You know them - the movies in which the main character wakes up as someone else. Someone simpler - who suddenly has a family with kids (he hates them at first, then grows to love them) instead of his glorious job (it's usually a he). It's the story of the Christmas classic "It's a wonderful life" with Cary Grant. It's the story of "The Family Man" (Nicholas Cage). It's the story of many a Hollywood blockbuster, actually, in which the main character learns to appreciate what they have. Or in which they learn to be happy with less than what they had at the outset.
I've been thinking a lot about this lately - because it feels like I've been through my own version of this classic movie tale. I'm just not sure that I've reached the happy ending yet - or that I ever will.
You see - once upon a time I was a science snob. I was trained (both postdoc and PhD) in rich labs in top institutions. It's the world I knew and the world I wanted to be a part of. Then life happened and it turned out to be insanely difficult to find a place to set up my lab. Fast forward and here we are, three years later, at my current university. Don't get me wrong - I really like it there. I like the teaching, creepy time sucker that it is. I like being exposed to strange new worlds. I like my colleagues. But I hate that everything is a struggle. I hate that the equipment is old and that the infrastructure is not the best in the world. I am so proud of my people for what they are able to achieve - much more proud than I have ever been at anything I ever achieved in my wealthy institutions where science was basically handed to me on a silver platter. They are doing experiments in much more difficult circumstances. I was fed with a golden spoon - and I didn't realize it AT ALL at the time.
But now that I am on the other side of the fence (still capable of doing decent science, don't get me wrong, and far better off than many others in countries south and east of my borders) I realize it ALL OF THE TIME.
Just today I was in a meeting with a bunch of international colleagues from all over and the divide stuck out to me like a sore thumb. It was clear that there were scientific haves and have-nots. And it was clear to me that I was in the second category. And it was also clear that the ones in the first category were completely and blissfully unaware of how good they had it.
So I have had my wake up moment. I think I am a better person for it, because nobody likes a snob - even when it comes to just scientific affairs. But now what? Cary Grant may have discovered that he should work less and love his family more. Nicholas Cage may have realized that he liked his simpler life much better than his high-paced overachiever job. But I am not so sure yet. I'd much prefer a faster qPCR machine and better institutional support. And I don't have a family to snuggle up to when I get home - I just got the short end of the deal with nothing in return. Same crazy hours, same crazy hard work, but with far less to show for it. I am just scared that I am going to end up old and bitter - because the reality is that the chances of becoming a science superstar in a less than top-notch environment are just slim. And I never got into this business to be second rate.
And so, like Psych Girl, I am thinking about what I want to be. Because I started out climbing Mount Everest and I am finding out that maybe I am just going to be stuck at basecamp. Sometimes I'm perfectly fine with that, but it's the week before Christmas, I am dead tired and being surrounded by my superstar colleagues during this meeting today was not inspirational at all. In fact, it brought out the worst in me: I felt stupid, unproductive and self-conscious. And at the same time I was jealous of them and angry that they didn't see how good they have it. Not an attractive response to say the least, but at least I know where it came from, I think. I saw a glimpse of my old life - and it made me yearn for the days when I was a science snob. Because sometimes life is a little more wonderful when you are just living in your own perfect little bubble.
So now what?