Reaching the Summit

SPRING 2017
Leigh Ann
K.
Nuclear Science and Engineering

I saw the police car just a little too late. I looked at the speedometer, and unlike the rest of the morning when I’d been sticking to the speed limit, I’d somehow drifted up to over 80 mph. Sally, my friend and hiking buddy, murmurs, “Oh no,” as she sees the red and blue lights come on.

I was driving to New Hampshire like I do most weekends, escaping the confines of Cambridge and MIT and looking for some adventure. This weekend in particular I was leading an MIT Outing Club (MITOC) trip for the Winter School we put on every January. The challenging part of the day was supposed to be keeping seven inexperienced hikers from killing themselves, not arriving at the trailhead.

I take the ticket (with a fine that is ~10% of my salary as a PhD student) and hand it to Sally without looking at it in an attempt to avoid the inevitable. Anger and frustration are emanating from my body as I continue driving north. Sally tries to ameliorate my emotions, knowing this is my second ticket in as many months, after going four years with no traffic violations. I seethe.

Frustration is a familiar emotion to any grad student. The high-tech, pristine labs full of technicians that I see on TV are a fable, at least here at MIT. Almost no day, certainly no week, has gone by since I started  grad school where I haven’t dealt with some imperfect aspect of my work, whether it be a WiFi deadzone, a water main fail, or a target chamber held up by  deformed wood and spare floor tiles. Some of these things  are out of my  control, and my frustration can be directed towards the powers that be. But in many cases (like in that of the aforementioned target chamber), I can’t blame anyone except myself (and my labmates) for sacrificing quality for time or  convenience.

By the time Sally and I meet our hike participants at the trailhead, I’m somewhat calmer, if only because being an emotional mess in front of a bunch of people I don’t know seems both uncomfortable for me and rude to them. Our hike up Mt. Moosilauke (moose - uh - lock) starts off slowly, but as we  get moving up the mountain, we easily make a pace of almost two miles per hour, which is fantastic for Winter School. I forget my frustration as I help people adjust microspikes (traction for walking on ice and snow), talk about mountains I’ve climbed and want to climb, and feel the wind whip my face as we approach the exposed summit.

These moments outdoors have been my source of sanity in grad school. Frustrations, whatever they may be, seem to melt away when I see the splendor of mountains, rivers, or fields spread out before me. So many aspects of hiking and climbing make these escapes worthwhile. Being out of the city, away from obligations, is a start. The simple pleasure of pushing my body instead of my mind, having muscles strain  and ache, feeling sweat drench my body, refreshes me. The sense of accomplishment, often hard to realize in the monotony of a seemingly endless PhD. program, of reaching the top, completing an obstacle, defying God and nature by going into the wild and surviving, gives me satisfaction.

Reaching the summit, however, was not the ultimate goal of our trip. After a short lunch break back in the safety of the trees below the summit, we ready our participants, and ourselves, for an experience unlike any other: sledding nearly five miles of smooth trail. I had never seen this trail in winter, and I now realize why sledding it is such a fantastic idea. The whole group is aglow with excitement as we start to descend. I am appointed by my other two leaders as the first sledder, and I take off down the first section.

To describe the happiness I felt upon skidding into a snow bank after descending for a quarter of a mile via sled would be impossible. The closest I can come is to describe the faces of the others with me. I look back every time I stop and watch everyone else tumble in. Every face has lost the seriousness of maturity and regained the unrestrained bliss of childhood. Each person laughs and falls and spins like he or she is a small child going on the first sled ride of the season. I have rarely seen such abject joy in an entire group of people, not just in grad school, but in life. For almost two hours, we carry on down the mountain, until gravity reminded all of us that we are no longer small children, and that sledding is harder than it seems. We stumble to the cars, tired but still giddy, laughing and joking with these people we just  met.

I’d like to say that this is what grad school feels like: an out-of-control ride, exhausting but thrilling, full of joy and discovery, but that would be a lie. The day-to-day life of grad school is more like the speeding ticket: random frustrations that make you lose focus, forget why you’re here, and want to give up. But then, sometimes after spending nights crying on the floor of the lab because the experiment literally melted again, you have a sledding moment. Sometimes, that data you have been looking for, that paper you’ve been trying to publish, the code you’ve been trying to compile, finally works. For some of us, that happens approximately one time, and luckily, that’s enough to graduate. That is grad school at MIT: it’s easy to get lost in the traffic tickets, but the moments of sledding are why we’re all here.