Last year, I wasn't even sure I would be able to go back to the frigid Chilean waters. When I did come back, I wasn't sure that anything could top my experience last year. I was wrong on both accounts.
My trip last year changed me, significantly. It made me a better scientist, a better photographer, and a better person. My work ethic and my confidence soared after my last endeavor and showed greatly in my coursework and personal life, and I felt like a truly different person. But this year, I changed even more. Drastically more.
I learned so much, and I think it is quite frankly part of my duty to relay some of the things that I learned on to you, the reader. Perhaps you can learn a little bit from my experience or what I learned can help you in some way. The human experience is not completed in isolation. These are some of the most important things I learned during my time in Chile this year.
Working in Science Part 2
Science is a pretty unique field with some pretty unique challenges. There isn't necessarily one right way to do it and each method has its own pros and cons. One of the advantages of science is that there are other people in your field who can help you think about ideas in a different light or can catch possible problems that maybe you did not think about. Fellow scientists are a wealth of ideas and can be incredible and invaluable resources. The best projects are usually done in conjunction with other people because as the old saying goes, "more brains are better than one." I worked with multiple intelligent scientists this time and learned that some of the best ideas can be brought together when multiple people add input.
I also learned that you need to go with your gut. There were several instances where I had picked up on something due to personal observations and others were hesitant about my observation. It never hurts to try, even if your gut instinct turns out to be wrong, and I learned that in reality my gut instinct was fairly consistent. As a scientist, you have to be confident in yourself first because your confidence level could affect your work. If you think you can't do it because you lack the training or experience, you could affect your data because you are already going in with a mindset that you may fail. If you think that you won't be able to do it correctly, you won't. If you think, "I'll probably mess this up," you WILL mess it up. Don't think that you can't do it. Have confidence in yourself. Do everything to the best of your ability and remember that you aren't just doing research to benefit you but to benefit other scientists, other people, the animals in the study, and the environment. The purpose of science is to better ourselves and our world, and science should never be about one singular person or it is being done for the wrong reasons.
There is also nothing like having the opportunity to get your feet in the water and begin working in your desired field. I have loved marine biology for a long time, but living in an oceanless, completely green world for so long kept me far away from working with the thing I was trying so desperately to study. What if I didn't actually like it? What if I wasn't cut out for it? My adventure last year showed me that despite the hardships and my lack of knowledge, I was where I needed to be. This year showed me that I was for sure in the right field. Working with the ocean all day every day for ten weeks was more than fulfilling for me. I was happier than I had been in a long time, and quite frankly the happiest I had ever been. I lavished working in the lab and working with the marine animals and my dear fish. I could survive weird hours or staying up late or getting up very early because I was so intensely in love with what I was doing. Sometimes it didn't even feel like work, I was just doing it because I loved it so much. There were of course days when I was so exhausted I could barely drag myself around to do what needed to get done or times when I was intensely frustrated with how things were going (more frustrated than I had ever been in my life), but working with the ocean that I adored made up for all of that. It was especially hard for me to leave and has been hard because I was finally doing the very work I had been moving towards for the past seven-ish years. It was like I had finally made it and then had to be abruptly ripped away from it. That is when you know that you are in the right field. You have to get out there and experience it for yourself and make SURE that you are where you think you want to be. I have seen people get out into their field and realize it wasn't for them and by then it was too late. Get out there, get your hands dirty in your field, get experience. There are opportunities and ways to get yourself out there. I had to travel thousands of miles because that was where the opportunity was for me. Opportunity and experiences are out there, you just have to seek them out.
People do care. They may not always show it, but my goodness they do care, sometimes even a great deal. I tend to care too much and worry about how others are feeling in that moment or how they think of me. I cared quite a bit about everything, from my fish's health to other people's emotions and feelings. Sometimes I wondered if I was the only one who cared about these things or if people even cared about me. It's not a great thing to dwell on, but it's human nature to wonder if someone cares about you, too. In the beginning, I wasn't sure. I knew that I personally cared about what was important, and for a few weeks, it was enough for me. Eventually, however, all the strain of caring too much on my own began to wear me pretty thin. Did anyone else care about the things that I was caring so deeply about? Did anyone care about me? One day before I left I had a particular instant that made me question a lot and after lugging an insane amount of heavy sand down six flights of stairs by myself (a proud moment for me, actually), I sat at the bottom of the stairs for the moment and thought pretty deeply about everything. I felt like I meant more to these people, I had done so much for the labs with animal care and other aspects and had helped people and such, but it appeared as though few people really cared that much about me. It's natural to feel this way sometimes, deep down all anyone really wants is to be cared for or to have at least one person who cares about you as a person. But, I analyzed everything and realized that I couldn't focus on others. I had accomplished so much on my own, and I cared about things that I thought were important, so if anything, I could at least count on me. Plus, there were a few select people who had showed amply that they did care, and I had to tell myself that they were the ones who truly mattered. I headed up those stairs with a little less weight (in two senses). But still, I wondered.
In the last few days before my departure, people showed me pretty amply that they cared without me instigating anything. I was surprised almost to the brink of tears when nearly everyone at the station jumped out to surprise me before I left, shared one last sunset with me, and gave me a beautiful card with heartfelt notes. People wrote me more notes, gave me gifts, and told me in person, both directly and subtly, how much they cared.
People do care, I promise.
People Pay Attention
I notice everything. I pick up on the subtleties that most people miss and I usually have people figured out pretty quickly. Whether it be a change in tone, a subtle gesture, or a distant dolphin fin in tumultuous water, I tend to catch it. My radar and intensity with which I focus tends to be significantly different than other people, however, so I often assume that they don't pick up on certain things after years of experience. However, my assumption was proven wrong on multiple occasions. People noticed significantly more than I thought, knowing several of the things I thought I was doing in secret or the amount of work and effort I was putting into things. They mentioned noticing certain subtleties in other people, too, that I thought had been missed. They had noted profound things about other people or mentioned rather deep, observant behaviors they saw in others. People used words I or others had specifically used in certain circumstances, or they brought up things I had sworn had been long forgotten. Perhaps they don't pay as much attention as I do, but they certainly pay attention. People see things, people notice changes. People notice more than you may think.
I tend to be pretty bad when it comes to self-care. Sometimes my self-care routine is virtually non-existent. However, my time this year forced me to do at least a little bit of self-care out of necessity. I am extremely introverted, I am just very good at being friendly with people or hiding the fact that I may not want to see a single solitary person in that moment. I need ample alone time or I physically cannot function. About two weeks before my departure, I was about done with people. I have what I like to think of as "levels" for my people interaction abilities at a certain time. I have different levels of people tolerance that I can handle. There are some people that I consider people I can be around always and I always enjoy their presence, and then the levels go down, with some people being in the "most of the time," "some of the time," or "rarely" category. The majority of people fall under the "most of the time" category, and I can tell how far I've gone by how my tolerance is at the moment. At this specific time, I was absolutely exhausted and had not had a moment alone for a very long time, and my energy level for being around people was wearing very thin. What didn't help was that a class of 20-something new people had been brought to the station, and so now people were EVERYWHERE and I didn't even have a break on the weekends. I couldn't even go to my "secret" hideout spots without being discovered. For crying out loud, I had been discovered trying to have personal "me-time" at around 12:00 AM (when I assumed no one would find me) not once but twice. By this point I didn't even want to see the people on my "Always" list and I could feel my irritability rising and my stress level skyrocketing. I couldn't do it much longer or I would have a breakdown. At this point, I decided to do something about it: I began waking up fairly early in an effort to have at least a small period of time to myself to get some stuff done but also just to be in a room alone. I have never been a fan of waking up early, but I was so desperate at this point that I knew I had to make time somehow. I continued this trend until I left, and it drastically improved my tolerance levels and people stress. I was losing sleep, but at least I had moments alone. Unfortunately, my secret was discovered and I got a lot of questions regarding my strange custom, but I embraced the awkwardness because to me, that time was worth losing sleep and being constantly questioned.
I also set aside time on Friday nights to bake. Regardless of what was going on, I forced myself to have baking time to myself. "It's a bit late, isn't it?" the guard asked me one night. It was, but I didn't care. It was my special alone time, and I needed it.
Self-care is important. Humans were not designed to go on and on forever. It is so important to take a few moments at least to do something nice for yourself or help yourself. It is just as important as your physical health because mental health is so intimately connected to physical health and they both affect one another. You cannot expect to be fully healthy if you are physically fit but lacking in your mental health.
Learning a New Language
Granted, I already wrote an entire blog post on this, but there is so much more that I learned since that post that I had to share at least a little more with you. Learning a new language is a process. Some days are incredible and you can't believe how much BETTER you are, and some days are just horrible and you can barely understand two words of it. Some days you're just too exhausted to pick anything up. One night I was absolutely exhausted to the bone and had been speaking in Spanish all day, and by now my brain couldn't even function in English. I had to ask a friend to repeat a phrase a good three times before I realized it was useless. "Tired?" he laughed kindly. Everyone has good and bad days.
The best thing you can do is try. If you sit on the sidelines and don't try, you will never get anywhere. You have to throw yourself into scary situations and make yourself speak the language. You have to go to events where almost no one will be speaking in English and immerse yourself in conversations, even if you can't add too much to it. You have to give presentations and speak up with a question or two during other's presentations. You have to join conversations, and you have to be present.
You need to find safe people to practice with, too. Some people won't be patient or kind, but some people will be accommodating and helpful. Some people will kindly correct you when you're wrong or they will help you finish off the word or phrase when you can't remember it. "ESTAN" a friend warmly corrected me as he brushed past with a phone in one hand and a sea star in the other. Like everything else in life, you need a support system, so find people you trust who can help you when you need it.
I also cannot stress enough how important it is to learn the local slang. Chilean Spanish has a ton of words only spoken in Chile, so if you don't know it, you are out of luck. Once I started learning their unique words, I began to understand SO much more of what people were saying.
People are Important
I'm really not that much of a people-person. I am absolutely an animal person. I would be so much happier with a lab full of animals than a lab full of people. For the past few years, however, I have been learning that people are important. During my time in Chile this year, I really, truly realized just how important and how beautiful people are.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has motivations and reasons why they are the way that they are. Everyone has seen things that invigorated them and inspired them, and everyone has seen things that shook them to their core. They have had good moments, and they have had bad moments. Regardless of what they have been through or how they behave, they are so very important.
People can do a lot. I've seen people turn their whole lives around or pick themselves up off the ground and accomplish so much more than they ever thought. I've seen people learn whole languages and become more confident people. I've seen them go from scared newcomers to confident, comfortable veterans who can take on the world. It's beautiful.
People are beautiful, too. Everyone has little intricacies about them or little things that they do that are simply lovely. Maybe they sing a little bit to themselves in the office. Maybe they belt it out in the aquariums and give you the biggest grin on your face as you tend to your animals. Maybe they are really good at cooking, or have a cute little face that they make when they are truly happy. Maybe just their smile and lovely attitude is beautiful. Sometimes they are looking at something or involved in something and the way that they look at it, with so much interest and intent, is beautiful because it means so much to them. Perhaps it's the photographer and filmmaker in me, but I am finding more and more that the little things that people do are important.
It's important to understand people as individuals. I saw more beauty deep within people than I had been able to see in a long time. I learned to see them differently and for more than what they advertised themselves as. I saw them for them. I realized how important it was to understand people and understand where they were coming from, and to understand how important they are.
At the end of the day, it's relationships that matter. Not how many publications you pumped out, not how many people viewed your work, not how much work success you had. At the end of your life, the most fulfilling part is the relationships that you built and how those made you feel. It's that human connection that binds us all together that really means something.
These are just a few of the things I learned in Chile this year, and I truly learned so much, more than I ever thought. I am eternally grateful for that. I will admit, it's been an incredibly difficult week for me. I miss it fervently. I miss the sea, I miss doing what I love, I miss the people I had grown to love. I was doing what I had wanted to do for so long and actually had some resemblance of a little life (which is probably shocking to the people there, but trust me, compared to my "all university work" lifestyle here, I had more of a life and free-time at that little station than I had ever had here), but if felt like all of a sudden all of that disappeared in an instant. I went from winter and shorter days to intense heat and days with seven more hours of daylight in the span of one singular day. I traded the ocean for cornfields. I have to think about life now, grad school, and a ton of applications and deadlines. The first few days I kept waking up thinking, "Ok, time to go check on the fish and then go to the office," and then having to realize that was impossible. It's been hard, and it will be hard, but I think that maybe that's a good sign. If it hurt, it meant something. My short time certainly meant something to me.
But don't worry, this isn't the end. I am going back. Voy a volver. I'm not quite sure how yet, but I will make it back somehow. I will be back to learn so much more. But until then, there is so much to learn here, I just have to be open to it. It will take time as always, but good things come in time.