Archive for: June, 2015

A woman scientist in love

Jun 27 2015 Published by under career trajectory, gratitude, happiness

I am not ashamed to admit it. I am head over heels. I am riding a high. I am optimistic it is going to work out. And guess what!? – it has been the OPPOSITE of distracting. Being in love has had the effect of extreme focus in the workplace and pretty substantial scientific progress. I am in love… with my job.

Maintaining a loving and healthy relationship definitely takes some work. I know I am not always going to express these emotions about work – things will get challenging. People, policies, and black voodoo magic that causes instruments and reagents to mysteriously malfunction will cause some turmoil. But this feels right.

The objective for this post is not to rehash all the #distractinglysexy topics, although it has been wonderfully amusing and strangely encouraging. Instead, my thoughts were to just share some of my recent experiences as it relates to the themes of this blog – the adventures of being trained scientist who is figuring out her niche. That could be supporting other scientists, teaching, raising kids, developing a kick-ass product/therapy, or wining a Nobel prize.

And perhaps a selfish objective is to provide an amusing account for myself to flip back to years in the future when I am frustrated or hopeless. Seriously, though, I have had so many conversations with friends and colleagues about emotions as they relate to our respective career paths. I don’t always know what to say or how to encourage someone. There was a period of time where I felt all I did was dim the mood. Sometimes navigating a path is rough (especially when you can’t see the way ahead). Sometimes it is exciting. Sometimes it is scary. Sometimes it is boring. Sometimes it has you swooning (remember that feeling of being accepted to grad school?).

This has me thinking about ways that we all relate to each other, and effects we can have on one another.

One of the things that has me so giddy right now is the interaction I have been having with people outside my lab, outside my agency, outside my state and outside the country. That influx of ideas and opinions is so refreshing. I have had the extremely good fortune of getting to attend three very interesting meetings in a very short amount of time.

So, something I want to remind my future self: opportunities to go to meetings, trainings or conferences sponsored by work may not always come up. But there is almost always the flexibility to spend work TIME elsewhere even if the costs for transportation, lodging and registration aren’t covered. Some of my recent travels required me to pay out of my own pocket. I cannot think of a better way I could have spent that money.

At the moment, I am inspired. I am seeing how a scientific field is growing, changing, and making progress. I also see so much further down my current path right now! I see a role that I can play in this field. Meetings have always generally had a good effect on me. I do find some contrast, though, in attending meetings as an academic scientist compared to a more applied scientist. As an academic scientist, I was always trying to find the things I could do to make my individual projects more innovative. The things that would help me outline my next grant. Sometimes I came back frantic with all these things I might do, and companies I might contact. I had a hard time handling that pressure. Now, I don’t have the freedom or responsibility of an individual research project. For the most part, people in my lab are all working toward the same thing. This work is spilt up, and the overall goal is to provide a service. But the ways that we provide this service advance with technology. The lab has projects to keep up with that change in technology in an efficient way, while at the same time making sure that technology (and personel’s expertise in how that technology is working) be solid enough to testify to results in court. So, now, when I am at meetings, I focus on those projects, and ways the lab can keep up with the changes in technology in efficient ways, providing ideas where I can.

Getting back to the idea of why meetings and groups are money well spent – it fosters ideas. There are so many ideas I have – things I can do at work that would benefit my current workplace – these are things other people across the country and the world are already doing and work well. I may not have a position to change policies where I work, but I can certainly provide ideas to the people who do.

I also get to hear about how other people landed in the positions they are in. I find it very interesting to hear about other people’s backgrounds. I helps me realize that opportunities come up all the time that are un-forseeable. Perhaps I am even impacting my future path in ways that are not visible yet. Maybe some of these people that I interacted with at these meetings will remember me and invite me to participate in other opportunites in the future.

Conferences or not, interacting with other people I have noticed has been generally helpful. When I have gotten anxiety or fear about where I was headed, my first instinct is to hide that feeling. I feel I need to figure it out myself before I have another conversation about it. It was easy for me to avoid those conversations or change the subject quickly. But, when I did open up and share how I was feeling about where I was going, or not knowing what I wanted next, it usually had a positive effect on me. Sometimes that is easier to do with people you don’t know. A friend recently told me about a set of interactions that the career center strongly advised them to have. Using linkedIn and other websites, they got an idea of what type of positions were available at differently companies, schools, etc. This helped to see all the different roles that a PhD scientist can have. To get a better idea of what these positions were like, this person contacted these people for the sole purpose of doing a little mini-interview about what their job entailed. They said it was a very awkward experience at times, but was so helpful for guiding what niche they would be excited and interested about.

So, I feel fortunate right now to have benefited from so many helpful interactions. I am wondering if there is a way be on the flip side of that. I am extremely interested in maximizing the effects of being in love with my job. I am so motivated and constantly thinking of ways that I can positively impact my workplace. I strongly believe there is a place for love at work.


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Problems with women…I mean Tim Hunt

When the news of Nobel laureate Tim Hunt’s remarks at a convention of female scientist and science journalist broke out this week, my first thought was,

Oops.

Oops, because I am a culprit of crying in front of male advisers, once during graduate school and another during postdoc.  I had perpetuated a stereotype held by the prominent scientist.

Fortunately or unfortunately, but most conveniently, I am a type who does not remember unpleasant events.  So I do not in detail remember why I cried in either of the instances (one was ~15 years ago, the other was ~6-7 years ago).  Most likely I was criticized — of my work ethic, apparent lack of ingenuity in science inquiry, or something else.

Before I reveal further, I should mention that I never cried.  I considered myself strong, independent, mature, and emotionally stable.  Crying in public, let alone in professional settings, was unthinkable.  I was rather stern and cold actually; I saw others cry (men or women) and a part of me wondered why they could not be tougher.

So for me to cry, it had to be something grave (or just I was not as tough as I thought).  In either case, my advisers did not seem to be unsettled by my crying.  They kept stabbing me with criticisms and accusations even after my tears were flowing.  I defended myself, rebuffing and disagreeing with their claims as struggling to control my tear ducts, running nose, and breathing.  I was mostly angry at myself for having brought out such distressing discussion upon myself.  My advisers were not the type to harass or bully, so what they were saying about me must have been true, and it was terrible.  At least the discussion brought to light how they were viewing me. I was shocked and felt the need to correct it with all my might.

Training and mentoring someone do not have to (or should not) include tears.  Yet in my case perhaps it was needed.  Maybe I really was a bad graduate student and postdoc who was not achieving potential and my advisers ran out of patience and options.  Maybe I needed to be humbled and inspired, and it was what it took.  Maybe they wanted to test me because I seemed so cold and emotionally flat [ha].  Maybe my advisers and I had real human relationships where we could freely express ourselves upon built trust. [In fact both advisers and I got along really well besides those instances. I respect them both as a scientist and person.]  I give my advisers far more credit than Tim Hunt who must be really uncomfortable with seeing someone expressing emotions.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s real problem is not with women; it is with humans, humans who express emotions and fall in love.  Are emotions that bad for science?  Is it not diversity, collisions, conflicts, and distractions of ideas that produce the best results?


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Last Day of School.

I am in lab. Today is my last day here. My last day as a postdoc. I inhale deeply. With my eyes closed. I focus on the sounds around me.

Two days ago, I started my seventh year in this lab, and eighth year as a postdoc all together. Six years here. How has this time gone by so fast? Two weeks ago, I gave my advisor my notice. I haven’t slept much since then. Probably because I’m stressed out. Insomnia, how I loathe you.

Exhale. Forcefully. Take another breath in.

I’ve written this blog post, or a variation there of, four times now. Not today. Just over time. Every time, it all came out winy, laced with, what sounded nagging melancholy. I scrapped those. Today it seems to flow. But I still don’t know what it is that I want to write about… That I am happy my postdoc training is over? That I am relieved? Yes, maybe. I feel tired. Empty. Sad. Proud? Yes. I feel proud.

Inhale. Slowly. Methodically. A centrifuge in the hallway just beeped to a stop.

I need coffee. I found a job. At a small cool company in the area. I m elated. Really, I am. Getting a job in this coveted area of Pacific Northwest qualifies you to declare a triumph. A victory. I wanted this for such a long time. It felt like it was never going to happen. And even when I got the offer, it didn’t feel like the end would come. I had so many things to finish up. And then I did. And now I’m done. There are a few monumental achievements in my life – college graduation, grad school graduation, and now postdoc… graduation? Termination? That sounds bad. Retirement? Transition? Sounds better, still not descriptive enough. I cease to exist as a postdoc? Nah, too existential. I completed my postdoctoral studies? Perhaps. What does that mean? By definition, a postdoc position is temporary. A position that was originally designed to prepare someone like me for an academic faculty position. But I am not going to be faculty. Many of us are not. If the outcome is different than originally projected, what do I call this ending? I need coffee.

Exhale. Wait. The vent is making a rattling noise.

Oh yes, and I have twins. I am a mother. That should account for something. Especially when you are a postdoc and a mother. Postdoc training and parenting have something in common after all. They teach you to persevere and to be patient. I am not patient. It’s a work in progress. But I persevered. That makes me feel good. Proud even. And smug. Clearly.

Inhale. Perhaps I should try the 4-7-8 breathing my awesome therapist told me about (yes, I have a therapist. Doesn’t everyone?)

I told friends and family that I have a new job. Although it is my first job, rather than new job. I got a wide range of responses. From the obvious “congratulations,” to the “oh, how are you going to do that, work full time and be a parent?” Or “you are going to be soooo tired.” Gee, thanks. This one is my favorite yet (in a very well-meaning way): “There will be people that won’t like you at your new job, and that’s ok.” As if I need my anxiety over this next chapter in my life to be compounded by others telling me that things could possibly go wrong. Actually, that is what I think about the most—what will the environment be like at the new job. What are the people like? What will be the dynamics of my immediate team? Will we all get along and be able to function well together in totally awesome and productive ways?

New job. New office/lab politics. New things all around. I don’t like new things. There I said it. I’m not supposed to not like new things. I am a scientist.   I should like new things. But I don’t. New things make me uncomfortable. “Must not mess up,” is what runs through my head when I’m trying a new protocol. Perfectionism is not fun. [As a side note/correction, I love learning new things, just not doing new things for that fear of somehow screwing up.]

Exhale. I wish I were in my bed now. With my blanket over my head. I like my bed. I can pretend the world stands still when I’m in it. Except when I have insomnia. I don’t like my bed then. Oh my alarm just went off. Nice. Thank you for that reminder that I should’ve just been waking up. Damn you, Insomnia.

You know what is hard about being a postdoc? Uncertainty. Once you make that choice about not pursuing an academic track position, everything changes. It is a difficult decision. Kind of like deciding not to have any more children. You look at someone’s adorable little girl, and think just how much you want to have just one more child. And then you’re reminded of the birthing process, the recovery and the sleepless nights. So many sleepless nights. And so many days where people look at you like you’re “not all there,” because you are so exhausted, you really should be placed in a recovery coma and sleep for like 12 months (if there is such a thing). And when you attend a seminar given by a faculty member who is really excited about their job, and who has had success in funding throughout the stormy funding history, and who has raised children, who has been a devout mentor to grad students and postdocs, who in her words “has it all,” and has a smile on her face, you wonder if you’ve made the right choice about not going after that coveted faculty position. And the uncertainty over your unpredictable future sets in. And you ponder why exactly you have been in school for >28 years and then in post-graduate training… Training for a job in a field that you probably don’t even yet know about.

You know what else is difficult about being a postdoc? Money. Especially when you are married to another postdoc. The money situation is tough. I have repeatedly said to my husband: “I thought I married a rich American Doctor, what happened?” To which he would usually reply: “So did I. So did I.” Touche’. You know what’s good about not having a whole lot of money when you’re in your postdoc? You can’t afford childcare. Correction, you can’t afford conventional childcare in a daycare setting. To accommodate for our lack of funds to pay for our twins’ daycare, we never put them in daycare. We work(ed) in the same lab, and offset our schedules to minimize the cost we paid to the nanny that would cover the overlap hours when we both would be in lab. It has been difficult. Crazy even. But it feels good to know that it has been essentially just the two of us who have raised our own children. Now, where would I put that on a CV? Perhaps I will make a new category called “synergistic activities”: “Okay-ish scientist and mother gets A+ for perseverance.”

Inhale. What is the bioavailability of caffeine? It seems like there is not enough of that stuff in the world to get me to wake up today. If I am so tired, why can’t I sleep at night?

I did not enjoy the job application process. It was yet another layer of complexity added on to my life’s motto: “run as fast as you can just to stay in one place.” And then someone asks you to do a hurdle sprint in the middle of this marathon called a parent postdoc. Also, interestingly, looking for a job and dating are sort of similar. Mostly because there are SO MANY CREEPS OUT THERE! And because both processes are very time-consuming. And because a lot of the times there is just no chemistry, and the fit isn’t right. But then it takes just one to make you feel alive again, and allow you to stuff those feelings of desperation and anxiety into a dark corner, or perhaps ditch them all together. It feels glorious to be wanted and valued.

Exhale.

I also feel deeply grateful for the relationships I formed and maintained in my postdoc. Professional relationships and friendships. It has been so meaningful for me to connect with people. How is it possible for one place to hold so many awesome individuals? I will really miss them.

Inhale.

Good bye postdoc. I hope I can sleep tonight.

 

Exhale.


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OUT and About in Science: Being a Lesbian in Research and Academia

Today’s guest contribution is by a postdoctoral fellow in Portland, OR.  She holds a Ph.D. in Immunology and her research focuses on the contribution of the immune response to neurodegeneration and brain inflammation after stroke.  Oh, and she’s gay!

I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from the age of twelve.  What I didn’t know, and wouldn’t be open about until graduate school, was that I was gay.  What does one have to do with the other?  Everything, when you’re a lesbian in the sciences.

I grew up in the conservative center of the Bible Belt.  Although my family was relatively liberal, I will always attribute my late “coming out” to the environment in which I was raised.  For me it was simple; I had no LGBT role models as a child.  It wasn’t something that was known or accepted.  Being gay wasn’t an option.  Similarly, there is a noticeable lack of out and open LGBT individuals in the sciences.  Why does sexual orientation matter in the research setting when one’s science can speak for itself?  Without visibility of LGBT science role models we will fail as a community to encourage young science minded individuals from all backgrounds to enter the field. In my case, when I knew I wanted to be a scientist but was questioning my sexual orientation, I could have benefited from a strong, lesbian scientist role model. Maybe I would have had the confidence to come out earlier.

As many women in the sciences know, being a postdoc can be a pretty isolating experience. That isolation is compounded as a gay female postdoc. The lack of LGBT community in science professions is staggering. As a graduate student in the Midwest, I didn’t know of another gay grad student or postdoc in my department. Currently, I’m doing my postdoc in a larger, more liberal city but still am only aware of a handful of LGBT grad students, postdocs and faculty.  If isolation is one of the primary factors leading to women leaving the pipeline to tenure faculty, then the path is even less conducive for lesbian scientists.

Now I’m getting ready to face the major decision that every scientist has to make in their career: whether to pursue a position in academia, industry or leave the sciences all together.  Being gay will play a huge role in that decision.  If I’m so concerned about visibility of LGBT individuals in the sciences, why would I consider leaving academia?  Shouldn’t I stay and be that strong, lesbian scientist role model for other youth that I always wished I had?  I struggle with this daily.  But looking for positions in academia often means major compromises in location. I’m not sure that I’m willing to risk the possibility of living in a conservative city or state to stay in academia.  Even though I have experienced very little homophobia in my field, both my wife and I have dealt with our share of homophobic incidents outside of the workplace.  Additionally, we plan on having a family soon and it is a priority that our children grow up in a safe space where they won’t be bullied or feel different for having two moms. Since we both grew up in the conservative Midwest, we want a different upbringing for our children. Our location restrictions will severely limit my academic options.  Therefore, I’ve been preparing myself and my resume for non-science positions in order to stay in the very LGBT friendly city that we currently live in. I have absolutely no issue with my career taking second place to our comfort, safety and happiness.

When I look at my decisions and mindset on the future of my career in science, I completely understand the lack of out LGBT individuals in the sciences, specifically, in academia.  Being women in science, we also understand the importance of diversity in academia.  As the visibility of women in faculty positions increases, I am excited for LGBT to follow.  Although I may not end up being the lesbian role model that is so necessary in academia right now, I will always volunteer with girls and LGBT youth interested in STEM fields.  We still have a lot of work to do to pave the path for new LGBT scientists and the issues that I’ve discussed are only a small part of what LGBT scientists face every day,  but I can see things getting better over time and that gives me so much hope for young LGBT investigators.


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