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.


At 6:16 PM , Blogger Jane said...

I didn't have any scientific/engineering role models growing up, but for some reason (intense curiosity? love of puzzles?) science and math classes caught my interest. It was an astute guidance counselor in high school that pointed me on my way towards CS, and I guess the academic career part comes from having a family full of teachers and a desire to not subject future generations of computer scientists to the same skull-crushing boredom I experienced in my CS classes. :) I have noticed that an obscenely high percentage of our female majors have one or more computer scientists or engineers as parents, so there is definitely something to be said for having strong technical role models in childhood.

At 7:41 PM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

Mom = college science professor, Dad = self-trained computer programmer and entrepeneur...if my parents hadn't been scientists, I don't think I would have become one. Too many other interests (dare I say, talents) that are far more lucrative. But what I wonder about now is why they never encouraged me to become an engineer. My brother was pushed toward engineering since birth. I think I had a huge advantage in grad school having come from academic family.

At 7:32 PM , Blogger Sandra Porter said...

"The World is Flat" is an excellent book with very important insights.

Neither of my parents were scientists, but my father was obsessed with Jacque Cousteau and we had several aquariums. In our house, National Geographic specials were a family event. I also read lots of science fiction as a child since we had several of those books all around our house and the covers were always really intriguing.


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