There is a feeling, in life, in science, in relationships, when one feels centered. One feels things in balance. The project, relationship, garden, is the right size: big enough to challenge and matter and reach a threshold of importance. But not so large that it is out of control, beyond one’s reach, or formless.
One of the abilities(? skills ? knowledge ?) that I have acquired in my dotage is the the ability to recognize this in what I do. I know when a grant goes in (and goeth in they do) whether the project is centered and balanced. There is lots else to get trashed for (and trashed they do get). It’s more than just size, its whether the aims fit, whether the experiments answer the questions, etc. Not being balanced or centered is something I can sense before I identify what is wrong. I certainly could not do this when I was a asst. prof. It is not a gift or a knack, because this is something I worked for, not something given to me (although everything has a genetic basis).
I have a wonderful former trainee. Let’s call her Sue. Sue dramatically changed fields to come work with me. She did smashingly. And she as time continued, became a friend. We live in different places, and I miss her and we try to talk when we can. Sometimes she comes and visits and we are both miserable hung over the next morning. She made hard choices after her postdoc that involved family. I was sad at the time, but never doubted or questioned that she did the right thing for her. She has struggled in the 5 or so years since she left me. But her inherent excellence came through (and I recognize this is rare, all honor to Sue) and she has landed on her feet and took off running. The project she did with me could have been further developed, but her interest has changed to much more direct clinical applications. This is absolutely fine with me as I watch her grow into her own work.
Now, Sue has a full time tenure track job in a med school. She has great mentors there and people who want to help her, but they also recognize that she has a remarkable skill set that could be lent to many projects. Her problem at this point is the kid in the candy shop problem. She has too many opportunities. She is pulled this way and that. These projects are not being someone else’s lab-monkey. They are opportunities for her to develop someone else’s foundations in a new direction. She called me for help, being somewhat unsure of the problem. It was one of the best things I’ve done in the last month or so… help her to figure out what to do and where to go. Mostly I listened, since deep down she knows it, and it just needed to come up in her mind.
Anyway, Sue is totally wonderful, I am, well, having trouble with the word – proud isn’t quite right, but its a little of that. Happy doesn’t convey it all, either. But, as much as I love my science, there is a way in which I love my trainees. They are scattered in the world, doing their own thing, and occasionally checking back in. I have helped Sue become centered in her work and ideas, and I am feeling centered in my mentoring. I could not ask for more.