Breaking memories: one data point at a time

Breaking Memories_2By Andrea Weckman | Illustration by Wanying Zhang

I began my first undergraduate research experience in the summer after my first year with a glorified impression of what it was going to be like. As I walked into the lab on the first day, I said to myself:

Andrea, this is your ticket to the Nobel Prize.

I think you’ll find that several things are a little off about this sequence of events. First, and most notably, I was talking to myself. (But every research scientist does, right? It’s normal, right?)

Secondly, at age 18, I was telling myself I would win a Nobel Prize: the gold medal of lifetime achievement, the ultimate symbol of scientific prestige. It didn’t even stop there — I’ve played with the idea of being the next Marie Curie, tucking two Nobel Prizes under my belt. Was I overestimating my role as a first-year undergraduate researcher in a small lab in Waterloo, Ontario?  Maybe. But a girl can dream.

This past summer, as I walked into St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto to start another unpaid, 9-5 summer research experience, I said to myself:

 

Andrea, mark this day on your calendar as your first step towards saving the world. 

Again, I was glorifying my role – telling myself I would save the world. (Side note: when I say this to myself, I envision myself as a scientific Superman). But as I progressed through my first experience and then moved on to my second and third, rather than having my notions of grandeur squashed by reality, I came to realize that this delusion is necessary for maintaining your sanity in the world of undergraduate research. As you dig through piles and piles of data and run the same tests countless times, you need that sense of a greater purpose for your research. Your biggest motivation is the possibility of your efforts leaving a mark.

Now, at my current research position, as I make what seems like millions of histograms and residual plots and run different SPSS statistical analyses on what seems like billions of data points, the possibility of making a difference is what drives me.

I’ve met many people in my current research experience, all suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’ve encountered people whose memories keep them from sleeping at night, who startle when somebody speaks to them, and who are thrown into an all-consuming panic by a trigger that would seem inconsequential to anybody else. I’ve heard stories that make my life seem like a cakewalk. So when I start feeling sorry for myself after I’ve sat in front of a computer all day making graphs and exploring data, I think:

Andrea, this is your chance to make a difference. This is your chance to help. 

Since beginning work on a project that directly involves patients, my perspective has changed. It has shifted from a focus on achieving great things for myself (i.e. double Nobel laureate) to achieving things that will ultimately help others. If I can have a hand in finding a drug that will help these people get back on their feet and dampen debilitating traumatic memories, I will achieve my own little version of saving the world.

 

Andrea is a U3 Neuroscience student, and will be posting more in her Breaking Memories series next semester. 

Wanying is a U2 Chemistry student. 

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