Olivia Williams, 3rd Year Geology PhD Student
One morning in August 2017 I woke up feeling sick. I was looking forward to the last week of my first-ever research internship in the Boston University Antarctic Research Group, where I was first introduced to paleoclimatology and was anticipating an opportunity for Antarctic fieldwork in a year or two. I was supposed to join a friend in Connecticut that weekend, but I thought I had food poisoning, so I canceled my plans and spent the weekend eating crackers in bed instead.
That “stomach bug” turned into five days of discomfort. Student Health and my doctor back home gave me some quick fixes—reduced stress and caffeine, antibiotics for a potential infection—but nothing helped. The weeks stretched into months and I completed the fall semester sick and miserable.
I wouldn’t receive a diagnosis until February: I had gastroparesis, or partial paralysis of the stomach muscles causing severe nausea. I began treating it with medication, which would eventually bring my symptoms down to a manageable level.
Because I got sick at the beginning of my career in geoscience, no part of my research experience can be separated from my chronic illness. I remember very little of my early Earth science classes; I was distracted by hunger when I couldn’t eat and nausea when I could, as well as headaches, dizziness, brain fog, shortness of breath, and fatigue. While my friends in the program were talking about exciting fieldwork opportunities and fun nearby hikes, I was so malnourished my hair was falling out.
My hopes of going to Antarctica—or of participating in any fieldwork at all—were dashed. Before I got sick I had been going to the gym five days a week to better my chances of being picked for the field team; now I could barely walk to class.
I had to turn down an offer to work in another lab at BU because I was still too ill to stand at a lab bench. Later, the medications I took to treat my stomach made me severely anemic, making data analysis a slow and frustrating slog.
While my health has improved dramatically over the past five years, I still deal with symptoms of my illness every day. I might be going about a normal week, eating well and even feeling good enough to hit the gym a few times, then suddenly be unable to leave the house due to nausea and painful stomach cramps. These episodes might last hours, days, or even weeks. I have to eat on a regular schedule and avoid certain foods to minimize my chances of a flare-up. All these things can make classes, lab work, and especially fieldwork challenging.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to complete an undergraduate thesis on biogeochemical cycling in marshes with samples that had already been collected. The lab work and data analysis were within my abilities at the time, so I was able to complete the project without major issue.
My PhD project here in CEOAS also works with existing samples—one of the benefits of ice core science. Polar fieldwork may have a high barrier to access, but we have a long and varied archive of well-studied cores from both poles.
Although I still dream of doing fieldwork in Greenland or Antarctica, I have had the opportunity for lots of fun scientific experiences as part of my Ph.D. This spring I got to travel to Denmark to collect ice samples from the archive at the University of Copenhagen. Later in the spring, I helped an undergrad in our lab drill cave ice samples from Lava Beds National Monument.
This summer, I spent five weeks at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla learning some lab techniques for my project. This fall I attended the International Partnerships in Ice Core Science (IPICS) meeting in Crans Montana, Switzerland, with several members of my lab. While fun and educational, all these trips have presented their own challenges for my health.
I’m used to living with my illness. I try not to let it get me down, and in general it doesn’t. I love the work I get to do in the ice core lab and my health rarely gets in the way these days. However, positive thinking can’t get you out of chronic illness. I can’t ignore the realities of my health out of a desire to do the same things as my colleagues.
Someone who has always been healthy and able to rely on their body to complete the tasks they ask of it can have a difficult time understanding the unpredictable rollercoaster of chronic illness. If you can hike three miles carrying field equipment one week, you can probably rely on being able to do it again the next week. A chronically ill person may find that hike easy one week and completely impossible the next due to changes in their health and energy. Both weeks may even look the same to an outside observer.
The next time you plan field work, a conference, or a lab celebration, consider that there may be members of your lab with invisible hurdles to participating in the same activities as you. Creating an environment where students and colleagues feel comfortable voicing their needs without judgment can go a long way. Reading up on things like spoon theory, which chronically ill people (or “spoonies”) use to describe their available energy, can also offer some insight.
As we all strive to improve equity and access in geoscience, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible need that will arise. What we all can do is interrogate our picture of what a geoscientist is and does and make room in the field for people with a wider array of experiences and abilities.