Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What about the people who LIKE 12 hour days?

I just finished reading a biography of Madame Curie [Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith]. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize (actually she received two). Her daughter was the second woman to receive the prize, and her granddaughter is a professor of physics at the University of Paris. Many women idolize Madame Curie as proof that women can succeed in science and have a family at the same time.

However after reading this book, I'm not so sure that she is a good role-model. It is true that she deeply loved science, and fought to break down barriers for women in the field, but she spent much of her life in deep depression. At one point she says that, "even her children cannot awaken life in her." She threw herself into her work with long hours with dangerous materials. Although she developed a close relationship with her daughter Irene, her non-scientific daughter Eve, spent much of her life feeling alienated.

One of the most interesting parts of this book came near the end when Madame Curie was discussing the role of money in science. I can't remember the exact quote, but basically she said that in general personal monetary concerns should not be important to scientists. However, when an individual loves science so wholely that they choose to dedicate their lives to it, it is society's obligation to sustain the individual and make them comfortable enough to focus on their research.

For me, this raises a very interesting point. There are individuals out there who deeply love science, those who love it so much it supersedes all else. These individuals are happy to dedicate their lives to the lab, spending long hours and weekends in pursuit of the next great discovery.

Where does that leave individuals like myself, who love what I do, but feel that it is not all that I am?

It is very easy for me to argue that we should allow part-time appointments, slow down the tenure process, and make the job more family friendly. However, it is likely that these individuals will never understand how my love of family can supersede my love of the work, the thrill of discovery, the moment when it all clicks and another theory brings the beauty of nature into sharper focus. To these individuals, I have no answer. I too love these things, but I also love my son's banana breath kiss, and teaching my daughter how to cook.

Many of those in science take great pride in the number of hours they work and the time the dedicate to science. This is taken as proof of their love for work. For the rest of us, love is painfully divided.


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