February 7. Science Good News #4 Hanging up the skates.
I had a tough week last week, and wanted to speak to it in this article, while also putting a positive spin on it. So, please indulge me a bit, as this issue of “Good Science News” gets a little personal. This last week I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with a number of peers and young faculty. All of the conversations started out professional but ended up more personal, focusing very often on the trials and tribulations of being an academic scientist. In these conversations there were a number of commonalities. All of us struggle with an overabundance of work and an under abundance of time. Many of us also struggle with trying to convey to others, both in and out of the scientific community, what we actually do. Still others, particularly those early in their careers suffer from imposter syndrome and the feeling of not belonging or not being good enough. Still other conversations focused on the squeeze that we find ourselves in, as we try to serve multiple work masters, from students, to our faculty peers, to the upper administration. Then of course, there are the constraints that this work puts on the rest of your life, the dreaded work-life balance. It can wear you down. A number of years ago, I was at a scientific conference, talking to one of my Canadian colleagues, and when I asked him how things were going, his response stuck with me. “Well, I haven’t hung up the skates yet.” Hadn’t hung up the skates. Scientists spend so much of their careers earning ice time; the Ph.D., the post-doc, the trials of being an assistant professor. If you can run the gauntlet and get tenure, then, maybe, you will get the chance to free-skate. And, as anyone who has ever skated on fresh ice knows, that is a glorious feeling. One of my fondest memories regarding my academic career occurred in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at a small welcome banquet that a number of American scientists attended. The host told us that we each had to give a toast and being one of the older faculty there, I was one of the first to do so. One of my, long-since-graduated, Ph.D.’s was in attendance, along with her current Ph.D. student. In my toast, after thanking my hosts for their hospitality, I told the room what an honor it was for me to be in a restaurant in Kazakhstan, thousands of miles from home, with two generations of my academic family, my Ph.D. student and her Ph.D. student. Academic family matters. I didn’t understand this as a graduate student, but I can clearly see it now. The point, and indeed the good news in this article is just that, family matters. Probably the most noble thing that we, as scientists, do is help to train the next generation of scientists. Sure, the next generation, just like us, will run into roadblocks and discouragements. And yes, some will find alternative pathways, outside of science, by which to be successful or happy, or hopefully both. But the next generation's team will be assembled, they will find clear ice and they will skate on. While I still haven’t hung up my skates, I know that time is coming, perhaps sooner than I care to admit. And when it does come, I know that my academic offspring will skate on and continue to move the field forward. And that may be the most important “good science news” story of them all.