We're a little crazy, about science!

When tomorrow’s dream became yesterday

Fifteen years, you chase a dream for so long it becomes a part of you. You wake up, check the boxes you need to the best you can, and do it all again tomorrow. Then you do it again. And you do it again. And you keep taking the steps to get where you want to be, because you’ve already been doing it for so long you figure it would be a shame to throw in the towel now. You’ve bled for the dream, sacrificed for the dream, it’s in you now. After a few years maybe you even start to think it will never happen, because if it was going to happen, it would’ve already. Right? Until one day you wake up, you cross that finish line and the dream you spent so much of your life working towards becomes history. What happens when your dream of tomorrow becomes the history of yesterday?

It’s been an exhausting week.

Most of it feels like a dream honestly. If it weren’t for the photos and momentos I have from the event I wouldn’t believe it had actually happened. It’s probably a combination of a lot of sleepless nights and early mornings, but I’m on the other side of it now and I’m left wondering what the hell just happened? Not in a bad way mind you, but man that week was a month long at least.

First the good news, still alive! Somehow.

DARPA was amazing. I discovered I did miss some of the military culture, although as I found out DARPA’s management structure is very “flat” so people don’t micromanage even at the very high level. I got this directly from the source, the director of DARPA, whom I had several conversations with. Do you know how odd it feels to type that sentence? I literally found myself across the table from her while we discussed our perspective military services and life at DARPA as the big boss person in charge of everything.

Shout out to a fellow Riser N!I know your name, just not putting it out here and if you read this, it was a pleasure meeting you! Whom apparently found my blog and made the connection to the IRL me based on my research interests, which was somewhat embarrassing as I mentioned to him. I just never expect people to read anything I write so it was somewhat a shock, plus that was the first time someone made a connection with me and my blog. I guess he was looking for info on the Risers program too and also thought it was some sort of illuminati cult initiation (it was, but shhhhh don’t tell anyone).

So here’s the scoop for those interested, I had two conferences this week, but DARPA was always the big one. Let’s dive into what that looked like or more specifically the Risers portion, which was the first half of day one.

We started (as these things go) so early in the morning even the gods weren’t awake. I had gotten up several hours prior and I think my last post was late the night before, so not much sleep. I ran through my talk again to make sure I was prepared if I got selected, and I was off to the breakfast/meeting area. I was so nervous I had coffee and anxiety meds for breakfast and that was it. Thankfully both of those helped and as far as appearing human goes I think I pulled it off semi-well. I met a lot of great people, spoke at length with several DARPA program managers, and met a few that were particularly interested in my work and (it felt like anyway) me as a person, which was an awesome way to kick things off. I made a lot of good connections at the conference with other Risers and just people attending in general.

So we had our welcome remarks and made our way out to the poster judging. It was as structured as you may expect a military operation to be. Fifteen minutes a poster (which felt like a lifetime honestly) and this was repeated 5 times, so for over an hour I had to sell my research to people with various degrees of background knowledge. Some had no idea what the spinal cord was (only slightly exaggerating) and others were very familiar with the stuff I wanted to do so there were various degrees of background I had to go into. Overall I like to think I did well, maybe not my best showing, but I FELT competent in talking about my research, probably because I’ve been doing it for so long now.

By the end I was exhausted and we went off to the room we were in for breakfast as the scores from the judges were counted and they prepped for the talks. We had fifteen minutes or so in the room, but it felt like a lifetime. I had yet more coffee (because as an engineer coffee is basically blood) and talked with other Risers about how it went for them. Then about half way through one of the staff came to the table another Riser and I were at talking and said they were looking for two people and we weren’t either of them. That was probably the most anti-climactic way I ever found out I didn’t win something, but while you go in hoping to win, you don’t expect it.

Finally, we headed back into the room for the talks and got ready for the winners announcement. I should explain the background again, so the Risers program is 30-ish of us that get selected from our area (there are 5 DARPA Forward conferences all over the US). Out of the 30 of us selected only five of us get selected for a chance to talk about our research in front of basically all the program managers, DARPA staff, and anyone there. It’s a huge deal because you’re basically selected as one of the top out of this amazing group of people. Plus you get to share your work with everyone and that is cool because as a Riser we don’t get a whole lot of time to see each others posers (sadly), meaning it’s hard to get the chance to hear about all the amazing stuff others are doing from the person directly. The names get announced and the talks happen.

Afterwards we had the chance to get a group photo and the five people selected got the chance to have a second separate photo taken. In our conferences case there was a tie for fifth place so we had six people, not five, but that just goes to show how special everyone’s work was that there. In short, I was lucky to be selected in that group.

Oh yeah, I should back up… haha. (not going to even lie, I did this intentionally)

They announced the names one at a time and I already had the chance to be disappointed from the conversation I had earlier with the DARPA staff, so it wasn’t going to be a huge shock when I didn’t see my name. They call the first name and I do a double take because it’s mine. I was the first they called, we’re told it’s in no particular order, but no matter where on that list I would’ve fallen, I have no idea why my name is there. I look again, still my name, it didn’t change after the first few times I look. Once the shock wears off I find myself at the front of the room with the six other people who were selected. My name was first, so my talk was first and it went better than I could’ve hoped for. I hit all the talking points I wanted and while I feel like I stumbled on the very last sentence of the talk (isn’t that how it always goes?) the person who nominated me loved it and for the rest of the conference I had people tell me what a great talk it was so that was a high I’m still feeling.

The last sentence by the way was, “While we can’t predict the future, the Marines taught me to leave no one behind and that’s the future I’m trying to build.” What came out was, “We can’t change the future…” followed by “We can’t shape the future…” and finally the right start to that sentence. Once again reminding me never to try to script something, but I REALLY wanted to end my talk with that line because it felt meaningful after being dumped into the civilian world without support or any sort of care. It was important to me to mention that in that room because these were the people who could potentially help change that, at least in my mind.

The rest of the conference went off without any issues and we shifted into the official DARPA Forward conference potion. Shortly after that success, I watched Dr. Ling (more) give his talk and he was part of a panel discussion. Afterwards I not-so-calmly made my way to find him. The room we were in for the break was L shaped and while most of the people were in the front area with the food and drinks, I didn’t see him until I turned the corner. There were maybe five people total and two people were next to him specifically talking with him. Being the big, dumb idiot I am I walk over and just stand there waiting for my turn. It was probably the weirdest thing, but I didn’t care and still don’t.

Then, fifteen years later I tell him that he may not remember it, but he returned the phone call of a recently discharged and injured Marine asking for direction. I say that it changed my life and that I was grateful and I felt like he needed to know that. One of the people next to him says she’s trying not to cry (I’m doing the same) and he, somewhat in shock by the revelations asked what he told me! I basically explain that it wasn’t so much what he said (although it helped), but my life had fallen apart and I was just looking for some sort of stability or a direction to go and he provided that. He congratulated me and offered to write a recommendation letter or put me in touch with anyone he can.

It’s funny because everytime I tell the Dr. Ling story to others who know him I’m always told two things. The first is, “That sounds like him,” the second is a story about how he’s touched there life in some way. The gentleman sitting next to me after I gave my talk and explained the story told me his story about Dr. Ling and he started to tear up as he was telling me. So fifteen years ago I got extremely lucky that he cared like that and returned the call. I would like to think others would’ve done the same, but I feel like people like Dr. Ling are rare enough that when they touch your life they leave an impact like that specifically because they are so rare and special.

I regret being so in awe of the situation I found myself in, that I didn’t get a photo with him, but I guess that gives me an excuse to see him again in another 15 years or so.

It’s been a rollercoaster of emotions since that meeting. I’ve met a lot of great people, was told by several program managers that I NEED to apply for the DARPA Fellowship program that was just announced, and I got the chance to talk about why the stuff I’m doing is so important to me. While it doesn’t usually happen, I’m hopeful that the connections I’ve made, specifically with the other Risers, endure and that we can remain in touch if only via sites like linkedin.

Like I said in my talk, no one can predict the future. I don’t know what happens next for me now. Obviously graduating is on the top of that list, but things feel like they are changing rapidly and I have a whole lot of new paths opening up that I didn’t know existed or maybe even didn’t exist until very recently. I don’t always feel like surviving my suicide attempt was a good thing, I can’t and won’t lie about that. But for now at least, I’m grateful to be here to experience all this.

More importantly, I’m grateful to all of my readers for all the support. I know I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but it’s because everytime something good happens I can’t help but think of all the people who lifted me up to that point. By virtue of birth I’ve been stuck climbing this horrid fucking mountain of depression and life circumstances. If it weren’t for all of you who helped lift me up and pushed me, even just by liking a post, I wouldn’t be here to write this now. It may not feel like much, being on the other side of the computer screen, but it means the world to me.

So from the bottom of my spleen (double checked and it is below the heart!), thank you.

DARPA’s history wall, from the conference!

6 responses

  1. Congratulations! I’m smiling from ear to ear! So proud of you. I’m so happy you were selected to present! What an awesome experience!

    Liked by 2 people

    November 19, 2022 at 3:27 pm

    • Thank you! It was a great experience, so worth the exhaustion afterwards. haha!

      Like

      November 22, 2022 at 5:42 pm

  2. Look at you, Alex. Look at you. That’s all I can really say, it sounds like it was everything you wanted. Which means it was everything I wanted for you, too.

    Whatever changes for you in the near future, one thing won’t. Barring some unpredictable catastrophe, I’ll still be here. I look forward to seeing where you go next.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 19, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    • Thank you for the support! You’re amazing and I’m glad to have you in my corner.

      Liked by 1 person

      November 22, 2022 at 5:42 pm

  3. Karre

    Congratulations! I am so happy it went well. You have worked so hard for this. Look at all of us beaming with pride at you 🙂 Bask in it, because you did good and we are all SO proud of you. Now you just have to sleep for at least a day, write one tiny little paper and figure out what to do with your life ( I might have simplified that just a bit….)With the last month you had this next couple will probably feel like you are coasting. You got this.

    Liked by 1 person

    November 19, 2022 at 8:19 pm

    • HAHA!! Thank you for putting it all in perspective. Yes, there’s still some work to be done, but even though I’m behind I feel pretty happy about everything I’ve done so far. Thank you for all the support! It’s been a huge source of motivation for me.

      Like

      November 22, 2022 at 5:43 pm

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