Saturday, August 30, 2008

Help Comes to Those Who Seek It

I have often wished that I had started blogging about a year or two before I finally did. I really wonder what I would have written during the time just after Thing 2 was born, when everything was crushing me from every direction - so much so that I couldn't even fall down.

When I got pregnant with Thing 2, hubby had been looking for a job here in New City for some time, without luck. He'd had a couple of interviews, but somehow nothing had panned out. But we really wanted to have a second child, and I didn't want to wait any longer. My work load was never going to get any lighter, and I wasn't getting any younger, so we just went for it, thinking that conception to end of maternity leave is a year - of course something will come along in a year.

It didn't.

I found myself at the end of the leave I'd agreed upon with my PI and department, and I had only gotten childcare for the baby arranged by the skin of my teeth. After putting my name on every wait list of every childcare center I didn't hate that was not completely out of the way of my home or the lab, only one had called with a spot. I knew that I was going to be starting over on my thesis research from scratch when I returned because someone else had taken over and nearly completed the fledgling project I had gotten rolling just before I was hospitalized half-way through my pregnancy and ended up unable to work at the bench for the rest of it. Not only was hubby going to be forced to continue working in Old City, while Things 1 and 2 were living in New City, but also his boss was insisting that instead of working from our home one day a week, as he had been doing for some time, hubby really needed to be in the office five days a week from now on.

But after everything that had gone down in the past year, it was really like just another wave going across the bow. Sure, I worried about how we'd manage, but Thing 2 was here, and she was totally healthy and adorable, and Thing 1 had really grown to be a sweet and helpful young lady. So I thought we'd just hold out a little bit longer.

I went into extreme survival mode:

  • Almost every night I went to bed with the kids.
  • If Thing 2 fell asleep early, I was sometimes awakened by Thing 1 kissing my cheek on her way to bed and telling me that I shouldn't sleep on the couch.
  • I did 100% of the night-time duties every night, and still had to get up when the baby woke up for good in the morning.
  • Thing 2 is a morning person - she usually woke up at about 5:30 am, ready to go with a gigantic smile. (I've worn her down so that she now sleeps until 6:30, and occasionally sleeps late - until 7:30 or so.)
  • Thing 1 is not a morning person. And if I couldn't muster the joy of spring in my waking technique, well, let's just say things were not going to go well from then on.
  • I pumped milk for more than a year, and, as it turned out, found it very difficult to achieve let-down if I was preoccupied with other things. It also turned out that I was often preoccupied with other things, like timers that were about to go off, even though the milk wasn't coming yet.
  • Many days I had to pump three or even four times to get enough for the poor baby. Sometimes I tried to make up the difference by pumping while nursing at home. Anyone who has done this knows that it is no fun for any of the involved parties, especially when using a manual pump.
  • Nobody I worked with understood that I couldn't just pump whenever they didn't feel like talking to me.
  • Nobody I worked with understood that even though it was only 10 am, I really needed to know how long the protocol we were doing was going to take, because 5 pm rolls around really quickly. And the $1/min late pick up charge for each child can really add up.
  • I did 100% of the cooking during the week.
  • No dinner could take more than 30 minutes to prepare, or else all hell was likely to break loose. And we are not talking Rachel Ray style 30 minutes. I do not have a prep cook in residence.
  • The kitchen had to be cleaned every night after dinner, including the floor thoroughly swept and mopped. Otherwise, there was no way I'd ever manage to feed baby, coax Thing 1 to eat something, suck down some coffee and sustenance myself, pack the lunches and pumping supplies and not turn around to find the baby with something unidentifiable in her mouth in the middle of it all.
  • Thing 1 could not seem to grasp the concept of thoroughly sweeping and mopping, and therefore could not help with that. She wasn't much help with the cooking either. Something about being only eight years old, I think.
  • Every weekend was spent running all the errands I couldn't do during the week.
  • I had to actually go along for most of the errands because hubby didn't have a driver's license (only his Lerner's permit) and he wasn't the one who needed all the stuff anyway.

And so on.

We did what we had to do to make it work. I napped with the baby on the weekends. We used a grocery delivery service. I discovered a set of five nearly instant meals that didn't make me want to barf, and we had those every week. Hubby snuck out of the office as early as he could on Fridays and stayed over on Mondays whenever he could get away with it. But there was no end in sight. Nobody was looking to hire someone as talented and hardworking as my hubby. Sometimes I secretly worried that he wasn't looking hard enough, that he didn't want to move here anyway and that I'd have to finish grad school without him. And when I considered that option, I suspected that this was something that I could not do. I found the wall that I could not break through.

And one night on the phone, I broke down, and I told him that I could not live like this for much longer, and something was going to have to change. I had tried for so long not to let him know how close I was to drowning. I didn't want him to feel any worse than he already did, because I knew that he had his own version of extreme survival mode, and it included not seeing his children all week long. But that night, I was so tired, my head so muddled, and I felt like such a failure in every single area of my life, that I couldn't hold it in any longer, and it poured out of me like a river bursting a levee.

The next day, he talked with his boss, and they agreed that he would leave his job in three months, regardless of whether he had found other employment. He would receive a decent severance package, since the company was likely going to be sold, and the bottom line would look better without his position on the books. About a month later, a company hubby had interviewed for nearly a year previously offered him a job in New City.

And so, suddenly, there was a light, and the wall was gone.

Best wishes to ScienceWoman tonight. She made me want to share this.

Friday, August 29, 2008

My Summer Vacation or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Laptop

I haven't written a post specifically for a carnival for a while, though Bora was kind enough to include one of my posts in the first edition of Praxis. Actually, I haven't been writing many posts at all lately, and part of the reason is Summer. Which just happens to be the theme of this month's Scientiae Carnival hosted by Lab Cat.

Summer vacation is a bit of a paradox for those of us who have school aged children who have it, but jobs or training positions that don't. During the school year, things are nice and predictable. Thing 1 goes to (public) school each morning by 8 am, has actual classes until 2 pm, walks to another part of the school and attends an extended day program until 6 pm at which time some adult picks her up and brings her home for dinner and family time. Thing 2 goes to daycare on the same schedule. Rinse, sleep, and repeat, Monday through Friday. Saturday and Sunday are for the soft restart. So, although everyone is kind of running on a hamster wheel all week, unless I have something unusually taxing to do, like a 36 hour long protocol to do, it's not too hard to be productive during the school year.

Everything changes when school closes for the summer. Thankfully, Thing 2 is in a daycare that stays open for all twelve months of the year, but I have to start planning (and paying for) stuff for Thing 1 to do starting in January if I even want to come close to covering all 10 weeks of her summer vacation. It takes a siginificant amount of research to find suitable day camps that don't cost twice as much per week as the extended day program costs per month. Even still, many of the those are so mind-numbingly boring that she begs me not to make her go each morning. The rest tend to have such short schedules that it is nearly impossible to get anything done between drop-off and pick-up. Previous summers I have been so strapped for time that I would have to pick Thing 1 up during some incubation, take her back to the lab with me, and install her at my computer playing games for a couple of hours, just so I could finish up my experiment for the day. Needless to say, the disjointed and compressed work schedule feels like anything but a vacation, so when people would ask me if I was looking forward to the summer, I'd usually force a smile and nod noncommitally, while inside I was screaming - what the hell do I have to look forward to, exactly? My thesis isn't going to write itself while I hang at the beach with the kids, now is it? And OMG, have I mentioned how broke I am? Whaaaaaa!

But I decided to make this summer different. The experiments I needed to run were not particulary long in terms of time at the bench, but required a lot of time for data analysis. So, I decided not to worry so much about how many hours I spent in the lab, since it doesn't really matter where I sit at a computer and pore over raw data and analysis scripts. I left quite early almost every day for a whole month and even took the time to shuttle Thing 1 to a dance class she wanted to take in the afternoon. I did a lot of work on my laptop at all different times of the day and in all kinds of different places. Sometimes I went in to the lab on the weekend. Then hubby took over the transportation of Thing 1 to a camp near where he works, so I had a few weeks of something similar to my normal schedule. My PI and I had set a goal for a certain set of experiments to be done by the end of all the summer camp I had lined up for Thing 1, and I did it. I'm not about to pretend that I was cool as a cucumber through it all, but it didn't totally suck.

Then we went on a real vacation, for the first time since before Thing 2 was born. Hubby and I both took almost two weeks off so we could go to an unnamed family vacation mecca for ten days. The longest vacation we have ever taken since our honeymoon. But the best part about it was that I didn't feel like I was so behind that I couldn't afford not to take work along with me. Though I did falter in my resolve a little at the last minute, I smacked myself and reminded myself that I'd been taking work all over town with me all summer. I took a couple of papers that I wanted to read, but in the end I didn't even look at them. Past years I would have been facing this last weekend of summer, feeling that I hadn't done enough of anything. Wishing I'd spent more time having fun with the kids, annoyed that I hadn't made enough progress in my research, frustrated by friends and family members who didn't understand that even though I'm a student I don't have the whole summer off to just chill and tired from trying to fit too much into too short a day for too many days straight. For once I feel like after this weekend, I will be ready to dig into everything with renewed energy rather than a sense of desperation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Support the People Who Do Animal Research

There's been some discussion on ScienceBlogs about the recent firebombings of the homes of two UC Santa Cruz researchers (For instance: Terra Sigillata, DrugMonkey, Adventures in Ethics and Science, Respectful Insolence, Discovering Biology in a Digital World, and Built on Facts). And probably elsewhere in the blogosphere that I haven't made it to, yet. But I feel compelled to add my two cents, now. I mean, people were almost killed! For doing science that somebody else didn't like. Not acceptable.

I don't work with animals. But I have done so in the past, and I can honestly say that it is not like what you see in the movies. There is training, protocols to be evaluated, logs, etc. A researcher doesn't just have cages and tanks with random animals hanging around for them to tinker with for no good reason than a whim. Everything is planned, regulated and overseen. See DrugMonkey's post for hard fact and links.

What motivated DM's post, however, was the complaint that researchers seem to be reluctant to talk about all this when approached by students. I can definitely put myself in that place, and I don't think it's wrong to expect the questioner to be sensitive about this, given the climate.

Here's what I see as a similar situation - female scientists get asked all the time about their marital/family status. Many choose to be evasive or flat out refuse to answer because of the overwhelmingly chilly climate in many fields. They are simply concerned that they will not be taken seriously if they let on that they have children or may want to have children someday. Or even think children are not gross and annoying. One response to that behavior is to get mad at the women who do this. Because they should not be so paranoid. They should realize that this particular person really meant no harm and could actually benefit from their candor. It's so annoying that they are shutting down discourse about a very important issue. They really should stand up and be who they are instead of caving to the dysfunctional environment. Another response is to come to grips with the sadness of the situation, and then work to change things so that women will feel more at ease about speaking openly about their families.

I think we really need to take the second approach here. We need to acknowledge that there is a major problem - public perception of animal research is really messed up and making it hard for scientists who work with animals to feel comfortable talking about their work. Does that mean the inquiring fresh-faced student is wrong? No. But it affects how the professor will answer. Because professors are people, too.

I, myself, have always been open to discussion about both my family and any animal research I have done. I lack the discretion gene. But I know that those who have one or even two functioning copies might not be as forthcoming, and though I might encourage them to open up, I can really understand why they might not. Women are telling stories about their careers being wrecked in all sorts of ways because they let the wrong person know they had a maternal side. And now scientists are having their homes fire-bombed because they let the wrong person know that their research involves animals.

I must admit that there is one conversation that I am looking back on and seeing in another light just now. Way back when I did work with animals for one summer, I had lunch with a couple of friends as well as the brother of one friend and his girlfriend. The brother was all right, but the girlfriend - she just drove me crazy! She was the epitome of hairy-fairy, and new-agey nonsense was gushing from every pore. And she just assumed that everyone else was on the same page. She blabbed for about half an hour about the gerbil or hamster she and the brother had as a pet. Now I have no problem with pets. I have several pets myself. But I really hate it when people either talk about their pets as if they were human children or do not care for their pets in the way that would be appropriate for the species it belongs to. She did both, simultaneously. She went into great detail about how she felt that it is not fair to keep the little rodent in a cage, so she let it run free in their apartment. Then she divulged that sometimes, when this small mammal disappeared into the nooks and crannies of their (food cabinets, underwear drawers - you fill in the blank) they couldn't cook because she was worried that her pet might be hiding in the oven. A problem which would easily be solved if she would just keep the thing in a damn cage!

I tried to get her to change topic, no go. Nothing could be as interesting as her precious little whatever-its-name-was. So I decided to shut her up. The next time there was a lull in her yammering, I announced to the room that I had gotten a really sweet summer lab placement. When my friends predictably asked what I'd be working on, I told them I'd most likely be working on a project using mice that required sacrifice by decapitation and immediate dissection of the brain. It worked. Not another word about the rodent she scheduled her cooking around.

At the time, I thought of it as a slightly nasty way of reminding someone that other people see the world in a different light. Now, though, I don't think I'd do the same thing again. And not because I'm afraid that she might turn out to be some Animal Liberation Front nut-job who might fire-bomb my home. But because I did not demonstrate to her my real feelings about working with animals. Instead, I acted like the smug, insensitive jerk-off that many people think of as the "type" to work with animals. In reality, I wasn't sure I wanted to do that project, and in the end I asked to be assigned to a different project that only required sacrifice if something went wrong (in which case the animal would die anyway, but only after suffering, so it would be for the best). I was really careful and did my best to ensure that nothing went wrong. I made that choice because I was concerned that my inexperience and nervousness would prevent me from doing the deed cleanly and without extra suffering or waste. Not because I didn't think the work was worth doing (it absolutely was).

So, while I agree with Sandra Porter's call for more scientists to speak out about the importance of animal research, let's give the people on the front lines a break if they find it difficult to open up. If you have questions, don't give up because the first person you asked was a little skittish. If you have made up your mind to support the people who do animal research, consider joining a group like Speaking of Research, or just talking truthfully with your friends and acquaintances. Don't be an asshat like I was. The only real solution here is to try to improve public perceptions of animal research.

And, hey, law enforcement types - put those thugs in jail!