It’s been a long winter, and the past academic term seemed to stretch on forever, a blur of stress and deadlines punctuated by good news and bad. My lab got another paper accepted, and my outline-stage grant was shortlisted. But then I had to complete the full grant application alongside a hefty stretch of intensive teaching and supervising a team of researchers, while juggling a handful of manuscripts and some quite distressing issues in my life. As a result, I hit Easter break like a clapped-out car running out of fuel and rolling to a stop on the side of a long, deserted roadway.
This isn’t anything unusual: holidays for me often feel more like a period of convalescence – especially the first few days of it. This sense is compounded by the usual guilt that gathers every time I am not doing anything, an insistent voice in my ear scolding me for not writing, weeding the garden or embarking upon some long-awaited DIY project. Instead, I tend to sit in the garden with a cup of coffee and stare into space, wishing I were asleep instead. If I’m lucky, I might manage a few handwritten lines in my journal.
So here I am, laptop resting on the marble-topped table at the back of my garden, listening to the creek spilling into the pond, and the urgent springtime songs of robins, blackbirds, tits and finches. Cherry blossoms drift downward and speckle the surface of the water, which reflects back trees and sky. I’m past the convalescence stage of this break, but I still feel like I haven’t had a proper sleep since the 1980s. My body aches, the consequence of pounding the concrete pavements five days a week over the past four months as I commuted from Kent to London and transited between campuses, going about my frantic academic business, prolonged by the on-foot school run. Sometimes I fear I’m getting too old to physically keep up the pace. When I fantasize about quitting academia, it’s not to take up some high-flying alternative career, but to become a gardener or a park ranger, somewhere far away from the city where I can work with my hands and breathe the fresh air.
I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel, of course. If I can get enough momentum over the next two years to ensure continuous research funding (“escape velocity”, a former colleague used to call it), I’ll have a fighting chance. Diversification is probably key, even though that’s the last thing I want. But it’s so hard to convince anyone that a usually-not-life-threatening bacterial disease which is most problematic in older women, and which already has a cure traditionally viewed as “effective”, should be funded at all. Grant reviewers tend to point out that there are far bigger problems out there, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, and that antibiotics are perfectly serviceable, so why dabble with new therapies?
This gap in understanding the reality behind the myth means more precious lines of the application devoted to explaining how chronic and recurring urinary infection are far more serious than people think – which then means less space to devote to the plan of attack. Leading, in turn, to criticisms about lack of experimental detail. Achieving that balancing act has been the product of nearly eight years of grantsmanship refinement, and time will tell whether I’m finally getting it right. The cause is so very important – thinking about the plight of the patients, and how close we are to making a difference, is sometimes the only thing that keeps me going.
So, five more days to forget about work, lick my wounds, catch up on my sleep and spend precious time with my family. Unusually, the weather has actually cooperated this year, with summery sun arriving just in time for the hank holiday weekend. So I’d better sign off now – I’ve got goosegrass to pull up and a son and husband to cuddle close.