Verb: STAND

This time last year, I began my 4th year as a PhD candidate displaced. I had no mentor, no lab, and no thesis project. I felt betrayed, bullied, and abandoned. I didn’t know what I had done that was so horrible to deserve this.

But I hadn’t done anything to deserve it. The truth is, my program had failed me. I did what I was supposed to. I talked to all the “right” people. I made the requested adjustments. And still, I was in jeopardy of leaving school without my PhD.

Never had Donnie McClurkin’s lyrics felt so real to me:
What do you do when you’ve done all you can
And it seems like it’s never enough?
And what do you say
When your friends [mentors, in my case] turn away
And you’re all alone?

Tell me, what do you give when you’ve given your all
And it seems like you can’t make it through?
Well, you just stand when there’s nothing left to do.
You just stand, watch the Lord see you through.
Yes, after you’ve done all you can,
You just stand.

I didn’t understand at first. You see, patience is not my virtue. In my opinion, standing always symbolized laziness or loitering, basically being unproductive. It never symbolized strength or silently fighting back. . .until now. This time last year, I had nothing else to do except stand and it was the most difficult thing to do. All I wanted to do was hide, lay in bed all day, and cry. I didn’t want to be seen, answer any questions, or explain the situation anymore. But I realized if I ran away from this, that would mean they successfully stole my dream without so much as a peep from me. I would have HANDED my dream over. And I knew I couldn’t do that.

With no energy left in me to fight the enemy, all I could do was stand in his face. So that’s what I did. I went to school every day and sat at my student desk. I’m sure those who tried to tear me down were surprised to see me, but there I was. . .standing in the fire without being consumed.

And sure enough, the Lord began to make a way! Soon I had interviews to find a new lab. My spirit wasn’t fully prepared to fight just yet, but God sent me a sign reminding me that I didn’t have to: all of the opportunities that required too much fight were taken away, leaving a single opportunity to take. Here was my chance to start over.

So in the spirit of starting over: this time last year, I began my 4th year as a PhD candidate on a new project, with new mentorship, and a new spirit. ”You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done”. In a single year, God took me from 0 to 100 (real quick, 😛 ). I am so excited and overwhelmed by the favor He has given/is giving me.

The countdown to graduation has already begun. T-17 months!!! Follow me on this journey to become Dr. Martin as I go through the ups and downs of school life, career development, and personal growth. I know I’m not the only one out there, so I hope my stories can help you too!

©2014 by Ayana Martin

Verb: BLOOM and GROW

“The lotus is the most beautiful flower, whose petals open one by one. But it will only grow in the mud. In order to grow and gain wisdom, first you must have the mud — the obstacles of life and its suffering. ” -Goldie Hawn, A Lotus Grows in the Mud

Well I must truly be that Lotus Flower Bomb that Wale was talking about because I have been slung through the mud so much in grad school that I’m convinced I now live there. I took a hiatus from blogging because an effort was made to end my graduate career early and I had to refocus and figure out how I would overcome this obstacle. I knew the actions were unethical. Post-prelims, it cannot be decided for me whether or not I can continue pursuing a PhD (unless I have failed to meet milestones after a cautionary probation). Yet that is what transpired. All of a sudden, I was an advanced grad student (4th year!!!) competing for space with new students. I was suffering. While sitting in my suffering, trying to figure out how I got to this point, I realized there were just as many advantages to my position as there were disadvantages, so I optimized those advantages.
1. Con: as an advanced student, a PI might not want to take me in because s/he would have a limited timeline for a project (translation: less free labor).
Pro: as an advanced student, a PI can get more progress and product from me because I have already acquired applicable lab skills and would not require much training.

2. Con: as an advanced student looking for a lab, I don’t have funding to support me.
Pro: incoming grad students also do not have funding to support them. I would require less $ due to less amount of time I need to complete my degree.

3. Con: as an advanced student without a lab, I do not have a project to complete in order to get my degree.
Pro: as an advanced student still fighting to be here, I have more dedication, drive, and perseverance to complete my degree, whereas a new student may end up not passing prelims or deciding to leave grad school.

This outlook gave me hope, for I could now see above the mud. Just before the close of 2013, I found a new lab home. I began 2014 very guarded and hesitant because I had been emotionally bullied and nearly defeated. But I continued to stand (in the mud). Little by little, I let down my guard and opened up my mind (one petal at a time). I received instruction and encouragement positively (growing and gaining wisdom). After 6 months, I think I’m finally on my way to becoming the most beautiful flower (lotus). I have accomplished more in these 6 months with my new mentor(s) than I ever did with my old mentor(s). I have finished my first aim, was accepted to TWO national workshops, and received travel awards to attend both. Not only that, but I am also applying to receive a Certificate in Global Health with my degree. Funny how that worked out: somebody didn’t want me to get a PhD and now I’m getting a PhD and then some!

This has been my process. It has not been easy. It has not been pretty. But the bullsh!t dealt to me I have turned into fertilizer. So the grass is finally starting to look greener on MY side.

©2014 by Ayana Martin

Verb: LET GO!

After a wonderful time dancing the night away, we got back with just enough time for a catnap before the next day’s adventure: ZIPLINING! Christina had no idea what was in store. All she knew was there was a harness involved. To keep the nerves away, she began cooking our first breakfast while everyone else got ready. Just as the huevos began to sizzle in the pan, there was a knock on our door and a friendly voice called out to us, “Hola! Que lo que!”

Christina and I were a little startled. Were we that friendly last night and gained a stalker?!? Naaah. So I went outside to see what was going on. The guy introduced himself and explained that he was the transportation that was going to take us to the ziplining transportation. . .a taxi to take us to the taxi? #sketch. I went back inside to check for any email updates from the company that booked our tour and sure enough there was a new email validating his story. The only discrepancy: he was 45 minutes early. He told us there was a change in the ziplining transportation’s schedule and they were already waiting for us, so we must hurry. #facepalm

Christina finished up the eggs as I finished drying my hair and brushing my teeth. Then we switched positions so she could dry her hair and brush her teeth while I put the food away. . .

As we apologetically climbed into the zipline truck, we were greeted by warm smiles (and a wink from the guide Elvio). On the way to Monkey Jungle, the warm wind whipped our hair, the sun melted our worries, and the excitement was additive as we all chatted to calm our nerves. Two girls from Oklahoma were also on their first trip abroad, and they were staying at the resort we were headed to later in our trip, so we were excited to hear their stories. They told us about all the great music and clubs they’d been to and all the great food they had. Assuming the places they were talking about were outside of the resort, we asked if their taxi experience was as crazy as ours. Shockingly, they actually never left the resort for their experiences. They only left for excursions like today, and that transportation was door to door. They had NO IDEA what it was like in the actual city. . .and they didn’t think they were missing out on anything. Seriously?! How can you say you experienced the Dominican Republic without actually leaving the walls that confine you? 

Thankfully Elvio gracefully inserted himself into our conversation to avoid the awkward silence that was sure to come. Elvio was intrigued by our expression to experience the true Dominican Republic. His green eyes sparkled as he shared stories about his family and his favorite things to do in the city. He and Christina “clicked” on the topic of baseball. He told us about his son who was a professional baseball player getting ready to sign a US professional contract until he got bit by a mosquito and contracted malaria. Despite the tragedy of the story, he had a jovial outlook on life. He was even looking forward to getting married! Soon! To Christina! Hahahaha He announced his ‘engagement’ to the passengers as we pulled up to Monkey Jungle and told the guides to take extra care of his future wife and ‘sister’-in-law (me).

Monkey Jungle is a 280 acre working farm with nearly a mile of ACCT Certified Zip Line. There are 7 Stations and a free fall fan descender, which drops almost 60 feet into an ancient cave! After Ziplining, there is a tour of a botanical garden with rabbits, peacocks, turkeys, and squirrel monkeys! There is also a large enclosure that houses rescue capuchins who entertain and provide countless memories. The extra special thing about Monkey Jungle is that all proceeds benefit the onsite medical/dental clinic which provides FREE service to the community!

Aside from a great adventure, ziplining was a lesson in letting go. You’re strapped to a cable, on a ledge, and you can’t go anywhere if you don’t take the leap. Sometimes you’re on a ledge that is in the middle of nowehere and you can’t go back to where you were. You can only trust life, let go, and move forward. And when you do that, you might be surprised at how enjoyable the journey is. This is important to overcoming things that may be holding us back in life. Maybe you have the death grip on your comfort zone, or you’re dragging out your latest relationship (job, friend, love included). Whatever has you stuck, you’ve got to let go.

We truly enjoyed the experience at Monkey Jungle. From the jolly Southern-accented, Tennessee-native owner, to the guides nicknamed after celebrities (Eddie Murphy, Will.I.Am, Kobe, Chris Brown, Mariah Carey, and later we met Usher), to feeding the squirrel monkeys, parrots, and rescue ashy-faced owl. . .this experience was more than words could express. So enjoy the pictures and video of our experience!

©2013 by Ayana Martin

Verb: BAILA! (Dance!)

After spending way too much time in the grocery store, we finally headed to our humble abode at SunCamp DR Apartments in Munoz, a lovely village just outside Puerto Plata. We had a spacious 2 bedroom apartment with a very comfy living and kitchen area.

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As is standard travel customs, we excitedly unpacked then headed out of the room to see who and what was around. After finding No-one and Nothing, we lounged by the river to figure out what to do with the remaining daylight hours. It wasn’t long before adventure found us again. A few minutes into our chat, we heard laughter coming from the front of the complex. Ariel and Silvia, affectionately called “Margarita” by Ariel, were returning from horseback riding (initially we thought her name was really Margarita; he said it so sweetly!). We went out to introduce ourselves and ended up getting invited to a night on the town. Silvia wanted to venture into the city and explore El Malecon – the stretch of street that runs along the edge of the island – and we absolutely wanted to tag along. Plus we were HUNGRY and Hugo, the chef, was not in yet.

So with that, we headed to the taxi stand that would take us into the city. Ruta Munoz was the taxi of choice. It only cost 30 pesos ($0.75) per person and drove a specific route all day long. Perfect! On the short walk to the stand, we couldn’t help but wonder how this was going to work. . .There were a total of 5 of us going (Ariel and our photographer joined us). Obviously we wouldn’t all fit in one car. . .and with no real destination in mind, how would we know where to meet up? Ariel read our minds (or our confused faces) and intruded upon our thoughts:

Ariel: “No problem! We’re all going in the same car.”

Us: O_o

Silvia: “Ruta Munoz taxis carry 7 people: 6 passengers plus the driver!”

Us: “Whaaaaat?” Jesus be a fence!

After arriving in El Malecon unscathed, we found a local restaurant and had our first Dominican meal. The food was AMAZING! It was so fresh, very flavorful, and paired perfectly with our El Presidente beers (the national beer). After dinner, we walked down El Malecon and ran into our dessert: Daikiris! As we continued on, with drinks in tow, we found ourselves in a mixture of rhythms and beats blaring from all directions. Parked cars were setting up speakers the size of me. Moving cars had windows all the way down and volume all the way up. Motorcycles didn’t skip a beat either, as they equipped themselves with musical backpacks (aka subwoofers and bungee cords)! This was clearly “la lleca” (slang for “the spot”). And we weren’t just IN the mix, we WERE the mix! With all the wonderful music surrounding us, we couldn’t resist dancing! The police officers hanging out (apparently after work because they weren’t regulating the crazy traffic) enjoyed our salsa 😉 The young boy next to us with his family enjoyed schooling us with his reggaeton moves. And we enjoyed dancing the night away. Silvia even said a few times throughout the night, “Ayana, music is IN your blood!”

We bonded, practiced Spanish, and shared stories. . .mainly our top lessons from the DR thus far:

  • The answer to everything is “No problem!”
  • Avoid public “Dominican bathrooms” (aka that bush over there) at all costs – even if it means begging the Daikiri lady to let us use her apartment.
  • Don’t try the “fries” – especially when the fries are actually lambi and NOT potatoes (but DO try the lambi).

Check out pictures and video of our El Malecon adventures:

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©2013 by Ayana Martin

Verb: SHOP! Our first experience in DR

In May 2013, Christina and I embarked on the VERY FIRST Insert(VERB)Here travel project. It was Christina’s first time traveling outside the United States (check our her story here). With nerves in overdrive and excitement on turbo, we dove head first into accomplishing the goals of the travel project:

  1. Empathy training through complete immersion
  2. Eliminating stigmas through out of the box experiences
  3. Public service through volunteer work

As soon as we left the airport, we headed to our first challenge: GROCERY SHOPPING. Now, this first challenge may sound easy. . .and  it was intended to be easy. . .but adventure had another idea in mind. Our new amigo Sam took us to the local one-stop-shop “La Sirena” – basically the Dominican Walmart. We only needed food for 3 days (we were heading to an all-inclusive resort later in the week), so we thought this would be a no-brainer.

As it turns out, shopping in a foreign country was more of an experience than we were expecting! For starters, let’s talk about personal space. “Which aisle is that on?” Other shoppers would park their cart and block you in, then proceed to reach over you for their desired food. . .all without ever making eye contact with you and seeing the horror in your face. Those that did make eye contact with you simply smiled and moved on, completely oblivious to your confusion.

Next, let’s address the blinking sign and arrow saying “THE FOREIGNERS ARE HERE!” We became a spectacle (not in a bad way) when our Spanish conversation ended at “chorizo y huevos” and circled the ENTIRE meat department looking for breakfast sausages. We circled several times – feigning looking for other items to feel less lost – until one of the employees had mercy on us and directed us via interpretive dance to the chorizo freezer.

Lastly, the conversions were a beast. This goes for language as well as currency (PhD candidates use calculators too!!). Grocery shopping definitely poked holes and sank our ship S.S. Spanish-We-Thought-We-Knew. Notably, the items that caused us THE MOST grief was SALT and PEPPER! There were 20 versions of salt, minimum, ranging from $40RD to $400RD ($1USD to $10USD)! And mostly salts costing hundreds of $RD (NOTE: the higher price did NOT translate to bulk size, rather American brands -___-). Is it THAT serious? There was no ground black pepper in regular size. There was ground white pepper in regular size or ground black pepper in Feed America size. Good thing our challenge was to try all things Dominican. We just never imagined salt and pepper to be one of them 🙂

After grocery shopping (we’re pretty sure Sam took a nap while waiting for us), we headed to our humble abode: Suncamp DR Apartments! We had our own 2 bedroom apartment with a large living area, kitchen area, and a bathroom to share. The water was warm (most of the time) and the regular bugs stayed outside. The Jurassic bugs somehow snuck in unnoticed. Don’t they always?! It’s like they receive stealth training or something! Fortunately, this only happened the last day of our stay in the apartment. The people at Suncamp were so warm and welcoming! The owner, Diane, was so passionate about helping the community in Munoz. She knew EVERYONE by name and what everyone’s individual needs were. It was clear how priceless she was to the community. Her son Sam and his girlfriend Jen were so down to earth and very cool to hang out with. It immediately felt like we were old friends. Ariel was extremely fun! He was our guide for several of our activities, as you’ll see in the coming stories. And Hugo was just too cool! He was the French chef, with wonderful music taste, who dabbled in photography/videography, and was always willing to have a laugh and a drink with us! Silvia, one of the regular visitors, was super sweet and relatable! (We now have a reason to visit Spain!) But our favorite friend, hands down, was Bobby! Bobby was the sweetest dog who never wanted to leave our side. He was always on welcome duty when we returned from an adventure and was always in chill mode.

Check out the pictures to get an idea of how we got to live in Puerto Plata, DR!

©2013 by Ayana Martin

I’m BAACCKK!!!!

And I come bearing a title: PhD Candidate!! Did you miss me? 🙂

I apologize for the extended absence. Life was put on hold while I studied for my PhD qualifying/preliminary exam (aka prelims). Prelims determine whether students have the necessary background knowledge, research logic, and communication skills to be a scientist (didn’t I do that when you accepted me in the first place??? #imjustsaying). They usually consist of some written exam (a grant or objective test) and an oral exam (defending a project you designed). Prelims are the brutal hurdle that all students must jump to advance from PhD STUDENTS to PhD CANDIDATES.

Before:

image

After:

I am nowhere near the first to complete this process, but I also know I am not the last. This process was difficult and I didn’t have much support. I started this process way behind my peers: I was a whole year late; the semester prior, I was actively seeking a different lab; that didn’t pan out so I had to stay and work it out; the semester of, I was diligently generating data, but I couldn’t reasonably catch up to my peers; my position seemed impossible and some people had no problem reminding me of that.

At times, I found it very difficult to be motivated. I found myself taking comfort in the idea that if I sabotage myself and just don’t study enough, then I’ll know exactly why I failed; as opposed to studying my tail off and still failing because my committee collectively decided I didn’t know enough.

But then I realized, “If I sabotaged myself and go home with my master’s, so what? So what if I know the reason. . .they still won!” And THAT just could not happen. So I prepared to fight. What little support I did have, I used them as much as I could. And with their help, I passed my prelims on the first round with ONE data slide! #ButGod #wontHedoit

For those interested in pursuing a PhD or currently moving towards prelims, don’t be daunted. Believe me when I say, YOU CAN DO IT. To help encourage you, I am leaving you with the 5 things that were crucial for me.

1. Give yourself time. Select your committee early. Start organizing your best data as soon as possible. Give yourself 2-3 months to write, review, rewrite and rewrite your proposal as well as study background and tangential materials.

2. Know your committee. Identify their area of expertise. Try to anticipate the questions they are likely to ask. My first committee meeting to approve my proposal shed A LOT of light on the focal points of each committee member.

3. Know what is expected of you. It’s so easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of HOW MUCH you “should” know to pass. Meet with each committee member to start an open dialogue about what you’re expected to cover. The best advice I received was, “If you can’t trace back to your project while you’re reading and studying related topics (i.e. how did I get here?), then you’ve gone too far.”

4. Practice the process. 4 weeks prior to my exam, I had mock exams where I stood in front of various lab members, collaborating mentors, or anyone who would listen and answered questions. This was brutal because I left each mock exam feeling defeated and near tears. But when the tears retreated, I set out on a path of redemption (and possibly vengeance because I know my stuff!). The mock exams toughened my skin, prepared me for criticisms, and offered teaching moments on how to better address curveball questions.

5. R.A.I.N. Recognize. Acknowledge. Investigate. Non-identify. When the actual exam is proceeding, it is easy to feel like you’re under attack. RAIN is a mindfulness meditation technique to help keep your brain clear and operating at its maximum while under pressure. When you start to feel the meltdown:

  • Recognize it. Be aware that you’re feeling emotional. This allows you to pause and check in with yourself to see what’s going on.
  • Acknowledge it. This doesn’t mean you have to give in or react to it. It’s simply accepting that the feeling is there; it’s happening; you’re experiencing it.  This allows you the potential to change course.
  • Investigate it. Pay close attention to your physical reactions and what they may mean, as well as your thoughts/interpretations. Tight chest = deep sadness = He’s saying I’m dumb. Ears hot = grief or tears = She’s saying she doesn’t like my project. Jaws clenched = anger = They don’t believe in me. (of course these are just suggestions)
  • Non-identify with it. This could be strictly mental or even physical. These feelings don’t reflect YOU. They merely reflect whatever is there. Sometimes taking a step back or grabbing a sip of water can help detach from the trigger. This frees you from the attachment and opens up space to let the triggers and feelings pass without incident.

I hope these tips are helpful and encouraging to those interested in taking this road. This road is less traveled, especially if you are a Black Woman. But it’s difficult for everyone. These 5 things saved my grad school career and I can proudly say I am a. . .

PhD Candidate

©2013 by Ayana Martin