Getting a Ph.D. with a Chance of Heavy Winds and Rain

Graduate studies involve a hurricane of emotions.  Currently, I am a graduate student of the University of Puerto Rico at the Río Piedras Campus (UPRRP) and pursuing a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry and Chemistry Education in Dr. Ingrid Montes’ Research Lab.  My Ph.D. process has involved challenges that go far beyond synthesizing compounds in the lab, including the impact of the massive Hurricane María on September 20, 2017.

Stumbling Blocks Should Not Interfere With Your Goals and Passions

Starting a research project may be difficult, but I’m driven to follow my passions. I’m currently working on two research projects. The first focuses on developing the synthesis and characterization of novel ferrocenyl derivatives to determine their pharmacological potential and characteristics for the possible development of treatments.  The second project involves incorporating models that create environments that enhance education. I’m interested in helping students do more than just acquire knowledge; I want to help them develop skills that serve them their entire lives.

I have always wanted to contribute to society as a scientist. But sometimes we face things that we cannot control. Then we have to decide how we’ll respond to those challenges. 

When Nature Takes Over

Hurricane season is one of the prices to be paid for living in the island of Puerto Rico, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  In 2017, the freshness and greenery of its mountains, the beauty of the beaches, and the splendor of its nature were devastated.  Moreover, the lives of Puerto Ricans were affected during Hurricanes Irma and María.

During Hurricane María I felt my concrete house shaking, its windows ready to explode (even though they were covered). Looking for a place to feel safe in the house and thinking about the danger I faced, was a unique feeling, as fear overwhelmed reason.   Destruction is engraved in my mind, as it is in the minds of many other Puerto Ricans.  Hurricane María for many is now a symbol of sorrow, despair, discouragement, anger, frustration, and weakness.  For a graduate student like me, it is also a loss of work and opportunities and a new source worry.

A Roller Coaster of Emotions

Hurricane María disturbed everything in Puerto Rico.  More than eight months after the storm, my fellow researchers and I are still very far away from what were once the norms of daily life.  We needed many resources after the storm, and it took a long time to receive them. There are areas on the island that at this time still lack the necessary resources to survive, such as drinking water, food, and electricity. It took me about a week to communicate with my family and confirm their well-being, as seconds turned into minutes, minutes into hours, and hours into days.

I can’t describe the rollercoaster of emotions that followed in a single word.  The whole event was frustrating, including the tension caused by the impact on my research.  On top of the frustrations felt by everyone on the island, many of the instruments and equipment at my university’s lab were damaged, as were many materials, reactants, and products.  This had (and continues to have) an effect on my ability to complete my Ph.D., as it delayed the completion of my research.

Many starting materials and compounds already synthesized were lost, which required me to restart experiments. The storm also affected my ability to analyze my results, as many analytical tools were damaged. I’ve had to change my plan and look for alternative ways to complete my research objectives and finish my degree. We have tried to find every available opportunity to obtain funds that can contribute to the purchase of materials, restore or repair the equipment, or even collaborate with other researchers outside Puerto Rico. At the same time, I need to find a way to cope with unforeseen personal and professional expenses, since I lost personal possessions, not just lab equipment.

However, I, like everyone else on the island, had no other option than to get up, shake the dust off our faces, and try to remain positive about the future.

Shots of Empowerment

I received a shot of empowerment from my loved ones and the nuclei of my life.   People around me let me know that I am not alone, that we are not alone.  From different corners of the world, I received the sincerest well-wishes, including from the extended family of the SciFinder Future Leaders 2016 and the Younger Chemist Committee of the ACS. The messages and help from a large support group filled me with unmatched energy. They helped ease the desolation and distress that I felt and turn it into love and affection towards life, my profession, my goals, and my future.

At the same time, it is very important to note that in every corner of the island, chemists are open to receiving any help or collaboration toward the progress of their research.  Furthermore, as graduate students, my colleagues and I are seeking to continue our research but also to participate and identify grants, scholarships, fellowships, and travel awards that would enable us to develop and reach our goals.

There is Always a Bright Side

It took more than a month after the storm for me to be able to return to the University. Restarting my work, as circumstances permitted, was a very emotional experience. There were still challenges regarding infrastructure, equipment damage, and the availability of water and electricity. A warm welcome was what made me feel again in my alma mater.  Coming back inspired me to give my best on my journey to finish my Ph.D., but also to contribute to the research lab, the university, the society, and my family.  Some people will see this hurricane as a symbol of destruction, but it can have a bright side. We can bring in a new era of innovation, and prove that despite the circumstances we can accomplish our goals. Things will take time to get back to normal, but this will not stop us from working toward our aspirations.  We will motivate and reinvent ourselves because, in spite of the hurricane, we are still alive.

Connect with Juan C. Aponte-Santini on LinkedIn or on Twitter at @JuankyAS and @ChemistsDesk.

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