IN SEARCH OF EPIPHANY
by Stephen Shih, Summer Student, Laboratory of Pathology, DCBDC, NCI
Stephen Shih, a summer student in the Laboratory of Pathology, NCI, wrote this essay as part of his application for his summer position. Ms. Mildred Steinberg, chief program officer for Lance Liotta's pathology lab, was impressed with the essay and passed it along to The NIH Catalyst. We were as impressed as Ms. Steinberg and think the piece typifies the creativity and liveliness of NIH's summer students, while presenting some insightful observations on life at a critical stage in professional development. We have asked Mr. Shih to write again for The Catalyst at the end of the summer, before he returns for his sophomore year at Harvard.
The Goals and Aims of One (1) Stephen Y. Shih,
Okay, so Mildred Steinberg (who, incidentally, was extraordinarily helpful in my search for summer opportunities --many thanks if you're reading this) says something like this to me over the phone: "Before we start the paperwork to bring you here, we'll need a few things from you: a school transcript, a letter on your school's stationery attesting that you're a student in good standing, and a statement from you concerning your goals in life and for this summer in particular..."
A Statement Of Your Goals In Life -- a pretty whopping big order. This is the type of topic people wax philosophical on, writing plays, composing epic poems, even choreographing pieces in interpretive dance to chronicle one lost soul's search for purpose in being.
"Uh, so what format do you want this statement in?" I ask.
"Just a page or so, written," she replies.
So here I am with the simple request to crystallize my purpose in life and put it on paper. In ink. Like setting it in concrete. At least with those other options (see: interpretive dance), there's room to equivocate. "When I grow up I want to be a _____." Find the word to fill in the blank and you've got your whole life figured out -- no ifs, ands, ors, or buts. Hell, last month, I had to decide what my major will be, and I'm still not sure I made the right choice.
Ever hear people who are famous in their fields describing how they got their starts? Almost invariably, they have a story about an experience leading to some huge personal revelation: "...and it was at that moment that I knew I was destined to become an actor/astronaut/molecular oncologist!" Well, I'm 19, and I've yet to have that moment of epiphany.
I've spent a lot of time wondering where my life is going. In the past, school hasn't helped much. In high school, I always got straight A's, so report cards were never much help in analytically determining my particular aptitudes. Being unsure of where my interests lie left me in sort of an occupational limbo. By turns, I've wanted to be, among other things, a pilot, a writer, and a smoke-jumper. Smoke-jumpers, by the way, are people who parachute into remote woodlands to fight fires. And if you've never had the pleasure of telling your traditionally minded Asian parents that you want to make a living jumping out of airplanes and onto forest fires, let me tell you -- it's a magical experience.
It was in this somewhat aimless state that, during my senior year of high school, I joined a rescue squad. Beyond a certain high-mindedness, I didn't really have any specific reasons for doing this. Some of my friends who were already into fire and rescue had some pretty cool stories about their experiences, and ambulance work just seemed somehow more relevant to life than the school athletics I was involved in.
Becoming an emergency medical technician and running ambulance calls, I quickly discovered that I'd gotten myself into a lot more than I'd bargained for. An amazing dichotomy of human existence was becoming evident to me. On the one side, I was seeing the passion, fire, and romance of humanity at heart-rending intensity. (To my gallery of personal heroes, I have added a young man who -- with a beautiful wife, a new baby boy, and everything to live for -- broke through the barrier of fear built upon the current epidemics of blood-borne diseases to reach out a helping hand, futilely attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a woman who had gone into cardiac arrest foaming blood at the mouth. At the hospital, samples from the dead woman showed her to have hepatitis. I never learned the fate of that giant among men. I don't even know his name.) On the other hand, I was gaining a gut-level appreciation of the mechanical nature of humans. Spending time in emergency rooms, I've worked with doctors and nurses who could look at a broken person and tell just which parts needed fixing or replacing to make the whole construction get up and walk and talk, once again able to play its part in the human drama.
As I've already mentioned, a lightning strike, eye-opening moment of self-discovery has yet to cement my course in life. I'm finding, however, that the appeal of being a fixer of broken people is growing on me. Pursuing the medical profession isn't a new possibility for me (my parents, for some unfathomable reason, have always wanted me to be a dermatologist), but these days, I'm taking a really careful look at it.
So that's where I am now. My goal in life (or one of my goals, such as they are at the moment) is to be part of the profession that keeps bodies mechanically sound so that their owners can be out doing the dramatic, magical things that make people more than machines. I suppose medical school might figure into this general scheme somewhere -- I rather like the idea of becoming a general practitioner and taking care of people's families -- but I can also see my life following other avenues in the profession. My goal for the summer, specifically, is to get some experience in the work being done in applied research and to see whether it might be one of these avenues.