Thursday, October 6, 2011

“The rest is still unwritten”

 On Monday I had the opportunity to share my PULSE experience with a group of female college students, their faculty advisors and their female GSK mentors at the GSK Women in Science Scholars program.  This experience gave me reason to pause and reflect on the fact that one year ago this week, I was completing my last bits of packing prior to heading off to Ghana, not to set foot on US soil again for over 6 months.  I was both excited and nervous about what awaited me at the other end of an overnight flight across “The Pond” (known to most of you as the Atlantic Ocean).  The Hollywood movie version of this story would have rolled the credits at the point that I was on the plane was rolling down the runway leaving Ghana a few months ago, leaving the audience (you) to wonder what happened during the “happily ever after”. 

Much of what happens is the same as before I left.  As I learned during my last overseas experience (four months in Australia during grad school), the world did not end—or even fundamentally change —in my absence.  On the surface, my life probably doesn’t appear all that different than it did before I left.  I still live in NC with my husband and two cats, I still work at GSK, I still do process engineering (albeit on the primary rather than secondary side of development), I still play ultimate, and I still enjoy spending time with friends and family.

But this journey was not about the surface.  It was about digging deep inside myself to find reservoirs of untapped strength, learning to persevere through novel challenges and coming out the other side thankful for the experience.  Having had a few months to ponder my experiences, some of the ways that I’ve changed are detailed in the vignettes below.

I am really not a fan of driving in the US.  I didn’t actually drive in Ghana, so I have no personal comparison to make, but as crazy as it may sound, I somewhat prefer their chaotic but polite driving style to the completely insane drivers here in the US.  Ghanaians don’t seem to have started the terrible texting-while-driving habit.  I’m sure it’s only a matter of time, but until then, Ghanaian drivers seemed to pay more attention to the road—primarily out of self-preservation, because the rules of the road are somewhat arbitrary and the term “road” can only be used in the loosest sense to describe the dirt/paved/gravel surfaces on which they drive.

I have begun to realize that some of the peace I felt living in Ghana comes from having Akmed to drive me around each day.  The couple times that he wasn’t available, I felt completely lost.  While I can’t avoid driving in the US without making a massive lifestyle change (like moving to NYC), I have begun to pay more attention to when I drive and am more actively avoiding traffic.  Not only do I feel more relaxed but I get the added bonus of getting back all that time I was wasting in the car.

Technology seems to give me more and more ways to not communicate with people.  In Ghana, the primary means of communication was text messages and mobile phone calls.  Here in the US, I’m back into the mode of using email and instant-messaging to find people at work.  Unfortunately, there are many times when people ignore their instant messages—and their email and their work phones.  Even though we’re a global company with offices all over the world, it’s often more effective to get up and walk down the hall to talk to someone.  (I wish there was a good way to measure the productivity increase from in-person conversations, both from actually getting to the person that I need to talk to and from the relationship building that occurs from these conversations.)

Oddly enough, I seem to get dehydrated more easily living in NC than in Ghana.  It’s not that it’s less humid here—because it’s not, especially in the summertime—but I spend much more time in low-humidity environments (air conditioned in the summer, dry heat in the winter).  While the humidity and heat in Ghana made me feel like I needed multiple showers a day, I got very few headaches and even fewer migraines during my stay there.  But since I’ve gotten back, I’ve averaged a migraine every few weeks, with some regular tension headaches thrown in for good measure.  I also think I’m allergic to things here in NC that don’t grow in Ghana.  Weather changes also hit me hard—the only significant weather changes in Ghana were rainy season to harmattan to dry season.

Patience is a virtue as well as a skill.  During my stay in Ghana, I was forced to develop my patience due to the somewhat fluid definition of being “on time”.  I also became more used to the constant schedule changes caused by this “definition”.  These skills have served me well in my transition back to life in the US.  While my initial re-entry back into work was a bit of a shock (understatement bell is ringing), I’m finding that I’m now getting better at waiting things out when project timelines change.  I am less likely to jump into email discussions about issues, preferring to wait and see if the issues resolve themselves (as they so often do).    

I’m sure there are a million other examples I can give of how this experience has changed me, but one of the more important is how it has brought me back to a passion of mine: sharing my love of science with kids.  Coming off my PULSE assignment, I’ve been floundering on how to continue giving back to the world in a meaningful, concrete way.  When I first moved back to NC after grad school, I got involved in the Women and Math mentoring program.  Since I was (happily) unemployed at the time, I had plenty of time to help mentor a pretty ambitious project.  Over the years, I’ve kept up with a few of the girls on that project, watching as they finished out high school and headed off to college.  One of the girls recently contacted me to tell me that she switched into chemical engineering, in part due to my mentoring.  I was both excited and humbled by that thought.

Around the same time, serendipity brought me in contact with the next PULSE volunteer on my project—who also happens to be the outgoing chair of the Science in Schools group at one of our PA research sites.  These two events coincided to make me remember how much I enjoy interacting with students and how energizing it is to see them get excited about science.  I took the initiative and got the RTP Science in Schools group started up again, getting funding allocated for us to start building science kits and signing us up for a couple events.  (If you’re in the RTP area, you just might see us out there representing GSK at a kid-focused science event.  And if you’re an RTP-based GSK employee, you should come join us.)  I’m thrilled that there are a number of other GSK employees who are also interested in getting out there to show students why science is cool.

I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I had in Ghana and am trying to hold onto that experience in so many ways.  But as might be obvious from the long delay since my last post, I’ve struggled to put into words how it feels to incorporate that experience back into my “normal” life.  Of course, perhaps that’s the key—since this experience was so life-changing, it has become a part of me and my history.  (If you missed seeing some of that history, you can go back and check out the photos at this link:  

While I might not be writing any more on this chapter of my life, the project that I helped start in Kumasi still goes on.  If you’ve enjoyed reading about my experiences, you might want to check out my colleague Stacie’s blog.  She’s been over there in Kumasi for only a couple weeks so you’re not too far behind.

Thank you to all of you for following me in this journey.  Perhaps someday I’ll feel the need to blog about my experiences again, but for now, “the rest is still unwritten”.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

"Pointing me in a crooked line..."

Amazing what a difference a year makes.  This time last year, I had just gotten my oral typhoid vaccine and come down with a fever of 101, keeping me away from work for a couple days.  I was also contemplating the thought of there really being a place where the streets have no name. 

Now all that seems so far away.  I’ve thrown myself into my new(ish) role at GSK with a sense of passion and abandon that seemed impossible just a couple months ago when I was still completely blindsided by returning to my “normal” life.  My adrenaline-charged learning binge is keeping me from spending too much time reflecting on my experiences in Ghana, but luckily there are people who keep pulling me back to my time in Kumasi.  The Peace Corps volunteer I know who headed to Ghana in June has been posting on her experiences over there.  I really enjoy reading about a different side of Ghana while reminiscing about my own time there. 


As part of my recently found enthusiasm for work, I’m looking into starting a formal science volunteering program at GSK RTP.  I’ve been considering this idea for some time now, but a recent move by GSK pushed me into action.  A couple weeks ago, Deidre Connolly (head of North America Pharma) met with President Obama and business leaders at the White House to announce a $10 million donation to support education reform.  GSK also committed to assign two PULSE volunteers per year to programs that focus on STEM education and drop-out prevention initiatives in the United States. 

In reading the GSK story, I stumbled across an item in the news that said that the number of STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) in the US grew three times faster and paid better than other careers over the last ten years—something that most engineering undergrads realized when we chose our majors.  The next ten years are only going to increase the number of STEM jobs available but there won’t be enough US graduates with the right skills for the jobs.  That’s where initiatives like science volunteering come in.  I still keep in touch with some of the girls I’ve mentored through the Women and Math Mentoring program.  One of them has even followed in my footsteps and switched into chemical engineering at State.  It was a proud moment when she messaged me on Facebook to tell me of her major change.

Rather than reinventing the wheel in trying to start up the science volunteering program, I recently spoke with someone in UM who started up such a program there.  She also happens to be the PULSE volunteer headed over to Ghana to join the School-to-School project in October.  She and I are both motivated by sharing our passion for science with the next generation.  Hearing her talk about preparing to go reminded me of all the things I was sorting out last year: housing, clothing, supplies…   I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous of her and the adventure she’s about to undertake.  Only in the last few weeks have I really started to adjust back to my life in NC and yet I’m ready to head out again. 

With these thoughts in mind, I looked at my weekend shopping through a different set of eyes.  While in Ghana I learned the meaning of the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.  Even with the more limited selection as compared to the US, I could always get what I needed.  I need to remember this mindset anytime I set foot in a store as I’m still struggling with the overwhelming number of choices in the US.

At least I’m doing much better on my flexibility, something else I was hoping to improve through my PULSE assignment.  Research never works the first time—if it did, it wouldn’t be called re-search—and often doesn’t work on the schedule I expect.  I’m getting used to my day starting out with one plan and ending with a completely different one without getting stressed out about it.  I hope I can hold onto this flexible mindset as our projects progress.

Friday, June 24, 2011

“Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes”

 “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  Replace the word “nice” with happy and you’ll understand why I’ve been avoiding my blog in the last couple weeks.  Coming back to my so-called “normal” life has been a much bigger challenge than I could have ever imagined.  I’ve been so afraid that I would fall back into my old ways of thinking and behaving that I’ve been unintentionally making this process much harder on myself.  But I need to have faith that this experience has been transformative enough for me that I can’t fall back into my old patterns.

Part of the mental fog has been related to shifts in my work environment.  I’m not going to discuss organizational charts or other internal work matters on this public blog, but what I will say is that upon my return, I came back to a new manager, new department head—and new job role.  While I still have some job responsibilities from my previous role, our new group now covers an earlier part of the pharmaceutical product development process, entailing project work that is quite different from what I’ve done and experienced over the last four years. 

Given all the major changes I went through in PULSE, one might expect that it would be easy for me to adjust to the new job responsibilities.  But it hasn’t been, primarily due to the fear I expressed at the start of this post.  Additionally, I’ve been frustrated by feeling that my past five years of work have been wasted since my new role—one I was assigned without my input—means that I will spend the next few months feeling like a new hire.  The lack of control over the decision must be what is bothering me most since the new work I’m doing is pretty interesting.

Independent of this job role shift, there’s also the major challenge resulting from the significant loss of autonomy and control that comes from leaving an organization with small numbers of permanent staff (my PULSE NGO partner) back to a major corporation.  On any given day in Kumasi, I knew immediately whether I was having an impact by the feedback given to me by the teachers I trained.  That same sense of accomplishment can sometimes be lacking when working on projects where success is measured on the time scales of years or even decades.  Independent of our long project timescales, anyone working for a large organization—corporation, government or otherwise—probably ofent has similar doubts about whether a day’s work really has an impact. 

Coming back from PULSE, we have to write a case study that includes learnings that we bring back to GSK.  (The connection between this paragraph and the previous one will become clear.)  By nature of the assignments, some volunteers come back with exciting new ideas for products that can be developed or new business methods that can be implemented.  My assignment was a bit too far removed from our core strengths for me to feel like I have anything to contribute on those sorts of topics.  My lessons are of the “what I needed to know I learned in kindergarten” variety.  I’m certain I’m not giving up any corporate secrets by saying that one of those key lessons is about the power of appreciation.  I recently saw an employment survey that ranked appreciation as the number one thing that employees want from their jobs, ranking above bonuses or promotions.  Even if I can’t always see how my work directly results in a product that helps patients, a simple “thank you”—even for work that constitutes my “normal” job—can leave me feeling like I’ve made a difference.

Speaking of making a difference, Liz (MCI project manager) is over in Ghana at the moment for continued work on the S2S project.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that they kept calling her Michelle—we look a bit alike, especially in a country with few white people—but I was not expecting to hear that, if they didn’t confuse us, the first thing they asked Liz was how I was doing.  Many of them have also told her how much they appreciate what I taught them.  That’s not a bad way to end the workweek.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Immersion therapy

A couple weeks ago, I gave my first formal presentation on the PULSE program at work.  I went all out for this first presentation—I laid out two tables’ worth of Ghana souvenirs to show and changed into the special Kente cloth outfit I got as a going-away present (see my post on 03 April 2011).  My former manager gave me a really nice introduction and took the opportunity to share my 5-year anniversary award with the attendees.  (Hard to believe that I’ve been here at GSK for that long.  Seems like only yesterday that I was moving back to NC from Boulder.)  He also gave out an award to a co-worker who took on one of my bigger project support roles while I was gone.  Then he handed the floor over to me. 

I was a bit nervous going into the talk, as I always am for presentations, but it was a good kind of excitement and nervousness.  Given that one of the key learnings I was planning to share was on appreciation, I made sure that I started off by thanking my colleagues, especially the “group formerly known as ----”, a (hopefully) humorous reference to the changes that happened to my group while I was gone.  I also spoke about how much the teachers valued my contributions by telling everyone that the beautiful outfit I was wearing was a gift from the Kumasi schools. 

The talk flowed really well over the course of the forty-five minutes that we allotted for it.  I had some really great questions from the attendees—I almost wrote “audience” but I intentionally avoided that word because I wanted this to be a conversation, not a presentation.  The only question that stumped me was on how I managed to keep from getting too emotionally involved in my work and my project.   I struggled with how to answer that question, since I’m not sure that I did keep myself from getting too involved.  My answer rambled on a bit, but I tried to point out that I knew I was there for only a short time to get the teachers started and that they would need to be able to complete the work on their own. 

Giving this talk helped flip a mental switch for me.  Before the talk, I had been very reluctant to talk in too much detail about my PULSE assignment, mainly because I didn’t want to have the same conversation a hundred times, especially given that I had blogged prolifically about it while having the assignment.  But now that I gave that formal talk, the floodgates have opened and I’m really enjoying sharing more of my experiences with anyone who will listen.  Since my talk, I’ve had many more people coming up and commenting on what they learned from it.  At least a couple attendees seemed to pick on my key messages since they thanked me for sharing my experiences with them.  A number of people have said that they wanted to attend my talk but couldn’t so I might see if their teams would be interested in having me talk at their group meetings.  I am very excited about what GSK has done with this program and would love to have more opportunities to share that excitement.


That same week, there was a meet-n-greet with some PULSE alumni and a group of this year’s PULSE Volunteers attending the pre-assignment training.  The huge turn-out made for a lively, entertaining evening of catching up with my PULSE class and meeting the new volunteers.  The PULSE alumni self-sorted based on their PULSE year, probably because those are the people with whom we attended the two-day intensive training prior to our assignments.  I know I was excited to see my fellow 2010 volunteers and hear how their assignments went.  I was humbled and honored to find out that quite a few of the other volunteers were reading my blog as often as I read theirs. 

After the event, I had my one-on-one re-entry conversation with my PULSE contact.  With all the changes that occurred in my part of the organization—and in me—during my assignment, I’ve been a little overwhelmed at figuring out how I fit into GSK.  The long conversation we had was another critical component of helping me make this transition.  I really appreciated knowing that my re-entry struggles seem to be a common situation for other PULSE volunteers.  Knowing that I’m not alone makes me much more committed to figuring out how to embrace this discomfort and accept it as just another piece of the development process that is PULSE.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

“Back to life, back to reality”

Last week was full of activities that are part of my transition back to life in the US.  I’ve had the opportunity to speak to three very different groups of people on my experiences: my colleagues at work, this year’s PULSE volunteers, and a kindergarten class.  That last group was the first “talk” of the week.  A friend of mine helped me connect her son’s kindergarten class with a Kumasi KG class.  This side project was really an excuse for me to make regular visits to the Kumasi KG class where they treated me like a rock star.  It reminded me of the Intel commercials with the tag line “Your rock stars aren’t like our rock stars.”  (I even had the tech gear, like a laptop and flash drives, to make me a credible tech star.)  I was happy to come back to the US KG class and tell them about my experiences in such a different place.  I also had gifts for them—two separate art projects done by the 60+ students in the Kumasi KG class.

I brought a tri-fold board with a smattering of pictures from my assignment, which I created primarily for my presentations at work.  My friend’s son had apparently talked up his friendship with me, which prompted the teacher to introduce me by asking the kids, “When you heard about Michelle, did you know that she was a grown-up?”, to which I piped up with “Sort of.”  As soon as I set out the board and sat on one of the little kid’s chairs in front of the kids, who were seated (mostly) quietly on the floor in front of me, the first question I got was about the soccer players.  When I pointed out that Ghanaians call soccer football and asked if any of the kids had known that before, a couple of them had, not surprisingly the Hispanic-looking kids in this multi-ethnic class.  I also showed them a Ghana Black Stars jersey.  My friend’s son leaned over and, in a very loud whisper, asked me to tell everyone that I had brought him and his brother a shirt like that one.  Being the good friend that I am, I told the class, which caused one of the kids in the back to pipe up, “You should go back to Ghana and get 23 shirts!”  Not coincidentally, there are twenty-three kids in the class.  It’s good to see that kids are the same everywhere.

I had a couple pictures posted of the slave castles at Elmina and Cape Coast.  Of course, one of the kids asked about the castles.  I said that they were from when the Europeans first came to Africa, at which point I trailed off and looked to the teacher for help.  She said, “I think that’s probably enough for them,” leaving me off the hook from trying to explain to a multi-racial group of 5- and 6-year-olds what the purpose of the castles was. 

Another question was about what a picture of a baby animal showed.  I said, “I think it’s a baby sheep,” which elicited a round of “Aww” from the kids, leading the teacher to say that I really would have been a hit if I had brought it with me.  (I had this mental image of smuggling the lamb on the plane and trying to get through customs with it.)  One of the little girls was fascinated by the baby (human, that is) that I saw in the Muslim part of Kumasi, which gave me a chance to point out that they learn about different religions in school there.  They also picked up on the pictures of a couple weddings I attended, one for a head teacher’s daughter and another for the caterer at our house.

The learning wasn’t a one-way street.  When I spoke about not being able to drink the water and having to buy water in bags, which they called sachets, a little girl in the back of the room raised her hand and asked, “Do they come in different flavors?  Where my mom is from, you can get them in strawberry and watermelon and like twenty other flavors.”  Turns out that the little girl’s mother is from somewhere in Puerto Rico.  Given that I have work colleagues who have worked in Puerto Rico, I’m wondering if they had that same experience.

All too soon, the school day ended and I had to make my exit before I was mobbed in the hallway by the kids leaving school.  My friend asked her son if he wanted to leave with her, but like all little kids, he preferred to stick with his normal ride home.  I’m really glad I had the chance to visit the class.  I need to follow up with the school in Kumasi and see if they’ve had a chance to read the class letter that was sent over.

More about the PULSE volunteers and the work talk in another post.