Saturday, October 31, 2009

Followup on 'Progress?'

A few weeks ago I posted about the number of female Nobel laureates and how that number reflects trends in science. This week Science published a roundtable interview with the four women who took Nobel Prizes in STEM fields this year. The web version includes an extended audio version.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clone wars

It seems like more than 9 days has passed since my last blog post. The past week has been pretty crazy with several very long days/nights in the lab, urgent experiments getting dumped in my lap at the last minute, struggling with my own long experiments--you know, the usual travails of the typical postdoc (or grad student). Throw in there a program retreat with a large number of grad students (meaning late night after-parties and thus < 8 h sleep over two nights) and a minor medical procedure that, among other things, required me to give up real food and coffee for >40 h (the latter was painful-literally) and be up at some godforsaken hour this morning. Upon discharge, I was instructed to go home, rest, and avoid 'activities that require you to think or act quickly'. So I think that leaves sleeping, watching crappy daytime TV , re-reading Harry Potter, and blogging. I've hit 2; I'll get to the others later.
It starts at the top, with the administrators and the PIs. It then filters down to the lower ranks--the postdocs, the grad students, the research associates. It really is an insidious plague. And despite the dramatically different landscape, the acknowledgment of its presence, the discussions of alternatives, it still continues to spread. I am referring to the ridiculous assertion that success as a scientist requires one to remain in academia. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization. Yes, there (probably) are PIs out there who are happy with whatever career choice their trainees make, so long as their trainees are happy with the decision.

But there remains a pervasive attitude that if you are a productive student/postdoc and leave academia to pursue other career options, then you made a mistake or cracked under the pressure or some other term equated with failure. (Chall was recently the center of this perception at her new job.) In many graduate programs, you're essentially presented with two career options: research in industry or research in academia. And many PIs seem to consider a move to industry as the ultimate betrayal (after all, Pfizer and Merck are actually run by Voldemort and Darth Vader, right?).

It's satisfying to have someone follow in your footsteps, so to speak, to want what you have, to create 'clones' of yourself. Some PIs, though, can't seem to understand why on earth any good trainee would want something other than a tenure-track position at an R1 university. Some even seem to take it as a personal insult that a trainee would choose any other path. Some go so far as to tell their trainees that they will be wasting their lives, should they choose something else.

Now I think I've made my career aspirations pretty clear. I do want the students, the postdocs, the lab (even if it's in a basement somewhere)... but that is my decision. I don't assume that every other postdoc or grad student wants that. There are two innate problems with making such an assumption.

The first is practical: There simply are not enough faculty positions available for every trainee. So by telling your trainees that a tenure-track position is the only worthwhile job out there and pushing them toward that career path, you're setting them up for failure. Depending on how deeply that notion gets ingrained, your trainee may find impossible to be truly happy with any other job because your voice is always in the back of her (or his) mind reminding her of where she went wrong, that she couldn't make it, that she failed.

The second is personal, but may come as a shock to some PIs: Not every individual with a Ph.D. wants to run his/her own lab at an R1. Furthermore (and you may want to sit down for this one), not every individual with a Ph.D. wants to stay in research. The reasons for not wanting to start a lab or not wanting to stay in research are vast. Too vast to even tackle here. Occasionally a trainee may simply lack confidence, and a word of encouragement may be just what he or she needs to start down that path. However, a PI shouldn't pressure anyone to pursue an academic research career just because he/she thinks it's the right decision for that trainee.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

We're not alone

Maybe it's just me... but I don't really interact with any professional women in areas outside of science. So sometimes I lose sight of the fact that women in other fields are facing the same challenges and questions that women in science, are. I caught a 'teaser' for the NBC/MSNBC special report series "A Woman's Nation", and I decided to take a look. The series is actually an extension of The Shriver Report (as in First Lady of California) from the Center for American Progress. I have not read the entire report yet, but here is one excerpt that caught my attention:
For the vast majority of women (and men for that matter), reaching a C-suite level position is not very likely (or perhaps even desirable). The statistics on educated women entering the workforce and the early but encouraging research we have outlined suggesting that women are highly effective in senior-level positions would lead one to ask:
  • Why aren’t women more equally represented at senior levels of the business organizations?
  • Why is the number of women at the top still so small?
  • Why are there so many leaks in the pipeline of women into leadership in corporate America?

... Among the many reasons women hop off the career ladder is work-life conflict. Two options that many women pursue to address these conflicts are: “opting out” (or downshifting) and pursuing entrepreneurial careers.

... many highly educated women leave their employers prematurely due to the barriers they encounter in the workplace and the challenge of integrating work and family.13
But opting out is not simply a response to inflexible schedules and problems rectifying work-family conflict... women are more likely to leave the workforce because their jobs are not satisfying or lack meaning. Many women, especially those at midlife, opt out because they do not feel valued.14

A second option for women is to take on a reduced work schedule, working part time or job sharing. This approach, like opting out, is viable only for those families that can afford to live on less earnings. Women are far more likely than men to pursue reduced-hours arrangements in order to accommodate their caregiving demands. Unfortunately, employers appear to have an almost inexplicably high level of resistance to establishing part-time professional positions.

Many highly skilled women seek professional part-time roles where they can contribute in meaningful ways, only to find that such roles pay poorly, are marginalized, and often do not include benefits (not even on a pro-rated basis). The result is a serious talent drain that would be very easily remedied by employers simply letting go of an outdated belief that professionals and managers work full time.

Sound familiar?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fashion faux pas?

Before I get to the meat of today’s post… Traffic has been up to my little blog since one frequent visitor and commentator decided to make an example of me (but in a mostly constructive way). So, welcome to new readers. I hope you continue to drop by. If you want to know more about where I’m coming from, check here and here.

Now onto the main course...

For various reasons, I've been thinking back on a debate that I had more than once with a fellow grad student. She held that there's only one way for a woman in science to dress if she wants to be taken seriously. Her contention was that if a woman dresses in a feminine manner, if she shows any leg, if she wears a top that even hints that she has cleavage, then she'll get a male colleague's attention, but she creates a scenario in which he cares more about her ass than he does her science. Or male colleagues will just dismiss her out of hand. Her claim was that if a woman wants a man to respect her intellectually, then she has to hide her sexuality, her femininity--wearing pants, suits, and tops that are more masculine cut and that hide skin and curves. She shares the attitude of Ms. Mentor, which is frumpy is better than fashionable in professional interactions. This mentality is shared by many American-born female scientists in academia. I say American-born because I've seen many foreign female scientists--particularly European--who seem to be quite comfortable wearing figure-flattering dress or sleeveless top among their male counterparts.

Women want to be accepted as equals in science. That shouldn't mean that we have to imitate the men in our fields in attitude and dress. We shouldn't have to hide behind our clothes. A skirt shouldn't be a red flag, screaming, "Hey, there's a chic in the room." They know already! It's not as though we've been drinking Polyjuice Potion so we look like dude #1.

I think that this attitude holds us back. It is a self-imposed restriction. We are telling ourselves and other women that we can't be ourselves. It's true, that regardless of culture, gender, or occupation, most people behave differently at work than they do with friends or significant other, but some degree of personality comes across in professional interactions. For many people, personality is reflected in personal style. I happen to feel more confident when I feel good about my appearance and when it is representative of my personality. It wasn't that long ago that I really began to find my personal style and learn what flattered my figure, and it wouldn't have happened without a very good friend--a female postdoc who experienced a similar revelation months earlier. Giving my appearance a little time and consideration can change how I carry myself (especially if my day is starting off pretty crappy). Although I do it for myself, other people notice when I pay attention to my appearance. It is rare that I feel marginalized or objectified for wearing attractive, stylish, distinctly feminine clothing.

I selected a professional but distinctly feminine outfit for my dissertation defense: a black pencil skirt, a floral print top that just covered my shoulders, and three-inch heels. I did not get a single smart ass or derogatory comment from Bear (who is pretty notorious for saying what he thinks to his trainees without any filter). My committee--which was entirely over 50 men that day--did not treat me any differently. We had a very collegial, animated debate over the proposed model. I did not feel as though I was not respected for being an attractive, confident woman--quite the opposite really.

My aforementioned grad student friend would probably have been shocked and appalled by my choice of attire for my dissertation defense. In my experience, women take note when a male scientist dresses fabulously, but don't view it in a negative light. So why do some women seem to take offense when another female scientist chooses to show her style? Are perceptions of female scientists generally so heavily swayed by how they choose to dress?

I'm done with it. I'm a woman in science and I have decided that it's ok for me to dress like a young, confident, stylish woman (even if I'm not all those things all the time). And if anyone has a problem with that, they can bite me because I do good science and that's what matters.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Don't hate me

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I actually took Monday as a holiday, in keeping with our institute's list of official holidays...

Or that it's not a gray, gloomy day...

Or that I had an awesome, if brief, Friday evening with Paramed...

Or that I was convinced it was a regular (by banking standards) workday for a good 60 s or more as all the alarms in our apartment were screaming at 5:30 this morning for us to get our asses out of bed...

But I'm actually looking forward to a Saturday in lab. Maybe this is a sign that I'm getting my research mojo back.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Whoa. Where did that come from?

Note: I have no idea if these ramblings will make any sense. If they don't, I blame the horrendous cold and the cold medicine. Actually I probably shouldn't blog 'under the influence', but I'm going to anyway.

Making life-changing decisions is hard. Making the actual change is infinitely harder. That's when the real work begins, and it usually takes years. After all, they're not week-changing decisions. You take that first step. You start on your way. You keep your head down. You're watching your feet because the trail is can be rocky, your footing unsure, and you don't want to fall on your face right out of the gate. You keep going this way for a little while. Then you look up and see what's really in front of you. Sometimes it knocks the wind out of you.

When Paramed and I made the decision to move to the Northland so I could do a postdoc at BRI, we knew it wouldn't be easy. There were events prior to and after the decision that made us question if we'd made the right
one, not so much from the career standpoint, but because we were moving even farther away from family. We had no idea, though, just how hard the change would be. Even though we were both ready to move on, it was
tough leaving PSU City. We spent the first 5+ years of our marriage there, and it was the first place where we established a set of friends and habits that were completely independent of our families. Having spent our entire lives in the southern US, moving to the Northland was a HUGE culture shock. Plus it's always a challenge to walk into a group as the newbie, trying to figure out where you fit in and establish connections with the people. On top of this, there was a massive emotional roller coaster involving Paramed's plans and future for the first 9 months we were here. All of this is to say, for the past several months, I've been keeping my head down, watching my feet.

Then, over the past few weeks, many small things--blogs, conversations, ramblings of the subconscious, etc.--that caused me to look up, see what's in front of me regarding my career track, and say (initially at least), "What the hell did I get myself into?" To be honest, I'm a little jealous of Dr Becca, who said this week:
What seems to be most highly valued is having a real focus throughout your career, as opposed to flitting about learning a million methods in different fields.

... realizing that this is what is desirable in a New Investigator candidate, a sneaky grin crept onto my face because I was also realizing that I have GOT IT.

I'm jealous because I don't have that. I chose a different path, a different field, and it seems I've been trying to rationalize this to myself recently.

I think what it comes down to is that 'finding yourself', figuring out what you want to do with your life isn't a linear path for everyone. It certainly hasn't been for me. I briefly described my background when I first started this blog. Growing up where I did, I didn't know any scientists, and there certainly weren't any opportunities to do research as a high school student. I had loved science from the outset, but it was a long time before I considered it as a career. When I made the decision to pursue a career in science, I was almost done with my BS and jumped straight into grad school. I didn't take/have much time to explore areas outside of chemistry/biochemistry. I gravitated to biochem, but as a grad student, I was fascinated by more heavily bio/biomed-related research. Bear encouraged his grad students to keep up with what was going on in the literature outside our area of interests. I took that to heart. And I became intrigued by two fields that were quite far removed, in both content and techniques, from my graduate work.

Ultimately I chose one of those fields--immunology--for my postdoc work. Part of my reasoning was that immunology is constantly changing and evolving. There is really no shortage of questions and problems to work on. There is certainly a place in immunology for biochemistry and for tools emerging from chemical biology labs, which are not being widely used. I wanted the change work on something that was really important, to work in a field where a novel discovery has the potential to change medicine. And, for reasons that I can't even explain to myself, it just felt right. Maybe that's a poor reason to choose a new field, but it was one of mine, nonetheless.

Of course, that decision has brought a lot of things with it--like learning (obviously) immunology and, perhaps not so obviously, (re)learning cell signaling and physiology. I also realize that this choice all but guarantees taking a second postdoc before I start searching for my 'dream job'. Even then, it could very well count against me with some search committee/study section members that I switched fields. No one is guaranteed success in science, but sometimes I'm afraid that I might have made it much more difficult for myself.

But then I consider that one smart, successful immunologist decided to give me a chance--a chance to learn the field, yes, but also a chance to bring a fresh outlook to the project. He didn't bring me in and send the biochemist to purify antibodies or quantify binding constants. He gave me a problem that needs a biochemical perspective but is immunological at the core. Yes, it's been a bit rocky, but isn't almost every new project? And it's been exciting to see that the systems and pathways we're studying are slowly gaining more attention and interest--both in academia and industry.

I like this quote from Susumu Tonegawa in a recent piece in Cell about taking risks in science:
I keep telling young people, if you want to accomplish anything you have to be an optimist... You have to control you own life. You have to ask yourself why you do science. To put it bluntly, publishing papers in prestigious journals should not be the goal of a scientist. The goal is to discover something, to do something important.
In the end, it comes down to this: I chose to take a risk. I might fail. In fact, there's a good chance that I will fail--many times. I might even fail miserably. When I fail, I have to remember why I'm in it--for the thrill of the discovery, for the chance to have an impact--and pick myself up and go back again. And have as much fun as I can along the way.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

As I was saying?

Just a couple of days ago I was commenting on the dearth of female Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics.

But then the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced, and Ada Yonath was among the triumvirate--the first woman in 45 years.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Needless to say, the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine created quite the buzz in the science blogosphere, perhaps a bit more than usual because, for the first time, it was awarded to two women (and some white guy). This is fantastic...

...but it made me wonder about how often Nobel Prizes in sciences have been awarded to women.

The answer: 14 women in 106 years. Of those, 10 (including yesterday's announcement) have been in Physiology or Medicine.

It's interesting that the contributions of women in physics and chemistry were recognized much earlier than physiology. Marie Curie was awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics AND Chemistry in 1903 and 1911, respectively. Yet no woman has been awarded a Nobel Prize in either of these disciplines since the 1960s.

The selection of Nobel laureates is a bit of mystery to me. I don't think that this is some conspiracy by the Royal Swedish Academy to keep women down. I do think, however, that it is a reflection of general trends in sciences, namely that women have integrated into medicine and life sciences more rapidly than physical sciences. This is based entirely upon my own personal experience, and I haven't taken the time to research the statistics for this post. There were quite a few women (tenured/tenure-track/research) in departments under the purvey of the medical school at PSU, and in my current department at BRI, I know of at least 4 female faculty without looking at directory. In the chem department at PSU, there was a single female tenure-track professor when I started grad school--they did add another to the ranks during my time there. A senior research associate professor in my graduate lab relayed the experience of being told by a very famous organic chemist that women were physically too weak to do chemistry. WTF?

Is there some part of the process in physical sciences that selects for high levels of testosterone? It seems to be an issue of retention of women in the upper echelons. There were (and still are) three female faculty in the chem/biochem department where I did my undergrad (although that department did not have a PhD program). When I started grad school (in chemistry), our class was nearly half female. So what happens to them? My education and research has always tended toward biochemical/biological, so if I ever get my dream job, it will most likely be in med school or life sciences department. But, even though there are more women in medical/life sciences, the numbers don't add up for 'migration' of women from physical sciences.

I hope, by the time I reach the end of my career, that we won't be having these same discussions, that we won't be surprised when a woman--or two--take home a Nobel Prize in science.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Moving on

I realize that I've been feeling sorry for myself when it comes to research lately. I've decided that enough is enough. It's time to get over myself... move on... and get this shiznit done.

Goodbye, Safari... and good riddance!

I have been a diehard Mac person for the past 5+ years--ever since I got my first iBook in Bear's lab. I loved that the operating system didn't crash once a day. That the web browser Safari was functional and fast and didn't lock up.

Well, so much for that last bit. The newest version of Safari is giving me flashbacks to the old Internet Explorer. Ever since I updated it a few months ago (to the version that has tabs and the iTunes-esque view of favorite sites), the damn thing locks up at least once a day, and I have to force quit.

I finally got fed up with it and decided to switch to Firefox (which has had tabs for much longer than Safari). I had used it off and on, mostly if some site wasn't working on Safari. The newest version is sleeker and sexier than previous ones. And I like it. I've got the persona. I've got the tabs. And I've got some great add-ons.

Including, which runs a feed from, which I am loving. Fee-free, commercial-free, personalized web radio. What a concept. Ever since I stopped driving to work about 3 years ago, I basically stopped listening to standard FM radio. I typically only listen to iTunes stations for a short time because (a) crappy quality, (b) buffering, (c) talk/commercials, and/or (d) music selection. So I am very much enjoying listening to high quality radio and discovering some artists that I've never heard before. Looks like its time to update my iTunes collection!

Now I just have to figure out how to move all my bookmarks from Safari to Firefox...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Over and under

I have a confession. I feel like an impostor.

This is nothing new exactly. When I was finishing by undergrad and made the decision to attend grad school, I feared my advisers were think I was crazy... or stupid... or unprepared. I worried that that I wouldn't get into a graduate program... so I applied to 14 programs.

When I started grad school, coursework and proficiency exams made me feel as though there was so much more that I should have known already. I feared that I wouldn't be good enough or smart enough for the labs I rotated in. Being accepted to my first choice lab did little to allay those fears.

It was Bear* who first made me realize that I had placed limits on myself. I had always worked hard, but I had never been able to see myself making it as a PI at a research university. I had resigned myself to pursuing a career at a PUI** until Bear gave me his vote of confidence.

Now I'm in the postdoc phase, and I still have these feelings of not being good enough for where I'm at. These are the things I sometimes think about when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep (which is what I get for taking pseudoephedrine before bed). Those subconscious thoughts and feelings come to the surface and won't be ignored. Did I really contribute anything to new to Bear's lab? Did my committee really think I had proven myself worthy of a Ph.D., or did they just let me out because I had a job? Why the hell did Guru take me on as a postdoc? What was I thinking, switching to a field I know so little about? I try to be completely honest about what I have and haven't done. Does he regret his decision in hiring me? I'm in a department with brilliant people doing amazing things--what can I possibly contribute?

I feel overwhelmed by the tasks in front of me and underwhelmed by my perception of my intellect and abilities. It's particularly difficult to talk myself out of these self-doubts when I've had a couple of crappy research weeks (you know, the ones where you have trouble getting the simple, straightforward experiments to work). I don't really have anyone at BRI with whom I've established a close enough relationship to talk about these things.

I don't know if this will ever get any easier for me (I hope it does). Despite all these doubts, I won't let go of that dream of running my own lab. Sometimes I'm not sure if it's stubbornness or insanity or a true belief that I can and will do it. I'm absolutely afraid of failing, but I'm more terrified of never trying.

* Don't think for a moment that Bear was the Carebear sort. He could be--and indeed was--an ass on occasion. There were times he made me feel like a complete idiot, but there were also times that he let me know very matter-of-factly what I had going for me and the potential that he saw.

** I think I've said this before, but just to reiterate: I think there is nothing wrong with a career at a PUI. I did my B.S. at such a place and had a lot of fantastic profs, without whom I wouldn't even be in science. I just don't think it's
my gig.

Still not going to read it

There seems to a slight glitch with one of the email subscriptions for Cell Press: the ToC for Trends in Biochemical Sciences has been sent to me EVERYDAY this week.

Or maybe they're just being persistent in an effort to increase readership. I'm not falling for it! Not this week at least.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cell Press: Supplements not information dumps

The editorial in the current issue of Cell outlines new guidelines for supplemental materials for Cell Press publications. The contention is that, although supplements are a unique and "powerful advantage of online publishing", they have become dumping sites,
Unfortunately over the years supplemental material has evolved into a seemingly limitless repository for additional “stuff”: a wide range of control experiments, preliminary next-step experiments, data responding to specific reviewers concerns, results that just “don’t fit” within the main paper, extended discussions,and methodological details. It has become a mechanism for expanding the overall content of a paper without any delineated change in editorial standards.

In designing the new framework for supplements, the editorial board is imposing "conceptual" limits, as opposed to rigorous length limits. They designate three major "conceptual categories" for supplemental material:
  1. data that "provides deeper support for the points made in the main paper"
  2. large data sets and multimedia
  3. methodological detail
The idea is that the paper should be understandable to nonexperts, and the supplement should provide details that are important to experts (i.e. critical for repeating or building upon experiments described). Furthermore, each section of the supplement must be linked to a table or figure in the paper.

I will be interested to see how this works out. It sounds logical and reasonable and straightforward. In many high-impact factor journals, it is frustrating and sometimes even difficult to follow what the authors have done. My personal opinion is that the main paper should be able to stand on its own. I shouldn't need a 20-page supplement to believe the paper. That's what dissertations are for ;)