The Pursuit of Purpose – “the most anticipated drop of 2024” (according to some)

The last time we spoke, I mentioned how time felt like it was going by fast, but I realized time almost always will feel like this. Sometimes, it feels like it’s going faster and faster as we grow up, but maybe that’s just perception. Maybe, it’s rather how we view the time that we have that creates the concept of how fast that time goes. I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s already March, and I truly can’t believe that it’s already spring.

Sometimes, it feels like we’re searching for something in our lives, and even when we don’t know what that is, we still feel the urge to continue to search for it. I ask myself questions. What are my values? What do I value most? What’s important to me? What do I want? What changes do I want to see in the world? What do I want my legacy and impact to be? How do I want to make that impact?

These questions come closer to the pursuit of purpose, and that journey of pursuit will continue. I am on that journey now, pursuing joy and purpose.

There are moments along this journey that sometimes feel like that they were meant to happen.

Regardless, let’s talk a little bit about some of my adventures in Ireland thus far.

So far in Ireland, I also visited Cobh, the ring of Kerry, Kilkenny, and Belfast! I also experienced St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin!

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Relearning to be present in Dublin—the moments between the moments

Hello friends! At the time of writing this blog post, I am sat beside a large window at The Pulse Café @ UCD watching the snow fall, quickly covering up the tread marks of previous cyclists. Pulse is my third place, and I’m grateful for the comfort that the cafe brings me. I’ve befriended the barista staff, becoming closest with Santiago. He is originally from Argentina, loves Eastern European Christmas markets, and feels most self-confident after a fresh haircut. Every morning, we share a little bit of our day with each other; he tells me about a new workout split he’s trying, and I tell him about a big meeting that I’m stressing about.

Pulse Cafe—perfectly positioned and amazingly priced!

In recent years, I’ve become acclimated to moving fast and moving toward a destination. But this year—and specifically right now—as I watch the snow turn to slush and passers-by take photos of white-covered branches, I feel, for the first time, no urgency to get anywhere quickly. In many ways, my third place is the antithesis of my first and second places, and thank gosh for that.

A snowstorm takes Dublin—a visiting friend sat on the Aircoach for 2 hours this morning!

I’ve always been a future planner (an optimistic spin on my chronic worrier tendencies). I’d always chalked up future planning as a skill to justify escaping a chaotic and overwhelming present. I could step away from the abundance of new experiences (which require decisions, and opportunity costs) that surround me by hyperfixating on what came next. By looking to the future, I became comfy knowing what to expect, and I thought I was doing a responsible thing by “alley-ooping” my future self. Perhaps in the process though, I became afraid by the open-endedness of the present.

My opportunity tracker, filled with 450+ personal, professional, and academic opportunities that caught my eye

My insecurity surrounding finding my “next thing” is why I always travel with my laptop in my backpack—in any worst-case scenario, if I ever get overwhelmed by the present, I can set up shop in any café (my third place) and work toward a destination or find a new one. But quickly, I developed a dirty habit of escaping my present by ensuring my past self always made choices to keep my future self busy.

In a moment of future panic during a weekend trip to Scotland, I pulled into a cafe on the Royal Mile to start my grad school applications.
Killing some time in Belfast by getting ahead on a problem set not due for months.

After realizing all this, I’ve tried to become more cognizant about finding a healthier balance between living in the present and alley-ooping my future self. On Tuesday’s, for instance, I take the 39A bus to Dawson Street—without my backpack—and spend the morning reading at Hodges Figgis and treating myself to a Citrus Tea at Costa. I spend less time listening to music on commutes and more time noticing the buildings and people I pass. I noticed that I addressed burnout from internship work by “opportunity shopping” for future projects or trips, so nowadays I’ll work on my internship projects near a museum or park, so that I can explore the area when I find myself drifting into worries about the future; most recently, I’ve been able to visit the National Gallery, The Irish Emigration Museum, and Merrion Square Park.

Hodges Figgis! Best bookstore ever.
EPIC Irish Emigration Museum, a pitstop between a morning and afternoon work session.
The Royal Irish Academy, my favorite work destination on my favorite street in Dublin

I’m starting to see the upside in slowing my pace, embracing newness where my feet are, and not seeking to make sense of a hazy future. And this is a lesson I couldn’t have learned at a more pivotal time—last week, I committed to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai to begin a PhD in AI & Emerging Technologies for Medicine! The program commences in August following my graduation from UCD, and although I’m eager to start imagining what my life in New York will look like, I find myself equally eager to relish exactly where I am right now.

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Giving My Brother a Glimpse Into My New World

Where do I start? When reflecting on the last few months, I realized how much I’ve grown throughout this program. With an abundance of new friends, experiences, and challenges, this program has been one of the most rewarding in my life. I couldn’t decide what to write about, so I’ll just tell a story of the visit I’ll be telling my future kids about.

A little over a week ago, my brother came to visit. I have a strong relationship with all of my brothers, and we’ve had our ups and downs addressing family and personal challenges. They’re my biggest support system, and it’s been a few months since I last saw them. Visits from my family are challenging to orchestrate due to my dads health, but Nick, the younger of my twin brothers, insisted on exploring this new world that I’ve become immersed in.

So he makes the solo journey across the pond to see his big brother! I was nervous, how could I capture all that I’ve learned and experienced to demonstrate for him in only one week? This was going to be his first time in Ireland, and our first duo traveling experience, so I wanted to make the most of his time here. The planning begun.

He would arrive in Dublin airport, and I wanted to be his first sight after walking through customs. I booked a shady airport Travelodge, which I checked into around midnight. To fuel my planning, I dined at the finest Swords has to offer: Hogs & Heifers (neither of which I could eat). Nonetheless, I sat at the bar with my salad and began to draw out the plan.

First, we would experience Dublin. Nick arrived jet-lagged early the next morning, and we got brunch together in downtown Dublin while awaiting our train to Galway. Conveniently, I commandeered a “Welcome to Ireland” sign at the airport from a family that abandoned it, in order to put on a show for Nick’s arrival.

Nick must’ve brought the sunshine with him, because for the two days we spent in Galway, it didn’t rain at all. During the day, I took him to all my favorite spots: we got dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant, experienced a true Irish delicacy: the spice bag, and he got a tour of my campus and classroom.

I also wanted him to meet the amazing people who’ve changed my life over the past several months. I couldn’t book everyone in, but I did my best. I coordinated a celebration for my program at my house: a night filled with burnt nachos, JZyNO, and African dance. He even learned a notorious Kenyan drinking song that has been a staple of my celebrations with my classmates. The night wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the pubs, where I insisted he try a Guinness 0.0 to experience the taste of Ireland.

He took one sip and gagged.

A general dislike for Guinness must run in the family, and perhaps since we are both sober, the Guinness zero might not adequately reflect the true nature of Guinness.

Our two days in Galway must’ve lulled Nick into a false sense of security, but I had a surprise planned. He mentioned wanting a tattoo after seeing my travel exploits, but I want unable to book with my Galway artist. Instead, my artist in Portugal agrees to run two back-to-back sessions, so back to Dublin airport we go.

This was Nick’s first time in a non-english speaking country, an experience I’ve been looking forward to sharing with him. Neither of us knew any Portuguese. What could go wrong?

The 4 euro Uber from the airport took us to our Airbnb in Barrio Alto, the area of nightlife in Lisbon. We spent the first few days exploring Portuguese cuisine, attractions, and the renowned aquarium. 6 hours were spent admiring the sunfish: the largest species of bony fish.

The tattoo phase of our trip brought us to Tomar, a small town in central Portugal. My artist has a studio based there, and we’d be spending two days in the town getting inked. I rented a car to make the hour journey manageable, and we set off. Tomar was much more challenging to navigate than Lisbon, as nobody spoke English. Being off the typical tourism path, Tomar was home to some the best Portuguese food I had during the trip. After a combined 16 hours of tattooing, we set off for the final phase of the trip: the largest waves in the world.

Nick and I have been avid surfers since we were kids, and Nazaré was considered to be the Mecca of the sport. On our final day, we hit the coast. By this time, a storm was coming through, so the swells were upwards of 30 feet. We hiked to a small castle, which housed a small surfing museum and glorious views of the waves.

On the drive to the airport, I was proud of myself. I led Nick through my Galway experience, and then we explored a new country together, forming new moments that will forever be cherished in our relationship. During our stop to top off the tank, we reflected on the journey. Nick’s first Ryanair flight, first sip of Guinness, a night out with my classmates, our tattoos, and other moments throughout the week that defined my experience and afforded him a glimpse into the world that’s enabled me to grow so much.

Upon losing power, I coasted to a halt on the side of the busy motorway. The car was completely dead. Our flight left in two hours.

I started to panic, in a quick moment, my flawless planning had all come crashing down. We were now stranded on the side of the road, in the pouring rain, in a new country, mere hours before our flight departs.

I look over at Nick, and amidst all the chaos, he smiles, and the two of us burst into laughter. A truly monumental way to end one of the best trips of my life. Over the past several years, Nick and I’s bond grew stronger through our struggle with mental illness. Sparing the details, it’s been a long journey of ups and downs that brought us to this very moment, sitting on the side of the road together. We should’ve been freaking out, concerned about getting home, but the resiliency of our past created laughter instead. Anything that can go wrong certainly will, and we weren’t going to let this impact the final moments of our trip. Some quick thinking and a helpful Portuguese tow truck driver ensured we made it to the airport on time for our flight.

It’s challenging for me to articulate how profound this experience was for us, but I learned many lessons throughout Nick’s visit. I’d focused so much on providing him with a truly authentic experience, I may have missed out on what he wanted out of it: simply time with his big brother. I felt terrible at the end of our trip to Portugal; I thought I let him down. Usually when we travel anywhere, the running joke that all we do is eat and lift weights, so I wanted to make this experience special for him. I mentioned this despair to Nick, and he said he didn’t care, that we’ve been through worse, and that it’ll be a moment that we look back fondly for the rest of our lives.

In my graduation speech for undergrad I mentioned that of all the titles I’ve ever had, “big brother” was my favorite. During this trip, I learned of the profound contribution my brothers have made to my resilience and perseverance. I always thought of myself as the mentor, but in that moment, I learned that I was also the mentee.

and I learned that “Gasoleo” in Portuguese translates to “Diesel” in English.

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The Quiet Adventures

As I sit at my desk, in the midst of my midterm exams, I find myself procrastinating. (Maybe a little too much.) Earlier today, I caught myself scrolling through my camera role—anything to keep myself from working.

My first exam is on the Mabinogi, a collection of four fascinating stories written in Medieval Wales. These stories follow the adventures of shapeshifting characters, wizards who can conjure up naval fleets out of seaweed, and people transformed from flowers. One wonders how these strange and complex narratives developed. Perhaps they derive from oral tradition—perhaps they were once bedtime stories for medieval Welsh children. Poring over these tales the past few days has made me wonder what stories I might seek to tell.

And so, while flipping through photos in my phone trying desperately to distract from the imminent exam, I found the photos I took from Cobh a couple months ago. This small town in the south of County Cork is known for its picturesque seaside character. A few weeks ago, Vivek came to visit me and Neel in Cork and we travelled to Cobh together.

For how different this town felt compared to Cork City, the bus was surprisingly short. Tall hills, quaint houses, and seaside cafes defined this townscape. And it was a beautiful, sunny day—rare for Ireland in February. We spent the day there, walking along the narrow streets, up and down hills lined by colorful houses, until it was time to head back to Cork.

Neel, Vivek, and I in front of the famous “Deck of Cards” houses in Cobh

It was a quiet adventure. There was no Mabinogi-esque shapeshifting or magical transformation; we didn’t even need hiking boots. And yet, as quiet as that day was, it is that story—one of a journey to this quaint town with Neel and Vivek—that I’m telling you now.

I came across another set of photos while scrolling through my camera roll. These were from a more recent trip with all of the Mitchells to the Giant’s Causeway, a geological formation in Northern Ireland. Even the ancient Irish found this place significant: they told stories of how Finn mac Cumhaill built it to fight a Scottish giant. My tale of a few friends travelling there and walking around is a little less exciting (and far less violent) compared to that of Finn mac Cumhaill. And yet, it’s that hike and the photos we took together that I’ll remember going forward.

Some of the Mitchells at the top of Giant’s Causeway

Our experiences, memorialized through the photos we take and memories we preserve, will always pale in comparison to the wild narratives of folklore; I have never encountered wizards or been transformed. I’ve walked around the lovely streets of Cobh with Vivek and Neel, though; and I got to hike over the strangely formed rocks of Giant’s Causeway with the other Mitchells. As mundane as these things are compared to the strangeness of medieval narratives, these are the tales that I’m excited to tell, because retelling these stories reminds me of the wonderful experiences I got to have here.

I’ll just have to keep going to cool places and taking photos with friends (it’ll help with future procrastination).

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Good Food

Much of my time this winter was spent cooking. I am grateful to have the spare time to try (and fail) new recipes and to have access to an abundance of fresh produce just minutes from our house. Every Saturday, I’ve made it a ritual to go to St. Nicholas’ market and improvise a meal based on the produce that catches my eye. Slowly, but surely, I’m learning how to wean myself off of recipes and to create dishes of my own imagination using seasonal produce.

Only being able to buy what I can carry has taught me to be mindful of my consumption and intentional while cooking. Perhaps, I don’t need 4 month’s worth of “just in case” foods shoved in the back of the pantry. Who would have thought? The proximity and freshness of the food here in Galway is a luxury that I am grateful to have access to and I am trying to take full advantage of it. With this in mind, I want to highlight some of my favorite meals that I have made/eaten, all of which are tied to my fondest memories in Ireland thus far.

  1. Birthday cake for my grandma – August 2023

Truth be told, I made this cake at home in Chicago, but it was the last thing that I made before I moved to Ireland, so I associate it with the big change. I don’t usually enjoy baking because I prefer to improvise when cooking, but I wanted to challenge myself to make a cake while I had my family’s baking-ware at my disposal. I made my grandma a lemon cake with a saffron cardamom vanilla bean buttercream + a mascarpone and strawberry compote filling, and I decorated it with fresh chamomile flowers. It was my first time coming up my own flavor profile for a cake, and fortunately, it was a success!

All hands on deck for the flammenkuchen transfer
Orange Pistachio
Rosewater Cake
The spread ft. the €2 tablecloth that I found at the Simon Shop

2. Christmas Dinner – December 2023

In early December, I hosted a holiday dinner party with my friends to celebrate the end of our semester before we all went our separate ways for the holidays. My German friend, Lena, suggested that we make Flammenkuchen or tarte flambé, a specialty of Alsace, France akin to a crispy flatbread topped with creme fraiche. We made three variations of the dish, including pear-pecan-brie-honey, squash-thyme-red onion, and a simple tomato-onion-basil tarte flambé. For dessert, we made an orange pistachio rosewater cake topped with mulberries and toasted almonds. I never thought celebrating Christmas 2 weeks early and 3500 miles away from home could be as heartwarming as this.

Bánh mì-making process
First attempt at bánh mì.

3. Kimchi-jjigae + tofu bánh mì – January 2024

Although Galway’s food scene has many strengths, I haven’t found the Asian cuisine to be one of them. The winter weather significantly increased my cravings for meals I couldn’t readily access, including kimchi stew and a fresh bánh mì. So, I took it upon myself to try to make these meals myself, and kimchi-jjigae quickly became a winter staple. That said, my bánh mì is still a work in progress.

Completed tiramisu!
Careful tiramisu assembly by Ester, Natasha, and Lily
Lasagna before the oven

4. Lasagna and tiramisu ft. the Sanremo Music Festival – February 2024

In February, my friend Ester, who’s from Bologna, hosted a lasagna-making, tiramisu-building dinner party. In a frenzy of stirring the béchamel sauce, shredding parmesan, dunking the lady fingers, and stealing some of the tiramisu cream when Ester wasn’t looking…we managed to make a very satisfying Italian dinner. While eating, we watched the iconic Sanremo Music Festival, and Ester was gracious enough to translate the song lyrics for us non-Italian speaking folks. I am thankful to be surrounded by such a diverse group of lovely women and I have learned so much from them in a short time!

5. Brunch of the Gods – February 2024

Although Coldvember has long ended, Lena and I still make the effort to go for a sunrise swim at Blackrock as often as we can muster the strength. The strongest motivator is the knowledge that we have a big brunch to look forward to afterwards. The painful, post-swim walk from Blackrock to the house with frozen feet is nothing that shakshuka and pancakes can’t solve.

Stuffed onions before the oven
Hiking the Eochair with the Mountaineering Club
Sheer enthusiasm for our cooking club!

6. Post-mountaineering cooking club – February 2024

Last, and perhaps least… Ali and I initiated our “monthly” cooking club in early February (we’ve only convened once). On the menu were two dishes from NYT cooking that were delicious independently but less impressive in combination: stuffed onions with saffron rice and harissa chicken wings. Although each dish turned out as we’d intended, we were off-put by the pairing and vowed to put more effort into our menu curation next time. Suffice it to say that the whole was not greater than the sum of its parts, but I am holding out hope for our next attempt.

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Waterstones and the Lagan

Curls of heat come from my tea and although I sip it gingerly, I never fail to burn my tongue. Still getting used to drinking my daily tea – among other habits I’ve picked up after a few months in Belfast. Some among them: saying “wee” and “flat” and “grand,” perpetually carrying an umbrella, and as I am now, sitting at Waterstones Cafe to do my work, next to the big windows where I can see rain-soaked pedestrians amble by. I’ve been to a few coffee shops: Established Coffee in the Cathedral Quarter, Blue Train in Queen’s Quarter, and The Pantry at Crescent Arts Centre on University Road. But I find myself today and countless others returning to my tried and true: the Waterstones Cafe in Linen Quarter.

Maybe I frequent here the most because it’s right in the city center, less than a ten minute walk away from my accommodation. It’s also the most spacious, and I feel like I have more room for my thoughts and laptop and notebook and twenty Zebra Pilot pens. I love being around all the books, too: I’ve made a routine of reading before bed every night, especially having joined a local book club (this year we’ve read The Cat Who Saved Books, Small Things Like These, and for March are reading Lazy City). I’ve loved reading Irish and Northern Irish women authors like Claire Keegan, Susannah Dickey, Lucy Caldwell, and Michelle Gallin – and of course Sally Rooney, whose novels and short stories were my pre-orientation program for my Mitchell year. I get most of my recommendations (if not from my book club) from the owner of a local bookshop, No Alibis, on Botanic.

I bring my book-club novels and novellas with me on buses and trains, reading until the motion sickness gets the better of me. On the 9 to my reformer pilates classes on Lisburn Road in South Belfast, or on a day trip to Bangor or Derry. I used to be this way in elementary school, clutching my Junie B. Jones to my chest throughout the day in anticipation of a free moment to read. I always read before bed when I was a kid, too: 20 minutes a day for my Language Arts homework. I think I love being in a book club here because it grounds me in time and place, here in Belfast, but also because my renewed love of reading brings me a sense of nostalgia that soothes my bouts of homesickness (which happen more often than I thought they would, but also remind me how special my year here is).

I pack up my bag and clear my table for the next Waterstones patron. Some days I’ll walk home wearing my headphones and let Caroline Polachek block out my thoughts; other days like today I let myself hear the sounds of the city. They’re not particularly nice (it’s a lot of construction) but it grounds me in the moment. (I even sleep with my window open every night despite the drunk shouting, cars honking, and early wakeup to drilling on the street below my flat. I’m sure I’ll miss it when I return to dead-quiet American suburbia later this summer.)

When I’m back in my flat, I change into my running clothes and grab my Brooks and my AirPods. I’ve been running more consistently here but rarely more than a couple miles, although the Lagan River Towpath has been perfect for the occasional long run. I’ve found a pretty decent path: up Ormeau Road, maybe into the park, or I’ll simply turn left at the bridge to run along the Lagan for a few blocks until I emerge back near Lanyon train station and complete my loop. Runs and long walks through the city are never dull; you’re bound to come across a new mural or memorial you hadn’t noticed before. Belfast is like that: you turn that corner you always walk past and boom, you’re face-to-face with highly political street art you otherwise would never have known was there.

Below are some glimpses of street art, memorialization, and public activism from the past few weeks in Belfast and Derry, which stopped me in my tracks long enough for me to capture a quick photo – taken while on a run, or long walk, or another walking tour (I’m at five in Belfast, three in Derry, and counting!):

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Studying Plato in Ireland

When I first came to Ireland, I remember chatting with an Irish stranger by the Molly Malone statue. It’s funny, in Europe, when someone asks where you’re from, they’ll simply say one word (e.g. “I’m Irish, “French,” “Welsh”) and that answers the whole story. I started to get into my spiel: I‘m Indian, from California, but I live in Ireland now studying philosophy.

He replied something to the effect, “Ah, Ireland is the perfect place to study philosophy: dark, brooding, antsy.” I laughed because even though there are plenty of philosophy majors to enforce the stereotype, I have always believed philosophy is an optimistic discipline.

Despite the dark and brooding weather, I have found a new love in philosophy in Plato. His texts should not be taken literally, but taking into account the rhetorical moves Plato uses — metaphors and riddles worth solving. His philosophy is, frankly, beautiful, and hopeful, to read in a way that modern philosophy is not. And it feels timeless. My professor at Trinity is an expert on Plato and his interpretations and lectures are forcing me to rank Plato as the greatest of philosophers.

It’s also given me the opportunity to reflect on my Mitchell experience in a philosophical context. For Plato, the only way to attain knowledge of metaphysical forms is through rigorous philosophical study. But, in Phaedrus, he presents an alternative route: love. The surprising epistemological priority of love has made me think (and professor endorsed :)) that joy, gratitude, and optimism are chiefly important. It helped me realize how silly it was to study philosophy in Ireland and complain about the food or the weather, blind to what an incredible opportunity I am in. I don’t know how, but I finally feel settled in Ireland.

It felt especially special to read Plato and attend class while in Greece. I had the opportunity to go to Athens with Michael, another Mitchell Scholar. Michael, who studied archeology, pushed me to see more museums and archeology sites than I would have on my own, but I am grateful for that. My favorite had to be the Temple of Poseidon, surrounded by blue-green waters and a striking cliff face.

As a philosophy nerd, I also really enjoyed seeing Socrates’ Prison, mentioned in a few of Plato’s dialogues, and Aristotle’s School.

Another highlight of the last few weeks has been a visit to Belfast. I had an incredible time with the other Mitchell Scholars. Belfast is a beautiful city filled with a somber history. It was striking to see the murals, for their diversity in ideology, existing side by side. It was further striking to see how sectarian pressures still govern life in Northern Ireland. My favorite part, however, was Giant’s Causeway.

I also could feel how myself and the other scholars had grown since the beginning of the year. Everyone seemed, to me, more confident and more adaptable.

As I am writing this I am awaiting the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, to spend a fun day with my friends. In a few weeks, my family will visit as well, and I feel well-equipped to show them around Dublin.

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Blog 3: Translational and International Cancer Science!

Over the past few months, I have felt grateful to have solidified academic research partnerships between the United States and Ireland in the oncology space. Every day, I am reminded of why I do the work that I do by the rush of discovery and drive to make cancer care and innovation better. I have felt more inspired here than ever.

This week, had an amazing experience presenting my recent work on “Spatial Immunophenotyping in Patient Biospecimen and Intravital Optical Imaging in a Novel Murine Model Identifies Macrophage Infiltration in Tumor Emboli of Inflammatory Breast Cancer” at the EACR-AACR-IACR Basic and Translational Research Conference in Dublin, Ireland! It was a privilege to connect with international faculty, researchers, and students.

This conference was also an excellent opportunity to celebrate Rare Disease Day and I am always inspired by patients and advocates in the U.S., Ireland, and internationally who are integral members of our research efforts. My team based in the U.S. is now creating a new partnership (and research grant) with an amazing researcher based in UCD, Dr. Arman Rahman, focusing on elevating patients’ voices in cancer care internationally.

During the conference, I attended a talk organized by Dr. Rahman, where he invited representatives from the Irish-Bangladeshi community to speak about involving ethnic minority cancer patients in mainstream cancer patient advocacy groups. A lot of my previous work has focused on elevating the voices of underrepresented and disenfranchised patients in cancer care in the U.S. Although the U.S. and Ireland are on opposite sides of the Atlantic – we are really not so different when it comes to recognize voices that the medical system often ignores. We are now going to expand a population health survey-based research project I started at Duke, and administer it in Dublin to understand the needs, perceptions, and barriers to cancer care among ethnic minorities. At a time when Dublin and Ireland as a whole is becoming increasingly diverse – I can’t wait to see how this work expands and the potential science/medical policy recommendations it can make. It is the responsibility of medicine and medical research to make sure no voice gets silenced or left behind – internationally.

A snapshot of my immuno-oncology research that was presented at the conference.
Starting my research on the complement system and immune interactions in esophageal cancer at Trinity College Dublin (I love the TCD embroidered lab coat).

On a personal note, I continue to enjoy exploring Dublin and finding new favorite cafes and bookstores (some of my happy spots are shown below). Every Saturday, I spend the morning browsing Books Upstairs, a bookstore close to Trinity that has a fantastic second-hand book selection. I’ve been collecting used cookbooks and pick one up for €5 every weekend. By the end of my Mitchell year, I will have quite the collection and many new recipes to remind me of my time here.

Lastly, I have enjoyed my visitors over to Ireland! My partner Ben is in his last semester of law school and comes over to visit on his weeks off. In a way, he feels like he is getting a Mitchell experience too, and loves the country.

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Family visit snippets

Way back in November of 2022, when I first found out I would be travelling to Ireland for the subsequent year, my family was ecstatic. My Christmas presents were all Ireland themed, my brother exclusively cracked potato jokes for several months, and my grandmother called me once a week to ask me how excited I was. So unbridled was their enthusiasm on my behalf that “Ireland” lost its meaning to the erosive effects of repetition. Being the loving siblings that they are, my brother and sisters were quick to satirise the excitement myself and my family couldn’t keep down. Even my parents eventually got on board. No dinner table conversation was complete without somebody quipping, “did you know Zach is going to Ireland?” at the slightest mention of rain or something green. Until quite recently, seldom a Yahn could safely bring up the country without one of the four siblings (myself included, ashamedly) mocking them just for its mere mention. In fairness, jabs and jokes are our familial love language. 

All this to say, when my parents told me they were planning a family trip to come visit me, and that my sisters were over the moon to travel internationally for the first time, and that they were all so excited, and that they could hardly wait, I only had one thought . . . revenge. 

Did I inevitably cave to my own enthusiasm for them visiting me? Absolutely. Did I count down the days until their plane landed? Of course. But did I relish finally getting to tease them over their eagerness to visit Ireland? Wholeheartedly.

Their visit has come and gone now, and I’m missing home more than ever. But driving all over Ireland with them has been one of the best parts of my time here, and I’m so grateful they were able to come. Not to mention, I’ve got some great pictures to share. 

From what I can tell, one’s appreciation of Grafton Street and its tourist hotspot ilk tends to decay exponentially as a function of time spent as a resident in Ireland. More recently I’ve been prone to hastily weaving through the crowds, muttering my annoyance at the flocks of visitors (aspirationally Irish of me, I know). But seeing such places with the fresh eyes of my family was a reminder of how special it is to be living in Dublin at all, to even have the chance to become somewhat bored of that which would awe so many others. 

Of course, we also drove to countless places that required no such perspective reset to appreciate. Glenveagh National Park, for one, is startlingly barren. It’s one of those places where you want to stop walking every now and then, because your own footsteps are the only sounds keeping you from utter silence. Much to my delight, my family also got to experience the Irish weather first hand at Glenveagh, as the sky changed from clear blue to torrential downpour in the span of fifteen minutes. This while we were miles from the car too.

That same day we drove over to the Sliabh Liag cliffs in Donegal, which are easily the coolest place I’ve been in Ireland. The cliffs are the tallest in Europe, at three times the height of the Cliffs of Moher. You can drive to a car park nearly at the top, and then walk a path all the rest of the way up. My sisters and I braved the slope, at each landing taking in the view and deciding to go incrementally one level higher.

Eventually we reached the very top, and one of the best views I’ve ever seen. Dad took a picture of us on the ledge, but we’re so far away you can barely see us. Mom says we’re grounded for going so high.

Perhaps some of the most fun times were spontaneous “wait pull over and let’s take a photo” moments, or less-known spots that we learned about from BNB owners. 

We even tried to access a secret waterfall, but the tides were already too high by the time we got there. Still, we got to hop across stones like it was a platformer video game, timing things just right so that the waves didn’t wash us off.

In some spots of the country (read: the West coast) there were so many scenic points we didn’t even have time to stop at them all. Some I can name, like the Clifden Sky Road and Connemara National Park, and others I’ll only see again if I can carefully trace our route on a map.

Of course, every night we would find a pub to hole up in. Sometimes they would be nearly empty, like in the far reaches of Donegal, and sometimes they would be packed, like in Westport. It didn’t matter, though, because we had the one thing we needed to keep company: games (audience gasps). Exploding Kittens has recently become a family favourite, but various card games are always popular. We spent each night laughing and stabbing each other in the back, like we used to on family vacations before things like college and moving out got in the way. My sisters turn eighteen next month, marking the last family members to become legal adults. For my parents especially, that made those nights in pubs particularly important. 

I think by this point everyone realised they couldn’t really make fun of my living in Ireland anymore, as they had all become just as enamoured with the place over the past week. Instead,  Ireland is something we can collectively reminisce about. We can look back on getting drenched in the rain, or devouring a massive Cadbury bar, or trying to hug sheep, or even nearly crashing on the wrong side of the road, and share it for decades to come. Revenge is sweet.

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I was going to write this blog post about sleepovers – I’ve had a resurgence lately, with loads of friends coming to visit this term. There’s something simultaneously uncomfortable about sharing every waking hour with another person and so, so fun too. Your conversations alternate between the sublime and mundane, your cooking reaches new heights as you egg each other on (no pun intended) to add ridiculous ingredients, your normally private routines face public scrutiny as you tease each other about how long you take to get ready and how much you sleep.

It’s been an absolute joy to show Ireland to my friends, and makes me realise I know this place  better than I thought. Dublin is the least “exotic” foreign place I’ve lived in or travelled to – certainly compared to Lilongwe or Reykjavik, where I spent summers during undergrad. I think that Dublin’s familiarity, however, makes it feel more manageable. I’ve never lived in a city with the expectation that I’ll visit every corner of it, but I somehow want to do that in Dublin – and Ireland, writ large. As a result, Google Maps has become my most used app by far this year. I continually daydream about where I could go by pinning cafes, bars, and hikes on my “IRELAND Places To Go” map. Once I do go, places shift onto my “ireland” map (inconsistent naming style, but whatever), where I write notes on what I thought. While I’ve refined my pub favourites and upped my cafe standards, one place has remained strong from the start: Albert College Park. 

My favourite part of DCU is living right next to Albert College Park. It’s the same size, if not bigger, than our campus. There are meandering paths lined with rows of tall pines, sandwiched between playgrounds and glistening sports fields. I wrote the following on January 23rd: “Today, I went for a walk and experienced what I could only call a sound bath. There have been advisory winds in Ireland for the past five days, and I had to stop several moments as the wind hit me. But the sound in the trees was that of a BOOM! I didn’t even register at first that the noise wasn’t merely wind; it was the branches of the pines swinging to and fro. It was all encompassing and other people stopped to just listen, too.”

In the middle of Albert College Park lies what I would call the platonic ideal of a cafe: the Tram Cafe. The Tram spills across a garden area and indoor cottage made of stone. The outdoor area has green tin roofs that extend over tables so that you can sit there, even when it’s raining. It’s always populated – perhaps because it’s always somehow beautiful, no matter the weather. The inside is a kitschy cafe in the best way possible, with a real wood furnace that blasts on winter days. There are white stone walls, windows with miniature white lace curtains, and wooden tables with baroque style chairs. Tea cups and china plates rest on wooden shelves, and long metal bells hang from the wooden rafters.

I think this was the first place I felt beauty in Ireland – a surprising statement, given how famed the country is for its beauty. But Dublin is less glamorous than one might imagine, and I wasn’t instantly charmed when I first arrived. Part of my warming up to the city has involved shifting where I spend most of my time: away from the city centre and closer to the seaside towns, as well as smaller neighbourhoods like Stoneybatter. Most importantly, I’ve become attached to Glasnevin, where DCU is located. 

Glasnevin feels like the geriatric capital of Dublin. (Case in point: the Tram cafe always has groups of gossiping grandmothers, some of whom are keen to chat even while I’ve got airpods in, laptop ups) Populated by old, low-rise brick townhomes with a few cafes and pubs scattered in between, its main sites include the Botanical Garden and Glasnevin Cemetery. I’ve come to really like Glasnevin and its adjoining neighbourhood, Phisborough. While I initially complained about my bus commute into town, I’ve come to appreciate how Glasnevin’s residential nature makes it feel much less commercial than city centre. Now, Dublin has a different meaning when I first arrived and mostly took the bus into the city centre. And I think the Tram is one of many places I find beauty within it. 

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Day 172: 15 March 2024

“And the prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore.” –Paul Lynch, Prophet Song (2023).

Meet my classmates! These people have been a consistently positive support network for me since September, and I’m proud to call them my friends. It’s an honor to intellectually spar with people who are so accomplished, passionate, and, most importantly, curious about the world and how to make it better. The breadth and depth of issues we tackle has only broadened over time, which challenges me to bring my A-game every day in the best way possible. I bragged about my classmates in my first blog post, but we finally took a nice group picture a couple weeks ago, so now I can recognize them properly.

But things change as much as they stay the same. The last several weeks have brought many changes to Belfast: the Sun rises earlier each morning, blooms of flowers are casting an ever-brighter hue across the city, and, in February, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) returned to work at Stormont for the first time in over two years. The return of power-sharing between unionists and nationalists is certainly a positive development for Northern Ireland because the democratic will of its people has a chance to be properly realized. But strong policy outcomes are far from a guarantee, and actors from across Ireland are increasingly questioning whether power-sharing in its current form is the most sustainable foundation for Northern Ireland’s peaceful future. I recently committed to investigating this controversy with my dissertation, which allows me to combine my long-term interest in migrants’ political participation with my budding fascination with transitional justice, which I only discovered last semester.

Consociationalism and its Discontents

MLAs today continue to designate as unionist, nationalist, or “other” (neither unionist nor nationalist) when voting for legislation, as outlined by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The consensus among researchers is that Stormont is a prototypical “consociational” power-sharing institution, in which unionists and nationalists are required to govern together. The theory of consociationalism was first proposed by the political scientist Arend Lijphart to ensure that each major ethnic group in a given state is guaranteed a meaningful say in government; without groups’ full participation, public institutions cannot function under this regime. In states like Northern Ireland—where ethnic identity is salient, and where a majority group historically weaponized political institutions as a tool of oppression against one or more minority groups—group-based political arrangements are considered a necessary element of reaching a negotiated end to violence. To remedy past injustice, consociationalism prescribes four institutional features:

  1. a “grand coalition” government, which includes representatives of all major groups;
  2. proportional allocation of ministerial portfolios and other government positions that reflect each group’s strength;
  3. “segmental autonomy,” meaning each group is delegated the power to run its own affairs in areas that are salient to their identity, and;
  4. “mutual veto” powers, which ensures that no one group can politically dominate the other.

While consociationalism may equalize ethnic groups’ political rights, is has attracted substantial criticism. Among the charges most applicable to Northern Ireland, it has been accused of entrenching ethnic identity (instead of promoting integration and/or the softening of traditional identity lines), undermining traditional democratic norms like electoral competition, and sidelining the preferences of “others,” whose policy votes mean less in comparison to privileged groups like unionists or nationalists. I believe that Stormont’s chronic dysfunction, paired with the major, recent demographic changes in Northern Ireland, makes it impossible for the will of the people to be properly legislated now or in the future without meaningful changes to power-sharing. Yet, the state’s largest political parties do not support any reforms at this time, in my opinion because the current system grants them an extraordinarily stable electoral base and disproportionately high legislative power to wield.

I feel called to understand how democratic will can be better realized through institutional reform here: I plan to investigate what institutional reforms have been proposed over time in Northern Ireland, why they were (or were not) implemented, and to what extent the preferences of the demographic “other” have been accommodated in the consociational regime. I’m also curious to learn if and how consociational institutions in other states have peacefully evolved over time to better accommodate “others” and reflect more traditional democratic practices. Researching this phenomenon feels urgent to me because I believe Northern Ireland’s policy issues, from its public goods to its transitional justice mechanisms, ought to be tackled by a government that is focused and interested in adapting to an ever-changing world. The current regime is not conducive to that kind of creativity, in my opinion. I love this place, and I believe that researching how to improve Stormont is the best way I can apply my expertise to promote its long-term welfare.

My Modules, Round Two

I’m taking three modules this semester: Dynamics of Reconciliation (DR), Forced Displacement, Conflict and Peacebuilding (FDCP, in Dublin), and a community placement with Shared Future News (SFN). While my first set of modules offered a sweeping overview of peace and justice studies, this second set has allowed me to dive into specific questions and case studies that most catch my interest. I’ve particularly enjoyed my work with SFN so far, through which I’ve published a research piece on transitional justice and two panel discussions: one featuring experts from peacebuilding scholarship and practice, and another featuring an Afghan artist, educator, and activist. I’ve appreciated the challenge of synthesizing and communicating nuanced academic theories to a general readership, honing my attention to detail, and distinguishing truly important details from fluff. My supervisor, Allan Leonard, has helped me strengthen my writing and identify my factual blind spots in ways that I haven’t experienced since my first days at Michigan State. I’m incredibly grateful for his mentorship, which I feel has already made me a better scholar. My publications have also allowed me to expand my theoretical knowledge and apply them to real-world, consequential scenarios. This has helped me feel like my work can, will, and is making a difference in people’s lives, which is simply awesome.

Breaking Out of My Shell

This semester has featured far more travel than the fall term. I visit Dublin at least once a week to attend my FDCP lectures, after which I join the Dublin International Peace Studies cohort for lunch. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to broaden my network by learning with these people, who, like my Belfast friends, are very diverse in terms of geographic and professional background. I’ve also taken a weekend trip to Galway, spent my reading week in Edinburgh, Scotland with Reed (my classmate and fellow American), and traveled to Rovaniemi, Finland, thanks to some cheap Ryanair fares. I’m more than comfortable staying in Belfast week after week, but I challenged myself back in January to break out of my comfort zone through travel, which I feel I’ve done quite well. Plus, I’ve captured a few decent photos along the way!

A World of Relationships

A few days ago, I heard from a good friend back in Lake Arrowhead. We chit-chatted about our normal topics, but at some point in our conversation, they mentioned that a mutual friend of ours had asked about me. I spend my days here living, exploring, critiquing, and absorbing Northern Ireland so intensely that I often forget that I don’t live in a vacuum. Anything I say or do branches out into the world, where it affects and is perceived by other people. That’s especially true in our age of social media, where my adventures can be shared with friends and family in mere seconds. As much as I’ve prioritized myself over the last eight-plus months, this exchange was a good reminder that my actions have consequences, good or bad. I believe I have an obligation to hold myself accountable, reflect on what impact I’m having now, and to imagine new opportunities to help others in the future. The world gains nothing if I keep my thoughts and reflections to myself, and I increasingly recognize how selfish it is to absorb knowledge without applying it towards the greater good. As I prepare to write my dissertation and finish my placement with SFN, I look forward to finding new ways to give back to the world at least some of what I’ve received.

If you’re on Instagram and wish to follow along with my Belfast adventures more closely, please connect with me here. If you’re an avid reader like me, and want to exchange book recommendations, add me on Goodreads here. If not, no harm and no foul!

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How answering “How’s Ireland?” changed my priorities for 2024

I recently flew back to my suburban New Jersey hometown for the holidays. There was much to do (among the top of the list: indulge recklessly in Jersey bagels, revisit every diner in a 3 mile radius, and binge watch Disney Plus on my family’s subscription), and many longtime friends to visit. We’d often chat over food, or sometimes while driving in circles around town, or while watching an NBA game. I hadn’t considered how nice it would be to exist in the same time zone as my friends again—I’m grateful to have people in my life with whom I can reconnect without skipping a beat. 

And of course, as an ambassador for post-baccalaureate life beyond America, I get asked just about everything you’d expect. What’s the weather like? What’s the food like? Is it true that it always rains? Are the people kind? How’s Ireland? Answering the same questions repeatedly was tiring at first, but the more I was allowed to gush about Dublin, the more I missed the quirks of my life in Ireland.

I’ve lived in more than a few places these last few years, and something I recently realized is that more than a particular adventure or a fun night, I fondly reminisce about the lifestyles—the minutiae, the inconveniences, the quirks—I had in each place. And while I was home in New Jersey, I fondly reminisced about my lifestyle in Dublin. I missed picking up my candle of the week from Tesco in the Dundrum Shopping Centre, and I missed the double decker TFI bus (175) that took me there (though I always seemed to get motion sick). I was eager to resume my daily chats with Santiago, the barista at Pulse Cafe, while picking up my 20 oz cappuccino for €3.90. Stuck on a treadmill during Jersey snowstorms, I longed for my 7-mile loop to Blackrock, which was incentivized with a beautiful view of sunset over Dublin Bay. I missed the familiar faces and dependable banter in the recording studio at BelfieldFM.

With an influx of new responsibilities and resolutions, these next few months will undoubtedly look very different from my past 5 months. But two things I want to prioritize are connecting with more strangers and indulging in the moments between the moments, because those are the people and the memories that stay with me. And a lot of my goals for 2024 are built around these values; I’ve registered for new races, proposed new community projects, and committed to new hobbies. And maybe the next time I’m home, and the lads ask me “How’s Ireland?” I can give them a completely different answer, sharing anecdotes and moments that let me relive my Spring in Dublin once again.

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