Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for March, 2016

A Good Little Girl

Yep, yep, and yep. This is a good one, and far be it from me to deprive my readers of some sound advice. It also makes me think about how I have avoided some major crap service assignments and teaching assignments. I should write about that sometime soon.


When you are a woman in a male-dominated STEM field, weird things happen to you. People say weird shit or give you weird looks or write weird letters of recommendation for you. And this is just the good guys, the male colleagues who are at the core respectful and supportive of you.

A few years ago, there was some paperwork to be submitted by a deadline as part of a large collaboration. I was stressing out about it, and a very senior collaborator (older than my father) was mocking me for wanting to make the deadline “like a good little girl.”

And you know what? He was right. As a woman in science, who’s always done well in school, I have always been a good little girl who played by the rules. I see the same thing with the students in my undergraduate courses. Young women are very rare, but the average performance quality of the women is much higher…

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Academic Leadership Workshop

808px-Queen_Elizabeth_I_by_George_GowerSo, I went to an Academic Leadership Workshop. If you are interested in leadership at all or think you might want to run your department or college, I highly suggest going to something like this. The workshop was short, as these things go. It was about two jam-packed days. It was really informative and interesting. After attending, I really want to move into more leadership in various ways at my university. Here are some things we did that I thought were excellent about the conference.

  1. Types of leadership roles. When people think about academic leadership, they immediately think of being dean or provost, but there are many types of leadership roles. One thing I liked about the workshop I went to was that it discussed being a chair, dean, provost, chancellor, etc. But, it also talked about being the lead on a center grant within your institution or a multi-instiutional center. Further, there are a lot of leadership skills you need just to run your group, or lead a committee within a department. We talked about all these types of leadership roles and how leadership skills are important for all of them.
  2. Workshopping. A lot of “workshops” say they are workshops, when really they are just panels or lectures. This workshop actually allowed us to “work.” We were split into different groups and each group was assigned a different academic leadership role. My group was all people who would be applying for multi-institutional center grants. Other groups were people applying for chair positions at other schools (outside hires), dean positions, and provost positions. This part was really hard, which is to say that I learned a lot. The experts who were helping us were really good at pushing us to shore up our deficiencies in our proposals and hone our messages. It was pretty cool. We also had a lot of group work discussions about difficult situations and conversations revolving around making choices with your time, development (gift giving), and difficult conversations that leaders often have.
  3. Expert Panels. Just because we did a lot of workshopping doesn’t mean their weren’t panels. The panelists were pretty awesome. Some of the most important things I learned included: 1. Being an academic leader means you can help enable more science on a broader level than just doing science yourself. 2. You can have a life and be an academic leader. 3. You should maintain your research as an academic leader because then you will always have your research career to “fall back on.” 4. With more responsibility comes even more freedom to choose your own schedule.
  4. 360 Evaluation. Perhaps the most important and informative part of the workshop was the 360 evaluation of my leadership skills. If you haven’t heard of this, a 360 is where you ask people above, below, and at your peer level questions about your management and leadership style. They answer questions, and these questions address specific leadership style attributes. The interesting thing is that you don’t have to be good at every one of the 16 attributes to be a great leader – you only need to be good at 5/16 attributes. If you are not strong in 5 regions, you can work on complimentary strengths to get stronger as a leader overall. Finally, there isn’t one way to be a good leader. Perhaps people realize that now after seeing successful leaders of various types in popular culture. The interesting part of this exercise was to discover that I am a pretty good leader, and to understand what else I need to work on to continue to mature and become an excellent leader.

So, over the next few months, I will likely share more from this workshop. I won’t be able to capture all the excitement and enthusiasm that the experts gave, which really sold academic leadership for me, but I hope to communicate some of these ideas to help you become a great leader of your research group or departmental committee. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.


Hey Ladies, Where You At?

1600px-Solvay_conference_1927So, I just went to a BIG Nerd Conference this week. You know the one. No, not that one – I went to the other one.

I had a lot of fun talking with everyone and doing some service committee work. I met new people and connected with friends. I did a lot of mentoring. It was pretty exhausting, even though I only went 3 days. And, I noticed something… there were many times when I was the only one. Don’t make me say it. I was the only woman in a big group of men. It wasn’t all the time or every dinner, but it was noticeable and fairly often.

It got me to thinking… where were the women? I talked about it with HusbandOfScience, and we realized there were women at the meeting, but there were almost no women at my stage… that’s the post-tenure, associate professor stage. There were lots of young women – grad students and postdocs – even undergrads! There were lots of post-tenure, associate-level men, but there were only a small handful (a couple) of associate women. There were also about 2-3 full professor women floating around visibly. We brainstormed about women who were missing to figure out where they were. For each one, I realized they had told me in the past that they were going to “not travel so much” after tenure. Or, in some cases, they had a baby after tenure and couldn’t travel. And, now they are MIA.

At dinner, I was sitting with two pre-tenure women, and I asked one of them if she would continue to travel when she (inevitably) got tenure. Her answer was a clear “no.” And the reasons were multi-faceted. She said she would probably travel, if she were invited to speak. But, she didn’t want to go to as many big conferences (such as the one we were attending). She has two kids at home under the age of 5 and she wanted to spend more time with them. She felt that she was a better mom when she was with them. She, herself, had a stay-at-home mom, and she felt a lot of guilt from being away. She had a two-body problem, and her husband was going on the market. These are all really good reasons, but it just made me sad because it was another woman pledging to become less visible after getting tenure. Sometimes I think that it isn’t that women aren’t in science, it’s just that no one knows we’re here because we are diligently doing the science and not out there selling our science the way many men do (I realize #NotAllMen).

So, I am writing this post to plead with the women for them to come back to big conferences. Please – see, I asked nicely.

Here are three good reasons to return.

  1. Do it for you. Attending, networking, and participating at big conferences is important for  maintaining your enthusiasm, your creativity, and your visibility in the field. At the big conference this week, I saw two talks: my student’s talk and part of the one before my student. They were great. I wish I could have seen more, but I was too busy networking (schmoozing) and talking science in the hallway outside of the rooms. I had several meetings with collaborators, established some new collaborations, and met a ton of students and mentored them (see below). These connections with students, who will ultimately join our ranks, are just as important as the ones with the older fellows (of the society). The reinforced connections with my peers and near peers lead to continued invitations to conferences, seminars, colloquia, and nominations for awards. And, even though I didn’t see any talks, I did learn a lot of science (from the network). I learned what people are excited about and interested in. I talked to a program officer or two about big new ideas from my group. I was just obviously and actively engaged in the meeting.
  2. Do it for me. OK, that first one wasn’t convincing because you are a self-less, government(-financed) servant who works on science for the thrill of discovery, and you don’t give a f*ck what anyone else thinks now that you have tenure. I hear you. Well, how about you come back to big conferences for me? You are probably thinking that I don’t need you. But, I do. I need you so that I am not the only woman at dinner or after dinner drinks 3 out of 4 nights of the conference. I need you because I can’t talk to all the students myself and be the representative for my entire gender at this age/stage of career. It’s a lot of pressure. I have never been so sought-after for my advice. In fact, similar situations are what drove me to start this blog in the first place. And most of them didn’t even know I have a blog full of advice on exactly what they were asking me!
  3. Do it for them. And this brings me to my final reason, which piggy-backs on the last one. I shouldn’t be the representative woman. There should be other examples of women who do it differently. I am navigating my career in a particular way that works for me, but I am a big mouth feminazi. The students need examples of other types of women. What about if you are shy? What if you do theory? What if you are pregnant? What if you are conservative? What if you don’t want kids? What if you are gay? I’m not many of these things. We need lots of women to go to conferences who have successfully navigated tenure and are still visible to serve as role-models. OK, you don’t think of yourself as a role-model, and you didn’t have a lot of women role-models? Fine, but don’t you think there should be more women at the big conference who are successful, normal, middle-aged people who can relate to lots of different kinds of women? Because, the way this conference looked, if you were a woman, you were either pre-tenure or you had very limited options.

So, that is why I think it is important for women to continue to attend big conferences in their broad field. Your impact can be in just being yourself and reminding everyone you exist. What do you think? Will you continue to go to the big conference? Will you come back? I hope so. It is very lonely for me without you. If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Importance of Minority-Only Awards


THE OSCARS(r) – THEATRE – The 88th Oscars, held on Sunday, February 28, at the Dolby Theatre(r) at Hollywood & Highland Center(r) in Hollywood, are televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7 p.m. EST/4 p.m. PST. (ABC/Image Group LA) CHRIS ROCK

Did you see Chris Rock’s monologue at the Oscars? At the end, he mentioned that there should be black-only award categories. He said there are already arbitrary men/women categories that didn’t need to be there, so why not arbitrary white/black categories? In science, we do have awards that are specifically for women or minorities. I have heard both men and women say that they are dumb to have for various reasons, but I would like to cast some light onto why they are crucially important with a some examples.

Example 1: When I applied and was admitted to graduate school, two different programs offered me little fellowships. One was not specifically for women and was a few bucks to help with cost of living or moving. The other was specifically for women and minority students. The point of offering me these minor pittances was to recruit me to the school that offered the fellowship over other schools. I am not sure if they realized it, but it had a secondary effect. I felt more welcomed at the school.Whether it was real or all in my head, I felt a little special that they had actively recruited me to the school. It helped mollify the imposter syndrome that plagues us all and the stereotype threat that only plagues minorities.

A few years later, I was in a lab and being productive. I was riding to an event with a new male graduate student who was trying out the lab and my female advisor. The male graduate student was complaining that he didn’t get a fellowship or enticement to go to graduate school, and he should have. It “wasn’t fair” that women and minorities get these things when he, a white male, did not. I probed a little further and realized that this guy wasn’t a stellar student. He had As and Bs, but I had a 4.0 GPA. I also asked him if he expected to get into graduate school, and he of course did. I explained that, this was a big difference between the two of us. Despite my 4.0 GPA and my extensive self-driven research experiences as an undergraduate, I did NOT expect to get into graduate school anywhere. When the first school accepted me, it was all I could do to not accept back right away. I had to actively be patient to wait for the others. I got into 6/8 school, but not the two most prestigious/highest ranked schools. My subject GRE was low – average for a woman from a liberal arts school – and many schools look at that exclusively (for a nice article on why that is a terrible idea if you want women and minorities in your programs, click here). I explained to the other graduate student that the purpose of the very tiny award was not to actually reward me, but was to say, “we want you, you’re ok,” when all other cultural signals were pointing to this being the wrong way to take my career. The purpose was to help my self-esteem and make it clear that I belonged in science.

Example 2: Recently, one of my awesome postdocs, who happens to be a black woman in science (sorry to my postdoc, I know you are probably reading this) was informed that she is being selected for a postdoctoral fellowship. This fellowship is specifically for minorities and had other stipulations. First, my postdoc would not read the email. I grabbed her phone from her hand and read it. I handed it back with a casual, “You got it. Why wouldn’t you read it earlier?” I told her to read the email that validated her excellence. And she began to tear up. And I totally got it. I knew why she wouldn’t read it. She was worried about not getting it, and what the blow would do to her self-esteem, which is already (unreasonably, considering how amazing she is) low. She started crying because she did not consider herself good enough or worthy enough for this prize. This award is only for minorities in life science. There aren’t that many. Further restrictions mean that there are very few applicants. That sounds like I am trying to diminish her award, but I am not. What I am trying to say is that, in my mind, there was no way should wouldn’t get this award. But, in her mind, there was no way she would. This award is doing for my postdoc what the tiny graduate award did for me. It is pointing toward the signs that “You belong here.”

And that is why we still, to this day, need minority only and women only awards. Because, despite all the grit and all the challenges, it is still not obvious to the excellent that they belong here. They constantly feel like they are doing the wrong thing because of their gender, their skin color, their weight, their country of origin, their health, etc…

Example 3: Finally, while I was at a meeting recently, my roommate and I were talking about the Society’s fellowships. My roomie successfully nominated some women in her field, and she was aiming to nominate more this year. A couple women protested saying, “I’m not old enough, I haven’t done enough, etc, etc…” These all basically translated into “I’m not good enough,” which is complete BS. If these women were not good enough, no one would think to nominate them. My roomie correctly pointed out that these women needed to win in order to “get out of the way.” What that means is that no other women who is younger will ever be able to win the award or fellowship unless these more senior, more established women get it. When put that way, many of the protesting women caved and agreed to be nominated. Interestingly, these women felt so self-negative that, despite their excellence and despite the call from others to be nominated for that excellence, they didn’t think they were good enough. It was only when the argument was framed as helping others (getting out of the way, so others can have a chance) that they agreed to be honored. Again, women/under-represented groups do not feel they are good enough or will ever be good enough. Society tells us we are not good enough because this is not what women do. I have advocated again and again in this blog to self-nominate and to try to win awards (here, here, here). It is hard to put yourself forward when society’s bar and your own bar are so damn high.

Example 4: I wrote most of this a week ago, but another thing happened just yesterday that also reminded me of this issue in the opposite way. As you know, I am on sabbatical. I have a desk in an office suite for three on a hallway of similar offices. These offices are filled with graduate students, postdocs, and some undergrads. It is close quarters, and I can often overhear the students’ conversations (including one where they were discussing golf and the penalty reward for scoring a hole-in-one, which was to have breakfast at a strip club {I can’t believe that is something anyone would want}). Anyway, yesterday a postdoc in some lab was discussing with a relatively new grad student about his job search. He was so, so confident that he was going to have an offer. He had about 6 interviews, and had heard back early from AnIvyLeague that he was not the top choice. He was confident that he would be hearing from the others soon. They all said the decision would come in 4-6 weeks, and this was week 6. Any second, he would get that call from PrivateSchool or BigMidWestU saying that he was the one. I was pretty blown away by his confidence. Despite having as many interviews and 3 solid offers from pretty good schools, I was never confident that I would get an offer from any of them. I was happy to have been given an interview. I think I performed pretty damned well at most of the interviews, but I never thought they would call me up for sure.

Further, if I am being honest, I didn’t even apply to the top schools. I had the excuse that I had a two-body issue, and I was pretty confident that the spousal accommodation policies were non-existent at these schools. But, mostly, I didn’t apply because I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in hell at getting an interview or offer. I may have been wrong about that. In fact, the one IvyLeagueU where I did apply, I got the interview and the offer. I’m not sure if other women held themselves back as I did, but looking back, I wish I hadn’t. I know now that the rejection is minor and hiring has many whims and issues (there are words like “fit” thrown around that are subjective), so I wouldn’t and don’t take the rejection so personally now. I do feel like I have more confidence now, but I don’t think I will personally ever have the level of ballsy self-confidence that I overheard from my office. I’m not sure many other women/minorities would either. How about you?

So, what do you think? Are minority-only awards good? Do we still need them? I don’t personally think we are post-sexism or post-racism yet in science. As Chris Rock says, “Is Hollywood racist? Yes. Hollywood is sorority racist. They’re like, We like you Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa material.” Replace Hollywood with Science, and I think the same sentiment is true. Scientists are nice, liberal people, but they want to hire, work with people who look like themselves. “We want opportunities!” (-Chris Rock). Since the bar is so high for us, winning awards (even ones where no one else is qualified) is important to helping us overcome the self-doubt and the unnaturally high bar of being an under-represented person in academic science.

Sabbatical Update

Sabbatical-1So, we’ve been on sabbatical for about 8 weeks. I have had several people ask me what I have been doing. So, this is an update on my work during my sabbatical.

Grant Writing: I have written and submitted two proposals, and I am working on another.  There might be a few others along the way.

Visiting Collaborators: I spent 5 days going to a single city that is within a few hours of the location of my sabbatical that happened to have multiple collaborators. With one collaborator, the three PIs were all together and we “ran experiments” but telling a postdoc what experiments to do for 3 days. With another collaborator, I worked with his students to train them on the protocols from my lab.

Visits Back Home: I have visited back home two times in the past 8 weeks. Once was for about half a week. The second was for a week. I scheduled a lot of meetings with the lab. I put a bunch of student committee meetings that week and got one student advanced to candidacy for the Ph.D. and another passed their Master’s.

Conferences: I have attended one conference where most of my lab was in attendance. I was able to have some good meetings with them. It felt good that some progress was made and we had cool ideas from the talks and posters we were watching. I have another conference in a few weeks. It is closer to home, so I will swing by and see the lab.

Lab Work: OK, the real low mark for me is my ability to get into the lab and actually do some experiments myself. First, it basically took me 8 weeks to get fully trained to access the labs. The training consisted of 5-8 videos on chemical safety, PPE, and autoclaves. After getting all this training, I had to have one-on-one training with the faculty of each lab I want to access in order to get a key or card access. This means getting two faculty members’ schedules in sync. It took a ridiculous amount of time to get trained, but I am finally trained and trying to get in a lab next week.

Staying in Touch: Based on advice from others, I am staying in contact with my lab in two ways. Every other week, I am having a lab meeting where I skype in. These have been annoying due to connectivity issues. I am not happy with my home institution’s internet. The other week, I have one-on-one meetings with my lab members. This is hard to coordinate and takes a ton of time. I am happy that people are making progress in the lab. This is not surprising, because I have excellent people, but it is a bit nerve-wracking to worry about.

I’ll try to update again in about a month or so. Hopefully I will have some experimental results by then…


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