A small way to honor the memory of Elizabeth Sulzman

i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgThis afternoon, as I was busy working with graduate students and my daughter was napping at daycare, an email from AGU reminded me to renew my membership for next year. AGU is one of my two main societies and early renewal gives you a discount on electronic access to their articles, so I dutifully headed over to their site to pay up. Like all good organizations, before they'd let me pay their dues, AGU wanted to know if I would give a gift to one fund or another. Maybe I was feeling in a generous mood because I'd just come off good meetings with my grads, but I decided to browse the list of funds to support students.

And one fund leaped off the screen at me: The Elizabeth Sulzman Fund. I knew immediately that this fund was the one that would receive my donation this year and for many future years.

From the Biosphere-Atmosphere Stable Isotope Network page, here's a description of the fund's goal:

The Sulzman Award is given in honor of Dr. Elizabeth Sulzman, an award-winning professor and scientist remembered for her tremendous enthusiasm for teaching and research, and for her contributions to the isotope and biogeochemistry community. The award recognizes the best student presentation (poster or talk) at the Fall AGU meeting. Preference is given to graduate students using stable isotopes to study soil biogeochemistry. The award provides reimbursement of travel costs and meeting registration up to $500 and is currently sponsored by BASIN. Future awards will be sponsored by the AGU Biogeosciences section (see below).

A dear friend of mine was closely personally and professionally associated with Dr. Sulzman, and I had the honor of being acquainted with her. (Specifically, I was a lowly grad student who had heard her speak and had even exchanged pleasantries with her on more than one occasion. She probably had no idea who I was.)

When she died suddenly, many of us were completely grief-stricken, and to this day, I cannot think of her without tears coming to my eyes. Here's what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of her death, and while I know more now than I did then, it still captures the gut-wrenching feeling I have when I think of her.

More pressure than can be borne?

It is a sad day for the environmental science community. We have a lost a shining young scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Sulzman of Oregon State University. She was a dynamic individual, an award-winning teacher, and an exciting researcher. She died last night after ingesting a caustic substance, apparently committing suicide. She leaves behind an elementary-school aged daughter and a husband.

She participated in a panel a few years ago called "So you want to be a college professor?." The grad students in the audience asked the professors how it was possible to have a personal life on top of the demands of a research and teaching career. The professors stressed that the flexibility of the academic work day compensated in large part of the sheer volume of work. Dr. Sulzman said something to the effect of "where else would I get to do what I love and still be able to be home for my daughter after school."

I am left wondering what went wrong for Dr. Sulzman. Were the pressures to continually get funding and publishing results too much? What about the desire to produce outstanding classes on top of her other committments? Was there a problem in her relationship with her husband? Did she feel guilty about lack of time with her daughter? Did she miss having "free" time? Was it years of sleep deprivation, mother guilt, and impostor syndrome? I am left wondering what could drive a woman to despair so deep that she'd leave behind her daughter.

I am left wondering whether the life she led was "worth it" while it lasted. I am left wondering whether there is something wrong with "the system" that puts so much pressure on individuals to constantly perform. I am left wondering about the expectations that we have for our selves - to succeed at so many endeavors simultaneously. I am left wondering about the extra burden we carry as women - primary caregivers facing an unequal playing field at work - and the chronic pressure that adds to our loads.

Maybe none of these things had anything to do with Dr. Sulzman's death. That's the problem with suicide - it leaves questions forever unanswered and family and friends forever grieving. But if it causes some measure of critical examination of the forces at play in Dr. Sulzman's life - and the lives of other women scientists/academics - then maybe some good can come of this tragedy.

But tonight I hug my daughter close and tell her that I will never leave her. And tonight I pray for Elizabeth Sulzman's family - especially her daughter - may they find some peace.

Now we AGU members have another chance to make some good come of this devestating loss. We can support the careers of young scientists by honoring them for their outstanding work and defraying the financial burden of traveling to the conference to share their science with the world. If you are an AGU member, please give generously to The Elizabeth Sulzman Fund. It needs $25,000 to become a permanent fund and sustain a $1000 annual award.

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Thanks for spreading the word. Elizabeth is still deeply missed by all who knew her, and this is an excellent way to honor her.

By soil mama (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

That's not the only award in her honor. The Biogeosciences Section of the Ecological Society of America gives an annual award in her name for an outstanding publication by a graduate student.

I knew her even than you did; she was a woman rising in my field, a role model. I read her papers, saw her presentations at meetings, and possibly met her at a poster session or some such. Very, very sad.

By anon for now (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

I'm glad there is a way to honor her memory. And you're right, the burden of doing everything well is crushing, even if others think you're doing fine.