Archive for the 'teaching' category

The hardest semester of my life

Don’t worry, this post isn’t a complaint. I had the hardest semester of my life but I got something great out of it.

I started a new job this fall – one of my top-choice careers, at one of my top-choice institutions! I am teaching undergraduate neuroscience students at a large university in a place I love, near family. But of course it couldn’t be that simple. Because of family-related issues, I couldn’t move there and get started full-time right away. So all fall I’ve been commuting between two different states to work part of the week at my new job and part of the week at my old postdoc research position. As you can imagine, it’s been a terrible to commute, and especially difficult to be away from my family, even part-time. Add to that health issues, deaths of family and friends, and more, and it’s been a nightmare overall, and a struggle to get through each day and week.

Despite all that, I found that I loved my new job and was excited about it throughout the semester, regardless of what else was going on. I looked forward to planning how to teach each lesson/topic, talking with students, and evaluating their performance. I love virtually every aspect of it! This was a stark contrast with my old job. Even though I couldn’t wait to return home to my family, I dreaded going back to my job in the lab. I did not want to do lab work, did not want to write or research, and, to my surprise, did not even look forward to helping my students with their research projects.

Realizing these thoughts and feelings about my work made me so happy that I could be confident about my choice in career paths. Up until I accepted this teaching position, I had been thinking that I would be equally happy doing that or teaching and running a small lab with undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college, where I could focus on the students more than cutting edge research. Now I realize that that would have been a mistake and I just can’t be excited (or do a good job) for research-related activities, outside of teaching students about research on an intellectual level.

So here I am on the home stretch of the hardest semester of my life (so far…), fully excited about my move to full-time lecturer, and for a fresh start for the new calendar year! It feels so good to be confident about my career choice and path forward.


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Why I’m Hopeful

Today, it is easy to be discouraged about the state of the world. On NPR today, I heard about the hunger crisis. Yesterday, I talked to a P.I. at a large research institution in despair about the proposed budget and its impact on research. My students come to school on a regular basis in near tears about the state of immigration, health care or the most recent crisis of the day. I have been guilty of burying my head to some degree, for my mental health. But recently, I had the privilege of taking part in a panel regarding the role of STEM education on girls.

I was invited to participate in the panel because I coach a science extracurricular activity at an all-female school. I had few of my students participating, and other faculty and high school girls were invited to be on the panel. When the day rolled around, I was grumpy about having agreed to participate. My children were both sick, I had family in town and it was rush hour when I had to drive across town. Adding insult to injury, the audience was composed of a measly smattering of elderly people; I’m not sure what I’d expected, but I’d hoped for a least a few more people.

The point of the event was to showcase efforts being put into encouraging young women to go into science and technology. The responses of the teenagers astounded me. The totally understood the perceived and stereotyped behaviors of women in STEM in a way I never did as an adolescent. They demonstrated a value for their own collaborative skills. And they left me feeling hopeful about future of women in science and tech.

When the moderator started asking us me questions, I realized how odd it was for me to be on this panel. I was sitting there giving “advice”, as a young person who had recently left science. Inevitably, as I introduced myself and my history, the moderator asked me the question: “so why did you leave research?”. Sure, I’d been asked that question before, but I’d never had to answer it publically or succinctly. And without realizing it, I had a great answer: I love science. After grad school, I was no longer interested in doing research. I was (and remain) interested in talking about science and I find it fulfilling and challenging. So girls, you should do what you love—I am. Sure, there were lifestyle reasons, but it ultimately came down to my personal interests.

Interestingly, I recently got an invitation to complete a survey about myIDP. It forced me to log in and revisit the assessment I’d done during graduate school. I completed it long before I transitioned to teaching and sort of wrote it off. In retrospect, they had me pegged before I was ready to admit it. So I guess my other advice would be to be open to suggestion—perhaps I’d have discovered teaching sooner if I had been more willing to do so. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be able to value and identify their own skills in STEM much more quickly than I have.

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I get it now: Reflections of a seasonal stay at home mom

I used to balk at the prospect of staying at home with my child. My mother in-law has frequently and less than gently suggested and touted the benefits of staying home with her own small children. “I’m a busy body,” I would respond, and “I like to feel like I have value outside the home.” I frequently reposted articles to Facebook that touted the benefits of staying in the workforce, partially to reinforce my decision. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/how-much-does-it-cost-to-leave-the-workforce-to-care-for-a-child-a-lot-more-than-you-think/). I’d vehemently disagree when people argued that childcare is too expensive to allow them to work. (Here’s my math: 2 kids in daycare at an average of $1,000/month is $24,000 dollars a year: A lot of money, definitely, but certainly not more than the annual income of many of my colleagues.)

I work part time as a high school teacher. I love the work, but the pay (especially as a part-timer) is admittedly low. Many perks counterbalance my small paycheck. Among these are ample breaks; I get every holiday off, plus two weeks at Christmas, a week for spring break and 10 weeks off in the summer. I cherish these breaks, both for my own sanity and the precious time with my small daughter (and soon to arrive baby boy!).

The first few weeks of summer, I often feel antsy. I frantically clean the house during naptime and create projects for myself. I organize, weed the yard and bake healthy muffins. Within a few weeks, though, my toddler and I get into the groove. I read books, listen to podcasts and frequent the neighborhood park. I make regular trips to Target, and we never run out of diapers or paper towels. I make dinner every night, get the laundry done at a non-frantic pace, and get us packed and unpacked from a multitude of summer trips. When my husband gets home in the evening, instead of flitting around the house to finish our chores and prepare for the next day as we do during the school year, we spend quality time together. We reflect on our days and plan for our future. We pour over the unreasonable number of photos and videos of our daughter I’ve accumulated in a short 10 hours, and climb into bed content instead of exhausted. My husband recently commented, “I feel like I’m on break, too,” despite working 55+ hours per week.

As a result, this summer, I have for the first time really, truly understood why many families choose to have one parent stay home (and I don’t think it’s usually financial). With one of us home, our relationship is better and our life is less stressful. We have time to chat about our days and energy to go out to dinner occasionally just the two of us (without feeling like our daughter lives in childcare).

I’m certainly not ready to leave the workforce. A lifetime of internal dialogue regarding the benefits of working when combined with a deep love for my work in science education is not outweighed by my recent revelations. However, I vow to be relinquish my previously judgment over those who choose to do this life differently than I have and to be more open minded. Maybe one day I’ll be a full time stay at home mom. Or maybe I’ll work full time. But for now, I’m thankful for this season.


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Life Lessons from Teenagers

“So, what do you guy think of this?” I asked my students, using all my effort to bite my tongue and let my students express their own opinions. I was discussing the 2014 decision by Facebook and Apple to subsidize egg freezing for female employees as part of their benefits plans. My own initial thoughts on the matter were visceral; the subtext of this “opportunity” is to encourage women to work while we are young and worry about family later.

I was discussing this issue with a group of students interested in future medical careers. They are high achievers and envision themselves as career-motivated, even as teenagers, so I supposed I shouldn’t have been surprised by their positive responses to the egg freezing deal. My students thought it was wonderful. They praised the companies for allowing young women to have careers without having to “worry” about their biological limitations. I struggled to keep my own mouth shut as they excitedly envisioned their futures career women then mothers. I wanted to say, “How about supporting women with paid maternity leave?” or “Why don’t we consider more affordable childcare and flexible work schedules?” But I didn’t. I stood by and soaked in their opinions with admitted alarm.

As I reflected on their responses in the coming days, I realized that their responses could easily have been my own, 15 years ago. I was a high achieving student. I wanted to do something that “mattered” with my career—revealing a cure to cancer or discovering a new drug, something that would impact the future of the world. I vividly remember thinking that I didn’t want to get married until I was at least 29, an age much later than that of my own parents who were married at 23. As my own life went on, however, I fell in love and got married (at 23, as luck would have it). By 27, I yearned to have a child with a longing that was overwhelming and fierce.

During my pregnancy, I was finishing graduate school and looking to make a career transition. As I researched opportunities and networked with fervor, I would frequently chat with my own mother about my excitements and anxieties. One afternoon, she said to me, “Your priorities will change when you have your baby.” And I was mad. I was angry at the suggestion that all of my education, preparation and career exploration might be somehow useless or wasted.

In the end, my mother was right. My priorities did change, thought not in the negative way I had perceived. I have found a career I love; It is certainly not of the prestige I had envisioned as an impassioned teenager, but it allows me to make a difference in my small part of the world. And now, as I look forward to by 30th birthday, I hope for a second child. My hope is surrounded by tremendous anxiety regarding the cost of childcare for 2 children and how to prepare for months of lost wages during maternity leave (I’m relatively new to my job and have little accrued vacation time).

So when I mediate this discussion with my students regarding companies paying tens of thousands of dollars for egg freezing, I can’t help but wish I could have that amount of money for childcare and maternity leave. I want to tell my students how they will feel when they have their own children. I want to express to them how it feels to watch your own parents grow old and worry that they will never meet their grandchildren. I want to tell them how hared it is to leave an 8 week old in childcare. I wanted to tell them why my little girl doesn’t yet have a sibling. But instead, I listen to their excitement and say, “that’s so interesting!” because there are some things that only life can teach us, and I too am still learning.

(I certainly know that there are many wonderful outcomes from egg freezing procedures, especially for young women who undergo chemotherapy, etc. The opinions expressed here are only mine.)

More Reading on Egg Freezing:

http://time.com/3835233/sheryl-sandberg-explains-why-facebook-covers-egg-freezing/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-truth-about-egg-freezing_55db6163e4b08cd3359cc4e6


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Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide a good probability estimate.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, the way in which colleagues treat me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.


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