In Sickness and in Health

Making marriage work at the job can be challenging for couples as well as colleagues.

Bruce Goldman
Sep 1, 2006
<figcaption>MAKING MARRIAGE WORK AT WORK: Julie Anderson and Gordon Lithgow. Credit: © KRIS REBILLOT</figcaption>
MAKING MARRIAGE WORK AT WORK: Julie Anderson and Gordon Lithgow. Credit: © KRIS REBILLOT

Chris and Susan Molineaux attended graduate school together at Johns Hopkins University and then landed postdocs in Baltimore and Washington, DC. When Chris got a faculty offer at Mt. Sinai, Susan followed him to Manhattan, dropping a hot NIH postdoc to take an even hotter one in the Columbia University lab of future nobelist Richard Axel, and eventually a job at Merck. Four years later, after a stint at a biotech, Chris wound up at Merck, too.

Not so long afterward, the twosome holed up for a weekend, combed through Nature and Science, and sent off a huge volley of packets, each containing both of their CVs and a single, joint-application letter. This approach won them dual appointments at senior levels - she in basic research, he in development - with Praecis, a Boston startup...

Chris and Susan interact frequently on the job, though they try to keep their domestic relationship separate from their professional one, at least within the walls of the company. "Somebody at work told me, 'no one would ever know you guys were married until they got in a car with both of you when one was driving,'" says Susan. "We've talked about work for 29 or 30 years," Susan says. "It's our major topic of conversation." At home, dinner is sometimes interrupted by a moan from one of their two daughters: "So, can we talk about something besides work for a while?"

In those three decades, the Molineauxs have worked together four times. Currently, Chris is vice president of development for Proteolix, where he reports to Susan, the CEO. "That really flips people out," Susan says. "The number of scientists married to each other has grown, because the number of women in science has grown," says Mary Ann Mason, graduate dean at the University of California's Berkeley campus, who has studied the influence of marriage and parenting on the fates of women in academia. "We know that dual-career marriages are now a serious problem for recruiting and retaining young faculty," she says.

<figcaption>MAKING MARRIAGE WORK AT WORK: Susan and Chris Molineaux. Credit: COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER MOLINEAUX</figcaption>

Data and Dating

In the 1960's, only 10% of US PhD degrees were held by women, mainly in education, Mason says. Today, women receive almost one quarter of the doctorates awarded to American students in the physical sciences. According to figures compiled by the National Science Foundation, more than three in 10 PhDs in chemistry from 1993 to 2002 went to women, up from 22.8% during the prior ten years; in math, those figures increased from 20.5% to 27.2% during the same periods. The biological sciences lead the way, where women received 44.7% of all PhDs awarded between 1993 and 2002, compared to 36.5% in the previous 10-year period.

While the opportunity for scientists to meet and marry has grown with the increase in women in science, no serious studies specifically look at scientists married to each other and its effect on those couples as well as their peers, says Mason. She says it is time for such a study.

Most institutions don't have figures for the number of scientist-couples working together. One exception is the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, an independent institute in La Jolla, Calif., which when queried found that a handful of its roughly 375 PhD- or MD-level scientists are married couples. Nancy Beddingfield, director of institute relations at the Burnham Institute, believes that the number married to other scientists in general, compared to other professions, is probably disproportionately large. More married couples may work in younger, smaller, and faster-growing organizations than at institutions such as the Burnham, which at age 30 is all grown up. But, tellingly, it started out as a mom-and-pop operation: Its cofounders were married, and its original 25 faculty members contained six science dyads.

According to Kay McMahon, director of human resources at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Northern California's Marin County, four of its 15 faculty, and 20% to 25% of Buck's approximately 50 nonfaculty PhD-level scientists, are married to each another. One such couple is faculty member Julie Andersen, who works on Parkinson disease, and her husband Gordon Lithgow, also on the highly interdisciplinary institute's faculty, who works on factors influencing longevity of the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.

Lithgow and Anderson met in 1994 at a conference in Atlanta. He was then a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado, getting ready to take a faculty position in Manchester, England, and she was on the faculty at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After connecting again at a meeting in Budapest in 1997, they began to see each other more often. "It was almost like there was a conspiracy," Lithgow says. "We kept getting invited to meetings on each other's turf."

When the new head of the nascent Buck Institute asked Andersen at a meeting if she had any postdocs looking for jobs, she suggested herself and Lithgow. In 2000, they both received offers. Anderson came aboard in the fall, Lithgow the following spring. They were married in August 2001. "I guess we were taking a bit of a risk coming to a brand-new place," Andersen says.

Originally, Andersen had no interest in studying lifespan, and Lithgow had no interest in human disease. "I just wanted to mess around with nematodes and find out why they lived 20 days and not 20 years," he recalls. But their research is starting to overlap, says Lithgow. "I've studied compounds that we know extend lifespan in the worm, and Julie's looked at those same compounds in her Parkinson mice models."


Two couples - Gordon Lithgow and Julie Andersen, researchers at the Buck Institute for Age Research, and Chris and Susan Molineaux at Proteolix - have successful marriages and scientific careers. Here are their secrets for success.

1. "Avoid even slightly giving the wrong impression that YOUR career and YOUR science is more important than the other person's," says Gordon Lithgow.
2. "Don't forget to cite your spouse's papers if they are relevant!" says Lithgow.
3. Do not "become too much of a united front," says Julie Andersen. "You want your colleagues to feel comfortable communicating with you as an individual rather than feeling they need to deal with the two of you as a block." And "don't have lunch together," says Chris Molineaux, vice president of development at Proteolix. "You don't want to shut out other people. Also, there's nothing left to talk about at dinner!"
4. "Women, keep your maiden name," says Chris Molineaux. "It maintains your separate identity - you can remain "stealth marrieds" for much longer. And when people ask for "Dr. . . . ", the receptionist/mate/child doesn't have to keep asking, "Him or her?'"
5. "Don't be too rigid about where you want to live, when you want to move, etc.," says Chris Molineaux. "When there are two careers, the choices are sometimes more limited. Universities are often located far apart from one another and industries are usually ?regionalized,' so couples have to be ready to live wherever it works out, and often have long commutes. This has happened to us several times."
6. "Don't go to the same meetings unless absolutely necessary," says Chris Molineaux. "We've often said, ?You don't need two Molineauxs at a meeting,' since we usually have the same answers/observations/questions."
7. "For women in particular: Always view yourself as a stand-alone economic unit; that is, negotiate for a position as if you were by yourself," says Susan Molineaux, CEO of Proteolix.
8. "Also for women: Make sure both of you are committed to sharing childcare, because both of you will have jobs that demand way more than 40 hours a week," says Susan Molineaux.
9. The Molineauxs' second daughter cautions: "Don't discuss science at breakfast."
10. But "do talk about science - after breakfast," says Susan Molineaux. "Sharing a passion is key for a long-term relationship," she says.

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