of diligence with my sunscreen. I go for runs in the mornings and feel strong, clear-headed for a few fleeting minutes before I return and shower and move on to face the day.
It’s far from terrible. Just different. I might have a morning lecture, or a meeting with my advisor, with the rest of the day to myself. The programs I’m using for data processing take a long time to run, so I tend to operate on short bursts of high productivity, my computer humming busily away for minutes or hours in between. I might meditate or shower or run to the store and come back to find my new files waiting patiently for me to return. Sometimes I look at the images and get a little spark of hope. Sometimes I can feel my heart sink. Each adjustment might take hours to run.
I feel most at home in our lectures. They are fast paced. They assume we’ve taken physics and math courses that I haven’t touched. But it’s a classroom, and I’m good at classrooms. I like them. I like to see how ideas build off of each other. I like building my own model of a system or concept in my mind, extrapolating ahead to see if I can beat the instructor to their conclusion.
But laboratory is not classroom, just as I am not student. I am guinea pig and worker bee. The tiny, windowless space is filled with the clattering of keys as we scramble to copy down lines of code for our own future reference, guiding ourselves through a world vaguely familiar to some and quite foreign to others. Eventually the instructor leaves but we all remain, nursing our headaches in some unspoken contest of stoicism.
I am often the first to pack up and leave. I work from my room in the evenings, knowing I will be too overwhelmed if I try to remain in my lab seat. The others mean well, but their age and experience intimidates me even when it shouldn’t. They talk freely about computational fluid dynamics and advanced quantum mechanics and I sit in silence, as clueless as anyone about their terminology. A better scientist would ask them, but there never seems to be an avenue for questions. It feels as if their conversations are meant to reassure themselves of their prowess as much as anything. I don’t blame them. I know I do the same thing.
I have a great deal of time to think while my programs run. It’s a difficult subject to discuss with anybody here, but being back in this environment has mostly served to remind me that this is not, in fact, what I want to do with my life. I’m far more fascinated by the theory, the hastily scrawled diagrams and equations on my advisor’s notepad, than I am by the observations and analysis I’m actually responsible for. Maybe that’s natural—the most tedious processes tend to be delegated to the undergraduates. But where twelve-year-old me saw herself in Ellie Arroway, I see myself now in the 2017 NASA astronaut class. Or in Fabiola Gianotti. Maybe a combination of all of them—past self, present self, who knows what the future holds?
The odd part is that for the longest time I thought I did know what my future held. It’s taken me until very recently to realize that, perhaps, I was wrong. And that’s OK. I still have so much time.
It can make it hard to focus, sometimes, hard to lock myself down to work that I don’t enjoy nearly as much as twelve-year-old me predicted I would. When I get tired of the now I want to look ahead—as far as I dare—classes for the spring, internships for next summer, where the hell am I going to apply to graduate school? It’s a huge distraction. Even mentioning the people above led me down quite the rabbit hole just now. (This astronaut’s from my hometown! This one studied geology, that’s so cool! Did I ever see Particle Fever…?) Sometimes I have to shut my laptop entirely and just breathe, meditate for a few minutes, force my mind into a state of calm. An invaluable skill when your mind is as flighty as mine.
Sometimes I do allow myself to entertain these thoughts. It’s not healthy nor productive to repress them all the time. I get scared of them, wary of feeling the same sort of dedication to a field of study that I so long felt for astronomy. What will I do if that’s quashed again?
But at the same time I can’t help it. I skim theses, page through the literature, check websites of professors at institutions all over the world to see what they’re working on. By no longer tying myself down to a single field I have instilled in myself a ravenous curiosity with a scope much broader than it was even a few months ago.
It comes ill-timed. I should be focusing on the present, but all I can think about is the future. The air outside smells like rain on pavement. I throw open my windows, bring in the light. ♦