Blood, Sweat, and Tears

When a PhD gets personal
MAY 2019
Mary
T.
Mechanical Engineering

Some people choose their PhD projects based on raw scientific curiosity. Some seek buzz words, industry partners, or flashy technology to jumpstart profitable future careers. Some find their projects based on available funding. Me? I chose my project because it had almost killed me.

Sepsis. Global killer of millions. Personal nemesis. And my research topic.

At the age of 17, I was admitted to the hospital with the worst sore throat of my life, a 6-8-inch-long clot in my left internal jugular vein, and a fever of 103°F. I would soon learn that you don’t need all your jugular veins, despite how lethal the phrase “go for the jugular” sounds. I would learn that ultrasound imaging isn’t just for pregnancies, that anticoagulant injections burn and bruise, and that the nurses’ temperature conversion chart only goes up to 40°C despite my temperature attaining even greater heights at 41°C (105.8°F). I would learn that I had a rare disease called Lemierre’s Syndrome, and it had caused my body to enter a state called sepsis. Sepsis, to paraphrase, is when your body’s immune response to infection becomes so overzealous that it begins to kill off your organs. 

When I started my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, I never would have imagined that my sepsis experience would relate to my career path. I thought I’d be working on robots or washing machines, space shuttles or power tools. Even during my master’s degree, when I began studying microscale phenomena, my research and academic life were very separate from my medical past. When I started working in a microfluidic lab and my advisor suggested a topic involving sepsis, those two pieces of my life became intertwined. 

It’s been a strange and sometimes wonderful experience, studying such a personally relevant research topic. My research aims to detect bacteria in bloodstream infections without waiting for the bacteria to reproduce. It could enable doctors to have critical diagnostic information hours, if not days, sooner. Sometimes, delving further into the state of sepsis understanding and treatment has been agonizing. Other times it feels that I’m uniquely suited to perform this research. Sweating away under a lab coat, gloves, and glasses, the personal connection helps me remember why I’m doing this research, and how lucky I am to be here. Researching sepsis feels empowering, but it has also brought me low. 

To begin studying sepsis, I had to read about sepsis, and at times it brought me to tears. After surviving, I hadn’t wanted to know more. I was young, alive, and not looking back. Nearly a decade later, I found that beginning a literature review on sepsis wasn’t the same experience emotionally as looking up papers on piezoelectric actuators for my master’s degree. Reading about the 30% mortality ratefor sepsis brought back memories of my parents’ faces as I received the Sacrament of the Sick. Reading about the antibiotic selection for septic patients revived memories of going to prom with a PICC line in my arm. I learned about mortality statistics, the insufficiency of current diagnostic tools, and the controversy of defining the condition. I learned about its global scope, its mixed bag of symptoms, and its questionable origins as a diagnostic term in a 1980 brainstorm in a Vegas hotel room. It took a little while to stop putting myself into the reading and start seeing the statistics as simple justifications for my research direction. I had seen sepsis through fevered eyes; now I needed to learn to see it through science’s cool, logical eyes.

My desire to improve the outlook for patients suspected of having sepsis sustained me through the early emotional reading days, through my first microbiological stumbles, and into experiments with whole human blood. At that point, I found yet another way that having sepsis made me uniquely able to perform this research. After months of being poked and prodded at age 17, I have become completely unbothered by needles. Honestly, it’s unlikely I’ll ever again be required to give as many tubes of blood as I did in the ER with sepsis. So when I found out that one of the easiest ways for researchers to get fresh blood is to use their own, I was like “Sign me up!” Obviously, a professional draws the blood, and there’s a whole approval process, so it’s not quite as “mad scientist” as it sounds. But still, someone with a needle phobia would have had to source expensive blood from donors and worry about bloodborne pathogens. Not me! It’s sort of lovely that this awful experience made my life easier as a researcher. I’ll take the wins where I can.

Despite the depth of motivation and the unanticipated blood supply benefits I have drawn from studying sepsis, I would advise introspection to anyone considering studying a condition that has personally affected them. Specifically, I would ask them to think deeply about the emotional toll of grappling with research that you’re invested in at a life-or-death level. It does drive me to work harder, but I’m incredibly grateful that it’s not a condition that I’m actively managing. 

For me, the benefits have usually prevailed over the drawbacks. After all, there are silver linings. For instance, I’m gleefully anticipating kicking off my PhD defense by saying, “Getting here took my blood, sweat, and tears, but the research I present to you today was worth every drop.”