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When Scientists Are Mad about Each Other

Science couples who overcame the two-body problem collaborate in the lab and the home


Some people speak the same language at home as they do in the office, even if the office is filled with microarrays and next-generation sequencing machines. Two science diplomas in the den means one can mention “loss of heterozygosity” or “Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium” without pausing to explain to the other what that means—which gives them more time to decide which new Netflix series they’re going binge watch.

It’s no surprise that many couples meet at work. Science is no exception. According to National Science Foundation data analyzed by the Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, in 2008 between 75 and 80 percent of women and between 45 and 50 percent of men in physical sciences, engineering and mathematics are married to someone with at a bachelor’s or higher level degree in science; in biological sciences more than 60 percent of women and about half of men were married to another scientist.

ScientificAmerican.com decided to ask what it means to share nuptials as well as a life in science. As the couples we interviewed can attest, there’s a lot to be said for spending your life with someone who shares your passion for science, especially if they are as obsessed as you are with a particular subfield of study. But there are plenty of challenges to establishing a family with another scientist: Not only do you both have to go through the rigors and stresses of a higher education program, you then have to find jobs at the same institution, or at least in the same state. If you want to raise children, you have to find time in the middle of two demanding careers. And what happens when one gets a dream job somewhere where the other has no career opportunity? This “two-body problem” often leads to long commutes or one person putting their aspirations on hold. (Wikipedia helpfully mentions that one surefire solution to this problem is the death of one spouse.) 

» Related: Take a poll on the two-body (career) problem

For generations, couples have navigated these issues, and we talked to six couples that have done so successfully: a pair of psychologists whose relationship was shaped by an experiment that famously went wrong; a beaver expert and a mink expert who found love—and work—in the southernmost city in the world; two neuroscientists introduced by a Nobel laureate; a couple just starting their careers as physician scientists, waiting to see if they wind up in the same city for their residencies; a scientist studying loneliness who fell for a scientist studying love; and a pair of paleontologists who discovered several new dinosaur species, two of which they named after their children.

Here are their love stories.

Social Psychologists Christina Maslach and Philip Zimbardo

Instead of ending their relationship, their first big fight cemented it.

It was August 1971 and social psychologist Philip Zimbardo was five days into the study he would become famous for: the Stanford prison experiment. He had asked psychologist Christina Maslach to interview some of the study’s participants, so she came by one evening to observe for awhile.

Zimbardo and Maslach were newly—and at long last—a couple. Zimbardo had been hired three years earlier by Stanford University’s psychology department while Maslach was working on her PhD there, and for him, “it was love at first sight,” he says. “Then I had to practice incredible restraint for three years.” That restraint had finally lifted that summer, after she completed her dissertation—with him as her advisor—and was hired to teach at the University of California, Berkeley. They were already discussing marriage

That August evening, however, what she would propose was not marriage, but separation.

Zimbardo had designed the experiment to study the power of social roles to diminish the sense of personal identity. For the experiment, two dozen students were randomly assigned roles as either prisoners or guards, parts they were meant to play for two weeks in a mock dungeon in the Stanford psych department’s basement as Zimbardo and other researchers observed. Famously, the students playing guards became so absorbed in the power of their roles that they began abusing their prisoners. By the time Maslach appeared, five prisoners had suffered emotional breakdowns and had been removed from the study.

That evening, as the guards placed bags over their prisoners’ heads, chained them together and marched them to the bathroom, Zimbardo watched Maslach’s eyes fill with tears. He was shocked. “I say, what’s the matter? And she says, ‘It’s just terrible what you’re doing to these boys!’ I' didn’t get it at all at first. I had so much invested in the research, I had been watching it progress over the course of days, and I was on autopilot. I couldn’t see what was wrong with it,” he says.

At first, Zimbardo and his colleagues teased Maslach about being a softie, downplaying her objections. After she stormed out Zimbardo followed her to the parking lot. It was there they had the first serious fight of their relationship. She told him the experiment had gone too far, it was harming the students, and he was taking part in cruelty. “I couldn’t understand how someone I thought I knew well, who I trusted and loved, would not see any problems with this,” she says.

For awhile, Zimbardo continued to defend the merits of the experiment, but she persisted. “She told me, there’s a chasm between us, and you are on the other side of a chasm, and I don’t understand who you are. If this is the real you, I’m not sure I want to have any more to do with you,” Zimbardo recalls. “It was like a double slap in the face: she was saying, first, you are failing in your ethical obligation to the students and, second, you are failing as a possible suitor.”

Only after she threatened to end the relationship was Zimbardo shaken enough to reassess the experiment and his role in it, which he began to realize had shifted from observer to unwitting participant. By the end of the conversation, he had agreed to end the study.

Although cut short, the experiment launched Zimbardo into fame, and ultimately shaped both of their careers. Maslach became interested in how people dehumanize others, which in turn led her to study job burnout, the thrust of her research for years. Zimbardo continued to study the effects of individuation and social influence as well as therapeutic techniques for survivors of trauma.

Although the two supported one another’s careers in myriad unofficial ways, they rarely collaborated on research—not out of lack of desire to do so, but rather an effect of the “old sexist days” in academia, Maslach says. “When I arrived in Berkeley, it was made really, really clear that any publication I did with Phil would not count. In fact, it would count against me because people would assume he was the author, not me,” Maslach says.

But now that Maslach has retired, she and Zimbardo have had cause to collaborate again. Zimbardo has launched a nonprofit called the Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches young people how come to the aid of those in need, even when there are risks involved. In lectures they frequently discuss the moment when Maslach argued with Zimbardo in the parking lot, which Zimbardo describes as an act of heroism, because she stood up for her principles even though she knew the consequence might be losing his and his colleagues’ approval—and ending a relationship she cared about.

Maslach says she didn’t feel heroic at the time—she felt scared. But, she says, that fight bode well for their relationship. "It ultimately helped us communicate better, and to feel like even if something is really, really difficult and serious, we can handle it, we can deal with it,” she says. “We know we can hash anything out. We know we can hear each other.”

Christina Maslach, a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, is best known for her pioneering research on job burnout. She has served as the chair of Berkeley’s Academic Senate, vice provost for undergraduate education and as the president of the Western Psychological Association. She has received national recognition for teaching.

Philip Zimbardo is a professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University. His research focused on individuation the negative forms of social influence (such as conformity, obedience and the bystander effect) and the use of time perspective as therapy after trauma. He is founder of the nonprofit Heroic Imagination Project, which teaches individuals to take courageous action in challenging situations.

Biologists Alejandro Valenzuela and Christopher Anderson

What do an invasive beaver expert and an invasive mink expert talk about over the kitchen table? “We talk about invasive species a lot,” Christopher Anderson, the beaver expert, admits. “Probably too much.”

His husband, Alejandro Valenzuela, the mink expert, chimes in, “But now we’re building a house, so we talk about that, too.” The house Anderson and Valenzuela are building is in Ushuaia, Argentina—a city that sits near the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, a part of the region of Patagonia that is undergoing major changes in its ecology because of the species they study.

It was the study of invasive animals that brought each of them independently to the region years ago. And although they worked in neighboring cities and on the same issues, it took them years to meet one another. They had visited each other’s labs, but only when the other was away. They had e-mailed back and forth about projects, but never about anything personal. In fact, somewhere early in their correspondence Valenzuela had somehow formed the impression that Anderson was “an old German guy.”

So in 2007 when the two finally had occasion to meet in person at the beginning of a workshop in Santiago, Chile, Valenzuela turned to another colleague and whispered, “Who was that?” When she said it was Chris Anderson, Valenzuela asked, “Are there two Chris Andersons?”

Within weeks they were a couple, although a long-distance one. Once a month Anderson, an American who was working as a postdoctoral fellow in Punta Arenas, Chile, would take the 11-hour bus ride to visit Valenzuela, who was completing his PhD in Ushuaia. After two years of nurturing the long-distance relationship with these trips, Anderson was offered a job to coordinate a binational program between a university in Texas and one in southern Chile, a job that required him to spend half his time in each country. Valenzuela would come spend three months at a time with him in the U.S.—the longest his tourist visa was allowed.

It was in that period that Argentina became the first Latin American country to recognize same-sex marriage, passing the Marriage Equality Act in July 2010. Prior to that Anderson and Valenzuela had never considered marrying. “We always had this attitude that marriage is irrelevant—so many people get divorced anyway, it’s just become a tradition without real meaning,” Anderson says. “But the moment it became legal it changed your perception of it. And once we got married we both felt like there was a before and after. The social and legal approval of a relationship makes it have meaning.”

They married in January 2012—the first full month of Patagonian summer—in Ushuaia, surrounded by friends and family on the shores of the Beagle Channel. But their marriage did not allow Valenzuela to spend more time with Anderson in the U.S. because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prevented same-sex couples from applying for green cards after marriage and was still the law of the land. Valenzuela was still limited to traveling on a tourist visa. “The visa became the bane of our lives,” Anderson says. “A tourist visa is a privilege, not a right, so if you show up to the airport and someone in immigration decides you might be trying to game the system, they don’t have to let you in.”

That fear dominated every trip, Valenzuela says. “Even though everything was always legal, I was always with that feeling that someday I would go to the airport and something would go wrong,” he adds.

Living in such anxiety was unsustainable, and so they decided their future was in Argentina. They both found ideal jobs in Ushuaia, Anderson as a research scientist at the Austral Center for Scientific Research and Valenzuela as the conservation coordinator for Southern Patagonia National Parks.

Although DOMA was finally abolished last year by the U.S. Supreme Court, they plan to continue their lives here for now, because “finding a U.S. university interested in hiring two experts on Patagonian invasive species at the same time—that’s not going to happen,” Anderson says. Nevertheless, he says, it is a relief to know that if they had to return to the States, say to care for an ill parent, they now have the ability to do so.

In the meantime they are happy in Ushuaia, where they are absorbed in their work and in the house they are building, and are exploring options for adopting children. The couple has found broad social support in Ushuaia, and even more now that they are married. “At the bank the other day they took pictures of us because we were the first marriage equality couple they have given a mortgage to,” Valenzuela says.

Alejandro Valenzuela is conservation coordinator for Argentina's Southern Patagonia National Parks and a laboratory instructor at the National University of Tierra del Fuego. His research has focused on the ecology and management of invasive species in Patagonia, particularly American minks.

Christopher Anderson is a research scientist at the Austral Center for Scientific Research, an institute of the Argentine National Scientific and Technological Research Council, a professor at the Institute of Polar Sciences at the National University of Tierra del Fuego and an adjunct assistant professor of forest resources and environmental conservation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His research has focused on the socio-ecological dimensions of invasive species in Patagonia, particularly American beavers.

Neuroscientists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik

Stephen Macknik’s courtship of Susana Martinez-Conde was more a sales pitch than a love song.

They had met nearly five years before when Harvard University Nobel laureate David Hubel hired them both to work in his lab. Macknik and Hubel went to the airport to pick up Martinez-Conde when she flew in from Spain to start the job, and right away the intellectual sparks flew. The pair immediately developed a rapport and began collaborating on visual neuroscience research. Soon they were sharing an apartment, walking back and forth from work together, and spending most of their spare time with one another. A few years later they both moved to England to work at University College London, where again they both worked and lived together.

But for all that time, they were just friends. One or the other was always dating someone else, and for awhile Martinez-Conde was engaged to another man. But after the engagement dissolved they both were finally single at the same time, and Macknik decided it was time to bring up the obvious. He proposed they give romance a try.

Martinez-Conde wasn’t sure that was a good idea. “I think in the back of our minds it might have been a possibility for awhile,” she admits. “But it gets complicated, right? Because we had a successful scientific collaboration for four or five years. What if you date your main collaborator and it doesn’t work out and you hate each other, what’s going to happen to the science? It seemed risky.” Macknik, however, didn’t give up, arguing that they were already best friends who spent all their time together. “He even told me at one point that I wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference,” Martinez-Conde laughs. “I didn’t know if that was a good or bad argument.”

In the end, Macknik prevailed. Three months later they were engaged and nine months later they were married. There was an ease to the relationship because they’d already worked out how to handle communication and conflict. “We’d had disagreements, we’d been mad at each other and made up as collaborators, so we already had a dynamic where we didn’t have to be walking on eggshells around each other,” Martinez-Conde says.

Her fears that their work would be harmed by a romantic relationship have certainly proved unfounded. After three years in London they moved to Arizona to work at the Barrow Neurological Institute, where Martinez-Conde now directs the Visual Neuroscience Research Lab, and Macknik the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology. They have collaborated on dozens of papers, including seminal work on how microscopic eye movements affect perception. They co-author a column and blog for Scientific American about illusions, and in 2011 they published Sleights of Mind, a book about the neuroscience of magic. As for their chief success, they list their family: They have three children whom they try not to bore with incessant technical science talk—and occasionally conduct experiments on.

But in many ways, their relationship isn’t so different than it was all those years ago when they began working together. They continually run ideas past one another, which Martinez-Conde considers the biggest benefit of being in a partnership with another scientist. “The science is always there, you talk about it in the car, having dinner, watching TV. Something pops into your mind and you ask the other person: Is this crazy? Does it make sense to you? What holes can you find in it? You feed off each other and waste fewer good ideas,” she says. “We make each other stronger in that way.”

Susana Martinez-Conde directs the Visual Neuroscience Research Laboratory at the Barrow Neurological Institute. She received her PhD at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Today, her research focuses on understanding the neurology behind our visual experience. With her husband, she co-authors the Scientific American blog Illusion Chasers. With Sandra Blakeslee, the couple wrote the international bestseller Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions. Martinez-Conde is the executive chair of the Neural Correlate Society, which she helped found with Macknik; they both help organize its annual “Best Illusion of the Year Contest.”

Stephen Macknik directs the Laboratory of Behavioral Neurophysiology at the Barrow Neurological Institute and is an adjunct professor at Arizona State University. He received his PhD in neurobiology in the laboratory of Margaret Livingstone at Harvard University. He directed a laboratory in the Department of Visual Science at University College London before moving to Arizona. For his collaborations with Martinez-Conde, see the previous bio.

Physician Scientists Carolina Montano and Andre Kydd

It was a stressful time for Carolina Montano: She had one month left to study for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), the results of which would decide where she would spend the next several years of her life—and whether it would be with her boyfriend, who was already studying at Johns Hopkins University.

Her boyfriend, Andre Kydd, chose that moment propose marriage. “I was trying to tell her that no matter what happens, wherever you wind up, I’m committed to you and we’ll make it work,” Kydd says.

Montano accepted—but was furious. “I told him, how could you propose to me now? I am already so stressed out, and now all I want to think about is the wedding, but instead I have to think about the MCAT,” she says. “I was so mad at him.”

The couple laughs about it now—easy to do because Montano had no trouble getting into the Johns Hopkins MD/PhD program. Seven years later Kydd has a PhD in cellular and molecular medicine and is about to finish his MD. His research has focused on the epigenetic pathways of cancer. Montano is about to complete her PhD in genetics, with a focus on epigenetic mechanisms in psychiatric disease, and has two more years of medical school.

Kydd and Montano met in 2004, when he was at Harvard and she at Brigham Young University. They had each been granted a federal scholarship for low-income science scholars and spent a summer interning at the National Institutes of Health with 14 other students. Montano fell for Kydd immediately. “There was something about him. Something about his eyes, his Afro. He was so different. I thought, I need to get to know him,” she says.

It quickly became apparent to everyone around them—“even the shuttle drivers”—that the pair had chemistry. But it took Kydd until summer’s end to work up the nerve to make a move. “I didn’t want to assume she was into me and then for it to go wrong. That would have been very, very embarrassing,” he says.

Once it finally happened, “we never looked back,” Montano adds. They come from very different backgrounds—Montano is Colombian and moved to the U.S. at the age of 20, Kydd is African-American and was raised outside of Philadelphia. But in addition to being science nerds, they shared a political outlook, a penchant for dissecting human behavior and—crucially—a love of dancing. “Once she saw I could bust moves, it was over,” Kydd says.

They also share the experience of being people of color in an elite academic institution and in a field that is overwhelmingly white. They have helped one another navigate the complicated dynamics that sometimes play out around race, class and gender in such circumstances. “I don’t know everything about the African-American experience and he doesn’t know everything about the Latina experience, but it’s similar enough that we can be empathetic,” Montano says. “It’s so nice to have someone to come home to and say, ‘Wow, do you know what happened today?’ and know the other person understands and can reassure you that you’re not crazy.”

But most of their struggles are common to all science couples starting their careers. Kydd is now applying for residencies, which Montano will do in two more years. Kydd is carefully applying to programs that could have positions for Montano once she finishes her studies and is hoping the move won’t force them to live apart. “I’m trying to sell us as a two-for-one deal,” Kydd says.

In the long run they have dreams of collaborating on research and medical projects both in the U.S. and in Montano’s native Colombia. Meanwhile, they are considering when to fit in parenthood, which they are committed to despite the chaos it could bring to their lives and careers. “The girls I mentor, their number-one question is always whether they will be able to get married and have a family if they go into science or medicine, and I’m always telling them, ‘yes, yes, yes,’” she says. “You can make an important contribution to science and also have a family. It’s complicated, but you can do it.”

Carolina Montano is in her seventh year of the MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University. She is completing her doctorate in genetics. Her research has focused on studying epigenetic mechanisms in psychiatric disease and she hopes to focus on brain development after finishing her degree. She did her undergraduate work at Brigham Young University.

Andre Kydd is completing the MD/PhD program at Johns Hopkins University. He received his PhD in cellular and molecular medicine and his research focused on the epigenetics of cancer. He completed his undergraduate degree at Harvard University.

Social Neuroscientists John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo

He was studying loneliness and isolation. She was studying love and desire. When they found themselves together, they gravitated toward her end of the continuum of social connection.

John Cacioppo was living in Chicago and Stephanie Ortigue in Geneva when they met—in Shanghai. Cacioppo had helped found the Chinese chapter of the Society for Social Neuroscience and Ortigue had been asked to speak at their first meeting. On the last night of the conference, they happened to be seated next to one another at an official dinner, and soon became absorbed in conversation. “She was wonderful and brilliant and funny and I was completely taken by her,” Cacioppo says.

They both felt the chemistry but had to return to their respective homes the next day. Before parting ways they walked out of the restaurant together and noticed a beautiful moon hanging over the city. He snapped a picture of it. “A couple weeks later, she e-mailed me and asked if I could send her the picture,” Cacioppo says—a request his wife now confesses was just an excuse to strike up another conversation.

Within weeks they arranged to meet again, and from there their love unfurled. They happened to be speaking at several of the same conferences over the next few months, so they saw each other regularly. Within eight months they were engaged, and a season later they had married. They still didn’t call the same country home: Stephanie Ortigue became Stephanie Cacioppo before the pair had even lived together.

In fact, that proved to be a sticking point for some of her colleagues. “When we got married I had more than 50 publications under my maiden name, so when I changed it my colleagues kept saying, what are you doing?” she says. “But I didn’t mind. For me the love is more important than having a big ego about my name and publications.”

The month after they married, she moved to Chicago, where John Cacioppo is director of University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. Previously, Stephanie Cacioppo had been directing labs and teaching at the University of Geneva and at Syracuse University. She was soon hired to direct the University of Chicago’s electrical neuroimaging laboratory.

The transition from living an ocean away from one another to living under the same roof was easy, they say, and now their lives are intertwined completely—they share an office, and even a desk, both at work and at home. They began collaborating and over the course of the last four years have co-authored 17 articles about the neurology and epigenetics of social connection. But as two people who spent much of their careers obsessed with their research, they find in one another a reason to leave it behind sometimes. “We’ve also learned to walk away from the desk and enjoy each other, because when we return to the desk, we get a lot more work done,” John Cacioppo says.

Stephanie Cacioppo directs the High Performance Electrical Neuroimaging Laboratory at the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and is a research assistant professor there. Her research has focused on the neural bases for sexual desire and love, the brain mapping of social desire and other neurological studies of the continuum of social connection. She previously was an assistant professor at Syracuse University in New York State and at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

John Cacioppo helped found the field of social neuroscience. He directs the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, the university’s Social Neuroscience Laboratory and its doctoral program in social psychology; he is the university’s Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor. His research examines how social context affects genetic expression and how social isolation disrupts perception and alters behavior and physiology. He has co-authored several books about social neuroscience, including Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.

Paleontologists Thomas Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich

Thomas Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich’s love blossomed over bird carcasses.

The two paleontology students at U.C. Berkeley had gradually come to know one another around the department, but their first real date took place after a big storm hit the Bay Area. They’d heard there were some seabird fatalities, so they decided to scour the beach for specimens they could turn into skeletons and compare with fossils.

It was a portent of things to come: Over the next 47 years they would spend much of their time collecting bones together. The couple became famous in the 1980s for excavating Dinosaur Cove in Australia, where several new dinosaur species were discovered.

Working on dinosaurs wasn’t their original plan. From childhood, Rich was gripped by the idea of finding the prehistoric mammals that coexisted with dinosaurs, and Vickers-Rich was fascinated by ancient birds. But after the pair joined a field trip to Australia with American Museum of Natural History staff in the early 1970s, Vickers-Rich was hooked on the continent’s prehistory. She returned a few years later with a Fulbright scholarship and her husband tagged along. He was soon hired as the curator of paleontology at the Museum Victoria in Australia, a post he still holds.

Over the course of decades they conducted field excavations together, the most productive of which was at a small inlet on Australia’s Victoria Coast. They led a small group of volunteers and quickly discovered that the cove was a trove of dinosaur bones—all the more remarkable, they were from an era when Australia and Antarctica were connected, and the species were the first to be discovered that had wandered the white continent. The inlet became internationally known as Dinosaur Cove.

Meanwhile, Rich and Vickers-Rich traveled around the world to participate in other digs. Their two children, Leaellyn (for whom they named the Australian dinosaur Leaellynasaura) and Timothy (the namesake of the Timimus), were frequently on site as well, “draftees in the dinosaur army,” Rich jokes.

Today the couple continues to work together on dinosaur and early animal research in southwestern Australia, but over the last decade Vickers-Rich has pursued another line of research, studying Precambrian animals at sites around the world. But whether together or apart they have an ease and broad trust to their partnership that makes conflict rare. Rich says they often make big decisions without needing to consult one another. “If one makes a decision, the other one automatically backs them up,” Rich says. “If she was a dressmaker and I was a scientist, I couldn’t do the things I do because she might have different priorities. But because we are both scientists, we see things in the same way. We’re incredibly lucky in that way.”

Indeed, that ease and mutual understanding marked the relationship from the start. As students at Berkeley, they gradually arrived at the conclusion that they would marry, rather than either formally proposing marriage. One day, as they were on an errand, Vickers-Rich simply turned to Rich and suggested they get married at Bushy-Tailed Blowout—a well-known fossil site in eastern Wyoming. He immediately agreed. The next summer they were there. “After the ceremony, Pat said, ‘Now let’s scour the outcrop,’” Rich recalls. “We did, and my mother found an exquisite mammal tooth.”

Thomas H. Rich is senior curator of vertebrate paleontology and palaeobotany at the Museum Victoria in Melbourne. With his wife he led a decade’s worth of excavations on Australia’s Victoria Coast that discovered several new species of dinosaurs as well as a handful of prehistoric birds and mammals. He later—after many years of searching—discovered an Australian Mesozoic mammal specimen. Dozens more have been found since. He has co-authored many books on paleontology.

Patricia Vickers-Rich is an emerita professor of paleontology at Monash University in Melbourne. In addition to her prominent work on dinosaurs and mammal fossil excavations on the Victoria Coast, Vickers-Rich has pursued research on the soft-bodied Precambrian creatures, which lived between 600 million and 540 million years ago and preceded the hard-bodied animals that appear in the fossil records. She has co-authored many books about prehistoric birds, dinosaurs and animals.

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