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my interview day ended in a trip to the ER (and a Radiolab story!)


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At this time 2 years ago I was gearing up to fly around the country for my grad school interviews, and since I imagine many of you are nervously preparing for the same thing, I thought I'd share what happened to me to assure you that however your interviews go, it is highly unlikely any of them will get this weird. 


tl;dr during my grad school interview I suffered an acute attack of the same neurological disease I was studying. NPR's Radiolab did a short story on my experience which you can listen to here: http://www.radiolab.org/blogs/radiolab-blog/2011/aug/09/damn-it-basal-ganglia/



I was a tech at the time in a lab studying the basal ganglia (the part of the brain that controls movement) and what happens in the basal ganglia in movement disorders. The day before my final grad school interviews I became violently ill and went to my doctor where I was prescribed a strong anti-nausea medication. The next day, in the middle of my second interview, I began to feel a straining sensation in the muscles around my cheeks and ears. I attributed it to compensation for loose glasses that might have been slipping down my face, so several times during the interview I took my glasses off and pretended to be cleaning them while trying to tighten them.


After this interview all of the prospective students went to lunch with faculty and current students, and this is when I began to lose control of my neck. I felt my head spontaneously turning to the right and had difficulty facing forwards, so I positioned myself at a lunch table where I could face right and still carry on a conversation. Walking to my next interview I felt that not only was my neck turning right against my will, but that now it was tensing into a tight clench that forced my forehead to tilt dramatically back. As I began my third interview I explained to my interviewer that I was experiencing neck cramps and he acquired a hot pad to try to help me.


As I was holding the hot pad to my neck, and explaining my research into the loss of dopamine in the basal ganglia while trying to stifle spasms, I began to notice that I was losing control of my facial muscles. My eyebrows were tightly arched, and my mouth was stretched into an uncomfortably wide, grimacing smile, but no matter how hard I tried to send commands to my face ("forehead: relax!" "mouth: calm down!") I could not convince my face or neck to act normally. I was having a hard time processing what was happening to me, but I could see by the look on my interviewer's face that something was not right. As I was trying to explain to the admissions people that my face was acting funny, but that I was generally OK, I lost most control of my mouth and tongue and my speech slowed to a slur.


I was then rushed to the ER, where I was diagnosed with an acute dystonic reaction to my nausea medications. Here's where the irony kicks in: my dystonia was mediated by a blockage of the dopamine receptors in my basal ganglia - the exact mechanism that my lab was studying in mice. I was experiencing acute dystonia, for the first time, as I was explaining how and why I study dystonia for my graduate school interviews. Just thought you might get a kick out of that story (I'm fine now, by the way).


I also thought I'd share that I've been writing a website about branching out from academia - career profiles, tips, resources, Q&A's (I hope it's not bad form to post links?) which might be helpful/interesting to some of you: http://www.branchingpoints.com/

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