Three keys to work-life balance

Last week, I was asked to speak to young professionals about work-life balance, so I have been pondering this topic a lot. How do you juggle both a full-time, demanding and exacting career and the often-contradictory demands of raising little human beings to become productive members of society? To be honest, I think the “secret” is that all of us are just winging it, really, and we are creating and maintaining balance as we go – even if it doesn’t appear that way to others from the outside. Parenting and careers are all about change. Just when you think you have achieved the perfect balance, something changes – your child starts potty training, enters puberty, adjusts to a new school, or gets chosen for a school team. You earn a promotion and gain new responsibilities, move offices (which affects your commute), or start a new job. Your spouse has to travel more or has a change in health condition. Older family members need care and help in a way they haven’t before.

The old cliché holds true: the only constant is change. In such a fast-paced world, the secret to work-life balance is finding and keeping your center as much as you can, and recognizing that while eddies of change may cause your lifeboat to wobble and swirl around a little, overall, you are still moving towards success as a parent, as a professional, and as a human being.

I feel most happy, fulfilled, and productive when I intentionally practice these three focusing principles:

  1. Invest in yourself. Invest intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. For me, this means ensuring that I continue to learn and grow as a professional and hold myself to my own high standards at work. This means that I take time to go to the gym, eat breakfast, and make sure I get as much sleep as I need – even if the house isn’t clean or I don’t make those perfectly crafty handmade Pinterest doodads for the child’s end-of-year class party (see principle #3). It means that I put away my smartphone at dinnertime and snuggle with my children as I read to them at night. I take time for date night or movie night with my husband, for girls’ night out, and for trying new activities. I don’t always achieve everything all at once, but I always try to come back to what I need to improve in myself. I find that this makes me a more patient and loving parent and partner, and a more focused and effective professional.
  1. Accept help where it’s offered and available. This includes help at home from your partner, family, and children (a 6-year-old can put dishes in the dishwasher! A 10-year-old can do laundry!). Accepting help also involves utilizing resources available to you as a professional – there are options that help you work more effectively. These can include taking advantage of flexible work hours, delegating certain tasks to administrative professionals or work-study students, letting go of the need to micromanage (again, see principle #3!), and learning how to use organizational tools such as email filtering and calendar management. Are there resources and benefits available at work, such as lactation rooms, childcare subsidies, wellness programs, or on-site daycare that you can take advantage of? It’s also tremendously helpful to hire others to do tasks like cleaning the house and mowing the lawn. Most universities have lists of students who are willing to do odd jobs, and some communities maintain lists of young people who will help with chores for a reasonable price. As my children have grown older, I’ve found a mutually supportive network of fellow professional parents – we often share driving duty to ferry our children to school events, or split vacation days to cover childcare during snow days and teacher workdays.
  1. Let the small things go. You will have to decide what “small things” mean to you, as everyone has different things they deem important. I have found that many a cause of stress can be traced back to my own unrealistic expectations of myself and the fear of being judged by society. The small things I have let go include having the perfectly clean house, the perfectly coiffed hair, and the perfectly dressed child. A recent feud that I let go was ensuring that my child left the house wearing two matching socks; I learned to embrace her individuality. I have had to let some career opportunities go because I was not willing to take a job that involved a lot of travel or relocation to a different state. But being at peace with those decisions to let go have, in the longer term, led to greater happiness and fulfilment both career-wise and family-wise.

When I find myself stressed, overwhelmed, and anxious, I try to come back to these three principles. Take care of myself. Accept help. Shed unnecessary burdens. And if all else fails, just wing it.

Sharlini Sankaran, PhD, is executive director of REACH NC, a statewide program that involves 20 universities and multiple economic development and nonprofit agencies. She is the parent of a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old and lives in Durham, NC with her husband, children, a black cat, and five fat chickens.

Software to accelerate science

In three years, the WSSI shows that software best practices can make a difference in water science.

Ask any elementary school student and they will tell you that water is a renewable resource.

Unfortunately, this “fact” comes with a few complications, like the truth that if we are not careful stewards of our water, it will run out. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), “more than 1.7 billion people live in river basins where depletion through use exceeds natural recharge.”

This trend could see two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries by 2025.

Understanding and sustaining water resources depends on using the best scientific modeling and software development practices, which is why RENCI has been part of the Water Science Software Institute (WSSI) planning grant for the past three years.   Read more…

Collaborations in coastal resilience

New funding for DHS Center of Excellence means continued collaboration with RENCI on coastal issues

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently announced it will provide $20 million over five years to fund the Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence (COE) at UNC-Chapel Hill. That’s a good thing for people in coastal areas who each year must cope with hurricanes, erosion, flooding, and storm surge.

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. RENCI and the DHS Coastal Resilience Center work together to improve hurricane storm surge prediction.

Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. RENCI and the DHS Coastal Resilience Center work together to improve hurricane storm surge prediction.

The new grant acknowledges the effectiveness of a longtime partnership between the Coastal Resilience COE (formerly the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence) and RENCI. For more than five years, Brian Blanton, RENCI’s director of environmental programs and a coastal oceanographer, has worked closely with Rick Luettich, lead investigator for the Coastal Resilience COE and director of UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences, to enhance the ADCIRC storm surge modeling system and put it to use as a tool to help coastal communities understand, predict, and mitigate the impacts of coastal storms.

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Webinar to put the spotlight on metadata

Need your data to remain useful and discoverable over its entire lifespan? Metadata is the key.

metadata-loveMetadata—or data about data—and its importance in life sciences research will be the discussion topic at an upcoming webinar featuring RENCI’s Dan Bedard, Interim Executive Director of the iRODS Consortium, Stephen Worth, director of Global New Business Development Operations at EMC, and Patrick Combes, Principal Life Sciences Solutions Architect in EMC’s Emerging Technologies Division.

The webinar—titled Expanding the Face of Metadata in Next Generation Sequencing—takes place Wednesday, May 13 at 2 p.m. and should offer insights for life sciences researchers, bioinformatics specialists, software developers, and IT and research computing experts. To register, click here.

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Pearl Hacks draws female coders from across the nation

“Every single one of you are makers.”

These words from Dona Sarkar kicked off UNC Chapel Hill’s recent Pearl Hacks event. Sarkar is an engineer manager at Microsoft, author, and fashion designer, and this past weekend she was in Chapel Hill inspiring an audience of over 600 high school and college-age women gathered to create through hacking.

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NC FIRST Robotics program grooms science and tech heroes of the future

There has been a growing buzz in the media about the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education and the struggle to ensure students receive enough of it in public schools. Part of the reason for this intense focus is that the U.S. Department of Labor expects there will be 1.2 million job openings in STEM related fields by 2018, but there won’t be enough qualified graduates to fill those jobs.

According to a Harris Interactive survey, many students who choose a math or science career interacted with a teacher or participated in a program that inspired them and helped launch their STEM career path. NC FIRST Robotics, which was created to help students acquire the knowledge and skills needed to compete in our technologically-driven society, is one such program.  Read more…

Finding common ground in the Social Computing Room

A delegation from Kyrgyzstan views biopsy slides in the RENCI Social Computing Room.

A delegation from Kyrgyzstan views biopsy slides in the RENCI Social Computing Room.

Science, like music, is an international language. No matter their cultural, ethnic, or religious backgrounds, no matter if they conduct fieldwork in the U.S. or run a lab in central Asia, scientists always seem able to find common ground.

It’s a fact all competent science communicators understand, and one I was reminded of when a delegation of science and technology professionals from Kyrgyzstan visited RENCI’s Social Computing Room (SCR) on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus on Feb. 12. The group, comprised primarily of women with backgrounds in mathematics, software engineering, and information science, journeyed half way around the world to participate in the Open World Program, a U.S. exchange program that supports and encourages current and future leaders in post-Soviet block countries.

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TriPython project nights bring community and innovation to RENCI after hours

The Triangle Python Users Group is a local organization that brings together experienced and new enthusiasts of Python, a widely used computer programming language. The group has been active in our area since 2002 but recently had a need for a new meeting space in the Chapel Hill area.

RENCI has opened its doors for a few of the group’s activities. Project nights are now held the second Wednesday of each month at RENCI. The informal project nights bring together new Python users seeking support and assistance with more experienced users. Together, they talk about their projects and potentially create cross collaboration.

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Creekside coders create and engage during “Hour of Code” event

Increasingly, every aspect of society – from education to healthcare – relies on software-driven technology. Even as we rely more often on “smart” devices for all aspects of our daily lives, we may not be producing enough computer scientists and software developers to satisfy our demand for all things tech.


Creekside Elementary in Durham hopes students will catch the coding bug at a young age.

According to, by the year 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer science jobs but only 400,000 computer science students ready to enter the field. Additionally, according to the Computing Research Association, the computer science field suffers from an alarming gender and diversity gap that has not improved over the years – in 2010, less than 14 percent of US and Canadian computer science graduates were women, and only 10 percent were minorities.

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Computer modeling facilitates discussion of coastal hazards

RENCI’s Brian Blanton, PhD, recently gave a talk called “Simulating Storm Surge for Coastal Hazard and Risk Assessment” as part of a Disaster Resilience Symposium held at Virginia Tech.

The goal of the symposium was to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration on efforts to reduce the ecological and socioeconomic risks of coastal hazards. Living on a coastline comes with a certain set of risks, and coastal resilience researchers study the most effective ways to ensure coastal communities have the ability to bounce back after events such as tropical cyclones and tsunamis, and the resulting flooding and inundation.

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