Last year, ACS Chemical Biology published a beautiful tribute to the late Nobel laureate Roger Tsien from his coworkers and students. Of special note was the final small essay by his wife, Wendy. After a gorgeous encomium to professor Tsien’s work ethic and his passion for science, this final statement by Wendy stopped me in my tracks: “There is a very high price to be paid for brilliance, and we both paid it, Roger paying the highest price of all, but he and his beautiful work live on—neither will be forgotten, both will always be loved.” It was the “we” in that statement that arrested me, and has stayed in my thoughts ever since. I’m not brilliant like professor Tsien, but her recognizing that both of them sacrificed for his science was familiar to me.
There is a “we” in science—a truism that science is the ultimate team sport. When 10 or 20 people can routinely be on a paper together, it is evidence that no scientist is an island. Group activities in research are common: group brainstorming sessions, group meetings, and team-building activities can be great for bonding.
However, work in the laboratory is mostly solitary. Plenty of time in the lab is spent by yourself (hopefully, for safety’s sake, not entirely alone) or in the library, surrounded by your thoughts, a laptop, and thousands of books. You can isolate yourself even further from human contact by disconnecting from your laptop, turning your phone off, and burrowing into the literature—allowing your mind to focus on the science you’re trying to do, making connections to the literature of the past, finding solutions to the challenges of the present. During graduate school, I enjoyed the “we” of science, but I was a pretty big fan of being by myself as well.
So it was a bit of a change when I met the woman that would ultimately become my wife. I was used to being an independent person, with the odd hours and random solo road trips that graduate school sometimes allows for. During our two-year-long courtship, I slowly learned the realities of being part of a “we,” the joy and pleasure of constant companionship, the explanations of the oddities of one’s family situations, and the negotiations of the details of life that are key to making a relationship work.
We also had many talks about the absurdities of laboratory chemistry—the odd hours and funny smells. I told her about the intricacies of graduate school, how a graduate student has an ersatz family from all around the world, both friends and sibling-rivals, and also a faculty adviser, who is in equal parts boss and teacher and mentor. I also explained that even if I intended to pursue a career outside academia, after I got my PhD I would likely need more training in a postdoctoral fellowship.
She accepted these strange circumstances with aplomb, for which I was grateful. Soon we were married but in a long-distance relationship, separated by three hours of driving. After her workweek was done, she would drive to see me. Often, I would end up meeting her in the lab late on a Friday or Saturday night for a couple of hours before heading out for some time together at a coffee shop or at a late-night diner and then collapsing into bed.
I always found her meeting me in the lab a little embarrassing or awkward, but she expressed something that I really appreciated: “The only way out of this place is through the lab.” I was aware that she was making a sacrifice, which forced me to try to put some boundaries on late nights in the lab. Still, it was a little weird and a little bit wonderful to have someone that you love join you in the lab. While time in the lab was never silent with the radio or CD player going, being able to talk was great, even if I had to interrupt our conversation to change fractions on a column, troubleshoot a vacuum pump, or wash a tub full of flasks. I would also practice job interview talks with her; even now, she can still recite the first couple of sentences from my thesis defense verbatim.
We no longer spend late nights in the lab, nor are those long hours routinely necessary. Between then and now, I’ve jumped at opportunities to reciprocate in support of her career. I’m proud of what we accomplished in graduate school, and it has enabled me to work in industrial chemistry. I finished graduate school with a spouse and a healthy, loving relationship that was built on spending time together, no matter the circumstances.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.