Why? A question for office hours, but not for mental health

Almost seven years ago, I was a freshman in high school (and typing this makes me feel extremely old), and we were making our course selection for sophomore year classes. Although I was, for the most part, a diligent and hardworking student, I was by no means excellent, and although I enjoyed school, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was taking regular classes, unlike most of my seemingly brilliant friends, who were taking honors classes and were doing math that I would only begin to dream about understanding in college.

But one day, to be precise, February 19th, 2010, everything changed. I was visiting my biology teacher, Ms. Wolchok, in her office to obtain her signature approving me for the regular Chemistry track. Being somewhat uncertain in my own abilities, I was slightly anxious that she would end up placing me in in a remedial class. This silly fear stayed with me as I handed her my course sign-up sheet, with a shaking hand, and she said, “Honey, I’m a little bit on the fence about you.” My heart dropped, until she said slowly “I’m considering putting you in the honors Chemistry track.” Me? Honors Chem? I thought it must be a joke, and I was waiting for someone to pop out and yell “April Fools!” But Ms. Wolchok continued to tell me that I had been doing very well in her class recently, and that she thought I was becoming more comfortable with science. She told me that if I wanted, I could do well in Honors Chemistry – that, because other students had more experience than I did, I might not end up with the best grade, but I would learn a lot.

Ms. Wolchok might not remember me, but her words of encouragement mean more to me today than she could possibly imagine. The fact that someone else recognized my ability when I couldn’t recognize it myself made me excited to learn science with an enthusiasm that I had not had before. Although the later years of elementary and middle school had squashed the fun out of science by introducing exams, in Honors Chem, I actively defied this mentality. I managed to regain my childish curiosity about science – I marveled at the beautiful colors and bubbling test tubes, tried my best to understand not only the what and how, which was required for exams, but why, why certain equations, laws, and predictions work, and where they came from. My free time became full of chemistry jokes on the internet and youtube videos of fancy chemists performing explosive reactions in fancy laboratories, and chemistry became the subject and inspiration of all of my drawings.

It also helped that my teacher, a young, enthusiastic, small woman who was extremely organized and hard-working, was remarkably similar to me aside from one key quality: confidence. Although I was extremely hesitant to acknowledge my own abilities and was often plagued with doubts, I admired that she seemed so sure of herself in every movement she made. Having her as a role model encouraged me to work harder in Chemistry, and I wanted to achieve the skill and confidence that seemed so effortless for her. I not only surpassed my own expectations in Honors Chemistry, but I went on to take AP Chemistry, which my school capped at 17 students in my year, and a senior directed study class in Chemistry called Molecular Gastronomy. When I started as a freshman in college at UC San Diego, I declared my major in Chemistry. Beginning in my senior year of high school, I tutored younger students in Chemistry for four years, and as my undergraduate experience is slowly wrapping up, my current plan is to apply to a graduate program in either Theoretical or Physical Chemistry.

It is somewhat strange for me to talk about high school this way, focusing on the positive side of those four years and being extremely grateful for the people who have changed my life forever. There was another side to my high school experience, a side that was extremely dark, extremely isolating, and extremely painful, and took over most of my senior year. But the fact remains that I have learned more from the experience than I can ever express. It gives me chills to think that I was so close to shying away from a class that changed my life forever, and if given the chance, I know I would not change my high school experience for the world.

Towards the end of my freshman year in college, I lost my motivation to do science. Somehow, a combination of the remnants of traumatic events from high school, my dislike for Organic Chemistry and Chemistry lab, the competitive, entitled, grade-obsessed and learning-phobic nature of most of my pre-medical student peers, as well as the UCSD Chemistry department advising turned me off from the subject. In high school, Chemistry was much more exciting, mathematical, and theoretical – qualities that made me rejoice in the subject more so than the practical components. I felt lost and scared, because I no longer had passion for the subject that was once the very center of my existence and was the reason I has the strength to wake up in the morning and work towards my dream. I didn’t know what my dream was anymore, but I knew it wasn’t medical or pharmacy school, or Chemistry research in a laboratory.

The next two years, I tried just about everything I possibly could within my limits as a college student, searching for something that somehow returned the passion I had once felt in high school. I went to Italy to attend a five week program about the Mathematics behind the architecture in Rome, followed by a semester in a new liberal arts college in India, where I took courses in History, Philosophy, and Literature. When I returned, I volunteered in multiple veterinary hospitals and non-profit organizations, and took classes in Biology, Statistics, Creative Writing, Political Science, Business Management and Accounting. There were classes that I found mildly interesting and appealing, but nothing sparked the passion in me. A couple of weeks before my third year of college, I applied to a small college of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and ended up getting in with a scholarship. I spend the entire year in art school, experimenting and toying with the ideas of pursuing with Drawing, Painting, Illustration, Animation, Design, Toy Design, Creative Writing, and Art History and Theory. However, nothing seemed to fit, and I was miserable. I felt more empty, alone, afraid for the future, and devoid of passion than ever before. And I was ashamed to admit that I felt this way, because I had risked everything to come to art school. Because I had changed my major so many times that I was afraid everyone would judge me. Because I was afraid that my depression was coming back, and I desperately wanted to escape its clutches.

However, there was one thing that kept me going. When we had to complete a research project on any possible topic in my Art Theory class, I chose to research science textbook illustrations. My instructor, who was usually extremely harsh and critical, thought my project was brilliant, and she used my paper as an example for the class. One day, after class, she sat me down and said, “Paheli, this is a wonderful college, but it’s not for everyone, and is certainly not going to give you the preparation in science that you want and need. Honestly, I think you would be much better off in a large research university.” My first reaction was indignation. I knew it wasn’t preparation for science – that wasn’t why I had come. That wasn’t what I was aiming for anymore – was it? But how else could I explain how I dreaded doing my homework for all my classes in art school, but I spend hours developing lessons for the high school students I was tutoring in AP Chem, and going over the practice problems to make sure I understood them before tutoring sessions? How could I explain why I’d signed up for an informal online course in Physical Chemistry, and worked on the practice problems in my free time? Finally, my parents, who had long recognized my dissatisfaction, although I was too afraid to admit it, asked me if I wanted to return to UCSD to complete a degree in math or science. They assured me that they would help me find an apartment off campus but close enough, and my mother was considering applying for a job in San Diego so that she could stay with me more often and support me in the completion of my degree – after finishing my degree once and for all, I could think about jobs or possibly grad school – since I knew I had not learned enough science to function in the real world.

I initially looked for a program at UCSD that would be easiest to complete a degree in, and that was similar to what I had already done. I found Earth Science, which was one of the two undergraduate majors at UCSD offered by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The main appeal of this major was that I had flexibility to take electives in Chemistry and Physics, and there was no Chemistry laboratory requirement. However, the upper division coursework in this major required a lower division Earth Science class, as well as one additional lower division Physics course that I had not completed in freshman year during my Chemistry major. In addition, if I wanted to graduate on time (2017), I would need to take two general education classes over the summer. So I decided to take both of the two summer sessions offered before restarting in the fall.

My first summer session, and first session back at UCSD, seemed extremely daunting. My schedule was 9-5 every day except Friday, with a couple hour break in the middle, and the material would be extremely concentrated, smushing a ten week quarter’s worth into five weeks.  As if that wasn’t enough, before returning to UCSD, I had to go back to my high school to attend my younger brother’s graduation, which sent me on an unexpected spiral of depression against my will. I had no hope of re-sparking my passion for science during the first five weeks for sure – I knew I just had to get through it.

But somehow the spark happened when I least expected it. The first day, my morning Earth Science class was cancelled, so I had an extremely frustrating time trying to set up a meeting with the campus counseling services (as a safety measure), to no success, since I hadn’t paid the fall quarter fees. I began my afternoon physics class extremely flustered and anxious. Since there weren’t many professors willing to lecture over the summer, many of the courses, including this physics course, had grad student instructors. Surprisingly, my instructor was a female grad student – I had grown to expect male professors and TAs when it came to Math and Physics, and, to some degree, Chemistry. About halfway through the lecture, when she was explaining units of pressure, she told a physics joke about the scientists Newton and Pascal. It was a small moment, but it was just the spark I needed, as it reminded me of the countless times in my sophomore year of high school, when I spend hours looking for chemistry jokes on the internet.

Later, when I was feeling anxious about the class and the weekly quizzes, I went to visit my instructor’s office hours, and I told her that I enjoyed her joke. She went on to tell me a popular joke about a spherical cow, and then began talking about her own research, which was about physics applied to neurons, and that she was basically assuming a spherical neuron (in order to simplify calculations). She seemed very excited to talk about what she was working on, and her enthusiasm was infectious. When I left office hours to grab some lunch before class started, there was a new spring in my step – although talking to people in general requires a lot of effort for me, I felt as if I had just taken a shot of five hour energy – I can’t explain it exactly, but I had more motivation to learn than I had since high school.

Although I hadn’t expected to get much out of these summer courses besides prerequisites for my fall classes, I ended up learning a lot. I made a couple of friends in my physics class, one of whom was a math major, and she used to ask “why” questions a lot. Her questions reminded me a lot of the questions that I used to ask in high school, a method which I had quickly abandoned when I began at UCSD, as people told me that I would never pass my classes if I tried to learn everything. Moreover, I had become discouraged and convinced that it would never work, and no matter how much I learned, it would never be enough and would not help me succeed in exams. However, seeing my classmate’s success at asking “why” questions convinced me that it was worth it to adopt my previous method. I saw immediate results, and found that not only did I learn more and perform better in exams, but I felt more fulfilled about what I was learning – it was important material, not just things I was learning to spit out on a piece of paper and forget immediately afterwards! In addition, my instructor’s approach to physics was extremely fitting for my brain’s needs – she combined the right amount of conceptual and intuitive explanations, attempting to bring relevance to concepts in the context of real life, and mathematically based proofs, explaining the origins of the equations we were dealing with. And again, just as in high school, I saw a little bit of myself in her, which encouraged me to further explore the dormant grad school dream I had since I became interested in Chemistry – if she was doing it, and we were somewhat similar in personality, perhaps I had the capacity to do research as well?

As I noticed myself getting inspired and enthralled with the study of physics and its uncanny similarity to the parts I liked about chemistry – the theoretical, mathematically based part, rather than the lab aspect – I kept reminding myself to keep focused on the goal, which was to graduate by the end of the year and get a degree. But what use is a degree if I’m not doing what I love? All the senior earth science majors had the same pitch for the major: you get to go out into the field instead of sitting in a classroom all day and learning theorems. But I knew I was not the target demographic for this pitch because I actually enjoyed those theorems and the classroom.  I ended up considering and reconsidering switching my major to physics several times over the course of the next couple of months, until an advisor finally confirmed my fear that it was way too late for me to declare the major. However, instead of taking the general education class I needed in the next summer session, I ended up taking an extra calculus course, which I didn’t need for chemistry, but was a requirement for any upper division physics courses. After my physics course, I contacted my physics instructor, Sasha, and I told her about how much I had enjoyed the course, and that the stuff she had been saying about her research interested me. She ended up explaining what her research group does to me in person, and she told me that her advisor is willing to take undergraduate interns during the year.

In fall, I was taking two Earth Science courses, and chemistry electives: Inorganic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry, and a Physics seminar. I was excited for Physical Chemistry – I had been interested ever since my high school Chemistry teacher told me that it was the most difficult course she had taken in college, but that it was worth all the hard work. At the beginning of the quarter, it was an extremely difficult and stressful class, and I seriously considered dropping it, because I didn’t believe I could handle the workload.

In addition to my courses, I contacted Sasha’s advisor. His research is on nonlinear dynamics, and he looks at nonlinear systems that range from neurons to geophysical fluid dynamics. In particular, the group is looking at the neurons in this bird called the zebra finch, which is a song bird. They look at the region in the bird’s brain that relates to song production and they have these computer simulations that try to imitate the results from experimental data, which helps model how the neurons are connected mathematically. This has implications in understanding how other animals’ brains work, and also has potential medicinal applications, since they are looking at neurons that are involved in Alzheimers. The work that they are doing is very cool and relevant to almost everything, but it is extremely complex and difficult to understand. Most of the math, physics, and computer/numerical analysis stuff that they discuss at the research group meetings is way beyond me. However, the difficulty makes it very rewarding when I actually understand anything, and I enjoy the idea of being behind the scenes of what seems like such an important and relevant (to many different fields) project. Also, after the first group meeting, almost everything they said went completely over my head. Although Sasha had told her advisor that I was a good student and good at applying math to physics, apparently, I wondered if she had somehow got the wrong idea about my abilities and the scope of my math knowledge. I ended up emailing her and asking how she knew I was “good” at math, since I hadn’t actually done that much math. Her response was the following: “Being “good” at math doesn’t necessarily mean that you know a lot of math or that you even have practice doing it. It’s more of how you approach problems and think about things. You, as a student and budding scientist, ask “why” questions a lot and you want to get to the root of things and figure out where they come from. That’s the right way of looking at things and thinking about things to be good at physics and math. So, embrace it! You might not have a ton of experience, but you are thinking the right way.” (I did copy and paste this from the actual email). It was extremely helpful for me, because it gave me the courage to believe in my methods, even though they are somewhat unusual amongst my peers, and it influenced the way I approached my classes during the quarter.

And boy, am I glad that I did not end up dropping Physical Chem, for multiple reasons. First of all, after the first couple weeks, which were mostly review of the summer physics class but in more detail, we started getting into extremely interesting topics relating to kinetics, equilibrium, entropy, and statistical mechanics, which further confirmed the extent to which I enjoy the mathematical aspect of chemistry topics. Also, my professor mentioned his work in theoretical chemistry in the context of the Nobel prize winners in Chemistry, so I decided to ask him about it after class and during office hours. He ended up giving me some helpful tips about theoretical chemistry – basically, he said it is essentially physics under disguise, but it is sometimes nice because it is less populated than equivalent physics fields (condensed matter physics), so one has more flexibility to choose research topics to work on (in condensed matter, there is pressure to jump on topics that are related to what Nobel prize winners are working on). He also said he regretted not getting more of a foundation in physics, which is influencing me to take more physics classes if I get in (there is limited enrollment), and/or try to learn more physics through the research group and independently. Also, in office hours, my professor worked with me on proofs, and even tried to answer one of my questions through a proof, and gave me the project of finding a counterexample if possible. I liked the fact that he was giving me things to work on that weren’t just for the exam and seemed to genuinely care about my academic career and giving me genuine advice. Just as I had experienced in the summer in Sasha’s office hours, going to his office hours, as well as my Pchem TA’s, gave me a surge of energy unlike any other social interaction. And as a cherry on top of an already beautiful cake, my result for PChem ended up being the best result I’ve ever gotten. This has made me not only more confident in my abilities and the fact that I can achieve what I want if I just put in time and dedication and endure even when it seems extremely difficult, but it also further confirmed that the “why” method actually works!

I ultimately decided to try to apply for a major in Math/Applied Science (I have to apply next quarter), for which I will have to take seven upper division math courses (Math Reasoning, Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Numerical Methods, and Differential Geometry) and any calculus based physics courses I want, and will have to take an additional year for. I am going to try for Physics (Mechanics), Physical Chem (Quantum Mechanics and Statistical Mechanics), the final part of the Inorganic Chemistry sequence, and Biochemistry. I also would like to take less courses per quarter and spend more time learning and working on research things. As I said, I’m planning to apply to grad school in Theoretical or Physical Chemistry, which seems most realistic and appealing to me at the moment.

Another thing I have realized is that at some point I will have to let go of the idea of learning everything there is to learn and just start doing research, and learn as needed, along the way. That is a scary prospect for me, but I’ve realized that just because someone doesn’t have good grades doesn’t mean they will be a bad researcher, and just because someone has good grades doesn’t mean they will be a good researcher. While classes are about learning things in detail for the purpose of solving problems on exams, research seems to be a completely new, scary ballgame – solving real problems that have no solutions manual – but it’s a risk that I’m willing to take.

For a couple of weeks before the winter break, I noticed myself feeling both anxious and down. I kept trying to think about why, and explain it way. It was because school was stressful. It was because I don’t have that many friends. But soon school ended, and I had people I could talk to every once in a while. And the feeling still wasn’t leaving me. I was feeling extremely disappointed in myself – why is this high school depression coming back now? It will ruin everything! What it the source? How can I fix it? What do I need to change? How can I explain to others how I am feeling?

And just recently hit me that while this “why” method might be helpful for me for academics and trying to understand concepts in classes, it is not necessarily the way to go about emotional things. Sometimes, when I am feeling off, it doesn’t mean I need to change anything. Sometimes there is no reason, or no important one, why I’m feeling down and off. Sometimes, I just need to wait it out until it gets better.

It has been extremely challenging for me to manage college, growing up, responsibilities, schoolwork, and my mental illness. I think many times, people around me underestimate what I am going through, partially because I don’t want to give too much importance to it. I desperately just want to be normal, have a normal life, and I don’t want to be a burden on the people around me. I want to be grateful and focus on the wonderful and beautiful things in my life – the people (and dog) who have stayed with me, the awesome things I’m learning and being exposed to in school, the helpful and inspiring mentors I have, and the privileges I have to live where I live, go to school where I go to school, have a roof over my hear and have the security that I will be able to eat meals every day without insecurity. But sometimes I’m swept over by extreme negativity. And I need to work on shifting away from trying to fix the negativity by changing things and towards sitting through it and keeping my eyes on what is important.

Although I have been feeling down, it’s not the same emptiness that I felt in senior year of high school, freshman year, or in India, or in art school. Although I have a significant amount of anxiety about my untraditional undergrad path, I know that I’m where I’m meant to be and I’m doing what I love most – I have come a full circle and have come back to my first love. I’m now more aware of the specific parts of the subject that I like more and want to focus on, and it feels right. I might be feeling a little off, but I think this is just a passing feeling, and that my enthusiasm from the summer will return soon. I know that I will need to keep working on developing my skills, my persistence, and my self-confidence, but at the moment, I am content with where I am.

This blog post is dedicated to my amazing cousin, Aniket, who told me to keep updating my blog, and would have turned 22 on the first day of the new year. He still inspires me and helps me put things in perspective.