Lab Rats

The gap beneath your feet

Embracing a life in flux

Ian Brooks 6 May 2007

All change: the intinerant scientist lifestyle

The pain just adds to the experience - it lets you know your hard work is paying off

There's a particularly banal aphorism that I’m rather fond of: “The only constant in life is change.”

Not only is this little non sequitur a bit silly, but it is also to some extent true. In my experience one either embraces change, or one fears it and tries to avoid it. Obviously pushing either of these reactions to the extreme is potentially dangerous. We all need to feel rooted at times, but we should relish new experiences that challenge us to grow.

I’ve had plenty of changes in my life. I left the UK aged 23 to attend graduate school in the States. Since then I’ve traveled extensively and moved rather frequently; I’m now living in my fourth city in eight years. At times I do feel groundless and un-rooted. I see friends who have had the opportunity to settle, perhaps marry, buy a house and start a family. I’m nominally single and still living in rented accommodation. To the best of my knowledge, thankfully, there are no little Brookses scampering around somewhere wondering when daddy is going to turn up at the door.

I do feel a twinge of envy at times when I see these friends and wonder what I might be up to now, and where I’d be in my life, if I hadn’t decided to follow my head and heart and become an itinerant scientist. I’d probably still be knocking around Leicester in England, playing with the same bands, most likely married, trying to raise a family and pay off a mortgage with wages from a pharma-sales job, or still working as a tech. I feel a twinge of regret and then I think – hell, no! I love this wandering life of mine. Every few years I get to up sticks and head to a new city, new challenges, a new lab. I get to learn new skills at the lab bench, work on my technical writing, try to build my reputation so that if and when my time comes I’m as prepared as I can be to ask and answer the right questions.

Change can be hard, though. Change can be frightening. I recently turned 32 and decided I needed to make some changes. Like most postdocs, at least those of European decent, I live by the “work hard, play hard” ethic. I’ve frequently been told by my family and other such respected grown-ups that I should slow down. I was told at 25 that I would start gaining weight if I didn’t watch my diet. It was repeated to my still-skinny self again at 28, and then again at 30. It seems that all those years of bad juju on the part of those who knew better have finally caught up with me. I was very surprised to notice the growing foundation of what we rather sweetly refer to as a pot belly, and I’m sure I saw grey in my chin stubble the other day. I used to be in decent physical shape from mountain biking and playing soccer regularly, but I now get out of breath climbing stairs and talking at the same time.

So, I did what any sensible person of early middle age would do. I enrolled in a Muay Thai kickboxing class. It’s very aerobically challenging and brilliant fun and I can already feel the changes taking place. However, change can be hard and painful. My right leg from about my knee to my groin is virtually seized up from seemingly endless practice kicks, and my shoulders ache from hours of shadow boxing. But I know it’s worth it. I love it, and the pain just adds to the experience; it lets you know your hard work is paying off. In a similar vein, my work contract may or may not be up next year. Any day now I hope to hear that the grant I slaved away on over the Christmas period is to be funded. If it is, I am guaranteed work until at least 2009 in my current position. If not, I’m out on my ear in a few months. I’m afraid of this change, and I’m doing my best to try to embrace my future, whatever may be. I know I worked as hard as I could on that bloody grant, and it’s now in the hands of the gods…or the Tennessee Peer Review Study Group anyway. If I do have to leave, I think it unlikely that I’ll be able to find a tenure-track faculty position as my next move. My career choices have been a little too eclectic for the cohesion needed to land such a position. At the same time, I don’t want to try to get another postdoc position.

So I’ll do something else. I’m not sure what yet, but that’s part of the fun. Change can also come in incremental steps. So let’s see if I get funded first before I plan my next adventure!