a blurred image of a family gathered around a kitchen table

For their loved ones, dealing with scientists’ “scientific-ness” can create unique challenges at home.

Credit: littleny/shutterstock

When you’re the scientist in the family

Lots of people travel on Thanksgiving, but 10 years ago, I did it in reverse. I stood up from the Thanksgiving table, apologized to my extended family and my then-girlfriend (now-wife), started the car, and drove an hour and a half south—grumbling the whole time. I had to go. I needed a few drops of mouse blood.

I was testing a new malaria drug in mice. Monitoring their health required twice-daily blood smears, and no one had told the Plasmodium parasites to quit their darn replicating on Thanksgiving weekend.

It was neither the first nor the last time that I had to interrupt my home life to tend to something in the lab—though it probably still holds the record for the most relatives I have simultaneously abandoned.

If you’re a scientist, this story may not sound unusual to you. We’re used to bending our time around the whims of microbes, the availability of a synchrotron, or the ever-changing telescope conditions. We grade papers at breakfast. We read journals while eating lunch. We perform lab work in the middle of the night. We type grant applications in bed.

But I don’t think our families always love it.

Scientists’ families face a unique set of challenges compared with the families of, say, normal healthy people. Here are a few of the inconveniences you may have inflicted upon your loved ones—maybe without even realizing it.

Playing fast and loose with the definition of a work day. Plenty of jobs require work outside of the typical 9-to-5 hours. But scientists’ hours sometimes veer into absurdity—not necessarily because of the length of our workdays, but because of the sheer randomness of the hours sometimes required. “It’s not a big deal,” you’ll tell your significant other. “I just need to do something in the lab for, like, 10 minutes. At 3 a.m. And again at 5 a.m.”

Flippantly saying “do something in the lab for, like, 10 minutes” when you clearly mean “do something in the lab for an indeterminate length of time.” Our lab protocols are inflexible. If you need to heat a sample for 30 seconds, you heat it for 30 seconds. Yet for some reason, the amount of time required to perform those protocols can just … kind of … drift. It should only take 10 minutes—but shoot, I need the smaller pipette, and it’s supposed to be on my bench, but someone must have moved it. And why are we out of medium gloves? Maybe there are more in the stock room. The stock room key … it’s supposed to be in the top drawer. Shoot. Maybe we need a better system to keep track of that key. I should attach something large to it, or maybe label it. Where’s a Sharpie?

Easily remembering scientific facts and figures, alongside a frustrating inability to remember useful information at home.

My wife: Did you remember the neighbors are coming over for brunch?

Me: Uh, no. But now I know.

My wife: We just talked about this last night.

Me: I’m sure we did.

My wife: And … what are their names?

Me: Uh, Jack and Cindy. And the baby is Heloise?

My wife: It’s Amir and Beth. They don’t have a baby.

Me: Even better.

My wife: We’ve known them for 2 years.

Me: I’m sure we have.

My wife: Wait, why don’t we have milk? You said you were going to buy milk.

Me: Milk contains the protein lactalbumin. Monomers of the alpha-lactalbumin configuration can self-assemble into nanotubes following partial hydrolysis.

Making fun things not fun. Many argue that knowledge of the world’s inner scientific workings gives one a greater, not lesser, appreciation of natural beauty. But try telling that to a romantic waxing rapturous about the clouds whose scientist partner interjects with the Latin names of cumulus forms and their implications for global climate change.

Going to graduate school. I am so, so sorry.

Worried about how my own science career impacts my family, I texted my wife to ask what aspects of my scientific-ness she’s had to accommodate. (That probably should have made me realize the first problem: the fact that I texted her from work rather than finding time for a face-to-face conversation.)

“You like label makers,” she replied.

That wasn’t the sort of answer I was looking for, but it turned out she was just warming up. The oversized ellipsis in the iPhone text bubble drummed again and again.

“You keep many heavy and unnecessary textbooks from your science classes,” read the next text message. “We have to lug them from home to home and build bookcases for them, and you never use them.”

I understand the criticism. We just moved into a new home, and somehow the 1995 edition of Chemical Principles moved with us, along with a few dozen of its heavy, outdated friends. And she’s right. I don’t need the books—but getting rid of them seems tantamount to admitting that I wasted months of my life studying organic chemistry and linear algebra. And that’s just not possible. I WILL USE THIS SOMEDAY.

Then came another text.

“You are nervous without recipes, even with simple combinations, like water and oatmeal, water and rice, water and pasta, water and frozen vegetables,” she wrote. “You are inflexible when logic differs from the side of the box.”

This is when I started to realize that I had hoped her reply would be, “You’re great!” Lesson learned: Never ask your partner to enumerate your faults.

“You are precise,” she continued, which I initially construed as a compliment intended to interrupt the flow of criticism—until she elaborated. “So when people with common sense get frustrated, you prevail.”

Yeah! Take that, people with common sense.

Maybe my wife was predisposed toward ambivalence about scientists. When she was a kid, her scientist father planned vacations around his conferences and research exploits. Hence the family trip to the Slovenian Forestry Institute, complete with a side excursion to a rotting, uninhabited castle to catalog the abundant fungi.

I guess I have a lot to work on. Maybe all scientists do. Then again, despite her fungus-filled childhood, my then-girlfriend/now-wife/hopefully-not-future-ex somehow still decided to marry a scientist—so either the awesomeness of scientists overshadows our faults, or her reasoning skills have been weakened by inhalation of fungal spores.

In our defense, one reason scientists maintain such occasionally (or more than occasionally) ridiculous lifestyles is that our work is incredibly important to us. It’s more than a job; it’s something we’ve decided is worthy of dedicating our hope and effort.

Scientists are passionate, driven, and purposeful. We believe in the importance of our work, even if the timing is inopportune. We like precision. We like questions. We like answers. We like knowledge.

Thanks for putting up with us.

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