Unexpected and Obscure

“Maybe once you’ve been inside of something for so long, you forget how astonishing it is.

…What if any of these people, in their pursuit of truth, had been motivated by the expectation of reward— where would we be? Or if they listened to what others said, as opposed to trusting in what their own experiments revealed? Or, if they had only been willing to wander 5 years in the wilderness, instead of 10?

Many topics come down to the same issue: how we should act in the world in novel and different circumstances; how we should think about what matters for a profession, or think about those who choose a crooked path. I could go on, but if you are looking for one example to be your guide, start with this one: the grace and persistence of Howard Temin and the Obscure Virus Club.”

The story of the discovery of a human retrovirus and the enzyme reverse transcriptase, which I’ve become all too familiar with during the past six months, and which questioned the central dogma of biology. A story of rejection and curiosity, and the importance of following your intuition and passion, even when it doesn’t fall into the realm of typical.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

On Friday at 1400 Melbourne time, just before midnight on Thursday in IN, all current U.S. Fulbright participants received a strongly worded email from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs regarding a worldwide authorisation for voluntary early departure from our country of assignment.

Essentially, this meant I was to make arrangements to come home as soon as possible, or stay in Australia. Staying against this advisement would risk the possibility of not being supported by the Fulbright Program and Australian-American Fulbright Commission to return home at the end of June, as I originally planned, due to the rapidly evolving situation surrounding the COVID—19 pandemic and extraordinary protective measures being implemented globally which are effecting universities, public gatherings, and movement across boarders. Because of the fluid, unprecedented nature of the situation, I decided to use the generous travel stipend from my Fulbright grant to return home to Indiana within 36 hours of booking my flight at 2200 just two days ago. I was also aware in making this decision that on March 11, 2020, the U.S. Department of State issued a level 3 travel advisory (reconsider travel) for all countries. Because any further advisory advances would make getting home immensely more complicated and unpredictable than it already is, and although I am immunocompromised and therefore at much greater risk of struggling to recover from this coronavirus if I were to get sick, I feel confident about my decision to travel on the most direct route home to Indiana, with lots of hand sanitiser, disinfectant wipes, soap, and hot water along the way.

The AUS-US Fulbright Commission has also given us notice that upon return home, we will not be supported by the Fulbright Program to return to our host country to finish our projects, as we will immediately assume Fulbright alumni status. We are encouraged to assess what work we can continue from home and of course, to maintain our academic connections and friendships formed during our programs to continue supporting the vision of U.S. Senator Fulbright to foster mutual understanding between the United States and Australia.

The above reflection about Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast, season 4, episode 10, is a great supplement to what I have to say about the abrupt, unexpected, and atypical ending to my program. I am devastated that my time in Melbourne was cut three months short, yet I’m at peace knowing I spent 6.5 months absorbing the excitement and challenges of medical research, biochemistry techniques, and Australian sights and experiences. More than anything, I’m beyond grateful to St. Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research and the Genome Stability Unit team for being such an incredible community with an exceptional work culture, and for welcoming me with open arms from before day one back on September 3, 2019.

As far as my next steps, I’m looking forward to embracing my family and friends Stateside in just a few hours, and will continue advocating for my laboratory research project to advance the search for a new detection reagent for Fanconi anaemia. I’ll continue my work to plan the AUNZ family meeting for October as a board member of Fanconi Anaemia Support Australasia (FASA), and look forward to beginning recruitment for a research study I’m very excited about, which has just received ethics approval from the Children’s hospital to investigate a new early detection method for head and neck cancer for individuals with DNA-repair and cancer-predisposition disorders, such as FA. More details about that will be published soon to the FASA website our team has developed over the past few months.

I feel honoured to be able to do this work, and have all intentions of continuing in any capacity I can— regardless of my geographic location. Just a year ago this week I found out that, despite my doubts, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Future Scholarship to Australia for 2020. Words cannot describe how thankful I am that I did the hard personal and professional work to get to Australia earlier than anticipated, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this adventure called life will take me next. If I’ve learned one thing through my time as a Fulbrighter, it’s this: we must trust His Plan, as it is always much greater than our own.

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