Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The re-birth of shoeless coolis

My mom loves to tell the story of the day I was born, amidst a massive blizzard in Vancouver.  My parents weren’t worried so much about making it to the hospital in time as they were about making it there alive; their cab swerved through the icy streets and the driver strained to see the road through the pelleting snow. She considers my birth day a prophecy of my wild and stubborn nature that starkly contrasted the shy and quiet demeanour of my summer-borne older brother. I didn’t think much of this until two weeks ago, when I defended my PhD during one of the worst snowstorms in Ontario in recent years. In retrospect, nothing could have been more fitting: shoeless coolis was re-born, amidst another snowstorm.

Finishing my PhD was - and will always be - the hardest marathon I will ever have to run. There were times where I hit walls so hard that I stopped and questioned if I could go on. The number of highs and lows made me a complete unstable mess at so many points in time. The despair I often felt in research was compounded with the biggest personal loss I’ve faced and the worst physical injury I’ve succumbed to, both in my last two years of study: I got married and got divorced within months of each other; then I tore a tendon in my shin, losing the other love (and only outlet) in my life. There were times I felt so completely worthless I didn’t see the point of continuing on with my PhD, which was often just another source of stress and guilt. 6 months ago I was the closest I’ve ever been to quitting. That’s when my supervisor said, point blank: “Jane, you are at mile 20. You are not at the finish yet, but you are close. The last six miles are not going to be easy. So gather your strength, come back, and finish this race.”

He was right. The last 6 miles are terrible people! Why did I think mile 20 sounded encouraging?! True to the delirium of the last six miles of a marathon, the last 6 months have been a complete blur. I have trouble remembering many parts of it; working insane hours to finish experiments, writing my thesis in a matter of weeks in which 4am bedtimes became the norm, perfecting a manuscript over 30 emails a day with my supervisor, and having far less time to prepare for my defense than I had ever imagined. Suddenly the day was here. The day before was a weird day. I felt like I was in the twilight zone, I was dizzy and did not know what to do with myself. I don’t think it was just nerves, since I was also seriously sleep-deprived, something I would warn against being before a defense. That day I went to lab and tried to talk to people, seeing them speak but really thinking about which PP2A B subunits were originally found to bind KSR-1 and what their alternate names were; sporadically looking up the most remote detail of my thesis just in case I would get asked about it; and obsessively going over figures in my head. Then going to a luncheon for my external examiner and trying to feign aloofness when he asked ‘So how does it work in Canada, are we supposed to challenge you tomorrow until you fall to your knees and cry? Can we pellet you with questions at the public oral as well? What is your thesis about again?’ Oh wow.

Then the snow started. When you are in the twilight zone you do not pay attention to the weather channel. Unfortunately my parents were supposed to fly in from Vancouver late that night and my brother was coming in from Halifax. Luckily (or not?!) my external examiner was already in Toronto, but who knows what other members of my committee may be travelling. I went to coach the Ninjas that night, attempting to continue my day of apparent normalcy. There was something strangely peaceful about watching them do 800m repeats through mounds of snow and running through the white downtown streets. I got home and lay on the snow, looking up into the sky and trying to grasp how close I was to the end. I snapped out of it after several minutes, however, when I started to recognize the symptoms of superficial frostbite and realized that there were still ways I could screw up my defense (I’m sorry I've lost use of my fingers, I will not be able to draw that on the board for you). I went to bed.

I got up at 5am and got myself ready to trudge through the piles of snow to my defense. I was on autopilot, not thinking about what was really happening, if my family had arrived, or if anyone would show up to the exam. I texted my brother 30min before my exam and he informed me that my parents had arrived and they were all heading over too. 9:30am rolled around and suddenly I looked up and the room was full. The exam committee, my entire lab, people I knew from other labs, my family, friends of family, they were all there. I choked back tears. I couldn’t get emotional before this thing got started! After a heartfelt introduction by my supervisor, I knew I had better turn robo-Jane back on or my defense would become a crying gushy mess. The next two hours were another blur, apparently I somehow gave my presentation and survived my external's attempts to make me cry for reasons other than joy and gratitude, and it was suddenly over. My six examining professors congratulated me and quickly left the room, leaving me in the middle of Princess Margaret Hospital alone and with no phone reception. I had no idea where anyone was, but I didn’t care. It was done. That was it! I was free! Could this really be happening? I did a little dance, and then another. There were several dances after that. Then I smiled. That smile has not left my face.

So there ya have it folks, (Dr.) shoeless coolis has been re-born amidst another snowstorm. I cannot remember ever being so relieved and happy in my life. I have talked about the tough times during my PhD, but I have also experienced some of the best times of my life and met the most incredible people here. I have made friendships that will last a lifetime. And it is these people and experiences that have made every moment of sorrow, pain and despair completely and absolut(ly) worth it. I am sure no one here wants to read my thesis, but I have to post the most important part of it, the acknowledgments. There are others (who know who they are) who have been there for me and shared experiences with me that I will never forget, and I thank you also.

Next up: my running update (which I promise to be less cheese balls)!


First and foremost, I would like to thank my amazing family for their unwavering support and encouragement throughout my degree. My father, who not only inspires me with his science, but whose compassion and sense of fun I admire and strive to emulate. My mother, one of the strongest, most brilliant women I know: thank you for being not just a mother to me in the last 6 years but also one of my best friends. My brother Jepray, you have been a tremendous source of comfort, positivity and wisdom and I thank you for always being there for me.
To my supervisor, Rob. You made it about more than science. You are the one who taught me how to run marathons. You taught me that the work you put in is the work you get out; that strength and endurance takes time and patience and cannot be forced; that the lows are worth the highs; that there are no shortcuts; that it’s not how fast you can sprint but how well you can push to the very end. Most importantly, you taught me never to give up until you’re there. Not many people can teach such hard lessons while expressing so much love, compassion and understanding, but you did. Thank you.

Thank you to my committee members, Jane and Dr. Medin. I appreciate the time you took to oversee my project and improve my research with your excellent advice and encouragement.

Thank you to my dear collaborators, Nikolina Radulovich and Dr. Ming Tsao, for your help and guidance with my animal and immunohistochemical studies.

Dedi. You gave meaning to the word ‘Dedidit’ and together, we did it J. You are a remarkable scientist but an even more amazing person and friend. Thank you for always putting things in perspective and for making science fun.

Thanks Dedi, one of the most amazing and kind people I have ever met

Mauricio and Tim, my BFFs OMG. Mauricio, it is largely because of you that I was able to run Rob’s marathons. Thank you for being a constant source of support and fun during the last six years. You have made the difficult times bearable and the good times unbelievable.

To all the members of the Rottapel lab for putting up with me and all my Western blots. Thank you for your encouragement and sense of humor – it is you guys that made coming to lab every day worth it, successful experiment or not. Also, thank you to the ladies from the Kislinger lab, especially Lusia, for either keeping me sane in the office or making the choice to go insane with me.

Thanks Lusia for always knowing how to get me through the rough days!

To my training partners and running friends, the Angels. Thank you for constantly reminding me that there’s more to life than the lab (and for inspiring me to run real marathons). Nic, DocZ, MamaK and Jebs, thank you for your patience, wisdom and guidance in all aspects of life.

To the others along the way that have inspired and encouraged me – Delilah (a.k.a. Topicoolis) and my beautiful cousin Sarika – you are two of the most important people in my life and it’s been so comforting knowing you were always there for me. You have each helped me in such different but crucial ways and I can’t thank you enough.

My beautiful cousin and beautiful friend, forever

Finally, I absolutely have to thank Goose for keeping me going during the last six years. You taught me to relax, gave me the energy to keep going and were always there when I needed you. Cheers.


  1. Congratulations Doc! Glad you're blog's been reborn too! -PR

  2. Congrats Jane! 2013 is your year for sure!

  3. Congratulations. Well written.

  4. We are all so proud of you Dr. Cullis!!

  5. Well done Jane! I am happy for you that your PhD journey has ended and happy for me that you have started posting again! Danielle

  6. Thanks you guys! I am happy to be back doing the things I love to do, like blogging and running, too.

  7. Well, running is really like thesis writing. You have to know everything first before you begin your journey so that you won’t be lost along the way. How’s your thesis anyway? Well, I think it would be good to get help with thesis writing so that it won’t consume too much time, which you can really spend for running and getting condition.