Archive for the 'strengths and weaknesses' category

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 https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com. 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

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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Listen to yourself

For the last six months I’ve been co-facilitating a peer mentoring group for postdocs, a group initiated by our postdoctoral affairs office. We’re seven people, all in some kind of biomedical research, but not necessarily with the same career goals. The aim of the group is to support each other and give feedback as we move forward on our career development paths, focusing on a specific task each month such as conducting an informational interview about a prospective career option.

One thing that has really struck me about this group is that at over half the people have changed their top-choice career goal just in the six months we’ve been meeting! And it’s not like we’re fresh off the PhD and just bouncing around all the options – most of us have been postdocs for more than a few years, and several of us have done two postdocs.

There are two main ways people have been led to change their goals. The first is through some introspection. We used an Individual Development Plan (My IDP) to facilitate this – I highly recommend this to anyone as a way to clarify (and quantify) your interests, skills and values in a way that can show you more about yourself and good potential career matches. It certainly has some limitations, but it can be eye-opening. For example, the first time I used this tool it told me that, based primarily on my interests, my top career choices (i.e. Principal Investigator) were actually at the very bottom of my list of all the potential science career matches. So that was hard to swallow, and apparently I still haven’t dealt with it completely since that’s the main career I’m still pursuing… but this post isn’t about my problems right now, it’s about helping other people!

The other way that people have been led to awareness of a need for a shift in career choices is by being alerted by someone else that they’re not on the right path. This usually comes in the form of someone saying “When I hear you talk about -X- you sound really excited, and you’re clearly putting a lot of effort into it, but I never hear you sound that excited when you talk about things related to your current career path -Y-.”

My hope with this post is that those of you who are not feeling great about your current career trajectory can really listen to yourself as you talk about different parts of your job – what do you find yourself talking excitedly about, wanting to share with others, or putting ahead of other tasks you should be doing first? If you can listen to yourself and identify those things you’re truly excited about, then you don’t need another person to notice and tell you when you’re on the wrong path, and hopefully you don’t need to waste any more time waiting for someone else to steer you right. And if you’re better with numbers than hearing your own excitement level, the IDP can help you consider and quantify what your top interests are.

I try to check in with myself periodically and hear myself talk. The easiest thing to notice is that I am virtually never excited to talk about research. The next thing I notice is that I am more enthusiastic about things involving students. I first thought this meant that teaching was the right path for me, but when I really thought about what aspects of my teaching and interactions with students I liked the best, I realized that it was the mentorship and guidance that I valued more than teaching content. I’ve been mulling this over for the last couple of years, thinking about and exploring different jobs and careers that can best translate these interests and skills. I’ll keep you posted on where I’m headed!

Has anyone else made a startling discovery/decision based on the way they communicate about their jobs, or been in a position to convince someone else they have a better fitting path to pursue?


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Why I stopped faking it

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

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

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

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


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