Balancing Professional Aspirations With Family

John Apergis-Schoute (Credit: John and Annemieke Apergis-Schoute)

Due to the scarcity of academic positions in science, aspiring scientists are under pressure to perform at the highest possible level. Unfortunately, the decisive years for science careers coincide with prime childbearing years, leading many scientists to postpone having children until they attain a secure position. The effect on women -- who, due to persistent social conventions, still tend to be the primary caregivers -- is especially profound, but men who wish to be fully involved in raising their children are affected, too.

While many dual-career couples focus on the challenges and disadvantages of such an arrangement, it's working out well for the Apergis-Schoute family.

John Apergis-Schoute, a Greek-American postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience who, with his wife, is currently based at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, is as aware of the job market's pressures as most. But Apergis-Schoute, who had two daughters during his Ph.D., is determined to remain a fully involved parent. He has skewed his work-life balance more toward family than many scientists (especially men) admit to doing. To be a really successful neuroscientist, "You need to dedicate your life to it, but I didn't feel like I had that capacity because I enjoyed being with my family," says Apergis-Schoute, who is 36 years old. "I didn't want to be a father that woke up one day when my children were 18 years old and said, 'Where did their childhood go?' "

Upon becoming a parent, Apergis-Schoute and his neuroscientist wife took turns taking care of the children, allowing each other the flexibility needed to deal with both work and parenting commitments. Apergis-Schoute honed his organization skills and sharpened his focus in the lab. During the course of his training, he figured out what his strengths are as a scientist and found a niche where they can be utilized well. He has adopted a relaxed attitude to his career development, hoping someday to attain a professorship but feeling happy in his current position as a postdoctoral fellow.

The importance of learning

Apergis-Schoute was born in the United States to a traditional Greek family that strongly encouraged him to pursue a career in law or medicine. But when he was at New York University (NYU) majoring in biology and psychology -- he was officially premed -- neuroscience seduced him. Time spent in the lab of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux inspired him to pursue a research career. He convinced his parents that "because I enjoyed it, I had the potential to become good at it and possibly be able to support myself in the future," he says.

After he graduated in 1998, he kept working in the LeDoux lab for another 4 years, exploring neural networks in the amygdala that mediate fear learning. He conditioned rats to associate a specific tone with a mild electric shock then recorded the activity of single neurons as the animals froze in fear upon hearing the tone. The work was published in Nature Neuroscience.

Ph.D.s and diapers

Apergis-Schoute met his future wife, Annemieke, in the LeDoux lab; she had come from Holland to do her master's thesis. They decided together to pursue neuroscience Ph.D.s, she with LeDoux and Elizabeth Phelps at NYU and he with Denis Paré at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, a short commute from New York City.

In the Paré lab, Apergis-Schoute studied the mechanisms involved in the processing and transfer of mnemonic information mediated by the perirhinal cortex. Using electrophysiological methods in functional connectivity studies, he discovered that the amygdala makes such transfer possible by commanding the perirhinal cortex to be more responsive to incoming neocortical impulses. But "his major achievement," Paré says, was his demonstration that the cerebral cortex contains long-range inhibitory neurons and not just local-circuit cells. This was "a complete departure from the typical model of cortical anatomy."

Apergis-Schoute's Ph.D. work yielded four papers. "He achieved a lot," Paré says. He has an unusual knack for learning techniques and "is a nice mixture of abilities, focus, organization, and luck," his Ph.D. adviser adds. And yet, "I'm convinced that he could have ... achieved even more if he had not been a parent."

Apergis-Schoute and his wife had their two daughters, now ages 6 and 4, while both were in graduate school. With the support of their advisers and help from Apergis-Schoute's parents, they kept their schedules flexible and covered for each other as parents when the other had to be at work. "We balanced the relationship and the caretaking in a very healthy way," he says.

Apergis-Schoute graduated in June 2007, then stayed in the lab for another 7 months. After that, he took a leave to take care of the children while his wife completed her Ph.D. He and his wife had already secured postdocs in the United Kingdom, "so we had some security," he says. While on parenting leave, he won an International Research Fellowship from the U.S. National Science Foundation, which he had applied for while working in Paré's lab, and also finished co-writing a Nature paper.

Credit: John and Annemieke Apergis-Schoute
John and Annemieke Apergis-Schoute with their two daughters.

Fitting aspirations

In 2008, Apergis-Schoute joined the lab of Simon Schultz at Imperial College London to work on the encoding of visual stimuli into specific patterns of neuronal activity. Their approach involved information theory, neuron population recording, and imaging techniques. "John really helped us get multi-electrode electrophysiology up and running," Schultz writes in an e-mail to Science Careers. Schultz praises his former postdoc's no-nonsense, systematic approach to experiments. The computational part was completely new; Apergis-Schoute was "dropped in at the deep end," Schultz observes, but he "survived admirably."

But the research was more quantitative than Apergis-Schoute found ideal, and the daily commute to London from Cambridge, where his wife was postdocking and the whole family lived, meant he got home just in time to put the children to bed. So, after 7 months, he went to Cambridge to work with Stephen Williams at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology. He continued working on the visual cortex, but he came back to functional connectivity studies and electrophysiological methods like the ones he had used during his Ph.D.

About a year later, Williams left Cambridge, and Apergis-Schoute found himself on the market again. He decided to leave the crowded field of cortical circuits and instead do functional connectivity studies on the largely unexplored lateral hypothalamus. He went to work with Denis Burdakov in the pharmacology department of the University of Cambridge, where he has since been looking at the functional interactions between the lateral hypothalamus and the amygdala. The objective is to elucidate the links between sleep, feeding behavior, and emotions. A Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship from the Royal Society gives him flexibility to work part-time or take a career break should the need arise as he pursues scientific independence. His wife works with Trevor Robbins at the university's Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, looking at executive control of the prefrontal cortex and how prefrontal dysfunction is related to psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.

A work-life philosophy

Apergis-Schoute says that he and his wife share an approach to work-life balance. So far, their salaries have been enough to live on, while allowing the family to go on short trips abroad, where they can spend all their time having fun together. While many dual-career couples focus on the challenges and disadvantages of such an arrangement, it's working out well for the Apergis-Schoute family. "The pressure is buffered in a lot of ways because if I don't get that grant, we could still live on Annemieke's salary and of course the girls wouldn't have to go to daycare ... and vice versa."

He's quite aware of the career-related risk he's taking by emphasizing family and quality of life. "I can't spend late nights in the lab. I can't come home and read 10 articles and just be competitive with people that have that kind of freedom," he says. "Because of that, ... I don't put the pressure on myself that I'm going to be a professor in the University of Cambridge." It would be nice to attain such a position, he says, but he is content in his current situation, and especially his current working environment, where he enjoys a lot of freedom.

On balance, Apergis-Schoute feels he has profited from these choices. When there is less pressure to be productive, "It allows for more creative input. ... In many instances, science suffers because people are overly driven and they unknowingly force the scientific process," Apergis-Schoute says. "I can understand the pressure, [but] people should not think it impossible to balance family and work and enjoy what can come natural: a fruitful scientific career with a fun family life."

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