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Employment

The ultimate lab partner

Chemjobber reflects on what being in a relationship while in graduate school taught him

by Chemjobber
February 13, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 7

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Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock

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.

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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.

Chemjobberis an industrial chemist who blogs about the chemistry job market at chemjobber.blogspot.com. Find all his columns for C&EN and suggest future topics at cenm.ag/benchandcubicle.

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

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Comments
Shankaran Kothandaraman (February 21, 2019 7:38 AM)
Roger's brilliancy was not in doubt when I got to meet him at an imaging conference @ Jackson hole, WY. His scientific thought process worked in myriad of ways and in several layers in my short 5 minute conversation! At a plenary session he had two lap tops and a cell phone that he was communicating with his scientific staff at San Diego. He was relentless in typing and texting and at the end of the plenary talk by this lady , Roger belted out one too many incisive questions. Sitting next to him I was simply stunned. So when his wife says a price had to be paid, I totally believe her. Remember that we scientists are married to our profession first, and for Roger that was true as well except that he was more driven and dedicated! In imaging science there is going to be none like him.
Bob Buntrock (March 6, 2019 1:31 PM)
(Commenting here since you don't have an e-mail and I don't do Twitter, et al.)
My wife and I got married after this chem major's junior year in college. Gloria dropped out of college (a music ed major), graduated from a business college, and was an executive secretary (a very good one). Even though I was doing research, for pay, on an NIH grant, she augmented our meager income by typing the abstracts (multipage) for the weekly Organic Seminars and typed a few theses at the U of Minn. When Wayland Noland recommended I go to grad school, we went to Princeton. Although never in the lab with me, she supported me in many ways, including being an executive secretary at ETS. When I was writing up my thesis, she agreed to quit her job and type my thesis, along with part time office work. Princeton was not coed in the 60s (only a couple of female grad students) but had a very active graduate wives group. They gave her a PhT degree (Putting Hubby Through). She insisted that I become professionally active, joining ACS right after I graduated, and supported my professional activities. When I took "early retirement" 24 years ago, we formed a consultancy which still exists even though it no longer has any paying clients.

Yes, it was a team effort all the way. She passed away over two years ago, I miss her a lot, and I would not be where I am without her beside me.

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