Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On returning to the bench

There are times that it feels as though I never left. I’m in a new lab, learning new techniques. I still don’t know where everything is; I don’t even know how to use the pH meter here yet (so many common lab stocks, I haven’t needed to!) But the rhythms of lab work, the balancing of multiple tasks, the beeping of the lab timer and the planning of positive control, negative control—all have come back as though I’d never left. More than three years went by while I was off the bench, but it’s as though I walked straight from my old post-doc to this new one without pause.

You’ll be fine, my husband had reassured me repeatedly, even with a little irritation. He went through his own absence from benchwork; after completing the Ph.D. portion of his M.D.-Ph.D., he went through a four-year hiatus during which he completed medical school and residency. He stepped back into the lab for his medical fellowship, and appeared to have no trouble easing back into experiments. Was it hard to go back? I kept asking. He shrugged. No, he said. And added, You won’t have any trouble.

All in all, I think my husband was right.


In the sunlit café, I sat with a new friend from the Research Institute. We were trading pieces of the stories of our lives, as new friends do. She was reflecting on her past, and the journey that has led her to this current position. She was talking about both science and life. I’ve learned so much in the past six years, she reflected. Do you ever look back and think that, too?

I nodded. I’ve learned a lot… but not just about science. I’ve learned that there are things more important than science. Science is still important to me—that’s why I came back to it. But it’s not the most important thing.

And that is the most important thing I’ve learned during my unintended hiatus. Being a scientist is a big part of my identity. But it is not the biggest part. Years ago, I let myself define myself too closely with my profession; I let my self-esteem and identity ride with a particular standard of professional “success.” I will not let myself do that again. It was a rough lesson to be learned, and not one that I took willingly. But having learned it, I will not let that lesson go.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” That’s another lesson, one that I see more easily now. My success or failure as a scientist does not ride on a single RT-PCR experiment. It does not ride on any single individual experiment. I’ve been given the gift of a three-year grant, and I have three years to prove myself. Three years to pace myself. It does not all need to be done this day, this week, or even this month. I need to keep myself healthy and happy over the course of years; there is no point in burning myself out early.


Summer is already more than half over. The days are flying past. The kids have been spending their days running through sprinklers and going to swimming pools and parks at their respective daycare/day-camp. They are brown as nuts, bronzed deeply on bare legs and arms. We go out for ice cream at least once a week, often more. The kids are exhausted by the end of the day, and fall asleep minutes after the last story is read.

I am tired, too. Sometimes, I admit, I wish I had a little more time with them. And sometimes, I admit, I welcome Mondays with relief after a long, exhausting weekend at home. Being a working mother is tiring, but in truth, I don’t think it’s any more tiring for me than being a full-time at-home mother. As Cloud so eloquently wrote, any way you do it is hard. Our mornings are a little more hectic, as Husband and I rush the kids through the morning routine so we can get to work at a decent hour. But the flexibility of academia is a blessing. If need be, I can run into work to finish something up after the kids are asleep; I can read papers at night. I’m in charge of my own project. Like many academic advisors, mine gives his lab members a great deal of freedom, and we make our own hours, set our own goals, and do whatever we can within our own power and constraints to meet those goals (with his support, of course).

I think of this article that I mentioned before. I like the author’s point about being happy and healthy even while pursuing a demanding career. When I have felt occasionally overwhelmed, I remember that I made this choice to have children and to also go back to the lab. This is my choice. And if at any time I feel that it’s not working—if I’m not healthy and sane and relatively happy—if my family is not happy—then I can walk away from it. That’s a choice, too.


Alyssa said...

Great post! Having baby #1 on the way has made me thinking about such things as well. I keep wondering how I will feel once they are here (if I'll want to get back to work, or never go back, or somewhere in between).

ScientistMother said...

I'm so happy things are looking good. I have to say that the best lesson monkey has given me, is that there is more the life than just science.

i love the brown as nuts! :)

Cloud said...

I really this post! (And not just because you said nice things about me. Thanks for the shout out, though!)

Pre-kids, I remember being horrified by the suggestion that having kids would mean that my career didn't mean as much to me. And you know, my career still means a lot to me, probably as much as it did before I had kids. It is just that now there is something else that means even more. It is complicated.

As crazy as my life gets sometimes, and as tired as I am of being sick right now (the second baby is working her way through the day care germs and I no longer know if I'm coughing because I'm getting sick or getting over being sick)... I wouldn't have it any other way.

I'm glad the transition back to the bench is going well for you.

LabMom said...

I love pretty much everything you said in this post. I have had so many of those feelings and you express them so well!

The bean-mom said...

Alyssa--you never know how you'll feel until you get there... but enjoy the journey...


Cloud--also agreed! Hope you get over your cold soon!

LabMom--Thanks, and nice to meet you! It's always fun to meet new bloggers and scientist mothers here!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Great post! I'm glad it's going well and you're finding balance.

Jennifer Rohn said...

Thanks for the wonderful post. I don't have kids myself, but I did have a 4-year hiatus from the lab and I recognize much of what you say. (By the way, I don't think that finishing up an MD is the same sort of "career break" as what you went through. At least your husband was still mired in the high-pressure professional world, and exposed daily to the biomedical sphere even if not physically doing research.)

The bean-mom said...

Thanks, Cath!

Jennifer, I don't know if you'll come back to this space and see this comment... but if you do, I just wanted to say that I am a long-time follower of your blog, and you have been a role model of sorts for me in my return to the bench. Much of what you write has resonated with me, too.

PA said...

I am glad to hear that you are doing well and enjoying you return to the bench. I too, have finally realized that a career is a component, and not a definer, of my life. Cheers!