Science, Superheroes, and Kids: For This CUNY Power Couple, Family Comes First

Professors Maral Tajerian and Sebastian Alvarado (right) and their children.

By Beth Harpaz
Editor of SUM

So, you think you’re busy between pandemic hassles and all your other work-life obligations? Here’s what busy looks like for CUNY’s very own power couple, Professors Maral Tajerian and Sebastian Alvarado (GC/Queens, Biology).
They have four young children — ages 9, 5, 3, and a 1-month-old newborn. They teach, do research, run labs, and write books. And they operate a consulting business called Thwacke, which helps video game developers accurately portray science in story lines. (The company’s motto is: “We’re the science behind your fiction.”)
Their interests range from pain management, which they’ve published studies on, to superheroes, a topic Alvarado wrote a book about called The Science of Marvel: From Infinity Stones to Iron Man's Armor, the Real Science Behind the MCU Revealed!  They also both just received support from CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program to pursue new book projects: Tajerian’s will be on chronic pain, and Alvarado’s will be about the science behind “sci-fi villainy tropes.”

Despite their many personal and professional responsibilities, this dynamic duo graciously found time to answer a few questions from The Graduate Center about how they got interested in their fields, what brought them to CUNY, and how on earth they manage to accomplish so much.

The Graduate Center: How do you balance teaching, research, various side gigs, and family? Has the juggle changed with pandemic times?  
Tajerian: I believe that work is best given to the busy person. Once you get used to the hustle, it just becomes part of your lifestyle. It's true that sometimes I wish I had more time to sleep, but it's all worth it. Family always comes first, and research, teaching, and Thwacke are all intertwined and a pleasure to do. 
Alvarado: Family: It isn't easy and it has its challenges. A typical day involves remote learning for a 5-year-old and an 9-year-old while managing a 3-year-old and newborn. I'm very lucky to have Maral as a partner as I wouldn't have been able to do any of this without her. She is a superhero. 
Work: I'm lucky to have incredibly committed trainees working in my lab. Everything closed down during the first lockdown but we were able to carry out some field work in Westchester while social distancing and following required safety guidelines. It allowed for some productivity and taking time to think about the lab's directions. We pivoted to projects that could be done remotely that required manual annotation of large datasets and developing some computer vision tools that would automate our lab's data processing workflows.
Other: Thankfully the work we often do with our consulting firm, Thwacke, is "fast and furious" and we work under tight deadlines. Teaching has had its challenges but we've been able to continue our regular teaching load at Queens College as well as outreach efforts throughout South America remotely.
GC: You met at McGill, where you both got your Ph.D.s., and you both have immigrant roots. Professor Tajerian, you’re Armenian, raised in Lebanon; Professor Alvarado, you were born in the U.S. and raised in Canada, but your parents are Chilean. What brought you to New York and CUNY?
Alvarado: It's diversity. My kids have Armenian/Chilean heritage and I really like the global village that is NYC. I also really appreciate the sincerity and community I've found in this city. On campus, I really like the chance to provide training opportunities to students that make an actual difference in their lives. Doing this work at an Ivy League school doesn't make the same difference that matters to me. 
Tajerian: There were many good reasons: NYC is a wonderful place to live, we got a double-hire, and Queens College is filled with truly wonderful students!
GC: How did you get interested in your fields?
Tajerian: I happened to hear about a new institute for pain research at McGill just as I was finishing my master’s degree. The idea interested me greatly, and I decided to apply for a doctoral position even though I knew nothing about pain. Needless to say, it worked out!
Alvarado: I heard my future Ph.D. adviser talk about how genes are regulated differently in the brain in response to trauma on a radio show. It reminded me of how the X-Men get their powers and I reached out to him for graduate training. 
GC: Any advice for working parents on how to manage the family/career juggle, or for students wondering whether it’s realistic to “have it all” in terms of career and raising kids? 
Tajerian: I think it's important to be realistic. I have come to terms that sometimes things will not be perfect. Unfortunately, our reproductive years and our years as early career investigators happen to coincide, and that's just how it is. If one wants to do both, then flexibility is key.
Everybody's journey is different of course, but I don't think students should forgo their dreams of raising kids if they want to have a career. I love that I can set a good example for my four kids by having a career as well as being a parent.
Alvarado: It isn't easy but it is possible. A random list of advice for those looking for it: Consider what is important in your life and be honest with the expectations you can reach by yourself or with a partner. Develop strategies to manage stress. Always try and get better at everything related to work/family. If you have more than one kid, try and find time to make each of them feel special.

Watch Professor Sebastian Alvarado speak about science, superheroes, and his book, The Science of Marvel: From Infinity Stones to Iron Man's Armor, in this video of a Graduate Center event.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.


Submitted on: DEC 10, 2020

Category: Biology | Diversity | Faculty Activities | Faculty Books | General GC News | Voices of the GC