Archive for: February, 2016

A portrait of a former SAHM who went back to science

Feb 29 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

As I explore my next step / career, I interviewed one of my best friends, DoubleAgentMom (DAM), PhD, who recently returned to working full time at a pharmaceutical company after being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) for five years.  The interview was conducted in a form of email exchange, with my asking questions and her answering, and my following up.  Excerpts from emails in which we were just catching up and not necessarily intended for this blog post were also incorporated with her permission.

You and I have known each other for almost 15 years.  We met in a graduate-level Pharmacology class. You lent me your lecture notes when I missed a couple of classes for attending a conference (our friendship started when I went to your apartment to borrow your notes).  We are in many ways twins (born and grown outside the US, moved to the US in our teenage years, pursued PhD in science, married to computer nerds, raising two daughters, love good food, and were [until recently] SAHMs) except you actually have twins. I know a lot about you, but for the interest of readers, will you tell us your background, i.e., how did you choose your subject?  What made you pursue a graduate degree? 

DAM:  I think I chose the path of science because of my disadvantaged English ability as an immigrant. My family moved to the US when I was in ninth grade. Math and science were easier than humanities, and chemistry and physics were easier than biology for someone who didn’t really speak English. Otherwise I probably would have studied a foreign language or perhaps education. My undergrad degree was in Biochemistry since it covers a broad area of science. I figured I could decide later. While chemistry and physics were less language–dependent, I personally preferred living things, hence my choice. After college, I got a Master’s degree in human nutrition which was really fun. However, the program did not train me to become a dietitian nor a research scientist, so I decided to pursue further training. I was interested in preventive medicine, and my mentor recommended that I approach it from pharmacology. Everyone said pharmacology graduates could find high paying jobs in the industry easily, so I went for it. The program at my graduate school was strong and trained many successful scientists both in academia and in the industry. Without much guidance, I chose a lab based on my gut feeling. My instinct led me to a very supportive mentor who was almost like a mother to me; however the topic of research was not very popular in hindsight. Fortunately I got into a very competitive lab anyway for my postdoctoral training, and switched my research direction to a more industry-relevant area, metabolic diseases.

During your postdoctoral training, you gave birth to twins. You went back to work after maternity leave, but when your girls were one and half years old, you became a stay-at-home mom – was it a conscious or forced decision?  Did you miss academia? research?  working?

DAM:  Being a SAHM was not planned. In fact, during my maternity leave, I got so bored with daily mundane routines that I thought I was never going to stay at home. When I was finishing up my postdoc training however, I did not have much success finding an industry position. I did not have a first author paper ready, and my relocation destination was very specific due to my husband’s work. At the same time, having children changed how I felt about research. I was no longer willing to waste my time on endlessly failing experiments. Leaving my twin babies at home while I repeated experiments that were going nowhere just didn’t seem to worth it anymore. Once I left the academia, I never missed it actually. I did not miss mice one bit. Sometimes though I did miss talking to my former colleagues. Talking to other people about my research was very exciting and energizing.   

You were a SAHM for five years — what was it like? did you like it?  

DAM:  I loved being a SAHM. I never regretted dropping my career for it. To me, the best part was knowing that my babies were safe and well with me, and that they knew their mama loved them. There were plenty of perks, too. I got a chance to learn and grow with my kids the American way and had the freedom to be someone other than a scientist. I spent a lot of energy doing the mommy thing: cooking baby meals, planning baby activities, and socializing with other new moms.  I got to interact with different types of people and explored a different side of me.  I got quite involved in parent participation in my girls’ school. I went from preparing art materials for preschoolers to managing all of the educational materials and preparations for the whole preschool.  When the girls were in kindergarten, I was a class cooking coordinator at their school. I also got to spend a bit more time on developing my new interests.

Five years went by very fast. The kids were growing fast and things were always changing so I never got bored. There is a lot of moms with a similar background around me, so I felt very comfortable in my community. I felt good being able to spend time and take care of my family, not just my immediate family, but also my siblings and other relatives.

 And then you went back to work full time — how did it happen and how is it?

DAM:  Honestly, I pretty much gave up going back to science. My opportunity came from a former colleague who moved to the Bay area (where I live) to work for a small pharmaceutical company. We kept in touch and spent holiday dinners together since he is local. He started asking me about my interest in going back to work about a year ago. I didn’t feel ready at first but at one point realized that this was an opportunity too good to pass on. The first plan was to get me hired as a research associate, but the management thought I was overqualified for the position. Since neither the company nor I knew how I would do after a 5 year break from science, I started as an intern working with the former colleague who introduced me. I started out helping my friend with his project and ended up extending my internship and had a completely different project of my own. After demonstrating my range of skills and the ability to work in a team, I went through the whole job interview process and was hired as a full time senior research associate.

My work is located 40 miles away from my house, so I have 2 hrs of commute everyday. So far things are going well. I like the people I work with, and the company is doing well. I was worried that I didn’t remember anything from lab but most skills came back. I am also picking up new techniques. I don’t know what other companies are like, but my company’s environment feels a lot like my old postdoc lab. I am hoping to move up to a “scientist” position in a year.

How has your life changed? How is your family handling it?

DAM:  Life definitely got a lot busier, and my schedule is much less flexible. My kids started to go to school full day around the time I went back to work.  I have to get up very early to pack their lunch and make the meals for the day ahead of my one hour commute. One major change for my family is that my husband has to do almost all of the pickup and drop off at school and after school activities.  All the credit goes to him for being a very supportive partner and a very involved dad. I spend a lot less time with my kids as well as my other mom friends. My kids are adjusting better than I anticipated and haven’t shown any major behavior change from this huge difference in our lives. My social circle went from a group of SAHMs to my coworkers who are scientists. The topics of discussion are definitely different now.  

You mentioned in our discussion in person that you felt like you had to prove something to your colleagues and bosses, because you were a SAHM.  In what instances did you feel that, and how did you deal with it?

DAM:  This might all be in my head. After being away from science for all these years, I felt very insecure about going back. I felt inadequate. I thought I had to start from zero and be a junior research assistant but the management did not want to hire an overqualified person. In my mind, I just felt like they did not trust a former SAHM.  I tried really hard to show that I am a very good team player and that I am resourceful, motivated, and hardworking. I deal with it by being as proactive as I could be. Be prepared and be involved. It also helps a lot that I have coworkers who are reassuring and encouraging.

Do you like working outside of home?  Is it fulfilling?

DAM:  I do enjoy my job quite a bit although there were occasional nuances. I like that I can achieve quite a bit during the 8 hours I am at work, and that my work may someday make a real impact. Since it is an industry job, there is very little room for error, and I do not feel like I am wasting my time on experiments going nowhere. For the most part, I feel fulfilled. I am finally doing what I am trained to do, again.

Now that you are a working mom, do you feel like you “have it all?”  Did you ever regret going back to work?  Do you contemplate coming back to being stay-at-home mom?

I do not think about whether I “have it all”. I am happy with my life for the most part and I never regretted going back to work. Time to time when I run into schedule conflicts, when kids have a day off from school, or when I have a long summer vacation to plan for my kids, I really wish I was a SAHM again so I do not have to leave them in someone else’s care. I miss picking up my kids from school and taking them to places myself. I know my opportunity to go back to work is too precious to give up, so as much as I miss my old life, I would not give up my job easily.

Do you have any advice for others who are contemplating returning to work after a long absence?

DAM:  I keep hearing from my mom friends their fears and concerns about going back to work. They lack confidence, worry about childcare, and unsure about what to do in general.  A lot of these I also felt are often just in their heads. I hope someday I can create a space for moms to share their experience and encourage each other.

My specific advice are:

– Stay active and involved in your community while being a SAHM. I met moms who previously worked in all different areas. Some became good connections and some were good mentors that I looked up while preparing to go back to work. I met a mom who is a Ph.D in Biochemistry. She was working very hard to get back to work so I learned a lot from her. She took me to various networking events, gave me advice on resumes, interviews, salary negotiation, and even work outfits! Volunteering at school could be a good way to hone your “management” skills and fill up your resume. A position like VP, treasurer, and board member at a school should look pretty good on your resume. Definitely way better than a big blank! I truly feel that my years of being a SAHM makes me a better scientist at work. I have learned better ways to work with people of various background, become more creative with my approach to science (since I got to do a lot of non-science activities) and be more proactive in general (benefit of being a mom!) People at work appreciate that I don’t leave mess behind for people to clean and I am courteous and helpful to others. These are all very good mom-traits!

– Be confident. I understand how we all feel like we are left out of the real world all these years, but in reality, moms are very capable and resilient people! Yes, it will take a little time to adjust, but moms really can do everything. I left science for 5 years and thought I forgot everything. The truth is, things didn’t change that much, at least the basics are the same. There might be better, faster tools we can use now, but many people trained in less well-funded labs didn’t have those fancy tools either.

– Be realistic. Many of my mom friends are looking for jobs with flexible hours, part time, etc., so they can be there for their kids. I fully understand why that is important, but even a freshly trained super postdoc don’t get to ask this, let alone us who left the lab for years! My family is very important to me, but if you don’t have childcare figured out, you don’t want a job bad enough. I recommend planning your childcare strategy before you even get to an interview. My mentor friend spent months looking for a job and during this time she already had her kids in the child care for when she went back to work. This is brilliant. You don’t want your children to adjust to a new lifestyle with no mama following around AND a new child care at the same time! You will feel much better when your kids are in good care and you head back to work full force.

– Go to networking events and see options!

 

Thank you so much!  This gives me hope…that it is and can be done!  I really appreciate sharing your experiences and wisdom.  

DAM is developing a blog in which she discusses challenges of SAHMs going back to work and for women going through a similar transition to share experiences and support each other.  I will advertise it here when it is ready!


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Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.


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Lunch and a change in perspective

Feb 19 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

After almost two year since leaving my postdoc for a job in a government lab doing forensic science, I met up with my postdoc mentor. I desperately wanted him to know how well I was doing since leaving because I had the distinct feeling that he was disappointed that I left. And, ever since I was little, I have had a desire to perform well and please people. I shouldn’t matter what he thinks of me, but that feeling never went away. And, also, I was kinda mad at our last paper-publishing interaction because of his choice to move me in the author order without consulting me. Yes, I can also be a bit prideful.

Meeting with him went surprisingly well. After getting to hear about all the new grants that he is writing, and the struggles that he has (publishing, personnel and getting funding), he finally asked about what I have been up to. I got to brag a bit about things that are valued in academia, even if they are not such a big deal in my new environment. Like how I got to be involved in some very interesting projects, and because I was in the right place at the right time, I got invited to speak at several conferences around the country – something that would have been much harder to do had I stayed in his lab. I also got to mention some crossover with teaching – like the lecture I will be giving at my alumni university about my current job.

Although it would have been nice to have maintained more contact over the last year and a half, I think that it was good to have a nice robust period of separation from my old environment and mentor. It gave me time to get on my feet in my new career, and gain some credibility at what I am doing now.

I could tell how he felt about me when he bumped me from being the first author listed on this latest publication. He has always been a bit vocal about his past trainees, while in his lab, you always knew his opinion of people. I don’t know how much talking about me that he did after I left, but I walked away from this lunch feeling a bit of triumph in that I was able to shed some reality on whatever his opinion of me was.

What I am more interested in, however, is spreading the perspective that graduate student and postdoc trainees are given more opportunity and support to explore careers other than faculty positions. There is so much need for highly trained scientists in all aspects of society, and I think that there is still a negative stigma with leaving the ivory tower. One thing that I think all of us who have branched away from the traditional academic career could do would be to keep in touch with our old mentors and let them know about the successes in our current roles – whatever those may be – from SAHM to CEO of a company. Another would be to get involved in mentoring the future generation of scientists.

What are some other ways that we can create change in graduate education, and preparing scientists for a wider range of careers?


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Globe-trotting scientist… Now what?

Feb 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I am a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience. I am still looking for my true calling, which definitely involves learning about awesome science, data visualization and helping people reach their goals (anyone knows what that is?). And I (almost) overcame impostor syndrome!

The beginning

I was born and raised in a tiny Island in the West Indies (fancy name for the Caribbean) where I spoke French and Creole. Growing up, my parents would take my brother and me on vacation to neighboring islands for 3 to 5 days every other year or so, sparking my love of travel and speaking foreign languages.  To me, the power of being able to communicate with anybody anywhere in the world was close to magical. I was already a bit weird and somewhat frightened by people in general, crazy children and hormonal teenagers in particular. Yet, and probably paradoxically, speaking another language, even in a rudimentary way, gave me the confidence and drive to go and connect with virtually anybody anywhere. It was a bit like an invisible barrier was taken down. Not the same barrier I encountered in my everyday interaction with French speaking people, but it was still somehow liberating. I found that people tend to open-up and are happy to share when you actively try to understand them and level with them. I find this to be true in any aspect of human interaction. If you come to someone with no expectation but the willingness to share a bit of what makes them who they are, they are more likely to let you in and connect with you. As it turns out, people are pretty great, once the first social armor is peeled off. Plus, being all bewildered by new environments, I also shed my “resting pouty face”. I was informed when I was about fifteen years old that my neutral facial expression makes me look like I am thoroughly disgusted by the people in front of me. Turns out my cute serious/pouty baby face had stopped being any of that a while back.

Science? Mmmmh…

I was a very curious child and I demanded to get put in school before I turned 2. I went happily, with my pacifier and blancky in my backpack as a keepsake. I was an above average student, although more a feeler than a thinker and I have always been pretty bad at memorizing stuff. I like going by ear and therefore, literature, philosophy and language were where I shined. Science, not so much. So when science classes got more complex than things I could relate to on a day-to-day basis, my grades went down. I could understand complex principles very quickly, but they escaped my memory pretty much as quickly. When it was time to decide what I wanted to do for a living, the school counselor gave me one of the best advice I have received so far: “Choose your career based on what you want to do, not your grades and what people say you should do”.  People thought I should become a translator, since I was learning three foreign languages and yearning for more. For me, it was just fun. The idea of turning it into work and having to apply hard rules to it just sounded terrible. I was always fascinated by the fact that animals and people can walk, communicate and make decisions. So one day, when I was 7, I decided that I would know everything about the two things that makes animal life possible: the heart and the brain.

Leaving the nest

So here I go, 11 years later, leaving my island for another one and starting engineering prep school. These schools are known for being very intense and I wanted to know how well I could work under constant pressure and in a highly competitive environment before applying to med school. The answer: not a fan. So I finished that year and left for the old continent to study biology. My math teacher had invited a researcher to share with us his career path and I was hooked. Not only is research about answering your own questions instead of waiting on someone to do it for you, a PhD opens the door to any country and you get to travel a lot for conferences…for free. I was going to become a neuroscientist and study how the brain makes people who they are and I would finally understand why people do what they do. I got my Masters degree studying the epigenetic mechanisms of imprinting. Imprinting is what makes a duckling think that the first moving object it sees is its mother and follow it everywhere all its life. My model was a transparent worm: C.elegans. This project did not involve a lot of molecular biology or genetics, which I thought was pretty boring anyway, according to the classes I was taking. Therefore by the time I applied to grad school, I could barely use a pipette and had forgotten how to calculate dilutions. But off I went again, to Italy this time, with some dusty Spanish and Portuguese class memories, a failed attempt to dissect mouse embryos without freaking out, and a slight disgust for genetics in my pocket, to start studying… the genetics a brain development in mouse, in a country about which I knew virtually nothing.

Another leap

Armed with a French-Italian pocket dictionary, I went on an apartment hunt, talking to landlords on the phone, taking as many notes as I could, guessing the words, saying yes and then checking up what on earth I had just agreed to. I missed a couple of appointments, but survival instinct mixed with guilt and the very real perspective of having to sleep outside is the most effective recipe to learn a language quickly! One rainy afternoon, I finally found my dream apartment, located, like 95% of anything in that city, above a tiny church. With a roof over my head, I could finally dedicate my body and soul to my PhD degree. My life became full of twelve-hour days with no bathroom break – no time for basic human needs, I am trying to do SCIENCE here! – on a good week and the distinct feeling that my boss had made a reckless decision hiring me for the job. Clearly, I was not smart enough for this! Brutal first encounter with molecular cloning, my nemesis. It took me about a year to finally get the three DNA constructs that would allow me to start one of my projects. Meanwhile, the mice I was supposed to study where still stuck in Germany, but we still had no animal facility anyway. The following years came with a couple of hardships. I crushed a vertebra on my first vacation and was put on bed-rest. People with whom my relationship was limited to a quick “Hi” in the lab corridors started calling and offering to help me by cleaning my house and going grocery shopping for me. They sent me movies and visited. I was shocked and deeply touched and one day I asked one of my Italian friends about it. She looked at me in surprise and said: “We just imagine that if our sister or daughter was alone abroad and in difficulty, we would like her to get all the help she needs”. That is what I think about when I recall my days in Italy. Yes, it was incredibly hard, but I met wonderful people who made this experience feel like family bonding. That and their brutal honesty mixed with a true love of gossip.

And off again

For the first time, I was truly sad to leave, as I felt like I was leaving people that had become as important to me as my direct family. I was realizing that what attracted me to the life of scientific research was something I might not crave anymore. I wanted stability and long lasting relationships. With that spirit, I went on to live and work in the US, country where hard work opens all the doors! I had never even visit the US before. The air smelled like cinnamon and the abundance of trees made me feel like I could call this place home someday. The sun did not really show up for the following two months, but it did not matter to me. Everything was new, big and…cheap!! The Euro was still pretty strong and the abundance of opportunities to spend money was overwhelming. There seemed to be a sale going on every week. Having neglected my health for the last four years, I decided that it was time to take control over my life, starting with my body. I spent my time between the lab, the gym and the mall, while adapting to the way people interact in America. I missed the coffee breaks when half the people on the floor would go together to the coffee machine and chat for 5-10 minutes, newbies and veterans alike. I found that coffee breaks are more of a personal, slightly on the down-low kind of thing in the US. I would have to find another way to make new friends, which I did. And they are absolutely fantastic!

Now what?

I sort of knew that I did not want to be a PI about mid-grad school. But I had no idea what else I could do. I felt like I had no practical knowledge. Quitting was not an option for me, matter of principle or maybe pride. I decided to do a postdoc to “double-check” my feelings and make sure that it was not the grad-school trauma talking. It was not.

I have spent the last 3 years wondering where I would fit, writing and re-writing my resume, probably over 60 times. Wherever I went, the same advice: you need to network. Where I am from, getting a job because you know someone on the inside might be a more or less common practice, but it is not something you brag about! I was very confused and frustrated to hear that all my efforts, being a good little soldier and putting my education first for all these years… was not worth much on the “real life” job market.

I moaned for a while, contemplating going back home. After all, I knew 5 people in the whole country, never really knew how to integrate groups unless I was openly invited to do so and hated the idea of talking to people just because I wanted something from them. Yet I was being told that this was pretty much my best option! I moaned for a while, but then I decided that all this was a game and I had to play or quit. Quitting was still not an option. I read a book about networking for introvert, realized that it is not a numbers game and that it would be a good opportunity to just meet people and work on these interpersonal skills I was seeing on all the job descriptions. I still do not really know where I would fit, but by talking with many people, I am learning about myself, what I can do and what I like to do. Networking exposed me to many different people and every conversation lifts a bit of the fog over my future. I have changed a lot during the past couple of years. Getting out of my comfort zone pushed me toward new experiences and people, and I that is exactly what is needed when one wants a life/career change. Although I have not found my new calling yet, I am confident that the answer is not too far now! I just need to keep working hard on and off the bench, even if it does feel like I have 2 jobs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Support Women in STEM

Feb 01 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the goals of this blog is to promote women in STEM. Simply by talking about our experiences and sharing our stories we all let each other know we’re not alone.

Many of our bloggers also participate more actively in outreach programs that encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in STEM fields. Even though we all have different career paths we are passionate about science.

Now we have been given the opportunity to support girls in STEM in another way. We are spreading the word that anyone can get the tech company Slack to donate to Girls Who Code just with a tweet or facebook message.

Girls Who Code works to encourage young women to pursue computer science by providing role models and educational opportunities.

Slack has committed $5,000 to this campaign and yet only has raised $333 so far. Let’s make them give more! Go to www.creddon.com and click the “pick this” button for the Girls Who Code cause.

Tweet away!


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