Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

My Midlife Crisis

A lot of my fellow bloggers- at least those that blog in the same circles I do- have been asking a lot of bigger, more introspective questions this week. It's all gotten me thinking. On top of that, I had a new visitor, Rhea, who recently left me a comment. Her blog has a fair bit to say about the mid-life crisis, and includes a rather nifty definition of the phenomenon:

"Discontent with life and/or lifestyle that may have provided happiness for many years. * Boredom with things/people that have hitherto held great interest * Feeling adventurous and wanting to do something completely different * Questioning the meaning of life, and the validity of decisions clearly and easily made years before * Confusion about who you are or where your life is going."

Ten years ago, I was in the throes of my midlife crisis. It largely revolved around my career, though the upheaval influenced a lot of other areas of my life as well. I’ve blogged before about some of the things that led me to a career in science. For a long time, I traveled a road that I had mapped out fairly early in life. When I was in high school, I already knew that I loved science, especially biology, and planned a career in it. In college, I started wondering if I could make a living as a field biologist, and discovered that I really, really loved chemistry. So I redirected my efforts towards becoming a biochemist, with an eye towards grad school and a career in the biotechnology industry. And proceeded to do just that.

For more than a dozen years after grad school, I worked for a biotech firm developing DNA technology for use in medical diagnostics. The picture at the top of this posting is from that work. It's white blood cells (mine) stained with a piece of DNA whose sequence is frequently deleted in colon cancer tissue. My work involved the DNA labeling technology used on the specimen in the photo.

Throughout my time in the biotech industry, I continued keeping a hand in the field biology world through my volunteer work at Bluff Spring Fen. This was very successful and rewarding work for me. By the mid 1990's, I was growing disillusioned with my biotech job. I was unhappy with them and, frankly, by the end of things they were not happy with me, either. I was considering re-locating to a different part of the country to take a job with another company.

Throughout this time of turmoil, I would often wonder about making serious change of direction in my career, and following my passions for prairie, ecological restoration and butterflies. I was unable to see a way to turn it into a paying job, and the quotation from Rhea's blog nicely reflects my state of mind back then. One day, I got a call from an acquaintance who was then the president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. They were building a new museum with a butterfly exhibit. Would I comment on the plans?

I agreed to have a look at the plans, and promptly forgot about it all for a couple of weeks. One night, just before bed after a very bad day at work, I remembered the plans. I wondered about the possibility of creating a research effort in local butterfly conservation attached to the new museum. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night. The next morning, I called my colleague and said that my comment about the new exhibit was, "are you staffing?" Three months later I had agreed to what was then a frighteningly large pay cut and began my first day of what has become my dream job.

When I took the new job, I worried that I would always look back and feel that I had made the wrong decision by not moving to California. The reality has been that I have always felt a strong sense of having made the right decision. I realize that this sort of story does not necessarily lead to a happy ending. I'm just glad that it did for me.

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At 23:34, Blogger Ur-spo said...

good post!
but what exactly is the picture?

At 06:37, Blogger Doug said...

Ahem... from the post:

The picture at the top of this posting is from that work. It's white blood cells (mine) stained with a piece of DNA whose sequence is frequently deleted in colon cancer tissue.

The labeled gene is visible as the two blue spots visible in wach white blood cell.

At 12:53, Anonymous mark h said...

Beautifully written post....... and it rings true for anyone whose been through it. Thanks, Doug. Your post is also simply a GREAT story about your career. Oddly enough, it often is hindsight before we figure out how we landed where.

At 08:54, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing that. i hope to write about it as eloquently, but i am still in the thick of the midlife experience.


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