Thursday, March 27, 2008

Two Great Things Going Great Together

Thing 2 is sick today. She came home last night with red eyes, and in a strange mood. When I read the daily report from daycare, there was a special note that she had been coughing and had a runny nose all day, and that it had bothered her. Then, as I held her on my lap after dinner, which she refused to eat, she went to rub my belly, and her hands were hot. So I knew someone would need to take the day off today, even before I got the thermometer out. I volunteered, since I have a backlog of data analysis to do, and I have all the necessary software on my laptop.

It has been such a lovely day, if you can permit a slightly unorthodox definition of such. We've had the whole place to ourselves - the couch, the beds, the TV, and the stereo. In the morning, Thing 2 watched little kids' shows without her big sister complaining. She lay on the couch under a blanket, and I sat next to her working on my laptop, and didn't feel like I was going to elbow anyone. Then, nap time came, and we snuggled up in the big bed, I turned on my favorite classical music station, and Thing 2 dozed off with her head against my side. Now, I'm still sitting in the bed, analyzing my latest data with my child sleeping peacefully (though still feverish)beside me.

I really am a scientist and a mommy today!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why is it so hard to get help?

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term “household help”. As if housecleaners, gardeners, and cooks are people who just love to clean, garden and cook, and are altruistic to a fault. When in reality, the people who do these jobs are working their asses off to do shit nobody else wants to do, for as little as anyone can get away with paying for it. These jobs will never pay top dollar. For those employed by individuals, there is enormous pressure to keep the wages low. Nobody wants to spend a huge portion of their income to pay someone else to do their grunt work. But families with two working parents are crunched for time, and hiring a cleaner is like buying precious family time. Still, I feel guilty asking someone to work for next to nothing scrubbing my floor because I can’t get it together enough to do it myself. Add to that the fact that I can be a little bit picky (okay, very picky) about how the job is done, and this becomes a stick of emotional dynamite for me.

But as I get more and more invested in my thesis research, and now with two children to care for, it’s getting nearly impossible to keep up with everything and have any time for quality family time on the weekends. And while I don’t mind occasionally “working from home” to catch up, I’m feeling the urge to do it more than occasionally, right at the time when I need to be in the lab as much as possible. Somehow, I have been fooling myself that with all of us pitching in it should be getting easier. In reality, I think everyone is just getting burned out and tired of hearing me remind them how many chores and errands we have to do before we can do anything fun.

We used to have someone clean our home in [Old City]. It was hard for me to do it then, but so many of my friends and neighbors did the same that it helped me feel like it was normal. Since moving to [New City] and entering graduate school, most of the people I interact with every day are not in a place in their lives where they need or can afford any “household help” so again, it feels, well, wrong to be hiring a housecleaner. I’ve done it off and on – just to get through a rough patch. But I think I must just accept that I can’t manage over the long term without this kind of help. At least my husband has a good paying job, so we can afford it, if we choose to make that a priority.

And I’m not alone. In fact, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Nobel Laureate, and director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, started a foundation bearing her name to provide fellowships to young women scientists specifically to allow them to hire help with household chores or additional childcare. I read about this a year and a half ago in Nature (you can read an interview with her from the New York Times here), and thought it sounded like a good idea. But that’s for those other people who don’t get help from their spouses, right? Well, I have to admit that, even with a spouse doing a fair share of the work, it’s pretty hard to keep the house clean, the fridge stocked, the clothes clean, the work moving forward, and still have time and energy to play with your kids.

So I’ve done it – I held my nose and phoned a cleaning service, and they came and cleaned my house this week. Of course, I found lots of things they didn’t do perfectly, but I also found things that were cleaned that had been neglected for so long that nobody even noticed them anymore. And this morning, I woke up thinking about what fun things we could all do as a family – and we actually did some of them! And now, I’m sitting down to blog this and then do some data analysis. I feel so happy and productive! Hope it lasts.

[Comment added after original post: for a slightly different take on Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and her foundation, check out this recent post on Women in Science. Though I do think she is onto something important with the fellowships, she doesn't have quite as modern a view on why women don't pursue science careers as one might hope.]

Friday, March 21, 2008

E is for Excellent!

A great big thank you to MissPrim of A Somewhat Old, But Capacious Handbag for declaring this an excellent blog! I am so honored! This blog is only a little over a month old, and I haven't really been a fully active member of the blogosphere for much longer.

That said, I hope it's not too much of a faux pas to display this before making my nominations. I feel like I'm reading something excellent and new to me almost every day!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Maintaining Decorum

My graduate program holds two poster sessions each year, one during the recruitment season, the other in fall. The purpose is to provide opportunities for students to present their work, and to catch up on what their classmates are doing. Usually, only faculty and students affiliated with the program and prospective students attend these, but occasionally faculty will send a postdoc to represent the lab if they are not available. One of these representatives visited my poster at the recent session, and it was quite an eye opening experience.

First, he sort of swooped over to my poster, pointed at one of the figures, and said, “I recently heard a talk by Dr. Big Name, and I was under the impression that any questions on this topic had been completely answered by his recent paper.” [Translation: you are wasting your time doing this work. Someone more famous than you has already planted a flag, so you don’t stand a chance.] To which I replied, “I think you must be mistaken. They are not working on the same system.” [Commentary: my PI was a postdoc in Dr. Big Name’s lab, and developed the assay that both labs use. I also rotated in Dr. Big Name’s lab, and am friendly with current and past members of the lab. If I was in danger of being scooped, I’d definitely know it.] It turned out that he did not understand the not-so-subtle differences between my work and the work Dr. Big Name had talked about, and we spent quite some time sorting that out. He would tell me he didn’t understand what I was measuring in a control, for instance, and I would answer him, thinking that he didn’t understand some technical aspect of how the measurement was done. He’d ask something else, and then come back to the control, until, after several cycles, I realized that he didn’t even understand at a basic level what I was measuring, because he hadn’t bothered to read it on the poster or ask before diving in.

Once we got that sorted, he paused, then began to ask questions about some background material I’d included on the poster, for the benefit of people who are not familiar with the theory that provides the rationale for part of my work. He claimed to be familiar with it, since he had heard Dr. Big Name’s talk on the topic [Commentary: Dr. Big Name is not a theoretician, and has not done work that contributes significantly to the theoretical treatment of what I study] but seemed not to understand the theory, and asked me why I’d included it on my poster. At this point, I began to get very annoyed. It’s fine to ask questions about the material on a poster, but if I’d wanted his editorial advice on what material to include, I would have done so, when I made the poster. Instead, I chose to get advice from my PI and labmates – who bother to make sure they know what I’m studying before telling me to remove crucial background material.

All that was annoying, but not that unusual. People rush into discussions all the time, and often people misunderstand things when they are not as familiar with a field as they may think (you don’t know what you don’t know, and all that). But I nearly lost my composure in its entirety when this arrogant little prick told me that I should “really consider reading the literature to find out what other people were doing in the field”. I took a deep breath, and, as calmly as possible, said that actually, I had done so. He asked me what I had read. I began to tell him about the theoretical work, both old and new, and that’s as far as I got, because he cut me off, saying, “I don’t think that new theory is worth reading at all.” I quickly shot him down, by telling him what the work was focused on and how it was relevant to my work. He recanted, as if I had twisted his arm. I then mentioned that, since every system would likely display different behavior, there was no benefit to comparing measurements done on different systems. He kind of brushed that off. I mentioned a way that I plan to perturb my system to discover the function of one part, and he first made an ignorant comment that made clear that he did not know about the system at all, and how much research has been done on determining the role of that part, then told me that he didn’t think that it would be interesting to study it in that way because it was not “natural”. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if this guy has ever done an experiment in his life. I explain why it’s necessary to perturb a system, sometimes drastically to figure out the function of all the parts. I also began to cross my arms and stare off into space whenever he spoke. Again, he grudgingly admitted that I may be right, but he just wouldn’t leave.

It went on for a while longer, and, in retrospect, I think I’m glad I didn’t just tell him to fuck off, if for no other reason than that it would have made me look bad. There is nothing wrong with asking challenging questions at a poster session or talk, I’ve done it myself. This can be nerve wracking, but I’ve never become angry or wished someone would just go away because they asked me a difficult question. Nor would I be angry if someone didn’t understand part of the work, and therefore asked irrelevant questions. However, I walked away with the distinct impression that this particular questioner was simply looking for a way to be right and to demonstrate that I was wrong. I have heard that there are people like this in academia, but I’ve never had an encounter like this before. As the session was ending, he finally decided that he’d had enough, but not before saying that one of my interpretations of the results was interesting, but that he was sure someone else had come up with that before. He vowed to search the literature for this. Then he said, “Maybe you will write about that in your paper. Or, maybe I will write something about it.” I just looked at him as he walked away, wondering if I was supposed to be scared. I wish him luck writing that paper on an experiment that he doesn’t understand on the most basic level, without any data, starting from scratch on a project I’ve been working on for over a year. But I guess since he’s read Dr. Big Name’s paper, he’ll have no trouble.

I can’t help but interpret this in terms of gender/race, particularly since I know that this little dip-shit talked to someone else from my lab, who happens to be a man of the same race as the questioner, and though he was challenging, he was not nearly so confrontational. Surprised? I’m not, and it really pisses me off. For the first time I understand why some women/minorities may feel like they don’t want to put up with this kind of shit anymore. It could be pretty demoralizing to, day in and day out get told that you “really should familiarize yourself with the literature” by people who don’t even understand what you are studying. Especially if you also had to watch other people, who are only different in gender or race, regularly get pats on the back. That said, however, I’m not going anywhere. I’m choosing to get angry, instead of letting it wear me down. I’m not backing down in the face of some idiot thinking that he’s smarter than me just because he is part of the favored group. This is science. You have to prove your hypothesis.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Who am I?

I thought long and hard about the pros and cons of blogging, and about just how much personal information I would divulge when I did decide to blog. I have chosen to remain anonymous, though I have absolutely no doubt that if anyone who knows me well in real life would probably be able to recognize my voice on this blog. That’s how I want it to be – I’m full of myself enough to think that I have something interesting to say. I’m not saying anything on here that I wouldn't say in real life, given the right audience, so I’m not using anonymity to give me some kind of license to have a go when in real life I’m a “yes girl”. I choose to be anonymous because I know full well that I may be Googled by potential employers or collaborators, and some people don’t really like the idea of a loudmouthed feminist woman of color until they have gotten to know me a bit. I like to check people out and give them a chance to warm up to me before I let loose. Plus, while I don't mind people calling me “fucking cheeky” in cyber-space, I don’t really need to deal with that from strangers in real-life. I've got work to do.

Now, I could have limited myself to blogging on science only, no personal opinions, but it takes a lot of work to get that right, and I don't think that the things that make me unique would have much of an effect on my commentaries on peer-reviewed literature. Once I start commenting on the conditions on the ground for women and minorities, I might again get into trouble, since not all of the Old Guard is on board with trying to mitigate the biases that hold certain groups back. So, again, anonymity. Might as well talk about what I want to talk about, anyway.

But, it's proving difficult to walk the line. I am in a very small graduate program, and my work is in a small, but fast growing field. So that means that I don't know if it's a good idea to talk about my field or my work in any detail at all. As Dr. Free-Ride points out, as a double minority, if I give any details that identify to you my university and program, you’d be able to figure out immediately who I am. While that could be motivated by the friendly curiosity of a fan, it could just as easily be someone mean-spirited who would stalk me. I'd rather not take the risk.

Besides, I don't think it matters if my readers actually know my name. But you should know “who I am” in the sense that it colors the experiences that I share and how I feel about them. So here goes:

  • I am a Black woman, according to the conventional definition. I am, however, the child of an interracial marriage (Black mother, white father), so my cultural experiences were extremely varied growing up. Both my parents were the first in their families to earn a college degree. They worked their asses off to make sure their children received a good education and had as many enriching experiences as possible – extracurricular activities, museums, science kits, materials for satisfying intellectual curiosity and making thing. My mother, was a stay-at-home mom, but before that had been an elementary school teacher, so she made damn sure her kids would not be judged on first impressions – we were expected to speak like educated folk, and dress appropriately at all times. As a result of this, and my fairly light colored skin and “good hair”, many people claim not to realize that I am Black when they first meet me. That just means that I don’t conform to most people’s image of what a Black woman is. But it does not change fact that I did not have many of the privileges that white people take for granted. For instance, I will be the first from my mother’s family to earn an advanced degree, and none of them seem to even understand why I might want to do so. There are almost no opportunities for networking within my family, so at every step of my career in science, I’m going to have a lot more legwork to do than most of my white colleagues. I didn't realize that when I started out, nor did I understand how important networking could be.

  • I am a woman with children. And, no, I didn't get knocked up in high school. I started my career in science on the late side, after having done something else that I loved for a while. When I made the decision to go back to school, I knew that I’d be waiting a while if I wanted to establish my career before having kids, so my husband and I chose to have kids first. I don’t think women should have to choose between having a fulfilling career and having children. Men don't have to make that choice. One of the things I love about my husband is that he doesn't expect me to, either.

  • I went to a public university for my science undergrad. I worked my butt off, did lab work at that school and at another, higher ranked university, and was in the MARC and MBRS programs. I am now working toward my PhD at an Ivy League school. That makes me a bit of a legend at my alma mater. It also allows me to see how different it is to study and do research in the two different settings.

  • I am in a graduate program and field of science that is heavily dominated by men. I have never experienced any overt sexism (or racism, for that matter). But there are certain aspects of the structure of life in this setting that are hard to reconcile with my role as a wife and mother. Group meetings and lectures are often held in the evenings. I have missed out on these valuable opportunities for learning and networking because I am needed at home. When I was still taking classes, study sections would also often be held in the evenings. There were times when it was difficult to convince people that it might be a good idea to offer alternate times because not all students are available 24/7, and that this does not reflect on the commitment of the student in question.

So, that’s who I am. In case anyone was wondering.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Bitch, PhD rocks. I love the way she pulls no punches. One of her recent posts dealt with a topic that hits home for me, namely how wrong it is to bash women who have children in the name of feminism. Dr. B argues that the real choice when it comes to reproducing is the choice not to have children. I agree with her wholeheartedly. Those of us who have grown up in a time when birth control is safe, effective, and available cannot imagine what it was like when that wasn't the case, and if you got in a family way before you were married you were shipped off to give birth to and relinquish your baby in secret. But it’s also a bit ridiculous how hard it is for us privileged First World women to consider what life might be like without our disposable income and easy access to whatever medical advances the world can offer. Even without health insurance, a woman in America has a much higher likelihood of preventing pregnancy in spite of having sex than a woman in the Third World, because she has the choice. Even though abstinence-only sex education advocates would like us to think that the only choice is whether or not to have sex, once a woman and man do choose to have sex, the choice has to be made to use birth control or to let nature take its course.

Then she goes on to say:

And it's not funny, feminist, "reasonable," or acceptable to talk about children as things, or to imply that people who "choose" to have kids are crazy or stupid. When you do those things, you implicitly support the idea that women's reproductive systems are abnormal, that women with kids are fools, and that children and reproducing women are not part of human society.

Of course, not everyone agrees with this point of view. That post got over a hundred comments, many focused on why it really is okay to do those things. My favorite comment is from “b.g”:

Oh, and I love the sancti-mommy-ous title of the post, too: "Mama Delivers a Good Scolding." So because you performed a biological function that any mammal can do, that entitles you to wag your finger and "scold" adults who are your social and political equals. Seriously, it doesn't get more blatant, or more disgusting, than t hat.

The irony, of course, being that mommybloggers want to pretend that their li'l snotminers are my social and political equals. Horseshit. Your child is not my equal. S/h/it does not hold down a job, pay taxes, or otherwise contribute to society. Teach it some fucking respect — or I will, the next time I see you letting it bellow or climb shelves in teh supermarket. And, believe you me, by the time I'm done with you, both of you will be in tears.

Hmm, that’s really mature. I’ll bet the writer of that comment never misbehaved in public. Probably whenever b.g.’s parents told b.g. to jump, b.g. said, “Certainly, mommy/daddy. How high?” Well, maybe not. But judging from the inability to write in a civil tone, I’d guess b.g. was also never taken out in public.

But I digress. The problem with b.g.’s comment (and many others) is the idea that there is some kind of hierarchy among people such that some are social and political equals, and others are not. I’m not sure how that could work, because we have no well-defined end to childhood in our culture – you can drive at 16, vote and be drafted at 18, but are not considered competent (by law) to decide whether to drink alcohol until 21. But just because children cannot drive, vote or have any of the privileges reserved for adults does not mean that society does not need to concern itself with their needs. Children are indeed human beings, and if anything, their lack of a political or social voice requires adults to speak for them and protect their rights as human beings. Now don’t go jumping to conclusions, I don’t think you can use that argument to justify blowing up abortion clinics. But I do think that we as adults need to protect the basic rights of children whether they are our own or someone else’s. And I think that adults who cannot see clear to do so have perhaps not matured adequately in their moral reasoning skills, as I discussed in an earlier post. I find it ridiculous that some people think that the minor inconvenience of having to be exposed to childish behavior in a grocery store would justify calling someone a “snotminer” or threatening to leave a mother and child in tears. As if the mother is just a glorified child and both need to be smacked into line. When I was pregnant with Thing 1, I actually witnessed someone try that on the subway. It was crowded, and the train was running slow, and a kid was crying because he’d just had enough. Hell, I was feeling pretty cranky, myself. Then some guy started shouting at the mother to “shut that brat up”, and let’s just say, it didn’t go well for him. He was pretty much shouted down by the rest of the passengers, for behaving worse than the child. I guess that goes to show you that, even among social and political equals, sometimes someone needs to deliver a “scolding”.

When I was younger, I thought that to be a feminist meant that you had to hate men and remain childless. But I’ve grown up a bit, now, and I understand that feminism is (or should be) about permitting women to make choices. One choice is to not have children. No woman should be forced to have a child when she does not want to. It is a life changing event – whether you tried for years for that baby or you are a teenager who found herself with an unplanned pregnancy. Once you give birth to a child and take him/her home with you, society demands that you care for that person until they can care for themselves (which doesn’t magically happen at age 18). Anyone who doesn’t feel like taking on that challenge should be permitted to take a pass gracefully, without guilt or shame. But likewise, those who do have children should not feel ashamed or diminished as human beings. And as society demands commitment from parents, I think parents are justified in demanding something back from society, the least of which being respect for themselves and their children as human beings.

I am proud to be a mother; I make no secret of the fact, and have even been known to indulge in talking about my kids during casual conversation. I don’t think that being a mother has made me any less capable as a scientist, and I have also been known to indulge in talking about science during casual conversation – to other people who have kids, no less. For me, feminism is about embracing the multiplicity of ways to be a woman – among women, as well as within each woman.

(Thanks, Zuska, for reminding me to write about this.)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Guest Lecture, Take Two

Well, I did it. I have given the guest lecture that caused me so much stress. At least it's over.

I ended up having a chat last week with the course organizer who had forgotten to tell me where the class was being held. He was extremely apologetic (more so than the initial email reflected) and more than willing to reschedule my talk for a date which was convenient for me. I also found out that he taken the full blame for the misunderstanding when he told the students what had happened. Those two actions went a long was toward defusing my anger at the situation. I think a large part of my anger was fueled by the thought that people might think that I blew off the lecture, so I was relieved to find out that my reputation had not been tarnished. Also, it makes a big difference when someone says, "Yeah, I'll bet that was really infuriating, and I'm sorry." I often think too many people forget the value of a good apology.

So, at any rate, I ended up giving the lecture. And not losing my temper explosively for a second time in public. My lab mates had a jolly good time of teasing me all day, however. I must have gotten almost half a dozen fake messages that the location or time for the class had been changed, the delivery of each one accompanied by the snickers of the messenger. What a riot!

But I was really nervous. It's hard to explain the weird set of emotions I feel about public speaking, but I'm doing to try. Whenever people ask me, I say I really like teaching and talking about my research, and I'm always really excited at the prospect of giving a talk of any kind. It's something I'd like to be good at, and I don't wish that I could just do my research and never have to give talks or teach like some of my colleagues do. I'd even say the opposite is true: I feel compelled to do more of that kind of stuff, and seek out opportunities to do so. I consider giving good talks and being a good teacher to be an important part of the job description of a scientist. And yet, just before I give a talk or even do a poster presentation, I get incredibly nervous. Sometimes to the extent that I feel physically ill. Although I know in the small sliver of my rational mind that is still functioning at this point that I'll be fine when it's over, my stress response is kicked into overdrive and I feel like a deer in the headlights. The first time this happened, I thought that all I needed was more experience to feel more comfortable. But alas, that has not helped. Experience has given me a mantra to recite that goes like, "you're nervous, but you can get through this, you've done it before, and you'll do it again," but the physical reaction (racing heart, distraction, nausea, etc) has not reduced much in severity. I think there must be something I can do to "get over this", short of a pharmaceutical solution. If not, I'm going to end up having a heart attack one of these days!

By way of a post mortem for this talk, I think it was really only so-so. I went in there wanting to do a great job, and I spent a long time on preparation of the slides and thinking about the material, but I only practiced the lecture once, and not all the way through in one go. So, I found myself thinking that it would have been better to present some things in a different order as I was talking, which was not fun, and that made it hard to stay on track. I also planned to cover too much material, so I had to cut out a large chunk of stuff on the fly, and had a hard time talking about the last topic since the lead up was lost. However, the students seemed pretty interested, and asked questions throughout, so I added some stuff in on the fly in response. So I guess it was a pretty average first attempt. If I did it again, I'd definitely change a lot of things around, but I don't think the students were in agony the whole time. So, I give myself a "nice try" overall.