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.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lab Update Week 7

My Lab Benches
Lab Week 1
Well it's time for another lab update. I have been here for seven weeks now and my benches have arrived! Unfortunately, they came in crates, which happen to be too big to fit through the lab door. So now all I need is to get them uncrated, assembled, installed, and have electrical and plumbing run. Simple right?

As far as the actual labs are concerned. Considerable progress has been made. In Lab #1, the boxes of equipment have piled so high that it will make installation of the benches challenging. And I now realize the problem with not making sure your equipment will fit through the door before you order it, as three of my pieces will have to be semi-disassembled to get them in the room. Thankfully, these pieces have not yet arrived or I think the facilities guys might consider a mass mutiny.

Lab 1
Lab Week 1 Lab Week 1

As for Lab #2, I am happy to say that the occupying group has now vacated. So all I need to do is get it painted, get the floors buffed, and run some extra electrical.

Lab 2
Lab Week 1 Lab Week 1

My realistic expectation is that this will probably all take another month, but if I could be doing experiments any time soon I would leap for joy. The good news is that my postdoc's visa application is stuck in timbuktu so her arrival will probably nicely correspond with my equipment installs being completed. Well, I should probably get back to writing those proposals (more on this later, I have to wait for the panic attack to subside).

Friday, August 18, 2006

Are math and science really that hard

This topic has been on my mind for a while, really ever since my post on answering the question "what do you do?". When I answer this question I almost always get an initial response of that must be so hard or you must be really smart. And I've been thinking and thinking about why that bothers me. And I finally put my finger on it.

One of the reasons that we don't have more individuals (male and female) in STEM fields is that people think it is hard.

Why do people think this? I think it is just as hard to write a detailed, insightful 30 page English paper as it is to solve a differentaial equation. And the creativity required to solve research problems and identify interesting research topics certainly rivals that of an artist. Recently, female science professor chronicalled how her family thought she wasn't creative because she was a scientist.
I think we should start a campaign:

"Science and Math are NOT hard"

[Is anyone else flashing back to that math barbie?]. From now on when someone tells me that I must be really smart, or that science is hard, I plan to counter that opinion as vehemently as possible.

I think that math and science are 'hard' because our culture believes it so. Universities have difficulty recruiting students into math and science teaching (believe this came from C&E News, but can't remember), and there is considerable disagreement over what the proper combination of education and science/math training should be. Many teachers at the elementary school level have very little training in math or science. Many of these teachers themselves believe that math and science are hard, and pass this attitude along to our children. As successful scientists and engineers, we need to set the example. We need to convince others that our subjects are interesting, captivating, and rewarding, and when you are doing something that you love, it really isn't difficult at all.

What do you guys think?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

My benches are shipping!

You know its time for a break when you get really, really excited that lab furniture is shipping. But I simply cannot contain my enthusiasm. When the benches come I can begin to unpack my equipment, and maybe just maybe my first experiments will take place.

Realistically though, it is doubtful that I will do anything before mid-September. Once the benches arrive we still need to plumb the sinks and run the electrical. Not to mention that some of my major equipment is not here yet. And note to future faculty, make sure that everything you order will fit through the lab door before you order it.

Otherwise things here at R1U could not be better. I am still trying to get in touch with Dr. Bigname (are any of you really surprised that this is difficult?), but it sounds like the Dr. will come on board. Because I really want to talk to the Dr. before launching into extensive grant writing, I have been working on lots of little things and I have been amazingly productive.

I just finished all my required training classes for grant administration, I ordered intructor copies of two potential textbooks for elective class in my area, and I even worked up some data leftover from my postdoc for my next paper. Things are good.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The anatomy of a proposal

Sorry I haven't updated recently. I have had a terrible cold and was pretty much a walking zombie the last few days.

As I mentioned in some of my previous posts, I am trying to get out a couple proposals for a mid-Sept. deadline. This has to be the slowest process on the planet. So here are a few highlights of my recent work.

On all the grant solicitations, they encourage you to discuss your ideas with a program officer, and my faculty mentors have also encouraged me to do this, saying it increases my chances of getting funded. So, I have been trying to reach program officers for 3-4 weeks, and my emails and calls were not returned. Really makes you feel welcome, doesn't it?

Then, last week I was cleaning my office and came across a sheet I picked up at my field's national conference last year that contains all the phone numbers for the program officers and their administrative assistant. I called the adminstrative assistant and had my call returned within two days.

I explained my two ideas to the program officer, who liked both of them, but indicated that they are really underfunded this year and that I probably shouldn't submit both ideas to the same solicitation. He recommended that I submit one idea to this solicitation and the other to another solicitation that I had aleady been thinking about. However, that solicitiation has limited submission, meaning that I would have to compete on campus before even making to the national funding agency. Historically, my success with these internal competitions has been poor because I am a brand new faculty member with no students, no funding, and limited publications. In order to increase my chances of success, I am trying to align myself with more senior faculty so I can get more money (large $$$ multi-PI grants) and increase my chance of getting past the school level. The deadline for this though is Nov, so it is effectively sidelined until next month.

I spent some time doing literature searches for the idea that will be proposed to the Sept. solicition and encountered a few technical issues. I decided to contact postdoc advisor for help, suggestions, and to try to encourage collaboration. Postdoc advisor is wonderful and recommends Dr. Bigname as a potential collaborator. Advisor calls Dr. Bigname and sets up a telephone call so that I can pitch my stuff to Dr. Bigname.

This is great, but I still haven't started writing the proposal, and with all the additions, changes, and discussions, the focus keeps changing. I am really excited and think that we will really put something nice together. But I am discouraged that the program officer went on about how little money the agency has this year and how the funding rates will be low. All I really want to do is starting writing, but I still need to talk to Dr. Bigname, and do some more lit searches. It is alas, a slow process.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Lab Update Week 5

I have been here for five weeks now and its been a couple of weeks since my last lab pictures so here goes.

Lab 1
Lab Week 1 Lab Week 1
Lab 2
Lab Week 1 Lab Week 1

Lab 1, as you may notice, now has freshly waxed floors. Also, my pile of Fisher boxes is ever growing. Unfortunately, they have yet to deliver the lab benches to put all that equipment on.

Lab 2, is still semi-occupied by the previous owners, but should be unoccupied and ready for me by the end of the month. I didn't even bother to show pictures last time because no progress was made at all, but this is actually a picture of the lab ~ 1/2 empty.

So progress is slow, but is happening.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Faculty Packages

My sister is preparing her faculty application package right now, and I have been helping her revise it. Based on what I've seen I thought I'd offer a few tips for anybody out there preparing a package right now.

Cover Letter:
First Paragraph
Should address the university, department, and position applied for. It should reference any interaction that you've had with faculty at that school.
Second Paragraph
It should describe your PhD research and advisor, and any planned or completed postdoc experience and advisors. The expected available start date should be listed.
Third Paragraph
Your proposed research area should be described briefly along with a discussion of its impact. Try to include names of potential collaborators at the university you are applying to. Also, particularly important is a discussion of funding in the field (e.g., recently the US dedicated XX million dollars to the XX initiative for my field through NSF, DOD...etc).
Fourth Paragraph
You should describe why you are already nationally,internationally recognized including awards won, papers published, presentations given, and patents awarded (brief summary not detailed like in the CV).
Fifth paragraph
You should include a statement on teaching plans, a few sentences on your motivation to teach and a few sentences on the classes/area you would like to teach.
Last Paragraph
You should conclude with contact information, a summary of upcoming presentations, and a summary of why you fit the position description as published.

pretty standard but in general should list (probably in this order)
Education (include title of thesis, advisor(s) names, and GPAs)
Research Experience (list by position with bulleted list of major accomplishments)
Work Experience (list by position with bulleted list of major accomplishments)
Awards and Honors (most recent first)
Publications (separate by peer-reviewed journal, review articles, and peer-reviewed presentations in that order)
Presentations (separate by national and local)
Patents (if any)
Teaching Experience (include class taught, local course number, number of students and specific duties, if you lectured in place of the professor list how many times)
Service (include science fair judges, talks to general public, grad service commitees)
Extracurricular Activities
(list professional societies, and a couple of colorful outside activities that will describe your personality and give you something to discuss at interviews)

Research Plan: This is always the hardest isn't it. Include pictures, references, try to limit to 5 pages. Plan should include:
overview (executive summary): summarize your proposed research so that a scientist not in your field could understand without reading the rest of your package.
background: short lit review on your field and how you fit into it (i.e., why are you awesome vs. all the other stuff going on)
research ideas: usually 3 described in enough detail that someone would believe that you could do them, but not as much detail as in the methods section of a paper

Teaching Plan:
Paragraph 1
Include your teaching philosophy (but don't call it that with a header). Why do you want to teach vs. pursue a strict research career? How do you plan to motivate your students? What methods will you use to teach (socratic method, experimental/demonstration based, interactive questioning) Citing current education research is a HUGE plus.
Paragraph 2
Include the classes you with to teach, use course numbers from the university in question if possible, list undergrad and grad
Paragraph 3
Include a selection of classes you wish to develop and how they fit in with the department's current choices

And that's it, you have a great package. Easy right?

Monday, August 07, 2006


Today I got to participate in my first outreach activity. I had a lunch with a prospective undergrad interested in my field and his parents . It was really exciting because I love talking about my field with new people, particularly sharing the enthusiasm I have for the subject. I hope that this will be the first of many activities along these lines.

Lab Update: I will try to get pictures soon, but my floors are indeed waxed and polished, and the group occupying my second lab has begun to move out. Also, BIG lab equipment started to roll off the truck, but I don't have a place for it yet as the benches haven't arrived. I still think I'm on track for first experiments in Sept.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Being your own boss and the perspective a few years brings

I can't tell you how much I am enjoying being an Asst. Professor. I guess this would be the honeymoon as I am miles away from being worried about tenure, haven't had any grants rejected yet, and don't have any students (or equipment for that matter). But, I absolutely love what I am doing. I am trying to prepare a couple proposals right now, and the coolest part is that I am in charge. I decide which direction the research should go, what we should work on next, and how it should be executed. Of course, I will have to generate funding for these ideas, but the freedom is something entirely new for me. I absolutely love it.

On another note, I find myself drawing ever closer to the kinds of things that my advisors would say to me that made me so angry. Funny how a few years changes things. I was just thinking about starting up the lab. There is a a lot of research that I want to pursue, and I was trying to think about realisitic expectations for a first year grad student. I remember how angry I was when my advisors told me that classes weren't very important, that research was all that mattered, and that I should let my grades slide so I could spend more time in the lab. Now I want to say the same things to my students!

In many ways my advisors were right, but I also understand how most people in graduate school are there for the love of the material. It is very difficult to care deeply about something and also be willing to 'blow it off' to concentrate on more important issues. I think the transition between classes and lab is an important one and that most 1st years need the time to make the change from a lecture setting to a research setting. I also think that grad classes are some of the last structured opportunities to learn information, and should be taken full advantage of. However, if there is any way for a student to benefit from classes and find their way into the lab for serious experiments, then I am all for it!

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Is it ever okay to have tons of students?

I have been thinking a lot lately about the way that academia works. In general, it seems that grants are funded based on a number of factors, but merit of the idea is extremely important. Hypothetically, lets say that I am awesome and come up with tons of fabulous ideas. Hypothetically, I am also a fabulous grant writer and I get many of my ideas funded necessitating an extremely large lab (~ 20+ students and postdocs).

I have always felt negatively about labs of this size. It seems that the PI is not really mentoring the students, but rather the senior students/postdocs are mentoring the younger students. And that really isn't the point of grad school is it? But more recently I have been seeing this question from the other side of the fence. If I were so fabulous that I had tons of great ideas, and people were willing to fund them, shouldn't I proceed with their execution? And if that requires a large body of students in my lab, even if I am not mentoring them directly, is that okay? What do you think?

[Keep in mind this is an entirely hypothetical argument, and while I hope that I am a successful proposal writer, I am in no way delusional enough to think that I will be funding 20+ lab members any time soon.]

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

One Month Follow-Up

Well I have been on the job for one month now and thought I would look back at my accomplishments.

1. Applied for 2 internal grants- 1-rejected, 1-pending
2. Found 2 external program solicitations to submit grants to.
3. Ordered 80-90% of major equipment.
4. Hired a postdoc.
5. Interviewed 2 grad students for the Fall.
6. My postdoc papers- 1 in press, 1 being written for invited article, 1 in limbo

For Next Month
1. Get first lab cleaned out.
2. Get furniture (benches) installed in first lab.
3. Install major equipment in first lab.
4. Get students and equipment out of second lab so that I can move in.
5. Ditto all the stuff for first lab.
6. Substantially complete two proposals.
7. Decide what elective I am teaching in the spring.

I hope to have new lab pictures by tomorrow. In theory, the floors are being buffed and the lab is getting super clean today. But then that was the theory yesterday as well.

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