As you set out on the way to Ithaca…

Today’s post was written by Alexandra Courtis.

Artificial PhotosynthesisFavorite spatula and lab clogs in hand, I recently arrived on campus to start graduate school at one of the most diverse and fast-paced research universities in the world. My physical transplantation from undergrad was Spartan, partly on account of my personality and partly on account of my pithy research stipend. I packed my backpack and suitcase with the things I was certain were absolutely necessary to survive the journey. I wish these critical items were purely practical, but I have to be honest:  my outdated but “lucky” periodic table and a stuffed toy neuron were safely stored alongside my tattered (and certainly more essential) chemistry textbooks.  Everything else was treated to an uncertain train ride on a precarious pallet—successfully haggled from a very unyielding stationmaster, I should point out.

As I quickly discovered, the trials of moving cross-country pale in comparison to the challenges of the research journey I have just embarked upon. Simply put, starting graduate school is not altogether unlike a sucker punch. Not every first-year will admit it in broad daylight, but over drinks, many would agree: we feel as if we have been knocked down a couple notches from the glory days of our senior year. Perhaps this is driven by having to “start over” in a new research field, breaking centrifuge during our first week in lab, or simply a factor of being lowest on the lab totem pole but certainly our trials have just begun.

On the subject of committing to research for the long haul, I’d like to share my favorite poem by C.P. Cavafy, Ithaca. It’s certainly served to steel my courage as a bright-eyed, bushy tailed first-year and I suspect it might elicit a few laughs from my older peers, long-term journeymen in the world of research. Some of you might remember this gem from the preface of one of K.C. Nicolaou’s tomes on heroic total synthesis. Let me know what you think—is this a pretty accurate description of what lies ahead for the incoming graduate class?

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

Photograph is the editor’s own.

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