Emily Monosson, Environmental Toxicologist and Writer
Ph.D., Biochemical Toxicology, Cornell University, 1988
A few years ago I attended the 23rd annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), an organization to which I’d paid my dues for more than ten years. In organizations like SETAC your affiliation, be it academia, government, nongovernmental or industry, is your badge of honor. It’s also required by the computer that spits out the badges. So when asked for my affiliation, to the horror of my traveling companion and colleague at the time, I said “Housewife.”
Admittedly, I was feeling particularly accomplished that day, so I didn’t mind “outing” myself as a part-time scientist. Besides the family, I was juggling a consulting job, a research project, and a class that I taught each year at one of the local colleges. I could do it all and be at home after school for the kids, bugging them to eat an apple or do their math homework.
What I did not expect when I oozed my way through the crowds or waited patiently in line to ask questions of poster presenters was that by outing my lack of affiliation, I’d become invisible.
The minute the scientists and graduate students who were milling about or attending to their posters read my badge, their eyes glazed over, or worse, they looked over my shoulder to the next in line. I was no longer worthy of their time. I was, after all, just a “Housewife.” What could I know about science?
That badge still hangs on the bulletin board beside my desk. It’s the only one I’ve saved after fifteen years of attending all sorts of scientific meetings. Why? I certainly don’t need it to remind me of my multiple roles in life. But it does remind me of a time when I was not embarrassed to announce professionally that I was sharing my career with my family.
That was three years ago. Then I hit one of those all-too-common career troughs suffered by many of us who try to make our own way. Generally it happens every two to three years, depending on the grant cycle. But this one was different. I’d just turned forty-five, the kids were older, and though it was still important that I be there for them after school, they were more independent and I had more time. I realized that I was ready for more. More work, a more stable career; but being out of the “mainstream” and essentially unaffiliated with any one particular organization for so long, I began to wonder if my family-friendly career choices had resulted in an inadvertent detour from a sustainable career. ………