I’m embarking on a new journey come Monday, and as I clear out the stuff I’ve accumulated over the past 3.5 years as a PhD student, I am feeling strangely nostalgic and somewhat eager to embrace a new life too.
The reason why I had moved to London was because of M. We planned for this big move for more than a year. I’ll save the details of our story for later, but let me tell you that it was one of the most daunting tasks we took on. After M got accepted to our university in London, we were elated but we had a bigger problem to face. It wasn’t hard getting a professor to accept me for postgraduate research (I mean who doesn’t like free labour?) but we were worried. Where the hell are we going to get the money to fund my PhD? I was a research assistant then in one of the universities in Singapore, and I remember spending my breaks with dear friends QM and P, poring over sheets and sheets of calculations, wondering how I could ever pay off this feat? We worked out that I would require S$300000 to do a PhD in London, including fees and living allowance, and that was the price of a small flat back in 2007! After months of agonising and an awful lot of planning, I was constantly ill with bad gastric problems and much too skinny but by grace, I managed to get hold of two scholarships to fund my time in London. I remember calling M when I received the news, and I couldn’t contain my excitement as I paced up and down the corridors at my workplace. I was almost in tears. M was having lunch with his brother at Noble House. It was quite a moment. Then on our second anniversary, M proposed. I was delighted, things couldn’t get any better.
My professor was also happy to hear that I was fully funded. On his way back to London from a conference in Australia, he stopped by Singapore with his son to make sure I wasn’t a psycho. We took him for a lunch that he recalled having in Singapore 20 years ago – curry served on banana leaves – so, clueless us brought him to Banana Leaf Apolo. Both of them enjoyed the meal very much. We walked around in the area of Little India, took them to Sentosa to have a look at the museum, and sent them back to Berjaya Hotel. A few months later, I visited the lab in June 2007 when we were setting up our home in London. I met a few people, felt that it was a nice place to work in and before I knew it, we said goodbye to our families on 18 September 2007. I cried like a baby.
I was terribly homesick for a long time. Not one day went by without me missing my family. I was often in tears. I didn’t have any friends here and I had a hard time whilst working under the mentorship of a postdoc in my lab. Tensions escalated and I often fought with M, blaming him for my plight. I was a mess.
The first two years of my PhD was carved out of nothing but blood and sweat. I was going in at 8.30am during the first months as I was told to do so, and my mentor didn’t show up till 12pm, so I often wasted hours waiting for him each day. As he worked late till 10-11pm, I had to stay with him till after working hours. M and my sister–in-law were here in London then and I was adamant about spending time with them; I decided to ask my mentor for a schedule, so I could work my personal life around it without wasting time waiting for him to show up during the first half of the day. He cornered me in the tissue culture lab and warned while wagging a finger in my face, ‘If you want a schedule, you should be a banker, not a scientist’. There, the first threatening insult spewed right in my face. M encouraged me to talk to my professor about it, I did and the postdoc got into trouble. On hindsight, I should have told him, bankers have erratic working hours too, you stupid ass.
Just as I thought the situation was getting better, ironically, life as a postgraduate student worsened. Long hours and weekends aside, both of which are inevitable when one does research, I had to stand up against the lack of integrity in science and I was berated for being ‘stupid’ and ‘daft’ when I couldn’t show the same results as the predecessor. I doubted myself and felt that I wasn’t good enough to do a PhD. Yes, I had very low morale for two years, and that was part of the reason why I started this blog. I needed a way out of the negativity and I needed to realise that life wasn’t just about my PhD. I felt better when I approached the later half of my second year; you see, wedding planning made me quite a happy girl and I was a truly delighted Mrs when we said I do. Things also got better in my third year, when my work gained recognition and people realised that I was right after seeing how the work done by the predecessor was also not reproducible by others. Suddenly, I was praised for being consistent, good and upright in my work. Suddenly, I wasn’t ‘stupid’ or ‘daft’ anymore.
But it was too late. I had seen enough fraud and I am now jaded. I had gone into science, wanting to plough through facts and pull them out so the next generation could learn the truth. I didn’t go into science to publish for the sake of publishing. I couldn’t bear to be in this field anymore if I had to compromise my principles. I’m not saying that this happens in all research groups but it’s a shame that it happened to me in two out of three labs I worked with. I applaud the efforts of people who have the strength and courage to stay and produce good science, but I am ready to leave this to the better people.
So after six long years of research, three years of which were spent in London, I bid farewell to this life, for now. Maybe I will return, maybe I won’t, I still love science, I really do, I just don’t know if I can tolerate what I have stood up to for so long.
I summed up the core of my life here in London in 191 pages of my thesis. I passed my viva after 105 minutes of grilling by the examiners. Even though I was a bagful of nerves before the viva (I couldn’t walk up and down the stairs when I made my way to the university….), I came out feeling exhilarated that I had the most intense, useful and thought-provoking scientific discussion I’ve ever had in my life. I popped the champagne and celebrated with a group of labbies (sans that postdoc) whom I enjoyed working with in the office. I treated them to farewell tea at Patisserie Valerie afterwards. I squealed at the lovely and thoughtful gifts from them. I took farewell pics with this group of lovely people and of the stuff I’ve collected over the years.
M arrived in time for the farewell tea. I bade my peeps farewell, and M drove us to Charlotte Street to grab some celebratory grub. We stupidly didn’t make any reservations, tried our luck at Roka, nah uh, slipped round the corner to Fino, fat hope. I was seriously considering McD’s to line my rapidly eroding tummy as we left Fino, but there stood Nizuni, looking like a landmine waiting to be stepped on with its Japanese fusion-esque menu.
Looking tired but happy at Nizuni after 105 minutes of grilling by the examiners
Luckily for us, the newly opened Nizuni didn’t disappoint. We were expecting teething problems with service and sushi smothered in mayonnaise, but no, everything was in good order. We nibbled on small but fresh slabs of nigiri. We feasted on the delicately-battered ebi tempura. We chatted over beef tataki, ika karaage and saba shioyaki. It was a lovely meal. Most of all, I had the most amazing time reminiscing about the journey we’ve taken. I didn’t think I could make it this far, but I did.
Like M said, I’m at the shore now, and all I have to do is wait for him to arrive. So yes, my dear, I will wait for you.
I leave the rest of you with one of the four quotes I included in the preface of my thesis:
Persistence is what makes the impossible possible, the possible likely, and the likely definite. – Robert Half
This persistence saw me through to where I am today. Bring on the new life ahead of me!