The 2013 GGNB Women’s career network meeting!

This year I was fortunate to attend the second Women’s Careers and Networks meeting organized by graduate students from the Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences, Biophysics and Molecular Biosciences (GGNB) as part of their Women’s Career Network or WoCaNET, organized by an incredibly energetic group of PhD students (representing an amazing diversity of countries). I have no doubt these women will help shape the future of science in many ways, and it is inspiring. (While the students described many of the sessions as “inspiring” – it was their energy, curiosity and interest in making their own futures that I found most captivating and hopeful.)

The line-up of speakers was impressive if not for their current positions as scientists and academics then for their own career paths.  While the head of Exploratory Pathology, Pharma Research and Early Development at Roche Diagnostics, Suzana Vega Harring discussed her part-time (80 or 85%; I don’t exactly recall) work situation, and the three years she had taken to be home for her kids, Dame Carol Robinson, Royal Society Research Professor and the first female professor of chemistry at Oxford University, captivated the audience with a very personal presentation about her own pathway through the sciences: taking eight years off after completing her PhD in two years, to stay home with her children before returning to full-time science and a highly accomplished career.  Talking to students after, it was clear these stories and others calmed concerns that following the straight and narrow, post-PhD is not the only route to a rewarding career – that one could work part-time and have a fulfilling science career, take time off for children and return to academia (not that it is easy, but it can be done as long as one is willing to start off on a lower rung), or follow a range of career options from industry, to academia, patent attorney, regulation. Also of interest was their own survey of the graduate student body (with a return of some 300 surveys for roughly 1000 sent out) which suggested many students both men and women were concerned about achieving suitable work-life balance – with 25% of respondents indicating they may opt to leave academia in part seeking a better balance.

For my own presentation about Motherhood the Elephant and Re-envisioning the Pipeline, I wished I had taken a bit more time to tell some of the stories of each contributor AND suggest that they NOT WORRY SO MUCH about the future.  It is great they are taking such initiative, as long as it doesn’t scare them away from venturing out. I think if one is willing to work hard, knows how to use her brain, and is patient (and perhaps flexible), things will work out!

Below are a few websites I thought might be helpful for students and postdocs thinking about nontraditional routes:

AAAS Nontraditional Career Webinar

Putting your PhD to work

Part-time science in Perspective

There is a timely edition of Nature (just published today) focused on Women in Science; and here is an interesting interview, The Heart of Research Science is Sick, by Peter Lawrence.

Finally, while in Göttingen, besides the great group of graduate students I met, I noticed a few other things:

  • Grade school boys could easily outmaneuver a team of middle school boys on the soccer field
  • The number of men strolling babies in carriages was noticeable
  • Bicycles are everywhere (though few helmets in sight.)
  • Teens do not appear to be obsessed with their phones!
  • They have a great tradition for newly minted PhDs, which I was fortunate to witness and made me wish I’d had my camera as they are carted through town to place flowers and kiss the bronze Gänseliesel (Goose girl).
  • And, there is nothing like a good sandwich on fresh German bread from Cafe Hermer (thanks for the tip!)

I have no doubt each one of those women I met will be kissing Gänseliesel in the near future, before setting out on her own adventure in science!

New ways of doing science, Yamana Science and Shifting the Effort/Award Ratio

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the first annual (I hope) Unsummit, organized by Yamana Science.  Yamana was founded by mom, scientist and powerhouse Kennen Salinero, and describes itself as follows:

“Yámana Science & Technology is an organization that envisions a science culture where both people and ideas flourish in the presence of effective support, balanced lifestyles, and thriving workplaces.”

The Unsummit pulled together a creative group of scientists and organizational thinkers to dream up and hopefully one day act upon a new way of doing science – from basic cultural changes in the way science is carried out to practical changes including work-life balance.  It is all related really.

If you are devoted to science and to change check them out and begin to take charge of what we do and how we do it.


Triumphs, hurdles and frustrations, a reader responds

A letter from a reader of Motherhood:

Your book “Motherhood – the elephant in the laboratory” was recommended to me by a another woman who is a Mother and a Scientist. I read it cover-to-cover and ran through a whole range of different emotions. Like the women in the book, we all have our own stories to tell of the difficulties and triumphs of being a Mother and a Scientist. I’ve told my daughters that being a Mother was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and absolutely the best. Despite all the difficulties, having kids has really kept me centered.

I saw bits and pieces of my story in several of the stories of the women in the book. Problems of being a female – and being a scientist, as well as being a Mother. When each of my daughters was born, I was a bit sad as I knew that they, too, would face challenges that would not be there if they had been boys. But I was certain that by the time they grew up and were off to have their careers, that most of the glass ceiling and female issues in employment would be resolved. I think that was the hardest part of reading this book – the last couple of chapters where young women still working towards their PhDs are even now facing discrimination for being (or wanting to be) Mothers. I know that all the fights that I fought HAVE helped to make a difference – but sometimes I despair and wonder why our daughters still have to fight some of those same ones over again.

And I was very sad when I read your note about attending a SETAC meeting and feeling like you were not respected because you were an independent scientist (not affiliated with an institution). I have been on the SETAC governing Council and maybe was even President at that time. Frankly, I thought better of our members. That respect was engendered by what you did, not what label you have. Although maybe I should have known better as my own integrity has been challenged simply on the basis of my affiliation. I worked for EPA for the first 8 years of my career, and then left to take a job in consulting (it’s a complicated story, but suffice it to say that opportunities at the EPA lab where I was working were limited). Many of my colleagues thought that I had gone over to the Dark Side. I was hurt and insulted that people whom I thought were friends thought that little of me. I did, eventually, win back their respect through continuing to practice good and unbiased science (“they will know you by your deeds”). And then did another tour at EPA and now am back in consulting; go figure!

But I really do want to Thank You for helping to bring the elephant out of the laboratory. To point out the difficulties and hurdles and frustrations that woman still face. Many men (well-meaning though they are) don’t believe this to be the case anymore – that we’ve achieved parity and that such stories of difficulties are of our own making. This denial is something that needs to be overcome through broadcasting the stories of women like those in your book.

I’ve already passed on my copy of your book to another Scientist, Wife, Mother…. I hope she passes it on, too – such stories need to be shared.

Our children grow up and move on all too soon – sometimes, it pays to be in the moment and simply reflect on the wonder of it all.

Best regards,

Anne, D.V.M., Ph.D.

Good question, wish I had a good answer!

Just got back from a really nice “forum” on the Motherhood book at Berkshire Community College. What was nice was the discussion that followed. An engineer who talked about having to step back from full-time job to care for her three kids and teach – and how difficult that’s been because engineering is really her passion. A couple of months ago, we  heard from an engineer at our panel at UMD who talked about choosing not to have kids because she wanted a tenured faculty position (she was mid-fifties I’d say). This woman at BCC also mentioned an acquaintance in her mid-fifties who made a similar choice. I hope things have changed for engineers but it seems that in comparison to the natural and physical sciences – engineering may have a ways to go when it comes to allowing for career-life balances.

Another topic that came up was what to do with family that didn’t support one’s position to try and “do it all” –  in this case go back to school (several students not only have families but they also work), work and raise kids. I didn’t have an answer for that – you’d wish such families were supportive acknowledging the tough road these women have and cheer them on, or even help out when they can. Additionally, that led to a discussion about pressure to stay home with the kids – which then got us talking about how there is not any one best way to do things – including raising a family (some parents do best when they are able to work – some kids may do better while in day care – or the opposite.) Why can’t we just be supportive of each other?

Finally there someone asked about advice for others who fall into the career “trough” – when work dries up all at once – where I was when I started this book project. I’m no expert but for what it’s worth, what helped me was 1) being flexible about what I did 2) keeping busy 3) doing what I loved – science in some way – though I had the luxury of not needing immediate income and 4) getting in touch with those with whom I’d worked in the past – even the colleagues, bosses, etc. whose addresses I had to seek out because we’d completely lost touch. Not to tell them that I was in one of those “troughs” but to say hello, here’s what I’ve been up to, am open to ideas etc. You just never know.

Creativity in Science Careers: why I love AAAS

When I first started this project I was warned by Fran the editor that by suggesting there are many options for scientists other than the straight and narrow path to academia, I may hit some nerves. I had agreed with her and even wrote about how the “science establishment,” needs to be more open to different career options. But maybe we were more pessimistic than need be (although to some extent this is what happened with the recent Nature review of the Motherhood book – more on that here.)  This month, through a number of “outlets” the AAAS and their journal Science clearly show their support for scientists who venture off the academic track, and it’s refreshing to see a major organization be so supportive and creative.

First, was the April 3 Science Editorial by Bruce Alberts who writes:

“A recent survey of more than 1000 of these young scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), reveals an unusually broad range of career aspirations. Less than half select becoming academic researchers like their mentors as their first choice. One senses that we are reaching a tipping point, where students who prefer to work in the world of public policy, government, precollege education, industry, or law will no longer be viewed as deserting science. Faculty and students can then begin to talk honestly about a whole range of respected, science-related career possibilities. This is crucial, because we must promote the movement of scientists into many occupations and environments if our end goal is to effectively apply science and its values to solving global problems.”

Read it and cheer!

Next up is Science Careers upcoming Webinar, Nontraditional Careers: Opportunities Away from the Bench,  and finally, a really interesting NewFocus Profile (in Science) on Jorge Cham, researcher in neural prosthetics turned successful cartoonist, who amuses and reveals the life of PhD students and advisors through comics (see his blog at or check out his books.) Cham is quoted as saying about his career shift,  ” ‘if you have the drive and creativity, you can forge your own path,’  and ‘you can choose your own definition of success.’ ”  My thoughts exactly.

My dad always said do what you love and you’ll succeed. For many it’s a luxury to be able to do what they love, for most scientists that’s exactly what they’re doing.   We just need to appreciate and support all the different ways scientists do what they do.

The Nature of a review

Well, here’s a “be careful what you wish for.” When publishing a book we all wish for reviews especially by those grand old journals Science and Nature. Well guess what? Motherhood made it into Nature, only the review reflected more the bias of the reviewer than the message of the book – or at least what we all as contributors considered one of the main messages. There are many ways to do science just as there are many ways to combine career with science – and who’s to judge who is successful and who is not? In response I submitted a letter to Nature’s editor, only to learn today “there simply isn’t enough room,” though they did offer to print a correction. It’s the very least they could do – really.

Here is the letter and a link to the review follows:

This Letter to the Editor is in response to Myth of the Missing Mothers by Meg Urry, Nature 458, 150-151 (12 March 2009)

Dear Editor,

As Editor of Motherhood the Elephant in the Laboratory, I am compelled to respond to the book review by Meg Urry[1]. One of the primary goals of this book was to provide a forum for women and mothers who have pursued a variety of different career paths in the sciences. Contributors range from those who followed traditional paths through academia to the many other options available including government, industry, consulting, teaching and writing. Most of these women are not only satisfied with their choices as scientists and as parents, but also achieved a measure of success, personally, professionally or both.

With this in mind, I was saddened by Urry’s conclusion that women seeking success would do well to avoid this book. She thus infers that most of the women who contributed to this volume, other than those in academia, can be categorically deemed “unsuccessful.” While it is true that women in academic positions represent only about one sixth of the contributors – a conscious decision because I agree with Urry that there are many good books about combining a career in the professoriate with family- Urry’s implication that the contributors who followed career paths outside of academia, are not successful, is unfortunate.

As discussed in the book, a successful scientific community requires the contributions of scientists not only in academia, but also in education, policy, advocacy, communications – and other research venues such as federal and industrial research laboratories. I do not suggest that women, particularly those with children, give up the idea of being an academic scientist, but that scientific careers outside of academia can be a viable and rewarding option. The suggestion that academia is the only path to success in science is a disservice to those scientists who choose to contribute in other ways, to future scientists, and to society.

Additionally, though I would be thoroughly impressed had my twelve year-old daughter been able to contribute a chapter, the two daughters attributed to me, are the daughters of Anne Douglass, Atmospheric Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and mother of five.

Interesting Workshop from AAAS Careers: Careers Away from the Bench

Hi all, just wanted to let anyone in the Baltimore area know about this workshop. I have no idea about the specifics but if  I were in the area I’d definitely attend. As a beneficiary of a nontraditional career track, I’d love to see what else is out there and who is doing what! And, I’ve noticed that it’s being offered at the Society of Toxicology Meeting of all places.  Years ago I used to attend the SOT meetings, and found them to be the most traditional and stuffy of science meetings (i.e. men in suits) though I suspect at the very least there are now more women in suits – or at least power dresses, and maybe even a few in “nontraditional” dress as well!

Careers Away from the Bench Workshop

Could you be missing out on an exciting and rewarding career outside of academic/industrial research? Increasingly, Ph.D.-level scientists are becoming aware of other career opportunities beyond bench research. Come to this workshop to consider what your own career path in these so-called “nontraditional” areas might look like. We’ll discuss the types of alternative careers available, how to parlay your current skills and values into a new area, ways to research career options, and how to develop the skills you might need.

Cost: Complimentary
Date: Monday, March 16, 2009
4:45-6:15 p.m.
Location: Society of Toxicology Meeting
Hilton, Key Ballroom 1&2, Baltimore, MD
This workshop is complimentary and open to the public. Light refreshments will be served.

Click here to register.

Full-time Scientist VS. Stay-at-home Mom

By Nan Pazdernik

Oh what an interesting dichotomy I have experienced in the last two weeks. On Oct. 11, I attended a conference in Indianapolis, IN sponsored by AWIS, or the Association for Women in Science, entitled “What Works Workshop”. The goal of the workshop is to increase professional skills, explore some of today’s workplace challenges, better understand scientific leadership characteristics and opportunities, and of course to network with other female scientists. AWIS asked me to present a session that addressed the issue of motherhood and science. The talk was probably one of the more difficult that I had ever prepared, because I just felt that I wasn’t an expert on combining motherhood and science, and in fact… who IS??? There isn’t really any scientific literature, and definitely very few charts and graphs to include. In fact, all I really used was Emily’s statistics showing that women are leaving the academic tracts.

I structured the discussion very loose, and began with a short introduction about how the Motherhood, Elephant in the Laboratory came to be. I then presented statistics that demonstrate how females who receive PhD’s are approximately half of all the PhD recipients, yet they are much underrepresented in tenure track positions. And I pointed out that the term “leaky pipeline” and the fact that all we chart are academic appointments really makes no sense. Many different careers paths are still valuable and important enough, that we should stop measuring our success against the academic tract. I ended the section by simply pointing out that many female scientists have many unique permutations between their work and their family.

Since the book was structured based on simply discussing everyone’s unique paths… I talked about my story, and how I am currently a full-time mother with a part-time scientific career. I talked about how I found myself as a stay-at-home mom, mainly due to my husband’s scientific career being more lucrative, and, his job being transferred to an area with no medical research, which coincided with birth of our first son. Then, everyone in attendance formed a circle so we could have a discussion. I simply wanted everyone to brainstorm about the following questions: (1) What essentials do we need in order to combine a scientific career with family, and (2) What are some current policies/attitudes that make work life conflict with family life.

The discussion was very good, although it took a while for everyone to open up. We had one mom-to-be in our discussion that was expecting her first baby. She disclosed that she was “moved to another position” as soon as she told her employer she was pregnant. We had a discussion about how she could try to open a dialogue about her expectations and her employer’s expectations about her job once the baby was born. But really just learning that another employer may be more friendly to her pregnancy, opened her eyes, and I really hope that she can find a way to work it out with her employer or to move to a more acceptable situation.

We also had a mother who proclaimed herself as a feminist, and expected her husband to take an equal role in raising the children. We had mothers whose children were grown which always offers a nice perspective, because they now have more time for their careers and their children turned out just fine. We covered different points… about childcare near the place of employment as well as at scientific meetings. One of the attendees was not allowed to bring a stroller into a poster session that she and her husband were attending together. They had to alternate when they could go to see posters so that one was available for childcare.

The final question was “How do we resolve these problems?”, and since time was short, I simply ended our discussion by pointing out that keeping the discussion going was one of the best ways. I asked everyone to go back to their employers. First identify the major issues, such as childcare or expectations for working weekends and nights. Then set realistic and obtainable goals to resolve any issues that are detrimental to women working and having a family. Set up committees or work with existing networks to find resolutions. But most of all, keep on talking!

So this meeting left me feeling very torn. I really felt out of place with the other female scientists, mainly from Eli Lilly, Roche, and Dow Agrosciences. Did I make a mistake taking myself out of the bench scientist world? Was the global Technology and Intellectual Capital Management leader for Dow Agrosciences really only 4 years older than me? She was talking about all the stages of career advancement, and here I am her age, and I haven’t been through any “advancement”. And so even though I co-wrote a textbook, and I am teaching nursing students anatomy and physiology, I didn’t feel like the same type of scientist. Wow!

Now, I just have to contrast this conference to my last weekend. I attended the Southern Illinois retreat for La Leche League leaders. What a different experience. The goals for the retreat were simply to discuss what we like about helping moms learn to breastfeed, what we found the most challenging, and what problems/questions/concerns we have. No business suits, no formal attitudes, simply a discussion. We introduced ourselves and talked about how many children we have and how old. I brought my 21 month old daughter, and no one cared when she cried or was disruptive. [Dad had to come to the AWIS conference and watch her and my son’s while I attended the meeting.] I made a bracelet to wear while my daughter spread beads all over the floor. But here is the interesting discussion we had… It is a long standing unwritten policy that you cannot apply for leadership if you work outside the home. Some exceptions are made, but usually to moms that work only part-time or have their children so close during the day that they have very little separation. Now I am working part-time, and this is okay because I became a Leader before I worked outside the home. We had a long discussion on whether or not someone with a career can apply to be a La Leche League Leader. So I really don’t fit the mold of the typical La Leche League leader either. I work part-time, and I like it. I think that separation between me and my daughter has been extremely good for our relationship. I love being at home with my kids and I love my adjunct position. I love writing. So…

I guess to summarize I just feel like I am out of place in both worlds. Not quite a full-time stay at home mom… not quite a career scientist. Hmmm…split personality or balance? Wonder how I should categorize it.

C&EN review and career paths….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this whole book process is that you’ve got to do a lot of promotion. Cornell’s been great – but for books that’s just not enough.  Even though I’m not promoting just myself but 33 other women – its not something with which I’m comfortable.

But sometimes others do the promotion for you – and I’m happy to announce a great review of Motherhood published in last week’s Chemical and Engineering News. I’m particularly pleased because 1) I’ve always liked this publication for its in depth analysis of various issues in toxicology, and 2) because I felt that the reviewer, University of Oregon chemist Geraldine Richmond, really got what I was trying to convey in both the intro and conclusion to Motherhood. That is, there are many different ways of contributing to science, and that maybe the traditional definition of success in science could be revisited, with so many workers (men and women) contributing to many different sectors – other than academia.

But for scientists, particularly for women scientists involved with improving “pathways to the professoriate” this can be a touchy subject.  I recall a conversation with the editor when first submitting the proposal. “Some people won’t be happy with this,” she’d said, followed by “but that can be good.” Meaning controversy sells books.  One thing I worried about while pulling this whole project together, which depended on the 33 other women scientists, several of whom not only pursued the professoriate but who are actively seeking to help others find their way, was that I make my position clear.  Publications like Parenting and Professing already existed. I wanted this to be different.

While this hasn’t been particularly controversial – there are undercurrents.  Last week on a conference call about a future Motherhood-related panel, one participant voiced her concern that by advocating integration of these other particularly part-time career choices into the scientific mainstream, we may be backsliding.  I truly understand this argument – and there’s not a day (well OK, maybe a week or a month) that goes by without my wondering if by choosing to do the part-time non-academia thing, while my husband does the full-time PI thing, I’ve helped to perpetuate the status quo.  Though the status quo has shifted from what it was decades ago – perhaps back then I wouldn’t have even been able to hang onto any semblance of a career – the fact is women just aren’t entering the professoriate in numbers that reflect those stepping into science with degree in hand.  And it’s something of a catch-22 for some of us, to really change, to make research and academia more amenable to parents, we need more science moms (and a few dads and husbands wouldn’t hurt either) who are truly interested in changing the academic system.

Or maybe we just need an economic disaster. Four day weeks, reduced work-time, less focus on grants, hands-on-faculty, a return to valuing teaching – who knows what might shake out?

Women’s work is never done: redefining success

OK, now that I’ve had a few days to digest last weeks events (the two panels) I’m ready to post a few details.

After what we all thought was a lively diverse panel at UMd, with discussion about non-traditional careers, developing and maintaining part-time careers (this particular panel had a large contingent of some-time part-timers with a colorful patchwork of jobs), when to have a kid (no great insights there – what works for one won’t necessarily work for another), what would help retain women in research (flex-time, more part-time, even instituitional support that doesn’t cost much – such as library priveledges to those working periferally but who’d like to come back at some time), when to seek advice and when to ignore it – and encouraging our partners to participate more on the home front, I think it was clear that for the most part, most of us felt we’ve had some success both at home and in our careers, although our careers are not what would have be called successful (at least a few years ago) by the bean counters at NSF, AAAS or even some of our own graduate or post-grad advisors.

That is when one of male admin of the college stood up to adress the crowd.  In what felt like a slightly patronizing tone he let us know that he’s with us, he “gets it,” just like us, he too has redefined success. Years ago he aspired for a higher office at the college, but now realizes that he’ll have to be happy with Dean. Among some other comments that I could comment on – but won’t for fear of offending anyone – it took me a while to figure out why I was so bothered by this one particular comment. But, now I know.

I may or may not be speaking for all of us – but I’ll stick my neck out and say that I think the gentlman was confusing “lowering the bar” for redefining success.  I don’t think anyone one of us would consider that we’ve lowered our standards for what we want to achieve.  I think we’re all still striving towards our goals, that’s why many of us were there, that’s why we wrote essays, that’s why we attend panels.  We continue to work towards exellence, in immunology, environmental health, physics, education, in addition to speaking out for greater opportunities and options for other women in science. 

Maybe while we’re at it we can even redefine the meaning of “a woman’s work is never done,” because for us it’s not.