10 years CGA: Faces of our programme

The year 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the CGA as a joint venture between the International Max Planck Research School on Ageing and the CECAD Graduate School.

In this special CGA Story we take a look behind the scenes of our graduate programme and talk to some of the students, alumni and faculty members - our faces of the CGA. Check out our short interviews, which will be published regularly over the coming months and in which our members share their thoughts and insights, their hopes and aspirations, and how they look back on their time at the CGA:

Harshita Kaul, Class of 2019

It's been 4 years since you started your PhD at the CGA. Do you still remember how it felt to start a new life in a new place, city and even country?

The sheer combination of emotions that I went through while starting the new phase of my life felt so alive that I still remember and revel in it today! I was excited about starting a new adventure to unravel the depths of science. There was also the feeling of being the “garlanded heifer”, a poetic term W.H. Auden uses to describe a cow that is decorated and waiting to be sacrificed to the gods. Maybe you know this very feeling? It’s when you have voluntarily signed up for a journey of sacrifice and you know that while the start is exciting, the ride will be rough and tough, and yet, you walk through it with confidence and smiles! My eyes sparkled with the dream of doing great science. Of course, there was a hint of fear and anxiety lurking, wondering “what if this doesn’t work out?”. Leaving my comfort zone and getting used to a whole new culture was also unsettling. For example, my typical Indian nods used to confuse people who weren't sure if I agreed with them or disagreed! In the midst of all these emotions, what was grounding was the realization that people were basically nice - they're just different and have different ways of expressing themselves. CGA's support system was a big grounding force since I had so many more colleagues and friends who were all going through the same experiences.

You must have experienced a lot over the past few years: Would you like to share some funny moments, some hiccups or lessons learned?

Yes, absolutely! For me, the funniest moments were when I very confidently said “I think I am doing this experiment for the last time!” … And then I kept doing it over and over and over… Also, I ended up laughing about working with fat tissue – that squishy jelly mass would randomly fly out of tubes during homogenization and stick to me! Bloopers like these have plagued my PhD!

For me, the PhD journey has been as much about philosophy as it has been about science. What I learned was to let go of expectations and let the project lead the way instead of me dictating what it should be. In the end, I must humbly admit, I had a very fulfilling experience during my PhD. The thing that worked for me was adaptability to failure and strategizing at every step to brighten the small light that showed up. Usually, the results were completely different from what I expected, but at each step, I found something new to chase. Interesting discoveries came our way when I did that fearlessly, without losing sight of the bigger picture. In the end, I can testify that science responds once you've tried everything you can and have not given up. I basked in this purity of scientific justice when all the dots got connected in the end, almost magically. To make sure that I stuck on until the end, having a Plan A, Plan B,… and Plan Z always helped. I believe that a PhD can break you to the core, until you only have upwards and onwards to go. It definitely takes its toll on your psyche and then again moulds you into a balanced state. Ultimately, a PhD can also be a beautiful saga about embracing light and darkness alike!

Now you are about to graduate: congratulations! What are the next steps for you, do you have any plans? Also, if you had to start your PhD all over again, knowing what you know now: What would you do differently? What advice would you give to new PhD students, sharing your "almost-graduate wisdom"?

For the next phase of my life, I'd like to work in public health and policy design, something that combines my scientific passion and community-based work. It's my dream to be able to engage with grassroots health issues and develop human-centric solutions.

In all honesty, I wouldn't change anything about how my PhD journey turned out. Looking back, it was a fairly balanced PhD journey for me, with a genuine acceptance that lows and disappointments are a very integral part of the process. Finding your individual work-life balance is definitely something I would advise new PhD students. Exploring the diverse aspects of your personality helps maintain sanity. In some cases, it's hard to maintain a "balance" and I believe it's also okay to give your all to one or the other, as long as the tough phase is followed by a rejuvenation phase.  Work-life integration can work great too. At least it worked well for me and helped me maximize my output from any activity or experiment.

As a PhD student, I think it's important to acknowledge and "feel" all the feelings that come up during your journey - no matter how intense these emotions are. Awareness about the fact that there will be unhappy moments can prepare you to face it with strength and to stay as detached as possible, while keeping the ball rolling. And I must mention, this learning is an iterative process and it can take multiple trials to get ingrained into your system. A very relevant piece of advice I want to share is to remember that our PIs are humans too. I have seen a lot of PhD students struggle because they are affected by the behavior of the PIs. Letting go of the expectations of how your PI should behave goes a long way. Being compassionate and honest with them and accepting them with their flaws helps maintain a detached and elegant demeanor. I know this isn't talked about openly a lot and it might be an unpopular view. But this detached outlook allowed me to appreciate people for who they are, set healthy and professional boundaries, and maximize the output of our interactions, all while maintaining empathy and love. I find this particular piece of "almost graduate wisdom" the most relevant to keep in mind during the tough PhD times. Ultimately, the PhD journey is about managing our emotions and aligning with a balanced and better version of ourselves vis-à-vis science! Realizing this was a great highlight of my PhD.