how i get it done

How a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Scientist Gets It Done

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Earlier this month, Polina V. Lishko, a cellular and developmental biologist at UC Berkeley, was named a MacArthur fellow, a distinction for which she was awarded $625,000 in funding for her work in reproductive biology. Lishko’s research examines the process by which sperm cells fertilize eggs — an area of study which could assist the development of new, nonhormonal forms of contraception, as well as couples struggling with infertility. 

Here, Lishko tells the Cut about what a “typical” day looks like during a pandemic that keeps her kids at home and limits her access to the laboratory. She lives in California with her husband, 82-year-old mother, and two children, who are almost 17 and almost 8. Here, how she gets it done.

On her morning routine:
The morning starts around 7 or 7:30. My husband recently took charge of making breakfast, and he’s really good at it. Thanks to YouTube, he recently discovered this recipe for a French omelette, which is so delicious: It’s got parsley, paprika, all these other cool things inside. We can’t get enough of it.

If my schedule is super busy and I’m teaching, my morning might just continue from the night before. Right now, we have restrictions on how many people are allowed to be in the lab, so sometimes I try to work night shifts so other folks on my team can take the daytime shifts. When I take a night shift, I’ll come home and take some time to rest during the day. So it’s pretty chaotic.

On her favorite — and least favorite — job responsibilities: 
Sometimes when I have to review a paper, and I know the paper has to be rejected, I’ll really feel sorry because I understand how much work has been done by the team. It’s good for the team, and it’s a way for them to improve, but giving bad news isn’t fun.

I really miss being the PI — the principal investigator in the lab. Now I spend a lot of time on the computer and less time doing experiments. Whenever I have the chance to go back to the bench I really cherish it.

On the (unexpected) draw of reproductive biology:
If anyone had told me when I was 17 or 18 years old that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, I would laugh because initially my dream was to become a doctor like my sister. I can tell you that when I was in my undergraduate years, physiology was absolutely the most despised subject I had. I didn’t envision myself to be a reproductive biologist, but during my doctoral years, I became fascinated with the subject. It was an area of science which would benefit from further work. I wouldn’t say it was a black box — a lot of work has been done, but not at the same level as other fields. For whatever reason, people were less interested in this field, which I find to be one of the most exciting and fascinating.

On gendered expectations:
Self-doubt was a perpetual thing for me. I was born and raised in the old Soviet Union, and we didn’t have an official stance that women were lesser than men — but there was always this unspoken segregation: This is for men, and that is for women. This is a man’s job, and if you pursue it, you’ll struggle. Back in Ukraine, my dad was quite a prominent scientist, and I remember somebody asking him if he wanted his daughters to be good scientists like he is. And he said, “The only thing I want for my daughters is to be happily married.” That was just the mindset back in those days. We fulfilled his wish, but my sister is also an extremely successful doctor, and I’m not a poor scientist.

On constructive criticism:
One of my colleagues once told me, “Cherish your critics, they’re the only people who read your papers.” Science right now is so vast, and there’s so many things going on, that people often try to focus on their smaller subfields. Other people might understand the general scope of your work, but the details of your work can only be understood by a smaller group of people. And there’s competition within that group. So you have to cherish your competitors. I respect competitors because without critique it’s impossible to be a good scientist. If everyone tells you how good you are, how do you know you’re really good? The critique is what pushes science forward.

On hobbies:
Right now I’m into beekeeping. Apparently to be a beekeeper is an art. Some people are lucky from the first try; I was not. For three years, all my bees died, of all different circumstances. One time wild bees came and took everything. This year is the first year I actually was able to get a little bit of honey from the hive. It’s not like I like honey that much, but I really like bees. I like how they operate and how this beehive can operate as a single organism, like a brain. The other hobby I have is gardening, which is connected. Some plants, like cucumbers, need bees to produce anything, so they’re compatible in that way. One of my hobbies several years ago was raising chickens — the kids wanted pets and we’d get some eggs out of it, but that didn’t go well. One by one our chickens were taken by raccoons and bobcats. That was really stressful for my kids to realize. So, no more chickens.

On getting out of the house:
One of the pluses of the pandemic is that I’ve started to bike regularly. My kids, because they’re confined to having school over Zoom, they’ve had some trouble sleeping, and biking really helps. Before we go to sleep in the evenings, we all bike for about an hour, and that’s really helped to normalize a routine. We live in a town called Lafayette about 20 minutes from Berkeley. It’s a really nice suburban area with green trees and lots of open space. There’s tons of wildlife — wild turkeys, sometimes bobcats, coyotes.

On the importance of child care:
My husband is also a professor and works full time. We try to manage by taking turns. We have two kids, and my older daughter has special needs. It’s been an added challenge, but it was also a blessing. As parents, we learned how to be more caring, less self-absorbed. We learned how to be more kind. And my mom helps a lot. We help her, too, because she’s in her 80s, but she helped a lot in raising the kids when we were doctoral trainees and worked more in the lab.

I firmly believe the child-care issue is one of the biggest issues we need to solve if we want women’s careers to advance at the same pace as men’s. On my research team, we’ve had three newborns in the last two years. I knew what a toll an extensive maternity leave would take on the women on my team. They’re all amazing, smart women, but they had to sacrifice, of course, to be with their kids because they weren’t able to afford child care. We have to help women advance their careers, but unless we solve child care, I don’t think we’ll make significant progress.

How a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Scientist Gets It Done