Sabbatical’s end, and a new start

Skidmore College held commencement, as usual, on a sunny late-May morning in the glorious open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center. I celebrated with new graduates I’ve grown to care for and respect over the past four years, including several from my first Skidmore course back in 2012.

It was a potent ceremony for me, as it also marked my own departure from Skidmore, at least for the next few years. As our personal and professional communities End - 8will know, I move this week to a research position with Stockholm University, funded by a Wallenberg Foundation grant to work for my long-time collaborator Erik at the Swedish SciLife Lab.

This has been a surprise ending to my sabbatical story. I set out to disrupt some habits of mind, reconnect with my research, and engage with new technologies and developments in my field; I did not anticipate concluding the year with a change in employment. And though it feels a natural transition, it’s been a weighty decision to step (at least for now) off a linear academic path, away from the undergraduate liberal arts environment I’ve long idealized. There has been lots to love about Skidmore: students effusing creative aspirations; hardworking faculty pouring themselves, term after term, into a rarefied curriculum; and an administration diligently navigating the complex social, political, and technological landscape of higher education today.

A major and indefinite move like this has also involved careful personal calculus for Oliver and me. On the down side, we are leaving behind historically beautiful Saratoga Springs—its plethora of entertainment, including the oldest sporting venue in the States; its natural wonders, among them a State Park and the city’s eponymous carbonated springs; and our own small, but hugely supportive, community of friends and colleagues. We will miss easy visits to Oliver’s northeastern family, and the dramatic seasonal beauty of the Adirondack region.

On the up side, we are eager to make a new home in Stockholm, however long we stay. Traveling over the past year has reinforced how much we enjoy learning new spaces and and communities, and how we’ve missed the energy and diversity of urban life. We both felt surprisingly at home by the end of last year’s Swedish semester, End - 18and look forward to digging deeper into the Capital of Scandinavia. For Oliver, this move also brings proximity to his Irish and German relatives, and the professional opportunities of Europe’s premier tech hub.

For my part, trading some of the autonomy of professorship for participation in a more research- and resource-intensive team seems the right next move. And in taking a break from the classroom, I am eager to engage more actively in the mentoring of trainees at various levels. As for many of my colleagues, serving on the Skidmore faculty has highlighted major challenges facing higher education and research science in the States. Much as I continue to value small-scale liberal arts training in my own experience and our students’, the soaring costs alone—on track with its peers, a Skidmore education today approaches $250k—make it hard to see sustainability in our current system. Among other things, I hope that inhabiting an alternative academic environment abroad may provide some new perspective.

To be clear, I retain good relations with, and great respect for, my Skidmore colleagues and students. To minimize the impact of my departure on my department, I informed them of my intentions as soon as my new position opened last January—prior, in fact, to receiving an offer letter. I served on the search committee for a visiting professor to cover the coursework I would have taught next year, and I was open with my students about my pending exit, enabling them to find new lab homes for the coming semester(s).

End - 20
Architect plans, Skidmore CIS

If one thing might have altered my decision, it could have been more rapid progress on the Center for Integrated Sciences (CIS), a longstanding plan to unite and improve Skidmore’s STEM facilities. It’s become increasingly clear over my four years on campus that our existing buildings are variously outdated, run down, or otherwise inadequate for our growing science programs. For many reasons the CIS has been difficult to fund; so I was delighted last week when Skidmore’s Board of Trustees approved a new plan to combine cost-cutting, revenue-boosting, and borrowing to complete the project within the next ~5 years. Although this progress comes too late to benefit my own lab, I believe it will prove a crucial investment for the entire campus.

My new position will bring its own challenges. Our Stockholm team aims to address major questions in neurophysiology and pharmacology, optimize and integrate classical and novel methods, and build partnerships between diverse investigators. We have the privilege of some powerful resources, but the problems are complex: to paraphrase one of my earliest mentors, most paths in science are series of failures, End - 25punctuated by tantalizing moments of insight. I believe our project will provide a strong return-on-investment, but am realistic about its limitations, and the unavoidable risk of unknown unknowns.

As our ollibatical has ended, we will no longer post regularly in this space. However, we have enjoyed archiving images and reflections here, and plan to keep it live for our own recollections and, as appropriate, new discoveries. We hope to preserve the traveler’s mindset our sabbatical rekindled as we begin our next adventure. Vi ses!

Top photo credit: Yosemite Basecamp, Jan 2016 by Maya Bisineer


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