Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for September, 2014

Sabbatical Report

cycling_sabbatical_by_katandkitty-d5eakjxI have two WomenOfScience Friends who just went away got sabbatical with entire family in tow. I have been asking them to write a blog entry about the do’s and don’t’s of going on sabbatical, but it turns out, when you go on sabbatical, life gets really hectic when you get back. Note to self: Life After Sabbatical is rough – try to take it easy.

Anyway, despite the huge amount of work and catch-up, I got one to write a little “report” on reflections on her sabbatical. If you like this blog, push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.  Enjoy!

My husband and I are both faculty members at the same university. This past year we took an amazing sabbatical for the entire academic year. We called it “Our BIG Year.” We were fortunate enough to both be awarded fellowships that helped to support our sabbatical research. We spent the first half year in Tokyo, Japan. I worked at the University of Tokyo and my husband worked at Keio University. Our two young sons attended day care and kindergarten in traditional Japanese schools where no English was spoken. The second half of our sabbatical was in Paris, France. I worked in a laboratory at the Pasteur Institute and my husband had an appointment at Paris 12th University. Again our two sons attended day care and at that point 1st grade in a typical French school.

For me there were two major concerns going into the sabbatical. The first was maintaining the base I had worked hard to establish in my research group during my first seven years as a faculty member. My second concern was about how my kids would adapt to multiple school situations on two different continents both taught in languages with which they had very little to no experience. I would say that my concerns were appropriate; those were the two major areas that most impacted my sabbatical experience.

When I applied for fellowships and sabbatical, I imagined that I would have a senior postdoc/research assistant professor to act as a stabilizing force in my laboratory while I was away. Due to some unforeseen funding changes, and problems with the visa of the postdoc/research assistant professor, I was not able to have that stabilizing force present in my lab I was gone. I decided to go on sabbatical anyway. Overall, it was a truly amazing experience, and I’m glad that I did it. In case you are considering a “Big Year” here is my list of considerations the next time I consider a sabbatical:

  1. One year was a very long time to be away from my research group without a senior staff member. I think 6 or 9 months would have been okay but one year was too long. I am afraid that some of my graduate students may have suffered a little bit during my absence. One graduate student decided to leave the lab about 5 months into my sabbatical. I think he would have stayed in the lab if I had not been abroad. This was the most significant casualty of my year-long sabbatical.
  2. The kids were extremely resilient. It was very difficult for them for the first month in both Japanese school and French school. Our 1-year-old had never had any problems at daycare drop-off in the US, but for the 1st month in Japan started crying the moment we left the house saying I don’t want to go to daycare. The transition for him seemed to be much harder than for six-year-old son. But after 4 to 6 weeks both of the kids were happily playing with the Japanese or French classmates, so I think the painful transition was worth it. Our dinner table conversations are now conducted in the melange of three languages. My six-year-old son loves to speak French and Japanese and recently told me “I’m thinking about taking up a new language, maybe Chinese.” He certainly takes pride in being multilingual.
  3. For both halves of my sabbatical, I established entirely new interactions with my host labs. I did not have an established collaboration before I approached either of them about being a sabbatical visitor in their lab.   Given the constraints I had with the responsibilities of mentoring my graduate students and the very real need to land and renew grants to support my research program, I could not devote all of my time to working in my sabbatical lab. I think the sabbatical would have been quite a bit more productive if I had gone to a lab with whom we were already involved in an ongoing collaboration. While my sabbatical was productive, I can imagine that a sabbatical could be even more productive under different circumstances.
  4. In both Japan and France I did (some) lab work. Of course it was highly inefficient, because I was in a new laboratory. I thought every day “If I’m going to be spending time in lab it’s really a pity that I’m not spending this time in my own lab in the US with my own graduate students.” On the other hand, I know that if I had stayed in the US for my sabbatical, I would have spent that extra time doing university related work, not lab work – because I’m not good at saying “No.”
  5. Due to financial considerations, we rented our house out. I tried to be mentally prepared for the fact there could be damage done to our house. Still, I was surprised upon our return. In the future I would definitely hire a management agency to deal with the renters, the assessment of damages, and the return of deposit.
  6. I had heard that Parisians dislike Americans and were extremely rude to Americans. I found the opposite to be true for us. We lived in the 15th arrondissement near the Montparnasse station and the Pasteur Institute in Paris. One of my personal side goals of a sabbatical in Paris was to resurrect the French I had studied in high school and college. I spoke to everyone I could in French. I really loved this. Perhaps partly because I was outgoingly speaking in French, people were very welcoming to us. In France parents pick up their children from school by standing outside of the school doors. Every day during this time I would strike up a conversation with another French parent. I will admit that no French parents ever struck up a conversation with me, unless we already had met. Nevertheless I found that all of them were very happy to speak with me. We soon felt welcomed into the community. One mother invited my son to join her son for lunch at their house once a week. This was a highlight for my son. Early on he was also invited to a birthday party where we met many other parents and classmates. Thus we became part of a social group that met for dinner, picnics in the park and play dates. For us having children in the Paris school system definitely helped us to become part of the community.
  7. The time difference between Tokyo and the East Coast of the US was 12 or 13 hours depending on daylight savings time. This was brutal. Because all of the members in my group were graduate students, I felt it necessary to speak to each of them on an individual basis once every other week by Skype. I also conducted our weekly group meetings and our weekly multi group meetings by Skype for the year that I was gone. During the time I spent in Tokyo, I had nearly daily meetings both at 6 AM and 10 and 11 PM Tokyo time. Therefore, although I expected my sabbatical to be very restful and rejuvenating, it was extremely exhausting. Next time I plan a sabbatical I will definitely take the time zone into consideration.

Culturally and personally Our BIG Year was an unparalleled experience for our family. There were so many elements that I loved (the language, the trips around Japan and France, the learning lots of new things, the exciting seminars, the connections on different continents). I am extremely grateful that we had this opportunity and this experience. Perhaps because it was complicated and exhausting and is too fresh in my mind, I am not sure if I would take another sabbatical abroad. Maybe a few years of being back at my home university will change my mind. It is likely that three years from now I’ll be planning another BIG year in some far flung location, but for now, it is great to be home where I can talk to my students casually on a daily basis and my kids can play in their own back yard.


What’s so wrong with sequins?

Sequins_macroOver the past 6 months, 3 different colleagues have made comments that I have found odd. They have all made disparaging comments about wearing clothing with sequins. One colleague told some research experience for undergraduates (REU) students not to wear sequins to lab because, “the lab is not a night club.” Another colleagues mentioned his daughter was wearing a sequin-covered tank top and remarked that she looked like a “street walker.” While the first is perhaps a little silly, the second comment freaked me out.  My colleague was talking about his own elementary-school aged daughter. Shocked, I asked him why he would say something like that. He commented that the shirt yelled, “look at me!” and that is what prostitute clothing does. Actually, I never thought about what prostitutes wear and why, but I can see that what they wear should be attention-grabbing. I get that. But, I thought prostitutes were more about T and A. I associate them with spandex 5 sizes too small – not sequins. I associate sequins with fancy party dresses.

But, on the subject of your clothing saying, “look at me!” Is it really such a bad thing? As I have said before, maybe your boobs shouldn’t say, “look at me!” but so what if you wear a sharp suit, or purple loafers, or a sequin tank top under a nice jacket? Is it bad to grab for attention? I have had a number of prior posts about self-promotion (here, here, herehere), and sometimes in order to stand out from the crowd, you have to look a little different. Wearing sequins seems like a relatively innocuous way to do this. And why not? I already don’t look like everyone else. I am not balding with a paunch and a beard.

I am someone who often wears sequins – not to night clubs – but to work, to conferences, and even at my tenure-talk in my department. I even have multiple pairs of Converse All Stars covered in sequins.  I see sequins all over clothing, and I thought they were cute. So, I ask you: are sequins really so bad? What do you think? Post or comment your thoughts here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Ups and Downs of Science

catenary_bikeMy kid was watching “Bang Goes the Theory” this morning (nerd mom, so proud), and they had a segment about making a bike with square wheels. Obviously, such a bike only rides smoothly on a surface that is humped. I wish I had a personal life bike like that, so I can navigate the ups and downs of being an academic.

Not sure if others agree with me, but I feel like this job is very cyclic in how it makes you feel. At some times you feel amazing, like you are invincible and you walk on water and can do no wrong (e.g. you get your first paper, you get your Ph.D., you land a tenure-track job, you get a big grant, you get tenure, you win a big award). At other times, you feel worse than the crap someone accidentally stepped on and are trying desperately to scrape off onto the side of a cement step (your reviews come back from a paper or grant and they say you are stupid, your colleagues are jerks and bully you, you get no respect, attention, or credit for your work). Somehow the great things flocculate to make the highs so high, but that only makes you have farther to fall when the crappy things also flocculate.

For me, the timescale of a full cycle (up to up) is about 2-3 years. I am currently in my second “down swing” after getting a tenure track job. I had one just before turning in my tenure packet and it lasted about a year. This one is even worse than last time, but I am trying to see the long-time trends. This too shall pass, and I just have to fight and scramble and push until I pull back out of it. This adds a lot of stress to an already stressful and (frankly) overworking and overtiring job.

Another issue is that the personal issues (your health, your family’s health, your fitness) all flocculate down together, too. So, that adds immensely to the stress, and you can easily downward spiral. I know just when this recent down swing started because I gained 5 pounds. In this down swing, my health got wonky and my baby most likely has asthma and is allergic to cats. So, we had to give away a cherished family member who was may older child’s cat. And we now have to clean the house top to bottom to remove all cat hair and dander. Right. Because I was cleaning my house so well before. I do have a cleaning service and grass cutting people (as previously discussed in prior posts about getting the help you need here, here), but now I need them to come every week. Cleaning people won’t move furniture and clean behind it – even if you pay them extra. Instead of spending more time having fun on the weekend with my kids, I spend time moving furniture, vacuuming and mopping behind it, and moving it back.

But I am a fighter. So I am pushing back. I am turning around and pumping out new versions of rejected papers. I am cleaning my house top to bottom. I am even trying to get back on the wagon with the gym to stay sane. I will survive. I am wondering if you have any tips? Have you battled your way out of a slump? What is the collective wisdom for reaching those high highs again? Or even just leveling out the ups and downs? Do people think it gets better or worse over time?

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Not So Subtle Harassment

drunkonginnojuiceBeing a woman in science is way harder than being a dude. Even enlightened dudes, of whom I know many, many and I love them all, and they have work-life balance issues and are good dads while doing science, etc… Even they don’t have to worry about actual harassment. I am pretty sure, they aren’t concerned about having their behinds pinched by old gross guys. I don’t think they have their colleagues ogling their chests while trying to have a science conversation. Were you being hit on at every turn at your first scientific conference? No, OK, so we agree that it is still harder for women in this respect. Actually, these things are not just issues for women in science, but they are issues for women in ALL OF SOCIETY. The difference is that women in male-dominated fields often don’t have cover from any other women being present to help them out or just have someone to vent to about it.

Just so we are all on the same page: What is harassment? I have several posts about subtle harassment, annoying harassment, perpetual harassment. Also, many other Women Bloggers (HopeTenureSheWrote) have discusses harassment and how men can be an advocate for women.

A fellow WomanOfScience recently relayed this situation to me. Hope you read and enjoy!


The scene: Conference dinner at a workshop-style conference, people milling about with alcohol and food and more alcohol.

Dramatis personae: Prof. ImpressiveSeniorGuy (Prof. ISG) and mix of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students

The action: Once he’s good and drunk, Prof. ISG systematically chats up most/every woman at the dinner, complimenting them and making flirtatious, direct comments about their attractiveness. So much so, and in such a public way, that the other men notice what is going on. I didn’t catch whether or not any direct propositioning happened, but from gossip I know that he has done so in the past, to students/postdocs. The only “positive” aspect was that Prof. ISG was too drunk and the environment too public for him to do more than clumsily flirt.

How it affected me that night: Embarrassment that members of my lab may have witnessed Prof. ISG hitting on me, and me giving him a cold shoulder. Yuck.

The next day: Some participants, male and female, junior and senior, compared notes. Some women had made excellent comebacks to Prof. ISG (yeah!), some just moved themselves out of the way. While he was privately mocked as a tragicomic figure, not all of the women he had hit on had the benefit of that post-game analysis. But, for me at least, it got most of the weight off my chest. Except ….

The big question: But what else? Obviously, I am never going to invite Prof. ISG to any future workshop/conference I organize. Do I tell the conference organizers that they invited a big old sleaze-ball? Express my opinion they shouldn’t invite him to future workshops they might organize, or even just say that I wouldn’t? Do this over email (yikes! no way!), or talk in person at the next conference we’re both at (still quite awkward!)? Decide privately that I wouldn’t accept an invitation if he’s a speaker at a workshop I’m going to? Ditto, but also tell those future organizers the reason why? Write pseudonymously to a women in science blog? So far, only the first and last ideas are in place.


Any solutions for this WoS’s big questions? Yeah, we all see these guys are out there, but how do we stop them? You feel like you can’t do anything that won’t jeopardize your own career. How can you call him out? Can you call him out? Any opinions, thoughts, ideas can be posted as a comment here. Hope to hear from you!

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