Archive for the 'female scientist' category

A day in the life of a Mother-of-a-5-month-old/Scientist in biotech

Oh my goodness it’s so hard to be a working mom!  I always respected working moms but it is so much harder than everyone else makes it look!  First off, leaving my little man at daycare was really hard at first… and then it got hard again when we all got sick… and just today I got scared again because another mom in my son’s class told me that they wrap the babies in muslin and put them on their stomachs for naps-that’s not normal right???!!! Secondly, because of where we work and where the daycare is, I get to/have to do both drop off and pick up for our little guy. It really makes me evaluate how I use my time at work because I don’t want him to stay at daycare for too long (and we have a 10hour max each day). Lastly… pumping… oh man, trying to make time to pump even twice a day (30mins with set up and clean up each time) is really hard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a mom and I still get so much satisfaction from work. It is all worth it and I’m figuring out how to juggle everything, but it is hard. So here’s a look at a day in my life.
12am-6am wake up a million times to flip the baby back over (he can roll onto his belly but it freaks him out and he wakes up crying), or put his pacifier back in, or feed him.
6:15 wake up and give the baby his reflux medicine. Then get up and get ready for the day.
6:45 get the baby ready and feed him again.
7:15 kiss my husband goodbye and wave to the puppies (he takes care of them in the mornings) and get going
7:45 drop the baby off at daycare
8:00 get to work and get some breakfast, check and respond to emails
8:15 prep solutions etc for my experiment for the day (I’m setting up a new assay so I’m excited to get going)
9:30 stop everything to head down to the “mother’s room” to pump/read papers/email/zone out. When I first got back to work I was able to pump enough for my little guy easily in 2x/15min sessions each day. Then I got sick and my supply tanked. I was pumping 25mins 2x/day and getting only half of what he needed. Luckily I had a good sized freezer stash to hold us over (we tried to get him to take formula but wasn’t having it). I realized last week that I had also stopped eating enough for two so I’ve upped my caloric intake and voila! My supply is back, fingers crossed I can keep it up. Ps a pumping bra is essential!
10:00 head back to the lab and start my assay
12:30 finish up and head down to lunch and relax with friends
1:00 pump again.
1:30 sort through and analyze my images from the histology core
3:30 meet with a new mentor in another department – I can’t wait to tell you guys more about it in my next post!
4:15 grab my pumped milk and head out
4:30 pick up my little one
5:00 get home, give the baby meds, feed dogs, start dinner and to get some errands done while baby plays
5:15 hubby gets home and we tag team – playing with baby/dogs and getting dinner ready
5:30 eat dinner
6:00 the whole family walks the dogs up to the park and watch the sunset. 6:45 get home, get little one in the bath
7:15 all snuggle in the baby’s room, feed him while hubby reads him to sleep
7:45 pump and watch tv
8:15 prep for tomorrow. I’ve started showering at night, pulling my clothes for the next day, preping lunch and getting everything I can put by the front door, this seems to help everything go smoothly in the mornings. Get ready for bed
9:00 get into bed and unwind. Try to get some sleep before the little one wakes up, usually around 1am.


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Gender exclusive STEM education?

This summer I enrolled my 6-year old daughter in a math camp exclusive to girls, “Girls Rock Math.” I knew about the existence of the camp before my daughter was old enough to enroll, and this year as she became eligible I did not hesitate to sign her up. She is showing keen interests in numbers and math, constantly performing arithmetic in her head. The one-week-long camp was held at a botanical garden, with its theme “Math-Magical Garden.” The campers explored patterns, shapes, mental math, and logical reasoning inspired by nature. My daughter had a great time. Everyday the camp ended with singing of inspiring and empowering songs about math, girls, female mathematicians, pi number, and not giving up, and she still sings the songs after five weeks.

In Seattle where I live, there were many other STEM camps and programs exclusively for girls. I marveled at the number of opportunities and thought this is a great era. Given the current demographics in STEM fields, girls interested in STEM could use all the opportunities and encouragement.

As summer ended I came to find out that Seattle Parks and Recreation newly created a science class for parents and children to attend together, called “Sonsational! Mad Science.” The original description of the class indicated that this class was for boys only. There was a bit of an uproar, and many concerned parents protested that it gave wrong messages to girls, and that the boys already had enough opportunities in STEM there was no need for new one. The office responded and claimed that the class was created in response to community requests. The city held “father-daughter dance” for more than 25 years with good attendance, and they were asked to organize a similar event for boys. Yes, nice dinners for girls and science for boys. Parks and Recreation later edited the description that even though the class is titled “Sonsational,” it is still open for all children. The office also claimed that the “father-daughter dance” is open for parents and children of any gender.

There were many responses and entertaining discussions in social media.  Many responders advocated to make the event title, description, and event itself gender neutral. Why not make it all inclusive? Why single out one sex in any activity? I got to thinking, should STEM education / programs be segregated between the sexes?  Is it helpful? To both sexes?  What are pros and cons?  

I asked my daughter, what if there were boys in the math camp?  Would things be different?  Would she still have liked it?  She said, boys tend to / can be more rough and disruptive than girls. The presence of boys would have made the camp less calm and peaceful.  She really enjoyed being with just girls and female teachers and assistants.  

Is this answer positive or negative?  Has she already formed a stereotype for boys?  A preference for not working with boys?  Should she just learn to get over roughness and disruptions and deal with it? Should she learn to cultivate and pursue her interests in any type of environment?  Is “Girls Rock Math” a good idea?

There are studies (for one) showing that graduates of all-girls schools have higher confidence in their math and science skills compared to their cohorts in coeducational schools. The proportion of girls who pursue careers in STEM fields is much higher in alumnae from single-sex schools than coed.  What is it about female-only education that produces such outcomes?

A recent survey by Microsoft lists conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models as reasons girls steer away from STEM fields. Perhaps those stereotypes and traditional gender expectations are less obvious and less reinforced in female-only surroundings.  So do we educate girls and boy separately, and build up their skills and confidence, and send them to the world?

Eventually, girls will grow up, go to college, and work side-by-side, up-and-down with male colleagues/superiors/subordinates.  If neither party was exposed to each other in professional settings until that point, would there be more seeds for conflicts than potentials for successful collaboration? Perhaps gender stereotypes are even more strengthened in segregated settings. If my daughter continued in girls-only camps and classes, she may never find out how to work with boys, or that there are calm and cooperative boys out there, too.

I suspect that the Google employee who wrote that now famous memo was never sufficiently exposed to female counterparts during his training.  If he was exposed to more female colleagues (i.e. bigger sample size), he might not have formed those blatant prejudices regarding women. Would not mutual respect be more likely together than separate?

It is a conundrum. How do we achieve equality, when one group is underrepresented?  Is segregation of the lagging group the best way?

Would I still enroll my daughter in “Girls Rock Math” next summer?  I have 6 months to think it over (sign ups start in Feb!).  My current parental challenge lies in maintaining my daughter’s math interest beyond the age of 15, segregated or not.


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When Your Pregnancy is a Job Hunt, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about the experience of being 5 months pregnant and told that my postdoctoral mentor was leaving our institution.

This was my chance to leave my oppressive pit of a working environment without burning any bridges. This meant trying to find a new position before giving birth so that I might avoid unemployment. This was exciting. This was terrifying.

Four months later, I have a fellowship and a job lined up for after my “maternity leave” [read: unemployment]. I gave seminars and had interviews at 7 months, 8 months and 9.5 million months pregnant and each time have been pleasantly surprised that I portrayed myself first as a capable scientist and then as a pregnant woman (inevitable shortness of breath notwithstanding…). This experience has shown me what women are capable of, and given me a newfound respect for myself.

The Process:

Despite now feeling that this journey has ultimately been a success, I have never had a more confused, frustrated or nihilistic perception of my career and future. It was at once a frantic crisis and insignificant. During this experience, I not only interviewed for academic postdocs within my current institution and at nearby institutes, I applied for industry scientist positions – something I thought I would not do for several years to come, if at all (and thanks to very active support and a recommendation from our very own Curiouser&Curiouser, I was even invited to give a job talk!).

But all of these interviews were hard. Because throughout the whole process, I was so disenchanted with my previous aspirations, and overwhelmed with the possibility of entirely changing my career track when all the while all I actually cared about was keeping my little imminent offspring healthy and becoming a new parent. How could I possibly communicate my interests and goals in an honest way when my thoughts were in such an unmotivated place? Somehow, I channeled Ragamuffin circa 2016 for every interview and she did me a great service by masking my current intellectual turmoil.

I narrowed my opportunities down to two academic labs and an industry position (I had way more options with diverse potential than I expected, which made the whole process even more confusing). The industry opportunity continues to play out, but I expect this was more a chance for me to introduce myself and be remembered favorably when I apply for a more fitting position in the future. Of the academic labs, one lab was small and very low-key and would probably have prepared me well for a future industry position. The other lab was mid-sized with high expectations and would probably prepare me equally well for either a career in industry or academia. The small lab required finding my own funding, and only when I had secured that was I able to really consider which lab I preferred. It took me a month to decide.

What if I make the wrong choice because of pregnancy brain and end up hating my next position?

What if I misinterpret what lies ahead like I did with my current postdoc lab and wind up losing another year of productivity?

What if it turns out that my career goals change drastically after I become a parent and I chose the wrong work environment to accommodate whatever those are?

I calmed down a bit when my self-employed husband’s income (which crashed the day my PI announced his departure) started to recover, and I felt less guilty about the fiscal implications of staying in academia.

And after several communications with each of the PI’s (both women), I chose the mid-sized lab with high expectations because I felt a strong connection with the PI that made me believe I wanted to and could continue (for now) down the path I would have chosen a year ago. Because there were no wrong choices, only the next chapter of life.

Closing Up Shop:

I left my current lab last week to begin maternity leave. I put all the materials I’ve developed over the last year in cryostasis and labeled them to be shipped to my adjunct faculty oppressor so that he can continue my work (ostensibly) and take credit for my contributions (inevitably). I photocopied my lab notebook, backed up all my meticulous protocols, and archived my server emails so as to have a record of my contributions if I need to defend my right to authorship in 5 years (undoubtedly). I said heavy goodbyes to the colleagues who have been such wonderful influences over the last year, and begrudgingly said an adulatory and pleasant farewell to my PI. And left behind a year of professional struggle and wasted scientific effort.

 

And now, I am ecstatic to spend the remaining two weeks of my pregnancy job hunt-free. Bring it on.


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A day in the life of – a senior postdoc

Bananaroots is in her second postdoctoral position at a research institute in the UK, after completing her first postdoc at a major university in the Netherlands. She has a long-standing interest in plant diseases and a soft spot for bananas. She is curious about everything related to communication and is active in student mentoring, science outreach, science policy and science communication. In her free time, she enjoys Tai Chi, water sports cooking and traveling. Check out her short video about her project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4

 

I am not yet a group leader, but almost. All the signs point in the right direction. I have secured my own funding – a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. I have independently established my research line: Engineering resistance against Fusarium wilt in banana. I work in one of the world’s leading institutes on plant microbe interactions – The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in the UK. I write grant proposal and papers and I supervise a fantastic, small team of MSc students. My group leader is very supportive. He gives me all the freedom I need to conduct research, establish collaborations and lead my projects. Sometimes people want to do a PhD or postdoc with me. Unfortunately, I cannot accept any postdocs or PhDs until I have secured more funding and a more permanent position. So, that’s where I am at the moment. On the verge of my own research group.

So, what does a typical day in the life of a senior postdoc?

6 am I wake up, get into my running outfit and do a quick run in the park followed by a bit of stretching and Tai Chi. It’s quiet in the park at this time and the morning sun blinks lazily through the big, white clouds.

7.30 am Scrolling through Twitter at breakfast. I am active in science outreach and Twitter is my preferred medium. Get dressed and cycle to work.

9 am Checking my emails. Oh no! My banana shipment did not pass clearance at the airport. Working with bananas in the UK is not easy. At the beginning of my postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL), I established a collaboration with a nursery in Israel. They provide tissue culture banana plantlets free of charge. It’s a great collaboration, but today something went wrong. A document is missing. The shipment cannot be cleared at the airport’s agricultural inspection. I spend the next two hours emailing and phoning with our biosecurity officer, the courier, clearance at the airport and the nursery in Israel to get the banana plantlets released from the airport.

11 am One of my graduate students has been lurking around my office for a while and finally grasps her chance to get my attention. She is doing a MSc in plant breeding and genetics and wants to discuss her thesis draft with me. Working with students is one of my favourites. It’s like planting a flower and then watching it grow and blossom. Highly rewarding!

12 Time for lunch. I enjoy chatting with the colleagues of my group. They work on a different project together and also sit in another office.

12.30 pm Quick Twitter check. GM activists (both Pro and Con) debate the field trials for a Vitamin A-enriched banana (Golden Banana) in Uganda.

12.45 pm Time for lab work, I am preparing a big banana greenhouse bioassay for tomorrow. I harvest the fungal spores and bacteria and transport the banana plants from the clean chamber into the infection chamber.

2.45 pm On the way from the lab to the office, I run into a postdoc from another research group. We are organising a workshop in communication together for the institute’s postdoc and quickly discuss catering and location.

3 pm Telephone conference with the steering committee members of the World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF is a permanent platform for stakeholders of the global banana supply chain, housed by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Policy work is very different from the fact-based research environment. The goal of today’s call with representatives of labour unions, NGOs, governments, producer organisations and retailers is to organize the third global banana conference in Switzerland this year. The call is scheduled for one hour, but, as usual, overruns and lasts almost two hours.

5 pm Catching up with emails. I answer questions of my grad students, order materials for experiments, update collaborators and ask for biological material to be send.

6 pm Finally, make it to the new emails. Good and bad news: My pre-proposal for a huge grant did not make it to the next round. I am not invited to submit a full proposal. Sad. It took a lot of time to prepare the pre-proposal. The good news: my abstract was selected for a talk at a scientific conference in September.

6.15 pm Admin stuff: I hand in my expenses, book flight tickets for the conference and write up my lab journal. We have recently switched to electronic lab journals. Electronic lab journals are awesome. I can quickly check and sign off my student’s lab journals, add PubMed references and large Excel files, share pages and projects with colleagues and when I leave, I will make a pdf of the journal and take it with me.

7.15 pm I get onto my bike and cycle home.

7.30 pm. Since I moved to England, I got into gardening. Tonight, I pick courgettes from my garden to cook a light dinner.

8 pm Last email check to make sure that the banana plantlets have left the airport and are on their way to TSL.

8.10 pm The rest of the evening is devoted to my project management assignment. The assignment is for a “Leadership and Management” course that runs over two years. Although it is a lot of work next to my postdoc, I enjoy the course a lot, because it provides new perspectives on communication, on managing research projects, motivating people, handling budget and leading a team/research group. The video is the result of my project management module.

 

 Twitter: @BananarootsBlog

Website: https://bananaroots.wordpress.com

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4

 

 

 

 

 

 


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A quick guide to interacting with a reproductively active woman in the workplace

Doc-momma

Doc Momma designs lab coats for pregnant doctors.

Most of us here at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman have had some very awkward interactions at work before and after having a baby, which shows us that many people are not comfortable speaking with a reproductively active woman. Since being pregnant is such a physically obvious state, and very exciting for most people, others somehow feel compelled and permitted to talk about it in a way they would never get personal with anyone else. You’ll want to avoid situations like these, which actually happened to us:

Student: *looks at belly* *giggles*

Me: Hi, how are you?

Student: *looks at belly, giggles* Um, good! *giggles*


Female co-worker I’ve met briefly twice: You’re pregnant! *rubs baby belly*

Me: *eyebrow raise death glare*


Male colleague: Are you going to be breastfeeding? Where are you going to pump?

Me: Well, there’s a lactation room, so probably there.

Him: You can use my office if you want.

Me: …No, thanks. The lactation room is fine.


Colleague: Have you and your husband been watching birthing videos?  Because you need to watch them.

Me: Um, yes, a few.

Colleague: Have you watched any up close?  Because there is a lot of gross stuff that comes up when the baby is born, you both need to be prepared.


Colleague: I was right behind you walking to work today.

Me: Oh.

Colleague: You don’t look pregnant at all from the back.  But you definitely waddle.

Me: Um…


Male colleague, after complaining about how unfair it is that I am taking maternity leave: I know I’m not supposed to say stuff like this but I think it might be better if women just took 5 years off to focus and raise their kids.


Post-baby:


Male colleague: You look… *stares at belly* less…

Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!


Colleague: Weren’t you… pregnant?

Me: Yes, I had the baby, she’s 3 months old now!


Here are some tips for more comfortable interactions and avoiding getting too personal – feel free to use, share, or add your own in the comments!

 

Pregnancy

  • Take a cue from her. If she doesn’t bring up her pregnancy, maybe you shouldn’t either. It’s usually not relevant for most work situations.
  • If you must say something, make sure you’re 100% certain she is in fact pregnant. Otherwise she may not have told her boss or coworkers yet, she may not be ready to talk about it with you, and she may be offended.
  • Don’t even mention her body. Unless it’s to say “You look great!” and nothing more. Why would you do this with a co-worker under any other circumstance? And certainly don’t touch her belly. Just don’t.
  • Do not assume or suggest that your pregnant colleague is disabled. She very likely knows what she can or cannot continue to do in the workplace as her physical condition changes. If you see her in a meeting or at the lab bench, she belongs there. An offer of assistance is generally welcomed by anyone; suggestions that she should not or cannot are unwelcome.
  • Unless you are in a professional role where you can make accommodations for pregnant or lactating women in general, there is no need to ask about her plans and preparations, especially where or whether she will be breastfeeding/pumping. If you are her direct boss or genuinely think you can help, simply say, “I am here for you if you need help making accommodations during pregnancy or for lactation. You can talk to [health and safety, HR, etc.] about this as well.”
  • Family leave time is an important time for all new mothers (giving birth or otherwise), as well as fathers. You have no idea how she feels about the length of her leave or her personal struggles surrounding working and spending time with her child, so please keep your opinions about appropriate leave time to yourself.

 

Post-baby

  • Maybe people are worried that something bad happened during delivery or with the baby medically and are afraid to ask specific questions. Just keep it general: “I haven’t seen you since you were out on family leave – how is everything?” She’ll probably be happy to tell you exactly as much as she wants to about her baby.
  • Do not ask for any details regarding the birthing process. Hopefully you would not do this for any other medical procedure a colleague went through, and birth is typically even more personal.
  • Again, no comment on her body is needed beyond, “You look great!”
  • If she is pumping at work, it can be very difficult physically, emotionally, and disruptive to her work schedule. Trust that she is doing the best she can to work out her schedule, it is not a “break”, and anyone mentioning or complaining about it will not improve things and only make her feel worse about an already difficult situation. If she needs to schedule something with you around her pumping time, simply work with her like you would with any other colleague with a scheduling conflict.
  • Nothing gets older than hearing “Are you getting any sleep?” Because of course she’s not, and this goes for non-birthing parents as well. Sleep is a sensitive issue for parents of newborns. Tired doesn’t begin to explain how one feels with a brand new baby (or two babies in my case). Don’t tell a new parent that they look tired. And don’t mention to a new parent how tired you are, or on the flip side that you got to sleep in or take a nap on the weekend.

As with any colleague, try to be warm open, and understanding, and you will go far!


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When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.


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Silent Spring Book Club

We recently read Silent Spring, the classic exposé of the impact of pesticides written by Rachel Carson in 1962. The book details the use of these chemicals, and the severe but overlooked impact on the environment, from widespread destruction of wildlife and domestic animals to the frightening and ubiquitous exposure to humans. Leading up to the March for Science and Earth Day, we thought this was a fitting example of the importance of scientific analysis of public concern, and the value of communicating these ideas and findings with the public.

Silent Spring

What impressed you most about the book?

Megan: What’s not to be impressed about? This book created an irrevocable social awareness of the detrimental effects of careless pesticide use, spawned a coherent fact-based environmentalist movement, and provided the legal and social leverage necessary to create the EPA. David Attenborough said that Silent Spring has probably had the most impact on the scientific world after Origin of Species, and I think he’s right.

Carson did this by creating a concise, clear, and convincing narrative. She doesn’t pander, doesn’t go on self-indulgent tangents, and is neither overly technical nor emotional. Her passion for her country and its natural beauty, however, becomes obvious through the unrelenting accumulation of anecdotal and documented evidence she meticulously catalogues regarding the destruction wreaked upon it by the wanton and widespread use of pesticides. She uses facts instead of rhetorical devices and scare tactics. The amount of gumption, research, persistence, courage, and hard work involved in the production of this book is humbling.

Carson is an inspiration to anyone who aspires to write or communicate about science—and even more so when you remember she was largely excluded from the academic scientific establishment because of her gender.

SweetScience: It is amazing that Carson pulled all this together when, as noted in E.O. Wilson’s afterward, ecology was not a supported science, and conservation biology was not even a thing! It takes a really special mind to be able to synthesize information from seemingly different realms to come to new big ideas; and to be able to then communicate all of the research to capture the hearts and minds of a lay audience is astounding.

What surprised you about the book?

SweetScience: I was shocked at how many times the same mistake was made without any regard for past experiences – states employed programs of mass pesticide use with little reason, destroying life, often in incredibly visible ways, like hundreds of birds and other animals writhing and dying in plain view, and virtually always without success eradicating the intended pest. How could they not have researched this before making the choice?

Megan: I’ve recently heard a lot of people, typically right-wing, crediting Carson for the wholesale ban of DDT. These people also blame her, and the environmentalist movement, for millions of malaria deaths worldwide. So, I was somewhat surprised to read that her position was much more nuanced. She writes: “No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored. The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. The world has heard much of the triumphant war against disease through the control of insect vectors of infection, but it has heard little of the other side of the story—the defeats, the short-lived triumphs that now strongly support the alarming view that the insect enemy has been made actually stronger by our efforts. Even worse, we may have destroyed our very means of fighting.“ In other words, blanket spraying of DDT leads to insect resistance to DDT. So, if blanket spraying in high concentrations were not conducted (sometimes for agricultural reasons), DDT may have proved a more effective weapon against insect-borne diseases. This is what Rachel Carson was arguing for: the use of powerful chemicals according to scientific, evidence-based, careful practice– as scalpels rather than anvils, as precision tools to cure a specific ill rather than to kill indiscriminately.

Needless Havoc

What questions did the book raise for you?

SweetScience: Since the book was published in 1962 and focuses on events of the preceding decade, I was constantly wondering how much was still true about regulations, which chemicals are commonly used, and especially whether agencies and people ignore the evidence and warnings in choosing to use mass application of pesticides. And then unfortunately that question was partially answered by the EPA’s recent rejection of scientific evidence of chemical harm. I also want to know about the differences in organic farming, especially what pesticides are allowed and how much they have been tested. I really wish there was a modern response/annotation to the book that outlined how things have changed since then.

Megan: Sooo many questions…. As a society, we’re currently facing down threats to our environment and public health, and we’re being led by a political administration with little regard for science, or even facts. How can we most effectively deal with the threat of Zika, while learning from the lessons of Silent Spring? What will the impact of the repeals of EPA regulations under Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt be? What would Rachel Carson do today? What can we do, as citizens and scientists?

Who would you recommend the book to?

SweetScience: I suggested this to someone who cares a lot about preserving the environment and is really worried about the current state of government control on these issues.

Megan: Scott Pruitt.

Also– environmentalists, feminists, scientists, science writers, US historians, politicians, voters, policy-makers, citizens, farmers, teachers…

But mostly Scott Pruitt. I may even mail him a copy.

The Other Road

Here are a few excerpts that resonated with us.

Megan: “For mankind as a whole, a possession infinitely more valuable than individual life is our genetic heritage, our link with past and future. Shaped through long eons of evolution our genes not only make us who we are but hold in their minute beings the future– be it one of promise or threat”.

I just love her writing style: “[Genes] hold in their minute beings the future”… I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about genetics phrased so eloquently!

SweetScience: “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”

The description of the introduction of natural predators to maintain a forest ecosystem in the chapter “The Other Road” really struck me with its final note that “Much of the work of caring for the ant colonies (and the birds’ nesting boxes as well) is assumed by a youth corps from the local school… The costs are exceedingly low; the benefits amount to permanent protection of the forests.” which is really something to aspire to: community understanding and involvement to maintain precious resources.


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Variability of sexist behavior

Mar 20 2017 Published by under female scientist, sexism, women in science

“Science is not about conforming to an ideal, masculine or feminine, but instead relies on the diversity of perspective that gives rise to insight. The individuals do not derive identity from the group; the group is defined by the identity of its component individuals. Or, as I phrase it to myself, the point is not whether I think like other scientists do; it’s that one scientist – me – thinks like I do.”

I love this quote from the essay “The Truth is in The Distribution” by Indira Raman. Her article gives a number of liberating insights for women in science based on her personal perspectives, which I found to be refreshing.

 

In other parts of the essay, she extends the discussion of variability to the range of behavior – good and bad – observed in scientists, relating specifically to the challenges faced by women in science. This part hit home for me, as I had been thinking a lot about the circumstances under which I ascribed someone’s behavior to sexism. These thoughts come across best in the cases of two individuals I had been dealing with.

Case 1 – a young man, fellow postdoc. In informal seminars where discussion is encouraged but usually occurs at low levels, he often interjected to ask the presenter (usually female) a question, but more often, to share a story or concern of his that was similar. In one instance where a fellow female postdoc was giving a practice talk for a presentation at a conference and several faculty members started critiquing her, the male postdoc added in his generic talk advice.

Case 2 – a young woman, research technician. In lab when faced with a problem, she would ask my advice. I would give her advice such as, “I would do X.” She would respond, “I’ll just do X.” What I just said, rephrased to sound like she just thought of it and didn’t need my advice after all. I never heard her do this with a man, including those more junior to me in the lab.

In the first case, my initial reaction was to label this guy a classic mansplainer, and consider how I could talk to him about what he was doing. After some thought and further observation, I recognized that he is just a super-talkative guy who believes everything he thinks is important enough to be said out loud, though he wasn’t typically condescending, and it was just circumstance that made him look like a mansplainer since he was often the only male in the room*. In the second case, my first reaction was to think this was just a really annoying way of talking through ideas. But after thinking more, I believe she is a mansplainer, who doesn’t like any idea unless it comes from her own mouth, but only when the other party is a woman.

So I realized that I was quick to ascribe bad behavior to sexism in a man and quick to forgive bad behavior as a personality trait in a woman, and it is important to consider the individual as only representing him or herself. That said, however… there are clearly patterns of bad behavior, and the range and variability of those patterns are not the only important metrics – the number of women affected by sexism (i.e. virtually all women) is arguably the most important, as was brought to collective awareness by the #YesAllWomen counter to #NotAllMen trends. Therefore, whenever we see sexism at play, even from a small number of men, we can’t simply write it off as individual variability. That is where I felt Raman’s essay was lacking – by accepting that it is a relatively small number of offending individuals making the field more difficult for women, it can indeed be liberating, but it remains essential to act against sexism where we see it, as well as proactively. She does acknowledge that she appreciates these efforts and that is not the focus of her essay.

For my part, I will continue to try to be more judicious in my own evaluations of people’s behavior that may or may not appear sexist to me, remembering the range in people of all sexes.

 

*Though of course it is valid to consider him (and us) a product of our culture generating this male-typical behavior, making it no coincidence at all that the only man in the room was also the only one who felt like his ideas were important enough to interject.


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Part-time work in academia

Having it all can be a bit controversial. You can have it, or you can’t have it, you should have it or you shouldn’t.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want it all, but I do want a little bit of everything. Which brings us to a recent development in my career, part time work.

I personally feel that the current standard for work, either 40 hours a week or work as much as you can fit in without completely losing it, is for the most part unnecessary, unhelpful, and unsustainable for a happy and productive life. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we would be working much shorter weeks, perhaps as low as 15 hour work weeks*. Studies have shown that a 6 hour work day increases health without decreasing productivity **. So why do we continue to do it? There are a number of practical reasons and a number of cultural reasons. Universal healthcare would go a long way toward changing the practical reasons, though of course there are other hurdles. What about the cultural reasons? How does one change a culture? What if we ignore the societal pressures and find a way to make it work for ourselves?

My interest in part time doesn’t mean that I am not interested in working. It just means that there are only so many hours in a day and in a week and I’d like to spend more of those with my children. They grow so fast and I am afraid I am going to regret having spent so much time at work when they’re older. I also need time to maintain my health and make sure I’m sane enough to enjoy my time with them and be patient with myself and my family.

So after talking myself out of it for over a year, I recently took the plunge. I realized (with some help from a University provided therapist – definitely something every school should have and promote) that nothing was ever going to feel like the perfect decision and sometimes you just have to treat life as an experiment and try things. So I ignored all of my doubts, summoned my courage, and walked into my PI’s office.

“I’d like to request to work 4 days a week 80% time,” I said. “Can I think about it?” he replied.

I waited anxiously from the morning until I saw him leave for the day at 5pm. All night I stressed. Is he going to fire me? Is he going to say yes? What will I do if he says no?

I got summoned to his office the next morning. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he told me. He proceeded to explain how he knew many of the most prominent women-in-science thought leaders in the country. The thing they’d ask, he said, was what I want for my career. So before he would give me his answer he wanted me to answer this question.

“Why,” I asked, “have you not asked me this before? I have been a postdoc for over four years. Why is it important now when it hasn’t been before?” He said some things about how he’s talked about it with other people in the lab*** but did not answer the question. He told me he that he had an answer that he thought I’d like but he didn’t want to tell me until after we had the discussion about my future. He said not to tell him now but to think about it. So off I went. To think about my future. Because that’s something that had never occurred to me to do until he asked. Obviously.

The next day, despite my fears of him not taking me seriously, I admitted that I did not think that the amount of time I wanted to commit to my family was compatible with being a PI. To my relief, and my chagrin, he agreed. He commented that when he was a young father he spent no time with his children. He questioned how the only person in the lab still considering tenure track, a woman with a young child, does it.

My mind revolted and split in two. I am pro women in science! I am as passionate about that as I am about science! Mothers should be able to be successful professors! Am I living up to a terrible stereotype? What am I doing? But…thank goodness he isn’t rejecting me for not being on the path to tenure track.

Once we got this discussion out of the way he told me his plan, a 3 month trial of the 80% schedule. If everything goes well, if I am productive, we will continue that way. So that is where I am. Three weeks in I am loving the arrangement.

I want to have a positive impact on the next generation of scientists. I do not, however, want to be a successful principal investigator at the cost of my quality of life. I hope instead I can help to make part-time science more mainstream in my own little way. When the goal is not “freedom at any cost” but instead “reasonable flexibility” the gains are smaller and the precise definition of “a win” is more vague. If I can be productive at this level and go on to have a successful career in something, I hope I can provide a positive example of of a balance that works for me.

 

*https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics

**http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-10/the-six-hour-workday-works-in-europe-what-about-america

***How is this relevant to me?


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On grant funding

Aug 18 2016 Published by under academia, female scientist, funding, race

One of determining points in my leaving academia was grant funding.  I was not confident enough, or motivated enough to sustain continuous funding for however long I was willing to be a PI .

In a way, my years as a postdoc and project scientist traumatized me for applying for grants.  In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort.  Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft. It was a great practice for me, until the deadline came.  Whether it was paralysis, procrastination, or waiting until we were under extreme duress to come up with brilliant ideas, finalizing an application as a lab came always at the last minute or never.  For one submission, graduate student and I took turns pulling all-nighters for one week prior to a deadline, to come up with preliminary data for experiments proposed in a grant.  In another or the same submission cycle, on the date it was due with 6-7 hours left, all members of the lab sat around a conference table as if in the Situation Room.  Each person stared at his/her laptop screen, worked on different sections of different versions of a draft, sweated grease, pulled hairs, and waited to be called by our PI so that our sections can be integrated.  The time of submission brutally approached, and we were nowhere near being done.  My PI was on the phone with a departmental grant officer pleading for more time and understanding.  The time of submission came and passed, and we kept on working.  About 20 minutes later my PI finally called it, “ we are not submitting the grant.”  We did this at least TWICE, for two consecutive application deadlines.  As you can tell by italics and capital letters, it still raises strong emotions for me, even years later.

In my tenure at the lab, getting an NIH RO1 grant for my PI remained elusive. He did however receive other grants to keep the lab thriving and afforded me.  But we needed a RO1. What imprinted in me from the experience was how difficult it is to obtain a RO1 funding.  Without RO1, one is less likely to get tenured and maintain a lab.  If my PI, whom I deemed a brilliant scientist, had this much trouble getting a RO1, what an audacity to assume that I would get one?  I felt I had no chance.  Or more honestly I did not want to work that hard.  I did not want to make my graduate students and postdocs work that hard only to fire them when the funding did not come.

So I was scared and chickened out.  The shrinking funding rate did not help either.

It turns out I would have faced obstacles if I stayed in academia, not just my own demons (I am as bad, if not worse, procrastinator as my former PI)  but external ones.  Not to be consistently pessimistic but if I had stayed in academia more than likely I would have become a part of statistics in this recent article.  The study analyzed gender and race differences in the likelihood of receiving NIH RO1 in years 2000-2006.  The authors found that race, and not gender, was a key determinant in RO1 award. While white women did not differ from white men, Asian and black women received significantly less funding than white women.  Although this study did not find disadvantages of being a female applicant, many other studies do (like this one).  As a woman of color (Asian), I would have faced an uphill battle, a double bind. If only I was more ambitious, this type of studies would have made me energized and strive to reverse the current status.  At this point, I can only ask for those who are still in it to try…


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