Archive for the 'female scientist' category

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


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.


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!



  • 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.



  • 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.


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.




***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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Book Club – Lab Girl

We recently read Lab Girl, the nationally bestselling memoir by Hope Jahren, PhD. Dr. Jahren is a Professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa where she runs a Geobiology Laboratory. She also blogs about interactions between women and men in academia at The book is mostly about her life and career path, but it also weaves in interesting vignettes about plant life that appear as metaphors related to aspects of her experiences.

Lab Girl image

What was the most relatable part of the story for you?

fishprint: I read this book, in part, to find a relatable female scientist. I probably wouldn’t have admitted this at the time, but I like her writing, I love her Twitter presence, and I really wanted to relate to her. So, I spent the first half of the book hating it. Until finally I recognized I’d brought all these expectations to the book. Then I could let all that go and read it.  Do not read this book if you want a relatable female scientist role model to compare yourself to. Read this book for a well written, complicated personal story. You may relate more to the grad student who quits, “sneering on her way out that she didn’t want a life like mine”, but that’s OK. No one, probably not even that student, was really being asked to have a life like Jahren’s. But the proximity of the book (and worse if you work for her, I imagine) makes you compare and question.

peírama: One thing the book relies on and yet only briefly touches on directly is how Jahren’s relationship with Bill is important to her success in science. There are the straightforward ways, that he works for almost nothing yet works harder than most employees would and that he is a consistent presence in her lab from before she even starts her lab throughout her career (a trait which can make someone invaluable if they are competent, which Bill seems more than). Then there is the personal aspect of it. As Jahren readily admits, doing science is hard. There are setbacks from the natural world and from the world of people. Having someone interested in the same things as you, thinking about the same questions as you, who you get along with, who is there to support you when things get tough, makes things so much easier. I think the way our scientific society is set up to put people out on their own without a built in network and constantly ripping scientists away from people they know is counterproductive. Jahren lucked into a situation that should be more common in science – scientists with common interests working closely together, supporting each other, and working toward the same scientific goals.

Curiouser&Curiouser: Unlike fishprint, I had not heard of Dr. Jahren before reading this book, but I think I initially expected to find a role model in Lab Girl.  I did not.  I found very few specifics in her story relatable, but these 3 themes resonated with me.  

  1. In science you do not act alone.  I felt like the second half of the story was basically a platonic love letter to her best friend/lab manager.  While at times I felt awkward when it seemed to me that she was writing for/to Bill, (even though he said he would never read the book) I appreciated the sentiment that led her to want to say thank you and make sure credit is appropriately shared.   
  2. Being a scientist is hard work. ‘Nuf said
  3. Your personal struggles impact your career both positively and negatively.  It’s not always possible to check your personal baggage at the door.  

SweetScience: Dr. Jahren has clearly worked hard throughout her education and career, but it seemed like many major elements (i.e. certain jobs, her work partner Bill) just fell into place for her. This is not to say that she didn’t earn and work to keep those things, but I can relate to feeling like some things just come to you, even while things you try so hard for remain elusive.


Here are a few quotes that resonated with us. (Pages refer to original hard-cover edition)

  • “…my true potential had more to do with my willingness to struggle than with my past and present circumstances.” P. 18
  • “As much as I have loved being a scientist, I am ready to admit that I am tired of all the hard things that should be easy by now.” P. 25 (stated in the context of funding, but widely applicable)
    • C&C: This was one of my favorite quotes from the book.  I feel discouraged at least weekly by how much of a struggle it can, and will continue to be.  
  • “…there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.” P. 44
  • “On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” P 71
  • “…because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.” P 277
    • SS: I can’t directly relate to this because I feel that female scientists are common in my field/generation, but I do think it’s interesting and important to understand that someone has felt this way in very recent history. Further, I can relate to the idea of ‘making it up as I go along’ as it feels like everyone is struggling through the decisions that need to be made early in one’s career in a way that is probably different than previous decades, given the overabundance of PhDs, lower relative number of traditional academic research jobs, and wide array of other science-related careers open to us. There’s no clear path, and no history of scientists having to navigate these conditions.


What surprised you about the book?

SS: I was surprised that there was virtually nothing relating to the interactions between women and men in academia that are the focus of Dr. Jahren’s blog, and a talk I saw her give to a Women In Science group. Given that she’s had plenty of experiences relevant for the subject and is clearly passionate about the topic and changing the state of academia’s treatment of women, I wonder why she didn’t draw attention to those issues in this book. Maybe it will be the focus of book number two?

f: She still doesn’t sleep. She still goes to the lab every night.

P: I was also surprised about how she talked about working all night like it was normal and how her family seems like afterthought.

C&C: I didn’t pick up on her struggle with mental health issues early on in the book, and so I found her description of her interactions and environment unnerving and often depressing.  Once she made it clear that there was more going on than a selectively empathetic, extremely driven person I was able to let go of the idea that an “ideal scientist” should follow her model, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the second half of the book.  

I also was shocked by Bill’s living conditions until they get to hawaii, what a loyal friend to stick it through!


Are there any messages in the book you disagree with for yourself or as a role model for young scientists?

SS: I don’t love the propagation of ‘the absent-minded professor’ stereotype, particularly the scientist who is so passionate and caught up in their work that they are up all night excited about a potential discovery at the expense of their personal lives; it is possible and indeed common for a career in research to be ‘just a job’ and that’s something I feel is a valuable message for young scientists.

f: Many of the pronouncements in this book are things that have worked for Jahren, and are not broadly true (or good) for other people. She is in lab all day and then hits the lab again every night starting around 10:30pm. I doubt she sleeps more than a few hours a night. And that’s OK for her, it makes her happy, and it works for her team (Bill). But seen as a message, it is a damaging one. My first PI bragged about sleeping 3 hours a night. In fact, every boss I’ve ever had has tedious glory days stories about being in the lab all night. They are not all successful, but they all want to cast themselves as passionate, committed night owls. Why? Is that really when they do their best work? That’s when I start breaking things and deleting files. Not sleeping and not caring for your health can look like a thing that interesting and successful people do, but it’s not going to work for everyone. In defense of Jahren, she’s just telling her story. It’s messy, it’s literally manic, and her life would only work for her.

Oh, and that part about trying to weed out the students who value their time. Sigh.

P: She paints a picture of a world where a certain type of man is what the world sees as a scientist, and thus she and her best friend/lab tech who is a man but doesn’t fit that description are science outsiders who have to work twice as hard as everyone else to gain scientific acceptance.

I do not argue with that, as that is clearly true. However, she paints an alternate picture of a stereotypical scientist. The scientist that can’t stop until they’ve answered all the questions. The scientist who works until their knuckles bleed and needs no other sustenance but a good question. I think a lot of people, including myself and my fellow bloggers, love science and consider ourselves scientists but also do not fit that stereotype of a scientist.

One sentence that caught my eye in the very first chapter was “I glanced at the clock and noted that my son had gone to bed several hours ago.” She makes clear that her priority is science over everything else. That is not how I want to live my life. Yes, my husband is perfectly capable of putting my children to bed and does on many occasions, but I like to put my children to bed. My children and my husband bring me joy and I knew a life with a husband and children was something I wanted as surely as I knew I loved science. Hope Jahren has written a memoir, so perhaps it is unfair to criticize what is only her own story. Her way is one way to be a scientist. Perhaps the problem is not that she has told her story without any acknowledgment of other alternative ways to be a scientist but that there are not more stories that make it to the mainstream of those other alternative ways to be a scientist.

C&C: From the description in the book I don’t think Jahren can be considered a viable role model for most young scientists.  She has a unique set of challenges and gifts (she has found the most loyal employee ever and neither of the seem to need to sleep?!) that make her career and life choices reasonable to her, but I can not see them leading to happiness or scientific success for most people.  


Who would you recommend this book to?

SS: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about what it means to be an academic scientist, or who likes different memoirs.

f: People who enjoy memoirs and science. I would not pitch it as an “inspirational female scientist”.

P: On the whole, I enjoyed this book as a book. That is to say, I enjoyed reading it when not thinking critically about what message it was sending and whether I agreed with that. I think it tells a compelling story of a woman finding her way in the world. It flows well and drew me in.

I also think this book is good for anyone interested in the natural world. I learned a lot about seeds and trees.

C&C: I think people who feel marginalized and/or struggle with mental health issues may enjoy the book.


All in all, most of us enjoyed reading most of the book, and we’d love to hear what you think too – tell us in the comments!

6 responses so far

Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

Image source:

I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.

And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.

Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.

On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?

Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?

There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?

I’m really asking! What do you think?

*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.

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Mission Statement

There is so much that I love about my career as a Research Scientist in BioTech. I love the creativity and intellectual stimulation, the teamwork and independence, the opportunity to apply expertise but always keep improving and learning, and I love the puzzle of it all. But sometimes I feel drained, and recently I’ve been in a bit of a funk. I think part of it is from our continued fertility struggles; but I start thinking that maybe I’m not in the right job or even the right line of work…. Maybe I want to run away and be an illustrator or a farmer. I should go live on a commune and teach kindergarten in a tree house. But when I really sit down and outline what I want out of a career/my life I realize (again) that I’m doing it, I have my perfect job. So why do I feel so blah?

? I recently came across a blog post entitled “why a personal mission statement is key to career bliss.”  Based on this maybe the question I need to be asking myself isn’t what I want to be, but rather who do I want to be. I like this idea! I don’t need go external and look for a new passion project or do anything drastic to find my happy place, I just need to be more mindful of my “core motivators” and make sure that I honor that thought in my daily life. Here is my first attempt at a personal mission statement, it’s pretty broad, but I like that it applies to my work-life and my life-life.….

To be a compassionate and creative person who contributes to, and supports teams trying to make the world a better place.

I would love to hear from you, do you have a mission statement?  Has it helped you?

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Are We Bitches?

In a conversation with one of my female colleagues recently, she referred to me as a “strong woman.” I was surprised to hear that. Maybe because I would really like to be viewed as a strong woman, but not sure I fulfill all the criteria. So then I got to thinking, what are the defining characteristics of a strong woman. What does it take to be strong? Passion? Having it all? Confident? Being hard working? Impervious to criticism? Driven by and focused on a goal? High-achieving? Is a strong woman someone who is able to stand up for herself? Or take care of herself independently of a partner?

A brief Internet search revealed a couple of quotations that mention the word “strong” and “bitch” in the same context. Does a strong woman have to be a bitch? The word “bitch” seems to shift meaning, depending on context. Typically it is defined as aggressive, unreasonable, belligerent, malicious, or rudely intrusive to be strong. But in a feminist context, it can also indicate an assertive woman. Why the discrepancy? If a strong woman, with passion and integrity, does whatever it takes to reach her goal depending on the context, does it make her aggressive or assertive? Which one is it? Does it matter in the long run? Interestingly, I also learned that the term for bitch appears to be derived from Greek goddess Artemis – goddess of the hunt who is free, beautiful, cold, and unsympathetic. To paraphrase, a so-called strong, driven leader with an icy heart who demands respect. The Greek definition was coined a long time ago, does it still carry meaning in the modern society? Can a strong woman be benevolent, kind, thoughtful, respectful, and at the same time tough-minded?

Yes, I would like to think I am a strong woman. However, I would like it if the definitions carried less of a negative connotation – I would like to be strong without having to be a bitch. Is that possible? Which definition comes to your mind when discussing strength? I guess for me it starts here:


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