The curse of the research scientist

I love science, I love research and I love working on problems that, if solved, could make a difference to the well-being of others. I love to relax at night and on planes by opening up the spread sheets, performing statistical analysis of the data and seeing if there is something novel and useful there…..usually there isn’t, but it’s fun anyway. I love a research collaboration, the scientific banter and playing my part in a larger, more complex story.  But the life of a research scientist is cursed, always wanting and needing to scheme and plan and work and analyse and find things that nobody else knows. There is no rest.

It has been a particularly tough week, where the tamoxifen and my general out-of-shapeness have conspired to raise my blood pressure to the point that requires medication for the time being. Wouldn’t it be ironic if I survived two different types of cancers to end up being taken by a heart attack or stroke, so I’ll make my doctor happy and take the damn blood pressure pill just until I can get myself back on track. In monitoring my blood pressure twice daily for the past few weeks I did make a scientific discovery that if I can get the numbers up, may be worth publishing. There were a handful of evenings over the past two weeks where my blood pressure was normal. Further investigation revealed that these were the nights where I’d had a glass of wine with dinner. I still need to do the double-blind placebo study, but I think I may be on to something. In lieu of starting each day with a big glass of wine, I spent an hour at the gym this morning with the wonderful exercise physiologist who is going to help me get my fitness, flexibility and core strength back. She took all the baseline measurements today and, let’s just say, the only way is up! But I’m feeling really positive and it’s great to have a plan to work towards.

After dealing (but not dealing well) with some teenage dramas on the home front, and then being put through the paces at the gym, I arrived at work in time for a crazy, hectic day that involved shipment of a cord blood unit for transplant (where I actually had to do some of the work because 2/3 of the transplant team are on leave) and reporting to the board at the bi-monthly meeting. I presented to the board a discussion paper to explore the possibility of recruiting a mid-career research scientist into my lab, to establish a new cord blood translational research project. The juxtaposition of cord blood bank with clinical and research departments, along with access to state-of-the-art technologies, means we have a unique niche in which to perform research towards improving cord blood transplant outcomes and extending the use of cord blood for cellular therapies. I feel very strongly that we should be doing more to build on these opportunities; the infrastructure is all in place, it just requires money. I have many ideas regarding where the gaps are in our cord blood stem cell knowledge, and many ideas as to the best type of research project we could undertake, with the right person recruited to the group. A positive discussion ensued at the meeting, and I came away with further work that I need to do to fully flesh out the proposal.

It was an early evening discussion with a senior colleague, before I left work for the day, that brought me to the sad realisation that once a research scientist, always a research scientist….there is no escape. This female colleague knows me very well, and we embarked upon a lengthy discussion about research, and the amount of work required. The conversation was going along well until she said something along the lines of, “Maybe it’s time to pass the research side of things onto another group…..you’re not getting any younger and you have had significant health problems in recent times, and you’ve got kids. Aren’t you tired of doing research out of hours, when you could be doing other things? You have a very demanding job running the cord blood bank, but it’s relatively secure and you don’t have to apply for grants in order to feed yourself….” . I can’t even remember exactly how I responded, but I know it was with defence, feeling affronted and hurt. However I also know this colleague has my best interests at heart.

I spent the weary drive home thinking about what she said, and if I look at it at face value, she’s right. Running the cord blood bank is a demanding full-time job in its own right, why am I putting myself through the effort of maintaining a research group? It’s not like I’m a big player amongst the research giants at the institute. I’m an excellent collaborator with diverse research groups across the campus, and I think I’m a good scientist and making a contribution, but I am small fry. My research group is very small these days. Maybe I’m wasting my time. But I can’t do it. I can’t possibly work at a research institute and not do research. One of the key attractions with taking on the role of director of the cord blood bank was to be able to leverage off the relationships and undertake cord blood research in a unique niche environment. There are definitely times that this drive for knowledge and wanting to improve the health outcomes of others through research is a curse. It’s like an itch to scratch that won’t go away while I remain in such an environment. But I also want to not work such long hours and I want to spend time doing other things in my life. I want to be home early evening to cook dinner while supervising homework (or at least be there to nag about the homework not getting done). I want to spend time on my front porch listening to the birds. And after the events of the past two years, doing these other things is now a priority. But so is doing research.

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About stemgir1

Scientist, mother, survivor of childhood cancer, diagnosed in 2013 with breast cancer. Lover of life.
This entry was posted in cancer research, clinical research, life, Research, science, scientist and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The curse of the research scientist

  1. MJ says:

    You have a gift Ngaire – in many, many ways.
    You are a blessing to us all and I think I speak for many when I wish you peace.
    That peace will be with balance.
    X

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lmarieallen says:

    Oh, my sweet friend, I feel your angst! It would be so much easier to have a dull brain and not require much intellectual stimulation😊 And the mother’s guilt will eat you alive. I’m struggling right along side you to maintain the delicate balance.

    Liked by 1 person

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