OF THE MIND
TECH INSTRUMENT CENTER
TO BLACK MOUNTAIN
MAY UNLOCK MAD COW DISEASE
SPEECH WASN'T FREE
Elizabeth Putnam, blonde and direct, is a tenure-track assistant professor at UM. She teaches pharmacy students molecular genetics and toxicology and conducts research on molecular epidemiology. Currently, under a three-year, $600,000 grant, she is researching asbestos-related diseases in Libby, Montana.
Mark Pershouse, dark-haired and soft-spoken, also is a tenure-track assistant professor at UM. He teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on genetics and toxicology for the Center for Environmental Health Sciences and uses a three-year, $650,000 grant to research the genetics of mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Both are married. To each other. They met at graduate school in 1984 — Liz was on the University of Texas-Houston admissions committee that admitted Mark. They married one and a half years later and now have two children, Rebecca, 14, and Anna, 11.
In a rare moment of calm, the two sit together on the front porch of their 4-year-old Delft blue house overlooking Missoula. The porch is decorated with baskets of fuschia petunias, trailing blue lobelia and rocking chairs.
As they talk, they describe their marriage as a partnership — they must check with one another constantly to coordinate the children's extracurricular activities, to figure out drop-offs and pick-ups, laundry and grocery shopping. They also have edited one another's grant proposals, served as each other's lab technicians, attended the same faculty meetings, coached one another on molecular techniques and done each other's laundry.
"This is not a marriage where the man does one thing, the woman does another thing," Mark says. "It's more like cross-training. We have to stretch our family skills so that both of us are capable of holding things together for the family."
"What people don't realize is that as a professor, your job is not done when you leave campus," Liz says. "Similarly, parenting doesn't stop when you go to work — there's always the 2 p.m. play or 11 a.m. awards ceremony."
To combine the two, in actuality, is daunting. "To work as a full-time professor, scientist and mom is busy," says Liz as she swings back and forth on the porch swing. "You want to be the parent your children need you to be, as well the best professional — scientist and educator — you can be."
To combine the two, Liz says, "You have to be extremely organized with your time and you have to learn early to give up sleep when necessary."
Then the professional part of Mark's and Liz's day begins. As educators and researchers, they are expected to teach, conduct research and serve on committees. What this translates to is this: preparing lectures for team-taught classes in the pharmacy school, assembling material for grants, designing and preparing classes, conducting research and reading scientific articles.
"Getting into the lab feels like a luxury sometimes," Liz says. "So often you have to delegate that work to technicians while you spend your time teaching or writing grants."
In the course of the day, they work with colleagues, grant collaborators, technicians, students, but — even though they work in the same department — they rarely see each other. They are involved with separate research projects, labs and committees. The only problem, Liz says, is that "we had to teach everyone not to treat us as a unit. People would give me a message for Mark or vice versa and we had to ask them to communicate with us separately."
"We often go to lunch to touch base," Mark says. "It's an important time to put out fires."
Mark and Liz must work hard to keep up with the constantly changing nature of their jobs. "Many jobs are of a very repetitive nature," says Mark. "In science, there is very little repetition — the work is constantly evolving, which generates new work and involves learning new skills."
"We are constantly working to keep current," Liz adds. "We must keep up not only with our peers in Montana, but with our peers around the nation."
After dinner and clean-up — if Mark cooks, Liz does the dishes and vice versa — the work replaces the dishes on the island in the kitchen. The girls busy themselves with two hours of homework. Mark and Liz edit grant proposals, read student papers and scientific journals or discuss the day quietly as the girls work out math problems or write papers.
They spend time with their children one-on-one when they can. "Our one-on-one times are often during those rides to activities — when Mark takes Rebecca to volleyball practice or I go with Anna to Girl Scouts because I'm the troop leader," Liz says. The family also has instituted Friday family nights. "We try to do things together: watch a movie, play a board game or work on projects in the yard," Liz says. "It's a nice time to wind down from the week."
Late evenings are when the two of them decompress. After the kids are in bed, they go out on their front porch to look over the lights of Missoula. This is the best part of the day, Mark says. "For the first time of day, the kids become less of a concern," Mark says. "It's the time when we feel grateful to have a nice house in a beautiful valley and a job where we feel we can make a difference."