The Journey

After it's over, you won't be the same person anymore. The journey is suppose to change you.



As I am coming slowly to the end of my current job as a research fellow at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, I am reflecting on the "journey" and how it transformed me. I committed to coming to Ana Maria Cuervo's lab, after meeting with her in 2014 at a conference in Istanbul. I have always known her name in the field. She has been a pioneer in the autophagy field with her work on Chaperone-Mediated Autophagy but never had the chance to meet with her in person before.


I didn't know obviously that my life is about to change. At this conference, she instantly charmed me with her obvious passion for science, animated presence at the presentations and casual talks alike, and endless love for Diet Coke... I know it sounds cheesy and can't explain the exact feeling by words, but what I felt then for her can only compare to "love at first sight". I knew it was her and that it was meant to be - my postdoctoral mentor. It was kind of a wild move as until that moment, I only planned to have postdoctoral training somewhere in Europe. And even funnier - I haven't even been to the USA as a tourist before, let alone thinking about moving and living across the ocean... (11 hours flight from Istanbul to NY) I knew something bigger than me was in place. I had to follow. After the conference, I followed-up for a year, from 2014 fall till 2015 summer; several fellowship applications, happy and very desperate times until she was finally able to secure some funding for me.


Finally, I was on my way to move to New York and I remember my intense excitement mixed with a heavy dose of anxiety. Wow - this - is - really- happening - moment. The heaviness of not knowing whether I would be able to pull this thing off really - living abroad from my "home", not speaking my own language outside my home, far far away from the people and life as I know... I didn't know anything, the city, the country, the lab, the people... I didn't know whether I would succeed or fail. All I had to do was to take a leap of faith and boldly believe in myself (or at least look like believing until really believing!) that I will succeed in this journey. During these five years, it has been extremely enriching scientifically. I had the chance to meet with very big names including a Nobel Laurate, work with many different teams and scientific colleagues, and mentor junior researchers and technicians. I listened to and gave many scientific talks. I fulfilled my dream "to conduct research in a world-class scientific lab in my field". It may look like I was not very productive in academia- terms of "publish or perish". But I do count myself as extremely productive as I was not just able to conduct scientific research but also getting to know myself, become a fierce advocate and communicator here at Einstein. I learned the concept "advocacy" and being an advocate for improving conditions for my community, researchers, immigrants and families in the US. I realized that it was my responsibility to be proactive and go for the information/resources, not wait for them to be served. I learned that I was able to raise my opinions, actually expected to do so! I tried to find ways to improve awareness about topics on wellness and mental health of researchers with Einstein Mental Health Center and WellMed group. I realized the importance of having a support network as a community within Einstein Families Initiative and the importance of communication & leadership facilitation with the help of my fellow Einstein Toastmasters friends. I became much bolder (some people see it as being more confrontational or intimidating) and able to articulate my concerns, raise community, and get involved in important, sometimes difficult discussions. I realized working in a multi-cultural workplace and how slippery it can be to navigate cultural differences. And the importance of always keeping an eye on different cultures and think about where other people are coming from. I started learning the art of leading and how it can be a double-edged sword to be a leader for a team and that you need to always think about your own actions and listen to feedback (silent or out loud) All in all, I would consider myself successful in this journey. And, I, define the definition of success in this sentence. It is not measured by what I "accomplish" in terms of academia, but the opposition I faced and boldness that I maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds as Orison Sweet Marden puts. I found my unique place scientifically and my contribution to my postdoctoral lab and my project in my own unique way. I always took the opportunity to grow non-scientifically as well; quietly raising awareness from issues that concern me and helping others who are about to walk on the same path after me. I found my own way of being. I can say that this journey transformed me, not just scientifically but personally. I realized my four fundamental values as, - being a woman scientist; always asking questions inside and outside the lab and experimenting with life while quietly leading my own way - being a good enough mother; being the teacher and the disciple at the same time and letting my daughter lead the way while cherishing her unique self - being an immigrant; who brings a unique and bold combination of life experiences from three continents, while feeling the pain of not belonging, able to fight through life against all odds - being a person who has tight and selective boundaries when it comes to family; choosing to be lonely at time and true to my values, rather than keeping "the crowd" in my life to the expense of mental health I am grateful to many people along this journey, to Ana Maria, for believing me and giving me the chance to join her lab and do great things together, for teaching me extremely valuable life lessons in my first real job. to all Team Cuervo members, past and present, who made this journey less lonely and scientifically so stimulating and enriching. Always being there when I needed help and to "chat" about anything. to New York, for treating me right and never letting me miss Istanbul too much, as I felt like I was welcome here most of the time (and being so dramatic with the weather...) to Arda, for always being there for me when I needed you, loving me so tender, and rising to the occasion especially during this period after March 2020 - for being a great partner and father in sharing the childcare burden with me while waiting in uncertainty... and to Eleanor, the biggest gift of this 5-year journey to me - my lovely daughter who came to the world a year ago, but whom I can not imagine my life without. You are my joy, you are my love. I am so proud to be your mother. You make me a better person. It is bittersweet, ending this journey and about to embark on a new one. Even though it is ending, the memories of this journey will stay forever with me. Ready for another leap of faith!

Kumsal

July 6, 2020

New York

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