Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Carefree Sabbatical? Astrophysics and Nursing in a Blizzard


I’ve been determined to make it to my daughter’s first birthday without taking a major trip without her so that I could sustain our nursing relationship (major is in my mind 2+ nights away) and thus far we are on track at nearly 10.5 months. One interesting challenge presented itself recently when I visited Northwestern University during a Chicago blizzard. Northwestern is my host institution for my sabbatical year. Since, like most professionals these days, I do not actually have a portable family (we have great daycare here in Maryland and my husband has a good non-portable job), my decision was to make visits to NU during the year and conduct my sabbatical at GSFC.

Luckily on this trip I chose the “embedded daycare” model and had my mother meet me in Chicago. Last time I hired a Loyola grad student to help me with childcare but she would not have been able to make the trip to where I was in Evanston (the area of Chicago where NU is). Also fortunately my brother and sister live in Evanston, with my brother approximately 20 minutes walk away. Granted that is impossible to arrange for all trips, but I recommend having an uncle and aunt who love babies to be within walking distance if you’re traveling with a baby in a blizzard.


So we had a collaboration meeting all day on Monday that should have lasted 1.5 days. We like to meet all day, go to a nice dinner just to hang out, sleep on our discussions over night and then meet the next morning to wrap up. With the blizzard coming we modified this to include a working dinner with food delivered to Northwestern and compressed the meeting into one very busy, very long, day so people could escape the next morning. I was able to negotiate two breaks: at lunchtime and right before dinner. At lunchtime, the group walked somewhere to get food while my mother and daughter met me at the observatory (note: the weather was not yet horribly cold and the blizzard had not yet started). I was able to nurse my daughter, catch up with my mother, and finish just as the rest of our research collaboration returned with bagels. Key to this was that my collaborators at NU lent me an office for the nursing right next to our meeting (and yes, I did ask!). The second break came right before dinner and was a little crazy. I got a cab from the observatory to Whole Foods where I bought the beer for our working dinner. I asked the cab driver if he could meet me 2 blocks away at my hotel in 45 minutes. I then ran to the hotel to nurse my daughter, greeting my brother and sister-in-law on the way in to the hotel while carrying the beer. I caught the cab back and was able to deliver the beer to the group just as our food showed up for the evening session.

The next several days, save Wednesday, I got back to the hotel using various methods of transport (walking, cabs, students of my host driving me) as it was somewhat dangerous for babies to be out in the cold. That plan to have my daughter meet me at lunchtime at the observatory just had to be modified! On Wednesday we were snowed in and I made arrangements with several foreign collaborators in a nearby hotel to meet at Peet’s coffee. So even on our snowed-in day I squeezed in about 2 hours of “science” albeit just casual discussions and getting up to date on each others’ work, etc.

The nights were rough as my daughter is teething. She kept me up more or less the whole time from about 1AM – 6AM (periods of rest were had, but none long enough for proper sleep). At the end of the week, I was a zombie who was catching a cold. On the last night no fewer than four of my family members tried to get my daughter down to sleep and we eventually gave up and folks went home while I sat up on the couch with her.

Despite this fatigue, each day was very productive from a research perspective and also fulfilling personally. I had my mom there the whole week, my siblings were around ~5 out of the 6 nights/afternoons and my dad joined once his bus was able to make it to Chicago. Sure, maybe I could have found a way to take a nap (actually, I seriously doubt that..) but I chose to slump on the couch and watch my daughter giggling in delight as my brother or sister animated all the scattered toys in the apartment. I chose to have a good long discussion with collaborators I do not see every day about topics related to the paper I am writing.

It was a stagger to the finish line on Saturday afternoon when I met my husband at the airport. In closing, years ago I went to a great workshop on how to acquire and then succeed in a tenure-track position in science and/or engineering and I will never forget the woman they had as a keynote speaker who said “well, first I did this, and then I got a phone call and I took this higher-up position, and then I won a bunch of proposals and then I was invited to be dean….”. She made it sound like a cake walk! Frankly, I think that makes the rest of us wonder what we’re doing wrong when life ends up being so hard. Well, I’m here to remind us of what we already know: many of the worthwhile things in life do not come easily. However, they are possible. You can be a full time astrophysicist, nurse your baby and keep in touch with your family. I promise I’ll pat you on the back at the AAS when you tell me how hard it is.