A Tale of Two Conferences

These last 10 days or so have been busy for everyone’s favorite domestic and laboratory goddess. In the middle of last week I left for sunny San Diego to attend the 2012 Experimental Biology meeting. I have been attending this meeting yearly since 2005. I attended the first few years as a member of the American Society for Investigative Pathology before I jumped ship to the American Physiological Society.

Three years ago I took on a leadership role within the society. This has been an exceptionally valuable experience in that I have had the opportunity to meet people I would not have known otherwise. I have also had the opportunity to build something that I am really proud of. I can look back of these experiences now that my term is over with a bit of nostalgia but also a bit of exhaustion.

This last EB meeting was stressful in a way that I have never experienced. I had a baby six months ago, which is no trivial event. I have also had to take on more clinical responsibilities within our group and have been given additional research responsibilities as part of a large, collaborative contract that my university accepted. This, plus my normal work and the demands of service at the meeting put me in a place that made it very doubtful that I would complete preparation for the presentations I needed to give. Try as I might, I really struggled to find enough time in the day to get things done.

The day that I left for EB I had incomplete slides and no posters. One of my favorite parts of EB is the poster sessions. You never know who you might see presenting a poster. I saw posters presented by undergraduates and other students, postdocs, faculty, and even a department chair or two. So, it really upset me to not have been able to carve out more time to prepare. I showed up stressed and a few suggested that I just skip the poster sessions. I initially seriously considered this. But, I had shown up wanting to talk about my science and not just attend science and do service. So, I stayed up late each night and managed to get things done with minutes to spare.

One of the evenings I was working in the bar on my posters I ran into a grad student who inquired what I was working on. I told her and she chuckled that her PI always stresses about her posters and insisted that everyone (including the PI herself) have things done two weeks beforehand and that my experience would allow her to tell her PI to chill out. Although I did manage to finish everything on time, it all came with a huge emotional and mental health cost.

The thing is, I’m not sure the lesson I was teaching was a positive one, nor was my behavior anything that should be emulated. The lesson to be learned is that I have let myself be far too overcommitted and it is hurting both the quality and creativity of my work. At least in my mind. Folks around me were highly complimentary, although I still felt down about the experience. On the last evening of the meeting, I went to dinner with Dr. Triple Threat and some other folks. We had dinner and some wine and then it began to storm. We put my student and another person in a taxi and then decided to walk back to the hotel.

I was cold and soaked through. I had had a little wine, and Triple Threat was laying the praise for my work on pretty thick. This seemed to be the perfect trifecta to send me into tears. Just copious non-cathartic, non-productive tears. Paralyzing tears. Triple Threat put his arm around me and let me cry into his chest for a minute, before guiding me back to the hotel. Before we departed, he told me that I needed to get right again because it upset him to see me wound as tight as I had been. I didn’t sleep well and I woke with the sort of puffy eyes that drunkenly crying into a chap’s tweed jacket can get you.

We flew home and less than 16 hours later I found myself on a plane to Boston to attend the Pediatric Academic Societies’ meeting. This is a meeting I haven’t been to and I came as sort of a support squad to others. I also have a student presenting here. And, although the talks are very interesting, I am still just plain burnt out. Thing is, I do believe that occasionally the universe does have ways of sending us messages. So, earlier today when I was sitting in a session, enjoying the talks but also thinking about how tired I am, and the fire alarm went off, I could only see it as a sign. The universe’s way if telling me to stop and get out.

So that’s what I am going to do. I am going to help my folks here prepare for their sessions, I am going to see the science I want to see, I am going to let Tom Levenson regale me me with stories and scotch, and then I am getting out of dodge early. I am going to get back to MRU a day before everyone else and spend some time with my family and my local mentoring squad.

I need to learn to give myself permission to say “no” to more people. To close my office door for a while each day. I am fantastic at giving that advice to others, but I can’t seem to take it myself. It’s been good to be good at what I do, but it also means that people bring you more to do. When those people are senior, I have a hard time denying them. The response thus far has been to work more, but I am at the limit of my ability to do that and the lack of sleep is making me irrational. I need to get this right before it impacts the productivity that determines my career advancement.

Either than, or Triple Threat is going to need to invest in a lot more tweed.

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23 responses to “A Tale of Two Conferences

  1. sometimes these lessons suck the big one to learn, but sometimes, they are what it takes to “get it”. congrats on making that decision before it got worse. and good luck.

  2. I try to keep up with you, but as you know, you have way too much going on. As a boss, mentor and parent I have had plenty of tears cried into my (non-tweed) jacket and tie. It helps that I don’t drink, can fix flat tires and can drive in snowstorms.
    This will be you, also. You will be that person because of your experiences of the last few years. You will tell your mentee “Cut yourself a little slack.” I hope you get to wind down soon and enjoy your family. Out here in the interwasteland we’re pulling for you all the time.

  3. There’s a reason why so few people earn the title of “triple threat.” To get there, you need a special (not necessarily good) sense of imbalance and dedication. Also, the three threats that make up the triple don’t include family life.

  4. LOOK AFTER YOURSELF FIRST – you have made the first of a big decision here. It is important to you, it is important to your family, and then in a circle it is important to you again that your family is cared for and that you can enjoy and really get to know your children as they grow up.

    And then there is the real danger of getting that nebulous thing that no-one can diagnose, called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which (some people think) is not one disease but many, and one form is caused by an auto-immune reaction to some normally harmless virus, when you do not give yourself permission to let your body recover, and spend the rest of your LIFE feeling as though you are recovering from a bad flu, but with no real symptoms you can really describe to anyone or get any treatment for.

    You don’t want that to happen. Your family doesn’t want that to happen. Your co-workers and students don’t want that to happen.

    SO LOOK AFTER YOURSELF FIRST.

    Anyway, you need some time to consolidate all the experiences you have had during the past few years, and to learn to use those experiences to help others (which has its own stresses, but you will work that out when it happens).

    All the best in the quest to quieten your body and mind down. It isn’t easy.

    d.

  5. First line above should read ‘first STEP in a big decision’.

    d.

  6. Good for you for stepping back and finding some time for yourself!!

    ((((hugs))))

  7. Thank you for that post. I am a new faculty member (as of Jan. 30th!) and this EB I also felt extremely stressed and overwhelmed. I also committed myself to a lot of service during the meeting, and I LOVE it but it also meant that I was running around like a crazy lady and I didn’t get to enjoy the science as much as I would’ve liked. On my way back home from the meeting I ended up with a huge cold which I am nursing as I grade lab reports and exams, prepare lectures, finish writing manuscripts that should’ve been done months ago,etc….etc….. The entire meeting I kept on telling myself that I need to learn the word “NO”. After reading your post it makes me feel a little better that I am not the only one that struggles with this…and that another person also thinks it is ok to add this word to their vocabulary. thank you!

  8. I’m so glad that you realized you needed to do all that you said in that final paragraph. I, and probably most of your other readers, want you to keep spinning us tales, painting pictures with words, and in general keeping up with those parts of your life that you care to share with us here out in the Ether.

    MY issue is knowing when I need help, and then to ask for, and accept, it. When I get overwhelmed, I’ve been shutting down completely, which, as you know, gets nothing accomplished. Warped lessons from childhood–ain’t they grand?

  9. inbabyattachmode

    I was already wondering why you were twittering so little from EB2012. I’m glad you realized to take a step back in time before things got worse. And I can totally related that it’s hard to find your ‘new’ boundaries after having a baby.
    Take care!

  10. Isis! Next time you’re in Boston, I would be happy to join you for Scotch o’clock! Take care of yourself.

  11. Isis the Scientist

    Thanks! I was just run so ragged that I could not seem to get it together enough to tweet.

    I will say that even having EB over is a huge relief. I’m going home tomorrow to try to reorder the next bit of my life and then I think I’ll be back on track…

  12. Isis the Scientist

    Scotch O’Clock!!!!

    Next time, indeed!

  13. I’m in my 3rd year of a TT position and a proud mom of an almost 7-month old. Learning to say “No” was very difficult, but I started setting the stage while I was still pregnant. I stopped answering emails “immediately” (I try to reply to everyone right away) and when I did reply (within 1-2 days) my response was “let me think about that and get back to you”. Just taking that extra time, maybe talking to a colleague or two about the situation made saying “No” MUCH easier. I’ve been able to pull off working from home 2 days a week and leaving campus as close to 4 as possible on the days I go in to the office. Yes, I’m not getting nearly as much done as I would like, but I’m scraping by with the plan to be excessively productive this summer. Next semester, I’ll go back to work 4-4.5 days a week (if I can) so I have some time to spend with my daughter before she’s all grown up. The job is a job. I love it, but I’m doing my best to make put my family first and spend some time with them. It’s hard, but you can do it!!

  14. It is good to hear this from someone I always just assumed has mastered the saying no thing. I still struggle with it sometimes and, honestly, the person I need to say no to the most lately is myself. I WANT to spend 40+ hours in the lab and still be able to go to class, get my homework done (and done well and on time), and spend time with my son… but it’s not possible right now. Thankfully, I gave myself a hard kick in the ass and am giving myself plenty of time off to study for comps which are next month.

    Thank you for sharing this. It really helps.

  15. I need to learn to give myself permission to say “no” to more people.

    It took me decades, Diosa. You’re way smarter than I am, so I trust it won’t take you as long.

  16. This is how I prioritize demands on my time, in order of importance:

    (1) Talking to my trainees.
    (2) Editing manuscripts of my trainees.
    (3) Writing grants.
    (4) Editing grants of my trainees.
    (5) Institutional service.
    (6) Classroom teaching.
    (7) Disciplinary service.

    In my opinion, those who are in non-tenure-track or non-tenured positions should not be doing any service work at all, and should only be doing any classroom teaching if their career goals include teaching-focused positions.

    The other thing that has been extremely useful for me is to very clear about the difference between urgent and important demands on my time. It is very easy to get caught up in urgent tasks that are not important to my overall professional goals, at the expense of time to devote to important non-urgent tasks.

  17. Oh, and is that the Tom Levenson that blogges at Balloon Juice? That dude has an awesome-looking doberman.

  18. #1 should ALWAYS be ‘looking after self and family’. For everyone in the world.

    d.

  19. #1 should ALWAYS be ‘looking after self and family’. For everyone in the world.

    Dunno if this is a response to my list, but it should go without saying that this was a list of professional priorities for an academic scientist. I don’t consider it my business to tell other people how to prioritize their professional efforts in relation to other aspects of life.

  20. ‘Looking after herself’ was, to be fair, the primary focus of Isis’ original post; with the concomitant comments about her family. She said it, and it is her blog. That is what I was responding to.

    But I have seen people fall over professionally because they had the idea that one’s private life is separate from anything else, and they didn’t look after themselves and then they couldn’t care for anyone – neither family nor colleagues or students.

    If you don’t realise that first you have to know yourself and your limitations and take care of yourself when you feel you are slipping, then none of the other things on anyone’s list can be done effectively. It is not a matter of telling anyone about either theirs or your private lives, it is just a matter of being sure you are strong enough to be able to give your absolute best to your chosen profession.

    We are, all of us, only one person – private and professional are not really separated. I did much better at both home and work when I learnt to relax about these things and not keep a stiff upper lip when it wasn’t necessary to do so.

    d.

  21. well…. I was going to complain how blogging here is all shot to heck and all… but… I guess I am just happy to hear you are ok and just need some alone time….

    when can you get a sabatical? My sister is a professor and she just got a year off and her SO is accepting a reseach fellowship in AUSTRALIA and they are going there for a year or so to live!

    so, also, do you have a whirlpool tub? you can get them in an affordable 6 foot by four foot size in your re-modeled bathroom!

    or you can get one installed outside if you have a house and some room..

  22. Isis the Scientist

    …I was going to complain how blogging here is all shot to heck and all…

    HAHAHHA!! Dude! I just had people come out of me! Get off of my jock!

  23. Pingback: How Dr. Isis Learned to Stop Wearing Underwear and Yell, “On Your Left!” (Part 1) | On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess

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