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”.