Path Paving – Deciding the Right Time to Pursue Something New

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

As I write this month’s post, I am eagerly en route to The Maasai Mara National Reserve. This natural game reserve at the south-western end of Kenya is contiguous with the Serengeti in Tanzania, one of the ten natural wonders of the world. Driving through the Maasai Mara, I am overcome by the refreshing blueness of the expansive sky, the rich grassy terrain, the golden dirt road, and the winding Mara River. We turn onto a new path and come upon impalas and gazelles frolicking freely. Another path leads us to a pond where zebras drink and baby elephants come to play. We continue and pass a lion and lioness lounging in the grass. Each turn yields a new, unimaginable experience.

A lion and lioness lounge in the grass near a safari van and dirt road in the Maasai Mara.

The last time I was in the Maasai Mara was around this time two years ago. I had just submitted my final application to graduate school, and I was anxiously awaiting responses. In a previous post, I mentioned my “existential crisis” that came from deciding to switch from primarily experimental to computational research. This was a choice I began debating as my graduate application season reached its peak. The research I was conducting at the time felt rewarding, safe, and familiar. I had spent years developing the skills that I used daily and even taught others. Every advancement in my research and training felt like a logical next step. As if my path had been paved clearly and smoothly.

Yet there were still so many paths that I had left untraveled. There were techniques I wanted to learn, but they seemed too disconnected from the work in front of me. I was uncertain of the long-term value, and, most of all, I feared failure. I felt as though I was at a crossroads and had to decide which route to take next. Do I continue pursuing similar research? Or do I switch to this new field that I have become curious about?

I weighed my options with an aversion to struggle. I desired to take the path with the least bumps and that was most level. I forgot that I was once also a novice in the field I had grown so comfortable. I forgot that the process of growth demands a starting point. Just as in the Maasai Mara, sometimes the roughest, steepest climb yields the most illuminating views.

I enrolled in a mathematical modeling course. I began learning about the intersections of computational and systems biology. I applied to Ph.D. programs that had exciting work in both fields.  I started to see that instead of reaching two roads moving in completely opposite directions; I was along a path that splintered. Each path was giving way to new bending routes, many that intersected with each other along the way.

Now, I am halfway through my second year of my Ph.D., and I am certain that pursuing a novel research was one of the best decisions I could have made. It was not until I started to reflect on this entire process that I came to understand that the path that is paved is the path that we have paved along the way. In hindsight, it is sometimes easier to see every stage as leading seamlessly into the next. But this is our view from the present painting our image of the past. In reality, shifting between each stage can be terrifying and unnerving. But sometimes a rough, steep climb is the only way to move forward.

Best of luck to anyone embarking on a new and terrifying path as we stumble upon a new year.

 

Views from the Maasai Mara. Hot air balloons and the Great Rift Valley are visible over the horizon. The shadow of a safari van is seen in the grass at the foreground.

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