As my older daughter is graduating from pictures books and delving into chapter books, my skewed search (any STEM books for girls?) produced three series with a young girl as the protagonist immersing herself in STEM. Those are:
Lucy’s Lab (3 books in the series)
Ada Lace (5 books)
Zoey and Sassafras (5 books, 6th on its way)
The first books of each series were all published within last year (2017). I was curious, so I read the first books of each series after my daughter finished. I am giving my reviews here…
Lucy’s Lab: Nuts about Science by Michelle Houts (publisher recommended age: 7-9)
Plot: Lucy, a freshly minted second grader, discovers on her first day of school that a giant oak tree in front of the school was pulled out. She wonders where the squirrels that used to keep busy on the tree went. She also finds out on the same day that her new second grade classroom contains a science lab and is very excited. When coming home, she sets up her own science lab in her old playhouse.
By talking with her school principal Lucy discovers that the oak tree had to be pulled out because of oak wilt. Lucy goes to the library and finds out what it is. After her science class in which Lucy learns about “habitat,” She worries about the squirrels’ habitat. Lucy’s parents encourage that if she cares about it so much, she should attempt “convincing” school officials that they need to plant another tree in place…can she?
Review: Perhaps because this is a first book in the series there are lots of descriptions of characters and settings, it seemed not much actually happened in the story. However, the book still provides a great introduction into “scientific process”: what a laboratory looks like; what a scientist might look like (lab coat and goggles!); use of specific words (i.e. “specimen” instead of “stuff”); making observations; and writing up a report. It also touches on mobilizing social activism — once scientists know something, we better distribute information and work to fix it if needed — that is after all, responsibilities of scientists! The book is brimming of Lucy’s contagious enthusiasm for science.
Ada Lace, on the case by Emily Calandrelli with Tamson Weston (publisher recommended age: 6-10)
Plot: Ada, a precocious third grader who recently moved to a new city, broke her leg and was limited to keeping field notes (a la Charles Darwin in Galapagos) of happenings outside of her window. One day she notices that her neighbor’s dog went missing. Assuming it was “dognapped,” she sets out to find the dognapper.
With her wealth of gadgets (binoculars, walkie-talkies, cameras) and an assistance by her brand new friend in the neighborhood, she sets up surveillance on suspects. At times her operation backfires: surveillance blown up; the camera stolen; and interrogating a wrong suspect. Despite setbacks, Ada closes in on solving on the mystery…
Review: The story moved quickly, at times thrilling but other times questionable. What’s the legality of a young girl setting a surveillance camera on a neighbor’s window? Sneaking into a neighbor’s house? The ending was anticlimactic, too; the story behind “dognapping” was disappointing especially after so much development. Ada, as the protagonist, is very fun. She is curious, full of ideas, and interested in technology (she can fix a surveillance camera!). I would want my daughter to be friends with her, although she may get both of them in trouble. I also liked introduction of concepts, like Occam’s razor, weaved into the story.
Zoey and Sassafras, Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro (publisher recommended grades: K-5)
Plot: Nature-, animal-, and science- loving Zoey discovers one day that she has special powers to see mythical animals just like her mom. It turns out, her family’s barn has been a convalescing center for injured mythical animals. Her mom, who has been a caretaker all this time, had to go out of town, and Zoey takes on the responsibility of rescuing creatures with her sidekick pet cat Sassafras. Right away, Zoey is visited by a famished baby dragon. Using the scientific method, Zoey tries to figure out how to rescue the dragon…
Review: Whereas the first two books attempted to contrast science from superstitions (Ada), princesses, castles, fairies, and pink-loving girls (Lucy), this book does a fine job of somehow meshing science and magic. It teaches readers how to identify a question to be tested, form a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, and come up with conclusions. Zoey also experiences setbacks and makes mistakes, but she learns how to improve and to fix them. This book is more story-centered, because I have a less grasp of who Zoey is, other than she likes science and is very caring (she is probably more revealed in later books).
It was intriguing that in all three books, each protagonist’s mom works, and all moms go out on business trips in the beginning. Each girl wishes her mom was there when encountering problems, but solves them on her own. Dads are around, but only assert minor supportive roles (they all cook meals!)
Each book promotes independence, creativity, originality, problem-solving skills, resilience, and love for STEM. I’m thankful that these books exist, making more “normal” for girls to be interested in and pursuing STEM.
Each book is fun and adorable, but the final word of this review belongs my daughter, who preferred Zoey and Sassafras over the other two. When asked why she said, “because the book has magic, and I like magic.” She has now finished all 5 books in the series. At her age, or perhaps at any age, magic and fantasy can coexist with science…imagination is as important as rational thinking. Asia Citro (the author) better hurry with her writing, and J.K. Rowling better get started on a book in which Hermione becomes a Nobel-prize receiving scientist (I never finished the Harry Potter series. Hermione isn’t, is she?)!
I recently heard an interesting story from a colleague about the hiring process for my position – and how I almost didn’t get an interview! Have you ever heard the behind the scenes story of how you got hired? It can be enlightening, both from a personal perspective and regarding the general hiring process as well.
Here at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman we’ve posted a number of stories about the struggles of job searches and the difficulty of not understanding why we sometimes don’t get an offer, or even an interview at a job it seems like we’re perfect for. And we’ve posted on some of the things that go on behind the scenes from a hiring committee‘s perspective. One major theme here is that as an applicant there are so many things big and small that go on in a search that you can never know that may influence your placement regardless of how well matched you are.
My colleague and I were chatting about how when I was offered my position they hoped the wouldn’t lose me because of my two-body problem. And that reminded her of the funny-not-funny story of how I almost didn’t even get an interview. She told me that she came to the search committee meeting with her ranked list of candidates with me at the top. She compared her list to the other members of the committee, who had the same top candidates – except that I was completely missing from their lists! She said, “Did you miss this application? I think you need to go back and look at this one.” They had no idea that my application even existed! Through some electronic system formatting issue or later application date, my files ended up separated from the main pack of applicants, and so the others on the search committee had not even viewed my application! Thank goodness one person on the committee was thorough enough to find me, and a strong enough advocate to notice and insist that the others consider me.
While I’ve always tried to share the message with others that you just don’t know what kinds of things are influencing your search that aren’t evident in the job description or communication, I never thought something this logistically simple could have meant a totally different life for me!
As I’ve documented in painful detail here, I’ve been on the job hunt. I love my job teaching high school, but it’s extremely demanding. My children are young, and its hard for to be away from them so much and juggle everything else in my life. Additionally, my salary is not high enough that I’m able to throw money at the problems (gosh, wouldn’t a house cleaner and weekly meal service be great!). The summers off are a wonderful bonus, but they remind me of all the moments I am missing during the school year.
I’ve been looking for a reasonable part time option, and I’ve been offered a position teaching a few classes at the local community college. I’m tempted to take it for the hours, as I’d be able to spend much more time with my family; but the pay is so poor and there are no benefits, making it a challenge for me to walk away from my full time position.
As I’ve been navigating this, I read this article. It’s a great, short read, but here was the most poignant part for me: “the ‘gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”’ Well, isn’t that just depressing? Women are having way fewer children than they want to (or at least wanted to, before experiencing the chaos of life with children). The author speculates on a bunch of possible reasons, but here’s the one that I’m feeling the most right now.
There are so few viable part time positions. I have felt this so deeply. I want to work, and I want to do satisfying work. But given the choice between spending time with my family and working, I will choose to stay home (full time, if I have to). The statistics seem to show that many women are likely making the opposite decision, and I totally understand that decision, especially from the financial perspective. But I find it disheartening, both on a global level and a personal one.
I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.
Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.
What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.
- Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.
- I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…
- I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.
- Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.
So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!
*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.
I’ve applied for many jobs in the last few years and I’ve been offered only a handful. So this year, when I was offered the opportunity to serve on the hiring committee for two different teaching positions, I accepted. It has taken up so much time, but it has been very valuable and helped me reflect on my own process. I am currently working with a career counselor of my own, so I hope to write a follow up to this post once my work with her is more fully fleshed out. Here are a few things I’ve learned, as a member of the hiring committees:
1) Always save your resume as a PDF. One applicant with an impressive resume submitted her’s as a Word Doc, and we could see all the changes that someone had suggested. They were all great changes, but it felt unprofessional.
2) The job description on the posting may not actually match what the department is looking for. After reflection on the candidates we’ve interviewed this year, I realized that the things we were looking for were not well articulated in the posting. For example, we want someone experienced and willing to take on extracurricular duties (neither of which were in the posting). This has made me wonder how many of the things that I have applied for were similar; perhaps I didn’t know what they were actually looking for. One of our candidates asked the generic question: “what would the ideal candidate look like?” and I think I will adopt that strategy in the future.
3) Review to the mission of the organization. I was shocked at how few of the candidates we’ve interviewed appeared to have looked on our website and considered the mission of our educational organization. It takes two minutes. Seriously, do it and incorporate it into your cover letter. Mention it again at your interview.
4) Your relevant experience should be easily identifiable on your resume. We received many resumes with relevant skills, but it wasn’t clear where the person had worked or how they had acquired these skills. Make sure that you list your relevant experience (with institution and dates) very clearly.
1) Seem like you want the job! Seems obvious, right?! We had one candidate that repeatedly told us he was just “exploring his options” because of uncertainty at his current school. I think that he was trying to seem dedicated to his position, but it made him seem like he didn’t want this job.
2) Be Enthusiastic: Even if you’re nervous and it’s 90 degrees out, chug a cup of coffee before hand and seem passionate.
3) Have relevant follow up questions: These questions should make us think that you picture yourself here, in our organization. Even if you have big plans for designing new courses or redesigning curriculum, you should frame them in such a way that we will feel like you are going to come in with fresh ideas but not rock the boat too much.
As I read what I’ve just written as a job seeker myself, I’m sort of irritated with the advice I’ve just articulated. I’ve read all that stuff a million times, and still not landed the dream job. So perhaps this exercise has been valuable and made me realize that, at least partially, maybe my failures are not so much about my failure during the interview process; there are a million different factors determining who gets the job.
Over the life of this blog, our careers and lives have taken us in many different directions. Here’s a snapshot of where we are now, and how we got there.
I am currently (still) a postdoc in academia. Sigh. My career has followed a pretty traditional route so far, although that route is certainly no longer typical. I got my undergraduate degree, worked for about 3 years as a tech, and then spent 7 years earning my PhD in Neuroscience. I’ve been a postdoc for about 5 years so far. All in all, it’s been a long journey in academia and it’s depressing to think about the financial implications of that, or the fact that I haven’t had full benefits since I was an entry-level tech all those years ago, or the frustrating lack of career progression– so I try not to think about it too much. Apart from the financial downsides of academia, the academic culture also discourages any sort of work/life balance. I’ve been told many times by my mentors that 80-hour workweeks are expected of postdocs, and I’ve had to actively push back against that, especially since I’ve got the most adorable two-year-old son! We also moved from New York City to Philadelphia– there’s no way I’d have been able to afford to stay in academia this long if we still lived in that high cost-of-living area, as I wrote about a few years ago. So, with the nontrivial financial, psychological, and lifestyle implications of staying in academia, why am I still here? The reason is the science itself– I’m absolutely riveted by the field of induced pluripotent stem cell research, especially as it relates to neuroscience. I’m so excited to see where this field is heading, and I want to be a part of it.
I am (still) teaching high school biology. I began teaching at a single gender private high school in the same city that I went to graduate school in immediately after finishing my Ph.D. and having my daughter. For three years, I taught part time, but felt like I was working full time any way (checking emails, dashing into school for one reason or another); as a result, I transitioned to full time this last fall, about 6 months after my son was born. I love my job and the work is stimulating and feels important, but feel like my children are growing quickly and I’m missing more moments in their lives than I’d like to. I feel like my work is full time plus, and my home life is equally demanding. I’m actively looking for a new, part time position, hopefully still teaching, that would offer me more flexibility.
I am currently a postdoc in academia. I have a BA in a self-designed Neuroscience major from a liberal arts college. I spent 3 years as a research assistant before starting a PhD program in Neurobiology & Behavior. Five years later, I graduated feeling like I had done something to be proud of that would usher me down a sustainable career path. That was 2 years ago, and I was so excited to use my swanky new postdoc to launch into a K99 application… but also explore career options beyond the tunnel vision pilgrimage toward academic PI. Then, smack dab in the middle of my first pregnancy, my not-so-great mentor decided to leave. I spent said pregnancy frantically interviewing within my current city. I was offered both academic and industry positions, and chose academia because the health care was better (which has turned out to be pivotal). I am 6 months into my second postdoc with another not-so-great mentor. What sustains my soul is my pedagogical fellowship, and the professional training and peer/mentor support that it provides. Becoming a PI (at any type of institution) has never appeared less achievable. Currently, I am contemplating the implications of failure, bad luck, communication, and how I can make the most of my present circumstances.
I am a full-time lecturer for undergraduate courses at a large public university. After 2 postdoc positions in 5 years, I was certain I no longer wanted to be directly involved in research and wanted a job with an emphasis on teaching and mentoring. This full-time teaching position came up at an institution/location I was interested in for personal reasons, and things moved very quickly from there – so quickly that now, a year later, my partner has still not quite solidified his tenure-track position in the same place, which he was pursuing even before my job was advertised! But things are looking good for this to be our long-term spot, and I couldn’t be happier. I love every aspect of my job and am excited to improve my teaching and courses every term. This busy first year aside (involving tons of preparations for new courses), this job is very nice for my family life, with a young kid and another on the way – I always have evenings and weekends off – and summers too!!!
I am a senior research scientist at a diagnostic laboratory. Three years ago, after 28+ years in school, I transitioned (gleefully ran away) away from academia to industry. I work with technicians to develop new tests or improve the methods of existing ones. I also spend a lot of time on pubmed to see what sorts of new and exciting biomarkers are being talked about in the clinical chemistry community. I travel to national conferences frequently (occasionally I even get to lecture). And still to this day marvel that I get to have my own hotel room (in grad school there were 6 of us crammed into a standard room with 2 full-sized beds, yikes). Traveling can be hard on my family when all partnering responsibilities fall on my husband, but I find it exciting and keeps me from feeling stale. But on the flip side, I get to spend evenings and weekends with my children and husband. Although that never feels enough. I am surprised at where I am in my career. I would’ve never imagined something like this. But some of the best things in life are completely unexpected.
I am a medical policy research analyst. After 5 years in grad school and 5 years in postdoc, 3 of which were spent trying to decide on an alternate career path, I left academia. I spent those last three years soul searching and networking until something worked out. I now do a lot of reading and writing. I talk to other people at my company and doctors currently practicing medicine. My work is challenging and, for the most part, stimulating. I always knew I enjoyed reading and writing and thinking, and this job is a good fit for all of that. I wish I had more interpersonal interaction built into my daily routine, but I may be able to find a way to make that happen in my current position. I am able to have the work-life balance that I want (though who couldn’t use a few extra hours in every day!?), with the flexibility to attend events at my children’s school and evenings and weekends for my family (and writing blog posts and volunteering).
I am a forensic scientist. Whoa! Didn’t see that one coming! After an undergrad bio degree with all those required chem, genetics, statistics and bio classes, I pursued a PhD in Neuroscience because that was my most interesting elective class and the professor was awesome. Also, I got involved in an undergraduate research lab that happened to be doing neurobiology. Grad school for me had big ups and downs, but ended on an up and launched me into another neuroscience postdoc that I moved states for. Awesome everything (city, lab, mentor, research project)….except I absolutely hated being a postdoc. Gave it my all for a year, and decided that it was one of the most horrible (for me) jobs ever. Postdocs are taken advantage of in many ways and told that if they put in the time, they will be rewarded for it later. I didn’t see that panning out very well for me. In my second year as a postdoc where I put a lot of effort reaching out for teaching positions, a notification from a friend surfaced that her lab was hiring an entry level forensic scientist position for local government. I thought it was crazy. Turns out, I was already using the molecular techniques applied in that field, and those required chem, genetics, statistics and bio classes were what I needed to be qualified for the job. Four years in, I could not have made a better move. I am satisfied with my job on a daily basis applying that science that always felt so slippery to me as an academic researcher. My day-to-day is very different: moving through evidence requests and planning a sampling approach for each item (asking does this make sense given the crime scenario), labcoat on DNA testing, computer interpretation and writing reports and then court testimony (so much like teaching!). Not to mention the frequent validation projects I get to stick my hands in and present about at conferences. And, since overtime is not always allowed, 8 hours later I get to play with my toddler in the evening and have a decent amount of time to pursue lots of fun activities for myself and with the fam. There is so much out there. You will never know where a cup of coffee and a conversation with a friend, colleague, person in an only slightly related field might lead you!
I am a research scientist at a pharmaceutical company. During my first post doc I realized that I didn’t want to be a PI in academia and used my second post doc to help me get industry experience. I landed a great (underpaid) job at a small startup working on a cool project in my field of interest. 3 years ago when things got a little iffy for the company I decided to move on to the local branch of a small pharmaceutical company. There is a lot I love about the job (great people, great benefits, good salary, good work-life balance, and work that feels important) but of course there are some thing I would change if I could (ie my lack of promotion). Overall I feel very lucky.