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, October 30, 2006

What we give up...

Well things are definitely improving. Last week my mother in-law visited, and for once it was a great visit. My nanny got married the previous weekend and she was here to sit the kids while my nanny was on her honeymoon. In the past when we've asked her to help out we needed someone to physically sit the kids, but otherwise we've been in good shape. This was the first time that we were literally hanging on by a thread before she arrived. I think she appreciated our situation and the difficulty that we are having just holding things together.

The day that she arrived my daughter had a violin lesson, which was terrible, the worst ever. She couldn't concentrate, she purposefully did the opposite of what she was asked. The instructor asked how we practice at home and I admitted that the nanny ran most practices as we don't really have time. He insisted that I need to practice with her at least 20 min. per day, since I was the one who plays violin and I attend her lessons. I almost started bawling right there. I simply do not have 20 minutes to do this, but I don't want my daughter to be punished because of my schedule. Its not her fault mommy and daddy are insanely busy. This situation sort of resolved itself. It turned out that my daughter's bad behavior was over excitement and not inattentiveness to practice. When I asked her to play for me the next day she was fabulous, but it illustrates my point...20 minutes really isn't a lot to ask, but I don't have it. It really is all I can do to get the kids through the monotony of get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to school, come home, make/buy dinner, eat, bath, books, bed. My husband is even more overwhelmed than I am with his B-school studies and is little help.

Thank god for mother-in-law. For one week, she fed the kids, did mounds of laundry, and basically gave me the reprieve that I needed to save my sanity. We have had our disagreements over the years, but I think when she saw how really in trouble we were, she stepped up and helped out beautifully. I should probably send flowers or something.

But this brings me to my point about what we give up to have both a family and an academic career. Of course this depends on your personal situation, whether your husband/wife also works, what kind of support you have/can buy, but here is my situation. I have not had a close friend in several years. I have friends at work, but making time to go out and have fun with someone when you can barely keep your underwear laundered just didn't seem the priority. I have my family and my husband and they have been my support, but now my sister lives far away and my husband is really tired of Pride and Prejudice (and Colin Firth movies in general). I am trying to branch out, for the first time in years. As my children get older, I have more time, but only incrementally. Most of the moms that I meet through them are stay at home and a little intimidated by me, but some aren't, and I am trying to connect with them. I am joining the faculty knitting club (but only when it meets before I have to go home and meet the nanny). I am trying. I haven't played a video game since my before my daughter was born. I have read about 10 books total in the last 5 years (although I have listened to several books on tape, which totally rocks). I have had time to practice my violin about once a year maybe twice. My husband and I had to stop dancing lessons, which we had taken for six years, because it got to insane for us when my son was born. I have about one date with my husband every six months (no time! and getting a sitter can be hard), but we watch TV/movies at home a lot.

There has been a lot of sacrifice in my life for my twin dreams. I love my children. Sometimes they annoy me, but they are my greatest accomplishments. I love my job, now moreso than ever. I hope that my discoveries and research can make a strong impact on society and I have the chance to train a new generation of scientists and engineers. I would still make the sacrifices, I would still do it. It is worth it. I just wish it wasn't quite so hard.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Either the dust is settling or I'm getting used to the smoke

Well, things are finally getting better for me. I think. It is also possible that I am just getting used to the pace of this job. I am in the process of preparing a paper for a special journal issue, preparing a proceedings article, and preparing a grant proposal all due in a month. But I am NOT panicking. In fact, I think everything is moving along pretty well. I must be crazy.

I appreciate all your thoughtful comments about the pre-proposal gosh I knew you'd get it because you're a woman comments. I especially liked the comment from anonymous, "You wrote an excellent proposal which deserved to make it. In the past, it might not have succeeded, because you are junior and female. And while your proposal was as good as - or better than - those of some senior males, it was not twice as good, which would have been necessary back then. But the university has noticed this problem and tries to fix it. Which is why your deserving proposal made it." This is what I think everyone was trying to say, but it just didn't come out right. However, the thing is that even pointing out that I am a woman diminished the win in some way, and for that I am sorry. I can't wait for the day when people do not see me as a woman scientist and see me as simply a scientist.

I am also getting excited because I have begun to do limited teaching, guest lectures in our freshman seminars. I put a lot of thought into how best to educate students. I evaluate the teaching methods that have been used on me, that are currently used on my husband, and that my colleagues use. It always seems to come back to two things. (1) You have to actually want your students to learn and (2) Keep it simply, stupid! I am inspired as always by Richard Feynman. In his autobiographies, he discusses his teaching style. He says that his teaching goal is to try to break down the material into the simplest explanation possible and then expand from there. I think about how to do this almost everytime that I assemble a talk or a lecture. What do I want my students to know? What is the simplest way to convey that information?

Well, I should probably get back to work. I am giving one of those seminars in about 30 minutes....

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Women in Science: Update

Ah my friends it is time for another report on women in science. This time from the National Academies. I heard about this on the Scientific American podcast which interviewed one of the study authors: Maria Zuber, head of the department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT. It is a nice succinct description of the report and is worth a listen.

Basically the study concluded that (1) surprise, surprise women are capable of succeeding in STEM careers and (2) the single greatest impediment to retaining faculty (men or women) was the lack of a stay-at-home spouse. I think that this speaks volumes. In the past, it was very common to have a spouse (okay typically a wife) who could hold down the fort at home while the other partner worked diligently away at their career. But many homes are now dual-income, and not just for the money, but for the pleasure of pursuing one's own life aspirations. Yet, the system still requires from us the same (if not more) than in the past when support was available. And a key point of this report, was that this effects women AND men equally.

How do we fix this? I am not sure. I think that we may have to rethink what our expectations for faculty are. Funding levels right now are dramatically low (7-8% at last check). If this trend continues, it is unrealistic for universities to expect the number of students and support that faculty have achieved in the past. Perhaps this is a good thing and will cause us to re-examine our expectations. But, honestly I think that we need to take a good long look at what it means to be a faculty member. Is the mission of faculty to educate students or to conduct research and generate cash flow? I realize that these are not exclusive goals, but it seems that the trend has been much more to the latter, to the detriment of students. I posted before about the large post-doc factory labs on elite campuses. I sincerely disagree with this model because the interaction between faculty and student is lost. Yet, these elite schools are setting the standards for those below and this model has become the goal for many schools to achieve.

Separately but in the same vein, I would like to relate something that happened to me last week. I mentioned in my last post that I had a pre-proposal selected for full proposal. This was an internal university competition for a limited submission grant to a federal funding organization. I worked very hard on my pre-proposal putting together a team of faculty from my area and elsewhere. I thought about our experimental goals and how best to describe their potential impact and broader context, carefully crafting a proposal that I believe to be some of my better work. When I received the notification that I had been selected I felt honored, a little stressed that I now have to put together the full proposal, but pleased that I was selected. I sought out my department chair to tell him of my good fortune. And his response...I'm not surprised. The university has been very cognizant of its position with women and is doing everything that it can to encourage young faculty. They have not won internal competitions in the numbers they should have in the past, and they are careful to rectify this situation.

Alright. I felt a little deflated, but still excited. Next, I tried to find my co-PI, a male senior faculty in my department. His response was similar, but more tactful...I'm not surprised. Your proposal was really good and you are a young female faculty member. They are really trying to help out people like you and they didn't have to lower their standards to do so. It was good work.

Oh my. I am not too upset by this (although I know some of you will be), as this is not the first time that this has happened. I won an NSF graduate student fellowship and got the same response from the department graduate advisor after that victory, so I am used to it now. I did take some time to discuss the comments with both faculty, explaining that true equality means that you don't notice that I am a women not that you make sure to have equal representation in awards and honors, but sometimes I feel like I am yelling in the wind. I was pleased that my work, which I felt to be strong, was recognized, but much of that excitement was taken away by the belief that others do not see the quality of my work...simply my sex...which isn't even that important to me. I don't think about faculty as male or female or belonging to this race or religion when evaluating the quality of someone's work, and I don't think that anyone else should either. On the positive side, at least no one mentioned that I am mother, I think that would have been worse.

[All comments are paraphrased, but reflect the gist of the conversation. All opinions expressed are my own and do not represent those of the department or university. And neither of these persons are mysoginist in any way. I think they were trying to say that I am a talented woman not just a woman.]

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm not dead, just busy

Well, you probably think that I have dropped off the planet but I swear that I haven't. I have been working harder than almost any time in my life both at home and at work. The kicker is I think I am actually enjoying it, except that I am so tired. If you sort of followed my last posts, I was trying to get out a two proposals and teach a class by the end of Sept. All that happened and came off without a hitch.

Unfortunately, Oct is as crazy as Sept. My husband started graduate school (MBA) and is crazy busy. He is staying up until 2-3 in the morning most nights and is completely useless at helping with kids. I am shouldering virtually the entire load at home (meals, laundry, kids, bills, etc.). This is manageable, but takes up my entire evening, until I collapse in a heap on the bed. Work is not letting up either. I foolishly/intelligently wrote a preproposal for a grant that I would really like to write and wouldn't you know it I got selected for a full proposal, which is awesome...except that now I have to write that proposal. In addition, I have an invited paper due Nov 1, a proceedings due Nov 15, and two conferences to attend (talks already written thank G-d). I did have the foresight to recruit one of my students to help with data analysis for the paper, which is on my postdoc research, and this helps enormously.

Speaking of students and the lab we are doing really, really well. I will try to get pictures up, but it will probably be another week as I will be traveling Wed-Mon. I have recruited one undergraduate who is a non-traditional student (ex-military, experience in industry), and he is fantastic. I also managed to get to visiting scholars, which at my university means people with a BS or higher who work for no pay. Both of the visiting scholars are women whose husbands are postdocing here, but don't have the appropriate visa to work for money. One has an MS and one a PhD, and both want to keep doing research even if they can't be paid. They are fantastic. They come in almost every day, work way more than a 1-2 year grad student would, and have virtually set-up the entire lab. The first lab should be semi-functional next week and fully functional by the end of October. The other lab should be ready by the end of November. All my large equipment except one piece is here, and the furniture debacle (see previous posts) is almost resolved. In fact, there are people running plumbing and electrical as we speak. If I didn't have these students managing things I would definitely have problems, and the lab would be nowhere near as ready as it is now. Hopefully, I can recruit some graduate students in the next few weeks and we can get going. Also, hope my postdoc's visa comes through (fingers crossed any day now).

I realize now how much of a team effort a lab is. I simply cannot do everything myself. Which is completely obvious to most graduate students, I mean when was the last time you saw a PI in the lab plugging away. But I now realize that I will depend on my students for much more.

I am still having a great time, and I still LOVE this job, but I am getting a little tired and could use a breath of air every now and then. So, tomorrow, to "prepare" for my conferences I am getting my hair cut and getting a pedicure. I mean a girl has to look good, right?

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