On being independent (reprise)

I’ve a spent a lot of this past year chasing after independence. Obsessing over it, even.

For some reason, independence felt like a thing to claim, the next necessary step to my growing up. To my becoming. Fresh out of college, I was ready to soar – as if I had been waiting my whole life to finally be set free into the world. I felt a need to prove my competence, to show my strength, and most importantly,

to do this all alone.

It was nice – for a while. I relished in having a living space all to myself, decorated to my very eclectic taste and, of course, full of all things wolf-related. I liked waking up every day, writing down my to-do list in impeccable handwriting in possibly the most OCD journal you’ll ever see, and feeling certain that each task would be dutifully checked off by the day’s end. I liked feeling comfortable showing up to social events by myself, making new friends, and going home as late or as early as I pleased.

In fact, it was the happiest I had been in quite a while. For the first time, I felt like I knew what kind of a future I wanted for myself, and even more – that this future was within grasp. Life fell into a structured routine, each day beginning with optimism and ending with satisfaction. I was self-dependent. Self-sufficient. I was enough, and simple as that sounds, it is a wonderfully powerful thing to feel.

As summer turned to fall, the air became crisp in the kind of way that is usually accompanied with a sense of freshness and change – a big change, it turns out.

When the new semester began, I found myself facing a daunting workload, a slump in my research, and – perhaps the most frightening part of all – single for the first time in my adult life.

My survival tactic was to work hard, play hard. My weekdays became a whirlwind of non-stop studying while my weekends were packed with social activities. Late nights in the office became a norm – as did late nights out at bars. I (don’t) remember celebrating my friend’s birthday until 4am, miraculously waking up hangover-free less than five hours later, and heading straight to the lab. I even tried forcing myself to relax one night by trying a face mask for the first time, and instead spent the twenty minutes of “relaxation” reading about the chemistry of how the tannins in my face mask were reducing my pores.

Sometimes friends would ask me how I was doing, and I would look at them almost incredulously, as if the mere suggestion that I might not be okay was an insult to my fortitude.

Back in my cross country days, I remember my coach telling us that even if we were tired, it was always better to keep running than to stop and walk, even if you had to slow your pace, because walking would decrease your heart rate too much and make it even more difficult to pick up and run again. This is what the semester felt like: a long race in which I could not stop, for fear that any break would mean that I might not finish the race at all.

This lifestyle, however, was not sustainable. After another busy week, I found myself unexpectedly without work and without plans one weekend. As midnight creeped around on a Saturday night, I suddenly felt a craving for ice cream. And then all at once, I wished not only for strawberry ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, but for someone who would sprint down the block with me, laughing all the way, to snatch a tub of Ben and Jerry’s right before McLanahan’s closes. I wished for someone to devour it with me while watching Star Wars in bed. I wished for someone to rant with me about how awful The Phantom Menace is while still watching the whole thing and not making fun of me while I cry at the scene when Anakin has to say goodbye to his mother.

And as much as I hated to admit it, I realized that I felt…lonely.

And worse, that admitting it was uncomfortable.  

I find myself now entangled in a strange web of feelings. Some days I concede to the vulnerability. You are only human, I tell myself. It is okay to feel like something is missing. It is okay to want to love, and to want to be loved. It’s okay to need someone else, sometimes. I sit at my kitchen table and sip coffee. I read in silence, and it feels nice.

Other days it makes me angry. Get it together, I say to the mirror. Loneliness is for the weak, and you are not weak. I pick up my phone. I put it down again. I sit at my kitchen table and sip whiskey.

In the end, I know that I need to find a balance between the two. This whole time, I thought that being independent meant being alone, but real independence means knowing yourself well enough to admit when you don’t want to be alone. Real independence means giving yourself enough credit to realize that needing other people doesn’t mean you are any less without them. As it turns out, independence was never mine to claim, but all of ours to share. You and you and you and I,

we can be independent,


A Poem to My Future Lover

Let’s just get this out there:
I’m no good
at being one half of a whole

I will either be consumed by you
or I will not give you any part of me at all

(and neither has worked out for me so far)

I am fairly certain there’s an organ
in the vicinity of my chest
pumping blood through an aorta or something

It beats,
but it’s all Morse code to me
I have never understood what it’s trying to say

So I am sorry in advance
if falling in love with me

just feels like falling

Don’t say I didn’t warn you

On being good enough

Candidacy. This word has given me butterflies in my stomach since I started grad school.

Like most PhD programs, the Penn State materials science and engineering program requires students to take a candidacy exam at the end of their first year. This exam consists of a written paper and oral presentation that is meant to test your ability to problem solve and think creatively. Personally, I don’t think that writing a proposal on a subject outside your own area of research and defending it in front of a committee of professors who can ask you any materials science question they please as you flounder in front of an empty whiteboard (can you tell that I’m bitter?) is the best way to decide whether or not someone is “fit” to stay in the graduate program, but alas, that’s how it works. You fail twice, you’re out.


Last month, I had the pleasure of experiencing this fine tradition of emotional torture. All the older grad students who I talked to told me that candidacy was going to be the most miserable few weeks of my life—but they were wrong. For four weeks, I could think about nothing but perovskite solar cells. I spent my days reading papers about the moisture degradation of perovskites and spent my nights waking up to dreams about crystal chemistry. But it wasn’t these long hours poring over research papers that was miserable. It wasn’t the sleep deprivation or the paper writing or the practice talks that got me down.

No, the worst part of candidacy is not candidacy itself but waiting for the results after you’re all done.
I don’t think I’ve ever doubted my own intelligence as much as I did after candidacy. For the four weeks leading up to the oral presentation, I went home every day feeling tired, but determined. After my presentation, on the other hand, I went home and promptly melted into a puddle of blubbering and tears and heartbreak. The questions that my committee had asked me during the exam kept circling round and round in my head. I kept playing everything back, cringing at the stupid responses I gave. Why couldn’t I describe the synthesis of my proposed organic cation? Why couldn’t I think of better ways to purify a compound? Why couldn’t I give a better explanation of the Flory-Huggins interaction parameter? There was a moment during my exam when I was in the middle of giving an answer that I thought was reasonable, only to be interrupted by:

“Well, I thought that—”
“Wrong! Come on, you’re making physicists look bad!”

I remember freezing for a second when the professor said this—not because it was a rude comment, but because I was afraid that he was right. For the next few days as I waited for candidacy results, this line kept echoing in my head. You’re making physicists look bad! I honestly felt ashamed of myself.


As it turns out, I passed candidacy, but I still can’t help feeling that in some ways…I failed. I let candidacy get the best of me. I let a one hour and forty-five minute oral exam convince me that any academic success I’ve had in the last few years must have happened by luck. I let a professor’s small comment make me question whether I deserved my physics degree. I let candidacy make me feel like…I just wasn’t good enough.

One of these days, I hope I can look back on this experience and chuckle about how sensitive I was being, how easily I lost my confidence. I hope I’ll have become a tougher person. In the last few years, I think I’ve gotten better at the getting back up part, but my next goal is to work on not getting knocked down in the first place.

Watch out, world.

You’ve got a fighter in your midst.


Wine and cheese at Dolores Park. Feeling free with a bottle in my hand and rebellion in my heart. Cool grass against my legs. The remnants of a wild night—scattered trash and cigarette butts—making white specks in the distance. I am only witnessing the aftermath, but feel almost like I was a part of it. Palm trees surround me. Real palm trees!

Brunch in San Francisco. A bright omelet and bright optimism. Teasing old friends and making new ones. Sparkly temporary tattoos. Photos with complete strangers.

Conversations with the staff scientist. Confusion slowly ebbing away to clarity, which quickly plummets into frustration. Eyes glued to two computer monitors showing me what I don’t want to see. A slow walk back to the hotel. But I’ve got a plan for tomorrow.

A used book store. Infinite shelves of treasure. Claiming a corner and sharing it with Keats, Dickinson, T.S. Eliot. A title: Savage Beauty. I am inexplicably drawn to it. A glance from a stranger, and the thought—here is where lovers meet. Here is where two minds understand each other and two hearts need each other.

Sitting in the same tiny room for too many hours to count. Coming to the realization: this is all my fault. I should have been better prepared. Tears threatening to escape my eyes. Trying the experiment one more time and being disappointed one more time. Polite conversations with the staff. Back in the hotel room, on the phone, crying.

Taking the BART at night. I’m on edge—afraid I’ll get lost—but I’m distracted by dancers on the train, swinging off handle bars, making moves in mid-air. The bar I finally arrive at is the fanciest one I’ve ever been to. Dim lights, candles, typewriters, newspaper clippings. Whiskey and friends. I’m happy.

Struggling to use a new microscope. Even the most basic of tasks are suddenly ten-fold more difficult. Finally acquiring some interesting images—very, very slowly. Asking the staff scientist a billion and one questions because, really, I’ve no shame left. At least I’m learning.

A European books and media store. Guessing the names of foreign titles. Reading Calvin and Hobbes—in French (or trying to). I’m kind of proud of myself because pude leer algunos de los libros espanoles. Well at least, un poco.

Breakfast at the guest house. Everyone is talking too loudly. I am normally smitten with anyone with an accent, but this time I glare silently at the offenders of my morning. The only thing I’m not mad at is my coffee. Although I am aggressively ambivalent about that, too.

Walking around downtown. There are more homeless people than I’m used to, and I’m not sure whether it is more rude to make eye contact, or avoid it. Someone asks me for my leftovers—he doesn’t look homeless, though. “Sorry,” I mumble. “No need to apologize, hun,” he sneers. His friends laugh. I cross the street self consciously.

My last day on the second microscope. Time is running out. Lunch is skipped. Liquid nitrogen sputters out and the vacuum is dumped. An impatient half hour of waiting. Relief when the vacuum is back, exasperation when a new problem arises. 6pm rolls around the staff scientist is leaving. My week is up. Defeated.

The hipster streets of Temescal. Apothecaries and ice cream shops and thrift stores. Of course I buy another journal—I’m accumulating them faster than I can fill them—but the atmosphere, the wonder makes me feel like I need to write. There’s something I love in every direction I turn. I am charmed.

The middle of the night. The seatbelt sign is on. Crammed between an angry-looking woman and a man who looks uncomfortable when I sneeze. Incessant kicking from behind me. At first I don’t mind, but then the angry woman complains, and her annoyance is contagious. Pulling my legs up, curling into a ball. Closing my eyes very tightly.

Young and wild and free

You reach for the whiskey because you long to feel that burning near your heart — to feel your rib cage go up in flames, setting you free at last. You long to toss your head, give the world the finger, and disappear in one grand gesture of rebellion. You want reckless, you want passionate. You want wild.

You wonder if your soul ran away long ago, because it feels like you’ve been chasing it for a while now.

You want to light up like a city at night, with neon signs one after the other, flashing, the sound of laughter and clinking drinks against footsteps and car horns. You want to love like a storm that electrifies the skies — and kiss like the rain, lightly, then all at once. You want to live like the stars, burning until your last breath, then say farewell to the universe with a glorious supernova. You want you want you want

But there you sit, burning like a candle — quietly, softly, melting under your own flame.

Taking it easy

I’m the kind of person who loves to keep an impeccably organized calendar—and loves that calendar to be packed. I like adding things to my “to do” list just as much as I like checking things off. I get restless when I’m not busy. I like living life at full throttle, moving from one day to the next, never wasting time. I hate wasting time.

But sometimes when you’re moving so fast, you lose your breath.

After a busy week with two midterms, two problem sets, and three sessions on the transmission electron microscope, I went home last Friday with plans to go out and see the new Tina Fey movie with some friends, but ended up passing out with all the lights still on and waking up in a sweat-drenched fever with a raging headache, coughing my lungs out.

Come Monday morning, when the same symptoms persisted, I decided a visit to the doctor might be wise. When he said I had bronchitis and pneumonia and that I should go home...well, I should have gone home. Slept it off. But me being the stubborn person (and workaholic) that I am, I decided I’d go about doing everything I was scheduled to do that week.

And I did. I went to my cleanroom safety training, I went to lithography training, went to my meetings, and everything was going fine until I got a call from Kathy, a peppy employee from my realtor.

“Hi there! This is Kathy calling from your realtor! Am I speaking to Brooke?”
“Yes, this is—this is—” I croaked. My voice sounded like a dying frog by this point.
“Hello? Am I speaking to Brooke right now?”
“Sorry—” I tried again. “Yes, yes this is Brooke,” I managed before an exploding coughing episode.
“Hi there!” A confused pause. “Are you…okay?”

And that was it. Out of nowhere, tears started streaming down my face. Because, No Kathy, I’m not okay! I feel more sick than I’ve been in years, I’ve got a review article that I need to finish in two weeks that I barely understand, none of my data makes sense, I'm having a hard time breathing and those cleanroom suits don't make it any easier, and there are just so many things that need to be done that I just—physically—can’t—do.

In the next minute, I went from feeling utter despair at what felt like my inability to do anything useful at all, to relief at the prospect of letting myself just forget all the work and wallow in self-pity, to anger at myself for giving up so easily.

In hind-sight, it was silly. I shouldn’t take myself so seriously. I was sick, and upset that I couldn’t get my work done. Big deal, Brooke. The world isn’t going to end if you take a break for a couple of days. But I don’t know, I just can’t shake that feeling. Of always needing to be moving forward. Always doing something. Always achieving. Do you ever feel like that?

But I’m reminded of this little quote from The Book of Brave, written by one of my favorite bloggers Laura Williams: “Progress isn’t always a forward force.”

I know it seems simple, but it’s so easy to forget. You don’t always need to be moving forward. You don’t need to be running full speed ahead each and every day—in fact, you’re never going to make it to the finish line that way. It’s okay to give yourself a day off if you need it. Don’t be a slacker, but also don’t become so obsessed with progress that you forget to take a break.

"Progress isn't always a forward force."

So this is just a friendly reminder from your resident workaholic: pace yourself. Take it easy. Don’t move so fast that you leave yourself behind, alright?

The theory of everything, and more

I have felt a hunger lately.

I have felt an insatiable desire to wrap my arms around the entire world and understand its every nook and cranny. I want to cradle the globe in my arms, whisper my secrets to her, and wait for her confessions to be whispered back to me.

I still remember back in high school when I resolutely decided I was going to study physics in college. I can still remember what I wrote in my application essays — physics is the science that underlies the entire universe. Physics can explain everything. Ironically, five years later, there is still no agreed upon “theory of everything” in the physics community, but I think a part of me thought I was going to single-handedly figure it all out back then.

As it turns out, graduating with a degree in physics did not lead me to uncovering the secrets of our universe. The real secret, I sometimes fear, is that I really wasn’t much of a physicist, anyways….

That being said, I have not given up on my passion for finding answers. What has changed is the realization that if I really want to understand the world, I cannot just do it through science. And I realize that as a first year engineering PhD student, I have five long years of science ahead of me, but what I mean is that you wouldn’t try to understand love by only studying how adrenaline and dopamine work. You would fall in love — and feel every part of it.

I remember going to a poetry reading back at Carnegie Mellon a few years back. During the Q&A session, someone asked the poet why he decided to become a writer. “Because I resisted specialization,” he said.

He kept switching majors because he was passionate about so many different things that he couldn’t pick just one. In the end, he realized that poetry was the one thing that let him combine all his interests, synthesize different concepts through his own interpretation. I remember frantically pulling out my notebook to scribble down his quote so that I wouldn’t forget it, but I guess I let it slip my mind — until now.  

There’s a Barnes and Noble in the student center at Penn State, and earlier this week on a particularly long day, I decided to stop by to pick up a coffee. My friend had told me that it’s better to get coffee at the in-store Starbucks at Barnes and Noble than go to the real Starbucks because the line is much shorter — but instead of saving time, I found myself weaving through the bookshelves for an hour after getting my coffee (my friend was right though, there really was no line! Pro tip.)

I couldn’t help myself. It had been a while since my last bookstore excursion, and I found myself wanting every book that I laid my eyes on. I wanted Mary’s Karr’s memoir, last month’s New Yorker, a collection of 2015’s best magazine pieces, a cookbook, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, a European history book, and a Star Wars encyclopedia. As I darted from shelf to shelf, enthused by fresh caffeine, I realized that I resisted specialization, too.

The research group that I work in places a large emphasis on developing cheaper, more efficient materials for solar cells. But I don’t just want to sit in my lab learning everything there is to know about poly(3-hexylthiophene-2,5-diyl) — I want to pick up that New Yorker and read Elizabeth Kolbert’s story about climate change and Florida’s disappearing coast and understand why we actually need better solar cells. I don’t just want to watch the 2016 presidential debates — I want to refresh my memory on all of American history, way back to the Mayflower. I don’t want to be immersed in my own world, my own life, and my own experiences — I want to read the biographies and memoirs of my many idols and learn through their experiences, too.

I want to see the big picture. I want to connect it all together.

I feel like I’ve grown up backwards, that I am feeling that child-like wonder again, and that the world has all at once become an endless place of infinite new things to learn. I am determined not only to appreciate every shape in its kaleidoscope, but to find beauty in their combined pattern.

To be honest, I think string theory confuses me more than it helps me understand the universe. But in my own little way…I’m already creating a “theory of everything.” And I think I like this version better.