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Oct 2010
Oct. 18, 2010 — Home has been on my mind lately. Not an actual, geographically defined place. Not really. I mean, rather, the idea of home: Where is it that we feel at ease, accepted and even embraced? And how do we hang on to this as life, in keeping with its irrepressible wont, changes all around us?

Until somewhat recently – on the scale of human history, anyway – home was rarely something you needed to negotiate. Sure, there were always intrepid souls who would travel far afield, leaving and perhaps never returning to their valleys and their farms. By and large, though, at least since the earliest hunters and gatherers decided they’d had enough, home was pretty much a fixed constant. You were born there and, like your parents and their parents before them, lived and probably died there.

Humankind has become a bit more mobile, though. Today, we are far more likely than ever before to go to school or take a job in, or simply follow every passing whim to somewhere other than where we grew up, and where our families might still remain. Oftentimes people manage to settle down and establish a home in this new place. In other instances, however, folks find themselves moving from town to town – country to country, even – uprooting themselves every two or three years because their work or some other circumstance demands it.

Academic researchers are particularly susceptible to this sort of lifestyle, I think, especially early in their careers. As students, post-docs and lecturers, they proceed from one institution to the next, honing their skills and pursuing the very best opportunities available to them. Even if they stay in one place for an appreciable amount of time, they will see surely see an array of others – colleagues and friends – come and go in a dizzying game of academic musical chairs. As a result of all this, young investigators can find it difficult to settle down and develop a sense of home.

A friend in Boston, a researcher who works with various imaging modalities, told me recently that she had decided to return to Croatia, where she had accepted a university position. While her job in Boston is both challenging and rewarding, she said, she had begun to yearn for the trappings of home. “I started wanting to buy my own stuff, and missing my books and other things that are still in boxes from the last move.” And of course, she added, she would be closer to her family in Croatia.

I asked if there were any tradeoffs in leaving a major research center like Boston for somewhere near her family, for example. There are, she said. Objectively, in terms of resources for her research – equipment, and funds for everything from experiments to attending conferences – she probably won’t find anything like what she has in Boston. This is especially true because Croatia is economically challenged and currently not part of the European Union, which translate into less interest in research.

“Subjectively,” she continued, “and very honestly, it sometimes feels like I'm leaving science. Or at least leaving science as I know it.”

These are the kinds of decisions we face in our thoroughly modern world. We can go anywhere we like, do pretty much anything, but still we are guided by an almost primal need: the need to belong somewhere. What does this mean, exactly, and how do we achieve it? The answers will differ from one of us to the next, but the questions themselves underpin much of what we do.

My friend and I talked about the possibility of finding a home in one’s work. Research can be a wholly immersive experience. I often see scientists jotting down equations on napkins in restaurants, or huddling together at parties, sometimes almost coming to blows over a recent finding. Work is the world they inhabit, providing them with nourishment and that selfsame sense of belonging.

If you are lucky, my friend said, you will find this sort of contentment in your job: in the lab, at your desk staring at a MATLAB screen, in the hallway chatting with colleagues and collaborators. “And if you are super-lucky,” you will find it outside your job as well, even amidst the lurching merry-go-round of academic life – so you look forward not only to going to work in the morning, but also to coming home at the end of the day. 

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