Victoria Molfese, PhD, and Dennis L. Molfese, PhD

This Scientist Spotlight features a husband and wife academic team.

Victoria Molfese, PhD
Chancellor Professor
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Dennis L. Molfese, PhD
Mildred Francis Thompson, Professor
Director, Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior
Editor-in-chief, Developmental Neuropsychology
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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

Victoria Molfese, PhD & Dennis L. Molfese, PhDVictoria: We are studying learning in young children, particularly how child characteristics (e.g., age, gender, cognitive abilities), family charcteristics (e.g., demographics, environment, parenting practices), and relationships with caregivers and teachers influence the learning processes related to language, reading, science and mathematics.

Dennis: Developmental Changes In Brain, Language And Cognitive Processes; Predicting Cognitive And Linguistic Skills From Infancy ; Electrophysiological Measures Of Learning and Memory In Infancy; Impact of Space Travel on Cognition, Brain Function and Sleep ; Development of Intervention Strategies for Learning Disabilities in Infancy. Cognitive Functions in and Interventions for Head Injured Adults; Factors Underlying Lateralization Of Language And Cognitive Functions; Phonological And Semantic Confusions By Aphasics ; Electrophysiological Techniques To Assess Hearing Abilities In Infants And Children; Neural Network Applications To Neuropsychology; Man-Machine Interactions Using Neuroelectrophysiological Techniques.

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

Victoria: Approximately 10 to 12 hours per week

Dennis: My wife and I arrive at work Monday thru Friday by 7:30 am and usually work through lunch, leaving for home anywhere between 4:30 and 6:30 pm. Usually I work another 2-3 hours in the evenings after about 9 pm on weekdays and grab 3 hours or so on Sunday late unless we have some pressing deadline, and then borrow more time Saturday and earlier Sunday. Generally, though, we work to keep our home time protected to spend time with each other and run our chores (shopping for necessities like food!) and socializing. When our children were living at home we were engaged with them in various activities pretty much throughout the weekend- doing homework, scouting activities like camping or hiking, seeing a movie, and home maintenance projects (they are now both in postdocs studying brain imagery, dyslexia and response to intervention).

Q: 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?

Victoria: I am involved in gardening, cooking, hiking and spending time with family and friends. These activities are woven into evening and weekend times, but they are considered to be high priorities – along with my professional activities – because otherwise they tend to get displaced by urgent business that is carried home from the work day.

Dennis: I enjoy astronomy and have a couple of telescopes – one for backpacking and another bulkier 10" reflector for setting up in the yard. I also like to fish and living on a lake helps. I look at fishing like applied psychology. Fish have an olfactory brain (reflexive, sensitive to smell), poor eyesight in a limited visibility environment, prefer certain oxygen levels, and follow migration patterns that usually limit them to about 5% of the lake area – improves the odds of catching something. I also am into model trains, recently finishing an N-guage setup that I built into a table. Tori (short for Victoria, my wife and colleague) and I like to backpack, hike and camp. Nature photography rounds out my interests.

Q: How do you choose to prioritize work and non-work activities?

Victoria: From the start of my professional career, I have focused at work on work activities and at home on home activities. This sounds simplistic, but when our children were young, my husband, Dennis, and I traded off on child care during the day so that one of us was at home with the young child. During that time we focused on the child and activities related to the child, with house work, professional work, and all other non-child work ignored (as much as possible). Then while at work, the attention was on our professional work – including students, course, research, service work to the department and college, service to the profession, and all scholarly work. Keeping these activities in separate work deadlines would force some variation from this but we tried to minimize these through long-term planning. And, in such situations we always had one parent involved with the children.

Dennis: Keeping a schedule helps, as does planning ahead. I usually make up my office work/ teaching/ research schedules for the week at least a week in advance. That can change but the timeline for each day keeps me focused. That calendar also holds my non-work activities so I do not overbook. Tori and I try to keep our date night a priority and have a changing number of those in the week depending on work demands and our own sense of our needing time together or needing to do other activities. Time for coming home to the chidren's bedtime was also dedicated to them by both of us. We would do our scholarly work only after they were asleep. Sometimes grant or other work deadlines would force some variation from this, but we tried to minimize these through long-term planning. And, in such situations we always had one parent involved with the children.

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

Victoria: Careers, just like personal life, have cycles in which there are times of intense, critical, and time- sensitive responsibilities, along with changes in pace. Pre-tenure, career activities pertain to high quality teaching, publications and grantsmanship. Post-tenure career activities are similar but there often is less anxiety and stress over pace of accomplishments, and it becomes more possible to establish a pattern of accomplishments. Cycles in my personal life have been similar. When there are children in the home, activities relate to family, children's interests and activities and parenting. However, children leave home for college and careers and the cycle of parenting and family life changes, leaving time for other activities, such as hobbies, off-season vacations with my husband, and more time for socializing with friends. We have also enjoyed visiting and vacationing with our adult children, which adds a great new dimension to our personal lifes. The balance between career and personal activities changes over time but that is what makes our work interesting and exciting – opportunities for new activities present themselves and some past activities become less interesting or relevant.

Dennis: Protecting time for our date nights, making spontaneous plans for a lunch or dinner, and keeping our weekends for time together really helps. When our children were small (defined as us putting them to bed rather than when they got into their junior & senior years of high school and started putting us to bed while they stayed up later to work!), our rule was never to work on professional things until after we had played/worked with them on their homework/finished our Boy Scout or Cub Scout activities. Once completed, then we put them to bed. After they were in bed and stories were finished, we would focus on our own work. The same rule applied to weekdays and weekends. Rules and habits really helped us. When we could, we also took our children to professional meetings with us. While one of us attended papers, the other took care of the boys, either in our hotel room or at museums or zoos or just walks and visits to ice cream stores! Before we went to a conference, Tori and I read through the conference program, decided what papers/symposium we each wanted to attend, and then divide up the time so that we each could make the majority of our talks. Sometimes, one of us would sit in on a talk the other wanted to see but could not because it did not easily fit into the hours we split up. In the evenings we would both be with the children and go out for dinner or, when they were very young, order in.

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

Victoria: It is more 65% (work) and 35% (home) right now because of starting new academic jobs and having opportunities to work with new colleagues, engage in exciting new projects, and fit our research and scholarly work into a new frame of reference. Activities at home still involve important time periods, but less so right now.

Dennis: Likely about 60% work and 40% home- relationship related, but even that is not cut and dry. Our research areas overlap, so 4 or 5 times a week we may meet with each other and colleagues to discuss or plan a research project, work on developing a grant application, plan a conference or discuss how to deal with journal or grant reviews (either ones we conduct or reacting to reviews of our own work). Frankly, our personal life really blends easily into our pofessional life throughout the day. Almost always there is a chance to touch base to see how we are each doing, offer words of support, a hug. Students over the years often ask us what we talk about at home. And yes, we do talk about shared professional work and what each of us are doing on our own to keep each other informed We also give and receive feedback and thoughts from each other on what we each are doing, but we also talk about all the things required of anyone paying bills or dealing with a broken clothes washer. These conversations go on throughout the day and blend together. Bottom line – our private and professional lives are not clearly demarcated in terms of hours and minutes, but do ebb and flow in the way they blend and overlap. And that is part of the fun of being married to another professional – more things to share regardless of the day or night!

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

Victoria: This balance comes over time. There probably is no prescription of how to balance different priorities. Decisions concerning type of career and work responsibilities, family and child rearing, and personal activities and hobbies entail commitments of time. The priorities in which these various activities are placed shift across time.

Dennis: We each have been doing this together for many years. This really started in grad school where we met. As we all know, grad school was never an 8 to 5 gig but more of a continuous exercise. We learned to grab minutes for lunch together at times. Tori would go back to her apartment at 6 pm or so, make a dinner, bring it back to the lab or department in a styroform box to keep it warm, we'd eat dinner together, clean up, and then work for another 3 hours or so before calling it a night.

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

Victoria: I make lots of lists and try to be vigilent in making sure that all appointments are in my Day-Timer. I use a paper version of Day-Timer because it helps me to be able to readily see the dates, times, places, and purposes of the various entries.

Dennis: EndNote helps a great deal for organizing the literature. I read through a paper and then use an outline I developed to include all that info in EndNote, to the point that I usually do not have to go back and reread the paper later. All the critical details are included in my EndNote files. When I start to write a book chapter or an article, I search my own database, print out the relevant papers that I bring up with my keywords (I use about 200 in my own data set) and then start cutting and pasting to weave those papers into the outline that I developed before I start to write the paper. EndNote also makes it very easy to organize the Reference Section and tailor it for the particular journal where I plan to submit the paper.

For Example:

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

Victoria: I donlt have special times set aside. It seems that there are urgent tasks nearly all the time and I try to attend to the most urgent ones that arise. I try to plan when I am going to get to various tasks and, importantly, try not to lose sight of the tasks.

Dennis: Yes, generally. But there are times that, because of deadlines, I just focus on one task—grant writing—to meet that final push to meet the deadline. Manuscript writing can be a bit more flexible but I prefer to stay with it and work on it daily once started instead of putting the paper aside for a few days and then resuming work. Once I let a paper gather some dust, I must spend considerably more time getting back up to speed in writing and working through the logic for the paper.

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

Victoria: It varies. It usually takes several weeks to get manuscript written.

Dennis: I rewrite a typical manuscript about 50 times, a grant application perhaps 75 times or at least large sections of them. This process may take from 1 month to 4 months. But before starting the paper I will have spent several months analyzing the data, pulling the data apart, running split comparisons, testing different models—all to get a good sense of the data and how robust it is. That helps build my confidence that the findings are solid and likely to replicate. In most cases we try to either run split-half comparison analyses or run replications before the final write up of the work.

Q: How do you protect time for writing papers?

Victoria: I am pretty good about concentrating on the tasks at hand and keeping my office door partially closed so that I don't get distracted. Playing classical music CDs always helps.

Dennis: Not well enough. This is always a problem. Mornings are best. Coming into work early really helps! Usually there are a good 2 hours and sometimes 3 before the phone rings or people knock on the office door. Email is a disasterous distraction so I try to deal with that in the evening when I am tired or at lunch. Limiting email time is important. But sometimes the shear voume of emails can get away from you. I get between 200-300 emails each day, many in connection with the journal, Developmental Neuropsychology, that we edit. But other emails are in reference to different responsibilities that range from IRB issues to obtaining permissions to test in certain venues (i.e., hospital, school), to research test sessions, to committee assignments or review panels. Having a target for when a paper should be finished helps, as well as planning when each part of the paper should be finished.

Q: 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?

Victoria: I work for as long as it takes to get the job done – that usually means some weekends, and some evenings, depending on what needs to get done. It is ironic that I worry about the amount of time I spend working and, at the same time, I do not seem to be able to say "no" to additional requests for review, grant writing activities, classes, or manuscript writing.

Dennis: It does help to set limits. Our work day is pretty prescribed by the 7:30 am to late afternoon schedule.The non-work time is a great opportunity to recharge and do different things, and that helps me to relax. The chance to bounce ideas off Tori also helps a great idea, and in that communication comes other things that reaffirm who we are and why we are together and have been for very soon 40 years.

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

Victoria: We try to exercise at least 3 nights per week for about an hour each time. I am an olympic class sleeper and need lots of sleep. I usually get 9 hours or so each night.

Dennis: Exercise! We try to do this at least 4 times per week and right after dinner. We find that if we exercise together that we are much more likely to both start to exercise and follow through for the whole hour. Sometimes we negotiate – "Ok, let's exercise for only 5 minutes!" but once we get started we always stay through the entire period. Exercising side-by-side is a great help. Half way through the period we switch off and trade machines – a walker and a Bowflex so we both get some cardio as well as strength conditioning. We also like to hike and backpack so that can help supplement. Tori usually goes to bed before I do but then we both get up at the same time, usually 6 am. Generally she gets about 8 hours and I'll get about 6-7 hours. On weekends, though, we do take advantage and sleep in but try not to stay up later on weekends so that our bed times stay fairly stable.

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

Victoria: It is important to consider the job requirements (teaching, research and service activities) and life style. Both change – the career changes as individuals mature into their roles, and lifestyles change with the birth and maturity of children and maturation of relationships. The balance comes across time as well as within time periods.

Dennis: Be flexible. Do not get discouraged. Do not take yourself too serious. Remember to laugh and make humor a part of your personal interactions. Work to appreciate your partner and family pressures, Just as you work hard to achieve in your work setting, you need to expend significant energy to develop your personal life and enjoyment. Have faith in yourself. And there also is the issue of perspective to keep in mind - remember that your research contributions are only a part of what you contribute to the world. Your other contributions come through your spouse, family and your children, if you choose to have them, as well as your friends and what they take away from their contact with you. In fact, the standard life of a journal article, even one in Science, is at best a few years. But your attitudes and guidance to everyone around you lives on much longer - at least for a generation and in fact more. Your children pass along some of you to their children long after the paper of your journal article has oxidized and turned brown with age and lack of attention from the science community.

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

Victoria: Manuscripts get rejects – always revise and resubmit.

Dennis: Be ready to admit that you are wrong, but if you believe that you are right, then you have an obligation to be as strong an advocate for that position as you can.

Q: Are there any additional comments you would like to make?

Dennis: Flexibility REALLY helps. Always. Humor helps even more!! And when someone in the family (you included) gets tense and irrititable for whatever reason (e.g., deadlines approaching, data analysis goes south, computers decide to erase data, or just because, etc.), it really helps if the other person remembers to say, "I love you" and keeps a silly but large grin on their face. It is really hard to sustain a temper tantrum when you hear those words and see a silly grin directed at you!

To nominate scientists for Scientist Spotlight, contact Kelly Dunn or Sarah Tragesser.