Beginning the 2015 Chapter

2014 came and went, and along with it a plethora of emotional highlights I felt along the way: unadulterated happiness and relief with my unconditional acceptance into USUHS, excitement visiting close friends around the world, mixed feelings saying goodbye to the NIH, joy traveling to Brazil for the World Cup with childhood friends, stress when I hastily submitted my research paper for publication, anxiety due to sleep deprivation at Commissioned Officer Training, and passion, resolve, plus occasional fits of overwhelming despair during my medical training.

The MSK module ended on a solid note. I beasted during finals and redeemed myself from a post-midterm funk when I felt beyond burnt out for a few weeks. Without a doubt, winter break was well-welcomed. I spent the better half of our two weeks off in San Diego with my mom – we figured out Uber and adventured the city together. First day consisted of decompressing, food, and a lovely walk in her neighborhood where we could see the ocean and appreciate the great weather. Just what I needed after my first four months in medical school.

My family never really celebrated Christmas when I grew up, so lo and behold, I was in for a treat this year. I woke up to a breakfast feast – filet mignon, eggs, yogurt, and tea. My mom is the best cook ever, and I have been missing out since she’s moved to the west coast! After the necessary time needed to digest, most of Christmas Eve consisted of pool time and me appreciating warm weather galore. As for the evening, we were graciously invited to dinner with the Mormon President’s family and some other church-goers. My mom has become a regular attendee at a Mormon church near her and entered this network of lovely individuals I enjoyed meeting during my trip. [Note: I myself am a little confused about the role of the President, but I knew that he is a trained lawyer by profession. I learned a great deal about Mormonism from my mom, who’s working on a project comparing the Book of Mormon in English to the Persian translation to see if the translations are appropriate in Farsi.] Dinner was delish – ham, cheesy hash browns, green beans, followed by pumpkin and banana cream pies (everything home-made, the President literally whipped cream just before dessert).

Our Christmas Eve festivities were unlike anything I had imagined. After we ate, we all sat together and sang Christmas hymns. I had expected this to be uncomfortable, but I was pleasantly surprised. We all sat in a circle and picked our favorite songs (thankfully there were books for lyrics) while the President or his daughter played the piano. As a first-generation Persian American, it almost felt like one of those perfect families featured in the end of a Christmas movie. It didn’t feel like real life, but I certainly enjoyed it. The Elders joined for hymns later in the night to; this is when I learned that “Elders” are missionaries, with all the ones I met recently out of high school.

After singing hymns, we all dressed up in costumes the President’s wife had made to re-enact the nativity scene. My mom volunteered herself to be the Virgin Mary, and I played two roles: an angel and a wise man. Truly one of the most fun and memorable Christmases.

Virgin Mary (mom in the middle), three wise men, and Joseph on the right.

Virgin Mary (mom in the middle), three wise men, and Joseph on the right.

On Christmas day itself (with more steak and eggs for breakfast), my mom and I went to Seaport Village and Coronado Island, enjoying seafood, the warm weather, beautiful views of water, shopping, and a festive evening at Coronado Hotel.

In Seaport Village

In Seaport Village

After Christmas, I spent a good amount of time with family friends in the area, some of whom I hadn’t seen in nearly ten years! It’s amazing how at home you can feel with certain people, picking up just where you left off no matter how many years have passed. My ‘cousin’ took me to La Mer, so I got some face time with the ocean.

My last full day in San Diego was truly beautiful and my favorite day of the trip. My mom and I gallivanted all over La Jolla, which seemed to have all the fun activities packed into one area – with the beach, the lounging sea lions, an outdoorsy picnic area, shops, and restaurants. We showered each other with some much-needed love and attention before we parted ways the following day, when I returned to the real world of Virginia.

The week before classes began consisted of working on my NIH paper and seeing friends in the area, but mostly working on my paper revision. After recently catching up with some friends/former coworkers from NIH, I realized how much easier medical school feels in comparison! It’s nice to be a professional student. I enjoyed the longest lunch ever with my fellow genetics IRTA the other week and had this epiphany that she (along with Andrew and the IRTA she replaced) was one of the few people who were intimately a part of my post-graduation transformation. I don’t know how to describe that post-graduation phase I know many of us experience… It was certainly a time of figuring out my priorities in life and what I wanted from myself, others, and my environment. Few people in the world know you on that deeper level, and seeing her felt like this unexpected reminder of the younger Afsoon before she grew up.

So here we are. Break has come and gone, and classes are in full force. Despite the cold, which generally arrests my sense of productivity as my body and mind become increasingly lethargic, I have been faring pretty well this winter (knock on wood). Somehow I anticipated the cold to be much more gripping coming back from San Diego than it turned out to be. Warm weather was paradoxically a cure to my cold-weather loathing simply because I expected the cold weather to be so much worse.

The CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary-Renal) module has been more unrelenting than others, and yet, I feel like I am managing time better. Maybe I needed that positive encouragement on the first day back to school when I was awarded a free Gray’s Anatomy textbook for getting a 100% on my anatomy exam in MSK [I hate to be the nerd that says good grades are motivating, but they are.] I felt like I was trudging through medical school for a few weeks last module, and I finally have the energy and motivation to manage a better work-life balance that I didn’t have before. Maybe it’s because I started Crossfit too – something about lifting heavy weights and my muscles hurting 24/7 has helped me focus more and take the necessary breaks away from school and thinking too hard about science and medicine. Then again, Crossfit is also pretty intimidating, so maybe med school has simply become less intimidating.

Midterms are in a week, and I need to pick up the pace for our big exams coming up. I went overboard and bought prep books galore – including BRS (board review series is amazing) physiology, BRS pharmacology (pharm is a subject area I need to work on), First Aid Organ Systems, and a book on how to read EKGs. Granted, this might have been a response to well-deserved me-time rather than study-time. Andrew and I celebrated our two-year anniversary last week! Our second celebration at L’Auberge Chez François in Great Falls, where the ambiance and food make the experience worthwhile. I’m lucky our anniversary falls on a three-day weekend so I can carve out time from studying with zero guilt or anxiety. We spent a fabulous Saturday watching Breaking Bad and enjoying our fancy meal at L’Auberge. Grateful for Andrew who’s supported me from pre-MCAT NIH days to military medical school today. He’s the best fake patient for all my practice medical interviews/physical exams.

December and January have been good months to me. I addressed a few long-standing goals of my life. I bought a tablet (feeling pretty fancy as I get with the ages). I learned how to study (it’s an ongoing process, but I think I finally figured it out…for now). I began reading regularly (for fun, nothing with too much intellectual substance). I sleep more than I used to and still make time for Netflix. I think I understand how blood flows in the body and might even identify some murmurs accurately. Most importantly, I got to spend much-needed quality time with my mom.

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The End of an Era

This past Friday, I completed my two-year Postbaccalaureate IRTA (Intramural research training award) fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health. I have grown during the past two years in ways I had not previously imagined. It was much more than science, medicine, child psychiatry, clinical interviews, rounds, diagnosis screenings, brain imaging, neurocognitive testing, DNA extractions, blood/plasma, cell culture for iPSCs, manuscript-writing, and working closely with famous collaborators from around the world – no, this experience was so much more than that.

I worked with a dynamic group of individuals who taught me how to feel confident with my own knowledge while remaining humble in that I can never learn everything. I managed quite a difficult role in the group, where I was basically put in a Postdoc position as a Postbac (I legitimately took over full-time roles of both a PhD and a lab technician). Assuming far more responsibilities than granted a typical IRTA, NIH forced me to grow independently and sometimes to only rely on myself. Research can be a tricky, political profession. NIH is more than a place of scientific research and application of medicine at its finest. I have the utmost respect for any and all individuals who choose this field as their career path. I consider myself extremely lucky to have been offered my position. It’s been fun, busy, stressful, and downright challenging – ultimately worth the experience of a lifetime. I’m taking these life lessons with me everywhere I go.

After my final day in the lab, I headed down to Williamsburg for a family vacation in my old college town. It was a fabulous way to celebrate two years of work after graduation (as well as celebrate a couple of family members’ birthdays!) in my home away from home.

Oh, the places you’ll go!

T minus 74 days until my last day at NIH, and 4 weeks after that I will head to Commissioned Officer Training in Alabama. From there on out, I will be a busy busy medical student. Surprisingly, I am not too worried for medical school because classroom academics used to be my jam. It’ll be an interesting transition, but I am looking forward to it. Plus, I’ll be close to amazing friends, my nuclear family, and I’ll have Andrew for emotional support at home when I hit the books day in and day out.

In the meantime, I have a massive to-do list. To touch on a few of these would be awesome, but I want to take advantage of the time I have before the ball gets rolling.

  • Travels galore – – I am truly a homebody, but I appreciate going to new places and seeing how life away from home is. Every new place gives me a better understanding of the world and how I fit into it. Mostly though, I like visiting friends and having them teach me about their lives in a different location. Just returned from Czech Republic and Austria (blog post TBA), with future plans to go to Chicago, Canada, New York, Boston, Maine, and Brazil.
  • I have been gunning for an independent project and first-author publication at work since I interviewed and asked about writing opportunities for the lab’s Post-baccalaureate IRTAs (Intramural Research Training Awardees). Fun fact: when someone is selling a position to you, the delivered information isn’t 100% honest. Different IRTAs in my lab have completely different opportunities based on their mentors and the work they have inherited, mine being a fight-for-everything-you-want sort of position. After two years of blood (oh so much blood), sweat (the lab can get hot), and tears (not just my own), I can safely say that I love the science of child psychiatry.
  • Physically prepare myself – – I am one of those individuals who barely makes the weight requirements. I needed to diet and exercise like a beast to lose 15 pounds before my USUHS weigh in (thank you for the time, government shutdown), and I will likely need to lose the weight I gained back for my next medical exam. I also want to get in tip top shape for running (not my forte) as well as the push-ups and sit-ups. Pretty sure I can currently pass the sports physical, but I don’t want to be close to the cut-off. Don’t get me wrong: I love working out. I absolutely love exercising when I have the time. I just wish that we could include more body combat, weight lifting, and yoga into PT.
  • Learn Farsi. Apparently learning my native tongue would make me more money in the Air Force – talk about motivation! I am working on my Rosetta Stone and have my family for back-up. Growing up with Farsi at home made me comfortable with listening, but I want to get the alphabet down and solidly learn the speaking basics. Afterwards, I can start thinking about Russian again.
  • Read up! I should appreciate reading while I have the time for it. I have fiction novels, detox books, and my guide to being an Air Force officer. My to-read list keeps growing and growing, including a few French novels to brush up on mon français.
  • Dabble in piano like the good old days. Jazz, classics, some pop songs that I can sing to by my lonesome. Time to invest in a portable keyboard because my Sojin is staying with the parents.
  • Enjoy down time. I know the average 23-year-old wants to go out and party, but I REALLY love doing nothing. I’ll appreciate lazy Sundays while I have them 🙂