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, March 31, 2006

Visiting Future Home

Well, I am in the midwest visiting my future house, which is under repairs. It has dawned on me that I am moving in about 6 weeks and I am pretty much freaking out. The only thing keeping me sane is careful planning and my Ipod. I basically have six weeks to get all my experiments done and I have at least four more weeks planned, a bit of a tight window. The good news is that all the preliminary results look good, but I have so little time to slog through the data that I have its really hard to say much.

On top of that whatever data analysis I don't finish before I leave (and that will probably be most of it) I have to do once I get here, which takes away from setting up my lab at midwestern U. I guess there is the slight positive that those papers will have the my University address and my advisor is making me corresponding author, so I think that I get some small credit towards tenure from them. But, I am crazy!!! I am working like a fiend. I spend all my time in the lab either leaning over a microscope or doing tedious experiments and my only company is my audible books on my Ipod. I am making my way through British literature. Having just finished The Talisman, by Sir Walter Scott, I am now making my way through Ivanhoe. These are both books that I would probably never read in print (especially since my current prospects are all guides to better grant writing), so I guess it is good I can listen at work. At this rate, I am making it through a book about every 3 days. Well off to see the new house, I hope repairs will be complete by the time we move in. Actually for that matter, I hope we can sell our old house. I can't shoulder double payments for too long.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Jellyfish and More!

Today we took the kids to the New England aquarium, which is awesome. The special exhibit right now is on jellyfish. You cannot imagine how cool it is. The fish are slow moving blobs that the museum have illuminated with various colored lights. You can change the colors by spinning a knob. The exhibit is well thought out, the lowest part of the glass comes to just about the height of my son (who is 20 months) so he can easily look in and see what is going on. They also have a part where you can see jellyfish eggs, larvae, and babies. It is equipped with a sliding magnifying glass so that you can look all over the tank, and there are two of them: one at adult height and one at child height. Again, it was well thought out.

After the Jellies, we went to watch the penguins, which were swimming and feeding. My son kept shouting "bird, bird", very loudly. This persisted until we made it slightly higher into the exhibits and it changed to "shark, shark!" Finally, we ended with a visit to the starfish and hermit crabs, which you can touch. Even my son who would just as soon take a bite out of one as 'pet' it, was able to enjoy. On the way out I noticed that the first floor is equipped with a 'real' scientific laboratory that is enclosed in glass so that visitors can watch scientists in action. It was so touching.

Seeing the wonder of those animals twittering to and fro in the water, the silent elegence of the jellies, and the excitment on my children's faces, remind me why I am a scientist. The world is full of beautiful things waiting to be discovered.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Where can I get more wax!

Ages ago I used to post on bulletin board groups. One girl in particular had a .sig that said, "Don't tell me not to burn my candle at both ends, just tell me where to get more wax!"

Does anyone else feel like that right now?

My sister's husband finished his postdoc last summer, and I was making fun of him because he was working looong days up to the very end, and wanted to come in for a few weeks after his job technically ended, when he was no longer being paid, to get more data. Now, I think I understand.

There is so much pressure to get lots of papers out. This pressure is there all the time, but it is heightened by artificial deadlines like finishing a thesis, finishing a postdoc, 3rd year review, or tenure review. Unfortunately, research does not always fit in neat boxes like that.

I produced zero data for the first year of my postdoc because I was setting up my system. Once that system was operational, data rolled off in streams and torrents. If I stayed another year, I could probably produce a paper every three months. Unfortunately, I am leaving in a 1 1/2 months so I will be lucky to get much out of it. And that is so frustrating.

I am working so hard right now sometimes I feel as if I will break. Another girl in my lab is really, really sick, but our advisor needs data for a grant proposal due April 1, so she is dutifully trekking in and doing her best. Well, at least I'm not sick. I think I'm going to go schedule a manicure....

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Itunes Meme

As seen over at science woman:

Instructions: Go to your music player of choice and put it on shuffle. Say the following questions aloud, and press play. Use the song title as the answer to the question. NO CHEATING.

This is fun, and gives you an idea of the diversity of my ITunes collection (5.5 GB of songs, 1490 entries, just downloaded the new Prince this morning)

How does the world see you?
"Twist and Shout", The Beatles.
Hmmm...I am a little deaf so the shout makes sense, but I hope I'm not twisted. Maybe just that I'm pretty happy-go lucky most of the time?

Will I have a happy life?
"Look Who's Talking", Dr. Alban.
Gee not sure what this means. I *do* talk a lot, but I dont' know how this plays into my future happiness. Maybe I shouldn't even be asking the question because I am so lucky to begin with. I have a faculty position about to start, two kids, and a great husband. I'll shut up now.

What do my friends really think of me?
"Elusive Butterfly", Bob Lind.
This is actually a good one. I am pretty high energy so, flitting about like a butterfly describes my actions well.

Do people secretly lust after me?
"Take the Money and Run", Steve Miller Band
Umm, they only want me for my money? as a postdoc? I hope not, you can do better than that.

How can I make myself happy?
"The Streets of Laredo", Marty Robbins
Probably true. I am a native Texan, and we are an interesting breed. I miss Texas terribly and would like to return at some point.

What should I do with my life?
"Georgy Girl", The Seekers
Kind of bizarre. Song is about a girl who is sad and lonely. The boys don't pay attention. The song encourages her to find her inner self and open up. Maybe I should come out of my shell a little more.

Will I ever have children?
"You Sang to Me", Marc Anthony
Given that I already have children, this is a good one. I wish I could have more children, but sadly dear husband is not willing. I have been instead focusing on relishing the ones that I have. I take this as a reminder to cherish the lullibies that I have, rather than longing for new ones.

What is some good advice for me?
"Why Did You Come in Here Looking Like That?" Dolly Parton
Okay, I admit I have some serious fashion problems. Sounds like an excuse to head out to Ann Taylor and DSW.

How will I be remembered?
"Plan B," Keith Anderson
What does this mean? I am the backup? It's ashame I don't have a song titled rocking woman scientist!

What is my signature dancing song?
"Monkey and the Engineer," Grateful Dead
I am laughing hysterically right now. Does this mean I dance like a monkey? It is a catchy song, but dance song, I don't think so.

What do I think is my current theme song?
"Blues Before Sunrise", Eric Clapton
Well, I think it should be blues before May. If I don't get more data before I leave for my faculty position, I will be having the blues.

What does everyone think my current theme song is?
"Dirty Overalls," Woody Guthrie
I want a do-over. I don't even wear overalls. Maybe this refers to my labcoat which *could* use a wash, and I am crazy busy in the lab.

What song will play at my funeral?
"Levon," Elton John
Kind of a bizarre song. The main character has a son and names him Jesus. Then they sit around blowing up balloons until the old guy dies. I don't really think this is me. Not sure what this is suppossed to mean.

What type of men / women do you like?
"Black Magic Women/Gypsy Queen", Santana
Yeah I do like the bad boys, and I am into the whole boho thing.

What is my day going to be like?
"That Ain't No Way to Go", Brooks & Dunn
Well, hopefully this doesn't refer to my experiments. If anything goes wrong I will be in quite a bind.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Childbirth Policies that Really Matter

The following letter appeared in C&E News (a publication of the American Chemical Society):

Childbirth policies for grad students

The item on the "Progressive" childbirth accommodation policy at Stanford University's chemistry department made me smile (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 8). Nineteen years ago, my husband and I-newlywed first-semester graduate students studying chemistry at Colorado State University (CSU)-were surprised by my unexpected pregnancy. I was mortified at the thought of informing the professor whose research group I had arranged to join the following summer.

Frank Stermitz's encouraging response soon laid my anxieties to rest. Transferring me a semester early from the department-sponsored teaching assistantship to his grant-sponsored research assistantship, he allowed me to begin my dissertation project immediately after the Christmas break. When my daughter was born the following summer, he gave me several weeks of paid leave, requesting only that I study for cumulative exams when I had the time.

After I returned to the laboratory, Stermitz and my husband's adviser, Ken DeBruin, supported the unorthodox hours that allowed our daughter (and a year later, our son) to have a continuous parental presence. At a time when other professors in the department were demanding 12- to 14-hour days and weekend group meetings or were requiring that pregnant graduate students sign liability waivers and continue working in the lab, Stermitz always made sure that there were cookies at his group meetings in case one of his many "graduate student grandchildren" had to be present.

My husband and I both defended our dissertations less than four years from our matriculation at CSU. It required a lot of hard work, but no exertion would have sufficed had Stermitz not long before implemented his truly visionary childbirth and family accommodation policy.

Today, nearly two decades later, C&EN asks whether Stanford's move will prompt other chemistry departments to follow suit in establishing similar policies. If there were more people like Frank Stermitz in the world, such a question would be completely unnecessary. And to him, all I can say is, "Thank you."

Wherever this guy is, he should be sainted! I wish more advisors took this approach to childbirth policies. I really think that if your graduate students are happy, they will be more productive researchers, and will bring the lab more success. Have you ever noticed that the Professor who yells at all his students gets results, but not nearly as many as the advisor who is much beloved? Just thought I'd add one positive note, amidst a chorus of displeasure.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dr. Mom's Guide to Grad School

Well, I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but it has taken a while to get all my thoughts together. Basically, I felt a bit like a lost lamb during my initial grad school experience and wanted to share my insights with the rest of you guys.

First some general comments: If you pass your first semester and your qualifying exams, if you show up everyday and produce something in the next four to seven years, you will graduate. The length of time that it takes depends on many factors including your productivity, your advisor, and your field. In general, the more productive you are the faster you will graduate. This can however backfire if you get one of those rare advisors who holds on to students as long as they can. From their perspective they are getting cheap (heck almost free!) well-trained labor, and the better you are, the harder it may be to let go. So this is the 'advisor factor.' You can identify advisors with the problem by asking around before committing to a research group, so this pitfall is avoidable. As far as how much productivity is needed, I think that it depends entirely on your field, but in general I've heard three 1st author papers is about the right amount. That said, I think that graduate school falls into several phases that are very similar to adolescence:

Phase 1: Youthful Enthusiasm or I'm an idiot and my advisor knows everything.
When students first arrive at grad school they usually have a burning desire to get started right away. They want a thesis project assigned and work to commence immediately. What is extremely difficult for students to understand is that a thesis project cannot just be assigned. [Although some advisors will do this it sort of undercuts the whole academic process.] A project must be developed, and for that to happen the student needs to read, appreciate and understand the literature. Reading the literature can be boring, and in the beginning difficult. If you can barely understand the paper in front of you, what hope do you have of seeing the holes in it and devising experiments to test them? But that is the essence of phase 1. Your advisor should help you develop this skill and together you should decide on a research project. Additionally in this phase, many students doubt their skills. It is extremely difficult to make the transition from watching a professor endlessly lecture in undergrad to the one-on-one interaction that you find in grad school. In many cases, students are so intimidated by their advisors, that they forget that advisors are just people who have their own strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.

Phase 2: A Little Success- I'm not that dumb after all.
In the second phase, your class load should be lightening up and you should be moving into the lab, computer lab, library, or field. At this point you and your advisor may have drafted a rough idea of what your thesis project will be. You will have read the literature and have some idea of the direction that you plan to take, and will begin to devise experiments. In the best case, someone in your lab will be working in the same area. In this situation, they can help you to get over the initial hurdles. In the worst case, you may be trying to duplicate work from a published paper, with no sounding board to see if you are going about things the right way. If you are in the latter category, I recommend finding someone who can assist. Try another lab, another department, and in the worst case you can directly email the authors of the paper and ask for their protocols or help. You would be surprised how many authors are flattered by the attention and get back to you quickly with helpful information. During this phase you are mostly repeating work that others have done before to prepare for the next step that you would like to take. Because you are repeating previously published work, it is likely that you will be successful. At this stage you may get your first paper, and your confidence will soar.

Phase 3: The Valley of Death or I'm an idiot and my advisor is too.
In this phase, you will attempt your first novel experiments building off the work of others that was duplicated in phase 2. Because you are trying something for the very first time, you will likely fail, at least initially. Personally, I failed for a good year and a half. The girl ahead of me failed for about a year, and the gal ahead of her for 2 years, so don't feel bad. However, when you are in this phase, it is all too appealing to simply leave with that Master's degree. Your confidence will flag, you wonder is it not working because it is theoretically impossible or am I a miserable failure in the lab? In many cases, you become extremely frustrated with your advisor. Why aren't they helping me? Don't they know what is wrong? The secret is they probably don't know what is wrong. This is the the phase in your career where you begin to become more competent than your advisor in your little niche. And the thing is, even if your advisor did know and just told you what to do, that's not the point of the PhD. The point is to struggle a little with an idea that no one has faced before, and then to come out on top.

Phase 4: The light at the end of the tunnel or I know what I'm doing, but my advisor is an idiot, and this project has no future.
For some reason, by the end of the PhD most people begin to hate their projects (probably because of Valley of Death, above). Just about the time that you decide that your area has absolutely no future and you can't understand why your PI is working in it, is about the time that you are ready to finish! Why? Well by the time you can see the flaws and deficiencies in your area, you finally understand it to the degree that merits the title PhD. Also, because of this new found knowledge, gained by slaving through the valley of death, you will be in a position to finally make that breakthrough in your research! If you are lucky this breakthrough will be successful experiments yielding 1-2 more papers. If you are unlucky, you will find that your idea is theoretically impossible and publish 1-2 papers on your folly. The thing is that this phase is very short. Just about the time that you reach the breakthrough, suddenly all your experiments work and now you have several papers to write, a thesis to compose, and to look for a job all at the same time. This can be very overwhelming. The good news is you are done!

Phase 5: The After Glow
I finished my PhD a year and a half ago and it feels like an age. After finishing I was treated with respect that I never found in graduate school. Instead of people questioning my competence, they question my scientific ideas. I have also found that I can complete experiments in 1/3 of the time that it took me in grad school. This is because I can read the literature, devise an experiment, plan it out, anticipate problems, generate potential solutions, and proceed all before I even begin. This would have been impossible in grad school as I just didn't have the technical knowledge to accomplish this. Finally, the success of my experiments has boosted my confidence. I now think that I do know what I am talking about. This makes me more likely to express my opinion, and I am quickly becoming confident enough to be that thorn in your side at seminars always asking questions. The PhD was a horrible process but I now have found my way back to the joy of experiments, science, and discovery and am having a great time. Additionally, all the old wounds between my advisors are healing. Similarly to the rejection of parents that takes place in adolescence, I think you have to go through a period where you decide that your advisor is an idiot. Then, after distance, you begin to appreciate their strengths, to see the error of you own thoughts, and to value them as a fellow scientist.

Well, I hope this helps anyone trapped in Phase 3 (the longest phase). I know that I was really panicked in my phase three until I was meeting with a seminar speaker who had some great advice. I was explaining how nothing was working and he asked what year I was. I said third year, and he told me that everyone goes through that and that it is completely normal. When you are trying to do something that no one has done before, it will take a while to pull it all together. So good luck guys!

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