When Two Scientists Fall in Love
When Two Scientists Fall in Love

When Two Scientists Fall in Love

Partnering in life with a fellow researcher brings unique challenges as well as rewards.

Andy Tay
Andy Tay
Feb 13, 2020

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Catherine and Wolf Fridman met more than 40 years ago when they were research trainees at the Saint Louis Hospital in Paris. “Wolf is a very articulate person and I was impressed by his medical knowledge,” says Catherine, now an immunologist at the University Paris-Descartes. Wolf, an immunologist at the same institute, was similarly impressed with Catherine, who he found “very smart.” It would be another six years—and a marriage and divorce for each of them—but the two researchers eventually started dating, and got married.  

The Fridmans are one of many couples whose romance was catalyzed by science: according to a survey of academics at 13 universities reported in 2008 by The Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, 36 percent had a partner who was also an academic. In the natural sciences, 83 percent of women and 54 percent of men in academic couples had another scientist as a partner. 

Catherine and Wolf Fridman
courtesy of catherine and wolf Fridman

For Wolf, the tendency of scientists to pair up with one another is not surprising. “Scientists work long hours and are not highly paid. The benefit of having your significant other who is also a scientist is knowing that there will be always be understanding and support,” he says. The Fridmans have learned to extend that support to each other even when they’ve been in competition for the same position, he adds. “Eventually, we both learned to accept that one’s success does not extinguish the other.” 

With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, The Scientist spoke with couples from different backgrounds about the rewards of partnering with a fellow scientist—and the challenges it can bring.

Going the distance

Launching a career in academia commonly means moving to pursue opportunities, but what to do when your dream job isn’t in the same city—or even the same continent—as your partner’s? That’s the case for Senjuti Saha and Yogesh Hooda, who met in 2010 at the University of Toronto when they were PhD students. They married in 2014, and today, Saha is a microbiologist at the Child Health Research Foundation in her native country of Bangladesh, while Hooda, who is originally from India, works at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in the United Kingdom as a biochemist. 

“In Bangladesh, I get to work with hospitals and nongovernmental organizations, and gain experience I wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere,” Saha explains. “But I also know that similarly, MRC LMB could offer opportunities for Yogesh that Bangladesh could not.” 

Given their disparate research interests, the pair acknowledges that in the foreseeable future, they may need to continue living separately. It’s important to them that neither’s career gets lower priority. “In our culture, it is usually expected of women to sacrifice their careers for their husbands, but Yogesh was extremely supportive,” Saha says. “He told me that because he is not sacrificing his ambitions for me, there is no reason I need to do the same.” 

Yogesh Hooda and Senjuti Saha
COURTESY OF SUNJUTI SAHA AND YOGESH HOODA

Since July 2016, Saha and Hooda have only seen each other for about 60 days each year. “I would definitely want us to meet more frequently,” Saha tells The Scientist, “but because we are apart, it does not mean that we lose touch with each other. I find it extremely rewarding that as a couple in science, we can relate to the same rewards, frustrations, and failures.”

While most couples wouldn’t find a long-distance relationship to be an ideal arrangement, working too closely can bring its own challenges, blurring the boundary between work and personal life. Jessica Martínez, a bioengineer, started dating her partner in 2019 after they’d been working as postdocs in the same cardiac magnetic resonance imaging lab—originally based at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then at Stanford University—for two years. (Martinez’s partner asked not to be named for privacy reasons.) “As lab colleagues, we are performing experiments and collaborating all the time,” Martínez says. Eventually, their intimate working relationship blossomed into a romance. 

But the couple found that they were spending too much time together at work, and their enthusiasm for spending time with each other after hours and on weekends declined. So they started to introduce a bit of distance. First, they separated their desks; then they started working in separate offices. Now they even coordinate their office hours to minimize overlap. They both agree that this arrangement has helped them create a more defined work-life boundary, making their relationship healthier. 

Dual hire

Catherine and Wolf Fridman say that they’ve seen an evolution in institutions’ willingness to accommodate two-scientist couples in their hiring. “Twenty years ago, we saw more dual hires with couples at the same place, such as [at] Institute Curie where we used to work at,” says Catherine. “The system in the past was more friendly to couples. It is different today,” because of institutional concerns about the potential for unhealthy power dynamics.

Zhenan Bao and Jeffrey Tok with their children
COURTESy OF ZHENAN BAO AND JEFFREY TOK

Other couples who spoke with The Scientist have also found navigating academic careers to be challenging for couples—an issue known as the “two-body problem.” Zhenan Bao and Jeffrey Tok know this all too well. The couple met at the University of Chicago as chemistry graduate students in 1992 and started dating two years later. After graduation, Bao went to work in Bell Labs in New Jersey, while Tok took a postdoctoral position at Harvard University, then accepted a professorship at the City University of New York. In 2004, when Bao was offered an associate professorship at Stanford, Tok gave up his tenured position to move with her. Tok, who is now the director of Stanford’s Uytengsu Teaching Center, says that it is challenging to find ideal jobs in the same location for science couples. He added that in his and Bao’s case, it “involved a lot of frank discussions, mutual sacrifices, and compromises.”

Bioengineer Anja Kunze and mathematician Dominique Zosso have faced the challenge of dual academic hire as well. The couple met as undergraduate exchange students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in 2005. They stayed at EPFL for their graduate training before heading to the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2012 for postdocs. When the time came to look for tenure-track positions a couple years later, they found it stressful to bring up their dual-career situation during interviews, worrying that interviewers might assume they were unwilling to take an offer if their partner were not offered a job too. “[Our interviews] usually led to a faculty offer for one of us and a short-term research or teaching position for the other,” Kunze says. The pair searched for two years and was extremely grateful when they eventually found support for a dual-career academic hire at Montana State University, where both are now assistant professors. “The solution to our challenge was persistence and not making too many compromises,” Kunze says.

Another layer of complexity

Discussing prospects for dual hire during an interview can be particularly fraught for same-sex couples. According to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit that aims to improve employment equality and opportunity, many areas in the United States do not have explicit state laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. While it’s not known how frequent discrimination on these bases is in the sciences, a 2017 paper found that LGBTQ+ people are about 20 percent less represented in STEM fields than in the population as a whole.

Adam Gormley and Joe Steele
COURTESY OF ADAM GORMLEY AND JOE STEELE

Chen and Yao (pseudonyms for researchers who asked to remain anonymous because they are not out to their parents or colleagues), who are both postdocs at a public university in California, are apprehensive about searching for faculty jobs. “Both of us are interested to pursue academic careers, but I feel that as a homosexual couple, it is harder for us than heterosexual couples to bring up dual-hire in interviews,” says Yao. Concerns about discrimination have also shaped where the two plan to look for jobs. “Back in China, where we come from, we are afraid to be out to our families, let alone potential employers,” Chen says. They hope to become green card holders and settle down in the United States.

Another gay couple, bioengineers Adam Gormley and Joe Steele, have found support in the academic world. They met in 2012 while they were research trainees at Imperial College London, and while being a gay couple can be challenging, Gormley says, “the scientific community in academia is incredibly accepting and supportive of the LGBTQ community.” For instance, Gormley felt that he could be transparent about his relationship to Steele during faculty interviews, and he believes that honesty might be a reason why he was hired in his current position at Rutgers University. It also allowed him to help facilitate Steele’s successful search for a postdoctoral position at Rutgers. (Steele has since moved on to become a research scientist at Colgate-Palmolive.) 

“Science is hard and a life in science is even harder,” Gormley says. “It comes with many ups and downs that only another scientist could possibly understand. Having a loving partner who is also a scientist makes it significantly easier to manage failures and to celebrate successes.” 

Andy Tay is a freelance science writer based in Singapore. He can be reached at andy.csm2012@gmail.com.