To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are posting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Jill Syrotchen (@jillsyro) a PhD student at Tulane University discusses finding ‘harmony’ among all of her interests.

Hello everyone! My name is Jill Syrotchen and I’m an evolutionary ecology PhD student at Tulane University. My partner Chloe and I live in New Orleans, Louisiana together, a wonderful city that approaches life with particular joie de vivre and welcomes diversity with open arms. Moving from Michigan last year, we felt unsure of what the South held in store for us, yet excited to begin a new adventure together in a warmer climate.  I’d like to share with you the journey I’ve taken to find a work/life balance that works for me, the support I’ve received along the way from my partner and my PhD advisor, and show people that healthy relationships really can exist in academia – especially for minority folks.

This coming fall I begin the second year of my program, which means I joined my department while COVID vaccines were still a work in progress and Zoom meetings were the norm. Before starting my PhD program, quarantine took a toll on my mental health, as I am a routine-driven person who suddenly found herself without a routine. My work/life balance became all life and no work; for the first time in years I felt unsure of what to do with myself. So naturally when my program began, I dove headfirst into both classes and research, emphatically excited to create new routines around my passions.

By the end of my first month, I started to realize just how much work I packed into my new schedule. I asked myself, had I subconsciously overcompensated for my previous work/life imbalance? I loved the research I was working on, studying phenotypic plasticity in cutleaf monkeyflower (Mimulus laciniatus), but felt like I was missing something when my advisor regularly asked if Chloe and I had gone out to explore the city yet. I nearly always replied that we had been too busy to get out and have fun. With Chloe working on a one-year Master’s degree in immunology and microbiology, neither of us had much free time to enjoy anything but sleep. Our first semester had acquainted us with our lovely neighbors and local grocers, but little else of what makes New Orleans the city it is.

Granted, the culture of New Orleans had also taken a hit during the pandemic, with restrictions placed on most entertainment and dining. Nevertheless, after spending a chilly winter break with our families back in Michigan and returning to sunny New Orleans, we realized we needed to start spending more time getting to know this special city we’ve come to call home. As vaccine rollouts began in Louisiana during our second semester, more restrictions lifted, and we both started to leave the house more often. I made a conscious effort to not sign up for as much work as I had the semester before, giving myself more free time on evenings and weekends. My advisor’s innocuous questions about how I spent my free time sent me a message that free time was not only okay for me to take, but an expected part of life.

Since realigning myself with a work/life balance that feels more comfortable to me, I’ve started reading more for pleasure, learning to speak a third language (Japanese), and learning to play my first instrument (ukulele). With my department now vaccinated, I’ve finally gotten to socialize with more of my colleagues and make new friends. Chloe and I have since taken the time to explore the beautiful parks, restaurants, and live music of New Orleans; we even started volunteering around the city together to help distribute COVID vaccines and give back to our community. It feels good to explore other things that interest me outside of science again.

Jill (left) and Chloe (right) exploring Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, located just outside of New Orleans.

I hold the opinion that interests and hobbies outside of work make us more interesting people. As a scientist, they bring new ideas and perspectives to my research, allowing me to refresh my mindset. In this light, I advocate that work/life balance shouldn’t be something a person needs to struggle against others in order to achieve, nor does it need to be a solely independent pursuit. This balance can be encouraged by advisors, colleagues, and partners alike, all supporting us in a breadth of personal and professional growth. I am especially grateful to both my partner and my advisor for encouraging me to diversify and find harmony among all of my interests. In addition, a sincere thanks to my advisor for welcoming not only me, but also Chloe, into the caring community of our lab without pause.

Interested in contributing a post for the Rainbow Research Pride series? Find out more information here. And read the other posts in the series here.