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Academic Careers , , ,

On the Importance of Friendship in a Scientific Career

A scientific career is, for many of us, one of the most intense endeavors that we undertake.  It both captures and defines our lives.  As a scientist, you often think and worry about your work when you are out of the laboratory — even while lying in bed at night.  You experience waves of enthusiasm, rebelliousness, and even self-doubt as you continually weigh your efforts.  You are sometimes haunted by the feeling that your results justify your existence.  Yet no matter the extreme stresses that come with the work, the benefits of gaining new knowledge and insight into the natural world bring rewards that make other aspects of everyday life dull and drab in comparison. 

A successful career in science depends on many factors beyond native abilities, skills, education, and experience.  The importance of mentors and mentoring has been greatly emphasized in academic centers;  the need for wise and dedicated counselors and teachers is self-evident.  The necessity for colleagues, collaboration, and networking is well understood.

But the importance of friendship can often be taken for granted.  The intangibles that build professional relationships into the knowledge, trust, and bonds of friendship are complicated and deep.  Certainly they involve elements of equality, unselfishness, and concern.  The components of friendship are many and hard to define.  Out of the multitude of definitions for friendship, a favorite of mine is “one who knows all about you and loves you all the same.”  It contains more than a grain of truth.

I was strongly reminded of the importance of friendship in my own career as a visual scientist by the recent death of Ruth Kirschstein (See Retrospective, Science 13 November 2009: Vol. 326, p. 947, and Beryl Benderly’s recent tribute in Science Careers).  My years as a Clinical Fellow at the NIH in the 1960s provided me with training and direction that were important in ensuing decades.  Although assigned to an ophthalmology and visual science section at the NIH, I was given sufficient “elective” time to find my way to the laboratory of Alan Rabson, a rising star in experiential pathology.  Here I was introduced to viral oncology and became grounded in the fundamentals of pathology, tissue culture, viral transformation, and electron microscopy. 

To know and be mentored by Al Rabson was to know Ruth Kirschstein, his wife, for they were an inseparable team.  She too was in the early stages of her distinguished career in research and administration.  Their interest and support, as well as gracious hospitality, made my years at the NIH a very special time that has been an inspiration for me ever since. 

I later returned for visits to NIH and stayed in contact with both of them.  We shared scientific and personal updates and sought and offered advice to each other as opportunities and adversities presented themselves.  As the decision tree in my scientific career unfolded, their friendship was a resource I came to treasure. 

In recent years, when my own career took an administrative turn and I spent time meeting my Masters of Health Administration requirement with an internship in the NIH Director’s Office, I came to appreciate fully and benefit from their idealism and vision.  Their friendship and the friendship of others has been a major factor in the advancements and enjoyments that I have experienced throughout my career.  
For individuals starting a scientific career today, the stresses and complexities of science are certainly more intense than 40 years ago.  But the opportunities to build friendships are there if one takes the time and makes the effort.  When such an opportunity arises, I implore you to go beyond a mentor-student, role-model, or colleague-to-colleague relationship and build a lasting friendship. Such friendships will enrich and support your career.  Friendships formed and continued early in your career have a strength and value that more than justifies the effort.