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Science and childbirth, the second time around

Experimental Error
CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

Well, it’s happened again. I’ve gone and procreated.

The first 3 years of raising our daughter have taught my wife and me that children only really want one thing from you: 100% of your attention, 100% of the time. So the idea of having a second child—creating an additional 100% demand of your attention and time—seemed mathematically inadvisable. And yet, here we are.

Which child-safety gates can the children surmount if they learn to stand on top of each other?

Before our son Benjamin was born a few weeks ago, I started feeling a certain type of anxiety associated with the second child. Will I love him as much as his sister? Why did I feel so many philosophical concerns last time, and this time my concerns are all practical? Which child-safety gates can the children surmount if they learn to stand on top of each other?

But recently I started feeling a more specific anxiety, one that’s probably reserved for scientist parents. About 3 years ago, I performed an experiment that worked out well: Somehow, with careful cultivation, I turned a couple of gametocytes into this thing that knows how to negotiate for ice cream. As everyone who’s spent time in the lab knows, achieving the same result twice is as rare as a high school summer intern who feels no need to use social media while at work.

So, while the previous experiment has so far worked out well, I’m worried that things will go differently this time. In fact, I’m sure they will.

<p><em>Click the image to enlarge.</em></p>

Click the image to enlarge.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

It’s hard to get as excited about anything the second time as you are the first, but I think that’s especially true for scientists because so many elements of our training condition us to prefer firsts over seconds. For example:

● The second lab to publish results wins no glory, whereas the first lab to publish results wins almost no glory.

● Your first postdoctoral fellowship is superior to your second postdoctoral fellowship because during the first one you don’t know that there will be a second one so you aren’t yet feeling the famed despair of the double postdoc. (Your first postdoc is like fighting World War I, believing that when this war is over, all war is over.)

● First author on a paper is always better than second author unless there are only two authors, in which case the second author is also the last author, which is better than the first author. It’s a mystery how a system as straightforward as this can lead to petty academic squabbles.

● The first time you meet your thesis adviser, something makes you say, “Hey, this person is smart and nice! I should work in this lab!” The second time you meet your thesis adviser, the relationship begins its downward spiral toward the inevitable “All I want is this ass-monster’s signature on my thesis defense form and then I can get the hell out.”

● Specific Aim #1 in your grant is better than Specific Aim #2 because it describes work you’ve (shh) already done. Specific Aim #2 is written with a mindset of “I don’t even care any more. Just tell me what you want me to say, and I’ll say it.” This is similar to the thought process toward the end of quarrels with your significant other, or waterboarding.

● A BSL-1 lab is a more relaxed working environment than a BSL-2 lab, featuring rules such as “When In Doubt, Taste It” and “No PPE Casual Fridays.”

● No one who says “I had to switch to a second lab during grad school” is ever met with smiles.

Of course, not everything in science is better the first time. Sometimes the second time is superior:

● Your second grant is easier to acquire than your first grant, because everything is easier to acquire than your first grant. Freaking red diamonds are easier to acquire than your first grant.

● The first eager, young assistant professor to volunteer for some kind of redundant, lame, time-wasting committee (e.g., “Undergraduate Satisfaction Assurance and Random Lollipops Committee”) is stuck on said committee. The second volunteer—oh, sorry, we only need one person this time—can spend that time doing anything else.

● The second question seminar-attendees ask the speaker is better than the first. This is because the   first question always comes from that one annoying student who asks questions solely to demonstrate vast intellectual supremacy.

● Your second major in college was science because your first major was engineering. How’d engineering work out for you? That’s what I thought.

● At the department social hour, the second beer tastes better than the first. (The third beer empowers you to share a few interesting opinions with your thesis committee. The fourth beer empowers you to share an awkward hug with your thesis committee. The fifth beer empowers you to share the first through fourth beers with your thesis committee.)

As I type this, Benjamin—the second child—is half sleeping in our darkened condo, making cute stretchy-baby gremlin sounds. (I almost forgot they did that!) Already, one thing is clear: The second time is not the first time. Your first child, your first day in the lab, your first first-author publication, the first time you feel the rush of discovering something that no one else on the planet has yet learned—that feeling can never be replicated.

But the second time comes with its own satisfaction, its own separate glory. Having a second child isn’t like the misery of having to join a second lab because the first one was full of jerks and had no funding. It isn’t like the despair of your thesis committee announcing that you’ll have to take your oral exam a second time. (“See you in a year, same time, same place, same sense of dread.”) It’s like starting a second project because your first project is going so well, then keeping both projects going at once. After several years of work, the first project is starting to yield valuable results, while the second project is spraying pee geysers during diaper changes (hey, neat, boys apparently do that). Suddenly you’ve got more to do in the same amount of time. More good things to do.

Maybe I haven’t succeeded in reproducing the results of my initial experiment. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter. Because my first experiment just walked over and kissed my second experiment on the forehead, and somehow I’m sure that means it will all work out.