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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Summer Camp for Biologists
July 30, 2008 - 7:29am

For the last month, my family and I have been living at the Friday Harbor Laboratories, run by the University of Washington on a small island off the coast north of Seattle. Here my husband, a marine biologist, does research every summer. In fact, I’ve come to the labs most summers over the course of my life, since my dad also did research here when I was a kid, and I took classes here as a grad student.

When I was a kid, it was pretty easy for my dad to relocate our family to the labs for the summer to accompany him on his field work, since my mom did not work outside the home. This situation was common to all the kids at the labs (the “lab rats” they called us) back then. Now, of course, most of the families at the labs are dual-career. And yet, somehow, many of these families manage to return to the labs year after year – together, the whole family. They telecommute, they work on writing projects, they prepare their classes for the fall (many are dual academic careers). They just make it work, because they want to be here. This makes for a wonderful community.

The Friday Harbor Labs is a world-class facility located in a hotspot for marine animal diversity. It is also a place where family and work intermingle better than anywhere I’ve ever heard of. Each family lives in a basic, rustic cabin, very close to the lab buildings. Families regularly eat dinners together on the central “bunny lawn”. There are frequent popcorn socials, ice cream socials, and the annual “Invertebrate Ball”, a costume party at which everyone, researchers, students, spouses and kids alike, dresses up as their favorite marine organism (there are a lot of very unusual costumes).

The "bunny lawn"


The arrangement is ideal for all ages. I marvel to think that my kids have an experience every summer that is very similar to the way my summers were (especially as my friends back home start hashing out summer camp schedules in February). Most parents here either juggle their summer work so that they trade off watching the kids while the other works, or they arrange for on-site care for their young kids. Some bring a student from their home university as a summerlong nanny. Others use babysitters (there are lots of teenage “lab rats” around, and also lots of local island sitters). The lab grounds are a large “wilderness” of sorts, but safe and enclosed so with just a few rules (e.g. don’t go down to the beach without an adult or a life jacket) there is little to worry about and kids run around on their own much more than they can at home. The result is sort of a throwback in time: lots of unstructured time spent playing on the ropeswing, picking blackberries, investigating tidepools at the beach, chasing deer, playing ping pong in the dining hall, and just doing what kids do when they are unscheduled. There is always another kid around to play with.

I’m sitting at my computer looking out my cabin window at a group of half a dozen 5- to 9-year-olds playing tag together on the bunny lawn, wondering how this place works out so well. Maybe it’s that the Friday Harbor Labs are on a small island, so everyone is more focused inward. Maybe it’s just that the visiting researchers and families happen to be like-minded and prioritize this life style. Probably the temporary nature and the good weather of summertime helps. Whatever it is, it works. It’s a joy to be part of this vibrant, relaxed, productive summer community and appreciate this as an ideal model for combining work and family.


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