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.

Posted in cancer research, clinical research, life, Research, science, scientist | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Ephemeral

IMG_2670In the blink of an eye they are no longer children. Oh to capture and hold on to those ephemeral moments of childish joy and fearlessness of the world.

Posted in childhood, joy, kids, life, mindfulness, postaday, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Fresh

I love the crisp, fresh days of Autumn that follow the dusty, dry heat of the Australian summer. It’s been a gorgeous weekend with perfect blue skies, warm sun and cool evenings. The trees in my neighbourhood are starting to work their magic. 

Posted in Australia, Garden, healing, inspiration, joy, life, mindfulness, postaday, relaxation, stillness, Victoria, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Getting on with life but never forgetting….

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As the remnants of the delicious meal are cleared away on my flight home from London to Melbourne, the soul-lifting tunes of Vance Joy filling my head, the massage chair gently pummelling my lumbar region, maybe it’s the Macedon Ranges Chardonnay or maybe it’s not, but I am overwhelmed with gratitude for how unbelievably good life is. I am on my way home from attending the International NetCord Foundation Board meeting and the World Cord Blood Congress in Monaco. It was an excellent conference, with plenty of opportunity to chat to the gods in the field of cord blood banking and cord blood transplantation. I feel completely up to date with where things are at, the exciting new cord blood therapies in clinical trials, and actions we need to implement in Australia in order to ensure we continue to offer world’s best practice to Australian patients. The conference was held in the Prince Ranier III Auditorium, with attendees staying at the beautiful Fairmont Monte Carlo. The best French champagne was on offer at the reception hosted by HRH Prince Albert’s people and I had the pleasure of being invited to a couple of dinners in wonderful Monte Carlo restaurants by international colleagues who are now new friends. Following closure of the conference on Sunday, an Australian friend and colleague and I wandered down to the Monaco Marina for a lazy lunch in the sun at the water’s edge, surrounded by luxury yachts, listening to American country & western sung in a French accent, while looking up at the pink palace and the incredible beauty of Monaco. It was all so surreal.

Prior to the commencement of the meetings I stayed in Nice for three days to burn off the jet lag. When I booked my hotel in Nice I decided to pay just a little more and book a room with a terrace overlooking Massena Square and the old town – the best decision I’ve made in a long time! I ended up having front row seats for the over-the-top Carnaval parade, the amazing fireworks display, the water fountains where the children squealed in delight as the plumes of water caught them by surprise, the soul-stilling sunrises over the Old Town and the ethereal sunsets across the Cote D’Azur. Highlights of my days in Nice were wandering for miles along the Promenade d’Anglaise, getting lost in the Old Town and flower markets, visiting the Musee Matisse and spending quiet time in the Franciscan Monastery gardens with sweeping views to the snow-capped French Alps through to the city of Nice and the ocean beyond. The incredible meals partaken of in Nice and Monaco go without saying.

All this just three weeks after I attended an International Board meeting for the Foundation for the Accreditation of Cellular Therapies and the Bone Marrow Transplant Tandem meetings in San Diego, USA. Once again interacting with different international colleagues and representing the Australian interests of cord blood banking, quality and transplant. The conference was held at the Grand Hyatt San Diego, a magnificent hotel on the bay in San Diego. I managed to nab some spare time to visit the gorgeous Hotel Del Coronado and take a 2-hour cruise on the bay in San Diego under perfect blue skies.

In all this magnificence of living, always, every minute of the day, I remember how I got to be here. Back home is my ever-patient and supportive husband, caring for our three boys. Never once has he hinted that perhaps I should not travel for work this time. Whenever I’ve asked his “permission” his response is always “Are you stupid?”. Then there are my boys, whom I love more than life itself. We miss each other like crazy but I think they know I’m ultimately trying to help improve the lives of children and adults with life-threatening illnesses. The beauty of long-distance correspondence is that we get to say things via messaging that perhaps would go unsaid in the real world of verbal correspondence. I cherish the heart-felt messages I receive from my boys. Plus I bring them gifts!

The support of my work colleagues and institute are paramount to me being able to attend these international meetings. They work to cover my absence and ensure that day-to-day things are taken care of. For this I am grateful. Returning with chocolates is a small price to pay.

And then there is the legacy of what I’ve been through over the past two years in having breast cancer, chemotherapy and too-many surgeries. When I think of this I choke with emotion, not because I feel sorry for myself, but because I think of the incredible friends and family who got me through. It took a whole community of friends and family, providing meals, support, comfort and prayers to get me to where I am today. For eternity this will be remembered and acknowledged, and it’s always there, even as I gaze across the blue waters of the Mediterranean now leading a seemingly charmed life.

My health is not great. The Tamoxifen makes my skin brittle and flaky, my throat dry and has affected my voice. My joints and muscles are stiff and achy more than they’re not and I still get attacks of that all-consuming fatigue. But I am alive and as long as I’m alive I will live. I go by the grace of God and the universe provides in abundance. I am more content than I have ever been; I try to eat whole and healthy foods (when I’m not in France!), I am trying to exercise more and get more sleep, I practice mindfulness and stillness and I hope that kindness and love underpin everything I do. I’d like to leave the world a little better than I found it, and to have children who also strive for this goal. But it’s only through the kindness and love of others than I am here to even practice this intent. We are all connected, and it doesn’t matter where I travel in the world, I feel this connectivity.

So my upgrade request to Business Class came through, affording me the time and comfort to reflect on these things. I just bought some duty-free gifts and had a lovely chat to the flight attendant who handles duty-free purchases. It turns out he grew up in Riddells Creek, his parents live in Gap Road and his sister lives at Bolobek. He is based in London, but loves to visit the Mount whenever he’s home to visit. He happily offered me another glass of the Macedon Ranges Chardonnay. We are all connected.IMG_8979

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Posted in breast cancer, cancer, clinical research, community, Europe, Faith, Family, france, friends, life, mindfulness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Orange



Over the past 4 weeks I have traveled for work to San Diego, Sydney, Nice and Monaco via Dubai and London. I love to watch the sunrises and sunsets in the places I find myself, and of course to sample the local cuisine, made all the more beautiful by a splash of orange.  

Posted in conference, france, life, postaday, science, Travel, Weekly Photo Challenge, Work | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Weekly Photo Challenge: Reward

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The Reward I woke up to this morning after 30 hours of flying from Australia to Nice, France via London.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Express Yourself


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IMG_8645The Australia Day long weekend marks the end of my summer vacation. Wanting to make the most of the carefree, laid back days of summer we took a small road trip to the beach again today. Joshua packed his rollerblades and had a fabulous time scooting along the promenade that extends for miles along the sea shore. The expression on his face was priceless after the king tide sent a huge wave crashing into the sea wall and up over the embankment into his path and over him! It was hilarious. The sheer thrill and joy could not be contained. We had a great afternoon watching the waves and soaking up the sun. It has been a wonderful summer.

Posted in Australia, Family, gratitude, joy, kids, kids, life, postaday, relaxation, rest, summer, vacation, Weekly Photo Challenge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment