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.

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In the sunlit cafĂ©, 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.

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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.