How Academia/ Science/ Modern Society Sabotages Community.

by Eryn Slankster-Schmierer, PhD on March 30, 2021

This essay was originally published to my social media on February 5, 2021.

Throughout my higher education, I was conditioned that everything I did and everywhere I lived was temporary. My personality doesn’t do well with this; I take a long time to establish friendships, a long time to get comfortable with people.

I went to community college for two years with the understanding that I would move on to Oakland University, in Rochester, Michigan. I went to University for another two years where I was reminded it’s not a good idea to get a graduate degree at the same University as your BS. I did anyway. In fact, I obtained my masters at OU, and transitioned from genetics to stem cell biology at the same University.  It was only at this moment of my life where I began developing a sense of community and belonging. I had FRIENDS (multiple, even) for what felt like the first time in my adult life.  The closest thing I ever had to a sitcom life: friends would come over to my house, we would take turns cooking elaborate meals for each other weekly, we would go to our nearest dive bar and karaoke. I had amazing group of women that I went to the bars and restaurants with.  I had FRIENDS. I had a community that I loved. To this day Rochester, MI feels more like home than any other place in Michigan and it is where I lived the shortest amount of time. But one by one, each one of my friends had to move on- to another school, to their careers- until eventually I had to move, too. And there went that deep connection to a community that took me 6 years to develop.

It was even strange for me to date, because you knew that at some point, you would either have to leave, settle for less than what you wanted in a career, or you would have to count on uprooting your significant other. But of course, I was going to try my damnedest anyway; at one point near the end of my PhD I even developed a long distance relationship, because I figured what the hell is the difference if we separate from the beginning or at the end.  (Turns out big difference, but that’s a different story).

And of course, I don’t want to go without the upside here. These developed relationships have lead to knowing someone EVERYWHERE. I could travel to nearly every state and be close to someone I cherish. But often we are all too busy to make it happen (happened when I missed a friend while travelling to Florida, and again when I was travelling for work and a friend was simultaneously travelling to my city) .

And then came my postdoctoral research: the intentionally temporary scientist. These can last anywhere from 1 to 6 years, but temporary is the known.  I moved to Nevada KNOWING it was temporary.  I was in a new state, FAR away from literally anyone I knew. I was forced to develop independence through my hobbies for the first time in my life. I began solitary expeditions of my new home (Reno) and backyard (Tahoe) via hiking and biking.

I developed a love for bouldering. I was attracted to my climbing gym in part because their faces were the first faces I became familiar with. Even the guy in the parking garage recognized me, and to someone who had absolutely no one within 2,000 miles, that was something huge.  I was part of the reno climbing community. And then I met my husband, who liked all of these things, too.  And he shared the same communities I liked. And now I could afford to start going to restaurants, get the best local coffee, and I developed at least superficial relationships with the vegan business owners that made me part of a whole. I became part of a community that helped lift two of my favorite vegan businesses out of forced retirement. I was part of the Reno vegan community. I began shopping small business where I knew my purchases directly mattered to my community. I knew fantastic things about Reno. For the second time in my life, I felt home.

And then I lost that temporary job; I lost my community security. Everyone knew it was coming. It has been 4 years and 2020 accelerated the transition. But now whether I am ready or not, I am once again faced with the consequences of being a scientist.  (Almost) Every single choice I could make is a MASSIVE sacrifice to me, to my husband, or to us both.  As a postdoc, the obvious course of action is to obtain a research/professor position at a university (move), or to seek another postdoc position until I’m ready for that (move). Or, I drop all of my scientific aspirations and training to become an instructor (settling, for me personally). Or, I obtain a job in science that massively exploits animals (morally compromising/appalling). Or, I seek out the “perfect” job for me, and drag us away from our beloved home.  Then there is an actual perfect other option, a telecommute option, that I’m currently seeking.

My point is, community is far, far down on the list of things people talk about at the “Freshmen Biology Seminar”.  They don’t tell you how you’re going to lose all your family and friends. They don’t tell you how you’re never going to have enough time or money to go visit them. At 34 years old, I am essentially being asked to vacate my community, morals, or my career path once again. It is a miserable choice to have to make as someone who has spent the majority of their life hovering just outside the “in group” circle. Maybe this is a plea that I land that long-shot perfect job, maybe this is me running head first into a brick wall I had wished I saw coming. Whatever it is, the only way I know how to deal with it, is to write.

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