Archive for: July, 2015

“Do you need a Ph.D. for that?”

As a recent Ph.D.-graduate-turned-high-school-teacher, I am constantly fielding questions about my transition. These come from my former graduate student friends, my current colleagues and even a few from my students. People seem shockingly interested in why someone would give up the “glamorous” research life to be around adolescents all day. Here are a few of the most common:

Do you need a Ph.D. to teach high school?

Nope. I’ve actually heard that it can be detrimental when searching for a job in some public school districts that are required to pay higher salaries to Ph.D. holders. My private school (thankfully??) isn’t constrained by these restrictions. However, in my limited interactions with other Ph.D.s turned K-12 teachers, private schools do tend to value the expertise associated with highly specialized degrees.

I do often find myself thankful for my Ph.D. training. It allows me to talk to my students with a level of authority not typically granted to other members of my department (by either students or parents). When I tell them, “researchers haven’t figured that part out yet,” they usually believe me. They don’t seem to be thinking “you don’t actually know the answer, do you?” I have no problem pulling off bacterial transformation labs or gel electrophoresis labs. So in many ways, I’ve found that my Ph.D. training (and degree title) have made being a teacher easier.

Do you miss science?

Not at all. In fact, in some ways I feel more integrated with science as an overall disciple when compared to my days cloning (and recloning… and recloning) in the lab. I spend most of my day talking about the really cool parts of biology. My AP Biology course is starting the fall with a unit on microRNAs. I go on frequent research lab tours with a senior level research class. My Science Olympiad ( team recently won a competition by building an accurate 3D model of a TALEN protein, complete with amino acid side chains in the catalytic site. As I teach, I also am forced to relearn plant and ecosystem biology, disciplines previously relegated to the unreachable areas of my memory. This summer, I’ve spent lots of time with my energetic toddler—while she naps, I edit scientific manuscripts written by non-native English speakers. So I usually don’t feel like I’ve left science at all.

What do you miss about the lab?

I seriously miss the flexibility. I’ve never been good at sleeping in, so when I was in the lab, I always worked regular hours. But if I needed to go to the dentist or head home with a migraine, I could. Now, according to my contract, I have to be at school from 7:30-3:30 (but am usually there longer), with limited exceptions. Of course, if I need to stay home with my sick daughter, I can; however, I have to get a sub, write sub plans and make sure I keep a very close eye on my email. In general, this doesn’t bother me. But when I was breastfeeding my daughter, I was highly frustrated by the 10 minute breaks between classes.

Could you go back and do a postdoc, if you wanted? (I get this question mainly from my educator colleagues)

I’m not sure. I don’t think so. Technology changes so quickly in biomedical research, that I think it would be challenging to return to the lab after a long hiatus. That being said, I’m not sure I’ll be away from academia forever. Long term, I can envision myself going into a university-affiliated science outreach position.

What has been the hardest thing about your transition?

            In some ways, I feel like a big, fat copout. I spent a lot of time in graduate school advocating for women’s issues in science. I was, and remain, passionate about retention of women in scientific disciplines. Even now, I feel strongly that institutional policies need to change to support the success of women at all levels. So when I take a step back and look at my professional biography, I am dismayed to see a well-funded, well-published graduate student that has left research to pursue a career in a historically female dominated field with mediocre pay. When I start to feel this way, my hugely supportive husband gently reminds me that I am still advancing the careers of women, as a well-educated women science teacher at an all-female school. In an effort to fight the negative feeling that sometimes surface, I aim to be the very best teacher I can be.

Do you regret your Ph.D.? (I usually find myself asking this question, after a particularly hard day)

            I hope that in 10 years, when I revisit my professional biography, there will be some obvious purpose to my 5+ years spent in graduate school. I hope that my training will have improved my teaching in a clear and tangible way. For now, I try to put this question out of my mind. And when students come to me interested in biomedical science, I encourage them to consider biomedical engineering.

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Jul 28 2015 Published by under career plan, happiness, having it all, settling

Settling down. Settling in. Settling for less?

The academic lifestyle is nomadic. Start with a faraway college, proceed to graduate school across the country, hop over to a postdoc, hopefully land a job in big universityville. That might not be the end, as many academics change universities once or several times in a career. Even if one leaves the academic track, many of these steps are the same and cities with jobs are still limited.

I grew up with this kind of lifestyle and for a time I enjoyed moving around. I relished leaving for that faraway college. I got excited about going to graduate school across the country. And when all my friends were leaving graduate school it felt natural to move to a new town for a postdoc. But now something has changed. Or, rather, a lot of things have changed. I’m older. It is harder to make friends when you’re not in school. Not to mention I’m married with children.

And there is that feeling. That feeling of wanting to put down roots. Make friends for long-term that won’t soon be long-distance. To not feel temporary. Maybe this is not rational, but does it matter? I have one life to live, should I not enjoy it? And if for me that means putting down roots, is that so bad?

The problem is, I live in a city that does not have the most job options for a bio PhD. There are jobs, just fewer in number and variety than other locations. So in that sense it is not a good idea for me to stay here. But there are also reasons that it is a good idea to stay. It’s relatively affordable compared to those cities with more job options. My husband and I like it here for a variety of reasons and my husband is happy with his job.

However, for me it may mean settling for a less than ideal career. I may be giving up on opportunities that other locations have to offer. I may not be able to fulfill my potential.

Despite the implications for my career, I decided to stay. We bought a house. It feels good. It has been a hard decision to come to, but now that I’m here, it feels good. It feels really good. I like not having to think about where I might live next. I just hope that the direction my career takes doesn’t make me regret it.

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Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide a good probability estimate.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, the way in which colleagues treat me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.

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Ideas (About Science Careers) That Should be Retired

I love podcasts! The other day I was listening to Freakonomics, one of my go-to podcasts, and they started talking about “ideas that must die.” The hosts ask scientists what popular scientific ideas should be gotten rid of because they are impeding progress. The first example is from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a professor of cognitive science at University College London who wanted to debunk the idea of people being either left or right brained. Other ideas offered up to the chopping block included the power of statistics, the relevance of mouse models and that life is sacred. While I didn’t agree with all – actually most – of the suggestions it seemed like an interesting topic to explore for the blog. So I’ve come up with a list of misconceptions about careers in biology that I think should be retired.

  1. Research Professors have better/more flexible schedules than other career options. This is crap. All of the tenured and tenure-track faculty I know work their butts off non-stop and many non-academic jobs allow you to work around scheduling conflicts… it’s all about getting work done.
  1. Leaving academia is shameful and people who leave are not as smart/motivated/are only interested in the money (I’m still working on this feeling for myself but I love what Perima, StrongerThanFiction and Torschlusspanik have to say about careers outside of academia)
  1. PhD’s always make more money than researchers who have bachelors or masters degrees. There are a ton of online debates about whether PhD’s earn more than researchers with bachelors or masters. The bottom line is, it’s not clear – so don’t go to gradschool for the money!
  1. Grad school is super hard and a terrible, horrible, torture fest. Yes, I had crappy days and at times it was hard to juggle everything, but it was a fantastic experience. I have way more good memories about my time in grad school than bad ones.
  1. Academia produces the highest quality work. I was surprised when I got to industry and found out how often we try and fail to replicate published results, even when consulting with the original authors. I heard a lot of talk about how the pressure in academia to publish diminishes the quality of papers. On the other hand, scientists in Biotech have their own pressures that can also be reflected in publications.
  1. Researchers in Biotech have no scientific independence. It is true that you are usually hired to work on specific research topics. But I have found that I am able/encouraged to bring up new ideas and follow up on diverse research questions. I don’t know if this is the norm, but I have been very pleasantly surprised at how much interesting research I get to do.

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A new normal

Jul 02 2015 Published by under diversity, female scientist, tim hunt

I have a few thoughts that I have not seen discussed in the whole Tim Hunt storm.

In case you have not been keeping up, you can read here a first hand account of Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt’s comments at a lunch at the World Conference of Science Journalism by the journalist who broke the story.

Basically he said that women (actually, he said “girls” – how often do you hear grown men referred to as boys? How demeaning! ) are fodder for love and they cry when criticized. Never mind the love aspect, because, of course, love takes two. About the crying…


For one, it is OK to cry. It is not only OK to have strong emotional responses (i.e. one that might lead to crying in a professional setting), it is probably a good thing. Yes, there is a place for emotionless analytics in science, but there is also a need for passion. One can feel that passion, the highs of science and the lows, and yes, even cry, and still have room for unbiased careful science.

Bringing varied emotional intensities is also an aspect of diversity (not only related to women versus men, but also different cultures which may have different emotional norms). While diversity can cause friction (because isn’t it easier to make decisions with someone who is more likely to agree with you?), studies have shown that workplace diversity is good for productivity (Exhibit A and B) and innovation. This may be because simply having different perspectives allows multiple different ideas to come to the table. It may also come from the friction – having different ideas forces discussion. If everyone in the room doesn’t agree with you, you will have to do more to back up your claim.

So, differences = good.

Now, who is different? If you have two things that are different from each other, they are both different. But people tend to label one as “normal” and all others as “different. And of course, given the history of men and women in science, male behavior is currently considered the default behavior.

It does not have to be this way. It has not been this way in every society (even today). So in an age when, as a society, we are moving toward enlightened views on gender equality, it is time to drop the assumption that male behavior is normal and everything else is a variant. No, you should not need to feel “Oops” for crying at work. Or, in reverse, someone who has never cried after being criticized should feel self conscious for lacking that emotional response.

In a related note, a spin on the concern that Tim Hunt’s comments will discourage women’s interest in science: If we react to his comments by saying — I’m stoic like a man, I don’t cry! — we reinforce the idea that one needs to be like an “average” man to succeed in science. That will discourage people who don’t feel like they can be like that or don’t want to be like that. There are many examples of successful women, but we don’t always hear about their unique struggles. Or men that don’t fit this stereotype for that matter. Maybe this is a good opportunity for successful people to put it all out there.


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