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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Teaching redux

So, I am faced with a new situation. We have had an increase in our enrollment, which is a nice problem to have, but it has required that we now offer more than one section of the same class in the same term. We have sufficient faculty that these additional sections are taught by different instructors. I teach the 2nd term of a two-term class, which will now have two sections. I was talking with the instructors of the current term class and they indicated that they were trying to make the two sections as similar as possible. They used the same lecture materials, handouts, homeworks, exams, and even pooled their TAs. This works well for them because they are friends and have similar teaching styles. I will be working with a new-to-us faculty member, and so am uncertain about his/her teaching style. I am also trying a lot of new things (podcasting, YouTube videos) that the other instructor may not want to emulate (and until I'm sure things work, I wouldn't blame him/her). So, I was curious, when you have been faced with two sections of the same class, do you try to synchronize the classes or does each instructor go their own way?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Where is the wonder in science?

This has been sitting on my desk for a while waiting to be blogged about and I finally got that grant in so it seemed like a good time.

This editorial, and this issue of PopSci, in general address a growing problem of lack of students entering science and engineering as a career. We have an identity problem, a serious one. There was a similar editorial this month in one of my trade journals that suggested that maybe we should stop calling ourselves scientists and go by our more specific titles (i.e., geologist, chemist, physicist) to distance ourselves from this stigma (the article was tongue in cheek). But the facts are that China is putting out 40% of its UGs in Engineering and we are not even close (5%!!!) If we assume that technology is crucial to out economic future, which I believe is true, we will have to do something more.

I have long been a proponent of science and science education. Science is the kindergarten leaf project, science is the 3rd grade volcano, science is when you blow the straw paper off of your straw, when you make a paper airplane, when you examine an ant on the ground, and when you cook something in the oven for the very first time. Science is used to make ipods, cell phones, shampoo, make-up, cars, gasoline to run the cars, and even the pigskin used in the Friday night game. Science is such an integral part of our lives, I often have difficulty understanding how we as scientists could end-up with the stereotype of the gray-haired white guy with crazy hair in a lab coat with a pocket protector. Yet, every time I tell people about my occupation they always say that it must be hard or I must be smart. I guess my job is more challenging than flinging burgers at the Burger Barn, but it is infinitely rewarding. This is the enthusiasm that we must convey to the future generations. By the time they reach college it is too late. We have to go out to the elementary schools and middle schools and show students how they can turn their innate joy of discovery into a career that provides a lifetime of possibility.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Funding Rat Race

I've heard on both of the big grants that I applied for last year and the answer is no. Although I have several smaller grants in the pipeline, each of these would fund 1 student and supplies, whereas the big grants would have secured our lab's future for the next 3-5 years. In many ways it feels like all I do is write grant proposals. Given that most proposals will only fund 1 student and that the funding rate is ~ 10%, it is a lot of effort for an extremely modest reward.

Things here aren't exactly dire, we still have about two years of funding. Some of my colleagues, including senior colleagues, may spend out in the next few months. So at least I can take comfort that we are not in that bad of a situation. The problem is that I don't have enough to really take my lab where I want it to be. I don't think there is enough out there to be honest.

Although research funding has increased over the years, so have the number of people applying for it.

Actual per/PI funding is down for everyone I talk to. My colleagues would argue that this is because of increases in soft money applicants, particular in medicine. There is virtually an unlimited supply of soft money (100% grant folks), and if the pot of money increases then universities can hire in response. I don't know but it seems a plausible explanation, especially since most research funding increases have been through NIH. It was suggested that increasing barriers to entry could solve this problem. For example, requiring that NIH funded researchers receive at least 50% of salary from their home institution (1:1 matching).

NSF has recently become concerned because despite the increases in total funding, the number of US publications has been flat for some time. If it is true that per PI funding is down this could explain the problem. I know that I certainly spend much more time writing proposals than I would like. I still have a postdoc paper from 1.5 years ago that I am just now getting out, and grant writing is part of the reason why. I also can't mentor my students as well as I would like because I am always writing grants. That's not to say that I don't make time for those things. I think publications and mentoring are very important, I just don't have the time that I would like.

I don't know the answer. All I know is that my lab will have to stay small to ride out the storm, at least until I *do* hit that big grant.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Lactation in the Modern Age

A recent post by Science Woman has raised the question of how breastfeeding women should be accommodated. The background is that an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Harvard asked for extra break time on her licensing exams because she is nursing. The board refused and a legal battle has ensued. She has argued that a 45 minute break (I don't think all at one time) is not sufficient for pumping activities during a 9 hour test. Oh, did I mention that she had two children while completing her MD-PhD, obviously a real slacker on our hands here. I would also like to point out that nursing for the first year is the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization of MDs, which you would think would recognize the importance of allowing lactation during the testing time.

Now I don't have experience with medical licensing tests in particular, but as an engineer I did have to take the EIT/FE (fundamentals of engineering) exam at the end of my BS. I distinctly recall that the test lasted the whole day with a couple of 20 minute potty breaks and a lunch break. The testing location had one women's restroom with two stalls. Now it happened that there was one woman who raced to the stalls immediately at the start of break and spent the entire 20 minutes in a stall pumping. I admit at the time I was kind of angry that someone took up a stall for the entire 20 minutes creating a bathroom line for the remaining stall that took almost the entire 20 minutes to get through. Meanwhile the guys had plenty of extra time to stroll around and clear their heads, maybe even visit the candy and drink machines. In retrospect that woman should have had accommodation. I can't imagine pumping in 20 minutes (with set-up and clean-up and everything). She must have pumped all of 1 ounce in that time, if she could concentrate while holed-up in a stall. She also should have had a separate pumping room. Not only did her lack of accommodation inconvenience herself, but it impaired the testing environment for all of the women present by limiting our bathroom access. It's a shame that testers aren't more understanding and that women aren't more forthright about demanding what is fair and equitable.

This also brings back my own pumping experiences. I nursed both of my children exclusively for 1 year (shout out to Science Woman, you're not a hippie, you're normal). My daughter was born after my MS, and I shared an office with 6 other grad students. I pumped in the ladies room, which had a nice sofa, but I still scared off about 1/2 of the women that would normally use that bathroom. We had a word of mouth schedule and those offended understood that the bathroom was off-limits during those times. With my son, born day after my defense, I was at my postdoc. I was fortunate that my department had two other nursing mothers (what are the odds?) and they had set aside a lactation room, which happened to double as the server room so don't spill any milk or you're in trouble, but it had a key. That was grand. I bought one of those bras that holds the bottles and suction cups in place so my hands were free to work. And I did work in there, a lot. This was a much better arrangement than the first.

Finally, I wanted to make an observation. When I was little, everyone I knew was bottle fed. The dolls that little girls (and some boys) played with came with bottles so you could "feed" them. Things are different now. After I tuck my daughter in at night (and also in some inappropriate situations), I frequently see my daughter's baby dolls up her shirt as she "nurses" them. It kind of warms my heart to think that my single action has had that much influence on her. She sees nursing rather than bottle feeding as the natural way to nurture a child. Ah, my work here is done.

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