Monday, June 11, 2007

More pressure than can be borne?

It is a sad day for the environmental science community. We have a lost a shining young scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Sulzman of Oregon State University. She was a dynamic individual, an award-winning teacher, and an exciting researcher. She died last night after ingesting a caustic substance, apparently committing suicide. She leaves behind an elementary-school aged daughter and a husband.

She participated in a panel a few years ago called "So you want to be a college professor?." The grad students in the audience asked the professors how it was possible to have a personal life on top of the demands of a research and teaching career. The professors stressed that the flexibility of the academic work day compensated in large part of the sheer volume of work. Dr. Sulzman said something to the effect of "where else would I get to do what I love and still be able to be home for my daughter after school."

I am left wondering what went wrong for Dr. Sulzman. Were the pressures to continually get funding and publishing results too much? What about the desire to produce outstanding classes on top of her other committments? Was there a problem in her relationship with her husband? Did she feel guilty about lack of time with her daughter? Did she miss having "free" time? Was it years of sleep deprivation, mother guilt, and impostor syndrome? I am left wondering what could drive a woman to despair so deep that she'd leave behind her daughter.

I am left wondering whether the life she led was "worth it" while it lasted. I am left wondering whether there is something wrong with "the system" that puts so much pressure on individuals to constantly perform. I am left wondering about the expectations that we have for our selves - to succeed at so many endeavors simultaneously. I am left wondering about the extra burden we carry as women - primary caregivers facing an unequal playing field at work - and the chronic pressure that adds to our loads.

Maybe none of these things had anything to do with Dr. Sulzman's death. That's the problem with suicide - it leaves questions forever unanswered and family and friends forever grieving. But if it causes some measure of critical examination of the forces at play in Dr. Sulzman's life - and the lives of other women scientists/academics - then maybe some good can come of this tragedy.

But tonight I hug my daughter close and tell her that I will never leave her. And tonight I pray for Elizabeth Sulzman's family - especially her daughter - may they find some peace.


Annie said...

I, too, am saddened by the news of a promising woman scientist's death. However, we can only assume it was suicide at this point.

Jenn said...

How sad! Her family will be in my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Oh, no. I am so sorry to hear this.

Thank you for posting it--I feel like the more people who know, the more chance that there might be something positive that could come from such a tragedy.

I remember when I was in grad school, my professor once pointed out to one of my fellow labmates that we were NOT entitled to vacation as such (and that it was actually written into the NIH training grant agreement). Thus we all referred to the "v-word" and dreaded telling him that we would be leaving even for a holiday.

I personally have come to believe that you do better science if you're not in the lab 70 hours a week.

Janet Jeyapaul said...

I agree with Mr/Ms Anonymous one must take time to relax and have a personal life too...Lab life can be stressful-- i have known two prof from India who committed suicide in US because they did not achieve as they is ups and downs ...each day must include moments of fun and laughter..also what you believe in .. the larger issues of life matters..if one believes this life is all that matters then such things happen..but when we believe in life now and the hereafter with good rationale ,adversity doesnt put a full stop to things..if one knew what I went through I should have committed suicide a long time ago..but hope truimphed and the bad days turned to good ones..patience and perserverance develops character that is essential.

Lisa said...

Thanks for writing this post. I just heard yesterday that the one friend I have who I was sure would become a professor had some sort of mental break at grad school and will not be finishing. I guess we all need to pay attention to how our work affects our mental health and that of people close to us.

Anonymous said...

Only last week, she seemed upbeat and was talking in a positive way about future plans. Who can make sense of it? Can some people function normally in public while in private they are unraveling?

As with any untenured scientist there were enormous pressures on her to publish publish publish. And yet her teaching FTE was 75% and she was teaching a lot of undergrad classes (with great love and skill I might add). That left 20% FTE for research and 5% for service. And what exactly can one accomplish in 20% time? Meanwhile colleagues had such high hopes and expectations for her. Her PhD research was impressive. Her major prof was well known and respected. But her great love was teaching.

I have several friends who are tenure track (not yet tenured) with small children. They are under such enormous stress I have no idea how they hold it all together. Some have trouble getting the grant funding and they are petrified of not getting tenure. And then what? Leaving academia is a very difficult process. There is light at the other end, for sure!, and one can wind up with a much more fulfilling life outside that rat race, but it is a long hard road.

I came to the conclusion awhile ago that tenure track academic life is not compatible with having a family. Either choose one or the other but not both. Or--have kids early, and THEN do the PhD and academic track; that can work. But to have young children while on tenure track is just not a reasonable plan.

Amber said...

I'm so so sorry to hear this. I will be praying.

Anonymous said...

I think we also need to be reminded of other pressures beyond those incurred as a tenure track professor. There are so many other forms of trauma and pain that can further contribute to professional pressure. There is so much we don't know...we can never know her most intimate feelings or what happened Sunday evening. We can only pray for Elizabeth & her loved ones. We need to look around us--look into the hearts & eyes of our friends, colleagues & family members and look for signs of pain. We need to comfort those around us who may be suffering from some kind of hidden despair. Elizabeth gave so much love and guidance to those around her. To honor her life we should do our best to love and assist those around us.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I appreciate your comments and have been thinking about that too. I have also been thinking about what signs I missed? What opportunities I missed? Or perhaps she was really doing fine just a few days ago, but something happened suddenly that pushed her off the edge. I am stunned.

She loved her work, both teaching and research, and the people she worked with. She was so full of life and her work was a part of that exuberance. And that is part of what makes this seem all so very impossible.

Amelie said...

I'm so sad to hear this. And I understand the questions you ask yourself very well. Take care.

jemoku said...

I am sad, stunned, angry, tired, numb. This could not have happened but the unthinkable, the unimaginable has happened. Elizabeth was a friend, a role model, a colleague. Although a million scenarios have played out in my head, we must not focus on the unknown but honor and cherish Elizabeth's memory. I remember her for always being there for me as a mentor. I remember her for her enthusiasm and dedication to her students. I remember her smile and endless energy. I remember spending hours correcting lab assignments over dinner and trying to justify our roles as teachers (in my case, as a teaching assistant). Her heart was warm, her eyes were inviting and her soul, pure. As unacceptable as this news is, Elizabeth will live in my memory as an inspiration. Many times she leant a shoulder to cry on and provided insight into means to balance family with career. She reminded me to take the time to be with my daughter and watch her grow. Her advice regarding an up-coming job interview was to "be prepared to discuss strengths and weaknesses (and how to put the latter in a positive light: e.g.,"I tend to be a perfectionist. My family helps me remember how to have fun once the deadline is past.")" She cherished her family. She was a dedicated scientist and teacher. She was a loyal friend and a beloved mentor. I looked up to her. I always will.

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to everyone whose lives will be less bright due to her loss.

I cannot claim to know the truth of what happened, nor am I a medical professional, but my own experiences and subsequent reading about suicide after the loss of a loved one compel me to point out an important point: suicides seem senseless precisely because the thought process behind it doesn't make sense. The usual lines of thought can get thwarted by undiagnosed changes in brain chemistry/mental illness, an accompanying heightened sense of emotional pain, god knows what else -- leading to deeply illogical conclusions and actions. So although I don't discount the possibility that the academic and other stresses in Dr. Sulzman's life may have contributed to her suicide, I don't think that speculation about A leading to B is the right model; that's much too rational and linear, there's very likely a monkey wrench of disturbed thinking in the middle.

I also truly hope that those who are suffering her loss aren't compounding the pain by blaming themselves for not catching any warning signs. Sometimes they can be extraordinarily subtle, if present at all. And I didn't have the honor of knowing Dr. Sulzman personally, but it sounds very possible that she could have fit a profile of someone who could have hid anything that could be construed as a 'warning sign' very well: high-achieving, high expectations for herself, skilled in 'keeping it together' and putting on a good professional face.

I'm so sad to hear about this. Again, not knowing the details of what happened, I hope it isn't unseemly to put in a plug for increased awareness of mental illness, too often a cause of suicides -- mental illnesses are treatable biologically-based diseases, not personal shortcomings, please ask for help if you need it! It's easier to help than to grieve.

Chuck said...

I am so sorry to hear this, but I agree with the anonymous who says that looking for reason in an irrational act is futile. I had high school buddies who had a parent commit suicide. The survivor guilt can be uextreme, and asking why only compounds it.

Super Babe said...

All the same questions I have... it is very sad, and even though I do not have kids, I do wonder how a woman could be pushed to that edge and think there was no other way out ... :(

Anonymous said...

I was going to write that my learning why someone might commit suicide was one of the prices I and my family paid for my PhD in science. On the other hand, understanding at least one of the reasons might actually be a blessing that only feels like a toll.

At any rate, I now work outside of research, and you couldn't persuade me to take an academic position by force or temptation.

And it's true: my reason, to escape suffering, was completely irrational. It didn't come from reason. It rose up in the form of a wordless desire, very slowly, over years. As soon as my reason noticed it, it sent me to a therapist. Thank God.

Tim said...

I was devastated when I heard about Elizabeth. I was a grad student when she started and I was her TA for over a year. I just contacted her about a month ago asking her for letters of recommendation and she was, as usual, incredibly helpful. I can't and don't understand what would have pushed her to do what she did, but I do know that she has always felt incredible pressure in that job. Her appointment was 75% teaching, but the academic system rewards research and publication, not teaching. I told people she had a 75% teaching, 75% research appointment. There is a montage of pictures of her with her students on the CSS web site. There is a picture of her smile on that site that made me cry. The world is a darker place for the loss of that smile.

S0rcy said...

She's gone. We miss her. It will take a long time for us to stop looking in the hallways for her, not to email her when we come up with something new we've thought of, or to ask a question that "Surely Elizabeth will be able to give me a hint.." She was the teacher we all dream of and the type of person many of us would like to be.

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