Don’t judge a fish by how it rides a bicycle

Today at the ripe age of 26, I learnt how to ride a bike. It was an embarrassing process. Let me first say that I can’t blame my parents for my lack of cycling skills: When I was 5, I got my first bike. I had fairy wheels and a steep hill to kill myself on but my riding days ended right there. I was far more interested in science and the world of Roald Dahl than anything that mobile death trap could offer me.

So, how many degrees does it take to learn to ride a bike? Nearly 4, it seems.

Today’s lesson started out with a valiant effort from my boyfriend holding on to the back of the bike. He tried giving me tons of useful information but naturally I ignored him. I kept insisting that, “I know how a gyroscope works thank you very much.” But maybe for the first time in my life, I just didn’t trust the science. I insisted that if those wheels managed to keep me up it was sorcery and all the billions of people who had learnt to ride a bike previously were aliens.

I was surprised at how quickly I turned on physics just because I was failing. Was I one of one of those people that only believed in science when it was convenient? After giving myself a pep talk, I tackled the problem head on. Quite literally actually – I headed straight for a wall, followed by colliding with my long-suffering significant other. This experience has taught me several important lessons:

1) Sometimes it’s embarrassing to learn new things, but what’s worse is never learning them.

2) There is nothing wrong with being a well – rounded human AND scientist; in fact it’s the only way to live. I used to think that if I did anything other than science I would be a bad researcher. But embracing the world around you is the reason we are here- to live life and be fascinated by it.

3) Trust in science. It is, in its purest form, un-opinionated and unassuming. I was wrong to doubt you, Physics.

4) Be kind to your loved ones. You never know when you might seriously maim them when you are unable to operate a break on a mountain bike.

5) Let go of the labels that define you. I was the nerdy, sarcastic, smart person who was incompetent at any physical activity. Except I’m not – I can ride a bike well(ish). I used to be a disaster in the kitchen but it was only because I told myself I was. Now I cook all the time and do it pretty darn well. Who knows, maybe I’ll be Tour de Francing one day.

6) Be kind to yourself. That spills over into your PhD too. Don’t kill yourself trying to reinvent the wheel. Stand on the shoulders of giants, then get a little taller and let others stand on yours.

7) Life is for the living. Being a scientist means always seeking out new things and interrogating them. While many scientists do this in their work life they don’t always do it away from the pipette. Try to be the kind of person who fully embraces their life, even when it’s hard and little children mock you. Remember that you can drive a car and don’t rely on mom to chaperone.

Ultimately it didn’t matter how many degrees I had. It didn’t matter that I’m accomplished in many areas of my life. Don’t judge a fish by its ability to ride a bicycle. This is the proverbial fish signing off.

Balance/ choices

On this year’s National Women’s Day, I really wanted to blog about work-life-balance in academia. But it was a public holiday and I had to play with my 1-year old son most of the day. I have to admit, we did end up “working,” going to a local wolf sanctuary to help one of my students out with her research. It was a beautiful day, and my family had a great time (including the incident with the peeing on my pants. Note the correct preposition).

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Shortly before I became “territory”

And yet, it was also a day of choices. Five, six years ago, a public holiday would have given me more time to get my own academic work done — habits instilled by years as a postgraduate student. I would routinely grab an hour here and a day there, just to get some things off my to-do list and perhaps finish a paper or two. I figured that this was and always will be the way to stay ahead of the academic game.

Then I met the love of my life, became a wife, a lecturer, a Principal Investigator, a subject coordinator, a grantholder, a dog-owner, an aunt, and a mother…A beautiful life, with way too much on my plate.

I have energy, I have intellect, I have zero free time.

Under similar circumstance, some academics would simply continue throwing themselves into their work and get on with things, putting in 60 h work weeks to stay ahead of the game. And to be honest, that was my instinct too. Luckily, I married a nag, who insists that I step away from my books when I get home. Luckily, I fell in love with my babScreen Shot 2016-08-24 at 15.06.33y boy, who is determined to eat any electronics and books I hold in my hands. So, now, we stare at the sky and dig in the garden when I return home. And I do it rather early in the afternoon, otherwise we’re both in a mood.

I put in the extra hours by waking up early (though not quite as early as the #past3amsquad). And I’m becoming better at saying No, sticking to the things that are important in my work and my life.

 

This seems simple, right?

 

It’s actually surprisingly difficult to maintain; it’s a decision that I have to keep on making every day. Right now, my colleagues are attending conferences where I desperately want to be; I see the speed at which some of my seniors publish (30 papers a year, are you kidding me?); I become jealous of some of the insightful and productive collaborations my peers are forming simply because they have the time to make connections. I need to remind myself every single day that work-life balance is really work-life choices (wisdom I overheard at the Young Scientists’ Conference last year).

There is research to support my decision: working academic mothers are (in the long haul) more productive than their colleagues. Parents in academia are becoming more and more vocal about the support they need, as well as the invaluable contributions they make. And for me, the simple truth is, I don’t want my gravestone to read, “She was a great scientist.” That is not enough.

What I want to tell you here, is: balance is a choice, and it’s yours to make. Even though you are competing with people who spend 24/7 in the laboratory, and who laugh at the thought that you can achieve success while having a life. Even though in South Africa you may really be in the minority with that kind of mindset. The narrative is changing.