Friday, January 6, 2017

Taking Stock 1/n

Six years ago (nearly to the day) I started my lab at the University of Arizona. There have been numerous ups and downs in science and outside of science, but I'm still here. My tenure package was submitted last August (I haven't heard back yet but expect to soonish), we've just undergone about the third dramatic change in lab personnel, and there's plenty on the plate for the future. I figured it was a good enough time to sit down and begin to reflect on these last 6 years and dream about the next 30 or so. Not sure how many parts this is going to be, hence the /n in the title, but for this first post I'm going to try and be open about self care needs and the internal struggles that I'm guessing a lot of us face. 

I've always been of the mindset that it's not about how much you work, but whether you make progress towards goals in that time. I've tried to encourage my lab members to take care of themselves mentally, to take breaks when necessary and enjoy the flexibility that comes with working in a research lab. I'm well aware that that line of thinking works for me, but it doesn't work for everyone and so please don't take this as a prescription for what to do but as an example of what's been done. For five years I thought I had everything under control. Sure, research and publishing and funding is always a struggle but it's been a manageable struggle. That all changed seven months ago and I'm still recovering.

My wife's pregnancy had been pretty standard up until early June. At that point she was about 29 weeks pregnant, but was also self employed as an equine vet and still going out to calls. She had been around horses all her life and has cultivated an intuition around these animals that's second to none. Was I worried about her job and my unborn son, deep down yeah. However, I trusted my wife to take all the necessary precautions and be careful, and by all measurements she did and was. I still remember that call in early June because it's one of those moments where time stands still. She had been kicked square in the stomach by a horse, it had thrown her back into a wall and there was a deep cut in her head. Maybe a couple of broken/chipped elbows (never did figure that one out, it was the least of our worries). She was being rushed to the hospital, no clue of how bad anyone's injuries really were. Not going to show you the pic, but there was literally a horse-shoe shaped bruise right on her pregnant stomach.

These are the kinds of situations where your mind tries to prioritize everything into what's essential and what's non-essential. Essential was me getting to the hospital ASAP bc my wife was in and out of consciousness and they didn't know how bad the head trauma was. They didn't know what condition my son was in, there was really no way to know if he had enough oxygen, how badly the internal damage was. It's a unique method of torture, to be a researcher and be incapable of truly assessing how bad the situation was because the tools simply don't exist.

Fast forward and my son was emergency C-sectioned at 29 weeks. Somehow his head was pointing down so that if the horse landed any blow it was a glancing one on his legs. We still don't know if he lost oxygen in the womb at all, but the placenta was damaged. My wife pretty much stayed in the NICU for two months straight (plenty of stories about that for other times), while I watched my three year old daughter at home during that time. It's a testament to the flexibility of our jobs as researchers that it was possible for me to do that. Somehow I managed to get my tenure packet submitted. Somehow I managed to write a couple of papers. Somehow I managed to make the slightest of progress in the lab during that time. Do I remember much of it, not really. I was just focused on getting by day to day one step at a time. There was a lot of stress in directions that I wasn't ready for, but I grew numb to it all for the sake of getting to the next day. It wasn't really easier when Kyle came home from the NICU, but my wife is a superhero and I'll leave it at that.

Why do I mention all of this? Part of it is catharsis. Part of it is that I haven't had the time to properly thank everyone for their help during this time, and so please take these lines as a thank you. All of the support meant so much and made everything easier to cope with. I mean that. I'm also writing this to say that, it has to be OK for us as researchers to be given time to get through difficult situations. Give your people the space they need (within reason). Give your people the help they need whether it be mental or physical. Whether you are an undergrad, grad student, postdoc, PI...life can be extremely challenging. I picked this career because of the flexibility and this summer solidified that. Everyone deserves the support that I received regardless of station.

I'm also writing this to describe that I'm not completely back yet. I've tried a couple of times to sit and write grants like I did before, to just pound them out, and I can honestly say that I don't have that gear back (hopefully it comes back...having a 7 month old doesn't help with sleep patterns). I'm getting back to how I felt pre-summer of 2016, but it's happening more slowly than I'd like. I would love to just flip a switch and have everything feel like it did before, but it doesn't work that way. I can't help but think that those months of emotional numbness that it took just to survive have left a bit of an emotional hangover. I've had more science energy lately and I feel better and more energetic every day about my research. I don't know how the story ends, but I do love both my family and my job. Sometimes you don't get to choose how to devote your emotional energy. With help, it's possible to muddle through to a more stable place. I've been way luckier than many and I'm looking forward to what the future has to hold. Still taking things one step at a time though, and that has to be OK too. 


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