Archive for the 'career plan' category

Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace

My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?

A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.

It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.

All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).

Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.

One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!


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“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 (https://www.soinc.org) 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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Settling

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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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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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.

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http://imgur.com/71l1jqN

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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