News of the unexpected death of a former collaborator has me thinking about my own life and my legacy. Where have I come from, where I am now, and where am I going?
My colleague was a dedicated scientist whom I admired and respected. She was only a few years older than me when she passed away very suddenly and with no warning. Because I’ve been away from research for some time, we hadn’t been in touch for many years. About 20 years ago we began collaborating on a project. We felt strongly that as women scientists in a field with many big male egos, we wanted to support one another. I don’t remember exactly why it didn’t work out, although we had different work habits. She was passionate and worked very, very hard, almost as though she lived and breathed her research. My efforts seemed inadequate next to hers, and although I was very interested in the work, I was unwilling (or unable?) to put in the hours she did. During the field season we worked together, I gave our project my full attention for focused periods of time, provided I had some down time to decompress. My friend, however, worked on numerous other projects in her off-hours. In our two months together, we spent one day at the beach, the only time I didn’t see her working. It became clear that our mismatched styles made collaboration difficult, and I worried about disappointing her. I never saw her again after that summer but heard of her successes. She also provided useful feedback on one of my later research projects.
There have been times when I felt driven to spend days and nights on a round of experiments or trying to solve a research problem. However, it became clear working beside my friend that although I could become very engrossed in my work, I’d never have the same degree of insatiable curiosity and compulsion that drove her countless projects. Because she was leagues ahead of me in her accomplishments, I could hardly say we were rivals. However, the part of me that wanted to be a successful scientist couldn’t help but feel an irrational twinge of jealousy, even knowing that her successes were achieved through extraordinary diligence of a kind I did not possess.
Differences in circumstances and even work habits mean that there’s no single story that represents the lives of women scientists. My friend achieved great things in a career that included amazing discoveries and promotion of biodiversity conservation programs in several countries. I once believed that my own life story as a scientist would comprise groundbreaking papers, exciting discoveries, and new insight. The bulk of my story, however, is about family and it’s meant that the chapters on scientific discovery are pretty short. As far as I know my friend never had children, and I don’t know if she ever wished for a family. I don’t lament the lives neither of us lived but instead celebrate the differences in our life stories and legacies.