The Art & Science of Balance

For this mom, scientist and teach, a little planning and organization go a long way to create a happy home and classroom

By KD Reep

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Patrycja Krakowiak, Ph.D., is an example of how to have it all and keep it balanced. Born in Poland, Dr. Krakowiak moved to the United States when she was just 11-years-old and has been a U.S. citizen for almost 20 years. As an educator at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs, she instructs classes in advanced biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and molecular biology, but that’s just the beginning. She also teaches Arkansas biology teachers at ASMSA in collaboration with the Learning Institute during quarterly workshops that focus on curriculum, pedagogy and hands-on laboratory reviews. Every year, she mentors at least five science fair students as they conduct molecular biology, educational or public health research.

Patrycja does all of this while also keeping up with her husband, Martin Valdivia, who is originally from Peru, and their three daughters Teresa, 17; Krystyna, 13; and Anna, 6.
“There are no miracles or superpowers when it comes to balancing work and family for a woman,” she says. “When some of us seem to have it all together, it is due to hard work,
planning, prioritizing and often getting help. When my children were very little, I had to rely
on others for help. My wonderful husband and I are a team, and we constantly help each other to accomplish what needs to be done. My amazing mother-in-law, Rosa, moved in with us for nearly five years to help with our first two daughters, and that allowed me to be the best research scientist and mom at the same time. But once she had to leave for health reasons, I felt pulled in too many directions. I learned to prioritize, and now, we have a family Google calendar. I try to maximize my lunch break and sometimes eat with my girls at their school, I let the laundry sit while we play video games or play tennis as a family, and each girl picks one— only one—extracurricular activity per semester. All of this makes things much more
manageable and enjoyable.”

Initially trained as a research scientist, Patrycja completed a bachelor of science in chemistry with an emphasis in molecular biology, a Ph.D. in human genetics, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. She then worked at Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute as an assistant professor for three years studying genetic and environmental causes of birth defects. She says she felt most fulfilled when she was teaching students in the laboratory during the summer, showing them how to set up and carry out experiments.

“When an opportunity to become a full-time teacher presented itself, I felt drawn to pursue that path, which I have always felt very passionate about,” Patrycja says. “Ever since I made this decision, I have been able to not only truly savor the fruits of my labors because I feel I make a lasting impact on student learning, but I also have been able to enjoy time with and participate in my girls’ growing up.”

Patrycja and her husband had their first daughter while she was writing her doctoral thesis so she was always a mother and professional simultaneously; however, she felt she wasn’t spending enough time with her family even while exhilarated as a research scientist. “Though there are many challenges to being a teacher, like a lower salary, less recognition, way too much grading, it does allow me to spend more time with my family, especially during breaks when my kids and I are out of school,” she says. “As far back as I can remember I always knew I wanted to go to college and become a scientist. It was partly because my parents are both chemists and partly because science—especially molecular biology—fascinated me and
was my most challenging subject. When I became a research specialist, I was very young, and my daughters were just toddlers. The stress of trying to be the best at both professional and personal life was so intense that I started to develop a physical illness. With time, I realized I simply needed to develop razor-sharp focus and fully concentrate on a given task. So, when I was at home, the computer and grading would have to wait until my kids were sleeping; when I was at work, I would try to finish as much grading and classroom preparation as possible. Though multi-tasking is absolutely critical for a mom to survive, I used this tool on simpler tasks like cooking while also helping with homework.”

Patrycja thinks the key to balancing all aspects of life includes involving everyone involved. She not only prepares backpacks and closets at her home; she also prepares her daughters’ minds and bodies. “This summer, we have been devoting about an hour each day to continuing to learn Spanish, and for our two oldest daughters, we have been preparing for the ACT exam. I feel that my girls learn primarily by example, and if I am frazzled and agitated, they will also be this way. I want them to learn to be patient, calm and kind so I plan my life accordingly. No eating on the run or screaming for everyone to be in the car 10 minutes ago,” she says. “I know it sounds almost impossible, and I do have rare moments when I just barely hang on and things
fall apart. However, I have done several things to make our life as a family easier: We enlisted our oldest daughters to cook one night each week, we do laundry once a week (yes, you have(yes, you have to buy plenty of socks, but it’s worth it), we plan our meals a week ahead and use an app to make grocery lists, and we play/ exercise together at least three times each week, which helps us de-stress in a fun and healthy way.”

This overall approach to her life allows Patrycja to enjoy each aspect to the fullest and set an example for both her family and students. “The greatest thing about being an educator and a mom is that, in both cases, I feel I make a lasting and critical impact on young people,” she says. “I constantly re-evaluate my behavior to make sure it is consistent with what I am
trying to teach, both at school and at home. I am intimately tied to my children and students by a bond of learning.”