A lot has changed since I last posted on this blog in 2020. Skepchicks, where I moved in 2020, has closed to new contributions and I’m back on my own platform. My husband Strange and I are expecting a baby and that has catalyzed a big decision. I have decided to leave my university position around the time my baby comes and I do not plan to return.
Strange and I learned at the end of 2021 that we had lost an unexpected pregnancy. We had decided not to have more children, so I was surprised at the feelings of sadness I felt. I don’t think I had fully contemplated the idea of children together until we lost our son very soon after and decided to be open to whatever the future held. Another pregnancy followed several months after, followed by another miscarriage. This time, I was devastated. We recently learned that we are expecting again. My family has always been my top priority and I’ve come to realize that my current academic life and another try at motherhood are not compatible. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to have served the people of my state and for the support they’ve given me.
Most importantly, what have I loved about this job and what kept me around?
The people. The people in my lab are the best. I’m not sure how it happened, but I’ve ended up with a lab of the most brilliant, supportive people I know. It’s been truly remarkable to watch a group of people from such incredibly different backgrounds grow and learn together. They help each other, mentor each other, and cheer for each other. Their successes and smiles have been the highlight of my nine years at the university. I have trainees that have been successful in industry, medicine, teaching, and that have their own faculty positions now. I also have some of the best colleagues in the world and, in particular, helping some of my junior colleagues secure funding to grow or establish their research programs has been a lot of fun. I love that part of my job. I may be one of the few weirdos in the world like likes seeking research funding, and I’ve been pretty good at it. I’m proud of the awards I’ve won for my teaching and mentoring. This is the part of my decisions that makes me cry.
The questions. I got a little misty yesterday watching a student and a collaborator talking about the next steps in a project I started but won’t actively be part of continuing. I think that one of my best skills is finding connections across fields to build novel questions. I’m excited about my field and where it is going. I love to write, and read, and explore. I’m proud of the awards I’ve won for my research and research is my primary love. I became a professor because I love the laboratory.
I love respiratory physiology. In 2021, I wrote in the American Journal of Physiology:
When I saw Ewald Weibel’s classic micrograph of the respiratory membrane, I marveled over the fact that the alveolar wall is only two cells thick. I laid awake at night pondering how something so delicate could also be overbuilt for many of the demands of gas exchange. Now, as a faculty member, I show that image any time I teach about the lung and it still makes me catch my breath to see the short diffusion distance between the inside of the alveolus and the erythrocyte.
That micrograph still takes my breath away every time I see it. In the lung, two cells are all that separate our entire cardiac output from the rest of the world. A lot of my colleagues don’t like teaching respiratory physiology, but I love it. I developed a flipped classroom course on the topic years ago and I love it. The lung is an engineering puzzle, perfectly solved for us and even further improved for the bar headed goose. I must be a lung nerd because a colleague called me late at night over the weekend with questions about the alveolar gas equation and I gleefully answered them. Serving as the Chair of the Respiration Section for my academic society has been among the honors of my life.
The fear of disappointing people. The importance of this one isn’t to be underrated. I didn’t have many female mentors during my training, and I believed it was part of my personal mission to create opportunities for people that didn’t have access to academia. I gave so many talks about parenthood and science and work-life balance. I’ve taken pride in my efforts to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, and feared I’d let people down if I couldn’t hack it. The reality is that the pipeline isn’t leaking. There are holes being punched in it.
So why is it time to go?
There’s not a single reason, but a cache of things that I can’t see how I can sustain and manage an infant.
The space. My research space has become a bit of a running joke, including the fact that I managed to get tenure without my own, functional lab space. When I came to my university, they gave me some newly remodeled space in an old building without a vivarium. It wasn’t convenient, but I gleefully pushed carts from the vivarium through snow and slush because I had an opportunity to build my own lab. Then the space flooded and destroyed my equipment. I rebuilt. It flooded again. I rebuilt. It flooded again, and I realized that I was paying staff to spend time cleaning up and it was hurting their morale, I was spending money replacing supplies that weren’t covered by insurance, I was wasting experiments that couldn’t be finished, and the solution to extend my tenure clock had the potential to hurt me professionally and financially. Strange had a new lab 0.7 mile away and offered to let my technician and student use a bench in his lab. I was at a critical point in the tenure process and snatched the opportunity and our work grew to become more closely aligned by virtue of the proximity. As several of my key collaborators left, he became my primary collaborator. Our work together has been rewarding, but it wasn’t what I planned to do.
And, it didn’t come without its costs. I was admonished by a senior colleague to not be seen as “riding [my] husband’s coat tails to tenure” and I received a letter from a senior administrator reminding me to not be seen to be behaving unprofessionally with “[my] husband.” Routinely, someone “discovers” that Strange is my husband (although I am always entirely transparent and the university has encouraged and celebrated our collaboration) and I have to re-adjudicate whether there are aspects of my job I have done incorrectly or am even allowed to do by virtue of the fact that my husband is also my collaborator.
It’s also hard to manage a lab that is so far from my office, particularly as the lab has grown and more people have needed me. I spend a lot of time traveling between my office, my lab, teaching, service, and managing the needs of my family. I did the math recently and realized that just walking can add up to an extra 5-6 hours per week. The expectations for me are not different from my peers. It just takes me more time. As my lab has grown, I have felt the additional pressure to have funding to support someone to provide regular supervision for our students. And, having my lab and office so far apart means that either I am spending the time traveling or I’m not providing the supervision people deserve and I’m working harder to meet expectations for my success and promotion. At a recent conference, a colleague introduced me by lauding the highly translational and integrative nature of my work. It has been a major effort to do this type of work and I’ve always been proud that my lab is one of the few places people can work with everything from molecules, to cells, to larger models, to people.
Two things gave me hope. The university formalized my arrangement with Strange so that it wouldn’t hurt him to have us in his space and I wouldn’t be kicked out on a whim, and the university started a major building plan that includes a new building for my department. I was hopeful that this would ‘bring me home,” but the university has decided that my research is not compatible with the new building. My office and lab will either always be far apart, I will be separated from my department, or I will have to change my research direction again. It’s been hard for me to wrap my mind around any of these and I’m not sure how to manage a new baby, breastfeeding and pumping, and running my lab the way I have been when I know it’s forever. It’s disheartening to always be the person whining about her space.
The virtual. I don’t think we’re ever coming back from Zoom. In the pre-COVID world, I could decline a meeting because I couldn’t walk to another meeting in time. Now, people ask “Can we just hop on a Zoom?” and plug things into places on my calendar they see open. I’ve seen meetings of people who are all sitting on Zoom in the same building. When I’m in the lab and not in my office, I don’t have a space to do it and have to find a place to duck into or run back to my office. On the occasions I’d leave early to help my children or there was a snow day, I wouldn’t take additional meetings. Now, I can hop on Zoom at home. But, this is stressful because my family expects my attention when I’m with them and my husband might walk through the frame (see the above paragraph about being professional). I’ve tried to resist, to no avail. Being less available means being the difficult one. Zoom gives me tremendous anxiety because it has turned my day into a Tetris game that must be solved before it can begin. The virtual life has been convenient for many people, but not sustainable for me.
The students. I love my students, but teaching has not been the same since COVID-19. Students demand more hybrid and online content, many do not attend class and then shoot emails about questions they have when they watch a lecture asynchronously, and some of our students have more serious mental health issues than before the pandemic. It’s not fun to teach in an empty or semi-full room. Teaching takes more work than it did before, but workloads haven’t changed and universities are very concerned about the potential budget impacts of declining enrollments.
The startup. In 2020, I started a new company on a whim to commercialize a research technology I started developing 20 years ago. I joined the local startup incubator and have had more success than I anticipated. We’ve won some awards and pitch competitions and I think I could be a pretty good CEO. I’ve realized that the skills I have that have made me successful are not necessarily academic skills. They’re universally valuable. I’m a great scientist, a skilled writer and communicator, a fantastic mentor, a great project manager, and I’ve been successful in creating collaborative teams. I think there are potentially other venues where I could be very successful and I am going to see what happens.
The finale. Strange told me he spoke to a senior colleague earlier who asked if I am happy and he said “yes.” That’s not really true. My emotions are much more complicated than that. I’m sad about the parts of my job I love that I am leaving behind, I am tremendously relieved at knowing that I am prioritizing what is most important and that I won’t have to feel guilty at trying to reconcile my commitment to my baby with the seven sided Rubik’s cube of my career, and I feel hopeful that the skills that have led me to success in academia will prove valuable in other venues.
For now, we’ll just chill ’til the next episode.