I have in my possession airline tickets from Brussels to Banjul and an email confirming my gluten-free lunches, guaranteeing that I'll be able to get at least two meals out there. I fly out on the 24th of May in the company of one of the world's leading trachoma experts (which I'm not especially happy about as if we hit turbulence there's a very real possibility that I'll be sick all over him) and return on the 26th of July. All my life I've wanted the opportunity to go to Africa and actually do something useful rather than just gawping, six months of preparation and anticipation have gone into this trip and I feel, well, terrified to be honest.
I'm worried about the fact that I'll be taking nearly £5,000 worth of scientific equipment to a third world country. Not so much out of fear of theft, as it's all pretty specialist stuff and I wouldn't have thought a tangle of PTFE tubing and carbon filters would look particularly enticing to the average thief who would in any case probably only be able to fence it to us. It's more to do with the likely result of combining harsh terrain and high humidity with my notorious propensity to break anything that can't take evasive action quickly enough. It's all been field tested and is pretty robust, but I've been known to snap taps and cut my own earlobe on my headphones so I'm not feeling too confident.
It'll also be the longest time I've been away from my bloke in five years. Last year he went to Trinidad for three weeks, which was ample time for our cooking styles to diverge to the extent that on his return he couldn't stomach my bland British stodge and was cooking meals apparently designed to provide our entire five veg a day with chillies. If our tastes could change (or perhaps revert to type) so dramatically in three weeks, what could happen in nine? He will of course be coming out to visit me, but I'm worried about my ability to keep him entertained as two weeks watching your girlfriend tweezering dead flies out of traps is likely to bore any man.
Then there's the guilt I'm feeling about how much anxiety this trip is causing my Mum. We've had a long talk about it and straightened a few things out, but I still feel very bad for putting her through this when her health isn't great. In my defence I never expected her to react so badly, but looking back I've been surprised by my Mum's reaction to quite a few things I've done, which makes me realise I probably didn't understand her as well as a considerate daughter perhaps should have.
I'm also starting to question my ability to carry this out as a scientist. Since Christmas I haven't made as much progress in the lab as I would have liked for various reasons, and I'm worried that I'll get out there and not be able to make anything work, frightening as I only get one shot at this preliminary fieldwork. It's been a bad week, which is especially depressing considering that I'm only on the third day of it, in which I made two extremely stupid mistakes. One of wasted a lot of reagent and destroyed one of my samples, but worse one contaminated a machine (embarrassingly, with a sample of nasal mucous) and ruined somebody else's sample, and I am acutely aware that he's working to a very tight deadline so the time taken to clean the machine and rerun the sample would really not have been welcome. He, and indeed everyone else, was extremely nice about it and said I was still learning, but in truth I knew exactly how these operations should have been done and for some reason just forgot to carry out a crucial step in the process in one case and even more inexcusably just forgot to switch something off over night in the other (doubly shameful for an avowed treehugger).
What I think has really thrown me was a technical writing course I did a couple of weeks ago. I'm no Victor Hugo, but I don't think I write badly and I seemed to know more about where apostrophe's shouldn't go (there) than anyone else on that course. The rest of the class seemed genuinely shocked when, having been asked about our writing experience, I said that I wrote for pleasure and the whole focus seemed to be that writing was, for scientists, an unpleasant chore that it was vital to master for career advancement. I suddenly realised that a lot of my success in science wasn't down to Earth-shattering insights or innovation in the lab, but simply down to the fact that I was able to present what I had done better than most. Writing is an extremely important "soft skill" in science, but in the end it's the "hard skills" that'll get you ahead and although I'm not a complete incompetent in the lab I realised that I'm not Nobel Prize material and no amount of "soft skills" will compensate for that.
I'm a little saddened by the way I always seem to manage to turn things I love doing into a chore. I genuinely love my PhD, find the areas I'm researching fascinating and feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to do something that I believe can make a difference to peoples' lives. And I've dreamed of going to Africa ever since devouring the WilSlard Price books (if it gets 'em reading, don't knock it) as a kid. Somehow though in the past month I've managed to turn it into something I'm stressed about. I think I may just be a bit tired out from long hours, long commutes, lack of time for exercise and a hefty dose of cholera toxin.
Maybe I'll go and eat some jam. Jam makes everything better.