Sandra D. Comer, PhD

Full Professor
Columbia University

What is your current research? Please briefly describe your area of research and/or practice:

Sandra D. Comer, PhDMy research focuses on trying to understand and treat opioid dependence. Using laboratory models in human research volunteers, my colleagues and I have conducted studies to examine sex differences and hormonal influences on response to opioid medications. I am also trying to understand the relationship between pain and opioid abuse in participants who are exposed to experimental pain procedures and in patients with chronic, nonmalignant pain. And finally, in addition to examining basic mechanisms underlying opioid dependence, I have conducted a series of studies to evaluate medications that may be useful for treating this disorder. The medications that appeared to be promising in the laboratory were subsequently tested in clinical treatment trials.

About how many hours per week do you spend in alternative involvement in professional organizations, administrative duties, teaching, clinical requirements or similar?

On average, I work 50-60 hours per week. About half of my time is spent in alternative activities such as professional organizations, local administrative duties, and teaching.

Are you involved with any activities or hobbies unrelated to your work and if so, how do you find the time to participate in these activities? Broadly speaking, my non-work activities are separated into family time and exercise time, and these activities often overlap.

How do you choose to prioritize work and nonwork activities?

Well, it depends. Both the work and non-work activities continually fluctuate in terms of which takes precendence. Making lists is a good way to keep on top of things. I also use Google Calendar and put both work and home activities on it so that I know what’s coming up and how to plan out my time accordingly. Learning how to say “no” and how to cut corners is also important. Sometimes I just have to turn down the fifth manuscript request that I received within a two-day window. And sometimes I have to buy cookies instead of baking them.

How have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities?

This is an interesting question because it took me a while to figure out how to balance the two and the balance has changed as demands in both my professional and my personal life changed. One of the biggest challenges occurred when my kids were born. Suddenly, a huge chunk of time that I used to devote to working was needed to take care of my family. Luckily, I have a husband who has no qualms about changing diapers and doing laundry (sometimes in quick succession!), so he’s a great help. But still, it’s tough. Of course, the first thing that flew out the window when the kids were little was my exercise routine. Soon, though, I figured out that for me, exercise is not a luxury, it’s necessary for my physical and mental health. So eventually, I found activities that work with my schedule. I wake up at the crack of dawn to swim and run, which impacts minimally on my family’s demands. Overall, I think that being fit helps on all fronts because I’m more mellow around the kids, and I can think better at work. It’s a win-win situation.

What percentage of your time is allocated to work vs. home life?

Aside from sleeping, I’d say that it’s about 50- 50.

How have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities?

This assumes that I’ve mastered the balance! I guess the biggest thing is that I try to focus on whatever I’m doing at that moment. If I’m working, I’m totally focused on that. If I’m with my family, I don’t think about work. This is not true 100% of the time, but it’s my goal.

Are there any special organizational strategies you use to be efficient at work?

As I mentioned earlier, I keep a to-do list that I refer to frequently. Crossing things off of lists is highly reinforcing for me. I am also somewhat compelled to read and respond to my emails. When I can get my “unread mail” down to less than 10, I’m happy. One of my more useful quirks is that I feel the need to finish things that I start, which is important in terms of paper and grant writing. Although I find that it’s almost impossible to find big blocks of time to write anymore, I’ve learned how to write in small blocks of time. Sometimes I only write one or two sentences a day, but after a few weeks, half the paper is written.

Have you found it helpful to assign specific workdays to specific work-related tasks, like manuscript-writing, grading papers, etc.?

Not really. I just do things as they come up. Deadlines generally are good motivators for me, so that’s how I allocate time to various activities on any given day.

How many hours per week do you spend writing papers for publication?

Given my piecemeal approach to writing, it’s kind of hard to estimate. It also fluctuates quite a bit from week to week, depending on other pressing matters. I guess I look at the end products more than the time that I spend actually doing them. I aim to publish at least 6-7 papers per year, so if I’m not getting to that goal, I adjust my behavior.

How do you protect time for writing papers?

If I’m under a lot of pressure to get something out, I either shut my office door or work at home. I’m also learning how to delegate certain tasks to other people so that I can write.

Have you found it helpful to restrict the number of days per week you work (e.g., do not work on weekends?), or the number of hours you work per day?

I don’t consciously restrict the days or hours that I work, but generally I work less on the weekends because I’m so busy doing things with my family. As for the evenings, I think that it’s important to eat dinner together so we try to do that as much as possible. And then while the kids are doing homework at the dining room table, I do my “homework.” So we’re still together, but I’m getting a bit of work done.

How do you find time to exercise, or sleep?? How many hours of each do you average?

I usually exercise 5-6 days a week, early in the morning. I guess it takes up about 8 hours per week. As for sleeping, I usually get about 7 hours a night. And I always feel better if I can keep the times that I go to bed and wake up consistent. It doesn’t always happen, especially if I travel to different time zones, but that’s what I aim for. When the kids were small, though, it was almost impossible to keep a regular sleep schedule. The only words that I can offer on that point is that “it’ll get better!”

What advice do you have for other researchers who are learning to balance both career and personal life goals?

Be flexible. Things in both areas of your life will fluctuate from day to day, week to week, and year to year, so if you can learn how to roll with the changes, you’ll be better off.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from one of your mentors?

Streamline your home and work life as much as possible. For example, when we were researching schools in Manhattan (there are a myriad of options), Marian Fischman suggested that we choose one close to home in order to make life easier logistically. I’m so happy for this great piece of advice. And because parents count as mentors, I would add that you should always finish what you start. The second part of that is if you do something, do it well. And my own little bit of advice is to develop a tough shell. If a paper is rejected or a grant is unscored, try to minimize the angst because it just wastes time and energy. Take the advice offered in the critiques to make a better product and then move on to the next thing on your long, long list.

Are there any additional comments you would like to make?

I think that women today face unique challenges compared to women scientists 15 or 20 years ago. People like Marian Fischman, Chris-Ellyn Johanson, Marilyn Carroll, Nancy Ator, Alice Young, and Harriet de Wit, just to name a few, really laid the groundwork for us today. Their challenges were so much more basic back then because they were coping with mentors and colleagues who didn’t believe that it was worth training women in science because they’d just go off and have babies and then quit the field. I specifically decided to accept a postdoc position with Marilyn Carroll and then a faculty position with Marian Fischman because I wanted to see firsthand how to balance work and family. They both did it with such grace, and I am forever grateful to them for passing on their strategies. I think that this newsletter is yet another way to show women that it IS possible to balance both family and work, so I hope I am giving you what my dad used to call some “pearls of wisdom.”