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, April 24, 2006

Grant Writing and Competition

It has been a while since my last post. I wrote a nice one that got eaten by the blogger interface and then was so depressed I didn’t try again for a while. Things here are very mixed. I am wrapping up my experiments and getting ready to move from postdoc to PI. That part is really, really exciting. I have been submitting abstracts for next fall and I get to put my R1U (Research 1 Univ) contact information. It really makes my heart swell. On the otherhand, I have had my first indoctrination into departmental politics.

I wanted to apply for a award/grant for new investigators. This particular award will allow only one submission per university and can only be applied for during your first year as a PI. The fields targeted are narrow so it is really only between my department and one other. In July , my department asked the other department if I could have the nomination and they said yes. I have been preparing my application, which is due in mid-May, for the last few months carefully honing it. I even emailed past recipients to use their 'winning' submissions as examples. Then, I submit my application to the department chair, who sends it over to OSP (office of sponsored projects, the clearing house for all grants in a university). You can probably guess where this is going, they say that they already have a submission from the other department , who seem to have casually forgot their commitment to us.

I raised a giant ruckus, carefully delineating the reasons why I should be the candidate, including my careful planning, already completed proposal, and the fact that I have already submitted half my materials to the agency (which would have to be retracted if we change the candidate). The short of it is that they have decided to have an internal competition between myself and the other candidate to see who should get the nomination, which seems sort of fair, but frustrating. I feel pretty confident. I have sent my proposal to everyone I can imagine and received plenty of comments, but mostly everyone says it is a strong proposal. Given my lack of confidence in my proposal writing (and acceptance rates hovering near 8-10% don't help raise that at all), I swelled with pride when I got those comments back. But, my CV may not be as strong as the other candidate. I have an average number of pubs, but not an overwhelming number, and only one in a high impact journal. Also, most of the pubs from my postdoc are still being written, so I am sitting on a ton of data, but none of it counts 'cause its not even submitted yet. I just hope the quality of my ideas shows through.

The one thing I can say is that my chair is a real trooper. It just goes to show how important it is to have a strong department chair that will go to bat for you. This is something I didn't really think about during the interview process, but definitely feel the value of now. Well, wish me luck!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A little perspective

I really appreciate your comments on my last post about answering the question, "What do you do?". I had a chance to try a new approach last weekend. My daughter had a playdate, and I had never met the Mom before. We were talking and eventually we got to the question. This time I responded by saying that I was a research scientist. I described my research in a few sentences (the kind of description I usually give to my family) and tried to enthuse with confidence and excitement. This appeared to work. I did get the usual 'look,' but this time instead of 'you must be so smart.' I got a different response: 'wow, my life is really boring compared to yours.' This made me think about the whole situation in a new light. It's not that they are afraid of me, or that I am uninteresting. It appears that others are afraid I won't like them. This makes me feel a little better and helps me understand how to approach the situation.

If there is one thing I've had a lot of this week, it is perspective. I have been working on a grant application for new faculty members. I have been having the hardest time with it. At first I felt bad about my lack of enthusiasm, what does that say about my future career if I can't even find the energy to put my ideas down to paper? Worst part is I am supposed to sum up my entire career plan (and teaching plans) in 8 pages and I find this very near impossible. I have too many ideas and too much to say. Seems I am not the only one with this predicament as young female scientist appears to be in a similar situation.

Yesterday, in a fit of frustration I took off for the gym. On my way there I was pulling up to a stop sign when I saw a tractor-trailer crush a car in front of me. Amazingly, the occupant appeared unhurt (the crushing appeared to be on the side opposite where she was sitting). I stopped to help and summoned the police (who were next door making a traffic stop). Then, I got back into the car and continued onto the gym. When I got to the gym, an aerobics instructor was nursing her 2 mo old baby in the locker room. And my heart just melted. Between the threat of death and the promise of life my grant application seemed a really minor problem.

After my work out, I went back to work and started over. I rewrote the entire beginning and retooled a couple of my research areas. The enthusiasm for my work is returning and I am back on track. Sometimes I think we just need a little perspective.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Answering the question: What do you do?

Oh, what an interesting weekend I had. My husband and I flew out to R1U [Research 1 University] only this time it wasn't for me. My husband, who will be attending business school next year, was there for the prospectives weekend. I attend the 'spouse' events. This situation raised a problem that I have faced more and more over the last few years and I would love to hear how you guys handle it. Invariably, conversation will turn to what each of us does. And frankly, I am always at a loss how to answer this question.

First perhaps a little background. We are sitting at a 'spouses' lunch (which did include some husbands, but they were glued to the Final Four tourney on TV). We started talking about babies because two of the women were obviously pregnant and happily discussed our children, pregnancies, and childbirth for about 20 minutes. Then, the conversation turns to 'what do you do.' One woman was a nurse, another a physical therapist, one taught aerobics, another was a forensic scientist (lots of CSI questions). Then it comes to me. I say that I am going to be a Professor. This is usually followed by 'oh, in what area?' And I respond with my area of engineering. Most people, as was the case here, make this face, which I really wish I could duplicate that is a combination of amazement, disgust, and awe. I actually had one person refer to me from there on out as the wicked smart engineer.

The thing is I am so embarrassed by these encounters. It is like high school all over again, where I feel compelled to pretend that I am less intelligent than I am because I don't want people to hate me. I just need a better way to handle this. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I am not a braggart and don't want to draw undue attention to them. And it doesn't help that the average lay person has no idea what a college professor does all day (yet alone a postdoc). People assume that Professors actually teach all the time. The research component is not usually known. When I explain that I will actually spend only a small time teaching and most of my time writing grants, they are perplexed. [Of course I don't usually go on about the intracacies of being a Professor without being asked, but it frequently comes up.] So how do you guys handle this? Is it as embarrassing for you as it is for me?

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