Bouncing Back

Deborah Jackson

What happens to scientists when they leave their jobs to tend a major illness or injury? As three women scientists found out, the time away can take its toll. After 12-and-a-half years away from physics due to injuries suffered in a car accident, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) physicist Deborah Jackson sometimes found it difficult to find funding for her projects after she returned. A 7-week leave helped Joan Esnayra, a program officer at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) at the time, overcome the unexpected emergence of bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms. But her time away also worsened her relationships with some colleagues. For 2 years, Humboldt State University (HSU) professor Kristine Brenneman gave up teaching and struggled to meet her remaining responsibilities while fighting off a rare autoimmune disease.

Jackson, Esnayra, and Brenneman probably never imagined that illness would compromise their careers, but it did. With the help of others and plenty of inner strength they battled back. This article examines how these women dealt with their ordeals and how they got their careers back on track.


"I felt like my work went down the drain," says Jackson who received her doctorate seven years before her accident in 1988. Taking time off can be especially hard for people who--like Jackson and Brenneman--haven't yet fully established themselves before injury or illness strikes. "You've worked really hard to get to a certain point," says Jackson, "and you know that if you step off the train, it's going to leave you."

Unfortunately, Jackson, whose specialty is in nonlinear optics, didn't have much of a choice. Her automobile accident pulled her spine out of alignment, reversed the curvature of her neck, and shortened her left leg. She returned to work weeks after the accident, but the injuries made it difficult to do lab work that utilized her neck and back muscles. Her hour-long commute to and from work added to the strain. Ultimately, her doctor advised her to leave her job.

Brenneman, too, was focused on making a name for herself. Before her 2000 diagnosis of Wegener's granulomatosis--a disease that inflames the blood vessels and impairs important organs--the environmental microbiologist sometimes felt that she was valued less for her work than for being the only female Native American in HSU's College of Natural Resources and Sciences. She had something to prove, so she worked hard, often overloading herself. Still, when her illness was diagnosed, the first thing she thought of was her students, not her own career progress. Still, in career terms her illness was, as she puts it, a "rather large setback."

The first several months Brenneman was incapacitated and needed nearly 24 hour care. When she wasn't in the hospital receiving treatments, she was at home recovering. Doctors didn't expect her to survive, but she did.

Esnayra managed her bipolar disorder for years, until the events of September 11, 2001 sent her into a severe manic phase, though it wasn't until months later that she realized what had happened. "Mood disorders affect one's ability to process information and realizing that one is manic is never a black or white moment," she explains. So she didn't find it unusual when she acted strangely, from getting bossy and talking too much at meetings, to habitually wearing leather pants and black boots to work. In fact, Esnayra felt "great." She often worked non-stop, barely eating or sleeping. Later, Esnayra's condition deteriorated with depressive episodes and PTSD symptoms such as extreme paranoia and nightmares. When Esnayra became suicidal, she took advantage of a short-term, paid disability leave offered by NAS.

Making a Comeback

Brenneman, Esnayra, and Jackson eased back into their careers as they recovered. Having family and friends around, all say, was crucial to their reentry. But each took different approaches at work to make a successful return.

Brenneman benefited from her colleagues' support during the 2 years she was weakened by chemotherapy and drug treatments. Her department chair arranged to get her full-time pay for her part-time work by utilizing accumulated sick leave. Brenneman was the only environmental microbiologist in the Fisheries Biology Department and directed the Limnology and Wastewater Utilization Program, a joint project by HSU and the city of Arcata, California, so she continued with the tasks she felt no one else could take over including mentoring her graduate students. Meanwhile, her graduate students took over her classes, while colleagues helped complete grants and kept her in the loop concerning committee work.

When Brenneman's condition improved, she returned to HSU. She was still recovering and was "bald and huge" from the treatments, but she toughed it out. It helped that her department allowed extra time to submit paperwork and provided a graduate assistant to help with her teaching. Colleagues continued to collaborate with her on various projects. Such backing gave Brenneman "a sense of worth," and strengthened her professional relationships.

Esnayra was always open about her illnesses and received accommodations for them at NAS, such as having flexible hours to allow doctor visits when she returned to work. But Esnayra had work that she was solely responsible for and felt that she may have rushed back to the job sooner than she would have liked. "At seven weeks, despite the fact that I was not at all mentally fit to resume my work, I had to return," she says.

In contrast to Brenneman and Esnayra, Jackson hid her injuries at work, making her own accommodations. "I don't know if that was necessarily the best way of handling it, but . . . that's what my instincts said," she says. "When you have an injury . . . it works against you unless you're plugged in with [the right people]." After quitting physics at Hughes Research Laboratory, Jackson opted for a less strenuous job that was close to home. She surveyed researchers at various companies on future technologies for a consulting firm. Jackson also started doing yoga to help control her neck and back pain.

Meanwhile, Jackson found it hard to return to optics work, moving around to various projects. Yet she stayed committed to her work. After 8-and-a-half years, by chance, a lab at JPL decided to utilize her expertise in nonlinear optics and Jackson received on-the-job training to catch up with her field. To date, her main challenge has been competing for grants as a relatively unknown physicist. But so far, Jackson has found her way. She just recently acquired research funding and her own lab at JPL.

Valuable Lessons

Despite their medical setbacks and challenges, all of the women came out of their ordeals stronger, with lessons learned.

Before her injuries, Jackson's life revolved around work. Her injuries and time off gave her a new, wider perspective. "Scientists are trained to compete over every little thing, and you see how unimportant it is," she says. "I think the most important thing is the relationships that you develop with people."

Brenneman gained similar insights. "I did come away knowing that health is more important than career." Though her disease is in remission, she avoids overworking and taking things too seriously. Even the resulting gap in her work doesn't bother her; she found that opportunities and support always present themselves. Recently, Brenneman was offered the position of interim departmental chair of the Native American Studies department at HSU. She accepted the job and will try to balance these new responsibilities with her other work obligations.

It's also important, Esnayra thinks, to stand up for your rights. "If you're doing good work . . . and you feel that you're getting some kind of discrimination because of your illness and you know your rights under the law, don't buckle," she says.

Esnayra wants employers to recognize the importance of understanding and tolerance for employees with severe mental illness, especially when they need treatment. "When it comes to mental illness, behavior is the phenotype . . . Had I been presented with an objective list of my drastic and uncharacteristic behaviors, I might have had the chance to mitigate the mania [sooner] . . . " she adds. "It just takes a little extra effort on the part of management to work effectively with mentally ill employees."

Sometimes life poses the most challenging obstacles, and people must decide how to deal with them. For these women, compromised health forced them to make tough choices, but by staying true to their craft and themselves, in the end they got their careers back.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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