Friday, September 16, 2011

the tyranny of time

Never enough hours in a day. Never enough days in the week. This sums up our life and I suspect the life of all working parents.

Today I was struck by the importance of even tiny increments of time. Fifteen minutes lost or gained can dictate the whole course of a day.

Biological science experiments are divided into precise chunks of time. Experimental protocols state precisely how long cells must be incubated with test drugs, how long they must be spun in the centrifuge, how long a reaction must proceed for before it is stopped and the result read out. If you ever visit a biology lab you will see harried scientists with timers clipped to their jeans chugging down too hot coffee during the precise 5 minute break they have between steps in an experiment. Once you start your experiments you can't just stop half way through and continue the next day, either, so if something is going to take four hours from start to finish you need to organize your day accordingly.

On Thursdays I take the kids to gymnastics class. It is one of the high points of their week, and mine too, but it starts at 4.30pm. With our new double drop off kindergarten and preschool schedule this requires me to leave the office at or before 3.55pm at the very latest to arrive at class almost on time. My working days are split between desk work and lab work, and my experiments sometimes fall on gymnastics days. Seemingly insignificant issues can throw the whole day out of whack. Needing a sharp pair of scissors to open the box of 96 well plates, and taking five minutes to locate one; needing to restart the computer controlling a critical instrument, there is ten minutes lost; having an urgent email to answer, that's twenty more minutes gone....

Today at 3pm I realized that this dribbling loss of little bits of time meant that I no longer had time to run my experiment and get out in time for the gymnastics class. The experiment was very important for a project, a project with its own timelines and deadlines, and it also utilized a very precious human tissue sample, one that had been donated by the family of someone who had died, so I felt a strong obligation not to waste this gift. I had to do the experiment, and if I did there was no way I could get the kids to the class any less than twenty minutes late. I tried to justify that missing one gymnastics class isn't a big deal, but to them, it is. I have disappointed them before, showing up at school and having to tell them that actually, mummy is too late to take them to class. They struggle to understand what I could have been doing that mattered so much. I send a message that I don't want to send; that my work is more important to me than they are.

The story has a happy ending. I don't work in a vacuum, I work with a team of other scientists, most of whom are also parents. I've learned, rather belatedly in life, to ask for help when I need it. My coworker finished my experiment for me, and I made it to class.

I'm blogging via the free wifi at gymnastics class now, watching the kids with half my brain, blogging and responding to the ping of my work email with the other. Stealing a fragment of  time back for me.