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Couples & colleagues: Scientist duos marry work & home life

From Nature Careers

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CoupleSteve and Deonie ‘Dee’ Allen’s fates were sealed when their respective dogs, two kelpies, spotted each other from across a marina in Brisbane, Australia and became friends. The pair were living on boats three berths down from one another — and the rest, as they say, is history.

Twenty-two years later they are happily married, with one boat, two PhDs and parallel careers as microplastic-pollution researchers at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and the University of Birmingham, UK, respectively. The Allens, as many in the field will attest, are an infamous double-act, sharing work and hobbies, and travelling the world together for their sailing hobby and for research. They literally finish each other’s sentences — and e-mails — and they are indubitable proof that yes, it really is possible to work with a romantic partner without growing to despise them.

In the Allens’ case, Steve says, “It means we are a complete mobile research unit.”

The power of two

Romantic duos are by no means uncommon in science. A 2008 study by researchers at Stanford University in California suggests that around 40% of women and 34% of men in academia are in a partnership with fellow academics1. Among scientists, 83% of women and 54% of men in academic couples are partnered with another scientist1.

There are clear benefits: a support system and a shared understanding of all work’s stresses, including the highs and lows of a career in science, are implicit. And couples who collaborate report higher productivity levels2. “The fact we share the same project goals and workload allows each of us the chance to explore new methods or equipment while the work progresses, which is priceless in order to keep up with the field,” says Steve Allen.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Justine Ammendolia and Jackie Saturno were able to turn a period of travel restrictions and cancelled plans into a creative, collaborative project. Stuck at home in Toronto, Canada, Ammendolia and Saturno, both environmental scientists, quickly noticed the growing number of face masks littered around the community. “It became our weird idea of a date night, walking around the community picking up garbage,” jokes Saturno, who is currently a network manager at an eco-forestry programme in Halifax, Canada, called the Family Forest Network.

The couple hatched a plan to monitor plastic waste in the area, turning it into research. “It began as a grass-roots, informal project, but we eventually picked up funding dollars,” says Ammendolia, a PhD student at Dalhousie University. From there, they started a consultancy company and were contracted by the federal government to produce a report on the scale of the issue3.

Ammendolia and Saturno met as undergraduates at the University of Guelph in Canada, around 12 years ago, and have worked together in both official and unofficial capacities ever since. “Our strengths play off each other,” says Ammendolia. “Scientifically, we’re pretty streamlined. Emotionally, we balance each other: Jackie is more laid back, calm and collected, and I will admit to being a bit of a firecracker.”

Key to their success in working together, Saturno thinks, is a willingness to “put egos to one side”. “Otherwise, things can unravel,” she says. “We’re always checking each other’s balances, but in a respectful way. We like to make sure that we have a sound project and we’re not just each other’s ‘yes’ person.”

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