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Courtesy of Joy Ismail

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A Battle Between Heart and Mind

On my 23rd birthday, I walked across a stage in a beautiful red robe to receive my Master’s diploma.

Courtesy of Joy Ismail

I saw my mom in the audience, wiping tears from her eyes as she held her phone up to take a video for everyone back home in Lebanon, including my father, who wasn’t able to fly out to Boston (something that broke my heart and his).

I spent the rest of that day on a cloud, shocked yet unbelievably proud of having successfully completed a challenging and intensive graduate degree at Boston University, a place I had dreamed of since the first time I visited Boston. I had been wanting to live abroad for a long time, and it was the best year of my life. The day-to-day was completely different in a developed country; everything from commuting on a train to walking alone at night feeling completely safe. Although I had major anxiety back home, my background anxiety in Boston was negligible. I felt so much peace every single day, even while under a lot of stress and pressure. All of these facts made it really hard for me to face my impending return to Beirut.

Although a piece of my heart would forever belong to Boston, I wasn’t prepared to spend five years away from my parents.

The next day though, I woke up feeling empty and broken. I would be leaving in a few days to join a Ph.D. program back in Lebanon, even though I could have completed my Ph.D. in my lab at BU. This was the most horrible dilemma for me for a while and it was a battle between my head and my heart. Although a piece of my heart would forever belong to Boston, I wasn’t prepared to spend five years away from my parents. This decision is one that almost all educated Lebanese people face. The instability and lack of good opportunities in Lebanon lead to the emigration of a lot of smart and ambitious people - the notorious “brain drain.” However, those who choose to do so will always have to worry about those back home and suffer from homesickness. It truly is unfair; we shouldn’t be forced to choose between a stable life and our family. I was not strong enough to make the decision that would have been better for my career (staying in Boston) because I knew it would bring me great pain. I returned to Lebanon and sobbed as I hugged my father for the first time in months, relieved that the nightmare of not having him near me was over.

Courtesy of Joy Ismail


Growing up in Lebanon was definitely challenging and there were always certain fears lingering at the back of my mind that created a lot of background anxiety. However, I was lucky during most of my Ph.D. because the situation was relatively calm. That being said, there was always the threat of another war with Israel, sectarian clashes once in a while, and the fear of ISIS spilling over from Syria. However, towards the end of my Ph.D., I suddenly found myself living through one of the most historic periods in Lebanese history.

On October 17th, 2019, a revolution broke out in Lebanon, and it was unlike anything I had seen in my lifetime. Lebanon has always been underdeveloped because of deep corruption among politicians and power games between different political parties. We simply accepted things as they are because we believed they would never change, so we were accustomed to not getting basic rights from the government. However, after that surreal day, the people of my country were finally fed up and took to the streets. We were shocked, but we joined in with a sense of hope that we had never felt and a reawakened love for our country. Unfortunately, I was juggling back-to-back experiments and was in the lab seven days a week, trying to wrap up the final part of my research project. I was around 5 months away from my defense. Sometimes, I had to stop everything I was doing to hurry home because the streets were closing everywhere and the situation wasn’t safe. I yearned to be in the streets with my people, and sometimes I just couldn’t resist and I left everything to join protests. But it was tough; I felt guilty for being in the lab and I felt guilty for being at the protests. My heart wasn’t really in my research and my mind was always worrying itself sick. I couldn’t function normally because I was always thinking about the future and what would come of this. Long story short, I was lucky enough to finish my Ph.D. even with the crazy situation.

There were definitely a lot of times during my Ph.D. when I wished I were back in Boston, especially because it is such an epicenter of science. Academically, it felt like going from a bustling city to a sparsely populated town.

I think about how things happened almost every day. I am happy with the journey I’ve had and where it led me. At the same time, I sometimes let myself imagine what could have been, which is, I believe, just part of human nature. There were definitely a lot of times during my Ph.D. when I wished I were back in Boston, especially because it is such an epicenter of science. Academically, it felt like going from a bustling city to a sparsely populated town. The only time I really got a taste of what I was missing was when I traveled to international conferences. Sometimes I really craved that feeling of scientific community and intellectual stimulation that was lacking back home. Things were simply done in a different way.

Courtesy of Joy Ismail

Funding comes in fits and starts, limiting resources and facilities. This pushed me to be creative and flexible in the way I did certain experiments. For instance, I had to manually craft the appropriate ‘arenas’ for behavioral fly assays using bits from used conicals and other similar objects. Although it was a learning experience, it was frankly annoying and I cannot say that I enjoyed the process. I never stopped fighting or trying, though, and this definitely made me resilient and self-sufficient. It morphed me into a truly independent researcher, which is valuable because that doesn’t typically happen early on. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received was from two senior researchers outside of my university who said that they were surprised at the quality of the research I had done considering the limited resources that were at hand. I was extremely proud of myself for being able to make do with the cards I was dealt and to squeeze them for everything they were worth rather than complain about them and allow them to limit my research potential or quality.

Courtesy of Joy Ismail


Despite playing the hand we’re dealt with, there was no illusion when I applied to postdoctoral jobs that there is an inherent bias against academics coming from research labs in underdeveloped countries. Because of the limited resources, we publish less and we publish in journals with lower impact factors. I rarely see those researchers in journals like Cell or Nature. It’s understandable when the majority of the field has advanced to single-cell and other cutting-edge techniques, we are still limited to PCRs (vital for COVID-19 testing) and Western Blots. But that doesn’t make it fair. We didn’t even dream of publishing in Science and I was still in awe of the people who did get a chance to. It was intimidating and discouraging to know that I was already at a disadvantage because I was competing with people who had multiple publications in top-tier journals.

It truly is unfair; we shouldn’t be forced to choose between a stable life and our family.

Courtesy of Joy Ismail

That said, when I get to see my parents almost every day and watch my first niece grow up, I remember why I came back home. They always knew I would return and they hoped for it from the bottom of their hearts, although they regretted that they encouraged me to come back when they saw how difficult it was for me at the start of my Ph.D. Now, we are all grateful for the time we got together over the past five years because I’m leaving soon, and we will probably never live in the same country again. Instead of becoming an academic nomad like many of my peers, I chose to be close with my family, which is not a given in these turbulent times, and especially in my part of the world. That’s just how things went for me and I wouldn’t say I regret anything that made me who I am today. It’s pointless to look back. I only take what I need and use them to my advantage in my journey moving forward, closer and closer to my career goals.



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Joy Ismail

From Beirut, Lebanon, Joy graduated from the American University of Beirut (AUB) with a B.S. in Nutrition Sciences. She then moved to Boston University to complete an M.S. in Neuroscience and later returned to AUB for a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science. Her research focuses on the genetic and epigenetic regulation during brain development in Drosophila melanogaster. Now working in the Laboratory of Computational Biology at KU Leuven in Belgium, Joy is a classically trained singer and pianist; she is getting her poetry collection published in Summer 2021.

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