To Pittsburgh

For those not in the know–The Lady and I just completed our 12-hour journey (yes I know GMaps says 9.5, but GMaps doesn’t have checkboxes for “traveling with cat” and “include pileup on a bridge in Virginia”) from our 4.5-year home (6 years for me) in Pittsburgh to our currently-empty house in Athens, GA for the foreseeable future.

The sun always rises in Pittsburgh.

The sun always rises in Pittsburgh.

It is impossible to put into words what Pittsburgh has meant to me over the last six years–all the ways in which it has changed me, and how different a person I am now than I was back in 2008 when I first took up residence on the quiet Shadyside street of Elwood.

But, like I wasn’t ready for the graduate studies that awaited me, I’m going to give this otherwise-impossible task a ready-go and see what happens. Because it’s worthwhile.

When I first moved to Pittsburgh to start in Carnegie Mellon’s M.S. in Computational Biology program, I was…different. “Immature” would be kind. Of course, this isn’t to say I’ve since arrived–far from it–but rather to emphasize just how young I was at the time. I had surprisingly little concept of my limits, my interests, my passions, and what exactly my purpose here was.

Those first two years were difficult. The Lady was still finishing up her undergraduate studies at NYU, and I really did not feel like I belonged. I did enjoy the experience of an actual winter–Georgia is not exactly what comes to mind when one considers White Christmases.

Though by that first April, I was ready to see the sun again. From then on I can’t really say I was excited for the subsequent winters, but it did give me a taste of what to expect and how to adapt. But I digress.

Ultimately, I felt rudderless. Various pursuits were interesting but never stuck. I was adequate-at-best in my summer internship, and never established a workout routine…or really any routine, as exemplified by a Christmas 2009 weight of 245lbs (though you’d never have noticed; I have a nice big frame to hide it). I wasn’t unhappy per se, but I really had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do, in both a personal and professional sense.

Hence, rudderless. But, as is often the case, something changed.

I took Bob Murphy’s introductory computational biology course, and Larry Wasserman’s introductory statistics course, and Roni Rosenfeld’s introductory machine learning course. I was terrible at statistics–and, by extension, machine learning–but I was hooked. The things I could do wielding these tools reignited the flame of professional passion, and I wanted to see if I could improve my skills.

I applied to, and was accepted in, the joint CMU-Pitt PhD program in computational biology, starting fall 2010 and guaranteeing myself another four years in a city I’d only just barely begun to know.

To be fair, it wasn’t like a switch had suddenly been thrown. I still wasn’t sure about where this would lead. The cynical could argue this was merely a holding pattern–putting off actually figuring out what I wanted to do and be for another four years. But there is one crucial detail that would change: The Lady had also finished her undergraduate studies and had found a job in Pittsburgh. For the first time in our now-four-year relationship, we’d be in the same city. Change was afoot.

The summer before I started the Ph.D. program, I worked on an open source project closely related to machine learning as part of Google’s now-annual Summer of Code. It was this project that introduced me to the individual who would become my thesis advisor, Chakra.

Let me stop for just a minute and try to paint this picture. Chakra is a man whose passion is science, who gets excited over new technologies, new discoveries, and new collaborations, and is human to the core. He’s an academic in the purest sense, and not the least bit in the pejorative sense. He revels in his students’ successes–reserving none of the spotlight for himself–and is second to no one in motivating his students to succeed. He provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm and excitement, even when we were preparing to resubmit a paper after the 38945th rejection. He wholeheartedly encouraged his students to pursue research topics outside his immediate areas of expertise, which led to an incredible collaboration of peers: colleagues whose skills overlapped, but whose respective topics of mastery were complementary.

The PhD program, like anything else in this world, was not without its faults. Course registration proved particularly tricky to coordinate between two universities, and administrative hiccups materialized aplenty. But difficulties aside, I still retained full access to all the resources at two top-notch research institutions, attending seminars and lectures, haunting the workout facilities, and participating in student government social events.

While conducting my studies, The Lady and I were quickly discovering a new passion together: running. Neither of us were strangers to running, but neither of us had undertaken regular training regimens or participated in races longer than 10k. In the fall of 2010, we ran our very first half marathon together: the Atlanta half, on Thanksgiving weekend.


Many, many more races (and miles!) would follow. We were hooked. Perhaps streamlining this addiction was the fact that Pittsburgh is an extremely runner-friendly city. Specialty running shops have been popping up everywhere, and groups of runners–either organized by a running store, or even just an informal group of friends–are a common sighting. We certainly took advantage of the miles of trails: not only was running an excellent way to see the city, but it was a great way to make and spend time with friends while also preparing for that next fully-loaded Chipotle burrito.

Did I mention that, as of spring 2014, I hit 210lbs, a weight I hadn’t been since high school? Oh yeah. Machine.

I’m still too close to understand what happened. My best guess right now is it was a perfect storm of everything: The Lady being local, a thesis advisor who wanted me to learn whatever I wanted to learn, a regular and disciplined training regimen, a growing social circle of incredibly kind and personable people whose interests and anxieties overlapped with our own, exploring a city with so much personality…

Something changed. My confidence grew. The year leading up to my dissertation defense, while undeniably the most stressful, was also the most fun. I knew exactly what I was doing, and what I needed to do. I was the local expert on the subject; my thesis committee was there as much to point me in the right direction as to learn something new from my work. I once asked one of my favorite mentors, Dr. Merrick Furst, what he wanted to do when he grew up (jokingly); he responded “I still don’t know.” I’ve since realized the wisdom behind that admission, and the difference between myself then and now: while I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, I do know what I’m good at, and what I want to work on right now.

The Lady posted the following on Facebook:

I don’t think you understand what it is to have this city get under your skin. To have its three rivers filter straight to your heart – the fog rising across the water and the near silent crew teams slicing through.

I don’t think you understand what it is to get to know these people. The natives and the transplants. The yinzers and the roaming students – here for a few years or for a lifetime.

Do you know what it’s like to watch the molten dawn gazing at its own reflection in the Monongahela, in the company of friends, running and breathing and laughing and talking side by side, step for step? Do you know the feeling of crawling out of your warm bed in negative wind chill and fresh snow because they’re waiting for you? Because no Negley or Shady or Forbes hills, or wind, or snow drifts, or dark miles will keep them away, because you’re waiting for them, too.

Do you know what it is to climb Boulevard of the Allies with the sun beating on your shoulders, wanting to quit running but knowing this view – this moment – is fleeting?

I don’t think you understand the beauty. To enter Pittsburgh across any of her bridges, via any of her highways, and watch her appear out of the hills in her shimmering glory. To catch the breadth of Point State from the sweep of the West End Bridge. To watch the fireworks from Mt. Washington – and see the splashes of color from the Fourth of July displays of all of her suburbs.

I don’t think you understand the grueling rapture of hiking North Park, of running her trails and venturing on the Rachel Carson with friends in the deep exhale of a sultry summer, or the deep chill and ice of winter. Do you know what it is for your trail shoes to make the first tracks after a snowfall? To startle a cluster of deer, leaping off into the woods, tails flicking. To warm up after with talk and hot cocoa and plans for a future excursion, moments after cursing the brutal elements.

Do you know what it is to love Pittsburgh? To feel so unfinished – to know it will never really be finished. Not with so much beauty. Not with so many adventures.

Not with so much love.

I lived in Pittsburgh for six years, four of those with The Lady. Of course we’re going to put down roots during that time, but it’s more than that. We fell in love with the city and all its foibles and personality quirks and lovely, wonderful people.

When well-meaning friends and family tell us “you’ll make friends in Athens,” “you’ll find a new hippie donut shop in Athens,” “you’ll find a running group in Athens,” I appreciate the sentiment but it somewhat misses the point. I have no doubt that we’ll make wonderful lives for ourselves here surrounded by wonderful people and figure out our favorite haunts. The point isn’t that we can’t do all the things in Athens that we did in Pittsburgh; the point is, those places and people aren’t here, and we’re going to miss them terribly.

I know we’ll love our time in Athens. We’ll find our favorite places, establish a new routine, explore the surrounding area and find new running routes, and meet lots of wonderful people. None of this will replace anyone or anything in Pittsburgh, which is why it’s a mourning process. Pittsburgh was truly our home for those years.

To Pittsburgh: thank you for everything. We’ll miss you.

About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
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1 Response to To Pittsburgh

  1. Pingback: 2014: One for the books | Theatre of Consciousness

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