Today I end a 5-year run at Deep Sea News. I’m sad that I am unable to continuing committing to this great group, and indeed science and science communication more generally. Over the last year as I’ve struggled personally and professionally, the six other scientists here have been great friends and not just bloggers. It was clear to me during the last few years and especially the last year that a lifestyle involved in science was incompatible with the life I wanted to lead as father, husband, and family provider. I’ve committed 5+ years to science communication and nearly a decade to science with nothing to show for it but publications. Meanwhile, our family has not progressed. We have no money, no savings and mounting debt. It’s a situation that has put me in a position that prevents me from doing anything for which I cannot attain a few dollars. Thus, the work I gladly did freely for so many years when I had salaried employment has become a burden to me now. While I’ve had modest success transforming some this into a consulting and freelance career over the last couple years, I can never get ahead anywhere. I see no future for me, and frankly that sucks when it’s all I’ve known for so long.
But I do have a plan forward. One that will hopefully employ me for the long term and turn into a family business. I’ve been making beer and it has been well-received here in my corner of Sweden. I’m partnering with a hotel and will be starting a local microbrewery. I’m very excited about this. It the culmination of my nearly 5 years experience cooking and baking, and decade of science and experimentation (and not to mention seeking funding). For those who are interested you can follow @BryggFangelset on Twitter, like us on Facebook, Circle us on GooglePlus and of course subscribe to our website for updates. Bryggeri Fängelset means “the prison brewery”, it will located in Hotell Fängelset in Västervik which was a prison built in the 1870s and in service until just 8 years ago when it was converted to hostel and hotel. Stop by and say hi and get a beer on me if you are in the area!
Below is a longer history of my experiences and an apology. I’m not entirely sure why I’m sharing so much. I mean, I always have been over-sharer, but it would be just as easy to walk away and leave it there. Perhaps I feel it justifies something and I do feel I owe it to the Deep Sea News and greater Science Online communities who have been so supportive of me for such a long time. Of course, it is only my side of the story so take it as it is. It is a sort of stream of thought and may not be well-edited.
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On January 27th, 2007, I placed my first comment on a science blog. I didn’t know it was a blog, I thought it was just a website, nothing too unusual. I had done a google search probably, looking for information and pictures of shrimp. Except that I remember visiting Deep Sea News before that when it was just Craig and Peter on blogspot, it had appeared in my searches before. By this time, I was a PhD student at Penn State at the time and had just submitted my first manuscript for review. It was a taxonomic description and phylogeny to a new species of shrimp I found while doing my community ecology research at deep-sea hydrothermal vents (it was accepted but the slow publishing process took till 2009 to get published in print…). It was a very positive time in my life, research was going well, I had just gotten back from an extended research stay with an anemone expert and we would describe 5 new species of hydrothermal vent anemones. I had gotten the hang of research and publishing and was confident in moving forward and gotten over my first pub submission fear. All this would change dramatically for me by Fall of the same year…
I started leaving more comments on Deep Sea News, often correcting Craig or Peter, and before I knew it Craig wrote to me one day and asked if I wanted to start contributing to site. My first post was about a new paper on marine geology. I was thrilled when the paper’s author, who was in the hydrothermal vent science community, commented on the post to tell me it was a good summary. I wrote a weekly post until sometime in June. I left because at the time, Craig and Peter wanted to make me a full-on member of Deep Sea News with my log-in and contract and everything – but ScienceBlogs, the host for the blog network DSN was a part of, wouldn’t let them add a third blogger apparently. I actually left Deep Sea News for a little over a half year and started The Other 95%, which rapidly grew a large following and helped me to experiment with and find my blogging voice. By the end of the year, though, ScienceBlogs after seeing my material, allowed me into the club as a member of DSN and I officially started in January, 2008, right after my first Science Online Conference (Well, actually the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference, at the time). I have stayed with DSN since then as we’ve moved from ScienceBlogs to Discovery Channel and finally settling in here at our web address, foregoing any profit-making in the name of science outreach. I blogged here and The Other 95% until May, 2010.
Deep Sea News has meant the world to me. After Peter left, Craig and I formed a core relationship that I’ve treasured very much. It has been very rewarding for me personally to work with him and over the years as we’ve grown in size with the addition of our close blogging buddies Miriam and Rick and added new voices like Holly, Al, and most recently Kim. In my opinion, the future of Deep Sea News lies in adding new voices, diverse both in gender/race/ethnicity/sexual orientation as well as in topical areas. I’m VERY proud of what we’ve accomplished at this blog and the informative, entertaining and irreverent environment we’ve cultured here, and most importantly our readership which has grown dramatically during my tenure here and continues to grow. We’ve always had a loyal following. As I was going through the my earliest comments and posts, I was heartened to see that in the 5+ years some of the same commenters are still here with us and while many no longer comment, I know many of them are still reading.
Sadly, and regrettably, the future of Deep Sea News will not include me. This is of my own doing and it’s a very hard thing for me to write. I love everything about this blog and the people who make up the DSN community. I’ve literally built the website, teaching myself CSS and html to do it, and have invested my own money, time and many emotions into building the brand as well as the medium. To people close to me, it’s no secret I’ve been struggling personally and professionally for several years. It started, as I mentioned above, in the Fall of 2007. I quickly found out my choice of committee was poor, and arrogantly arranged by myself. I didn’t listen to people I should have and put a real asshole on it and my advisor, who once seemed very supportive of what I was doing, completely changed direction and challenged me at every corner. He was literally trying to get me to quit. I conditionally passed my orals and wrote an essay, staying home over the christmas holidays to do this, for asshole committee member who took his time reading it and decided that it was insufficient on the grounds grammatical errors and not citing enough of his own papers.
I was devastated when my once-trusted advisor stabbed me in the back and forced me out of his lab. This was so sudden that I am still so very very very bitter. There was no warning, no slow degradation of our relationship. He was resentful of my online activities and the time I was spending my family. He saw that I was, myself, changing because of fatherhood. I had my first child in grad school in 2005 and I’ll never forget his response when I told him that we are expecting our second: “Well, looks like you have more time on your hands than I do”, as he turned and promptly walked out of my office. There was no going back after this. By March, 2008 he gave me the ultimatum: stay and he’ll guarantee I will fail, leave and write up what you’ve done for a masters degree. I should note, I was in grad school for 3 and a half years at this time, had 2 accepted first author manuscripts (in taxonomy though, which I was told was not “real science”), another submitted as a coauthor and have gotten a small grant to support my taxonomy work, in addition to presenting at several national and international conferences.
The point is, I felt I was doing everything right – and most people were shocked to hear about my dilemma. But I did what I had to do, which is what I’ve done every day now for the last 7+ years, and that is what is best for my family. Which gets to the root of the problem I’ve continuously had during post-parenthood scientific career – at least, as I’ve seen it. By continuously putting my family above everything else, I’ve been made to feel like a complete failure. It hasn’t been just my former advisor…. it is code written on the wall everywhere I go. And it’s frustrating because I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Do I just see it everywhere now, this ‘familyism’ in academia, because of my failure to work more than 8-9 hours a day? Because my inability to hold “scientific meetings” with the gang at the pub after hours? I continuously heard it from future bosses as a researcher and then again at a second failed attempt at a PhD “well, I know you have a family but…”; “never met a graduate worth anything that didn’t work on weekend….” ; “listen, I understand you’re situation isn’t traditional, but you’re going to have to do…”; and it goes on.
While this happening, and I’m not going to get into it any more than this, I found an amazing and supportive community online. All I had to do was write passionately about things I was passionate about. No one had to say anything, I could read the numbers for myself, occasionally see a colleague share something I wrote. I knew my voice was heard and respected and no one had to know a thing about me. I relished in writing for Deep Sea News. My best stuff was written as I was leaving my PhD and moving on to my first ‘job’ in science as a technician. I rose up quickly through the community and discovered I really enjoyed being a mentor within the community as much as just a science communicator. I worked very hard over the few years to make a career out of this and have had moderate success up to when I moved to Sweden. Things were actually looking up and I was solely supporting my family. But, never making enough money to actually get ahead, we were (are) constantly at the brink of catastrophe. I started taking on more work, like an addiction; every couple hundred dollars was that much less I’d have to charge groceries and gas on the credit card.
I was completely broken by Spring of 2011 when I was working as a upper division biology lecturer, PhD student, research technician, freelance writer and property manager. I have no recollection of anything that happened for the first 5 months of that year. I literally did get any sleep, was constantly creating new lectures, teaching myself the material I wanted to teach my students, handing in freelance assignments late or not at all, while I kept up with research I failed miserably in the classroom. Granted, I hate classes and don’t hide that fact. I learn on my own through experience and research. But this did not bode well with my new PhD advisor at the time. So, what did I do? What I’ve always done when shit hits the fan. Quit everything in life and try to figure out something new to do. I fell back on science communication, consulting and writing until now. As I said before, it was moderately successful, but never enough that we could succeed as a family. Couldn’t afford medical care, barely made mortgages (in fact, many times I didn’t) and student loans, our house we spent so much time and money fixing up was now falling by the wayside, but most importantly I was turning into a monster. I was mean, angry, bitter at my life, sharp and sarcastic in tone with my wife and kids, drunk all the time and seriously depressed. I locked myself in the shed and drank whisky, played sad songs on the guitar and cried. I created pseudonymous personalities on twitter to vent out my anger and be a general jackass. I neglected my kids, yelled too much, was a little too strict and nearly caused my once rock solid relationship with my to dissolve into bitterness. This was not the person I was or wanted to be. I allowed myself to slip into this monsterdom by giving up and giving in.
Leaving Wilmington was like leaving a nuclear war zone for me. I left behind the students, the OCD advisor who said he liked what I was doing with family and science communication and then decided no he wanted a younger more traditional student he could mentor instead of a colleague to work with, left behind the negativity I was feeling towards a career I had trained for since 2002 and resolved to repair my life. I think it was the fact that my wife didn’t want to be with me is what changed everything for me. After all I’ve been through, my wife is the one true constant in my life. My rock that I cling to. I felt the ‘system’, if you will, was trying to replace my rock with a pile of gravel. A pile insecurity – job, financial, future prospects – disguised as temporary security with trail of ifs and conditions. My wife wasn’t asking for ifs, and had sacrificed many of her dreams to allow me to pursue mine. How I could be such an asshole? Obviously, we patched up the holes and our relationship has never been stronger than it is at this moment. It is a great feeling. I can completely fail at everything else in life but I will never ever ever fail at being a husband and father again. And it saddens me still that I had to let it go so far. Though my children were young, 4 and 5, I can see even today traces of the scars of that horrible half year when I wasn’t there for them and yelled at them for the slightest thing.
Professionally, I’ve fucked up big time. I took money and assignments from people who were genuinely giving me a chance and trying to help me out. Assignments I was certainly capable of finishing but couldn’t. I allowed myself to get caught in a freelancer trap. The money I was making was decent and in steady supply could have supported us, but I was constantly having to chase the money because I couldn’t keep up with the bills. This is perhaps the most frustrating thing that ever happened to me. The moment you feel you’ve got a routine and things are under control, all the money disappears into rent, gas and groceries. And then it’s like what the fuck?? I just got $5000 and you realized the credit card payment that you had to put off for three months was now $1000 minimum payment for the missing months and late fees… I. Just. Can. Never. Get. Ahead! So I spent inordinate amounts of time finding more work which resulted in me never being to finish the work I already had and was often paid in advance for. I won’t name names, cause I want all the embarrassment for this to be laid squarely upon me, but I need to publicly apologize to these clients. I wish I could return the money but it was gone before I even got it… But I take full responsibility for my actions and am aware of the consequences, professionally and personally.
Moving to Sweden was the treatment for my ills, though certainly not the cure. For the first time in my life we’ve had some form of security and I feel that I can control my future, that it is entirely in my hands now and not up to search committees, advisors and funding agencies. Our family has affordable medical care, childcare and education – for the first time in our parental life my wife can afford to go to a job without worrying about daycare/preschool costs. We have family nearby, have been welcomed by our community and quickly made good friends here. We’ve never had friends outside the labs I’ve worked in. Never. This is the first time in our 13 year relationship we can depend on people other than ourselves and not a slave to moving vast distances like some kind of scientific mercenary for hire to bidder with a year support here and there. But this isn’t a cure because we still have to find a way to support ourselves and grow/prosper as a family together. Prosper – this is a new concept to me. I was so caught up in trying to survive I never had the chance to think about my future.
So here is where I am now. On a farm in the middle of a snow-covered forest of Sweden. I’m leaving Deep Sea News now because I’m leaving science behind, in general. I dedicated 12 or so years to scientific training, education and experience. Have tried new things, career changes, and I’m back to where I was an 19 year old leaving behind 4 years of culinary experience in Iowa (I had worked since 16, was kitchen manager by 18 and had a better salary here than I ever had in science) to pursue dreams of working in music. I’m back to where I was when I was a 21 year old who just got laid off from a recording studio in California and had no clue where to go next and decided to take classes at community college. I’m back to where I was in March, 2008 when I decided that I would drop out of the PhD program at Penn State. I’m back to where I was early in 2010 when I found out there wasn’t enough funding to keep me at my technician job at Duke. I’m back to where I was April, 2011, when I broke down at UNC Wilmington and left a second PhD attempt.
But therein appears to lie my superhero power. To not be defeated (at least not for long), pick myself back up and try something else. I have a family to support and can’t dwell on what could have been or should have been. I need to figure out how to bring in enough money to help my wife keep us afloat. The bitterness doesn’t leave, but it becomes manageable. I laugh about it now cause I left grad school in 2008 and my advisor stil makes up excuses for being too busy to get to the manuscripts I’ve left him with even then (which are 2 first authored papers of mine)! Surrounding myself with awesome people helps to reinforce my beliefs that this is better for me and my family. This has been very easy to do in Sweden where I’ve fallen into a community of entrepreneurial can-do attitudes who have been amazing at helping me get my brewery concept off the ground. It’s a stark contrast to the world of academia I found myself in before. It was all about challenging others’ ideas and abilities. I hope things change for science and academia, but they won’t. I don’t know if this was worth anyone’s reading, but now it’s out there. Maybe someone can feel empowered take back control of their life too. It’s hard, emotionally draining, but liberating.
So, on to the next chapter. I want to thank all the readers here at Deep Sea News, all the bloggers who’ve shared my works and have given me advice and support, my lovely fellow deeplings and in particular Craig for being more than a colleague but a close friend and confidant and co-schemer. I wish we could have done even half of the great things we’ve planned.