Tackling the Mountain

Photos by Sean Yoder (my amazing, supportive husband).

I have muddy shoes, a sunburned nose, and skinned knees. None of these things happened in my lab or at my desk. They happened while I was doing something for myself—something that makes me a better researcher, mentor, and scientist. 

I recently took time off to climb mountains and walk along a few rivers, and sleep under the stars, but most importantly unplug from work. While it may seem contradictory for a scientist to want to unplug from the constant attention of e-mail and work, I believe it is a vital part of my productivity as a graduate student.

Two people stand in front of a giant tree and a blue river flows behind them
Sean and Lindsey getting excited for hiking! Is a trip to Mount Rainier complete without Rainier beer and Rainier cherries?

As a grad student, no one tells you how or when to work. Most people outside of the science world assume this means I have freedom to show up whenever and do whatever. What they don’t understand is the converse—no one tells you when to not work. It is assumed you are always working, because grad school is much like climbing a huge mountain. Your pace is the only rate determining step, and no one wants to spend their entire life climbing up the mountain, so you always work to get to the peak.

I get e-mails all hours of the day and night with questions, requests, and ideas, and I am the workaholic who always answers in a timely fashion. Unplugging is difficult for me, so my husband and I planned a trip to explore Mount Rainier and Olympic. A trip so full of adventure that we wouldn’t have time to even think about work. So, I set my out of lab reply and off we went.

Two people with their arms around each others' shoulders and raising the other arm towards the big trees behind them.
“A tree falls the way it leans. Be careful which way you lean.” -The Lorax

We spent our first day downtown in Seattle sipping coffee and feasting on fresh seafood. We perused the markets, took in the beautiful flowers, and ducked to avoid flying fish. We even went to REI and dug through all the bargains and stocked up on camping supplies.

After leaving the city and driving for a while, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Rainier at an overlook. She peeped through some clouds and welcomed us. That night, we camped under the stars next to a raging river at Ohanapecosh, and the next morning woke up to hug huge trees.

A marmot stands upright on a pebbly surface
Marmots frequently said hello and stared at us like strangers.

For the next few days, Mt. Rainier was our playground. We hiked through the Burroughs to view the iconic mountain up close. We followed mountaineers on their way to the summit through a glacier just to find Panorama Point covered in clouds. We were in awe of the early summer glacial melt creating the clearest turquoise lakes we have ever seen. All along with the boldest marmots and chipmunks, who begged for our attention.

We made the trek to Olympic and peered into colorful tide pools. I talked to gigantic, vibrant starfish. We hiked 10 miles in Hoh Rainforest just to see various species of moss and giant trees. The rivers were clear so clear, you would think you were about to step on a dry bed of rocks or moss. There were hours when I forgot about science and grad school — something that hasn’t happened to me in years. This time in nature really healed my heart and helped me to come back renewed and ready for productivity.

Stars aren’t just for the sky!

Now I could lie and tell you that I didn’t check my e-mail once, but I did. When I did, I realized not everyone appreciated the fact I was exercising self-care. I had collaborators who felt my vacation was a gigantic inconvenience for them. I received snarky e-mails telling me how inconsiderate it was of me to take time off. There were people in my department who came looking for me and became frustrated upon realizing I wasn’t “committed.”

For me, this is one of the most infuriating attitudes in academia – the need to judge and critique everyone’s work ethic by how visible they are. These attitudes have made me question my career choices over and over again, but I’ve realized the only way these attitudes will change is if I keep myself healthy and happy enough to prove to the naysayers that I can have a life and produce stellar data and papers. Besides, there will always be work to be done. And someday I may not have the time or health to climb a huge mountain or watch a marmot scurry around the base of a mountain.

…the only way these attitudes will change is if I keep myself healthy and happy enough to prove to the naysayers that I can have a life and produce stellar data and papers.

Frosty waterfalls cut through a conifer forest.
We chased several waterfalls, but in the PNW, they aren’t hard to catch. Sol Duc Falls pictured.

Grad school is a very long, grueling hike up an extremely steep mountain. You have to keep going and going and going. Climbing and climbing. Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. But if you don’t take the time to pause and see the view—will you ever appreciate the journey?

A person looks small standing on a nature path among ferns and tall green trees.
“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can.” -John Muir
Lindsey O'Neal

Lindsey is a late stage graduate student in the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology department at the University of Tennessee. She studies bacterial chemotaxis and signal transduction. Currently she is tackling the job search, finishing papers, starting a dissertation, taking care of an extremely fluffy dog, and trying to stay sane using the outdoors.

4 thoughts on “Tackling the Mountain

  1. These photos are amazing- looks like a wonderful time! Thanks Lindsey for sharing your insistence on vacation. I’m grateful to my PhD advisor for telling me that self-care is important, and she loves to hear about trips. One day you’ll be the mentor who’ll tell your mentees it’s ok to have fun!

  2. Amazing! I feel this speaks to way more disciplines than STEM/academia, even if it is the most intensified there. Also to women in any field who take maternity leave (i.e. not a vacation or mental reset AT ALL) and are judged for it/told it’s an inconvenience for others’ work. I know, maybe not what you were going for- but point being this spoke to me even though I’m not in your field!

  3. My advice to undergraduate students embarking on graduate school and my peers (over a quick lunch break in the hallway outside of labs) is to remember to take time for yourself. We so often forget self-care in graduate school, but it is vital. It makes me more productive when I come back and honestly, more passionate. Plus, I love your Pat Summitt quote!

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