Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for October, 2013

Back in the Saddle Again


Saddle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All of us, for some reason or another, have to take a hiatus from traveling, networking, or some of the other parts of our jobs. Coming back can be a challenge. I think many women, especially if they have tenure, take a big reduction in traveling once they have kids. Sometimes it can be difficult to get back in the saddle of long-distance traveling after a long time away. Plus, being away from kids can be sad if it you haven’t been away from them much.

Here is one woman’s story of getting back in the saddle. Enjoy!

I was really divided over whether or not to come to an international meeting, because I didn’t know that many people on the schedule, and honestly I was a little scared. I think everyone thinks I am good at schmoozing, but I had cut down travel so much the last few years that I am out of practice. I haven’t been out of the US/Canada since 2005 — I forgot to bring a European power adapter, felt very stupid and had to buy one at the airport. I was tired and jet-lagged the whole time I was there. I was also feeling really shy — I feel that I look so much rounder in all my business clothes after having kids. I didn’t know that many people at the meeting, and it was mostly really old guard white guys. Many of the participants were from Europe and were used to a more hierarchical academic system, and I forgot that many of those kinds of guys treat me like an infant.

Even worse, I was missing the kids so much that I didn’t feel like talking about science much. I ended up talking about the kids a lot whenever I tried to schmooze.  One of the few people I knew at the conference was a guy of whom I think as a mid-career mover and shaker. I just assumed that he was very well-connected — he’s done well in his career, he’s very friendly and gregarious, he’s gotten some awards, and he’s already on some editorial boards. We ended up eating many meals together, and surprisingly, he told me that he does not like travel much. He usually just goes to society meetings, and has never been to a Gordon Conference. He also told me that he is not good with strangers, and that he was missing his family a lot, also.

So it got me thinking. Maybe not everyone is traveling and schmoozing as much as we imagine they are, while we stay at home turning down invitations and cleaning up baby vomit. And maybe things have changed enough that, once we are done cleaning up baby vomit and are ready to get back in the saddle again, we’ll find that people are more accepting than we think.

Another good thing came from this meeting. I got an invitation to be on an editorial board from the trip, and I think we will have an invited article out of it, also. So it’s been a real positive, even beyond the “international invited talk” on the CV.

My impression is that this WomanOfScience is very brave and good things resulted, so congratulations to her! Any stories of getting back out there? Fears, concerns, or stories of bravery and success? Comment or post.

Organizing Your Group: Lab Rules

The presence of some species, like this crusta...

The presence of some species, like this crustacean, may be used as an environmental health indicator. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does your research group or lab have rules? Codes of conduct? Specific ways you need students to do things, so that science happen faster and things do not get broken? How do these rules or codes get relayed to your students?

When I first started my lab, the codes of conduct for the lab were haphazardly passed from me to student A to student B. But, much like the telephone game, I started noticing things sounding funny out the other end. People didn’t seem to know how to wash dishes or run the autoclave. I started training people with a BootCamp (more on that in another post), and that was helpful to get everyone on the same starting page. But there were still other things that would come up, occur, or happen that made me realize that not all was covered.

I talked to other young faculty about the issue, and one ManOfScience told me that he just made a list of rules and requires everyone to read it. I was intrigued, but not convinced because this seemed very formal for a lab. I wasn’t against increased formality, but the idea of having explicit rules seemed counter to the rebellious and outsider nature of experimental lab work. Does that make sense? You may have felt that way when you read the title. I am sure most people don’t have “rules” for their labs, but I hope this post convinces you that it might be worthwhile.

Here is what convinced me: During our conversation, this ManOfScience told me what sold him on having explicit rules. At some point someone carelessly, accidentally started a fire in the lab. The fire was in the back of the lab, and other people were working in the front of the lab. The person in the back, knew there was a fire, ran out, and called 911 from afar. But, they never told the other people working in the front of the lab! This seems appalling, but panic can do crazy things. You think that you should not have to tell someone to tell the entire lab to evacuate when their is a fire, yet this story says that even the most obvious-seeming things may not be obvious to all people. To this ManOfScience, and to me, it is not worth losing your lab over something you could have easily told to your students. It isn’t worth losing a piece of equipment or a person. All labs have specialized equipment and facilities. You need to clearly tell students how to you these facilities and how to treat the equipment, the strains, cell lines, animals, human subjects. Some of these issues are covered in Environmental Health and Safety courses, but it is still worth reminding.

The following are specific sections that can go in your rules:

  • Personnel issues, work hours, vacation policy, and expectations
  • Group organization
  • Group meetings, seminars, journal clubs, and semester reports
  • Reagent preparation, sterilization, storage, and disposal
  • Freezer and refrigerator storage
  • Ordering and receiveing
  • Data collection and archiving
  • Lab safety and environmental health
  • Computers
  • BIg Equipment
  • Other equipment

At the end of the rules, I have a signature page. They have to sign and return the last page to me to verify that they read the rules. If they break the rules, this signature holds them accountable. I have them read and sign 3 times a year. I update the rules when I need to, and periodically review it myself. The rules are great for new people to get up to speed on how the lab works quickly. Most students appreciate being told directly what to expect and what the rules are. Students that don’t like it also don’t last long in the lab.

How about you? Any other rules or categories I missed? How do you tell people what’s up in the lab?

All the Small Things

Post from another WomanOfScience about some of the little things that drive us nuts as WomenOfScience. Enjoy!


Silverback (Photo credit: bergeycm)

I have a Departmental Dirty Little Secret (DLS). An ongoing source of discontent, a small sliver that festers and lies always just beneath the skin. It is not fatal but the “Silverbacks” (my term for the Male Sage Older Faculty) of the Department do not lean over and pull it out.

The Silverbacks agree “‘Tis a shame, how annoying,” they murmur as they pull their beards and stroke their pearls, but still. It is just a sliver (man up!).
“It will work its way out, in time, we have seen worse,” they say, “In our day they proclaim there was….”
But, it is infecting me, bit by bit.

Does each of us have a Department DLS? That small, shameful slight that we may read too much into due to convergence of where we are in time and space that is simply drawing our focus off research, or is an indication of something much worse that must be focused on and would be negligent not to?

Here is mine:
I have never had a graduate student from my program talk to me that I had not had in my courses as an undergraduate. They have never talked me about research, about serving on their committees or just about life. So, our undergrads have been socialized to see us, but why do we find this acceptable in a student coming into our graduate program from the outside?
I think it is a human resource issue as well, all these students are provided stipends. Not being seen is a direct loss of resources.
Worse, even our young DepartmentalGraduateStudents (DGS) is a Silverback in the making and already murmurs, “How unfortunate but what can be done?” Ahh, students, they will learn in time.

What is yours?

Here is my DLS: There is an older male faculty who runs much of the department including class assignments and committee assignments who constantly passes me over for leadership roles. My department gave me pretty much no committee assignments this year – the first year after I have tenure. This is supposed to be the year when they stop “protecting me” from service and really let you have it.  But, nope!

He even had to make  special effort not to give me a chairmanship of a committee. A crap committee that he doesn’t even care about! The department publicity committee! He gave the chair position to an Assistant Professor over me. I specifically asked to be given the chairmanship after the assignments were made, and he said “No.” I pointed out that other committees have chairmanships given to the senior person on the committee, which would be me. He said, “That’s not true.” I gave him several specific examples of when this was the case. He said, “No.” I then wrote him an email that said directly, “When you don’t give me leadership roles, it makes me feel like you don’t trust me, because I am a woman.” He still said “No.”

This Silverback – in the literal sense – is about to retire after Spring semester, so I am looking forward to a future without his presence in the department, but I can’t be lucky all the time.

So, what about you? Comment or post…

Organizing Your Group – State of the Lab Address

I was just visiting with my former postdoc at her new tenure-track job to give a couple talks. I had the opportunity to talk withchemistry-glassware a few other relatively new female faculty members, and I was giving them a laundry lists of things that I figured out to do with my lab to make training students, setting expectations, and overall communication a bit smoother. Mostly, these are things that I didn’t start doing right away, but eventually figured out and they work pretty well. As always, if you have any suggestions of organizing tactics for your lab, please post or comment. To get updates from this blog, push the +Follow button. Today, I will describe an orientation I do twice a year in the lab, called the “State of the Lab Address.”

Frequency:  I give this talk twice a year to reinforce and to orient new people, mainly undergraduates, who start in the lab.

Social Orientation: I first go through a sort of social orientation for new lab members. I name and describe all the types of people in the lab: professors, postdocs, grad students, undergrads, high school students, high school teachers, technicians, or whomever. It depends on who is in the lab at the time.  For each type of person, I list the expected behaviors and tasks that they are supposed to do. I even do this for me, the professor. There is a chapter in the book “At the Bench” that goes through some of this. Remember that many young students have no idea the trajectory of an academic professor. By educating them, you can help people get along with each other and show each other the proper respect they deserve for achieving the level of education they worked hard to achieve. I set social expectations for respect to each other in the lab.

Lab as the Small Business: I relate the environment and structure of the lab to something they hear more about in the media – the small business. I state that we are shareholders of a small business called, “WomanOfScience Lab,” and we create knew knowledge and smart people who go off to do other great things. I say that I am the Principle Investigator (PI) of the lab, but my role is that of CEO. I have to make sure there is money to pay you, but it is also my job to promote the lab and make us all look good. So, I write lots of proposals for grants to pay people, and I go to give lots of talks to promote our work, so it is easier to get grants. They are the shareholders, and they need to work hard, so I can have something good to say to the grant agencies. Here, I set up expectations for professional behavior. Call in when you are sick, so we know not to expect you. Turn in assignments on time. Do you work in a timely manner. Make time for lab work (undergraduates need help with this).

Job Expectations: I specifically outline the expectations for each level of person in the lab. I make it very specific about how I spend my time (writing proposals, writing papers, traveling and giving talks, teaching to education people and recruit good, new shareholders). I find that, as a woman, people see you sitting in your office, and they automatically think you are goofing off, and not working. So, I make it really clear that, if I am here, I am working. It helps them understand all that goes into the job of being a professor, in case they are thinking of going the academic route.  I also describe all their jobs and expectations. For instance, I say that it is the job of undergraduates to try to learn, try to do experiments, and make sure that the work is fun, and you want to stay with science. Our goal is a paper, conference abstract and presentation either off-campus or on campus, and likely a capstone/thesis report. I also make it clear that their classes come first, and there are always times when you have 3 midterms, and can’t make it to lab. I remind them that missing the lab for other things is fine, but they need to report in via email or phone, so no one is worried they got in a car accident. When you give this talk, you can make your own definitions for each position, as they should work in your lab. Just make sure you are clear on these expectations.

Science of the Lab: I do an overview of the science work in the lab. I try to tie it together with a broad introduction, as I might do in a talk to undergraduates. I specify each experiment, the progress made by people in the lab (SoAndSo is writing a paper on this now). This is the easy part, because it is the stuff you think about often. I try to update it, but don’t have to update the front matter. I also explicitly discuss the money situation of the lab. In this, I am showing my personal belief that students need to understand “how the sausage is made.” It does no good to protect them. I tell them straight out, “We have a grant for this from FederalFundingAgency for this amount, and this covers one graduate student’s salary for 3 years.” Or, “We ran out of funds for this line of research, and I am working really hard to get a grant to cover X’s thesis project.”  Again, I want them to respect the fact that getting funds is difficult, and I am working hard to fund our science.

Rules of the Group: At the end, I go through any rules of the lab. For instance, I have weekly group meetings. If people can attend (if they don’t have a class), I require everyone to present weekly and each person must have 1 slide with a picture/movie/figure that illustrates what they did over the past week and describes what they will do over the next week. I make it clear that participation is not optional, presentation is not optional. If they are present, but don’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work. I also try to establish that they need to be respectful of the equipment, materials, and physical property of the lab. Again, I am not afraid to bring up money. I tell them how much stuff costs, and how much we spend on materials and supplies. I also tell them that I often go without pay in the summer. This opens their eyes. In following posts, I will discuss the Rules of the Group in detail, so stay tuned for more.

So, why do this? I find that this 1-hour presentation helps to avert problems in the future and helps everyone understand each other. This is a time-saving mechanism. Further, it helps to head off questions and misconceptions about expectations. This presentation does not cover research training on what we actually do in the group. I train students on research skills as a group in a “Bootcamp” setting, which I will describe in future talks.

My question for you, is what am I missing? I have developed this de novo, but what else should I include? Comment or post to discuss.

Harassment: What to do?


Frontispiece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although as women in science, we often deal with subtle bias, non-specific and irrational pre-judgement of our qualifications, and an overall lack of encouragement. Less often, yet still persistent occurrences of actual overt harassment still occur and are known. A recent post at another awesome Women in Science Blog, TenureSheWrote, brought up a very interesting question about what to do when you know there is a harass-er of women around, in your field.  Please go to see that post and comment there.

Here, I want to tell a story about what I have done about harassment, when I saw it. As always, I ask you about what you have done and to share your personal stories about how you have dealt with this when you see it. If you would have changed your reaction in hindsight. What were the consequences of your actions?

Here is my story:

When I first started as an UntenuredAssistantProfessor (within the first couple of months), there was a WhiteMaleEmeritusProfessor who was really nasty to everyone – men and women. He would bad mouth my new colleagues behind their backs to me and try to embarrass them in public. I attended a lunch with a MaleSeminarSpeaker a few weeks later, and the WMEmeritusProfessor tried to make my science look stupid in front of the visitor. I fought back with humor and made him look ignorant of the current jargon and the current knowledge of my field. He was not happy with me.

A few weeks later, when a YoungFemaleScientist came to give our departmental colloquium, I went to lunch and so did he. I sat across the table from him, and he sat next to the speaker, and he was hitting on this poor woman the entire time. At some point, I couldn’t take it, and I told him to stop – in front of everyone. I made a scene. I pointed out that he was being offensive and inappropriate. I used humor, but I didn’t let him off the hook. He tried to attack me saying that I was being politically correct (as if that was a bad thing). One of my senior colleagues was there at the lunch, and I had to talk about it with him later. I didn’t get the impression that he was on my side, but more that he was uncomfortable and wanted it to go away.

A month of so later, I was at a dinner with several AmazingWomenOfScience in my field. I was ecstatic to be invited because these were wonderful, powerful women in my field. When they realized my new university, one told a story about how, when she went to give a talk at my university, she was verbally attacked about her science by WMEmeritusProfessor. He interrupted her several times – far more than the norm for the field. He tried to get invited to dinner. Worse of all, afterwards, WMEmeritusProfessor started sending her love letters in the mail. I went from ecstatic to embarrassed. I was ashamed that people my university saw this happening and did nothing.

I went to a SeniorMaleColleague and asked what power WMEmeritusProfessor would have over my tenure case. The answer was absolutely none. So, I went to the chair and demanded that he be removed from all seminar lists. I had found out that other departments had stopped sending seminar announcements to my department for fear that WMEmeritusProfessor would show up. I also told the Chair about WMEmeritusProfessor’s behavior, and how it was embarrassing and affecting people in my field. I think WMEmertusProfessor must have been talked to, because he was not seen as frequently in seminars for many years after that.

I didn’t have to deal with him anymore, and things felt better. I certainly felt more comfortable in my department.

Several years later, I had my Nth (important milestone) birthday party and got catering for the event. The woman doing the cooking told me she had been an undergraduate in my department many years before I got there. When she had been there, WMEmeritusProfessor was a FullProfessor, and he taught her laboratory course. She said that he had harassed her directly. He asked for dates and said that she would do better if she did this of that thing with him. She said it happened to a number of female students. I was shocked! How could no one in the department have known about this? I realize there was only 1-2 women professors at any one time until a couple more of us came on board, but these women never went to them to tell about what was happening. I had no idea what to do, and I have never reported it – staying the supportive listener, but I am still shocked to this day.

Typing this post has been cathartic, and has helped me realize that I did stand up when I could, and have been on alert for this monster as he infrequently rears his head in the department. The woman who reported it to me, now many years later is confident and would not care if I brought it up, but what purpose does it serve? Should I say something now?

So, has this happened to you? In front of you? Did you say anything? Make a stand? Or try to ignore it? What should we do? Comment or post here. Remember to

Why So Negative?

So, I have a had a number of posts, and by now, you maybe could have realized

Thought Bubbles

Thought Bubbles (Photo credit: Michael Taggart Photography)

that I am a naturally positive person. Not only is the glass half full, but I can give you 2 reasons why you should be happy about it. I am also naturally energetic. These attributes make me very able to organize and lead not only my lab but other committees at both the department, college, and even national level. Yet, I am often faced with immediate negative opinions from my colleagues when I put out new ideas, discuss changes, or organize on the departmental level.

Sometimes, they have non-specific comments including, “We tried that 10 years ago, and it didn’t work.” Although this is non-specific and doesn’t give any hard evidence of the “not-working” nature, at least they claim to have tried something new. Other times, they just say, “That’s not how we do that,” without discussion of if it might make sense for us to even try. These attitudes seem unnecessarily negative.

Another place where I find people are negative is about trying to get awards. I recently asked to be put up for a BigAward. Is it a reach? Yes. Am I a shoo-in to win? No. But, again, being the positive sort of person I am, my thought is that your chances of winning are zero if you don’t even try. It’s not that I think I am so great that I will definitely win, it’s just that I see the benefits of trying. When you submit a strong nomination packet, even if you don’t make it to round two, some BigWig, smart people will have to read it. They might be impressed with you. They might remember your application. It might help you out in the long run – you never know. So, my thoughts are that it is worth the time to help your junior colleague get their name out there and support them.

Again, being positive, my take on these people is that they have taken the idea of “critical thinking” to an extreme. We are all taught to be critical thinkers in science. And criticism turns us to the right direction and is helpful. I am not against criticism. It has definitely helped me write better papers and write better grants. But, sometimes, I think that people are so fixated on the “critical” part that they forget about the “thinker” part. They become negative just to be negative for no good reason. Why? Do they do it with everyone? Or am I special because I am so positive? Sometimes these things get me down, and I start feeling bad and suffering from impostor syndrome due to all the negativity. Luckily, I am positive, and one good science interaction or pat on the back from a visitor makes me happy again, but it is disturbing how often the criticism becomes overpowering. If I was a less positive person, it could be crippling or debilitating.

So, what about you? Have you suffered from overpowering criticism? What is justified? Or unnecessarily over the top? How did it affect you, your science, and your attitude? Tell your story in a post or a comment.

Not Just in Academia

Us Highway System in 1926, Dept. Of Agriculture, US Government

Us Highway System in 1926, Dept. Of Agriculture, US Government

While recently at the wedding of my BestFriend, and fellow WomanOfScience turned OfficialWomanOfGovernment/Science, I ran into a number of women and men who I overlapped with in graduate school. It was great to reconnect, and surprising, since my BestFriend is  from my undergraduate years at SmallLiberalArtsSchool4Women. The FriendsFromGradSchool turned out to have been good friends with my BestFriend’s new HusbandOfGovernment/Science. It is interesting when networks reconnect and make a circle. And it reminds you how small the science community really is.

I took this opportunity to reconnect with these NiceGuysOfScience and these AmazingWomenOfScience, and rebuild some of my dilapidated career network. I see my career network as a lateral expanse, much like the road system of the United States. Sometimes, the roads can become a bit run-down, and when you get the opportunity, it is good to reconnect and make repairs.

I was very impressed with these WomenOfScience. They spanned all types of careers and many points along the career trajectory including some WomenPostdocsOfScience, ScienceWomenOfGovernment (some of whom were on a forced vacation), BigShots at PrivateUniversities, and WomanOfIndustrialScience. I have asked them, as I ask you every post, to help other WomenOfScience by posting to this blog. They all seemed very positive, so I hope to bring you some of their stories shortly.

I was most intrigued by WomanOfIndustrialScience. I am always looking for ways to branch my network into industry because you never know when it can help your work or help your student. I feel I am particularly bad at mentoring students who want to go into industrial jobs because I never pursued that path, and I do not have many friends/colleagues who went that route, either.

I was asking my reconnected friend about how it was to be a WomanOfIndustrialScience to get more information for me and students on that path. Maybe because I don’t have direct experience with industrial science, I had it in my mind that it could be better there for women(?).  In chatting, I realized that industrial science is fraught with just as much peril for women’s careers as academic science. On the bad side, it seems like science is difficult for women in either area – academia or industry. This is likely due to the fact that society as a whole does not think of science as women’s work.

On the good side: There does seem to be some advantages to industrial science jobs over academia. Most importantly, it seems that in industry you have the ability to remove yourself from bad situations more easily. Bad bosses could be reported to HR, be moved, be fired, or be sued. It seems like if they are bad bosses to women, they are often bad bosses to dude’s too, and they don’t last too long. From the outside, the option of litigation appears to be more prevalent and perhaps more effective, in industry than academia. Suing in academia certainly means losing your job and career because it is unlikely you will be hired by another school. While suing in industry may not preclude you from getting another job in industry.

But, most women in science are not so litigious. Another option: you can move. You could move laterally within a company or move to a new company. It seems much faster and more fluid in industry than in academia.  In academia, job applications take 12 months instead of 2, as they are in industry. So, even if you are trying to get away from a bad situation in academia, you often have to live with it for many months or even years while you are trying to move. If the bad guys know you are trying to move on, they can even sabotage you, and make your move impossible. Add on top the fact that, in academia, you will likely need to move to a new state and uproot your family, and you might need to resolve a TwoBodyProblem, and the thought of the endeavor could be paralyzing. So, it seems to me that industrial science jobs might be less stressful on these fronts.

Hopefully, we will get more posts from WomanOfIndustrialScience on these topics and more. Do you have something to add? Post or comment. As always, you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button. Hope to hear from you!

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