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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!


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.

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.

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.

Motherhood Panel Update

Just got back from two great ‘Motherhood the Elephant’ panels, one at University of Maryland, College Park, the other at Montgomery College, a community college near UMd . As always it’s great to be with contributors to this book, we’ve now done five panels and I think we’re finally getting the hang of it (e.g. less us talking, more audience participation.)

At UMd we had ten contributors, and seven at Montgomery. It’s an amazing group of women, young and old(er), physicists, biologists, geologists – all moms.  For the most part, we’d never met each before these panels (the books was done all via e-mail – though I admit I did recruit a friend or two to write) but I truly value the opportunity to get to know them a little bit better with each panel.  An unexpected bonus from doing this project (at least for me.) And each panel is always very different, even though the panelists might not change.  I think we’re all learning, and of course, the audience contributes a great deal.

It struck me as we sat in front of the Montgomery students, that just having a bunch of women, all PhDs – whom students might be more used to interacting with as professors, or in a more professional capacity – up there talking openly and candidly (sometimes humourously and sometimes quite seriously) about their life in science, their lives at home, their kids, just has to be a positive thing for anyone who’s contemplating a career in science.