February 29, 2020

What My Epilepsy Diagnosis Taught Me About Pursuing a Career in Science

Six months after starting my first faculty position, I lost consciousness while speaking with my students and postdocs. I hit my head on a lab bench as I fell to the floor. A few minutes later, utterly bewildered, I woke up to see the unfamiliar faces of the emergency medical team, as well as the scared faces of my mentees. At the hospital, doctors performed a battery of tests, collecting my spinal fluid and scanning my brain. Later, they told me that I’d suffered a grand mal seizure; it was the first seizure I’d ever had. I was diagnosed with epilepsy at 34 years of age—and my career hasn’t been the same ever since.

When I had my first seizure, I’d toiled in academia for 14 years, working my way up the academic ladder. I’d always been laser focused on the next step in what I imagined would be a very linear career trajectory—Ph.D., postdoc, faculty job, tenure. Then, less than 1 year after starting my dream job as a tenure-track professor, health complications disrupted my path.

I decided not to read much about epilepsy. Learning about my condition would be a distraction from my own research. I also wanted to show my trainees and colleagues that all was well. I was on medication, after all, so there was no reason to worry. I thought I could get away with making minimal lifestyle changes—more sleep, no driving—and leave it at that.

For 1 year it worked, and life went on as normal. But then, out of nowhere, I started to have recurrent seizures. I fell in my department’s bathroom, where a graduate student found me. I had a seizure while traveling home from a lecture in Europe. I had several seizures in front of my 3-year-old daughter at home, where I awoke to see her staring at me and crying.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of having a seizure, of coming back to reality and finding yourself confused, lost, and completely vulnerable. I had to take higher doses of my medication, which caused side effects such as fatigue, anxiety, and hostility. The fatigue reduced my focus, at times preventing me from writing grants or even reading papers. Leading my research team became a challenge. Often I was physically unable to stay in the lab for long hours, and mentally unable to focus during meetings with my trainees. Every seizure took my confidence in my ability to run a lab down a notch.

Yet, thanks to an amazing group of trainees and collaborators, my lab remained productive and well-funded. My epilepsy became a challenge we all face together. My trainees now understand that sometimes I won’t be in the lab, possibly for a prolonged period. But we stay in constant touch through email and phone calls. I know I can count on them to keep the lab running in my absence. They know I have faith in them and that I am available when they need me.

I am still afraid. Afraid of what’s next. Afraid of having a seizure during a conference talk. Afraid of traveling. Afraid of forgetting people’s names. Afraid of forgetting deadlines. Afraid of not looking forward to the next step in my career path.

It’s difficult. But I’ve also started to realize that most people outside the orderly world of academia deal with similar fears about the future every day. I’ve learned that it’s OK to give myself some slack—to deviate from the linear career path I once imagined I was on. I work fewer hours. I have to take more notes to avoid forgetting things. I am less efficient. I am still afraid. But that doesn’t stop me from traveling, giving talks, and writing grants and papers. After every seizure, I still think of quitting. But I don’t. I adapt.

So, if something unexpected derails your ideal career path, find an alternate route. Accept that you have to do things differently. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t compare yourself with others. Surround yourself with positive people and learn how to carry on. Linear or not, a career in the sciences is still an amazing privilege that no seizure will erase.