Romance in the Lab

Reflecting on my Ph.D studies, I realize how much time I spent in the lab, in the presence of my lab colleagues. In effect, I spent more time with my colleagues than with my spouse and son! Considering the life style of scientists, working long hours with more frustrations than happiness, sometimes a lab colleague can understand your predicament better than your friends back home. With so much time at the lab and a common interest at hand, it is not surprising that you hear about scientists finding love in between their experiments and classes.

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Whither Love or Science?

Many ponder whether to make a romantic move and for a good reason. While a strong and intimate relationship can boost your daily energies, enable you to overcome difficulties and might even change your life, it can also be a distraction and a source for major gossips in the lab (not that THAT should bother you, though). InBabyAttachMode (IBAM) blogger has been there, meeting her husband-to-be at the bench next to hers. While her experience was a positive one, a romance that goes down in flames can wreak havoc on your Ph.D studies for several months (sometimes it happens even when if your ex is no longer working together with you). Furthermore, the tension in the lab can be stifling not only for the separated couple, thus disturbing the work atmosphere for the rest of the lab member. Even so, when your heart is caught in the love net, chances are that your brain's raised red flags will find no audience.

In her post, IBAM have also raised the troublesome issue of mentor-mentee romantic relationships, which is a serious ethical (and common-sense) violation of employer-employee conduct. Indeed, mentors are human like any other and under the spell of falling-in-love mode they also tend to make bad judgmental choices. Yet this situation seems to happen all too often in academia, when mentors get older by the passing decades yet the flow of students under their supervision remains the same age. 

Guideline before making a romantic move

Assuming you find yourself distracted by a  colleague (whether after a week or after years working together) I recommend the following guidelines before and after you make the jump into the love boat:

Am I ready for this adventure? Consider the implications of such act – your Ph.D studies, your career and whatever at stake. Can you handle a distraction at this time of your research? On the other hand, just the dilemma to go for it or not can be a distraction by itself! If the relationship doesn't evolve to "they lived happily ever after..", can you handle seeing the person you cared and loved on a daily basis, knowing they're lost to you? Or, as an anonymous student concluded in Science career post, "It really affects your work; you can’t concentrate."

Is it ethical? This question is aimed both at the mentor as well as mentee and should be a major red flag. Yes, as a mentee you might have heard about many such cases, yet you don't know what undercurrents pass between the couple not to mention the implications on your future career progress as mentor in your institution. If the answer is "No", do yourself a favor and consistently fight your urges until one of you leaves the lab.

Keep a low profile. People notice small things you'd never believe they had seen or heard. If you're having a romance in the lab, the least you can do is to keep your behavior toward your partner as professional as it would for another lab member. People will find out about your romance eventually, yet this doesn't mean you should hug, kiss or even huddle together in the dissection room. If you're professional and discrete enough, it might even take several years till somebody learns of your romance (such with the case of Vittorio Gallese and Alessandra Umiltà).

Maintain independent career paths. Whatever romantic promises are laid ahead for your relationship, it is recommended that both individuals develop their own separate career paths, if possible, for several reasons:

  1. Suspicions that you've achieved your current position simply due to your spouse abilities/success/influence.
  2. Working in a different lab means less interaction throughout the day and thus less wearing on the bonds of your relationship.
  3. If the relationship goes south, the individual's career has not been compromised on the altar of love. 

“Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Sigmund Freud put these two basic passions in the right context of our existence and thus it is not surprising to hear about a romantic relationship in the lab or any other workplace. Even so, it is our duty and commitment to act as maturely, responsibly and wisely as possible when confronting such state of affairs, and weigh the implications of striding down the love lane with a labmate or supervisor. Remember, at that cross roads, it's either praises or disgraces.