Thursday, March 26, 2009

Rising to the Challenge

The theme for April's Scientiae Carnival is Rising to the Challenge:

Tell us about that most firey fire through which you have had to walk in your scientific career. How did you overcome the challenge? Did you have help along the way, or was it a solo effort? And what did you learn? Why are you a better scientist given the difficulties that you have encountered?

I almost didn't blog this story, because it's intensely personal. But then I thought, what's the point of separating my personal experiences from my scientific ones? After all, trying to pretend that astronomers don't have personal lives is a complete fallacy. Sometimes our personal lives spill over into our scientific lives, and that's just part of being a whole human being.

So, my story of rising to the challenge is about the year of 2004. My younger child was born in late February that year, and my defense was in mid-May. I've blocked out most of that time period, except for a vivid recollection of attempting to work from home one day while taking care of the baby and breaking down in tears and asking my husband to come home from work to help me out.

On top of that, I was preparing to move my family to another state to take up my post-doc position in the fall. So immediately after my defense, we put our house up for sale and began flying down every other weekend to another city to go house-hunting.

Now, all this time, I was dealing with post-partum bleeding. I only mention this because around about mid-June, I was diagnosed with choriocarcinoma, a type of pregnancy-related cancer.

It's funny how serious health problems can really make you re-evaluate your priorities in life.

It turned out that treatment was pretty easy. I did not require major surgery or radiation therapy, and did not suffer hair loss or much discomfort beyond minor bouts of nausea from the chemotherapy, which itself consisted only of shots every other day rather than lengthy IV drips. By fall, I was declared cured. In fact, I find it difficult to think of myself as a cancer survivor, because I didn't really suffer much at all. Still, "cancer" is a scary word, no matter what form it comes in.

I was glad simply to get through 2004 with my health, sanity, and family whole and intact. Did that year make me a better scientist? Arguably, no. While I managed to publish the papers from my thesis within a year from my graduation, I still have a significant gap in my publication record, which has probably hurt me in job searches. Do have a clear idea of what my priorities in life are? Yes. I value my career in science, but not to the exclusion of all else. This may come across as a lack of dedication to some, but their lives don't count upon my well-being.

Am I some kind of Superwoman for having gotten through all this? No. It was an extremely hard year for me, but my life was never in any real jeopardy, and my marriage and kids remained healthy and whole. Not everyone gets off that easy. We all have our battles to face, and we face them with the resources we can muster. My internal resources consist mostly of sheer stubbornness, but I am also lucky to have good friends, supportive family, and the best husband a woman can have.

And now you all know why I think work-life balance is so important.


  1. Hannah, thank you so much for sharing your story. Having a baby, finishing your thesis, moving, starting a new job AND still find time to publish while battling a scary disease? If your not a Superwoman, I don't know who is.

  2. I certainly agree the previous comment. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Great post. I'd argue that you MUST have become a better scientist, because you managed to simply *carry on* with your science in the face of all of these major life changes. And I don't care what kind of cancer it is, it's certainly going to affect the way you view your life. Congratulations for making it through.

  4. Dear Hannah -- thanks so much for sharing! I'm deeply impressed and inspired in how you were able to rise to those challenges (plural!!!)
    , and I agree with the previous comments!