On being a teenager with high-powered science & medicine parents

Yes, folks, today we have a major exclusive – what I believe is the first interview with Monica Berg, daughter of outgoing National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) Director, Jeremy Berg, PhD, and breast cancer imaging expert, Wendie Berg, MD, PhD.

A little background: we wrote about Dr. Berg back in April after he had received a 2011 American Chemical Society Public Service Award in a ceremony on Capitol Hill (C&EN article here). The gentleman that he is, he wrote to thank me and we had a bit of a discussion about the family’s pending move to Pittsburgh. Wendie was recruited to the University of Pittsburgh and Jeremy was named associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning for their School of Health Sciences.

As detailed in this very nice University of Pittsburgh Medical Center press release from December 2010:

In moving to Pittsburgh, Dr. Berg is supporting the professional aspirations of his wife, Wendie A. Berg, M.D., Ph.D., an influential imaging expert who led a major clinical trial investigating the roles of ultrasound and MRI as adjuncts to mammography in breast cancer screening. She will join the Department of Radiology, School of Medicine, as a professor in March 2011.

Britt Erickson has a nice article in the current issue of C&EN on Berg’s NIGMS legacy but it is currently firewalled to non-ACS members (sorry!).

Despite his amazing leadership of NIGMS and its $2 billion research and education portfolio, author and editor of Stryer’s Biochemistry, and still actively publishing, Jeremy has also been engaged with the scientific blogosphere. His insights on research funding trends and analysis of NIGMS grants data are often shared on the blog of my neuroscience colleague, DrugMonkey, where Jeremy is also found as a commenter. When the announcement of the Berg family’s relocation came out, Drug wrote:

Many of us are in dual-professional and even dual-academic partnerships these days. There are struggles and compromises that are almost as varied as the number of couples involved. Here’s a member of a partnership taking what looks, to all appearances, like a bit of a downgrade in support of professional opportunities for his spouse. No matter what the variety of reasons in their household, this has good optics. Another classy bit of legacy that Berg brings to the table.

We folks often speak far and wide about the job and life challenges for us as couples and parents. But in my exchanges with Jeremy and a chance mention that his daughter had accompanied him to the Capitol ceremony, I realized that we tend to never hear from the children of these dual-professional families. And as I sat here on the couch looking at my wife and eight-year-old daughter, I selfishly wanted to know how they manage these complicated lives and if there are any messages for me to be a better parent.

With the permission of the Doctors Berg, I was able to secure for you, Dear Reader, an email interview with Monica Berg. We are most grateful to Monica for sharing her insights with us, especially between finishing the school year and the move to Pittsburgh. Should you wish to follow up on anything in the interview below, Monica has graciously agreed to answer questions that are posted in the comment thread, time-permitting.

The Interview

DK: Tell us a little about yourself – where you are in school, what you like to do for fun – whatever you want to share with the public.

Monica Berg: I’m a high-school freshman [now rising sophomore], and I love to learn about math and history. I’m a member of our “It’s Academic” team, which is a competitive trivia game for high school students, and I love that very much. The practices are the highlight of my week. Outside of school I love to bake and cook for fun, my brothers [Alex, 25, and Corey, 20] and I have discussed opening a restaurant together once we’re older. My brothers and I have always been extremely close even though we are each separated by 4-5 years in age. Indeed, my whole family is very close considering the complications of our busy lives.

DK: Our readers range from chemists like your Dad to clinicians like your Mom. What have been the advantages of growing up with your folks? Is there anything you would change if you could?

Monica Berg: Growing up with my parents was nice because if we had a question on our homework or needed help they would always help us. But the biggest advantage of growing up the way my brothers and I did has got to be the independence we learned. Our parents are very busy people and work is a huge part of their lives so they weren’t always there when we got home from school. But because of that, we learned to be responsible and independent from a very early age. We learned how to do household chores, cook, and take care of ourselves.

At the same time, our parents were always there for us when we needed them, even if they weren’t physically home. They brought us along to a lot of their meetings and we got to travel to all sorts of places as a result, which has helped us be better citizens of the world. Learning to be independent has really helped us mature and will help us our entire lives.  Since I love where I have always lived, I wish that we weren’t moving to Pittsburgh, but I can’t change that. I hope it will be a good situation for my parents and it will all work out, but preparing for the move has been hard.

DK: Perhaps a related question is whether your parents have had any influence on what you want to do in your next phase of education and, ultimately, your career. Even if you don’t go into science or medicine, how have your experiences with your parents affected the direction of your life?

Monica Berg: My parents have always encouraged me to learn and I really want to go to a university which will continue to challenge me. My parents have inspired me to do what makes me happy and what I really care about. They don’t push science or medicine; they just want us to be happy.  I will probably go into mathematics or maybe statistical analysis, since I’ve always loved stuff like that, but I’m not sure just yet. Seeing how hard they work has certainly made us realize life isn’t always easy, but neither is being among the best at what you love.

DK: What is the most important thing you have learned from your Mom?

Monica Berg: The most important thing I’ve learned from my Mom is that life is not easy, but that if you are willing to put in a lot of time and energy you can make a difference. She has taught me independence and responsibility all my life; the only thing you can control is yourself and your own actions.

DK: What is the most important thing you have learned from your Dad?

Monica Berg: The most important thing I’ve learned from my Dad is that if you treat people with respect, it will pay off. People are much more likely to respect you and help you if you treat them with respect. Even if you think you may be “better” than someone, you don’t have to act like it, and it will always serve you best to treat people with respect.

DK: Your parents are at or above the top 1% of achievers in science and medicine. By definition, most of us aren’t. What advice would you give to couples striving to be like your folks but who are concerned that they might sacrifice too much from their lives with their kids while trying to succeed at their jobs? Is there any “secret” that helps you connect with your folks regardless of how busy they are at work or when they are traveling?

Monica Berg: As long as parents make some time for their kids, everything will be OK. Our family works because we are always there to listen to each other if we need it. My parents were often staying late at work and sometimes we didn’t eat dinner together, but that didn’t matter. They would at least keep in touch. Plus my brothers and I were always too preoccupied with learning new things or playing with our friends to notice that they weren’t there. My brothers and I got to be so close because our parents weren’t always home, so we had each other. My parents still helped us with homework and if we had problems with anything they would help us, but we also learned to figure things out for ourselves. Kids don’t always need their parents around all the time; we sometimes had others who would take care of us and the house. But as long as we could still be there for each other and see each other in the evenings and on weekends, it was fine.  We are a very close family despite the complexities of our lives.

DK: Thank you, Monica, for taking time to thoughtfully answer our questions. I know I speak for all of us in being so impressed with your worldview and wishing you all the best in your move to Pittsburgh.

And as noted above, Monica has agreed to answer any questions that may arise in the comments, depending on her schedule with the move.

Author: David Kroll

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8 Comments

  1. MB, You are undoubtedly very kind to your parents, it can’t be easy. You share them with their highly important work to improve the health and well being of all, and for that we salute you as well.

  2. Monica, thanks for sharing your story. I’m fascinated by your answer that you might major in mathematics or statistical analysis because, as you probably know, mathematics isn’t a discipline that attracts a lot of women at the university level or beyond. In the set of the teenage girls/young women who are your peers, have you seen specific influences that have maybe chased some of them away from the field or helped to maintain their interest?

  3. Wow, quite inspiring. My question is perhaps for Monica’s older siblings. I’m struggling just to make our payments to our on-site childcare center but we’re much earlier in our careers than the Bergs. What kind of care did your parents contract when your brothers were younger and no older siblings were available to help out?

  4. Thanks for your insight, Monica. I’m really intrigued that you talk about how having siblings has been good for you. A lot of us in science/medicine seem only to have one child (for a whole host of reasons). I wonder how things will be different for our only children, without siblings with whom to play, learn, cook, and commiserate.

    • Anne, that’s a really good point – as you know from our playdate at the Museum of Life and Sciences in Durham, we’re also a one-child family. In one sense, they will become more independent as time goes on but I feel like we have more demands for personal attention while only having one, especially in their early years.

  5. Monica, great interview! Best wishes to you in whatever you do — math, restaurant, or something else. :)

  6. I feel like we have more demands for personal attention while only having one,

    HAHHAHAHAHAA, yeah right!!!!!!

    • You liked that, huh, Drug?

      Perhaps I am a bit off ;-) But I can’t just tell the PharmKid, “Why don’t you go play with [brother/sister] while I finish this blog post.”