When a new acquaintance learns that I am a graduate student at MIT, their first question is often about whether or not my husband is also an MIT student or postdoc. They are usually surprised to hear that he is not an MIT researcher — and further amazed to learn that he is not a scientist, engineer, or anything else encompassed under the STEM umbrella. The usual question that follows is: “So... what do you two even talk about?”
My husband is a wonderful, intelligent, and inquisitive man, but just as I do not fully understand the ins and outs of his profession, he does not always understand the technical aspects of mine. For many people I meet at MIT or STEM-related functions, it can be difficult to understand how we have anything to talk about at home. However, I have found that speaking to my husband about my work makes me a better engineer and communicator.
Regularly boiling down my research into terms that an outsider can understand has been a really helpful exercise. It forces me to weed out the nitty-gritty details that aren’t actually crucial to understanding the problem. It also helps me summarize my work and recognize when I have a gap in knowledge. In fact, I have found that trying to explain your work in terms that laypeople can comprehend can challenge your understanding more than discussion with a fellow scientist.
I have started taking advantage of this discovery when practicing talks. For every presentation, I make a point of talking through my introductory slides with my husband. He will always, unabashedly, tell me when I’m being unclear. My rule of thumb has been that, if my carpenter husband cannot understand the background story to that presentation, most other people will struggle to follow, and I am not explaining myself well enough or am failing to include crucial information.
Speaking to a non-scientist can also reveal a new perspective on problems. My husband is a logical, practical thinker who likes to break problems down to their foundations before considering an answer. There have been quite a few instances where I had thoroughly researched a problem and gone home frustrated and without a solution. I would explain the situation to my husband who would subsequently ask, “Why don’t you just do this?” Other times, I have watched him at his own trade and learned new, useful skills that I could introduce into the lab setting. Oftentimes his practical, non-technical suggestion or a seemingly unrelated technique would open up a new way of approaching my research challenges.
For example, a lot of the work in my lab involves attaching small, brittle or soft samples to a harness that uses small screws to hold things in place. Sometimes these samples can break or deform due to pressure being applied to only a small area. One day, after I broke yet another sample, I remembered seeing my husband forcing a piece of wood trim into place by placing a wood block with high surface area in front of the trim and hammering on the wood block. When asked why he was doing this, he said that using the hammer directly on the trim would damage it and that placing the wood block in front helped to distribute the force of the hammer. This gave me the idea to place a rectangular piece of material between the tightening screw and my large sample to help distribute the screw pressure and prevent damage. I haven’t broken a sample since!
In the life of a graduate student, it can be very easy to get pulled into one way of thinking, discussing problems with only one group of friends or colleagues and wondering why I can’t come up with alternative ideas. Speaking to a significant other outside of the STEM world is a refreshing experience that broadens the way I approach my work and makes me a better scientist.
Finally, being married to a person outside of STEM makes it easier to take a break from my work and talk about things other than research. This might mean returning the favor and talking about his work for the night. It could also mean discussing topics outside of work, such as the newest superhero movie or plans for our vegetable garden. I think one of my favorite aspects of being married to a non-scientist is that there is no pressure or expectation to always talk about science-related topics. This flexibility can provide a much-needed respite, especially for an MIT graduate student.
Over the years, my experience has revealed that having a relationship with a non-scientist is not a burden or a weakness. In fact, having regular conversations with people outside of STEM can be rewarding, fulfilling, and a nice change of pace. These relationships should be valued, treasured, and nurtured, even if my peers don’t always understand them. So the next time I am asked, “So… what do you two even talk about?”, I will take it as an opportunity to recognize and appreciate all of the wonderful aspects of connecting with people outside of my field.