A formula for happiness: Couples balance working together in and out of the lab

Married Ohio State researchers Billur and Munir Akkaya together in their lab

Many of us got a taste of working with our mates during the pandemic, sometimes sitting across from them in the same living room or kitchen. We discovered just how small our homes can feel. For other couples, the togetherness was not much different, having worked with each other for years outside the home.

Here are the stories of a just a few of the scientist couples at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who have figured out the yin and yang of it all.

Billur and Munir Akkaya working together in their research lab

Munir and Billur Akkaya

In their 13 years of marriage and working together, Billur and Munir Akkaya have found conflict is inevitable and heated discussions just might be the best way to resolve it.

They’re both from Turkey, where they say it’s more common to offer the truth without soft filters.

“There’s no sugarcoating,” Billur says.

Along with being married, Munir Akkaya, MD, PhD, and Billur Akkaya, MD, PhD, are both researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Together they study the immune response to cancer, autoimmune and infectious diseases. Billur studies T cells; Munir, B cells. Both types of cells collaborate to fight against an invader in the body, which is akin to their relationship.

Billur and Munir Akkaya with their children on vacation 
“B cells and T cells interact and so do we,” Billur says.

They work together in one lab, share one car and have two children so there’s sometimes grounds for healthy conflict. But above all, they both appreciate what each other offers. He’s a quick thinker and great at batting out a first draft of a paper they’re writing together. She’s the expert in expanding on the ideas, fine-tuning and finessing the words.

And when they differ on something, “We get the steam out and that’s it,” Munir says. “Today’s problem is never tomorrow’s problem.”

Munir Akkaya is an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State College of Medicine. Billur Akkaya is an assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at the Ohio State College of Medicine.

Lisa Baer and Kristin Stanford working together in the lab

Kristin Stanford and Lisa Baer

It helps that Lisa Baer is an early morning person and her wife, Kristin Stanford, starts her workday a few hours after the sun rises.

As a research scientist, Baer, MS, manages Stanford’s lab where they study how exercise improves metabolism and heart health. And now they have a second child, their one-year-old son, in addition to their 5-year-old boy, so coordinating all the pickups and drops offs and appointments that come with parenting young children can be tough.

With Baer arriving at the lab early, she can leave early and pick up their sons and be home while Stanford, PhD, stays later. The couple’s time overlaps but they don’t spend their entire workday together.

Lisa Baer and Kristin Stanford with their two children 
“We are not in the same room for eight hours a day. I’m not sure either one of us would survive that,” Stanford says with a laugh.

Stanford spends more of her time in her office, down the hall from her lab, while Baer tends to be in the lab more.

What works so well about their arrangement is that Baer excels at organizing and making sure everything is done following all the requirements and rules. Stanford concerns herself more with the outcomes. At times, she overestimates what’s doable; Baer helps make it manageable.

And both of them deal with stress in perhaps the way you’d expect people who study exercise: “We talk about it, or one of us goes for a run and then we talk about it after that,” Stanford says.

Though they don’t spend a lot of time together in the lab these days, they met in that very setting, in a NASA lab in California in 2002. What they discovered about each other then still is true: They are very driven at work.

From time to time, they have to temper that ambition to be there for their two young boys, and they have to turn off work, to some extent, when they arrive home.

“It’s a balance to make sure we don’t talk about work all the time,” Baer says.

Kristin Stanford is an associate professor of Physiology and Cell Biology in Ohio State’s College of Medicine. Lisa Baer is a research scientist.

Wedding photo of Carolyn Presley and Daniel Spakowicz

Carolyn Presley and Daniel Spakowicz

She’s an oncologist. He, a cancer researcher.

From his lab, Daniel Spakowicz, PhD, studies how changing bacteria on and inside the body of a patient with cancer can help them respond better to treatment. Carolyn Presley, MD, MHS, guides patients through their care and the often-thorny decisions they face. He’s more comfortable analyzing data. She, with advocating for patients.

“We bring a very different perspective to the problem,” Presley says. “Our styles are different but complementary.”

Before the pandemic, the married couple spent their workdays apart while working against the same disease. Now during the day, they often find themselves in different spare rooms of the same house and in different squares of the same Zoom meetings.

Carolyn Presley and Daniel Spakowicz with their two children 
“There’s sort of this unspoken agreement that the first person able to get away from meetings around noon delivers lunch to the other person, stealthily in the background,” Spakowicz says.

It can get dicey when a daycare closes or school goes virtual; then they’re trying to figure out how to also take care of their daughters, 4 and 7. In a pinch, they might fly in the grandmas to help.

Both being in the medical field, they’re sensitive to the demands on each other, which is especially valuable in rolling with the many changes the pandemic has brought.

“It’s helpful to have someone who understands this world deeply and has a reasonable sense of the challenges the other person is facing,” Spakowicz says.

Carolyn Presley is an assistant professor of Internal Medicine in the Ohio State College of Medicine. She specializes in thoracic and geriatric oncology in the Division of Medical Oncology at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. Daniel Spakowicz is a research assistant professor of Internal Medicine in the Ohio State College of Medicine. He’s in the Division of Medical Oncology.

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