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?