Embracing discomforts

December 23rd, 2020 

Azim Dharani         

When applying for the Churchill scholarship, I was told to look forward to conducting cool research, exploring Europe, and eating late night kebabs with new friends. While the people and kebabs have been great here, I’ve realized that one of the most rewarding and least talked about aspects of studying at Cambridge has been embracing the discomfort of being an American scientist in a new country. If we ignore the discomfort of the ongoing pandemic for the moment (I’ll come back to this), this is the first time in a while where I’m not taking any courses and have no real deadlines to meet. Yes, I still need to be in lab every day, but for the most part, this year is a lot less like undergrad and is a lot more like a trial run of graduate school. This new-found independence has helped me think about how to maintain a good work-life balance and figure out what really brings me fulfillment (turns out I like cooking and watching YouTube a lot more than going for nightly runs after work). While I’m still figuring out what works best for me, I’m grateful for this opportunity to explore my interests and establish a working routine before graduate school.

Outside of the initial shock of adjusting to the lack of schedule here, I’ve also grown because of my time in lab. At Cambridge, I’m working on developing enzyme-based fuel cells, which sound really cool when you read about them in journals but actually require a strong background in electrochemistry to perform experiments. In college, I always told myself I would never need (or want) to use electrochemistry and accordingly, never really learned the material or took additional courses in the subject. This was a mistake. I played myself. But these last two months have been challenging and rewarding as I learn all the electrochemistry and return back to the wetlab after two years of doing computational work. In this process of starting my project, I have broken a lot of equipment and asked many people in my lab for advice. From these conversations with people in my lab, I realize that I’m often the first Texan and one of only a handful of Americans they have met. To break the ice, they ask me about BBQ and why Trump continues to refuse the election results, and I ask them about what they call large purple vegetables (eggplants vs aubergines). In these moments, I find myself becoming a spokesperson for America for the first time. Before coming to Cambridge, I surrounded myself with friends who had similar backgrounds as me and rarely spoke highly about the US. But after meeting the 30 people from 13 nationalities in my lab, I’ve learned how to better relate to others with different views, appreciate the differences in how science is done across the world, and surprisingly will leave with a renewed appreciation of America.

Ok, now it’s time to wear a mask because I want to talk about the extra discomfort I’ve encountered here so far because of COVID-19. This term, it’s easy to feel disappointed because we’re discouraged from exploring Europe and meeting students from other colleges. In addition to the lockdown, science also continues to be challenging even though we’re at Cambridge (you would think that something in the water here prevents experiments from failing given the institute’s history). During those nights when I have to bike home after getting less than ideal results, I find myself being frustrated that I’m not doing enough in and out of lab during my time here. When applying for the Churchill scholarship, I was told to look forward to conducting cool research, exploring Europe, and eating late night kebabs with new friends. But instead, I’m in my room watching YouTube. Often, the next day, as I’m biking to lab passing by the beautiful colleges, I’m reminded about how lucky and grateful I am to be here. Probably five times a week I need to mentally pinch myself to stop and tell myself that I’m at Cambridge, something I never thought would happen until it somehow did.

Before arriving in the UK, I filled out a visa form incorrectly. Instead of providing my full home address, I accidentally left out my zip code. This caused a lot of issues for me and I was very worried I would have to start at Cambridge three months later than I had originally planned. Thankfully, this problem was resolved after sending many emails and paying a steep fee for an expedited visa. During this month-long process of amending my mistake, I told myself that this struggle would make getting to Cambridge even more exciting and that the novelty of being in a new country should never wear off now. Starting from that moment, I think if there was a sentiment that truly captures my experiences at Cambridge so far, it’s this balance between discomfort and gratitude. I am so grateful to be in lockdown with such wonderful housemates, so lucky to be exploring a new field of chemistry I never thought I would enjoy, and so excited to grow from the wonderful discomforts of Cambridge during a pandemic.

Making a full thanksgiving dinner with other American students
in my house was a highlight amidst some discomforts!

2 thoughts on “Embracing discomforts

  1. Ahh AP Chemistry does touch on electrochem. You learn to appreciate USA more but you grow from experience . I find I like to explore and learn in classes more than too much free time. Unfortunately, the appeal for me would be to explore Europe but since that is out I think I value USA research techniques more. Enjoy and grow in meeting people. Mrs Hunt


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