Judith Currano’s Letter on Science, Life and Balance

The important thing is to strive for the balance that you personally need to feel happy and satisfied, and the first step in creating your balance is to focus on the things that you love.

I hope that you have all had a safe and enjoyable summer.  Despite my intense dislike of heat and humidity, summer is always very enticing to me; I have so much beautiful, unscheduled time that I plan to fill with the many exciting projects that I didn’t have time to do during the school year.  I am always disappointed.  The more unscheduled time I have, the more projects I start, and the less I perceive myself to be accomplishing.  I feel like a character in a recent (and not very good) movie that I watched with my children, constantly saying, “Mmmmm!  What’s going on over here?”  I am making progress on my projects, but very little gets crossed off my “to do” list, making me feel ineffective.  In short, I am out of balance.

Achieving a good balance seems particularly problematic for women.  A multitude of forces try to pull us in many different directions at the same time, and, if you are like me, you will think that failure to succumb to at least half of these forces will somehow be detrimental to your personal or professional development or will cause someone to think ill of you.  We are taught to believe that “women can multitask well,” which somehow gets translated into “women must multitask well.”  Social media bombards us with messages about the qualities of “the perfect woman,” and we conveniently forget that social media also allows individuals to control the way in which the world perceives them.  We have all seen the woman who tweets about the article describing her groundbreaking research before going home and posting on Instagram a photo of a gourmet dinner that she cooked for her perfect children, whose angelic comments are reproduced on Facebook and whom she will then entertain until bedtime by creating innovative and educational games employing objects found in her manicured back yard, pictures of which also appear on Instagram.  I can assure you that this woman does not actually exist.  She may have done all of those things, but I doubt that she has done them on the same day, and, if she has, that day was an anomaly.  Just as nobody likes to publish failed experiments, nobody wants to announce to the world, “We ate delivery pizza for dinner.  Then, the kids sat on my bed and watched cartoons while I dozed, and I told them we were having a ‘pajama party.’”

Many people will say, “You can’t have it all.”  I think that you can “have it all,” but only if you think like a physicist and shift your frame of reference to make the problem more straightforward.  In this case, it is critical to accurately define “all.”  Perhaps “all” is a rewarding career and a family.  Perhaps it is upward mobility at work and a certain finishing time in the local marathon.  Perhaps what you want from your job is an annual salary that funds your volunteer activities and gives you the time and financial security to join a garage band.  Regardless of how you define “all,” the important thing is to strive for the balance that you personally need to feel happy and satisfied, and the first step in creating your balance is to focus on the things that you love.

For me, my job is something that I love.  Many people “fall into” chemical information, but I chose this area of chemistry very deliberately and at a very early age.  During my undergraduate research experience, I found that running a successful search filled me with an intense satisfaction and joy that running a successful reaction never did.  Every query that I approach is a scientific project that has the aim of retrieving highly-relevant information, and every search that I run is an experiment that brings the project closer to a successful conclusion.  I gather background information, focusing on learning as much as possible about the subject of the query and clearly defining the information that I seek.  I hypothesize that the information I seek exists and that it can be found in a particular way, given the organization of the literature.  I then develop an experiment, choosing the best possible tool for the query and designing a search that I believe will retrieve the desired information with a minimum of chaff.  I run the search and observe my results, noting how well they align with my expectations of retrieval and pondering the reasons that I retrieved undesired hits.  Based on the results of my analysis, I modify the experiment, adding or changing parameters to focus the search towards more relevant hits, and repeat the process until I am satisfied.  When I first started working at Penn, I ran many queries for many individuals, and I still love this aspect of my job.  Over time, however, my work has evolved so that I now spend more time sharing the science I love with others through teaching, which is easily the most exciting and enjoyable thing that I do, but which demands a huge time commitment, particularly at the end of the academic year.  External meetings, partnerships, and collaborations help me stay fresh in both my science and my teaching, particularly because I am the only person working in chemical information at Penn, but these can also consume large amounts of time.  It would be easy to fill 10-14 hours a day with enjoyable, work-related tasks, but, if I did this, I know I would find myself becoming unhappy, burned out, and resentful as the years progressed.

The problem is that my teaching and my science are not the only things that are important to me.  I want a rewarding career, but I also want to focus on my own nuclear and extended family, while still having enough time and energy to lead a Girl Scout troop, be active in my church, and practice the hobbies that I enjoy.  Setting personal boundaries has been critical to helping me to develop the balance that I want between the things that matter most, but this was a challenge in the beginning since I dislike saying “no” to anyone.  Quite by accident, I learned that scheduling enjoyable “extra-curricular” activities that involve other people, such as taking exercise classes, doing volunteer work, or being involved with a house of worship, can be a good way to help you begin to set boundaries at work.  The important thing is that the activities meet at set times and are difficult to “skive off.”  When I first started my job at Penn, I immediately joined the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society and became a Girl Scout leader, two activities at which my attendance was monitored or required.  These activities gave me an excuse to leave work on time when I might not have had the gumption to say, “It’s 5:00. I have to catch a train to go home now.”  However, as I became more practiced at telling people that I needed to leave, I found that I was able to set my own boundaries without any “excuses.”

This early practice of setting boundaries became very important as my life outside of work changed.  I was already in the practice of leaving work on time most days, so, when I got married, I didn’t need to adjust my schedule to accommodate eating dinner daily with my husband.  When my children came along, I was perfectly comfortable saying that I needed to leave to pick them up from day care at the end of the day.  I always ensured that I was getting my work done well and that my superiors were satisfied with my performance.  I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that they were more than willing to work with me to achieve the balance that I needed to do my best, most effective work.  I still stay late at work to teach lectures in other people’s classes, to attend seminars that I want to hear and library functions at which my presence is requested, and to do things with Women in Chemistry and ACS.  It is easier if I schedule them a little farther in advance, but they are all quite doable with a little flexibility.

Flexibility is crucial; if your boundaries become too rigid, you will find yourself having the same problems that you have if you do not set them at all.  Trying to do too many activities that are inflexible or “non-negotiable” can make you feel trapped, spinning around like a hamster in a wheel, unable to escape from the cage that your inexorable schedule has built for you.  Even after twenty years of practice, I still occasionally feel like a hamster in a wheel, and then I know that it is time to stop, relax for a bit, and try to regain my sense of equilibrium.  Occasionally, I need someone else, usually my husband or my mother, to tell me that I am out of balance and that it is fine to cut back.  Having a strong support network is critical to maintaining balance, and I hope that the women of Penn Chemistry can find such support within the Women in Chemistry group.  While Women in Chemistry does celebrate the achievements of women chemists, it also provides a safe space for us to discuss our issues and problems, to get a “reality check” on things that are happening to us or around us, or even just to meet and socialize with people who are outside of our laboratories and reporting structures.  This helps us to develop a robust and diverse network, which, although it will certainly help us in our careers, will give us a broader perspective on problems, making us healthier people overall.  If Women in Chemistry is not your cup of tea, I encourage you to spend a little time each day outside of the Chemistry complex with people who do not work right beside you.  It will refresh your mind, make you work more effectively and efficiently when you are in the building, and prevent you and your immediate coworkers from getting on one another’s last nerve!

If you want to talk more about chemical information, boundaries, or balance, please stop by; my door is usually open.  For now, though, I need to stop writing.  The pizza just arrived, and I’m late for a pajama party.

Judith Currano
Head of the Chemistry Library