Archive for: May, 2015

Advice to young women: don’t laugh

“Girls, if boys say something that’s not funny, you don’t have to laugh.”

-Amy Poehler

This is some great advice from one of my favorite feminists. I’d like to extend this advice to young women in an academic or professional context and advise them not to laugh while giving a presentation (unless there’s something truly funny).

To avoid sounding like a total killjoy, let me first say that I am a very happy person who smiles and laughs quickly and easily, and I love hearing or making other people laugh as well. But what I’m talking about here is the laughter that is not in response to something funny – it’s the nervous giggle that is generated from anxiety. Most importantly, this is a laugh that is almost exclusive to girls and women.

As an instructor at a women’s college, I saw many young women give presentations in everything from a casual setting in class to a formal honors thesis presentation. No matter the level, quality, or competence of the person speaking, I noticed the nervous giggle was nearly ubiquitous, and it came to be my pet peeve.

She giggles when she can’t remember what she wants to say next. She giggles when she misspeaks, or sometimes for no apparent reason at all. She giggles when she accidentally skips ahead a slide in the presentation. In short, she’s usually laughing at herself for making mistakes.

This response is not all bad. It’s certainly better than getting angry, beating herself up for a little mistake. But it has a number of detrimental effects for the presenter:

1) Laughing at a mistake draws attention to the error. Usually this is something so minor or so understandable like skipping a slide and having to go back that the audience would not even be aware of it, and there’s no need to apologize or laugh in response.

2) Laughing appears unprofessional, like you’re not taking your work seriously.

3) The nervous giggle makes the presenter seem less confident and competent.

This final point is really the most important. On an individual level, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. You don’t want to do anything that will make you appear less confident in yourself or your research, or competent and understanding of your work, than you actually are. On a larger level, it is important to consider that this nervous laughter is a uniquely female trait. It is possible that the perception of a giggling young woman as less confident or competent compared to a male presenter could add to the stereotypes we are battling.

One important note is that I have rarely, if ever, noticed the nervous giggle in a presentation given by a female above an undergraduate level (graduate students, postdocs, faculty, other professionals). It is hard to say if there is a transition that occurs, where a woman matures or confidence is gained after college, or if the women I’ve met who go on to graduate school in science happen to be the women who never set out giggling or never got nervous. I do not believe the latter possibility to be true. I recently watched an amazing senior student give her honors thesis presentation. She is one of the most competent and confident students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching and clearly knows her field and her project very well; she is going on to an excellent graduate program and I am confident that she will be very successful as a scientific researcher. And yet, she giggled throughout her entire seminar.

If the possibility that there is a transition in young women from nervous giggling to confident presentations is true, what can instructors and mentors do to facilitate the transition (if only so I spend less time grinding my teeth down while listening to the presentations)?

1) Give direct feedback: “You clearly know your stuff, but your giggling makes you appear less confident. Try to be mindful of that in the future and cut back. Take a deep breath when you feel the urge to laugh.”

2) Give more opportunities for practice (and more feedback): anxiety contributes a large part to the nervous giggles, and more practice could make the talk smoother overall.

For more advice on minding your mannerisms:

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No Regrets?

My body ached, I missed them so much. After giving birth to my twin boys about four and a half years ago, I have never been away from them, not even for a single night. Sure, there were those crappy days when I went to lab before they woke up and returned home after they had gone to bed, but I have never been away from them for too long. And then all of a sudden, this year, I decided to go visit my family. In South Africa. All by myself.

Long story short, I have family who live in Cape Town, SA. My cousin is one of them. Before she left, we were inseparable, growing up in Eastern Europe, and frolicking around our cabin in the woods and the Black Sea in the summer time. Then the Chernobyl accident happened (about 200 miles away from where we lived), she developed many very serious health problems, and as a result her family decided to immigrate from Eastern Europe to South Africa. I haven’t seen her in about twenty five years. A short while ago, I discovered that she got engaged to her long-time boyfriend, and the wedding was going to be some time in April. At first, I did not even dream about attending it, flying to South Africa by myself seemed unfathomable, and getting there with my husband and two little boys seemed even more incomprehensible because of the logistics of traveling with little children, and because of financial considerations (more on the reality of postdoctoral pay). And then one day, I got a yearning. A fire. A powerful, consuming, profound, imposing desire to go see her get married. So I did. I flew to South Africa to see my cousin, my childhood best friend slash pseudo twin, marry the love of her life. Like I said, all by myself.

Photo I took from the top of Table Mountain–view of Cape Town and Lion’s Head.


The funny thing is that in the beginning of the trip (this kind of surprised and scared me a little), I did not miss my boys. I knew they were in good hands, having fun with dad and grandma. But about half way through the trip and towards the end, I would think of them more and more, and start to really miss them. In fact, I began to miss them so much that every time I would think of them, a dull hollow ache began to spread in my chest.   And thoughts of missing them, like molasses, would envelop my mind and clog my head and my throat. I knew it was time to go home.

On my [painfully long] trip home, I started thinking about my priorities in life. Sure, I KNOW what my priorities are—my immediate family comes first, then my job, then everything else. But what about my future? I care deeply about what I do. So much, in fact, that I’ve lingered in my current position as a super-postdoc. Even though coming back to work from maternity leave all those years ago, was incredibly painful (newborn twins=no sleep=permanent real life zombie exhausted working mother). Now I am happy I persevered, and I have a career ahead of me that I look forward to discovering. I need to have this part of my life that is just my own, separate from my family, where I can work hard and make progress towards something that is bigger than I am. The scientist within me is on the verge of shedding her milk teeth and is ready to grow a full set of permanent fangs that I can sink deep into my new projects.

But I want even more than that. I want to “have it all.” I want a healthy work-life balance. I want flexibility. I want to be able to have a career AND be able to have deep, meaningful relationships with people I care about—my children and my husband. I want the empathy gap between my needs and my employer’s needs to be bridged in something that will allow me to “have it all.” Somehow being away from my family for 50-some hours a week does not sound appealing. I want to see my children for more than just one hour on weeknights. I want to spend weekends with them and not allow my worries from the week before or anticipatory anxiety for the coming week to tarnish the precious time with my boys.

Now that I am out looking for that next step in adulthood that some of us call a “job,” (all part of my plan B) I have many things to consider. And the biggest one is time with my children. Why is it so difficult to find work that will allow a parent to work part-time in the sciences? As a postdoc, I was able to negotiate a part-time position (which is not even really a thing, the position was created for me in my current lab). Sure it has not been seamless, and definitely not perfect, but it worked out. However, I don’t feel comfortable asking my potential future employer about part-time work for the fear of not getting that coveted next job all together. What exactly is my pounding fear, one might ask?   It is this: Twenty five years down the road, I fear that I will look at my children and see them as someone I barely know because I hardly spent any time with them when they were little. Like I saw my cousin this past April—a beautiful enigmatic young woman, with exquisite, impeccable taste, who once was my closest friend and now unfortunately essentially feels like a stranger to me, with only a slight hint of familiarity.

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The Burden of Representing a Demographic

May 14 2015 Published by under academia, career plan, diversity, guest post

Check out my guest post on Tenure, She Wrote!

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My (blank) lab alumni page

The other day, I was looking for the proper citation for a publication from my graduate lab. I’ve been working on a manuscript to be published in an educational journal. In the process, I had to resurrect some information from my graduate research project. My search for the proper reference brought me to the website of my graduate research lab. I quickly found the proper reference, but couldn’t help but clicking around the other links on the page. I was pleased to see some of the news from the lab: new publications and grants for which I silently congratulated my former lab members. Curious to see if any new members had joined the lab since my departure the previous year, I hovered over the “lab members” page. I scrolled down and was pleased to see that my PI had finally hired the long-term lab volunteer as a research assistant, a few pictures had been updated and a new grant had been obtained.

I then got to the lab alumni section. There were only four of us, as my PI is relatively junior.  Two of those individuals were technicians that had moved on to other institutions. Then there were me and my classmate—we started in the lab at the same time and graduated at the same time. Under his name, the name of his prestigious postdoctoral institution was listed. The space under my name was blank.

My graduate advisor is aware of my new position, teaching advanced biology at a college prep high school in the same city as my graduate institution. We’ve exchanged emails and he congratulated me on my job. I was a productive graduate student, earning the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and publishing 3 first author papers. All of this information is touted on the lab website. Because of this, the omission of my current job feels deliberate. In the weeks since then, my mind has frequently revisited this moment. I feel more hurt the omission of my recent career decisions than I initially thought. Because of my scientific nature, I’ve tried to analyze why I care about the lack of a few little lines on an infrequently visited website for a small biology lab.

Even the most old school faculty in academia seem to now realize the necessity of training graduate students for careers outside research. Despite this awareness, the stigma of pursuing a career outside the traditional remains, especially in the unspoken way that I experienced when navigating my former lab’s website. Rationally, I know that I am doing something that make a difference. Every day, I am empowering young women, training the next generation of scientists and doing something that makes me seriously happy. I feel like I am using my strengths, I frequently attend research seminars and engage with local scientists. Despite this awareness, I am admittedly offended by the omission of my current job (I’m a 3 on the Enneagram, for those that are familiar with this personality classification system).  I know that teaching high school isn’t glamorous and I am certainly overqualified for my position. I don’t make much more than a postdoc and I work really hard—certainly harder than I did in grad school.  Because of these sacrifices, I’d really like my former and present colleagues to acknowledge the value of my work.

If we are to really fix the Ph.D. job issue, then we need faculty to be both encouraging and accepting of diverse (not “alternative”) career choices among graduates. We keep hearing this mantra that “Ph.D. skills are transferrable.” If universities want to maintain the current training structure for graduate students and postdocs, than we must really value fields to which those skills ultimately transfer to—even if they are not the career trajectories faculty chose for themselves.

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A day in life of “opt-out mom”

I am afraid this week’s post will have nothing to do with science.  It will be a post that you might read on a mom blog.  I have been dreading to post my version of  “A day in life of…” for this reason.  However, I am rather inspired to write on this topic this week (ok, I am already past the deadline and I could not put my thoughts together on other topics…)

When my first daughter was born I was a project scientist at a university and went back to work when she was three months old.  At that time I so wanted to stay at home and stare at and take care of my beautiful girl all day.  The daily routine at that time was, wake up, get ready, drop her off at day care, work, pick her up, go home, cook and eat dinner, put her to bed, wash bottles, and go to bed myself.  I had at most 2-3 hours a day to spend with my baby.  That seemed eternally too short to me.

When my second daughter was born we moved for my husband’s work and I had left my old job without any prospect in the new city.  With compounding reasons I decided to stay at home.  I was fortunate to get what I wanted.

Depending on how you look at it, I am not the only one or there are not too many who choose this path.

So here goes a day in life of an “opt-out mom”.

7:00am – I wake up on my own.  Some days by this time we have a visitor in our bed.  Not this day, as my 4-year old finally went to sleep around 11:30pm the night before.  She did have almost 3 hour afternoon nap, and she was not tired at night.  It was my fault for letting her sleep for that long, but I just hate to wake up a napping kid.  I do have to wake her up in the morning in time to leave for preschool, and she will not be happy.

7:30am – I get up and get ready.  The girls are still asleep.  I mentally prepare myself for the wrath that is about to ensue when I wake up my 4-year old as I wash my face.

8:00am – Time to wake the girls up.  L (4 year old) opens her eyes as I enter her room and is not happy.  I smile at her but do not approach.  I peek into M’s (2 year old) crib and see her still asleep.  I exit their room once to give them time to wake up.  When I go back in, the girls are cranky.  I pick up M to get her dressed; she is easier.  L is a daddy’s girl – she is nicer to my husband.  He distracts her by telling her he is leaving for work.  L jumps out of her bed and follows him to the door. When she comes back, a long negotiation of what she wears commences.  For a long time now, she refuses to wear nothing but pink and purple dresses.  After failing to convince her to wear a pair of jeans, or a new blue shirt from her grandmother, I at least get her to wear leggings (pink) under her dress.

8:20am – Breakfast.  I want to diversify, but it is always cereal or toast, and fruit.  I prepare L’s preschool lunch.  Sometimes I make an elaborate bento box lunch.  Most days a sandwich, two types of vegetables, and one type of fruit.  I eat scraps of food left by the girls for my breakfast.

9:00am – Time to brush teeth, wash face, and tend hair.  This morning however the girls decide to have an impromptu tin whistle recorder concert. The squeaks are unbearable. I carry one girl at a time to the bathroom and get them ready to go out of the house.

9:20am – Leave for L’s preschool.  We live 6 minute car ride away from preschool.  This week is a Teacher Appreciation Week.  I am a co-class parent in L’s preschool class, and have been organizing and coordinating parent volunteering for this week.  I go in and give potted flowers to the teachers, and turn in documents and submit collected money to the administrative office.  I understand everyone is busy, but sometimes being a class parent is just willing to be ignored (just like when I served as a steering committee member for establishing a postdoctoral association at a university, and no one responded to my emails).

9:40am – I see my friend with three kids whose husband just left for 2-week business trip.  I stop in my track to check in with her.  We decide to check out a new bakery.  I think about all the things I planned on doing that morning, and the most important thing for this day did not even register at the thoughts of chocolate croissants.

10:00am – The new bakery is not open on Mondays so we go to another. They did not make any chocolate croissants this day (@#$%^&*!).  I order a turkey and cheese croissant, cardamom raisin bun, and tea.  My friend and I catch up on our weekends.  Her all three kids had stomach virus and vomited all weekend. She also tells me that whooping cough is going around our school.  I express my anger and lament (mostly anger) at anti-vaxxers.  We both worry about baby siblings of students at school who have not completed vaccinations.  M soon gets bored when she finishes her food, starts walking around and eating crumbs off the floor…

10:40am – I glance at my phone, and it indicates I was supposed to meet a handylady at my house at 10:30.  How could I have forgotten?  I rush out of bakery and back home.  This is unfortunately typical of me, forgetful and/or clueless.  Sometimes even being organized and putting in calendars does not help.

11:00am – Luckily the handyladies waited at my house.  I talk with them what we wanted them to do, and I go inside with M.

11:30am – I check my email and social media as M plays by herself.  She is very good playing by herself, humming songs on her own. Sometimes she asks me to stack blocks, help her with putting diapers on her baby doll, or read a book.  I oblige.  I also try to tidy up a bit, but then resolves why bother when the girls will undo everything I do almost immediately.

12:45pm – Time for lunch.  Most of the time it is leftovers from the night before.  Sometimes I cook pasta or fried rice.  Today we have a sandwich and some vegetables.

1:20pm – Time for preschool pick up.  It is a bright sunny day.  I realize I forgot to put sunscreen (PSA) on L.  The kids are outside for one hour before pick up.  L tells me that she made something for me for Mother’s Day at preschool.  Her teacher tells her it was supposed to be a secret.  At least that’s what I think they said, it was spoken in a foreign language that I don’t speak.

2:00pm – We come home, and the girls are fascinated by what handyladies are doing.  I put M for nap, and let L play around.  I also want to put L to nap, but if I did, I would most likely doze off as well.  So I wanted to wait until the handyladies were done.

3:00pm – The handyladies are done, and I try to put L to sleep.  Since she only had ~8 hours of sleep the night before, she should at least nap for 1 hour.  She insists she is not tired and wants to watch TV.  I tell her no TV unless she takes a nap.  Sometimes I feel that all I do is to bargain with my child.  This does not seem the best way, but I do not know how else to do it.  I do doze off.  L does not.  She asks every 10 minutes if it was 4pm, which is when I told her she should at least sleep until.

4:00pm – Because L did not nap, I tell her she cannot watch TV. She gets upset and wails.  I stand firm.  I was recently told that I am too easy on my kids.  I make threats but do not go through.  I have been try to be stricter since then. I wake up M who slept for 2 hours.  She is clingy for next 20 minutes.

5:15pm – I start on dinner.  The girls are out on the deck spraying water at themselves with spray bottles.  Sukiyaki for dinner tonight.  Quick and easy.  All meals to be made under 20-30 minutes, or the girls will destroy the house or themselves.

6:30pm – Husband comes home, and we have dinner.  No dessert unless they eat everything on their plate. I thinks this one is a good bargain.

7:00pm – L asks to play princesses with me.  An evil mom that I am, I tell her I would only if she plays scientists with me. She says yes because it is worth that much for her, and all of the sudden I am not quite sure how to “play scientist” with a 4-year old in a living room.  Do we pretend to mix stuff?  Look at stuffed animals with a magnifying glass?  I need to be more prepared next time.  When we play princesses, we talk more about being brave and independent.  L asks if what she puts on herself makes her beautiful.  I tell her it is what is in her heart that makes her beautiful.  Poor L.  Do I indulge her in girly dreamland a little bit longer or pound feminist ideas from the very beginning?

8:00pm – Bedtime routine starts.  Kids are not tired while adults are.  Tonight both girls were asleep by 9:30.  Big improvement from the night before.

9:00pm – I wash dishes and tidy up.  The next three hours are usually spent on writing, crafting, processing pictures, playing a board game with my husband, folding laundry, or surfing internet.  I want to go to bed early so that I can go for a run in the morning, but that takes discipline that I do not have.  I try to be in bed by midnight.

When M turns 2.5 year old, we plan to enroll her in preschool.  One question is how hard would it be for me to “opt-back-in”.

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