Facing the Nightmare

Author: Skylar Bayer

Earlier this week, I opened my Facebook page and read this piece by Marina Keegan, a Yale ’12 graduate. The name was familiar. I read at the top of the page that she had just died in a car accident. Her piece entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness” was an uplifting article about how graduating college was just the beginning of a young person’s life – not the end of possibility. It saddened me deeper to know that someone who seemed so positive and full of desire to do something in this world, and might’ve changed it for the better, had their life cut so short.

I thought the name was familiar because it was – she was a middle school classmate of my little brother. I think I even remember seeing her as a little girl at our local school a few times. My brother also graduated college this year and to read this piece of hers after attending his graduation only a few weeks ago made me feel so lucky that I still had my brother, that I still had my time on this earth to do something with myself.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt my life brush on the edge of the nightmare of another family from my hometown. A couple of falls ago, a high school classmate of mine, whose yard I used to play in as an eight-year-old, committed suicide (as far as we all know). She had one year of law school left and had battled depression for awhile, from what I knew. I was not close with her after elementary school, but one of my best friends married her brother and so I interacted with her once in awhile after college.  It was terribly shocking to everyone – when you’re in your 20s, you think you and your peers will live forever.

Both young women are forever frozen in time as young people full of possibility and potential. Marina had the potential to go on to do any number of great things in her adult life and my classmate was going to graduate law school and hopefully win her battle with depression. But their lives were cut short and the nightmares of their respective deaths are what their friends and family will forever live and cope with. They are the ones left behind to make the best of what they still have – their lives, and that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

The day after I found out about Ms. Keegan, there were lightning storm cells passing through the area, but our lab still went out to our lantern-net raft to continue with our scallop monitoring and cleaning for the field season. I couldn’t help but think about the worst nightmares possible while the sky lit up across the Damariscotta River and thunder rolled through the sky like an earthquake (I also couldn’t help but think that we might get struck by lightning that morning).

I find that the most disturbing thing about nightmares is that the worst ones almost always come from within us – I suppose that makes sense as dreams come from humans and therefore so do nightmares. The fact that our imaginations are capable of creating such horrible things and that they come true sometimes makes me tremble at the power of thought and will.

Nightmares make me think of a disturbing image I drew as a teenager; a skeletal figure with black eyes and an open mouth filled with distress while being sucked into a dark hole of swirls with the words ‘Help Me’ dancing around the vortex, and a hand with long, gloomy fingers stretched out as it was pulled into the hole. It still disturbs me to this day and therefore I can never help but wonder if the nightmare I lived through this fall was part of my own psychological doing.

I especially wonder if the reason I remember so much of my first surgery (a cardiac catheterization) was because I willed myself to pay attention and remember. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on the feelings of having my heart rate brought up to 380 beats per minute or being defibrillated into unconsciousness. I wish some days that I don’t remember, but the fact that I could live through that nightmare gives me the confidence that I am strong and can live through even worse (even a doctoral program) and make it out ok, although maybe scarred, on the other end.

In science, we cope with lots of work-related nightmares: our experiment goes wrong and we have no results. We fail a class. We fail at teaching something well. Someone dies or has a permanent injury in the lab because someone mixed up the labels or didn’t wear a lab coat or didn’t get enough sleep the night before. Someone dies diving in a freak field work accident. Someone gets washed overboard on a cruise. We get eaten by our experiments or a giant squid. Radiation or chemical exposure over time eventually kills one of us or renders us sterile. Someone steals our work. We have no funding. We can’t get a job. Our reputations are discredited. Our manuscripts are rejected from every pertinent journal that ever existed. We can’t feed our families, we can’t pay the rent, we can’t find somewhere to live. We graduate with a Ph.D. and then have to work as baristas for the rest of our lives (which might not be so bad).

As a young scientist, I still ride off the hope and power that Marina Keegan wrote about in “The Opposite of Loneliness.” I believe that we can change the world, that we can get through those nightmares. But today, I read about this nightmare. Written by Chris Reddy and Richard Camilli, two scientists at WHOI, this opinion piece outlines how BP’s demand for private work e-mails (regarding research of the Deepwater Horizon disaster) will erode the scientific deliberative process. They state that they are two scientists at an academic institute that responded to the request to study the effects of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and are now, due to poor legal protection to shield independent scientific researchers, required to hand over private e-mails to BP regarding the research they conducted on the spill.

As I understand it, the reason why BP wants the e-mails is because there’s a lot of money at stake. The article goes on to state that although this means policing BP regarding the scientists’ intellectual property in those e-mails, this gets at a bigger issue – that science can be taken out of context. Those half-finished thoughts, arguments about results, bad data (that then get reanalyzed), and many other pieces of information that can be misinterpreted are now available to legal action without limitation. The authors go on (as well as in this WHOI press release) to state that scientists in the future may not go through the deliberative process regarding crises like the oil spill because of the scrutiny their deliberative process work will be put under. They may hold back volunteering valuable information in the future because of cases like this one.

As a poor graduate student who knows that my future path as a scientist will be arduous already, it is even more discouraging knowing that even when well-respected scientists put their time and effort into researching something that matters to a larger community (like the United States, for example), they will still be put under the blinding microscope lights of companies like BP because it all comes down to money. Combining this situation with the grueling process of science, job shortages, being paid far less than one should (based on professional knowledge) and constantly scrounging for funding, why would anyone want to become a scientist?

Now, that sounds terrible, but think of it this way —  If you were these scientists what would you think after being asked by the Coastguard to take on scientific studies of a national crisis, publish several papers regarding these very important issues through the peer-review journal process and then your work may get discredited because a few e-mails in the deliberative process suggest that at one time before publication you were not sure you agreed 100% with the initial results or some other half-finished thought was taken out of context?

It’s a nightmare because a large company like BP and the federal courts of this country may significantly affect the scientific process because a very large (and probably rich) company simply doesn’t want to pay fines that are probably far less than they should pay for their crimes and our judicial system is such right now that this scenario can happen.

So how do we survive a nightmare like this one? Like Keegan’s death? Like the ones we worry about everyday as scientists and people?

We have to remember a few things.

One. While you are still breathing you are alive, and therefore you can still make something happen in this world for you.

Two. We are not alone. There are 7 billion of us.

Three. We can make something happen in this world together.

I leave you with a quote from Keegan’s piece in the hope that scientists and educators can come together to help change the future of this world for the better.

“It was quiet, the old wood creaking and the snow barely visible outside the stained glass. And I sat down. And I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that. We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.” ~ Marina Keegan

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