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Old Friends

Today, let me tell you about my friend SB*. I got to know SB during my early years of graduate school - she had a position as a research professor and collaborated with my advisor on some ant and bee projects while her husband wrapped up his PhD in mathematical biology. During my first couple of years of grad school, her office was around the corner, so we interacted on a near-daily basis. One of SB's big jobs was running a program to encourage minority participation in research, and she is perfect for that kind of job because she's incredibly skilled at setting up safe environments that encourage open and honest dialogue among people (you'll notice, for instance, that she always refers to significant others as "partners"). So I also knew SB through this role, as she facilitated some of the undergraduate research participation in our lab.

When we became friends, she was going through a particularly rough stage of her academic transition. She and her husband have the classic "two-body" problem, and her husband's an especially interesting character with particular needs and inclinations (some might label him "eccentric," but I would label him "awesome, unconventional, interesting, and inspiring"; a tad bit more about that below). I think she spent something like 3 solid years on the job market, interviewing at multiple institutions and turning down somewhere around 6 really good job offers in the process of identifying the right fit. There was one point in the midst of the interviewing season where she showed me a copy of her monthly travel calendar, where almost every single day was streaked with highlighter indicating that either she or her husband were traveling somewhere. It was insane. There were only two days in that entire month where both of them would be at home together with their four-year-old daughter.

Eventually, SB and R wound up heading to Washington, DC for a year while he completed a postdoctoral fellowship, and eventually after that, they both FINALLY landed jobs at an institution that seemed satisfactory for both of them, in Canada, where SB is from (R is from Arizona but is an all-climate, all-terrain animal). Unsurprisingly, SB has been tremendously successful there. A year or two after she and R started their jobs, 3.5 years into my PhD, SB joined a group of us on an expedition to Portland, New South Wales, Australia, to work on a project studying solitary and communal sweat bees. We spent that month of December sharing a bunkbed in a rickety cabin in a camper park by the ocean, while collecting the ground-nesting sweat bees, which we put into observation nests for experimental work.

The trip was an important counterpoint to many of my other graduate school experiences - only myself and one other grad student from my lab were there, along with three faculty members, one from France, one from Canada, and one from the U.S. Personal attention from faculty, all day, every day! Being in close contact with these three taught me some powerful lessons - PK had been studying the sweat bees for 20 years, and provided expertise about the system of study, so she made it possible to hit the ground running. Lesson: have good knowledge of your study system, either through your own direct observation or through collaboration with an expert. RJ brought an incredible work ethic: work hard, process and analyze your data ASAP (don't leave it sitting!), maintain good cleanliness standards in your workspace. SB brought attention to logistics: plan out the experiments and experimental design carefully, and be wise about how you budget your time - your time is precious and valuable. She had to do this because she had to work on writing grants AND on the Australia project at the same time. She would often get up at the crack of dawn so she could have a cup of tea and spend an hour or two writing.

But in that time SB was also good about asking difficult questions and listening, in particular about how to handle the delicate interpersonal politics involved in assembling a dissertation. I look up to her as a mentor in that regard, still. She's the kind of mentor who allows others to be human beings, not work-robots, is open-minded and non-judgmental, and consistently encouraging. I relied on her perspective and judgment as a source of encouragement during many of the low periods of my dissertation-making experience.

She also gave me my first bike trailer, after her daughter got too big for it and she and family moved away from Tempe. The bike trailer was world-changing on a practical level.

During her visit yesterday, it was interesting to be reminded that I've been able to give her gifts in return as well over the years. I had completely and utterly forgotten that I brought her back a caribiner mug from Seattle at around the time I gave one to my father. She says she still has it and uses it regularly, and thinks of me! Her mug must be at least 10 years old by now (meanwhile, I'm on my third such mug, having lost two predecessors). When we were in Australia, we'd also had conversations about fitness. Given her longstanding interest in paddle sports (she once spent several months kayaking around Hudson bay), I suggested she look into a rowing machine. Somewhat to my surprise, she did, and used it to climb her way back to a healthy, fit lifestyle (she now runs to work - a 5k. Interestingly, her partner RG cycles and canoes to work, up until he's no longer able to sled and bash his way into the water in the winter).

I think of her often, too, because she also studies crickets, and has been thinking about them for much longer than I've been studying them. She's also still my role model for the greatness that an individual can achieve - a phenomenal mentor, but also a wonderful human being.

Her visit brought with it a tangible feeling of relief, because here's someone willing to listen to me and understand what it has been like to be a postdoc and try to survive in this kind of environment, who really gets it. And amazingly, she does this for everyone.

*This story is oddly-difficult to write, because SB is a person I hold in very high esteem, and it is awkward to decide the appropriate level of "sharing" for these kinds of personal stories. And yet it is important to me to celebrate the good people in the world and in my life, so here we are.


( 7 remarks — Remark )
Sep. 27th, 2014 02:20 am (UTC)
I love the thought of canoeing into work, I have to say.
Sep. 27th, 2014 12:11 pm (UTC)
Oh totally. I mean, I'd prefer rowing, but I wouldn't say no to canoeing!
Sep. 27th, 2014 04:09 pm (UTC)
I'd definitely say yes to kayaking as well.
Sep. 27th, 2014 04:12 am (UTC)
I am a bad person
Always waiting for the other shoe to drop
"Imagine my surprise when I heard
she'd turned to manufacturing meth
and smuggling weapons"
I probably don't know you well enough
To make rude comments like this.
Sep. 27th, 2014 12:11 pm (UTC)
I will interpret this with a dark sense of humor. ;-)
Sep. 28th, 2014 07:45 am (UTC)
That's totally awesome; thanks for sharing! (I'm also a fan of hearing the happy things.)
Sep. 28th, 2014 08:06 pm (UTC)
I had completely and utterly forgotten that I brought her back a caribiner mug from Seattle at around the time I gave one to my father. She says she still has it and uses it regularly, and thinks of me!

You make a positive impact on people, and they remember you well. Your relationship with SB is not just about what she brings to it, but what you bring to it. I am glad the partnership has been a mutually satisfying one.
( 7 remarks — Remark )

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