On Instinct

Don’t try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition.

Madeleine L’Engle

For someone as myself, who actively pursued science and engineering to learn frameworks to systematically discover the mysteries of the universe and to put them into place, it is probably one of the most ironic truths that the most powerful insights, the most impactful moments, come from what we call our “gut instinct,” and nothing that is learned in books or the lab. When I was in the sleepless filled days after the birth of my second son, I was working with the rudiments of a data analytics structure in my part time gig for a startup company in Cambridge, MA. I wasn’t able to travel much, but luckily, I was able to be a significant contributor from afar (more on staying relevant in your field another time). We had hired a consultant to drive the framework to a more systematic database structure since I had a newborn and this was a critical effort in the company, and it seemed that my own role might be diminished or even cut as my CEO talked about giving him a permanent position with us (more on how my being a D disc work personality means I am upfront about what I can do for you, and I always help find my replacements even if it means I’m dumb enough to cut myself out of job, because I am always for the goal…). I was at a time when I was overwhelmed; it was hard, no doubt about it, to care for a newborn, a toddler, keep a household running, and work. “Part time” in a startup environment is a misnomer–expectations are always set high, and responsibilities often exponentially expand daily. And if you can’t do it, you’re weeded out pretty quickly. There are no excuses, and there’s always someone ready to fill your shoes. But I was at a point where I was not sure I could continue on. I was so tired. Exhausted. But I always knew if I quit, I’d not be able to go back. Being a woman in STEM is hard, and if I blinked, everything I had worked for all my life, the sacrifices I had made, would tumble in a heap of rubble at my feet. I had many friends who had quit to take care of their children, and would not be able and have not been able to go back. No matter what they tell you about how you can, it’s a lie. Quitting, no matter how attractive and EASY, was not an option, but tempting. So when my CEO called me to let me know that our contractor had another job, imagine my surprise when I heard my gut tell me “It’s now or never, Vickie. You want this, you need this position. It’s gonna suck short term, but tell him you would be happy to take it on again “full time” (aka still half pay), because THIS IS IT.” So, I took a deep breath, and that’s what I did.

Now that moment in time, that position, is what I believe gave me the edge when we were acquired and the inevitable layoffs happened. After 2 rounds I was a bit surprised I was still standing (someone told me it was just because I was cheap…thanks…). I was able to keep plugging away on database management, informatics, and analytics from afar. My new boss said I only need to travel once a quarter to Cambridge, which eased my schedule. Things improved dramatically for me. Being able to regain my work-life balance let me breathe, and it was during this time I discovered a critical model that filled in the gray area between the bench and real world (the holy grail in my work), that as I described in an earlier blog “On Houses of Cards,” my coworker usurped. I let that go, and that gave me the time to focus on an interesting side project that leveraged my microbiology and biofilm engineering skills. I spent a few weeks doing proof of concept work in the Cambridge lab in the fall of 2016 vetting potential technologies that pointed clearly to one solution, and fortuitously that solution was in St. Pete. When the final death came for our Cambridge location in 2017, imagine how lucky I was to be a critical contributor to this new project. And once again, when my boss came to me in the spring of 2017, and asked me to go full time though it meant I had to do bench work in St. Pete for at least 30% of my time, to work on this project because I was the only qualified person in the company to do it, my gut said THIS IS IT. Do it. So despite misgivings, resistance at home, the guilt I knew I’d feel about being a traveling mom, that’s what I did.

And so my nomadic life began, and I am on the most exciting adventure so far in my lifetime. I have found my spot in the sun, and no matter the day-to-day stresses, my life has become so much more than I could have ever imagined. I am fulfilled in ways that, as an exhausted new mom several years ago, I did not think I would ever achieve. And I think back, if I had not listened to my gut, I would not have this. So today or the next day, if you have a gut instinct, and you are thinking “huh? no way,” I’d urge you to listen to it, no matter how insane, inconvenient, or problematic to your lifestyle. Because you never know where it might take you. Perhaps, like me, to your paradise.