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.