Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Day in the life (4)

This post is part of a one week series detailing the life of a post-doc on her way to academia (next summer). Next week I will begin a series on writing your first research paper.

Checked my cells. Look good, adhesion still a problem.

Also, checked polymer adhesion to substrate. Interesting pattern, adhesion is good, declines, then improves. Will repeat taking more pictures in the middle phase.

Talked to boss about poor cell adhesion. Came up with totally new plan for that experiment, ordered supplies.

Ate lunch while reading scary CNN article about bird flu.

Get babysitter for this weekend. Think I have bronchitis, make Dr's appt.

Plan out new cell experiment. Repeat polymer adhesion experiment.

Work on paper.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Giant squid and the preeminence of American scientists

Recently, the scientific world has been abuzz with excitement. Japanese scientists have captured the first images of a giant squid. When I first heard about this I was really happy. My research has nothing to do with giant squid, but I know the pain of being unable to examine your subject directly. The benefits of the squid images are enormous. However, the second thought that came into my mind was the fact that these were Japanese scientists. Now, I'd like to state up front that I have nothing against scientists from Japan or anywhere else, and am really excited for whomever makes a discover like this, but I couldn't help but think that in the past that probably would have been an American scientist (okay or maybe Jacques Cousteau).

More and more foreign scientists are publishing excellent work, not surprising considering that at many universities foreign student enrollment accounts for 50% or greater of the total. This is good because as more people move into the game, science will advance at a faster pace. However, I think it is also indicative of a loss of preeminence on the part of American scientists, and that this in part, is a reflection of how American society perceives scientists and engineers. As fewer and fewer of the brightest students choose science and engineering careers, our economy will suffer.

Recently, CNN included academic research scientists as one of the three worst jobs. Scientists are perceived as brainiacs and engineers as uber nerds. The image of the wild-haired, middle-aged, white guy, with a white lab coat and glasses is very much alive. Most people I talk with feel that what I do is exceedingly difficult and that you have to be extremely smart to do it. These kind of stereotypes make it difficult to entice others into the field. Additionally, compensation for this "hard" work is exceedingly low. At my Ph.D. institution, the Nobel laureate in physics earned about 1/10th of the head football coach. If money talks, then we are saying that athletics is far more important than education, and this from a public university that is designed to serve the educational needs of the state!

In the past, science has had high profile advocates that have inspired a whole generation of followers, for example, Einstein and Feynman. These personalities seem absent from the media today. Some people say that we need a TV show like CSI, to do for science and engineering, what ER did for medicine. To some extent, this would help change our public image, but its going to take much more than that. We need to come out of our shells and get much more involved in outreach activities. Scientists should be going to public schools and giving presentations on career day. We need to make science accessible to the general population, and more than that make it exciting. Science has taught me why the sky is blue, why water rotates when it goes down the drain, why eggs and milk turn into custard when heated, and why antibiotics won't treat the flu. It is this kind of knowledge that makes science exciting, and generating enthusiasm is the best way to increase funding, to attract the best and brightest, and to make sure that American scientists can stand toe-to-toe with our foreign brethren in the search for the unknown.

Day in the life (3)

This post is part of a one week series detailing the life of a post-doc on her way to academia (next summer).

Checked on my cells. They look really good, although not quite as many adhering to the dish as I would like. I will need to think a little about how to improve the cell adhesion coating.

Talked with PI about grant proposal due Oct 1. Proposal has been canned because we can't get preliminary data from one of our collaborators in time. Seems they are developing cold feet. I suggest a different collaborator, but for political reasons, it won't work. Looks like we have to wait for next submission deadline, four months from now.

Start experiment to check polymer adhesion to substrate. Polymer adheres, but swells over time. The swollen portions do not adhere to substrate. Not sure how long adhesion will last. Ideally, need 1 week. Will have to follow for a few days.

Have been getting emails from interested students! Yaay, someone likes my work. Email back and forth about possible projects, candidate background etc. Many are persistent, which is good.

Spend some time cozying up to Adobe photoshop to prepare for next round of experiments.

Call to find out why my chemical is not here yet.

More lit search for paper. Work on paper.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A day in the life (2)

This post is part of a one week series detailing the life of a post-doc on her way to academia (next summer).

Chatted with PI about grant proposal due Oct 1. We are trying to tighten out experimental design to give clear, quantitive outcomes. This is a bit difficult because we are using an animal model, which is always variable, and histology to characterize, which can be very subjective. Talked about analyzing fluroescent pixel counts and histograms of stained tissue sections to get quantitative data.

Checked my cells. Still alive and adhering to glass. Preparing to add activating agent that will turn them into nerve cells. Divide agent into 50 tiny vials, all with sterile technique, very tedious. Throw a few bottles in the autoclave before moving on to next project.

Isolate film for testing polymer adhesion. Glue onto glass coverslips with Silicone adhesive. Leave to dry.

Do a couple lit searches for paper that I'm working on while eating lunch.

Feed cells adding activating agent. Autoclave films. Learn more about Adobe photocopy for upcoming study counting nerve cell extensions. Work on paper.

Ah! The life of an experimentalist.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

A day in the life...

I just found another nice blog by a women in environmental engineering trying to make it to tenure. Her format seems to be a description of daily activities. I thought you guys might want to know what things are like so here goes my activities for the next week.

Well, today I got to work and finished reviewing a paper that I was asked to peer-review. It is a little awkward because I know the authors. I imagine that is why they selected me as a reviewer. The work is just that shade of marginal which prevents outright rejection, but not good enough to feel good about passing it on. I made several suggestions though that I think would improve it significantly.

Next, attended the required preventing violence in the workplace training. Wow, hope I never have to use that.

Now, thinking about experiments for tomorrow. I should probably work on the book chapter that I have committed to writing (due next month) or the grant I said I would look at (for my PI)(due Oct 1).

Oh yeah, and I have family visiting tonight that I need to plan around. Well that's my day. It's a new one tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Navigating the rat race

It seems that scientists are a breed apart. The general perception is that scientists are so obsessed with their work that little else can supersede that, think Einstein and Curie. Occasionally, we get a free spirit, like Feynman, but most scientists are perceived as kind of nerdy with little connection to the real world. It would be entirely inappropriate for a scientist to choose this career to pursue fame, recognition, awards, or money. And yet, it is my perception that many scientists do just that.

It is so difficult to maintain a successful lab and not lose sight of the beauty of science. Conducting competitive research is much more difficult now than 200 years ago. With the internet and ease of travel, I can know what is happening in a competing lab in 6 months, or less if we are friendly. It becomes increasingly difficult to not be scooped [the secret fear of most scientists I know]. In this environment, how do we maintain our focus on the beauty of science, the thrill of the discovery, and further understanding the rules that govern our physical world? In the book Feynman's rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman asks Mlodinow why he thinks that people studied rainbows. After flubbing the answer, Feynman responds, "because they are beautiful." I hope that we never stop searching for rainbows to study.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What about the people who LIKE 12 hour days?

I just finished reading a biography of Madame Curie [Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith]. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize (actually she received two). Her daughter was the second woman to receive the prize, and her granddaughter is a professor of physics at the University of Paris. Many women idolize Madame Curie as proof that women can succeed in science and have a family at the same time.

However after reading this book, I'm not so sure that she is a good role-model. It is true that she deeply loved science, and fought to break down barriers for women in the field, but she spent much of her life in deep depression. At one point she says that, "even her children cannot awaken life in her." She threw herself into her work with long hours with dangerous materials. Although she developed a close relationship with her daughter Irene, her non-scientific daughter Eve, spent much of her life feeling alienated.

One of the most interesting parts of this book came near the end when Madame Curie was discussing the role of money in science. I can't remember the exact quote, but basically she said that in general personal monetary concerns should not be important to scientists. However, when an individual loves science so wholely that they choose to dedicate their lives to it, it is society's obligation to sustain the individual and make them comfortable enough to focus on their research.

For me, this raises a very interesting point. There are individuals out there who deeply love science, those who love it so much it supersedes all else. These individuals are happy to dedicate their lives to the lab, spending long hours and weekends in pursuit of the next great discovery.

Where does that leave individuals like myself, who love what I do, but feel that it is not all that I am?

It is very easy for me to argue that we should allow part-time appointments, slow down the tenure process, and make the job more family friendly. However, it is likely that these individuals will never understand how my love of family can supersede my love of the work, the thrill of discovery, the moment when it all clicks and another theory brings the beauty of nature into sharper focus. To these individuals, I have no answer. I too love these things, but I also love my son's banana breath kiss, and teaching my daughter how to cook.

Many of those in science take great pride in the number of hours they work and the time the dedicate to science. This is taken as proof of their love for work. For the rest of us, love is painfully divided.

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