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Love and the lab

Columnist Jen Heemstra on how a supportive life partner shaped her career

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
February 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 5


An illustration of a flask with hearts coming out of it on one end of a balance beam. A giant red heart is sitting on the other end.
Credit: Yang H. Ku/C&EN/Shutterstock
The right life partner or partners can help you balance your love life with your work life.

I walked into the chemistry stock room to buy an Erlenmeyer flask. Another grad student was there picking up supplies for group cleanup day. We had been teaching assistants together and had sat in the same room during our first semester of grad school classes, but we hadn’t talked much outside of those interactions. What started as a conversation about my reaction and his lab cleanup ended with plans for a date that evening.

Last month, my partner and I celebrated 18 years of marriage. During that time, we moved from grad school to industry jobs to postdocs to academic jobs. We lived in four states. We lost one parent and three grandparents. We welcomed two children and grieved over infertility and two miscarriages. We celebrated promotions and tenure. As we shared a dinner to commemorate our anniversary, we found ourselves reminiscing about the challenges we had faced together over so many years. While difficult, these experiences had built our relationship and brought us to where we are in our lives and careers.

At the start of our relationship, I knew that my partner would be one of the biggest influences on my life. I now appreciate that my partner has also been one of the biggest influences on my career.

I realize how fortunate I am to have a partner who is supportive of me and my career goals, and I likely would not be where I am in my career if it were otherwise. In fact, as I am sitting on my couch drafting this column so that I can make my deadline, my partner is making chocolate chip pancakes for our 7-year-old son.

That stock room conversation happened when we were both first-year graduate students studying organic chemistry. We are now both faculty members in the same department. While this can make it feel as if we never leave work, there are certainly benefits to being on such similar career paths. We both understand the sting of critical teaching evaluations or manuscript rejections, and we are able to bounce ideas off each other for new research directions or curriculum designs. But what’s even more important is that we offer each other grace when a meeting runs over and someone misses dinner or when a family outing needs to be delayed by a few minutes to answer an urgent email.

There are no right or wrong answers as to how you should balance work and life. But if you are in a relationship and you and your partner or partners don’t agree on what balance looks like, it can be a constant source of conflict. While it can be tempting to focus on what your relationship will look like when you are happy and in agreement, it is more important to think about what it will look like during the challenging times or when difficult decisions need to be made. What will happen when you each get a job offer but they are in different cities? Who will care for the pets or kids when you each have important work trips coming up? What will be said when one of you is faced with a promotion that means exciting new responsibilities but also a work schedule that cuts into family time? These are all questions that can impact your relationship or career ambitions. However, with the right life partner(s), these situations can also turn into the stories you reminisce about as you celebrate each anniversary and the love and life that you have built together.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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