My family spent New Year’s Eve and the following weekend at one of our favorite places in the world, Friday Harbor Labs, on San Juan Island, off the Washington coast. (Mama PhD blogging colleague Dana Campbell and I have frequently written about Friday Harbor Labs and its adjoining retreat for scholars, the Whitely Center.) My son told all his friends “we’re going to a 3-day party!” Indeed it was a party to remember, with invitees from all over the world, to celebrate my husband’s PhD advisor’s retirement. Young and old were present and participated in a range of events, including a late-night, low-tide excursion to a special mud flat under the light of the full moon (you gotta love the way biologists ring in the New Year!). And kids and grown-ups alike, resplendent in Christmas tree garlands to represent cilia, performed an interpretive dance of swimming marine invertebrate larvae. My son mimicked perfectly the suction feeding — discovered by the honoree — of the larva of a marine worm, while my daughter rolled around on the floor beautifully to represent a larva trying to settle. It was a proud moment for my husband, the larval biologist.
Aside from the main theme of the weekend party, one man’s stellar research and teaching career, I saw another theme: families and supportive community. The special group of people who’ve passed through the Labs at some point spans time, space, and generations. While many party guests had photos and slides to share with the group, one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Labs’ past decades was composed by one of the mother-grandmother-scientists. She’d put together photo albums that included class photos from some of the many courses offered at the Labs over the years alongside wedding photos, birth announcements, Christmas card photos of families and children, and social gatherings of friends and colleagues, some of whom are now deceased. People at the party took time to peruse the albums, to laugh, reminisce, and marvel over how everyone had changed and the children grown. Here in this academic community important personal, as well as academic, events are all part of its history.
Although plenty of people at the gathering talked shop, it was a time to socialize and check in with one another. Old friends and colleagues reunited, and in attendance were many of my friends from graduate school. Among us former students it was refreshing to find that we’d gone in many different directions, some having found traditional academic roles, while others cobbled together interesting non-academic positions. There was even another stay-at-home PhD mom, and others who’d decided to forego full-time academic careers to allow more time to be with kids or to undertake other kinds of creative projects. I can only speak for myself, but despite being in the company of some heavy hitters in the biology world, I didn’t feel that we former academics were looked down upon by our peers or former mentors for having left the traditional academic track.
As a graduate student, I never did any research at the Labs, but since my husband worked here I spent many weekends and holidays visiting him. I felt at home here, but interestingly I felt even more like I fit in once I had children and we began interacting with other families. Being here began to seem more like real life and more than just a research station. I realized that we didn’t have to (and couldn’t possibly) keep our personal lives separate from the academic life here (some other research stations I’ve visited don’t allow children or families).
Friday Harbor Labs is a unique place (most people travel here from their home institutions for short stays), but perhaps there are lessons that could apply to other academic communities, particularly with regard to the role of family and personal life. We shouldn’t have to downplay the importance of family life when we’re in our academic roles. Sure, we need to get our work done, but wouldn’t work be a little more humane if we could really be ourselves and reflect the fullness of our lives?