Experimenting with love

Attempting to date as a PhD student in Biology
April 2021
Kate
K.
Biology

As far as bad dates went, this one was catastrophic. My date (we’ll call him “Brad”) was drunk, not just on his own ego, but also quite literally drunk. Though really, this was not my fault, as he had decided to come that way. As the waitress cleared our table, he swiveled around to look at me, single eyebrow raised, “What do you say, we keep this going? I ordered an Uber to this little bar I know, it’s really exclusive… not a lot of people get to go there…” *insert wink*. 

The ‘exclusive bar’ was 100% his apartment. I cringed internally, absolutely perplexed at how he thought this had been a good date or that there was any chance I was getting in that Uber with him. 

I stood up, mustering a smile, “I am so sorry, thank you so much for dinner, but I actually have to get going”. 

He stood up and reached over to brush my hair out of my face, “No, come on, it’s only 9PM you don’t have to go, you’re just saying that…I already have the Uber coming”. 

I batted his hand away. “Actually I do have to go, I left the centrifuge running in lab and it’s a REALLY important experiment”.      

Shocked, he staggered backwards. “Wait, you are seriously going back to lab right now?”      

I shrugged, “Yeah I know it sucks, but my team is counting on me. It’s really important”. Moments earlier, unbeknownst to Brad, I had furtively sent an SOS text to my lab group chat and, right on cue, my phone rang - “The CENTRIFUGE IS RUNNING we need you to come NOW!” my lab mate dramatically screamed into the phone.      

“Okay, I’m on my way, I’ll be there soon,” I said confidently and hung up. My date conceded and I left. Needless to say, there was not a second date. I politely told him I “didn’t feel a connection” and he politely responded with some unsolicited dating advice that in the future I should “be careful” because guys “don’t like girls who are too busy with work”. 

Being a graduate student in Biology has been both a blessing and a curse – while the “running centrifuge” is at times fictional, a lot of the time it is the sad reality. I like to be private with my dating life, so I try to keep it outside my professional circles. Unfortunately, as an MD-PhD student that means I shy away from anyone involved in medicine, healthcare, or science which at times has seemed like the entire eligible dating population of Cambridge and Boston. The silver lining to this is that most people I date have no clue what a centrifuge is and have never set foot in a lab. However, while it may rescue me from the occasional bad date, being a Biology graduate student dating from the pool of non-scientists can be problematic.

Things in lab don’t always go smoothly, experiments don’t always go as planned, and sometimes you spill a liter of cell media on yourself in tissue culture and your boyfriend is stuck waiting parked outside the lab for 45 minutes. The biological systems you work with dictate your schedule – some cell lines need to be split every day and some mouse cancer models progress rapidly and randomly, leaving you dissecting tissue samples or wasting away in the flow cytometry core at odd hours of the night. 

In many of my romantic endeavors, lab has been a point of contention, a catalyst for arguments, or simply an annoyance to my significant other who cannot understand why I am “always there” or why I cannot just randomly pick up and leave for a weekend trip. A     t my graveyard of failed relationships the epitaph “my career” has been an omnipresent theme. I have wanted to be a doctor since I was old enough to speak and a physician-scientist from the second I discovered it was an option. I am passionate about what I do and I know in my heart that being an MD-PhD in training is exactly where I am supposed to be. Despite my passion for my work, I have always carved out dedicated time for those whom      I love – family, friends, and even romantic interests. Thankfully, my family and friends are exceptionally supportive and have not only accepted but have embraced my lifestyle. Whenever my Dad visits, he insists on driving me to lab and escorting me around the building even if it’s in the middle of the night. He has read and edited every proposal I have ever written, helped me talk out ideas and theories, and even excitedly come in to attend lab group meetings when he is in town. It’s not just my Dad though – both of my little brothers and my mother have also spent time in lab with me. My friends are no different either – most, if not all, have been to lab with me - either virtually on Facetime or in person to hang out, eat pizza, or even come to lab meetings. 

Despite my network of support, over time past relationships, dates gone wrong, and unsolicited “Brad” advice convinced part of me that I would inevitably end up alone - that my career dreams were somehow incompatible with love. For a while I bitterly believed and accepted this as my fate. However, eventually it dawned on me that this was completely at odds with the other relationships in my life. My family and friends embraced me, supported me, and cheered me on in my pursuits. If they did, why couldn’t I find a partner that did? I knew I would probably have to kiss a lot of frogs to find my scientific prince charming, but this realization gave me newfound hope in the dating search and I was determined not to settle. 

I have never viewed science as a career - it is a vocation, a lifestyle. It bleeds into all facets of your life and the lives of your loved ones. I have begun to realize that if they truly care about you, they will come to learn the background noises of the flow cytometry core, the hum of a sterile hood, the sound of an ethanol bottle being sprayed, or the crinkle of plates being opened. They will wait for you in the car when things go wrong at the last minute and let you make it up to them with Chipotle. They will affectionately tease you about your mice and weird hours but ultimately accept you as you are. They will love you because of your passion, not despite it. And, even in the middle of the night, they will offer to come to lab with you just to keep you company. And, to your surprise, they will continue to do this even after months of dating. They will be engaged not necessarily because they like science, but because they know it is important to you. They will stay awake, bleary-eyed on Facetime with you while you prep mice for surgery because the “mouse house” is creepy at night and you’re scared of being axe-murdered. They will celebrate your success with you and be there to hug you tight when you fail. And in the midst of all of this, one night, you will glance over at them napping at your desk while you finish up experiments, and you will smile to yourself realizing that there was always hope for love and that prince charming does exist, even for a Biology graduate student.

   

Pre-COVID-19 pandemic: Pictured here is our newer lab centrifuge which has a timer and stops by itself, unlike our older model . Masks were actually in fashion before the pandemic for me – the stylish mask pictured in the image was to prevent mouse allergies (sadly it did not work).

Pre-COVID-19 pandemic: The Hemann lab out for drinks at Miracle of Science.

Pre-COVID-19 pandemic: Hemann lab and friends!