Love in the Lab

Neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese lived with labmate Alessandra Umiltà for 2 years before colleagues figured out they were a couple. “We were pretty good at keeping our private life separate from work,” Gallese says. They started dating a year after Umiltà joined Giacomo Rizzolatti’s University of Parma lab, in 1997, to start her Ph.D. on mirror neurons. Eight years her senior, Gallese was an associate professor, also in Rizzolatti’s lab. Spending so much time together “helped us get to know each other quicker,” Gallese says. The relationship blossomed.

“When you’re at work, you work. You don’t make love, you don’t kiss each other, you don’t whisper sweet words: You talk about neurons.” —Vittorio Gallese

There are many potential benefits to having your partner working in the same lab, department, or institution. Apart from mutual understanding and moral support, a scientist couple can collaborate and help each other scientifically. But living a romance in the laboratory, as in any other workplace, is complicated. There are rules to follow—but romance rarely follows rules. Whether married or just dating, scientist couples need to be aware of several potential pitfalls, such as workplace gossip, conflicts of interest, and breaches of trust.

Lab etiquette and workplace gossip

Some laboratory couples may be inclined to keep their romance a secret, especially at first. But whether your relationship is public knowledge in the lab or kept private, it’s important to remain discreet and professional. Occasional, subtle acknowledgement of your special status may be OK, but you need to keep it on low boil. You may be a couple at home, but in the lab you’re colleagues.

“Often people who are in a life partnership may stand closer to their partner, they may touch their partner affectionately on the shoulder or give them a hug. We turn that off in the professional sphere,” says Elizabeth Simmons, a theoretical physicist who serves as dean of Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. Simmons and her husband each hold a professorship in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, but they often collaborate on high-energy physics projects and jointly supervise graduate students and postdocs.

Gallese and Umiltà chose to avoid personal discussions in the lab. “We waited until we were in a pub or at home,” Gallese says. “When you’re at work, you work. You don’t make love, you don’t kiss each other, you don’t whisper sweet words: You talk about neurons.”

Merit and scientific independence

One issue that can be especially damaging to young scientists is the perception by peers that career success is a result of a relationship and not scientific achievements. The risk is especially large when one of the two scientists is more senior, or when the two scientists are hired as a couple—a phenomenon that is particularly common in the United States. Couple hiring across all disciplines in 13 leading U.S. research universities increased from 3% in the 1970s to 13% in the 2000s, and although there may be good reasons behind the increase—it’s apparently good for retaining talent and promoting diversity—the practice can be controversial.

Regardless of the merits of the practice, it can be tough going for the less accomplished scientist in a faculty pair. Sometimes, people “do not view the second person in the couple as a true faculty member, but merely as an appendage,” Simmons says.

“People can be very unfair and unkind, and they feel free to treat you like a second-class scientist because they think your husband has made things easy for you and done the work for you,” writes Heather Viles, a professor of biogeomorphology and heritage conservation at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, in an e-mail to Science Careers. Her husband, Andrew Goudie, who is 14 years her senior and worked in the same department until he retired—is “hugely well known” in her field, Viles says.

This makes it all the more important for couples to make sure that each individual develops—and gets to be seen—as a successful scientist in his or her own right. Of course, the first and most crucial step is to build an independent research portfolio and strong credentials. Viles carved her own niche by developing separate research interests, skills, and networks of colleagues and collaborators. Making yourself visible at seminars by asking questions and joining committees can also help, Simmons says.

Even when both are established, each member of a scientist couple that works closely together should “always keep a project or paper of their own going,” Terrie Moffitt writes. Moffitt and her husband, Avshalom Caspi, run a lab together at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, investigating mental health and human development. Both hold named research chairs. Having a project of your own, Moffitt says, “demonstrates to everyone, most vitally yourself, that you are not wholly dependent on your partner for ideas.”

Conflicts of interest

Scientist couples need to be aware of the potential for engaging in—or being perceived as engaging in—conflicts of interest. An example: “A senior scientist in a relationship with a junior scientist gets them a good job,” says Brian Martin, a professor of social sciences at the University of Wollongong in Australia with 15 years’ service on university committees that investigate claims of sexual harassment. Similarly, the senior member should not supervise a partner’s thesis or grade their assignments. Such examples are fairly clear—but “there are plenty of less clear-cut situations,” Martin says. “What if you had a brief sexual relationship with the applicant that ended amiably a year ago?”

In such cases—as in many cases where conflicts of interest may be perceived—disclosure is a powerful tool. Also, scientists who are concerned about maintaining a relationship at work should discuss any potentially fraught issues with “people who are independent, principled, and wise, such as a friend, a counselor, or an ethics adviser,” Martin says. 

Abuse of trust

Martin gives the hypothetical example of a senior person who uses their charisma, stature, and reputation to seduce—then reject—a junior staff member. When the relationship ends unsatisfactorily, the subordinate realizes that the senior person has used status and resources to his or her advantage.

Students—particularly younger students—are especially vulnerable, so some institutions, including Yale University, have barred faculty from sexual relationships with undergraduates. However, the impact of such policies may be limited. In a 2005 survey of U.K. college and university lecturers by the Teacher Support Network, nearly 18% of respondents admitted to having a sexual relationship with a student. However, 40.5% of survey respondents did not know whether having a sexual relationship with a student contradicted their university policy.

Of course, some relationships between senior and junior colleagues work out in the end, however ill-advised they may seem. “Some become long-term marriages,” Martin says. “It is difficult for rules to draw a boundary that is both precise and fair when the circumstances are complicated or ambiguous.” As a rule of thumb, a supervisor and student who want to become personally involved should discuss “getting another supervisor,” Martin says.

For a relationship to be a romance, both partners have to be willing participants. Alice—we’ve changed her name to protect her identity—was preparing to start her master’s degree program in 1990. She was driving to a field site for 2 days with an adjunct professor who had been hired to teach her data-collection techniques. “Instead of booking a room with two beds, he would book one room with one bed,” Alice says. “He had power over me,” she says. “I didn’t want him to affect my success at getting my thesis.” Professional travel can be especially problematic because of how it blends living and working. One approach is to “be part of the planning and take as much power as you can, make field arrangements, make travel arrangements,” Alice suggests. On site, if you feel at risk, stay in touch with other field scientists, administrative staff members, and even hotel receptionists. “Your networking and connecting with others can be short, subtle, but it’s still an important little lifeline when you’re in trouble.” Familiarize yourself with your institution’s policies, and choose a work environment where people can discuss sexual issues openly, Martin says. Once the damage has been done,for a young scientist’s career, Martin says. And it “may or may not be effective.” He recommends that whistleblowers “gather evidence, consider options, seek advice, find out what has worked previously, and only act when ready.”

Breaking up

It can help to make peace with your ex, and to make clear your expectations of how your relationship will operate in the future, the graduate student says. If no agreement can be reached, it might be best to stop working with that person altogether. Also, “make sure at least one person in the lab knows what’s going on so you have immediate support.”

Entering a personal relationship at work requires an awareness of the potential pitfalls and a delicate balance of privacy and openness. For those who manage to make it work, the professional and personal rewards are hard to match. “There’s so much you share with a partner,” Gallese says. And “the outcome of romance in the lab for us was two marvelous kids.”

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