Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I submitted this entry to Female Science Professor's Statement of Pupose contest.

I am applying for admittance into the _______ Graduate Program at University _________. My main interest is studying the origin of life and molecular evolution. You may be wondering why I'm applying for a physical sciences program instead of a biological sciences one, but I am convinced your program is the right one for me.

I have been interested in the origin and evolution of living things for many years and I chose my undergraduate biology department with particular care. My professors were quite knowledgeable, even though most classes were given by TAs (which were not that bad). However, when I expressed my interest in studying the origin of life I was informed that I needed a Noble Prize to be taken seriously. I was not discouraged by this information, and it has led me to apply to your program.

I am convinced that the scientific studies in your program are the kind of research that gets the people in Stockholm to reach for the phone. I would be especially interested in working with Dr. FSP, as her work in ________, __________, &_________ are particularly favourable to the Noble Prize. Not many women have been awarded the Noble Prize and I believe people are starting to notice. Tides will change and I need to be ahead of that wave.

As we celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday next year, I hope to be enrolled in your graduate program and on my way to the success I need to fulfil my dream. With a graduate degree from University _________ I am sure I will be making contributions to our knowledge on the origin of life before Darwin turns 250!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Falling in love, again.

The first time I fell in love with a project was during an undergraduate internship. I had interned in four other labs before, so I knew that it was the one. Still, it was not at the institution I had planned to attend, so after two internships at this lab I decided to try out the other institution before taking the big step and committing to the Ph.D. thing. In the end I chose love over prestige.

Part of me wished I could have continued working on that project after I graduated, even though I know I had to move on. There are so many loose ends that I wish I could wrap up. So many unanswered questions that I wish to address. I keep trying to go back and pick up where I left off, but it keeps meandering away. In the end I have not enjoyed my two postdocs as much as I ought, I keep thinking about the project I cannot work on.

A few weeks ago I was approached by a professor who is leaving my current department and asked if I would like to work on his new grant. He is still seeking approval from the funding agency to transfer this grant to another institution here in town. As I read through the proposal, I keep getting more and more interested in the project and this new job opportunity that is still not quite real. While I was musing out loud about trying not to get too excited about this homeless project that might not materialize, my colleague asked me if I was trying not to fall in love... If only I could...

It has been so long since I have fallen in love with a project that I thought I had found and lost the love of my life. But now I am confused... Maybe that was not it, maybe this new project is it. Or maybe I am trying too hard to forget the old project and am building up hopes that will not live up to their expectations. Have I healed from a heartbreak or am I headed for another? Why do I get so attached?

Maybe I should watch Drew Berrymore's Ever After movie again. Da Vinci had some good advice for the prince when he started rambling about how to tell who was the love of his life... something like "snap out of it".

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On women & plant biology

I believe I am driving my husband a bit crazy with my interest in issues related to women in science. I've been reading FSP's book and many postings in the blog wide world. Last time I tried to discuss my new findings with him, he came back with the "Is it really that bad?" reply. That was a rhetorical question, because he knows it is. He proceeded to tell me how bad the last tenure decisions were. I will not post it because it is too depressing.

Interestingly, I have noticed discrimination more in my postdoc years than in my graduate years. I thought that this was due to the loss of women through the academic pipeline. Many graduate students, less postdocs, not so many faculty. However, I am also seeing the differences between subfields of study. There were many more prominent female scientists in plant biology. Why?

I went looking for answers and came up with some historical reasons. Most of them describing botany as a women's subject. I even found this article in Science from 1887 promoting botany as a suitable field of study for young men.

AN idea seems to exist in the minds of some young men that botany is not a manly study; that it is merely one of the ornamental branches, suitable enough for young ladies and effeminate youths, but not adapted for able-bodied and vigorous-brained young men who wish to make the best use of their powers. I wish to show that this idea is wholly unfounded, but that, on the contrary, botany ought to be ranked as one of the most useful and most manly of studies, and an important, if not an indispensable, part of a well-rounded education.
Would this idea be the reason why there are so many women in plant biology? This is not to say that women in plant biology have an easy time climbing the academic ladder. And maybe some of the difficulties they face have to do with these "young men" making sure they appear manly enough.

However, in the biological sciences scope of things, plant biologists seem to have a harder time justifying their worth. One needs to be twice as good to be considered good. One needs a complete story to publish in a general interest journal. While some observations are published comparing different cell lines, plants are plants. One does not get much prestige for working on plants, let alone recognition for big discoveries unless it is proven to occur in animals too. (Don't get me started on the RNAi business...) Does this have to do with botany being a women's field?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Letting go...

One of the advantages of remaining in the same institution is that one is just around the corner from the previous lab. It makes it easy to stop by and finish those last experiments. When I graduated, my main paper from my dissertation needed some extra experiments suggested by the reviewers. My postdoc mentor let me finish them and get the paper out in the few months after I started in his lab. Working in two labs at the same time was difficult, but manageable.

When I changed postdocs I was still helping students from postdoc #1 while I was working in postdoc #2. It kept me involved with the projects I worked on and the publications that were coming along. Now that I'm back in postdoc lab #1, I am happy that I kept in touch. But I also have some missing experiments at postdoc lab #2. Once again I'm trying to work in two labs at the same time, but I added two children to my daily schedule. I'm coming to realize that being "just around the corner" is also a disadvantage.

One of the problems of trying to finish projects is that they are never actually finished. Even though I submitted my Ph.D. paper and defended my dissertation, I still have a list of experiments I didn't get to do. Actually, I have a whole grant worth. And as no other lab (including my Ph.D. lab) has done those experiments in these last 4 years, I still feel like I need to do them. My foot is still caught in that door...

Even though I feel less passionate about my postdoc unfinished experiments, I still would like to see at least the papers completed. Hence, I keep running across campus, up and down the hill, trying to work in two labs at once. I have been trying to keep all doors open at the same time...

I have been waking up in the wee hours of the morning way too many times, not knowing what to fret about first. I decided I need to focus on what I'm doing now, not on things I can only worry about. My new year's resolution: Move on, let the open doors shut...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Parenting is not just for mothers anymore.

I have been reading a lot of articles on how to retain women in academia and how to make science more family-friendly. I've read about the daycare argument. Some people think affordable daycare is the solution to all problems while others believe it is not the incentive women need to go back to work. I've read about clock-stopping policies for tenure-track professors. This would allow for longer maternity leave, which many people seem to think is what every mother wants. I've read about debates on how to make it possible to be in academia part-time, how to give grant incentives for women with children, how to keep women productive and up to date while on extended leave to allow them to return to work. The common denominator in all I've read seems to focus on how to enable mothers to raise their children and work. Somehow I keep asking myself: where do the fathers come in? The more I read about how difficult the situation is portrayed, the more I'm amazed that people think that to have it all means to do it all by oneself. What happened to the paradigm that "it takes a village to raise a child"? Or at least a family...

I come from a culture that believes that one cannot do it all. My relatives always ask me how I can manage to work, cook, clean the house and take care of the children without live-in maids or extensive family at close proximity. Even my cousin who "stayed at home with the kids" had a maid to cook & clean AND a nanny. I always have to politely point out that I'm not all alone. These days, my husband seems to be doing most of the cooking (as I'm usually nursing my 7 month-old during food preparation time) AND most of the cleaning (I get to do the laundry). We engage our 2.5 year-old in all these "activities" to keep him entertained. We also send our kids to daycare full-time so we can both work during the week. We are both responsible for the well being of our family. Isn't that what parenting is all about?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

So you'd like to marry a scientist...

When my mother was getting ready to marry my dad, someone took her aside and told her it was not easy being a scientist's wife. At 19 I'm not sure how prepared she was for this role (or marriage in general), but as they approach their 37th anniversary I can see she managed just fine. Being a scientist myself, I can understand some of the challenges she faced.

Science is not a 9 to 5 job, it's a lifestyle. I was told that the first day of classes in my undergraduate program. I had been admitted to the first incoming class of a program designed to form researchers in biological sciences. The coordinators wanted to make sure we knew what we were getting into. I was probably as prepared for my career as my mother was for marriage, and, like her, I dived in with all my heart.

The way things turned out, I ended up marrying a scientist. Five years later, it is hard to say whether this made things easier or more difficult. All I know is I don't think I could have married anyone else. I need someone that understands how important work is to me. I need someone who I can talk problems out with and can give me strategies to attack them. I need someone who will give me constructive criticism to help me move forward in life. Someone that doesn't think I am too crazy when I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about experiments. And yes, the fact that he can cook & dance was indeed what sealed the deal.

As I married a scientist, I got what I asked for but the reverse was also true. We are both spouses of a scientist also. So we talk research at breakfast and dinner, and sometimes in the middle of the night. I always find it amusing to hear him whispering in my ear "Are you awake? I was thinking about my grant..." Pre-kids there was a lot more science talking, but now we have two little someones competing for attention.

I realized how much of a scientist I am during my pregnancies. When I miscarried my first pregnancy the message boards did not give me the support I needed. I found more comfort on PubMed. Somehow realizing that it happens 20% of the time (25% in England - why?) made me feel more normal. I guess sanity is a question of perspective... All I can say is that I tackled pregnancy as I would any other experiment. I have to admit I was a bit obsessed with development. I was reading more embryology texts than parenting books. I found this great pregnancy journal that describes what happens to the fetus & mother on a daily basis, along with nutritional information and why certain things should be avoided. The more I read, the more I was amazed there were babies born at all. Makes you want to almost believe in miracles...

Along with the perks there are also disadvantages of my marrying a scientist. The major one is that my career is not advancing as smoothly as I would have hoped. It is easy to just blame our age difference of four years. He had finished his Ph.D. by the time I started mine. Combined with the fact that he had a very short 1-year postdoc before landing his tenure-track position. He is tenured and I'm contemplating a third postdoc. I'm not trying to catch up, I know I will be trailing for years.

As I meander through life I keep my goals in view and enjoy the journey. Despite the pebbles in the road, I would not have taken a different route. A Brazilian poet once wrote that he collected the stones in his path because one day he would have enough to build a castle. This princess is working on her castle too.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ten Year Plan, rerouted.

I missed my 10th college reunion this year because my new baby was too young to travel. I was looking at the pictures in the alumni newsletter and I was reminded of my first few days at the college. First year students arrived on campus a few weeks ahead, for a Language & Thinking Workshop. Even though I was a transfer student with a year and a half of credits from my university in Brazil, I signed up for the workshop to get acquainted with college life before things got really going. One of the first workshop assignments was to come up with a 10-year plan, which I could, at the time, recite in my sleep.

My plan was to spend a year in college in the U.S. then return to Brazil to finish my degree. I would then get married, get a Masters degree, have a child, go for a Ph.D., have a second child in the middle, and maybe a third child after I finished the degree. It seemed very straight forward to me, and without major snags other than finding myself a husband in 3 years time. The professor that was teaching the class told me he was quite impressed that my plan intertwined career and family, as not many did. I couldn't see why anyone wouldn't, you need both right?

Of course my plan started to derail in less than a year, when my parents decided to extend my dad's sabbatical and stay in the U.S. for a second year. I was faced with the decision of going back on my own or staying the extra year and a half that would take me to get my B.A.. One of the advantage of staying was that I could enroll directly into a Ph.D. program, skipping the Masters degree required in my own country. Another one was that there was more research options in plant science, which I knew was the field I wanted to study. It seemed like such an obvious decision to most people that I could not understand why I was having such a hard time just staying.

After mulling it over for weeks I did the most irrational thing I have ever done in my life. I flew to England with an expired student visa and dropped my fate at the counter of the U.S. Consulate in London. If they renewed the visa I'd go back to the U.S., if they didn't I would return to Brazil. A very fancy coin-toss, but the visa was renewed and I ended up with a B.A. in Biology instead of a degree in Biomedicine.

Hence, not only the first six years of the plan got scrapped, but I also found myself in the midst of a doctoral program with no husband in sight. But as John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans." The husband came along when I was least expecting it, and by the end of those 10 years I was pregnant with my first child. By that point I had started planning less and (maybe) living more.

Sometimes it feels overwhelming just to plan experiments for the next month, let alone planning holiday vacations. My end goals are still the same, but I feel like I'm meandering towards them. The scene that comes to my mind is of a car trip with my dad and my sons this past summer to St. Augustine. My dad brought along his GPS, but insisted on navigating himself as he clearly remembered how to get there. It had only been 10 years, the roads hadn't changed right? The 1.5-hour trip took 3 hours, with us hearing the GPS say "rerouting" for half of it. I'm tired of hearing the "rerouting" in my mind. When it comes to life, I should just turn off the GPS and follow the scenic route.

Monday, September 29, 2008

CV, annotated

Like those letters one writes after being dumped, here is the CV version that doesn't get sent:

My Name
My Contact Information

6-year PhD. Non-major University chosen because I fell in love with my summer internship project. It took me 4 years to convince my advisor to let me do the biochemistry project that would "potentially" not work but led to major publication. The "much easier" genetics project led to 2 years of frustration and nothing to show for it. I learned not to listen to advice and to present data, not ideas.
BA from Liberal Arts College. Transferred from native country because of full-tuition scholarship. I would have had a publication from my senior thesis if the refrigerator had not been cleaned while I was doing my summer research internship. (Yes, my stuff was labeled.)

Currently - Returned to postdoc #1 because advisor has money, while postdoc #2 advisor did not submit grant renewal. I'll get to finish the first-author publication that I left behind when the money ran out.
Postdoc #2. Two years, including 9 months of pregnancy (of which the last 2 were spent on bed rest due to preterm labor scare) and 2 months of maternity leave. Would have had 2 first-author publications if I hadn't received the pink slip at the end of the pregnancy due to lack of grant money.
Postdoc #1. Two and a half years, including 9 months of pregnancy (which were worked in full) and 2 months of maternity leave. My work led to 3 middle-author publications, while the first-author one didn't get finished because the grant ran out and I had to jump ship.
Graduate research - a patchwork quilt
Undergraduate research. More than average; 4 labs, 2 countries.
High School research. Got me to go into science despite my father's warning of required poverty vows. (True for native country.)

- Trained lots of graduate and undergraduate students that nobody else wanted.
- Three lectures in undergraduate course. (Best I could find in non-teaching oriented PhD program.)

Third author, from postdoc #1. All I did was clone mutants the grad student didn't want to do. Has been submitted and re-submitted and should be finally coming out in the next few months.
Third author, from postdoc #1. I would have been second had it not been for maternity leave and changing postdoc due to lack of money.
Second author, from postdoc #1. My data made the paper a lot more special, but not enough to deserve first-authorship.
First author, from PhD. Two-author paper. I had to convince my advisor the experiments were worth doing, then convince advisor and reviewers that the results were real even though the data didn't fit the current model. This paper has been cited frequently, but is still mentioned as a "side comment" because it doesn't fit the model.
Third author, from PhD. I spent 6 months optimizing a technique that a fellow postdoc used for a one week experiment. I was glad to be included as an author, instead of getting acknowledged for technical support.

First author, from postdoc #2. I unearthed this project from a 10 year-old notebook and brought it back to life. Some experiments need to be repeated for validation and it's missing two major experiments. I will finish the experiments in my "free time", unless some other lab member would like to do them. The paper will be submitted in 1-6 months, depending on who gets to do the work.
??? author, from postdoc #2. This paper might have a story once more experiments are completed. Technically it is what the grant was about, but the proposed experiments did not pan out. (Which is why the grant renewal was not submitted and my contract was not renewed.)
First author, from postdoc #1 - which advisor keeps promising me and is the reason I was coaxed into returning to this lab instead of looking for postdoc #3.

- Money for going to conferences that I would not have been allowed to go otherwise.
- Money for staying in school instead of getting a "real" job.
- Money for attending a very expensive liberal arts college that I would not have afforded otherwise.

- Seminar at local institution during postdoc #1
- Seminar at native country institution during PhD. (Discovered I cannot speak science in that language.)
- Oral presentations at research conferences that let me talk.
- Poster presentations at research conferences that didn't let me talk.

- Postdoc advisor #2
- Postdoc advisor #1
- PhD advisor
- PhD committee member that I still go to for advice when I start to freak out.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

So many PhDs, not many professors.

When I was finishing my PhD, I drove many of my professors crazy by asking them where their students were. I was searching for alumni from my graduate program that made it into academia. I wasn't going as far as wanting a tenured faculty member, as our program only started in the early 1990's and admits about 3-5 students a year. It is also true that several of the alumni are foreign students, many of which return to their own country. I assumed that most professors kept track of their students, shouldn't they get brownie points for their progeny's success? However, my professors kept sending me to each other, and in the end one of them introduced me to a student of theirs at a conference who had recently gotten a tenure-track position. (Her husband, who is in the same area, ended up with an industry job, but I'm not sure if it was by choice or not.)

My argument with my professors was that they were not training their students to stay in academia. They were not preparing them to go into tenure-track positions. I lived through my husband's struggles to get tenure and I knew he was a lot more prepared for the job at the end of his PhD than I was at the end of mine. He had a lot more grant writing and teaching experience, which is probably why he landed a tenure-track position with a year and a half of postdoc experience. It is true that I chose my PhD program partly because it didn't require teaching, all students admitted receive research assistantships. My thought at the time was that I didn't want to have to teach while I was taking classes or getting my qualifying exams done or my dissertation written. I didn't know that "no teaching requirement" meant "no teaching opportunities." I did manage to TA for a class, but three lectures are not enough to call experience. I tried to overcome that deficiency by volunteering to present my work at meetings and by joining as many journal clubs as would fit my schedule. But I am now looking for teaching opportunities during my postdoc, which are also quite difficult to find.

Given what I believed were shortcomings of my PhD program, I was quite surprised to read an article in Science stating that only one out of 26 of Yale's molecular biophysics and biochemistry program graduates from the class of 1991 holds a tenured faculty position 10 years after graduation. Five other alumni are working in academia, but only one of those is on a tenure-track. The article makes the point that many of the alumni chose not to go into academia and that two thirds are still working in the life sciences. The author's concern was whether the low funding opportunities were to blame, but that does not seem to be the case. The main point I see is that most students are choosing not to go into academia, why?

I know that not everyone holding a PhD can (or wants to) become a professor. And there are not enough positions available for the ones that are trying for it. I understand not trying for something because you don't want to do it, but what I see is many students thinking they cannot compete. I heard that professors tell their students to aim one tier down, that someone from a "first-tier" institution will get a job in a "second-tier" and so on. That kind of comment sends some students straight to industry, as they are scared they will end up teaching at a community college. Not to mention the married couples who are told to forget about dual-position offers unless they both have Science & Nature publications. Are the prospects really that bleak? No wonder most students are scared of academia!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ready or not, we're leaving today.

There never seems to be a good time to go on vacations. This is another situation when the 80% rule applies. Or better yet, the Nike philosophy: Just do it. I sincerely thought this time would be different, that it would be a relaxing transition between one postdoc and the next. However, we couldn't travel on the last two weeks of September, so we decided to go a few weeks early. My thought was that I could finish all my experiments before the vacation and just focus on writing up the papers when I got back. Wishful thinking...

As the departure date approached, the unexpected hit. More experiments came up, I lost a huge batch of cells because they didn't differentiate. When experiments need to be planned two weeks ahead, it's very easy to over-plan. How many experiments can I realistically get done in a week? At least I'm not pregnant... The last time I tried to "finish everything" I ended up on bed rest for preterm labor. I was the grumpiest person in the maternity ward. The nurses couldn't understand why I wasn't happy to have an excuse to stay at home. 'And do what? Knit?' My husband tried to calm me down while I ranted that I couldn't do my experiments at home.

The week before our departure date I started prioritizing, planning every day to the max. Setting up experiments for the last few weeks on the job, when I get back. Making sure all the important experiments got done. As I'm not moving to a different town, just across campus, I can always stop by later to complete a missing experiment. I had every day planned by the time I heard the weather forecast. What a great time for a tropical storm! I figured I could work through it, it's not a hurricane, right? When our children's daycare suggested that they were thinking of closing at noon on Thursday I almost had a heart attack. My cells! All 60 plates waiting to be collected that day. My husband and I exchanged pleading glances. Who gets to work? He needed to finish planning his field so the rest of the lab could plant while he was gone. Fortunately the lab gods heard us and we at least got Thursday. So I got to collect the membranes, and blot the 5 gels I had run the day before. I just didn't get to see if the experiment worked... do I need to plan to repeat it when I get back?

Home with the kids the day before leaving on vacation. Packing our bags (at least we have time for that now!) and watching the rain. We don't even know if the flight will be canceled... This seems crazy, but I actually woke up at 4 am wondering if I could make it to the lab if the flight was delayed. I'm sure I will relax once we actually get going. I tend not to worry about work when I'm miles away. Hopefully the weather will be better, the storm will pass and we can set sail. It's not the end of the world, I'll be back in two weeks...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The 80% rule

Years ago, I read in a magazine that there is no perfect time to have kids. If you are 80% sure you want them, go ahead because you won't get much closer to that 100%. At the time I thought that was a bit silly, but it turned out to be true. And I found myself applying that 80% rule to many other decisions in my life. While I might wonder how things could have turned out differently, I have not regretted any of the decisions I made. I'm not an impulsive person, I ponder quite a bit. But one can ponder forever and not accomplish anything...

I got married while in grad school and, as most relationships go, it wasn't really planned. It felt right enough for me to blurt out one day after dinner that I thought we should get married. The answer I got was 'OK, I'll call your bluff' and a beautiful ring that I wouldn't have done any better picking out myself. I wasn't bluffing, but I wasn't 100% sure either. I was anticipating a long engagement, because I wasn't sure I could take the time and plan the "big fat Brazilian wedding" I wanted. We ended up having 3 weddings, and by the end of the year my husband said he was done getting married, for life.

All that wedding stuff delayed my PhD defense for about 6 months, as I wasn't quite done. I realized later that I would never be. I could keep planning experiments my whole life. But one needs papers and I had to write things up. So I did, when I thought it was 80% there. Then I added the few extra experiments the reviewers suggested, and I still thought it was only 80%. I'm writing 2 papers now, and for both I have about 80% of the data. My contract has ended and I have only a few weeks before I move on. I wish I had an extra 6 months, but I'm sure I would think it was only 80% complete then too.

I believe I also used the 80% rule when picking my post docs. The labs seemed to be the right place for me to learn what I wanted. Were they my best choice? They could have been better, but I don't regret either of them. And both mentors were very understanding when I announced my pregnancies. I don't regret those at all, and the timing seems to have worked out well. I was told by a pregnant post doc during grad school that post docs were the best time to have kids. I took her advice, but I don't think there is a best time. I can feel the setback, but I don't think any other time would have been better. Either you want them or you don't. And if you do, just have them when you are 80% sure.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Roll call for role models

Career & family, I'm sure that is an internal debate in the mind of every working woman. While aspiring to be a scientist, I always wondered if one could have both. I remember stressing out about this when I was in my senior year in college. I was worried that I hadn't met many female professors that had a family too. I was complaining to my father that there were no "good examples" out there and he said to me: "Ask me again in 20 years and I should be able to give you one." That was the best advice I ever received and has kept me going all these years. Even though I have met a few "examples" recently, I always remember that I need to be my own role model.

At the end of my pregnancy with first son, a newly-hired female professor at the department I was at came up to me and said she was really excited to see me at the bench. She always thought pregnancies were such a hindrance that to make it as a professor meant you couldn't have kids. She was glad I was showing all the female students in the department that they could have a family and do science. I had an easy pregnancy and ended up working up to my due date, so everyone got to see me really big. And I could see the smiles from the students in the hallways, as they saw me coming to work very day. It felt good to be a role model.

During both pregnancies, I started hearing a lot about other women's views on career and family conciliation. Several female professors started mentioning their pregnancy and family stories. It felt like I was admitted to this exclusive club that I didn't know existed. Where were these women when I was worried it could not be done? As Moira Sheehan pointed out in her Nature jobs postdoc journal:

In general, other researchers' family lives seemed so hidden to me before now. Are such discussions taboo or just mundane? I used to think it was the former, but now I'm inclined to believe it's the latter. For me, it's just life. I often feel as if I have to explain to others what having children entails — especially to single people and those without children. But now I see that plenty of other people don't think it's an extraordinary feat.

It might not be an extraordinary feat, but it is clearly not laid out in the open. Why doesn't "family" come out in conversations with female professors, while male professors always seem to mention that their wife stays home with the kids? I always thought the latter was the problem, the bad advice that one needs a "wife" to have kids. However, the lack of realistic discussions about career and family might be the biggest problem. Are women keeping women out of science?

In grad school I attended a "women in science" round table discussion. The three invited speakers were great examples of how you can be successful as a scientist, but their personal lives were not very inspiring. When asked about their family, one said right out that she never wanted kids while another got divorced because her husband couldn't cope with her successful career. I could feel the shivers that went through the auditorium. Throughout that entire discussion no one said you could have both.

I hope to inspire female students to pursue scientific careers and increase the representation of women in science. The number of women achieving graduate degrees in science has increased throughout the past decade, but many abandon their career goals due to discouragement from their mentors and peers. Only a small percentage of women seek academic careers and the number of role models for female science students is very limited. I look forward to being a role model and to showing students that it is possible to have a scientific career and a family. However, it isn't a happily ever after fairy tale. It requires hard work and compromises, but it can be done.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The thorn in the lion's paw

On days like this I really feel the impact my family has on my career.

A few days a week my 3 month old manages to sleep through the night, on the other ones I'm usually nursing him around 4 am. When I'm up during the night, I usually sleep in until 7:30, then rush to get out of the house around 8:30 to make it to work by 9 am. This is all accomplished with a wonderful husband that makes me breakfast and gets our 2 year-old ready for daycare. Today would have been one of those days, if my 2 year-old hadn't woken up complaining about a splinter in his foot.

My husband and I spent half an hour with him screaming while we tried unsuccessfully to get it out. We soaked his foot for an hour over breakfast then tried again, but we couldn't both hold him and manage the needle. At the end of the torture session (for all of us) he was screaming 'My foot doesn't hurt anymore!'. Hence, we put his shoes on and took him to daycare. It was 9:30 am, we were already "running late." Of course once he realized that he wasn't going to be able to run around with his friends, the foot was hurting again and he didn't want to stay in school. My husband and I decided that we needed someone with more guts to take it out, so we called the pediatrician and whined our way to an appointment at 11:30. I had enough time to stop at the lab for e-mail and pumping (the littlest one still needs to eat, right?).

We ended up waiting at the doctor's office for hours, as it was not a true emergency. At 1 pm, when we finally got to see the her, she didn't want to take the splinter out either. We should just 'let it come out on it's own.' By then we were all starving and in a really bad mood. My husband was late for his lab meeting. But as lunch at daycare is served at 11:30 am, we had to stop for a sit down meal before I could drop them off. I finally made it to work at 3 pm, for another session of pumping. I got about 2 hours of work done, wrapping up last week's experiment and planning this week out. Then it was time to pick up the kids at daycare and the husband at work.

Missing an odd day at work is usually not that bad. However, as we don't work weekends anymore, that means our week now is half as long. When our first boy was born, my husband and I decided that weekends were "family time." Unless either of us had a deadline that had to be met, we would both stay at home. This was a great compromise, as it avoided the discussion of whose turn it was to work and any arguments about whose work is more important. It has worked well for the past 2 years, but that means I can't start an experiment on Sunday evening, or wrap something up Saturday morning. We can sometimes get writing done during "quiet time", if we don't pass out while putting the little one to sleep.

I remember taking a "weekend" on Wednesdays when I was in grad school, either because I was waiting for sequencing results from our core facility or because all I had to do was start cultures for the next day. I'd even catch a movie in the afternoon, as I knew I would be working during the "real" weekend. I can't do that anymore, but now I have 2 days of fun with the kids. And they are fun, as long as we don't stress about all the work that is not getting done as fast as we think it should be.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Forget High School?

I have always wondered if the bullies we encounter in our adult life were the same people pushing others around in high school. When discussing this with my husband, we came up with an alternate scenario: people are trying to be who they wanted to be in high school, not who they actually were. In the science community this is not hard to imagine, as "nerds" turn into cut-throat scientists. If a person wanted to be popular in high school but wasn't, they will try their best to prove they can be.

I never thought I was popular in high school, but looking back I think most people knew who I was. I hung out with the popular kids from my class and I think I was invited to most parties. They made fun of me sometimes, but everybody was made fun of at some point. The teasing didn't upset me, but not being asked to dance did. If I could blame my high school disappointments to a single event, it would be a class mate's birthday party in 2nd grade. I was the first to be asked to dance, but I rejected half a dozen boys that asked me. I didn't want to be the first one on the floor, and ended up not dancing at all. I guess I got a label then and there, none of the boys in my class ever asked me again. I got a pity dance at my sweet 15's from one of the boys I knew from elementary school, but that was it. I only got to dance when I started meeting guys outside my high school, during my senior year. Maybe that is why I became obsessed with ballroom dancing in college...

I was always into dancing, I did some tap, jazz and Flamenco. I started learning ballroom dancing my junior year in college and took swing and lindy hop classes my semester off before graduate school. I got back into ballroom when I started graduate school, and was dancing half the evenings in a week. My goal was to know enough of the different dances that I would not be sitting out due to anything I could prevent. Unless I was extremely tiered or thirsty, I wanted to be on the dance floor. Quite an obsession, I even engaged my boyfriend at the time (now husband) into my hobby. I'm glad he enjoyed the dancing as much as I did! He learned the Viennese Waltz for our wedding dance, and I even got him to perform at a showcase when I was 3 months pregnant! I was dancing well into my eighth month of pregnancy, until I started getting out of breath and too big to partner-up. After our first son was born, we couldn't manage the dancing schedule anymore. Our evenings were dedicated to family-time, while our days were spent at the lab. We still manage to go dancing sometimes, and hopefully when the boys are older it will be easier to fit it in.

I had lots of "thinking" time when I was on bed rest during my second pregnancy. I started missing the dancing, as I wasn't allowed to do it even if I had the time. (I was missing the lab too, but I had an easier time rationalizing that one.) And it hit me for the first time that I was still trying to make up for all the dances at which I didn't dance in high school. Fifteen years later, married with kids, and I was still caught up in that high school drama. I can't change what happened then, but will I be able to forget it? What you experience early in life molds you into the person you become. I can see how my early years contributed to the person I am today, but I guess all that experience comes with baggage for me to lug around. Does high school make such a lasting impression on us that we cannot leave it behind? Do I need to dance until I'm 80 to make up for not dancing when I was 8? I think I learned my lesson, I should be able to leave the class behind. As Lee Ann Womack's song goes: And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance. I hope you dance....

Monday, August 4, 2008

Why Not Math?

A few years ago I started a community on Orkut called Women in Science. This past month one of the members was asking why are there more women in biological sciences and not so many in physics and math. It got me thinking about why I chose biology...

It would be easy to say that I chose biology because of my dad, who is a biologist, but I don't think that is true. I was interested in science since my early years, while my brothers were not. We were all exposed to a researcher's life and got to spend some odd days in my dad's lab. I didn't grow up with the "mad scientist" image. There are also many scientists in my family, one could even say it's "genetics." Maybe, but there is always the nurture vs. nature conundrum...

Part of my career choice was probably due to the good (and bad) teachers I had in grade school. I had 3 wonderful math teachers (all women by the way) and, if asked, I would have said math was my favorite subject. I had a great biology teacher my first year of high school, but the other ones were just OK. My physics teachers were not inspiring at all, neither were the chemistry ones. Can I really say that one teacher changed my life? I don't think so... I had great physics and chemistry professors in college, but by then I was already set on plant biology. In college, one of my physics professors even tried to talk me into switching majors, but all I could see in physics was the math. I hated the question 'Does this answer make sense to you?', I never had the insight for it.

When I was choosing my college major, I thought of math too. However, I didn't know what to do with it. I knew what the actual work in biology was, but I was not exposed to what a mathematician actually did. All I could see was math teachers, and that was not what I wanted to become. I should add to the "nurture" list the fact that I was able to experience working in a biology lab very early. My high school was part of an outreach program that placed students into research labs one afternoon a week for a year. When I heard about it, my reaction was 'why not? I like biology...' I ended up in a molecular biology lab, under renovations at the time. Not the best placement, and most of what I did there was reading not experiments. But I loved it! Interestingly, I loved the actual lab, not the subject they were researching. Afterwards, in high school still, I did a one-week summer program called Light and plants. And that got me hooked. From then on I knew I wanted to study plants.

My first reaction to the 'Why not math?' question was that it was too abstract. It wasn't a question of what could I do, but what I wanted to do. Now that I thought about it some more, I don't think that is true. I think my biggest problem with math was that it was too easy. It wasn't challenging enough, all I had to do was solve the problems. And there was always a right answer, you just had to find it. Maybe if I had gotten deeper into math things would have been different... What led me into biology was all the unanswered questions, all the random puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together. And that what you think you know today might not be true tomorrow...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Stuck here? Not really.

The Nature Jobs Prospects in v. 45, 17 Jan 2008 (p. 369) seems to emphasize relocation as a key contribution to a successful post doctoral experience. As a scientist who decided to remain at the same institution where I got my PhD, in order to accommodate family and work goals, I respectfully disagree.

At the end of my PhD on ethylene signal transduction, it was clear to me that I wanted to keep studying the receptor's biochemical properties. However, leaving town would certainly jeopardize my personal life. As my PhD advisor put it 'You're stuck here'. Of course I disagreed with him at the time. I even asked him who, in the world, I should go work with that was doing what I wanted to do. He came up with someone in Japan, maybe. What I told him was that I needed the tools to do what I wanted, and there should be competent people at this institution from whom I could learn. I wasn't bluffing...

Instead of seeking a postdoc in plant biology, I instead focused on what I needed to learn to be successful in that field when I got back into it. My first objective was to further my knowledge in enzymology. I was able to find a postdoc in the Dept. of Chemistry that worked on mechanistic enzymology of oxalate decarboxylases. My second postdoc has been dedicated towards learning membrane biology techniques. I'm studying glucose transporters in a mammalian cell culture system.

I have been in three different departments, in three different colleges. I was a graduate student in a lab with five postdocs, where each question was greeted with five different answers. I was the only postdoc in a lab with eight students, each wanting 2-3 answers to a single question. ('What if it doesn't work?') I have experienced conditions of high and low funding. I have gained insight into lab management and university politics beyond my expectations. I had two sons, one at each postdoc, and was exposed to issues that affect most women in science. (Pregnancy, maternity leave - how many experiments can I realistically plan for the next 12 weeks?)

I wonder sometimes whether I would have learned more if I had moved to a different institution. My advice to graduate students is always to focus on what you want to learn, not where you want to go. I have been able to broaden my horizons without leaving town. Will it help me get a real job? I hope so!

Coffee? No thanks!

I received an e-mail this week from a relative with one of those "inspirational" power point presentations. It was about a cook that had three pans of boiling water. To the first one he added a carrot, which went from hard to limp. To the second he added an egg, which went from fragile to hard. And to the third he added coffee grounds. The presentation asked me whether I faced challenges like the carrot, turning limp; the egg, hardening; or coffee, transforming the challenge into something better. The show ended wishing that I was like coffee.

I guess normal people would just delete it or forward it, either thinking they are like coffee anyway or wishing they were. But somehow it got me thinking... Do I want to, after five years of cultivation, be toasted and ground, then after creating something wonderful at the first challenge, be discarded while others enjoy what I made? Not at all!

It hit me that this is what probably happens to most PhD. The graduate school where I got mine even gives out a bumper sticker with the statement "Phinally Done." I looked at it and said 'No way! I just got started!'. I truly hope my career doesn't end up like coffee... But I guess I'm the one who needs to make it into something different. I haven't come up with a better metaphor for what I would like to be... but I'll keep thinking about it.