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, July 28, 2009

It's all a party until somebody breaks something

So my lab has a general policy of sharing all our equipment, and in return, we borrow several items from other labs as well. This has been going along pretty well, but last week somebody broke something, something $$$. I still haven't got the full story so I don't know who to blame at this point, but the question is...Do I let people continue to share my expensive equipment, or do I start saying no to protect my investment, or do I have a more measured response?

People borrow our stuff when we are there, when we are not there, with training, without much training. We have SOPs (standard operating procedures) for all equipment, but as you may know you can't MAKE someone RTFM (read the f*ing manual). And from what I understand, my students were in the room when this occurred. It may have even been my student that suggested the steps that led to equipment breakage.

So, another question. If a student breaks something that is $$$, is there any chance of repercusion. Can I ask this student to pay for the equipment in some way or am I doomed to scraping the money together from somewhere?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Joy of Science

Thank you so much for all the comments on my last post. I have to admit I was surprised by all the support, and it encourages me to tell more of my story.

Unlike many students, I did not go straight from my BS to my PhD. Instead I worked for 2 years. I got married shortly after graduation, so my husband was around for most of this. After 1 year in industry, it became clear that it wasn't a good fit. To be honest, I was bored. My husband pointed out that he made plenty of money at this job, and that I didn't have to work at all, and that if I was going to work, it should at least be doing something I enjoyed. We spent many nights talking about what I loved best, and I told him that I wanted to be a professor. This meant going back to school for at least 5 years, plus a 1-2 year postdoc, before I would even be able to start my new job, but it was what I wanted.

One interesting thing about this experience is that it gave me power. I don't have to work ergo I should only do so if it is enjoyable for me. When I started graduate school and throughout my career, this has always been first and foremost in my mind. I only work as much as I want to. The moment it becomes too much, I stop. Of course there are situations where you will occassionally have to work more than you want, like right before a conference or a big grant deadline, but for the most part, careful planning can prevent these problems.

This philosophy has served me well, and I instill it in my students. In the collected book of Feynman's letters (my academic idol for those late to the party), someone asked him about a physicist that worked all the time and whether he needed to do that too to be a great physicist. Feynman replied that that man may be a great physicist, but he wasn't a very good person. I think it is so important to have outside interests that extend beyond the laboratory or office. I encourage my students to make time for these interests and for themselves. I want my lab to be happy. Happy people do better work. I feel that the attitudes that we as scientists perpetuate today with regard to long hours take the joy out of science and discovery. There is a big jump between the excitement of that first chemistry set or cataloging tree leaves in kindergarten and slaving away at two in the morning in a basement lab. My goal is to bring back the joy of science, not just for myself, but for my students, and also through outreach and the example that I set, to future students.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why am I so Ashamed of Being Successful?

So...I have always been different. I'm sure many of you can sympathize with being the "smart girl" in the class. I learned at an early age that things go better if I pretend to not be as successful as I am or to hide certain things. You would think this would get better the higher I got up the academic food chain, and it has...to some extent. But there is still a major difference between me and many of my colleagues. I'm almost ashamed to admit it but...

I work about 40 hours a week every week. I rarely work at home.

It seems like most of my colleagues (women and men) work crazy 10, 12+ hour days. Often you hear people comparing the academic version of war stories almost as if it is a contest to see who has worked the longest day. But I have never been like that.

At my Midwestern R1U I am considered fairly successful. I have been here three years now and have received 3 federal grants, given 2 invited talks at international conferences, been asked to serve on 2 journal editorial boards, and mentored students who have received a whole host of awards (Goldwater fellowship, NSF grad research awards, awards from professional society, etc.). As such, the university likes to use me as an example of what to do.

Recently we received one of those grants that promotes women in STEM and we have been having meetings to evaluate the situation on our campus. The primary complaint seems to center around more childcare, and in the context of this I frequently hear people complain about their 12 hour days. One of the options that was presented was part-time appointments. Someone made the joke that sure, then we can just work 40 hours per week instead of 60 or 80. I just cringed inside. I wonder, do other people know that I don't do that? Sometimes it is easier to let people assume that I must just work all the time to achieve what I have rather than that I have been lucky or smart or whatever you want to call it.

At the end of this meeting, Dr. Mrs. Supersuccesful asked to talk to me and we discussed success and women at R1U. I thought here is someone I can finally share my secret 8 hour days with. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I got the weirdest look when I admitted that I don't work crazy hours. (Which is why I never tell anyone.) Then later when discussing this with Awesome As. Dean, she said that I should speak out and let people know that 8 hour days are okay. But honestly, I am still ashamed in some way that I don't work as much as everyone else does and yet still seem to do okay. Which begs the question: Why am I so ashamed of being successful?

Longtime, No See

You may have noticed that my blogging has become less frequent. I am not giving it up, but I have been dedicating much of my time to getting work in order and have been pretty busy. I have been spending lots of time meeting with my students and mentoring them. I guess in some sense this is optional. I mean you don't have to mentor students, but if you don't work proceeds much more slowly and students will be unhappy.

A few posts ago I told you about the student who was thinking leaving my group. Well, he decided to stay and things seem to be back on track now. I am meeting with him weekly to try to keep him focused and it is really helping. Of course that also means that I am meeting with him weekly. Seeing how well this worked I have started regular meetings with all my students, although not all are weekly and it seems to have a big position effect.

The downside is that it takes up a lot of my time (which is why I didn't do it in the first place). There is no way I can sustain this when classes start back, but hopefully everyone will be in a good place by then and we can meet much less frequently. I have to admit getting two grants funded (thank you stimulus package!) has really taken a lot of the pressure off.

Well, I have to go write a book chapter (due end of month), two letters of recommendation, and review an article.

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