Terra Sigillata

i-a2c041174c5170bf6580a1cd7dee63e0-Scientiae_Logo_sm.jpg

Welcome to the August 2009 edition of Scientiae, the blog carnival of “stories of and from women in science, engineering, technology, and math.”

[Apologies at the outset for missing the submission from ScienceWoman, co-blogger at Sciencewomen, entitled, “Unhurried summer mornings”]

I’m honored to be the first man invited to host the carnival. The invitation means a great deal to me on a number of levels: my laboratory has run between 75% and 100% women during my years in the business, including all of my PhD students, and I have a brilliant physician-scientist wife who has given us a joyous and creative mini-woman whose wisdom and creativity belies her almost-seven years.

It was while thinking of PharmGirl and the PharmKid that I came up with this month’s carnival theme, mostly out of my own disappointment and frustration that the summer is almost over and no vacation is in sight between my work and the off-cycle nature of each of our academic years. Things will only get busier as we shuttle into the fall and I doubt that we will be able to take any significant time off for one another until Christmas break. Hell, I even had to send apology e-mails to all of the contributors for being late with posting the carnival because I needed to spend time with my family yesterday after an all-day student recruiting trip on Saturday.

I figured I wasn’t the only one feeling this way so I proposed this month’s theme as:

Summer days, driftin’ away. . .

Consider how you balance the demands and pleasures of this season. Have you found ways to make progress on your must-dos while also taking time for your family, friends – and yourself – and being in the moment of this time of year? Or are July and August just another month for you?

Well, sadly, the vast majority of contributors were in various states of juggling catch-up and preparation for the academic year, many putting work well ahead of themselves and their loved ones at what is supposed to be the time of relaxation and renewal in the Northern Hemisphere. But they are not all tales of woe and frustration. Even those pushed to their limit still wrote about little things they remembered about why they loved summer so much at one time.

I don’t have the answers, certainly not with my own example. So, let’s hear what our friends have to say:

Kids and husbands

My Rockies geologist colleague, Dr Kim Hannula, submitted a very gneiss post (pun intended, although she’s probably tired of taking all this schist from me) from her blog, All of My Faults Are Stress-Related. Being tenured at a teaching-oriented school gives her the “freedom” to spend the summer with her six-year-old, freedom which causes her to be on-call 24/7. Relief comes when her husband and boy go camping and she takes in the luxury of her campus office where few others can be found this time of year.

The next post is “Lazy Summer Days?” from ScientistMother: raising my own little experiment. Similar to Kim, ScientistMother is also overwhelmed with caring for the little one but for many more reasons: Mr SM works nearly 24/7 in a family business where summer is crunchtime.

With the mister gone so often, I’m in single mom mode. Which is fine, but now monkey is at an age where (a) he misses his dad (b) he misses his dad. He doesn’t always understand why Daddy’s not home.

I hate you, Abel

Well, not that they hate me exactly, but these posts brought out the most exasperated of the contributors.

My dear colleague Candid Engineer, author of Candid Engineer in Academia, abruptly and characteristically shatters my visions of cool summer nights in the mountains or flying kites at the seashore by responding in “It’s a Cruel, Cruel Summer” to my question: “Have you found ways to make progress on your must-dos while also taking time for your family, friends – and yourself – and being in the moment of this time of year?”

Ahahahahahaha!!!!!!11!!!!11!!!!

In short, NO. No, I have not found a way to make progress while also taking time for others and myself.

But that is okay. That, for me, was expected.

The undergraduate intern and the “damn conference” take much of the heat and our mutual friend PhysioProf shows up in the comments to compassionately share his wisdom with CE.

Propter Doc at Lecturer Notes contributed “Tell me more…” where she sums up her sentiments concisely: “Summer 2009 is, if possible, more stressful than term time.” This theme was common to the majority of submissions. In this case, PD is in her first summer after appointment as lecturer with personal and professional to-do lists that remind me of my first year on faculty. But colleagues a year or two ahead of her are taking the month of August off – lazy sods if you ask me – so hang in there until next year!

“This was a rushed and grumpy contribution to scientiae,” writes JaneB author of the blog, Now what was I doing? Her post, “Summer days, slipping away,” is what you might expect based on the title but I drew a refreshing and distinct change in my emotions when I read the second paragraph of this excerpt:

I’m not very good at summer. What with the hayfever, strong reaction to insect bites, heat rash, dislike of humidity, general grumpiness and shutting down of functions above about 27 degrees C, and the oppressive sense that I should be having fun.

It makes me want to be a kid again. Those endless days with no agenda, no rules… reading under a tree, lying on the grass trying to feel the earth spin and cloudwatching, pond-dipping, etc. etc. At least I appreciated it at the time, and was very rarely bored.

I love my family but. . .

I couldn’t decide whether to put the next contribution above until I received two submissions that discussed traveling to visit family. This missive is from another first-year faculty member, my hiking boot-recommender Professor in Training, “a new, female assistant professor in the biomedical sciences at Really Big U.” The reader knows where we’re going right from the title, “Summer? What Summer?”:

As a frazzled first year assistant professor who lives half a world away from her family, an entire continent away from her closest friends and who continues to add to her list of injuries, ailments and illnesses on a daily basis, my summer has been shot to hell. TO HELL, DAMN IT!

But in the midst of her post, I find glimpses of a few happy things despite getting sick on the trip to see family halfway around the world, shoulder surgery, and the breast cancer scare. Her commenter, Genomic Repairman, came by with a rather thoughtful comment that sums up much of the post if not this entire carnival:

Summer is like this mythical period of productivity that elusively slips through our grips as were are mired in the daily minutia of science.

Hannah at Women in Astronomy opens her post “Summertime” with a PhD Comic. While talking about her research, it was this paragraph that I think we’ll all find universal:

Traveling to visit family does not count as vacation in my book. I’m with Tajel’s advisor on this one: “you spent the whole time thinking and obsessing about your research project.” Perhaps this is because I often get the feeling of “I’m taking time away from my research to do WHAT?!?” I love my parents, but they do drive me crazy.

Working in a vacation destination

Patchi at The Middle Years is about five years out from her PhD, now working for a private research foundation in my former home of Florida. In her submission, “Summer Thoughts,” these points become relevant because she is no longer on a semester schedule and lives in a place where, “I can only tell that it is officially summer by the dwindling number of cars on the road when most of the students take off.” The luxury to take vacations off-cycle (and to live in a great vacation destination already) makes summers less frantic, although she clearly works very hard. Her closing line, “Maybe I’ll even escape the football season pandemonium, but that might be hoping for too much…,” brings for me some fond memories.

Karina at Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist is the only blogger who responded to my queries from the Southern Hemisphere, sort of, since she conducts her field research in the pseudonymous African country of Ukenzagapia.

In her post, “Summer days, driftin’ away,” Karina misses the comforts of home and the company of her husband but still can’t escape summer pressures while being in African winter:

Even in Ukenzagapia this is crunch time. I’ve got several days of data collection left, and I’m not sure yet exactly when I’ll leave my field site. My last possible day in the field is August 11, but if I can wrap things up sooner I will. I’m also thinking ahead for what needs to be done this fall (my review paper, grant applications, data analysis…) and trying to get my ducks in a row for that to go smoothly.

The costs and benefits of striking balance

For some reason, I hadn’t read Kate before at her blog Academic Ecology – I know this because I would’ve remembered her pithy tagline, “Crappily Pseudonymous Since 2005.” She speaks of being a faculty member, a parent, and the owner of a 90-year-old house to be three, full-time jobs. With the modest pay of academia (tagline: the hours are long, but at least the pay is lousy), she and her husband have now considered getting help with housecleaning:

So I guess the summer has been useful, or at least instructive: TD and I cannot do everything and be everyone. And if we are to have rich relationships with our daughter, other things will have to slide or other people will have to do them. A colleague of TD’s recently advised us that money should be spent to buy time. If that money means the three of us get to spend more time together, rather than putting La Dudarina in more hours of care, or having one parent watch her while the other toils with the mop or at the stovetop, then I’m spending the money.

I have to apologize first to ScienceWoman, co-blogger at Sciencewomen, for somehow overlooking her post when cutting and pasting the carnival together. Perhaps it was because I was subconsciously envious of her solution in balancing work and time with the unbridled joy de vrie personified in her daughter, Minnow: “Unhurried summer mornings”:

Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot by reducing my summer workload from what it could be if I continued my school year breakneck pace. But I feel like my summer has been productive, its given me the time to recharge my energy and stock up my bank of fun times with Minnow. Most of all though, it gives Minnow time to just be her own person, with her own stuff, with her unstressed Mommy’s attention, for a few extra hours per day. And if giving Minnow that time extracts a cost on my career, then it’s a price I am totally willing to pay.

Methinks that Kate and ScienceWoman have it totally spot on.

Best balanced!

I want to close the carnival, however, with three even more positive posts.

Wise mentor to many of us, Pat Campbell, writes to us about her busy balanced summer in “Summer days, driftin’ away…,” at Fairer Science. But it was her previous post from 27th July that really caught my eye: swimming 3/4th of the way across the Hudson River with Tom is perhaps the most impressive thing thing they’ve done this summer not just for the distance and Tom having had a broken neck last year, but for the sheer bravery of putting one’s near-naked bodies into the Hudson River. Just be careful with the mushrooms, you crazy kids!

Aurora at Life in Academia brings us “Fun in the Sun.” In this case, she appears to have managed the balance of bringing both the kids and productive work to the town pool, all while not looking like an absent-minded professor.

Regular readers of Terra Sigillata know of my great fondness for Canadians, especially Canadian scientists. Two of the finest women to walk through my lab doors were Canadian and I count a few Canadians among my most creative colleagues.

So, it was no surprise to me that I give Mrs Comet Hunter the carnival’s award for Most Balanced Summer for her post, “Summer Days.” Indeed, Mrs CH should be giving a work-life academic workshop to all of us. While we are all steaming and reading these carnival posts, Mrs CH and DH are on a “trip of a lifetime” for three weeks in South America:

All in all, this summer has been one of the best since I started graduate school for work and personal time! Hopefully the level of productivity will continue!

Afterword

I really didn’t mean for this carnival to be such a bummer. I think we have all learned that regardless of our disciplines and times in our careers, it is still difficult to achieve work-life balance even at a time when we should be giving ourselves license to take care of ourselves.

I’m still not happy that we’ll be working here right up through to the start of classes and I really don’t feel that I have a choice. For most of the contributors, I don’t see that their situations are much of a choice either but rather evolutions of academic research life. There’s always next summer.

Many thanks again to skookumchick for inviting me to host this edition of Scientiae and to each of the contributors with trusting me to shepherd their thoughtful reflections out to the intertubes.

Even if you can’t take the vacation you want, please take the laptop and your favorite drink outside to read these posts. Breathe deeply, smell the summer air, feel the humidity on your skin, and take a little vacation in your mind with all of the online compatriots who share your journey. You deserve it!

Comments

  1. #1 ScienceWoman
    August 5, 2009

    I think my post (Unhurried Summer Mornings) got missed. ‘Tis OK though because I know Abel was spending time with PharmGirl and PharmKid instead.

  2. #2 Propter Doc
    August 5, 2009

    Hi Abel, fantastic carnival! Today has been a gleefully productive day, in part because so many of my colleagues are away. I’m probably going to do exactly as you suggest – sit out side to read many of these posts tonight. Got a case of wine on the way with some gorgeous European reds, so hopefully I’ll crack open one of those!
    And spending time with your family is always more important than this blogging thing…
    Great job!

  3. #3 Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde
    August 5, 2009

    Thanks for the carnival! I didn’t find it as depressing as you did–it’s helpful to hear both that many people are still going as full steam as I am trying to do (so I don’t feel as guilty about not enjoying the summer), and also that I should cut myself some slack about the fact that I’m simply not going as full steam as I wish to be–because, hey, it’s summer, and it’s ok to have some slower days.

  4. #4 Candid Engineer
    August 5, 2009

    Abel, thanks for putting together a great carnival. :) Hope you have some time to enjoy with your family in the remaining summer weeks ahead.

  5. #5 Catharine
    August 7, 2009

    Academic types: Don’t feel like the lone ranger! Throughout the country people doing all kinds of work are finding it impossible to take any kind of vacation because they lack the time and/or money. For most people, “summer” means little more than a change in the weather. Nurses, for example, have no summers, holidays, or weekends: There are just days (and nights) we work and days (and nights) we don’t work (at the hospital, that is). Europe is generally much more civilized. Even people with modest incomes get a month-long (paid) holiday.

  6. #6 Professor in Training
    August 13, 2009

    Am only just starting to get through my Reader list and as Terra Sig is towards the end of the alphabet, you were left until almost last … sorry! Damned fine job on the carnival though, Abel.

  7. #7 Mrs. CH
    August 24, 2009

    Sorry I’m late on this (we just got back from our trip yesterday – see my latest post for a summary) – great carnival, Abel! I look forward to catching up with all the posts, and I hope everyone was able to get some sort of summer time fun in :D

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.