You can learn so much in college, the technical jargon, the mathematics of research, the methodology to it, but nothing can quite teach you like actual experience can. There is something about physically doing it, about placing your hands in that freezing cold water and moving the pieces and animals around yourself and writing down data at 3:00 in the morning with nothing more than a dim red light to see by while the ever present sound of water and air running encompass the entire lab in a blanket of inescapable sound. You just don't get that in a classroom. You can also never, never receive the life lessons that an experience like this gives you when you are in a classroom.
My time in Chile taught me a great deal, about science, about myself, about relationships, about life. I could never relay all of the things that Chile gave me, but I'd at least like to relay a few of the most important lessons that I learned in the hopes that I may be able to impart some of those lessons to you.
Working in science
Working on your first research project can be a little daunting. I felt relatively prepared, but at the same time, I only had two years of college under my belt an had no idea what to expect. There were things I was unsure of, things I had no idea how to do, things I'd never even heard of. That's ok. You're not expected to know everything at the start. Even if someone gives you attitude about it or is a little clipped with you because you don't fully know what you are doing, just remember that you can't know how to do everything, even when you've gone through all your schooling or you've had your PhD for 30 years. Everyone is learning. Science is a process, and it takes time to learn it. If you aren't learning something new all the time as a scientist, you're not doing it right. I had to learn to breathe and take it one step at a time. There were so many things that I forgot to do, so many things that I had never even heard of and didn't know needed to be done. But, I do now. Sometimes you learn better by making mistakes. If I mess up once, I'll remember it later. When I did a few things wrong the first run, I absolutely made sure not to do the same things the next run. Mistakes are a part of learning, and sometimes mistakes can be the best teachers. For all the things that you will do wrong, though, there will be things that you will do just right. You can't focus on all the things you've done incorrectly due to inexperience because it will cripple you. At one point, I had several issues at the same time, and when I had an instance where I accidentally placed animals in freshwater due to poor labeling, I couldn't take it anymore. I had placed so much pressure on myself, too much, and I broke down crying behind one of the labs. Sometimes things are out of your control or there was no way that you could have known, and in those instances you can't blame yourself. They can happen to anyone, and most of the time they really aren't your fault, so you can't take all that stress on. Take ownership for the mistake, but remedy it and solve it for the future. I told the people I was terrified to tell that the circumstance had happened, and immediately after that I labeled everything in the lab to remedy the problem. I actually saw someone almost use the freshwater for more animals until they saw the sign that I had made. I learned that mistakes can feel horrible, but as bad as they are, they can do a world of good.
Another thing I learned was that you have to not be afraid to ask. They wanted to see a lot of independence, so I was terrified to ask anything, and so I didn't. This came back to bite me. You don't need someone to hold your hand, you just have to ask when you are unsure or don't know what you are doing. I learned that you desperately need to have good communication. A lot of the issues came up because people assumed that I knew a lot more than I did and I was just too nervous to ask or didn't think to ask or sometimes didn't know to ask. Sometimes you have to learn to shove that feeling of worry about what people will think of you for asking and just ask because otherwise you might mess up something very important.
Dealing with toxic people
There is nothing quite as unraveling or terrifying as walking to meet your project mentor and overhearing a co-researcher tell that same project mentor every single "horrible" thing they feel you've ever done to them. Everyone at some point has someone in their life who is both toxic and unavoidable. They can be smothering and dangerous, a poison that just keeps trying to pull the life out of you. You can't allow them to do that, though. One of the hardest things for me during this trip was dealing with a toxic person. She and I were the exact opposites of each other, two very different people who were forced to share the same spaces and be in such close contact with one another for long periods of time. She was everywhere, and her toxic energy and behavior were smothering me. Toxic people can be relatively friendly to you one minute and then tear you to shreds the next, and these drastically different actions can be unpredictable. You want to rationalize their behavior, but the thing is that you can't because their behavior is precisely irrational. You have acknowledge that and move on. I had to learn to not waste my energy on her. She was like a vacuum, sucking in all your energy and joy. This journey, this experience was just too powerful and good of a thing for me to allow her to make me miserable. I learned that people's behavior towards you and others can bother and upset you, but you have to not grant them the ability to take your happiness away from you. You have to make a conscious effort to focus on yourself and what you need and to ignore their irrational and sometimes downright hateful behavior towards you.
Just because people talk about you behind your back or treat you unkindly doesn't give you the right to do the same. I learned to be the bigger person and go about my life. It would have been so easy and perhaps even a relief for me to talk about her behind her back, but I didn't. However, on the same token, it's always good to have a support group to help you deal with people who are toxic. Talk with people you really trust and let them know how these people make you feel, but also seek advice on how to deal with them. A lot of people helped me to learn how to push off the toxins and how to go about my day and encouraged me when I was a little down.
I also had to learn how to find time to get away from her. If you are constantly surrounded by a toxin, it will make you sick, and the same goes for toxic people. Find ways to get away from them and have time to yourself. Even if you just have to quietly get up and leave the room for a few minutes to take a breath and a break, do that. Those breaks, whether they be for a few minutes or a few hours, helped me to regain my composure and keep going. I learned that sometimes I would have to make time to get away because my mental and emotional health were important and I deserved to be healthy in both realms. I could not allow her negativity and her toxins to infect me and ruin such a beautiful experience, and I am happy to say that they didn't.
Learning a new language
I could write an entire blog post on this topic alone, but I will go ahead and just give the highlights. Learning a new language can be very difficult, whether you are learning Spanish or English or any other language. First and foremost, I learned that the only way to really learn another language was to not be afraid of it and jump in. The more that I tried, the better and more comfortable I became. I learned so much more when I stopped being nervous of speaking and just started actually speaking the language. People appreciate you for it, too. They like to see that you want take the time to learn their culture and to speak to them in their own language.
I also learned that a little encouragement can go a long way. Virtually everyone at ECIM was in the process of learning a language, so we all had that shared understanding about the difficulty of the task. I felt so much better and encouraged when people would tell me that "my Spanish was coming along," and I made sure to return the favor often. Having that shared experience brings people closer together but also creates a more learning-conducive environment that helps everyone to succeed.
There were a few tricks to learning a new language that I learned as well. I absolutely hate looking people in the eye, but I found that if you look directly into someone's eyes when they are speaking another language to you, it helps you to focus immensely more. Listening in on conversations and looking at the person who is talking when they are talking was also really great practice. I didn't always know what they were saying, but the more I listened, the more I started to understand. I sometimes felt a little awkward or "bad" for listening in on people's conversations, but the thing is, if they were saying those same conversations in English while we were all in a car or an office together, I would have "overheard" and understood them, so it wasn't an issue at all if I did the same thing to help me learn Spanish. Another way that I practiced Spanish was by listening to a conversation in Spanish or reading a sign, piece of paper, email, ect., and then repeating in English what was said or what I read to someone that I was comfortable with. I would then ask if my translation was correct. A lot of times I felt like I understood what was said or what I had read, but it was so much better if I asked if I understood correctly just to make sure. Once you learn something incorrectly, it's hard to unlearn it, so it is better to ask and make sure than to just assume that it's correct and learn something incorrectly. Not to mention, it's really encouraging to hear that you are actually understanding what is being said, not just that you think that you might be.
One of the most difficult things for me was to not be afraid to tell someone when I didn't understand something. Most people's first response when someone throws them off guard by saying a large amount of words that they don't understand yet is to just quietly nod their head and move on. However, if you continue to do this, you will make the other person think that you understand those words when you really don't, and you'll never get a chance to understand the things you don't if you don't tell someone that you don't understand. I had to start actively forcing myself to stop someone and tell them when I didn't understand what they were saying. This also goes both ways, so when I was with people who were also learning another language, after I was finished talking to them, I would ask if they understood me. This forced them to say whether or not they actually understood me or not, and I found that this greatly advanced our level of communication. I would also tell them to tell me if they didn't understand me. "Si tu no entiendes a mi, tu hablar a mi." It might irritate them a little if you always ask if they understand, but it saved me and others several times and really helps everyone involved in the conversation.
Don't worry so much about what other people think of you
I have always struggled with self-esteem issues. What made it worse this time is that I felt like I had to impress these people because I was representing my university and my country, so I wanted them to think that I was a good scientist and that I was a good person so that they would want more students from my university. I didn't want to ruin someone else's opportunity because I didn't do so well. When I first arrived, I told myself to just be me and I had almost no worries about what people thought of me; I just did what I needed to do and figured the rest would fall into place. A few weeks in, though, the stress got to me and my fear of what other people thought of me began to cripple me. I didn't feel like a good scientist at all, I just felt lost and helpless and like I was just someone who was good at photography and not so much at science. I thought people would think I was in the wrong field or just had a weak chance of being a scientist and I was in a lot of despair. At this point, I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps and tell myself to, quite frankly, shut up and ignore those bad thoughts. If they didn't think I should be a scientist or that I wasn't very good, then so be it. I knew that I was passionate about biology, especially marine biology, and that I was just new and didn't have a full grasp of what I was doing, but that experiences like this would help me to become a better scientist. If I forgot something or didn't know how to do it, I just had to tell myself it was due to inexperience and remind myself that I was doing this project by myself, and there were a lot of things to remember and know and it wasn't expected that I would know it all. It was, however, expected that I do my very best and go above and beyond what was needed, and I made sure to do that. "Have confidence in your work, Brooke, you are doing just fine" someone told me. I had to take a deep breath, look at what I had done, and be proud of it, regardless of how I felt others looked at me and my work.
I was also very concerned that people wouldn't like me. Would they think I was needy, annoying, would they be relieved when I left? Was I just a burden to them, someone they couldn't wait to get out of their hair? Thoughts like that could ruin an entire experience, and I could't allow it. People were so kind to me and even expressed to me at the end how much they cared about me and would miss me, and I had to force myself to look back on those moments and not worry about my feelings of insecurity about whether or not they really liked me. What if I really didn't get as close to some of these people as I thought I did, what if they just didn't like me but didn't have the heart to shoo me away? I realized that if I thought like this all the time, I would make myself miserable. So, I stopped reflecting on my fear and instead reflected on all the nice things they had done for me and how they had treated me. I then had to think about what I personally liked about myself and that other people would like me for the same reasons.
People pay attention
People are not blind. They pay attention. I worked all the time, more than I should have. WAY more than I should have. However, I felt like part of it was unavoidable. I had a lot to do because I had both the project to work on but I was also the photographer for the trip. I had to work endlessly on my project to get it done in time, photograph for my university and myself, write articles for my university, send email updates, write blog posts for donors and for people back home to keep them involved (I have loved doing these, though, as time consuming as they are; they help me to organize my thoughts, get them out there, and have even really encouraged me), and various other things. I hardly had time to eat, to sleep, to breathe. I was overworked. Part of it was because in the beginning I was unsure of how much work I needed to do to be "acceptable," so I just went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I was on par, and part of it was that I became addicted to it. I had set a precedent, and I felt I had to continue it. When I wasn't working, I felt like I needed to be or like I wasn't doing my job or what I was supposed to be doing. I've always struggled with it. I was so very proud of the work I had accomplished, though. I was so proud of how I was able to pull myself through time and time again during those long and arduous behavior monitor runs. I had done that, and I could hardly believe it. I really did feel like la machina, but I also felt like a survivor, a mountaineer who had made it to the top of Everest several times.
I have never been one to say all the things I have worked on or brag about all the work I've done (I say as I write a whole blog post on it). I always felt like if you do the work you are supposed to do, people will notice, and even if they don't, at least you know. At the same time, though, sometimes after weeks and weeks of working yourself into the ground, sometimes it is a little upsetting when you feel like no one has noticed your efforts. However, I learned that they do. One time while doing the last run and sitting on the wet concrete edge in the lab (my lab was outside, by the way) with the computer on my lap as I scrolled through data the 15 minutes before I had to get up and do another run, one of my dear friends looked at me and said, "You work too hard." I was so glad that someone noticed, that people could see that I was working my tail off to get done what needed to be done. Mind you, though, I wasn't working my tail off to impress anyone, I was working my tail off for me, for this project, because I could see the importance of it. One time while I was about ready to kill over and didn't know how much more I could take, I just looked down at the ocean view from my lab and thought, "I'm not doing this for just me. I'm not even doing it for the station. This is for everyone who will go on after me, so that they, too, can have precious moments like these to see the ocean still alive and well."
Several people began to tell me that they could see my efforts. I learned about my nickname, La Machina, and had people consistently tell me to take a break, that I had been working too hard. I learned that people do notice and they do care, even if you don't think they do. People notice other things, too. I thought no one noticed about my struggle with my toxic person. I had been quietly riding through it, trying not to rock the boat and make a big deal about it because that wasn't why I was here. People saw it, though, and they were encouraging about it. They knew I was struggling. Someone gave me such a great piece of advice that I wish I had heard earlier. "Don't apologize for her behavior. She can take care of herself. You just focus on you." Whether you feel like they do or not, people notice you and your struggles, and some will even be kind enough to let you know you're not alone.
There are still so many things I learned that I would love to relay, but I could never tell them all. Maybe some other time I'll post about more, but these were the things I learned the most. I am so, so grateful for this experience and what it gave me. I am grateful for the experience and knowledge that I gained, the people I formed bonds with, the lessons learned. And of course, I am very, very grateful for all of the photographs I was able to take and all the photo tricks I learned. I'll be able to take these lessons, both from life, science, and photography, anywhere I go now, and for that, I am eternally thankful. This trip was truly life-changing, and I know it will stay with me for as long as I live.