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.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The World is Flat

Well, I can only hope that the lack of response to my previous post indicates lots of lurkers. Fortunately, I have received several responses from my friends a few years ahead of me, and am moving forward with interviewing postdocs. It seems pretty silly for a postdoc to interview for a postdoc, but there you have it, the world is a little crazy.

Speaking of which, lately I have been reading this book, The World Is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. It is about the changing marketplace, offshoring, insourcing, supply chaining, etc., and how Americans are poised to compete with the Indians, Chinese, and Japanese. One section in the book talks about the state of American engineers and scientists. He has a great interview with Shirley Ann Jackson, who is the president of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science, and publishers of Science Mag) and the president of RPI, not to mention the first African American woman to get a PhD from MIT, and a top notch physicist. She talks about how she was encouraged to enter STEM careers because of the hype over Sputnik and the intense desire of her generation to put a man on the moon and compete. Unfortunately, that impetus seems to be absent from our generation (X,Y,Z whatever it is now).

I was saddened by a string of statistics that Friedman quotes, basically saying that our government is not investing in Science and Engineering research and education at rates anywhere near that of the past (in today's dollars of course). And this is a crisis not just for women, but for Americans. If we do not invest in the technologies that have made us great, we will not be able to compete on the global stage.

He spends much of the book discussing how 'hungry' our foreign competitors are for work in the STEM fields, whereas many Americans don't want to pursue these careers because they are too 'hard.' To be honest, I wonder if we aren't becoming complacent? I can trace my interest in STEM to my parents who both work in this field, but what about you guys? What made you want to be a scientist or engineer? What made you consider a career in academics?

It is not entirely clear how this situation can be reversed. Certainly people will follow the money, and increasing the NSF/NIH budgets can address some of these issues. But I think a lot of it has to do with role-models as well. Dr. Jackson talks about how the speeches of JFK galvanized her generation. JFK said:

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

When was the last time you heard a challenge like that from our government? (Democratic or Republican) Perhaps the days of the great speechwriters are gone, confined by the 10 second soundbites of television. But I can't help but think a speech like that could change the minds and hearts of thousands of young Americans. When I hear those words, I think science and engineering is hard. But that is the joy of it all, the challenge, and the rewards of success can be overwhelming. In a way I feel like that old Simon and Garfunkel song (Mrs. Robinson), when they say where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, Joey, Joe has left and gone away, except replace Joe DiMaggio with Dick Feynman. We need government and academia to stand tall or we will all fall together.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

To take a postdoc or not

I need some advice from you guys, particularly the Asst. Profs out there. I will be starting at Research I University (R1U) in July. Ever since my contact information went up on their website, I have received a barrage of applications from interested students, postdocs, etc. Mostly, I have directed the students to the graduate admissions coordinator and the postdocs to the door. I figured since I am arriving in July and will have no equipment yet it would probably be better to wait before accepting a postdoc. However, I recently received an application from a candidate whose experience exactly fits my needs. The candidate is currently a postdoc elsewhere but her advisor is retiring so she is looking for another job. She wants to go into academics (hence not seeking an industry position after the 1st postdoc). She seems really good. I haven't got her letters of rec yet or taken a close look at her pubs, but it seems very promising. My problem is that I am not sure if I will have much for her to do until later in the year. I have no shortage of ideas, and some of them can be executed on minimal equipment, but to really get the most use out of a postdoc it seems like it would be better to wait until I am set up a little. Also, I am concerned about using a portion of my start-up on the postdoc. I could probably only guarantee 1 year, 2 is possible, but I am not sure that I want to commit that much of my start-up to it. On the other hand, having a postdoc could jump start my program. She wouldn't have classes and could get going right away. Also, the training required would be minimal, since she is already closely aligned with my area. What do you guys think???

Friday, February 17, 2006

I always come in third

Reading the posts by science woman and young female scientist has really put things in perspective for me. [BTW-I wish you guys the best of luck on your job search!]. I am very lucky. In my field, it is not uncommon to interview before a post-doc, which is what I did, receiving my job offer while still finishing my PhD. This minimizes the pressure to perform, and in theory I could perform some seriously lackluster research, and still have that job. And yet, I want to do good work. I know that the publications I put forth now, combined with those from PhD, form a dossier. Each time I apply for a grant, the reviewers will look at this dossier to decide whether I get funding or not. If I publish very little, or poor articles in my postdoc I may still have a job, but I may have a tough road ahead for funding.

This is where I started panicking. You see, I only have three months left here and am getting a little nervous about the number/quality of pubs that I will finish with. I will have one book chapter, a review article, and a 1st author for sure. I will probably have a 2nd author, and if I can just get my equipment to work (please G-d!) I will have two more 1st authors. If I get all of that everything will be golden. But, I have this horrible fear that the least three will fall through and I will finish with one 1st author pub for my postdoc, and it's not a Science or Nature paper. Admittedly this is better than no pubs, and I will also have the reviews. It's just not what I wanted to deliver.

All of this got me to thinking, what am I so afraid of? Even if I had no pubs, I still have that job, and I get start-up money for 3-5 years (depends on # of students I take). If my PI work is solid, I will get funding. Thinking into the problem more deeply, I realized that my fear is not that I won't succeed (i.e., get tenure), but that I won't succeed to my expectations. Reflecting further, I tried to remember when in the past I had missed my expectations, how had I dealt with that, and what had it meant to me?

That's when I realized that I always come in third. In junior high and high school, I ran track and cross-country. I was pretty good, but almost every meet I came in third. Even when my college roommate talked me into doing a 5K, and I hadn't run competitively in years, you guessed it I came in third. Academically, in high school I really, really wanted to finish 1 or 2 in class rank so I could give a speech. I was ranked 2 for some time, until a girl from another district moved into our area, and I finished....third. I think I can really sympathize with Michelle Kwan. For once in my life, I want to come in first. It is not that finishing third is so bad. I mean honestly just placing is an honor. But, for once in my life, I want to really shine. I want to meet my expectations and then some. I don't want to have to deal with disappointment. I want to win the teaching awards, get the large grants funded, and publish a couple of high impact papers. And yet, those goals must be balanced with my life. [Check out See Jane Compute to see how too much work can actually hamper achievement of those goals.] Well thanks for listening, I should probably try to fix my experimental problems so I can get those other two papers out.....

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My own office

This weekend I went out to visit Research I University (R1U), where I will be a assistant professor starting in July. The whole trip was pretty amazing. We stayed in our new house (we just closed last week), sleeping in sleeping bags. We met with renovators to choose paint, tile, etc. I met with the Department Chair to discuss my arrival at R1U, and believe it or not I met with the university interior designer to design my office.

That was about the most amazing thing that has happened to me in some time. My grad school and postdoc experience has pretty much proceeded as follow.

PI: "Oh, you're here. Hmmmm. We have to find a place to put you...Hey Lab tech, do we have a desk for PhD Mom?"

Lab Tech: "Yeah we can put her next to the fume hood. But there is no desk or chair now"

PI: "Okay, great. PhD Mom, Lab Tech, can you guys go down to salvage and see if you can find a desk and chair."

[Walk down to Salvage]

Lab Tech: "Well this one looks good. We just need to glue that leg back on the desk and rip the hutch off. Maybe we can get a chair over there... If we use duct tape we can put the cushion back on. Yeah, I think this will work."

[Me sitting in new office. If I lean back too far I will tip over and hit my head on the floor. My desk is sturdy..sort of...don't try sitting on it. I am sitting next to a fume hood, where students are working with lovely, sulfur containing chemicals, and the nearest window is at least 3 offices away.]

Now, picture my experience at R1U.

Interior Designer: "Hello, my name is designer and I will be making your office comfortable. Have you given any thought to your color scheme?"

Me: "Uhhh..."

ID: "Well let's go look at your office so we can get some ideas."

[Walking to office. Office is well-lit with a large window. Two student desks and a set of book shelves (rickety) are currently inside. There is glass opposite the window looking into a shared vestibule where students can wait.]

Me: [Raising blinds to display breathtaking view of quad.] Wow.

ID: Oh, don't worry we can replace the blinds. Would you prefer wood slats or the standard white. The wood is more expensive, but many of the professors are going with it these days. It's a classier look."

Me: [Hesitantly] Wood?

ID: Great then that's settled. Okay, what kind of furniture will you need?

Me: Ummm, a book case or two, a couple filing cabinets, a desk, a chair, and chairs for students.

ID: Okay two book cases, we'll give you five high, that's standard, and for the filing cabinets lateral or vertical? Lateral gives you more room. And will you be filing legal or letter?

Me: Letter, Lateral is fine.

ID: Okay, two of those. The desk is fairly standard, but you can pick the finishes. There is wood-top, laminate in several colors. What would you prefer? [showing me color swatches].

Me: I can have cherry?

ID: Sure, that is a popular choice. And for the desk hardware, you can have these pulls [showing me pulls].

Me: [picking one up]Wow.

ID: Yes, that will go well with the cherry. The chair is fairly standard we are all using this 'really expensive chair.' Will that be okay for you?

Me: Absolutely.

ID: Okay now, we need to talk about chairs for students. We should probably pick carpet and paint and then design around that. Unless of course you would rather have tile. We can retile if you like.

Me: Umm, carpet?

ID: Okay, we have tons of colors what were you thinking?

Me: Something neutral.

ID: Okay [bringing out giant book of swatches]. What about these [dropping swatches in front of me one by one], do any appeal to you?

Me: [Eyeing the swatches, narrowing it down to 2-3] Well...

ID: That one is my favorite.

Me: Okay let's go with that.

ID: Okay. We should get paint to match, here is the paint pallet that comes closest to the carpet [handing me paint card.]

[I point to one]

ID: Yeah that one really brings out the carpet. Okay, now we need to get chairs for students. We can use 'expensive chairs' or 'really expensive chairs.'

Me: 'Expensive chairs' will be fine, thank you.

ID: Okay do you want chrome, wood, or black finish?

Me: Uhhhh...black?

ID: Okay, we need to choose seat cushions. Here are the samples that match the carpet and paint. [Handing me large book of swatches].

Me: Ummm... [fumbling with book for several minutes]...umm..this one?

ID: Great. Well I think that's about it. I will write all this up and send a quote to the department. From the time that we receive the okay, it should take about six weeks. When do you start?

Me: July [choked response, I am in shock]

ID: Okay that should be no problem. Would you like me to give you swatches of all the choices we've made.

Me: Ummm...no, that's okay. I don't want to carry it back with me in the luggage.

ID: Okay well we look forward to seeing you in July, Dr. Mom.

Me: Thanks.

[ID shakes my hand and walks away, as I am sitting dumbstruck in my new office.]

All I can say is wow!!!

Monday, February 06, 2006

Experimental Frustrations

Today was not such a good day. I have been at my postdoc for about 1 1/2 yrs and so far everything has gone amazingly well, so I guess I was due for some failure. And I am particularly frustrated because my problems stem not from a lack of good ideas, but from technical difficulties. You see, my first set of experiments (i.e., postdoc paper #1)did not require me to stray far outside my comfort zone, and when I did I had an expert on site to assist me. My second set of experiments (postdoc paper #2 and possibly #3) require me to switch to a more complicated system. Given my background, I should be able to figure out how to use the more complicated system; however, it is just not working. Worse yet, my technical resource is on another campus a couple hundred miles away. And, if I can't figure out how to make this system work there will be no paper #2 or #3.

Now honestly, I can probably figure out something in the long run, but I am stressed by the possibility of experimental failure. I am concerned that since I only have a few months left at my postdoc I can't afford to have difficulties with my set-up. I am concerned that if my difficulties are insurmountable I will finish my postdoc with only one paper, and that that will reflect very negatively on my career. And I just feel let down, I feel like I should be able to do this, it is in my area of expertise and I have done something really, really similar before, but it is just not working now.

I will call my technical resource tomorrow and try to hammer out what's going on. In the worst case, I will try to find a local collaborator to help me, but I feel like time is short and I just want to blow through the experiments.

The worst part of all this is it demonstrates how fragile my confidence is. The other day I was feeling completely ready to be an Asst. Prof. My research was going well. I had good research ideas. Grad students have been asking me for advice and telling me how helpful I am. I have been teaching a class to rave reviews. I was excited. Now, this little set back has me questioning everything again. And each time this happens, I feel like my problems stem from my work-life balance. If I didn't have to leave at 5:30 every day or if I came in on weekends it would all be better. I know this probably isn't true, and that childless work-a-holics have the same sorts of difficulties that I do. But each time I face looming failure, I feel like I am the only one. If I can't handle the occasional setback how will I be able to handle grant rejection, the stress of tenure, and a teaching schedule. I'm sure it will seem much better tomorrow, but for now I will have to overcome my panic attack. Thanks for listening.

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