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.