The smallest bundle

and the biggest transition

Published September 01 2016

The author changed her career path after the birth of her son. PHOTO COURTESY OF SAMARPITA SENGUPTA

This year, as the snow-dusted footsteps of spring approached and the earth woke up to a riot of colors, I thought of the transitions that happened for the earth and for its inhabitants. My life has been that of a nomad, traveling from one phase to the other, transitioning with all degrees of difficulty from one stage to the next.

My first major transition was when I left home for college. I moved away from family, friends and the small town of Ranchi in the state of Jharkhand, India, where I grew up to New Delhi, one of the biggest cities in the country and the nation’s capital. I got to live in a dormitory with roommates for the first time. Part of me was thrilled at the newfound independence, but part of me was homesick the whole time. Having led a sheltered life so far, I had to adjust quickly to living alone, being responsible for myself and cultivating the necessary social skills to get along with my peers. However, soon this transition became a stable state. I gathered a great group of friends around me and met the love of my life!

Then came another change when I traveled across continents and several time zones to end up at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for graduate school. I came in wide-eyed, naive and incredibly confident of charting a career trajectory to stardom in science!

I did fairly well, but my dreams of science superstardom were starting to fade as the reality of the fierce competition began to sink in. Nevertheless, I decided to embark on the postdoctoral path, partly to be sure this was not what I wanted to do. But after three years of my postdoctoral stint, I was most certain pursuing bench science wasn’t making me happy.

The realization came to me after a major event occurred during my second year as a postdoctoral fellow. The most life-changing transition came my way, packaged as a stork-delivered tiny bundle of joy. By far, parenthood was the most difficult transition for me. Every parent is all too familiar with the struggles of the first child. The exhaustion of caring for a newborn, the constant feeling of wanting to do the best for that new life you have brought home, and the equally constant fear of not being able to do so are all part of the roller coaster of parenting. In addition, juggling parenting and a full-time career is incredibly demanding. Having a child meant my world was turned inside out in the best possible way, making me re-evaluate my priorities.

Having been raised an independent and fiercely feminist woman, I found it initially very hard to do that re-evaluation. I wanted to have it all! I wanted to have an academic career and still be a mother who bakes homemade cookies for the bake sale! However, coming back to work after seven weeks of maternity leave — I couldn’t afford to take unpaid leave, a rant for some other time — I found it very difficult to find my groove. It was a constant fight between wanting to be with my baby and wanting to excel in science. I couldn’t bear to come to lab on weekends, since that was the only time I could be a fully hands-on parent! “Is this worth it?” was a question I often asked myself.

With time, things got easier, and I started to enjoy work again and worry less about my child going hungry. But I also came to a realization that being at the bench wasn’t going to give me the career I wanted. I absolutely did not want to get stuck in a rut as a perpetual postdoctoral fellow, so leaving academia for the pursuit of a nontraditional path seemed logical. However, I still fought with myself. Was I giving up? Coming to terms with the fact that I had limitations, both personal and situational, was humbling and a turning point in my adult life.

After a lot of introspection and talks with an incredibly supportive spouse, I finally realized that the question I should be asking myself was “Is my current status quo making me happy?” When I asked myself that question and realized the honest answer was an unequivocal no, it was time to determine what it was that would make me happy.

I have had a love affair with words from early childhood. As a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow, I enjoyed writing about science more than actually doing the bench work. A load lifted off my shoulders when I decided to trade the pipette for a pen. I was still going to have a career, be a role model to my kid, but now I would have more time to be a mother. I started volunteering to write articles and networking with people who knew how to write and made several professional and some personal friendships in the process. Last year, I transitioned into the position of a scientific research writer at UTSW thanks to one of those friendships. So far, it has been a fun ride!

Looking through the rearview mirror of memories, I realize that each transition state was a new mold into which I had to fit by changing my priorities, attitude and approach. No matter how difficult and life altering each transition has been, they have all had a purpose. Transitions give me the power of perspective, a power I can wield at each new transition that life throws my way.

Samarpita Sengupta Samarpita Sengupta is a scientific research writer in the neuroscience research development office at the department of neurology and neurotherapeutics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.