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For one KU Cancer Center biologist, there’s no place like home — finally

Immunologist Kalyani Pyaram gives hope to others suffering from the ‘two-body problem’ of a spouse also in academia

"Today we moved into 1 HOME after being a long-distance family for 3y! We sustained 6 moves, lived in 6 different houses, held 5 zipcodes in last 3y. (We) are proud of our sacrifices & feel surreal to be doing our dream jobs."

When Kalyani Pyaram, Ph.D., sent the above tweet out into the Twitterverse a few weeks ago, she wanted to accomplish two things.

First, the assistant professor of cancer biology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine wanted to show her appreciation for a magical moment for her family.

Second, she wanted to give hope to others in academia who struggle to find a place where both partners can find professional fulfillment.

“When my husband and I both decided to go into academia, we knew it would be hard,” Pyaram said. “It all depends on how you can persevere apart and at what point you say, ‘Enough is enough.’”

Pyaram and her husband sit with their two children at a pumpkin patch in the fall
Kalyani Pyaram is setting up her lab at the KU Cancer Center
and shares her Overland Park home with her husband
and two children.

In fact, the challenge of placing married couples who both work in academia in the same geographic area is known as the “two-body problem.” Sometimes, as in the case of Pyaram and her husband, the pair have to live separately so both can work at doctorate-level positions.

Where they started

Pyaram met her husband when they were doctoral candidates in India. He was from northern India, and she was from the south. Because India is so culturally diverse, Pyaram explained, they actually grew up speaking different languages.

After marriage, the pair set their sights on moving to the U.S., but it was tough to find positions for them both. After much debate, Pyaram accepted a position in Philadelphia while her husband accompanied her on a dependent visa. When he was offered a job in Detroit, Pyaram found a fellowship at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

“It was a 40-minute commute for my husband to Detroit, and he carpooled, so it wasn’t bad,” Pyaram said. “We thought, ‘This is going to be our life.’”

Think again.

Mileage from Michigan to Kansas

While Pyaram was pregnant with their first child in 2013, the principal investigator in charge of the research her husband was working on in Detroit decided to move his lab to Texas. Her husband’s job went with him, so his search was on again. Only this time, he found a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, bringing them together in Ann Arbor where they completed their postdoctoral training as their family grew.

“I was very keen on staying in academia, so I started looking for faculty positions,” Pyaram said. In 2020, she became part of the biology faculty at Kansas State University. “I tried to get my husband a position, too, but his field is cancer biology — pediatric brain cancer research — which is very specialized,” she said. So, he stayed in Michigan where he continued as research faculty. She moved to Manhattan, Kansas, with their daughter and toddler son. Her husband drove 12-13 hours from Michigan to Manhattan monthly and stayed for about four days. Pyaram was a single mother for the other 3+ weeks of the month.

“Three years ago, if you had said to me, ‘You’re going to take care of your kids, all alone,’ I would have said you’re crazy,” Pyaram said. “But we took the leap. I want people who are in the same situation to know it’s possible to just hang in there.”

So, she hung in there. And then —the pandemic.

Both kids got COVID-19, the eldest needed to be homeschooled, there were daycare closures for the toddler and her classes moved online even though it meant furious, last-minute changes to the curriculum.

Kansas City-bound

In 2021, her husband landed a job at Children’s Mercy Research Institute in Kansas City studying pediatric brain cancer. Instead of driving 12 hours, he could drive two. Instead of four days a month, he’d drive to Manhattan every weekend.

In 2022, the family bought a house in Manhattan, and Pyaram thought they had settled for two households with a drivable distance between.

“Then one day my daughter asked, ‘When will we be a normal family?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? We are a normal family.’ But she said, ‘I mean a family where Papa lives with us all the time.’” Although that made her sad, Pyaram thought it was their destiny.

Things turned when Pyaram learned through her husband that The University of Kansas Cancer Center was looking for an immunology faculty to join them. Pyaram sent her curriculum vitae and was interviewed. The center offered her position in its cancer biology department in October 2022, which she accepted and then moved her lab and her research group. She worked remotely until her daughter completed the school year.

Pyaram, an immunologist, will study how to make cells within the immune system more potent in fighting infections and cancers. Her lab specializes in immune metabolism and tries to manipulate the inflammatory properties of immune cells for use in possible immunotherapies.

But when her work is done for the day, she’ll get to go home to a family that’s now all in one place in their new Overland Park home.

“It was like a linked chain, how we got here,” Pyaram said. “Things fell into place slowly, but I want people to know that does happen.”

"We knew pursuing dual careers in academia would be challenging. I have always been vocal about my struggles. Long-distance relationships are normalized in #academia and the struggles are often overlooked. Plz support such families if/however you can."

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