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, May 13, 2008

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

Answer: Time
The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien

I didn't go to grad school right away. Instead I worked in industry for two years (a long story). When I did go back, I went because I wanted to. I wanted to learn more, and ultimately I wanted to dedicate my life to learning and teaching others. My first semester back I dug very deeply. It wasn't enough to understand the surface of the material, I wanted to understand it at its most fundamental level. As an example, we all know about magnetism from an etch-a-sketch. In college, maybe you learn Maxwell's equations, but did you know that magnetism can only be truly understood as a relativistic effect, and that it was Einstein who first described it fundamentally in his special relativity treatise? This was the kind of learning that I sought.

I am sad to say that I was beaten down after the first month or so. The amount of homework that I had (easily 15-20 hours per class) prohibited this kind of deeper learning. I had to concentrate on simply getting through the material and learning what needed to be learned for the HW and exams. I admit I am still sad about this turn of events, but that is not to say that I didn't learn a lot from grad school, some of it at this deeper level that I am referring to.

Now, I find myself in a similar situation. To get funded, I need to write many grants. The funding rate at most places seems to hover near 10%. Even senior investigators are downsizing their labs, and the situation is the bleakest it has been in years. So, I find that rather than thinking deeply about what my lab is doing, I am pumping out grants as fast as I can.

One of the problems that we are working on is very risky. If successful, we will challenge some major theoretical paradigms. But getting something like this funded is extremely difficult. People either love it or think it is impossible. What I need is time to sit down and hash out the theory so that at least on paper I can answer all the major concerns. And time is the one thing that I don't have.

I think that this, the loss of time to "just think," is the greatest tragedy of the funding situation. I fear that if it is not corrected creativity may be lost altogether.


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