During my commute home a few weeks ago, I came across an old classmate from high school. After our initial exchange of typical greetings, we customarily inquired each other about our current endeavors. I quickly learned that he obtained a Bachelor of Business Administration from Simon Fraser University and is currently working for a small company. When asked about my work/school status, I answered with my instinctive “I’m doing grad school” response. This wasn’t the first time someone met my answer with an empty stare followed by a pseudo-empathetic nod. He obviously wasn’t satisfied with my simple reply so he decided to pursue the matter further:

“So, what do you do in grad school?” he asked.

I jumped at the opportunity to educate the general public about my novel research project. “I do research,” I began. “My project focuses on how the immune system …”

“No, no, that’s not what I meant,” he interrupted. “I wanted to know what you actually do in graduate school. What is the graduate life like? What do you actually have to do to get your degree? Tell me more about that sort of stuff.”
I must admit his question took me by surprise. For the first time in my grad school life someone expressed interest about what graduate students like me actually do during the day. His question also made me realize that the outside world knew as little about our lives as they did about our research. After a brief pause to gather my thoughts, an idea came to mind.

“Do you like Star Wars?” I asked

“I have a Wookiee living in my basement” was the reply.

I kindly acknowledged his comment, but everyone knows that Wookiees live on trees and can be over two meters tall. There is no way a Wookiee would willingly live in his small basement, but I digress. The force may be weak with this one, but at least now we have something in common.

“Working to get your PhD is like training to become a Jedi Knight,” I started. “You follow a Master; you live a life of sacrifice; you must develop rational thought and patience… the list is endless.”

My friend looked puzzled but intrigued. “It is still rather difficult for me to see the connections; can you provide some specific scenarios?”

“Sure thing,” I laughed. This is going to be interesting….

– – –

Not so long ago, in a research institute close to home…

Episode I


There is excitement in the Jinn lab.
Their recent efforts to elucidate the
role of the immune system in heart
attacks have returned extremely
convincing results.

In recognition of their achievements,
the funding agency has approved the
lab’s latest grant application, giving
Dr. Jinn the resources to take on a
new graduate student.

With the closing of the winter school
term, the professor has received a
flood of applications from university
graduates seeking employment in
his lab….

– – –

Professor Qui-Gon Jinn sat silently on the chair behind his desk, his intense blue eyes fixed upon the anxious student across from him. “That is a very impressive academic record, young…” he looked down at the name on the transcript, “…Skywalker.”

“Thank you, Dr. Jinn,” said Anakin Skywalker. He stared at his own hands to avoid the professor’s gaze. Is he offering me the position? He was eager to know but could not muster the courage to ask.

“Why do you want to enter graduate school?” Qui-Gon asked.

“I want to be a researcher. I want to help find a cure to heart disease,” Anakin replied.

“Are you sure you would like to enter the PhD program?” the professor continued. “Training to become a PhD is not an easy challenge, and even if you succeed, it’s a hard life.”

A PhD has a hard life? Yea right! Anakin thought. But there was a solemnity in Qui-Gon’s voice that led Anakin to believe the professor wasn’t joking. “Yes professor, I am sure.” Anakin answered without a second thought.

“Very well, Anakin, welcome to graduate school.” Qui-Gon stood up and walked towards the door. He motioned for the student to follow him. “Come, I will show you the laboratory.”

“Right away, sir.” Anakin rose so quickly he nearly knocked over his chair. He rushed to keep up with the professor’s long strides. At last they reached an elevator at the end of a long hallway.

“As you may know, Anakin,” Qui-Gon said as the elevator door closed, “I have recently received a 5 year grant from the Heart and Stoke Foundation. This grant will support you through your studies here. You will be working on a new project that involves finding ways to use one’s own immune system to help combat cardiovascular disease.”

“10th floor,” announced a mechanical voice. The elevator beeped happily as the door opened to reveal a sunlit hallway. Qui-Gon led Anakin into a laboratory on their left.

“Ahem!” Qui-Gon coughed.

A young man shot up from his chair, evidently startled. From the corner of the room a strange-looking creature with wide eyes and long floppy ears hurried to join them.

“Umm… hi Master,” the young man greeted as he covered his Star Wars comic with a pile of scrap paper. The young man eyed Anakin disapprovingly. “Master, why do I get the feeling that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?”

Qui-Gon paid no attention to the young man’s remark. “Anakin, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi, my PhD student.”

“Anakin Skywalker,” the student extended his hand.

Obi-Wan took the hand and shook it.

Qui-Gon turned toward the creature. “And this is Jar-Jar Binks,” he said.

“Mesa your humble technician,” Jar-Jar bowed.

Qui-Gon put his hand on Anakin’s shoulder. “Mr. Skywalker is going to be a new apprentice in my lab,” he said.
Obi-Wan widened his eyes, “Master! You said you only had time for one PhD student!”

“My young Padawan, you have been under my supervision for more than four years, and your thesis is well developed,” Qui-Gon replied. He continued, “I sense it is time for you to defend your thesis and complete your PhD training.”

Obi-Wan bowed, “I am grateful you think I’m ready to take the trials, Master.”

“It is settled then,” said Qui-Gon. “Anakin, go to the Great Library and begin reading about heart disease. Once you have acquired sufficient background knowledge you will be trained to perform some basic experiments.”

“Yes, Master,” Anakin obeyed.

As the elevator crawled sluggishly towards the ground floor, Anakin couldn’t help but wonder whether he had made the correct choice. The events that took place this morning may have completely reshaped his life. He has taken the first step down a long and difficult road. He is not sure where this road will lead him, but he is prepared to tackle the challenges ahead, one at a time.

– – –

It has been nearly one year since Anakin Skywalker entered the PhD program under the supervision of Dr. Qui-Gon Jinn. As per departmental requirements, all new students must have a committee meeting prior to the completion of their first year. For that purpose, a panel of prestigious professors has been assembled and scheduled to meet this very afternoon.

Qui-Gon paused as he and Anakin approached the meeting room. “Remember, my young Padawan, your committee members are here to help you. Do not be offended by their criticisms, for they will only make you stronger.”

“Then why does it feel like I’m heading straight into the jaws of a Sando aqua monster?” Anakin groaned.

“Nonsense, in you go.”

The meeting room is a circular chamber located on the highest floor of the research centre; a ring of chairs lines the periphery of the room. The committee members were already waiting when Anakin and Qui-Gon arrived.

Qui-Gon led Anakin to the center of the room. “Anakin, meet Drs. Yoda, Mace Windu, Ki-Adi-Mundi, and…” he paused, “Queen Amidala.”

“Why is she here?” whispered Anakin.

“One of your committee members must be someone outside of the department,” Qui-Gon explained quietly. “Now, if we are all ready, let the meeting commence.”

Anakin took a deep breath as Qui-Gon left him to take a seat on one of the chairs.

“How feel you?” Yoda began.

“Cold, sir.”

“Stressed are you?”

“No, sir.”

“See through you we can,” cautioned Yoda.

“Be mindful of your feelings,” said Windu.

“Your thoughts dwell on your experiments,” Mundi revealed.

“I want to generate data,” said Anakin innocently.

“Anxious about your results I think, hmm?”

“What has that got to do with anything?” Anakin retorted.

“Everything!” Yoda exclaimed. “Stress is the path to the dark side. Stress leads to suffering. Suffering leads to panic. Panic leads to fabrication of data. I sense much stress in you.”

Qui-Gon raised his hand to interrupt the conversation. “Maybe we should let Anakin talk about what he’s working on.”

“Tell us about your research, you may,” Yoda went on.

“Yes, sir,” Anakin swallowed before continuing. “My research is about a disease called atherosclerosis, which is one of the most common causes of death in developed nations such as our own. Atherosclerosis is….”

“We know that, you may skip the background,” interrupted Mace Windu.

“I don’t know the background,” said Queen Amidala.

Dr. Windu rolled his eyes. “Very well then, Anakin, please continue.”

Anakin cleared his throat. “A risk factor for atherosclerosis is called inflammation, which happens when the cells in your body produce too many harmful substances and damage important structures like your blood vessels. Damaged blood vessels become leaky, and this allows fat to enter and accumulate within your vessel walls. Over time the fat build up may block your vessel, which cuts off blood supply to critical organs such as the heart, causing a heart attack. Alternatively the fat may break off and travel to other parts of your body and block a vessel there. If blood supply to your brain is cut off this way, you may get a stroke.”

“What causes inflammation?” Amidala quizzed, looking up from her notepad.

“High fat diets, smoking, diabetes, stress, poor oral hygiene, among other things,” Anakin replied.

“What is your research question?” inquired Dr. Mundi.

“Since the immune system is largely responsible for producing inflammation, I am developing a way to prevent the cells in the immune system from releasing inflammatory chemicals,” Anakin explained confidently.

“How?” asked Dr. Windu.

“By genetically removing some key proteins required for the cells to make inflammatory chemicals, sir.”

Yoda raised an eyebrow. “Attempting to do this in humans, are you?”

“I’m using mice as an experimental model, sir.”

“How would you know whether your methods worked?” Dr. Mundi pushed on.

Anakin was beginning to enjoy the attention. “I will create mice that lack key inflammatory proteins using genetic engineering. Then I will feed the mice high fat foods over a period of time and look at their blood vessels to see how much fat has accumulated.”

“Designed a great experiment, Qui-Gon has,” beamed Yoda.

Mace Windu and Ki-Adi-Mundi nodded in agreement.

Qui-Gon looked at each person in the room, his gaze ultimately falling upon Queen Amidala. “If you don’t have anything to add, my Queen, I am going to conclude this meeting.”

Amidala gave a quick nod of approval.

“Very well,” Qui-Gon announced as he stood up. “Thank you all for coming today. I am sure Anakin has….”

Qui-Gon paused abruptly; his face contorted as if in pain. The onlookers watched in horror as Qui-Gon clutched his chest and collapsed to the ground.

“Master! No!”

“Call an ambulance we must!”

“We need a REAL doctor in here!”

– – –

Anakin and Obi-Wan watched solemnly as the flames consumed Qui-Gon’s lifeless body.

Anakin looked up at Obi-Wan. “What will happen to me now?”

“The department has given me permission to train you. You will become a PhD, I promise.”

An eagle’s cry echoed in the distance. The life of Qui-Gon Jinn may have ended, but his legacy will live on. He has devoted his life to science through his relentless pursuit for scientific knowledge. His name will be honoured in the reference section of countless publications for years to come. That is the goal of a PhD in academia; that is the PhD life.