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  • Anna Au

Walking to greatness

Ramble

Doing a Master’s degree is one of the necessary steps in my action plan to become a researcher. After achieving my degree in public health, I worked for about two years, but not in public health. During that time, I constantly asked myself what I truly wanted in my life, what my overarching goals were, and what kind of legacies I wanted to leave beyond me.


I recall the endless reading of fiction and non-fiction books, the access to journal articles with my alumni account, the watching of ASAP Science, Vox, Mental Floss, SciShow, CrashCourse, and TED talks on YouTube, and the musing of the meaning of what I did every day. That was my metamorphosis, realizing with the perspective I have now. I made a chrysalis out of knowledge where dissolved myself. I was in transformation.


One day, when I was walking home, I felt something bubbling up in me. It was churning. I was agitated. I took a second to access my sensory. The overwhelming noise and exhaust gas of vehicles, the sight of numerous people waiting for a bus that did not seem to arrive, and the honking of cars behind me on the street that is so narrow were teeming to the limit of my sensory gauge. This cannot be right, I thought. I needed to extricate myself from this madness. I kept walking. As soon as I turned the key and entered the building, the silence and calm felt like a balm on my exasperation. Climbing the stairs gave me a minute to sedate the stirring storm in my head. That cannot be right, I kept thinking. And then It hit me when I turned on my laptop and tried to catch up on the current state of affairs – I do not want to live that, no one should live like that, that is in no way anyone’s life should be under the very substantial threat of climate change, and there must be something I can do. In that rapid fire of thoughts, I had a realization that was like finally being connected to electricity again after changing a broken fuse. I knew what to do. I had to steer my career to the field of sustainable development.


Instead of consuming contents online, I directed my fervour to looking for Master’s programmes on DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) that had any indication to sustainable development. To my exhilaration, there were plenty and each of their curriculum was designed for a different target of potential students. I did not know where I fit in or whether I was good enough to be considered as a candidate for these programmes. I even doubted my profession. To be honest, I did stop calling myself a scientist after I graduated from university as I was not in the field anymore.


I narrowed my list down to ten programmes at the end and I put them into two categories: 1. five were long shots due to the lack of mention of public health in the curriculum; and 2. the rest that I may have a chance to be accepted. I quickly made a plan to organize all my certificates, revamp my resume, write the application letters, obtain the recommendation letters from the professors in my previous studies, and supplement my application package with an essay on sustainable development. By the time I mailed the applications, it was about two months after being brutally awakened by the displeasure on the street.


I was eventually accepted to three programmes in my second category and I chose the one in Berlin.


And I then moved to Berlin in October 2015.


Meander

I can pinpoint the key moments that advanced my career, like being published for the first time, presenting my work in the biggest conferences in my field, reconfiguring my work into beautiful posters, teaching for the first time, and getting research funding, and so many more. But let me not get ahead of myself; let me divulge my early time in Berlin.


When I checked in online and received my boarding pass, I still could not believe this was happening for real. I was very excited. I had so much passion. It was so much that it might have been sufficient to fuel my flights to Berlin. I wanted so much to fulfil the many great ideas in my head. I came alive again.


As I settled down in Berlin, my everyday life underwent its own transformation. My world was no longer the world I used to know. Every street, every flip of the pages, every new person I met, every form to fill, every complaint is a brand new landscape.


About two weeks into my life in Berlin, my Master’s programme also began. I walked into class with the expectation to be inspired to make my first big break for the future I envisioned. I wanted to see a clear step to build up my career. Every class was an adventure I did not anticipate. As much as a savant that I was, I caught up with the assigned reading and studied beyond like a ripple. In some days, it was like multiple ripples meeting each other when I recognized the intersection of knowledge. As I kept reading, a nagging feeling appeared at the back of my head. I was onto something … something that I could only make out a vague contour, something that I could almost touch. Yet, it remained a lingering feeling. This mysterious lurker was always on my mind. It was something I could not quite let go. This thing and I kept prancing around each other and that was a colossal matter for reasons that would become clear as my story continues.


Lecture by lecture, I learned that sustainability is a very complex matter. It goes beyond what I wrote in my application essay. Intervention for sustainable development involves numerous actors and processes and professions. Most of my classmates seemed to fit quite well into the narratives of sustainability or just urbanism in general. They were urban planners, architects, engineers, and political scientists who had years of experience in their own trade. Being a public health professional, my scale of thinking and understanding was obviously and vastly different from that of my classmates. I tended to see the (natural) science of things as that was what public health professionals were trained to do. I can explain the environmental chemistry of nitrous oxide in the stratosphere, how vaccine works, single-payer universal healthcare, the biochemistry of beta-carotene in the human body, the toxicology of dioxins, and the inspection of food outlets, etc. I knew the worth and value of my profession in the world, but I did not know how I would fit in any of the urbanism processes since most classes centred around the built environment in which I did not have a lot of expertise.


How should I understand the lectures in terms of public health? How should I present my opinions, which were so many, so that my classmates and lecturers understand the matter in regards to my expertise? Applying these two filters has become a mandatory exercise for me to navigate the studies on urbanism. I tried to carry conversations in a language I barely had the right set of lexicons while my peers exhaled these lexicons as if they their physiology of respiration were different from mine. Was it desperate to try so hard to insert myself in the discussions in class? I tried so hard, but I still felt like I was left behind despite the efforts I put in. How come there was no mention on public health? How was something that is significant in every pore of matters not in focus? I mused every day, but to be clear, I did not doubt myself at all; I was just a bit disappointed, to be honest. I wanted, no, I needed to find the bridge between the new knowledge and my expertise so as to tread my way in this world.


I almost lost interest because no matter what I did, it not seem to matter. It was like being rejected by the bouncer at the door of Berghain every single time even though one puts on an extra layer of nonchalance on top of a different set of clothing each time they try to get in. The main difference between the hopeful Berghain-goer and me was that I did not know what else I could try although I could feel the subtle easing of the lock in the door that would open a pathway to my career. I was so close, yet I did not know what I was closing in to.


One sliver of inspiration was all I asked for.


Fortunately, it came to me one day in class in the form of a case study on walkability. That sliver of inspiration was all that was necessary to blow the life into the ripples of knowledge to form an unstoppable tidal wave.


Stride

That was one of the moments in my career where things began to make sense.


I began to see how public health intersects with the built environment. The papers I read and the classes I took began to interlock with my expertise in public health – physical access is a sustainability issue and any sustainability issue is a public health issue.


I began to see how the built environment has shaped the everyday choices I made.


Every step we take or cannot take is shaped by the built environment which in turn has an effect on our health, all three aspects of health – physical, social, and mental well-being. Some people are excluded by design because the physical connection between where they live and where they want to go is not made for them. Inadequate public transit network, unaffordable transit ticket, closest station/stop still being too far or difficult to get to, uncrossable streets, and services that are difficult to access are just a handful of obstacles that stop people from being physically active or getting to social occasions. If I have any astonishing musical talent, I could quite possibly write the obstacles into an urbanist musical. (If you are an artist reading this, I am open for collaboration.)


Knowing oneself just does not have decent access to get to anywhere erodes one’s agency to their own life. The frustration is very real and that is nothing like an act in a story where the character’s arch always comes to a resolution in the grand scheme of things. This is the frustration which consistently takes away a little bit of hope and drive for a better everyday life from a person until learned helpless seeps deep into the person’s default mode of reaction and becomes a part of them – not unlike how dioxin accumulates and interferes with multiple body systems both acutely and chronically. The person just accepts that it is the way it is and their life would never become any better whatever they do.


To put this in perspective, try to recall the last time you struggled to cross the street because the cars would not stop. And then imagine the cars never stop at all and you are forever stranded on the sidewalk. Now imagine it suddenly rains heavily and you do not have coverage or an umbrella. And oh, let’s not forget you are also carrying your groceries. None of these is an exaggeration; these are real-life scenarios. I do not call these experiences micro-aggressions because they accumulate a toll on our mental health until we break or learn to be helpless. As an able adult, this kind of unpleasant pedestrian experiences is a bit tolerable because I know I can get home eventually and I would not lose hope over that. However, it may not be as easy for people with disability. I could not stop thinking about the people whose voice is not heard or the people who think they do not deserve a decent life, a decent access to services, or a decent pedestrian experience.


As a Master’s student at the time, I did not know what I could do to leave a lasting impact to undo learned helplessness in people, but I surely did know what I wanted to do for my thesis. I wrote my thesis on walkability and identified the potential interventions in the physical environment that could make people’s life a bit better. And that was the first moment where I was assertive about myself in the Master’s programme. I was like a body of brackish water connecting the rivers and the open sea. An estuary was what I was. I also began to introduce myself as a health scientist again. This time, I followed up with a tag line – a health scientist studying the built environment. It was a guaranteed conversation starter. I was doing science again and I felt fantastic.


I felt overall fantastic, but there were many moments in the making of my thesis that gave me a series of mini heart attacks and pushed me to the edge of mental breakdowns. Bad weather for field study, physical fatigue, AutoCAD failure, and the long Zotero loading time caused by my already numerous citations in the manuscript are just a few of the many sub-plots of my thesis horror story. I even got questioned by the police on the street one time about the purpose of my photo survey. The process was winding and toiling, but friends, family, and my cat Shrimp Dumpling helped me leap over the mental hurdles. My former workplace did not even hesitate when I asked for access to maps in CAD format and I swear, that was like being bestowed the magic wand that was always meant to be mine to wield the power that has always been in me.


This winding path brought me to my thesis defence. It was February 14, 2017. It was the final stage of metamorphosis. I was nervous and excited about what to come. With all the anticipation in the world, I got through the defence. I emerged from the chrysalis, knowing that I became the thing I have always known I am capable of.


After several paperwork adventures, I finally received my Master’s degree certificate and that was when great things began to happen in my career.


"How's your thesis going?" said Shrimp Dumping.
"How's your thesis going?" said Shrimp Dumping.

The next stride

Although I still do not know how much impact my thesis research has, I know I am capable of doing more from there. I make a point, loud and clear, in all and any of my work thereafter, to consider the physical connection between things as an access issue. Needless to say, it is a focus in my research on public libraries and I believe the impact will be loud and clear and live on beyond me.

Related episode: The other side

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