Love and biochemistry

Published January 05 2016

I met my first love when I was 18 years old in the spring of 2002. We both attended Framingham High School in Massachusetts and met through mutual friends. Our interaction developed into something more significant over that summer. I was preparing to leave for college at the University of Maine in Orono; she had finished her junior year in high school. We decided to attempt a long-distance relationship after dating through the summer. The first year apart passed by without difficulty. Our feelings for each other continued to grow despite the geographical gap. She finished her senior year and decided to take a break before college. She eventually joined me at the University of Maine after another year or so. I figured we were completely committed and, therefore, set for life.

Divergent paths

My first love and I had different majors in college. Mine was biochemistry and hers was visual art. Our different curricula entailed distinct assignments and separate schedules. Biochemistry majors were consumed with regimented classes, endless testing and abundant laboratory work. I remember spending nearly all my time studying and experimenting. My agenda was maintaining a perfect 4.0 grade point average, soaking up research experiences and getting into a premier Ph.D. program. I did not have time for extracurricular activities, clubs or social events because of my workload. Little time was left for my first love. The dangerous distance this created began to seal us off from each other, and we gradually forgot the feelings we once had. The relationship became an entrenched formality.

Crumbled world

My first love and I dated all through my college years, even getting engaged in January 2006. I was accepted into the biological and biomedical sciences program at Harvard Medical School in my last semester of senior year. She transferred to the Massachusetts College of Art and Design so that we could be together in Boston after marriage. There was, however, no genuine kindness or affection between us at that point. She met another young man in one of her classes. As we grew apart, they grew closer. He gave her the attention I had forgotten how to provide. I was taking her and our relationship for granted. She left me for him at the close of the school year, after four years of struggling to keep the relationship alive.

I mentally collapsed into hysteria. Our engagement, my life, was destroyed, and I was unsure whom to blame. It felt like the world had flipped upside down, and my emotions rapidly shifted between anger, despair and resignation. I had nothing but questions running frantically through my mind. Was it my fault? How could she do this to me? Should I try to get her back, find someone else or stay single? Each day slipped into the next, and I kept in constant motion by running a lot and visiting people. I was trying all the while to avoid thinking about what they could be doing together at that moment. A part of me died in the sudden rupture between my first love and me. Thankfully, I had no professional obligations that summer, and my strong connections to family, friends and faith buffered the agony. I survived one grueling day at a time and entered Harvard in September 2006.

The lesson

I have had ample time to reflect in the 10 years since my first love left. I learned that work–life balance is crucial to success in the personal and professional spheres. Life-science researchers often work long hours to obtain desired results, write grants or papers or prepare presentations. I can attest that it is easy to forget the world outside the laboratory when you are in a groove or a bind. I’ve discovered that this forgetfulness, however, hampers my objectivity and disconnects me from my relationships. I’ve found that it is important periodically to step back and take a break. Preserving my sanity is necessary for me to do good science. The people around me are the anchor I need. My present objective is to maintain balance in my personal and professional life so that I can enjoy fully both love and science.

Stefan Lukianov Stefan Lukianov is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard Medical School.