It’s Hell in the Hallway

Hell in Hallway

– a post by Axon –

It happened. I got a job! In industry. I’m stepping off the academic train and dipping my toe into something completely different. To be clear, the company I’ll be working for is definitely science-related and hired me because of my research experience and my PhD, but they are a for profit company, a start-up working as a team to get things done. Making stuff. I won’t be doing my own research anymore, but I’ll be thinking a lot about other people’s research and consulting about it. Who knew jobs like that existed!

Since I signed the offer, I’ve had this un-locatable stitch in my body. I’m unsettled, antsy. The unknown is looming on the horizon (i.e., Monday) and I can’t keep my hands still. I’m learning that I don’t do very well with the unknown. To cope, I’ve gone shopping. I have my new commuter laptop bag, requisite large wrappy scarf, skinny pants and ankle boots. My armor to slip in unnoticed to my new work place.

I’m hoping I can avoid taking on the start-up culture language. Kill me if I start talking about taking ‘deep dives’ into things, or different kinds of product ‘space.’

Leaving my science community won’t be easy. I think it may be one of the big reasons that I’ve dragged my feet and settled for post-doc purgatory for such a long time. The annual conference that I (and all my lab-sisters and grad school friends who have scattered to across the country over time) usually attend starts in a few days. The Facebook posts and tweets have started: ‘heading off to science-y national conference in sunnytown, USA.’ The texts asking ‘when do you get in?’ I want to yell, “No, wait! I’m coming!”

A friend recently shared with me this truth: when one door closes, another opens…but it’s hell in the hallway. That’s where I am, my metaphorical hallway. Walking into the new open doorway…. I still have a couple of faculty job applications in the fire, but I’m not sure at this moment if there is anything that would convince me to (what feels like now) go backwards.

Posted in Biology, Industry, Leaving Academia, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Two-Body Problem


-post by Synapse-

Update on that job interview: I killed it. But, in the end, I had to withdraw my name.

I loved the school. I loved the people. I loved the program.

I also love my husband. And I love our family.

We have a two-body problem. Both bodies need to be maintained in career motion for optimal happiness.

We have a saying around here whenever the next academic job cycle comes up, bringing with it the potential of a big move to a new city, a new coast, a new country – “Everything is a conversation”. So when this seemingly perfect job came up and with it, a move to the other coast, I fretted about what this might mean for us. My husband shrugged and said – “Everything is a conversation. Obviously you should apply”

And I did.

And I was invited to interview.

And everything got a bit more real. And still everything was a conversation.

The part I left out from my last post was the uncanny timing of things involving my husband and his career. The conversation we had been having when I was first invited out to interview reflected an open door. A very open door. We could move. Hell, maybe it would be a great move for us. Yeah, it would be a fantastic opportunity! Holy crap, let’s do this!!

Three weeks before my interview, a new job opportunity for my husband surfaced. A fantastic opportunity with a challenge he had been craving his entire career.

The door closed just a little bit.

He explored the opportunity. We talked about it. Everything was still a conversation. Nothing was in writing.

We flew out for my interview: my husband, the babe and I.

We both toyed with the ideas of our new career moves.

I walked out late afternoon on the second day, revved up about how amazing the interview went. My husband picked me up. The babe was asleep in her car seat. We were driving to a friend’s house an hour away and for the first 45 minutes, my husband prompted me to go on and on about the interview.

“It was AWESOME! What a great place to be. What a perfect fit for me. This could be such a cool opportunity.”

I stopped.

I looked over at him.

He was smiling. He was clearly happy for me but also clearly happy about something else.

“How was your day?”

Things were moving fast for him. Everything was working out. Two days later, he had an offer in his hands. I would have to wait another month or more to even find out if I was still in the running.

The door was closing.

It was time for the conversation.

Here is the breakdown in terms of dream job percentage. This faculty position was about 85% of what I might picture as my “dream job”. Points taken off for my slight concern about working at an R1 and stressing out over grant money to keep my lab afloat for the rest of my career. Some points off for location because that would mean uprooting and starting all over again.

My husband loved his current job and when we broke it down to specifics, things worked out to a relative tie. We considered the likelihood of the other half getting a job, any job, in same location. Me, staying here? Possible. Him going there? Hmmm… might take a bit of creativity.

This was the conversation. Favor could swing my way.

Until his new job offer.

This new job trumped my 85%.

The conclusion was hard, but obvious. Door closed.

It is a fantastic decision for our family. We will be secure financially because we will not have to bank on my professor single income if my husband was not able to find something. We don’t have to worry about what to do with our house. We don’t have to worry about leaving our friends and neighbors and an area we love.

But I am not sure what this means for me and my future. I can’t help but feel that this decision will force me to contribute to the numbers of women leaving academia. That I will become part of the statistic that we wave around and get angry about. But I have to remind myself (and have my friends remind me!) that if the sexes were flipped, if I were an academic male and my partner was a non-academic female, the decision would still go down this way. If anything, I feel guiltier giving in to it all because I am a woman, a female scientist who has made it this far. I don’t want to let anyone down.

But not wanting to let other people down is not a reason to hold onto this dream. Not with a second body to account for. Not with a family to consider.

New academic jobs will come up next fall.

And I’ll apply or I’ll move on.

And everything will be a conversation.

Posted in Biology, Diversity, Increasing Diversity in Science, Job talks, Leaving Academia, Mom in Science, Parenthood, Post-doc, Synapse, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Productivity Penalties When You’re Home with Your Sick Kiddo: the Community Buffer

sick kiddo

post by Nucleus

My kiddo has been out sick from daycare for three days, which means I have been home, more or less unavailable to the outside world, for three days. Right now, my normally rambunctious two and a half year old is curled up against me, lethargic, her sleepy gaze turned towards Clifford the Big Red Dog on the TV. She doesn’t usually get to watch TV, but on sick days, we make allowances.

Her forehead is so hot and sweaty. Sitting so still in the same position for so long, my sciatica that began during my pregnancy with her (and never seemed to go away…) begins acting up. I shift to readjust my position, which triggers her to start howling, her cheeks covered with crocodile tears. She’s so tired – her cough won’t let her sleep – and she doesn’t seem to fully understand why she feels this badly and why I can’t fix it. I try to will away that sharp pain running from my lower spine down my left leg.

I grab my smarty phone and refresh my ever growing pile of emails. Three in a row from the departmental secretary asking me if I had received her last two emails marked, URGENT, which were about my forgetting to turn in my time sheets from last year. Those stupid time sheets that make you mark down that yes, you worked a 40hr, Monday through Friday work week. Hasn’t anyone informed the administration that we scientists don’t clock in and out like that? I think they are secretly conducting a social experiment exploring exactly how much meaningless paperwork it will take to make us crack.

“Mi cielo, quieres agua?” I whisper to her.

“No. (cough cough…) Quiero Clifford.”

I shift ever so slightly in an attempt to ease my back pain. She starts crying again.

Where’s my husband, you ask? At work. He offered to stay home, but he had some pretty big projects happening this week, and we made the decision together that this time it would be me. Last time, it was him.

Why not hire someone to come help out?

Sure. You want to pay? And even if we did fork up a great deal of money for a babysitter for three days (provided there was someone willing to take care of a sick child), when your kiddo is sick, she just wants to lay on you. And you just want to take care of her. I don’t make the rules – that’s just how it is.

It’s not a sacrifice to stay home with my daughter. I do it willingly, with love. She’s everything to me, and everything I do in some way is for her.

However, as I start a brand new position as an Assistant Professor, no one can deny that taking three days completely off to care for my sick child is a pretty big blow to my productivity. But what can I do? Have my husband take the night shift? Not when she’s coughing and crying – I can’t concentrate on work or sleep when my kid is sick, no matter how amazingly my husband takes care of her (and he does).  And not when I’m so exhausted that, as I lay down to (try to) go to bed, I realize I haven’t brushed my teeth that day. Have I been in these clothes for three days? Is that stain snot, spit, or puke? Lovely.

Lucky for me, I’ve surrounded myself with people, with colleagues, that understand how this works. Many have children. Those that don’t sincerely listen and empathize. That’s key.

Yes, on a broad scale, we need more policy changes that forgive pauses in productivity because of our taking care of loved ones. But for right now, right at this moment, as I sit on my couch, my lower back throbbing, I text people in my lab and department that I’m home…again… taking care of my sick kiddo. They respond with overwhelming kindness, concern, and willingness to help me.  Do I need anything? Can they help any of my students? Do I have any assays running that they could finish for me? Do I want them to print out and sign my silly 40hr work week time sheets?



Mi gente.

The key to survival: we all help each other.

Posted in Increasing Diversity in Science, Maternity Leave, Mom in Science, Nucleus, Parenthood, Women in Science | Leave a comment

Of Babies and Interviews


-post by Synapse

In my inbox there is a message from R1 University X, 4,000 miles away – “we would love to bring you out for an interview” read the email.

I burst into tears.

My daughter is barely one week old.  I am nursing and I make the mistake of trying to multi-task and check my email when I read that message. Oh, hormones.

Yes, I had applied for jobs this fall expecting (and hoping) that this might happen but I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around what that might mean with a newborn.

“Ok”, I think to myself “Maybe they will have interviews in February, that will give me two full months to prepare.”

The search chair wants to set up a time to chat on the phone about the interview so I decide to be honest about my situation – “My schedule currently revolves around a one week old baby so if I do not pick up, I will call you back within 20 min”.  There it is, out in the open.  I am a breeding female.

The phone conversation goes great.   Right up until the point when he tells me I will need to come out in early January.  I feel the tears coming up again.  And, as if she could sense my anxiety about that prospect from the other room, the baby starts wailing. We pick dates, the second week of January, and I apologize for having to hang up so that I could tend to my screaming child.  I cry again.

Start the countdown – T minus 5 weeks until the interview.

I start by plugging away at my talk.  Luckily my husband is on paternity leave and can take the baby for large chunks of time so that I can work.  But seeing him walk out the door with our baby strapped to his chest makes me sad – shouldn’t I be enjoying this phase of life and our time together as a family?  I make a point of only having one session of work each day.  But since the kid eats every 2-3 hours I can only work in short bursts anyway.  One “work burst” a day does not help the progression of a job talk.

I decide that I needed to jack up my multi-tasking.  Nursing is going well and I think back to something an older female professor had once told me when discussing the dream of a work/life balance and having babies – “you can work on graphs with a baby at the teat”.  I decide to give it a shot – use my free hand to cruise on my phone and read the department website, faculty research, and possibly even some papers.  I think this idea was brilliant.  Until it isn’t.  As if she senses my multi-tasking dream, the babe turns nursing into a two-handed ordeal.  It is like wrestling a bear.  Wrestling a bear attached to your nipple.  There will be no multi-tasking during this.  No working on graphs with a baby at the teat for me.

T minus 4 weeks

My husband has to go back to work for a couple of days before Christmas.

Thankfully, newborns sleep quite a bit. But right around this time, she decides she only wants to nap with me holding her.  So, I trick her.  I hold her in a sling and then when she falls asleep, I quietly settle into the couch, bust out my laptop and carefully balance it on my knees.  I also start looking up articles that I hope to read while nursing if the bear ever brings back my non-squirmy baby (it didn’t).

For the interview, I want to make sure my husband has enough breast milk for bottles so that we won’t have to figure out a way to nurse her at every feeding during the day.  I start pumping at night after her pre-bedtime nursing session to stockpile milk for the interview days.  It is exhausting and I hate it.

T minus 3 weeks.

We try the bottle for the first time.  She is a champ.  At least now I will just have to work pumping into my schedule rather than worry about dashing out every few hours to feed a hungry baby.

It’s Christmastime and family descends upon us. I am lucky to get a total of 3 work bursts in for the entire week. And the baby starts cluster feeding in the mornings (when I typically got the most work done).  Kid is at the boob every hour and a half.  Not helpful.

T minus 2 weeks

Family heads home.  Baby starts to give me longer stretches between feedings.  I will finally have time to crank on the interview prep.

And with that thought, a morning of doctors’ appointments turns into a marathon.  Delays, missed messages, waiting for a doctor for three hours for a 20-minute appointment.  We start at 10 am and got home by 3pm.  Zero work gets done.

The next day we head to the passport office to get the babe a passport because my sister is getting married out of the country the week after my interview.  This takes over four hours. I nurse in a dirty corner.  The baby falls asleep on me.  We realized early on that the baby is not to be moved when she falls asleep and there was no way in hell I am risking opening the flood gates in this room and adding to my frustration.  I take notes on my phone and surprisingly, I get quite a bit done – a notes page full of every question I could think up to ask when I am interviewing. Thank the stars that I am interviewing in the age of iPhones.

T minus 10 days

Practice talk – Hubs and I take the babe up to the lab to practice in front of the boss and 2 of my fellow brainy birds.  I am delayed because she is hungry.  And about 10 minutes in, she starts screaming her face off.  Great practice with distraction.

“Ok”, I think, “I still have one more week to get ready”.  Ha!

T minus 7 days

Hubs goes back to work. The babe decides that this is the morning to be extremely difficult. No putting her down. No work getting done. No showering.  No brushing of teeth. By 2pm I am so drained, physically and emotionally, I am ready to give this baby back.  And then she smiles at me for the first time.

Totally worth it.

T minus 6 days

I have a few articles I want to read before the interview so the babe and I have story time – “Although activation in the basolateral amygdala reduces glutamatergic and GABAergic transmission, there is often a net reduction in neuronal excitability” Imagine that in a sing songy voice with lots of facial expressions.  Baby loves it.  And then falls asleep.  And then wakes up and wants nothing to do with it.  We get through three articles in four days.

T minus 4 days


Hubs has to travel for work. It is a Sunday so I decide that after we drop him off at the airport, we are going to take the afternoon off.  We go for a long walk and enjoy the sunshine and our time together.  Perspective.  She repays me by giving me a fantastic night of sleep (thank you, baby!)

T minus 3 days

Vaccination day.  I wanted to vaccinate the babe at 6 weeks because I was petrified of taking her on a cross country flight without some degree of immunity.  She is expectedly unhappy about giant needles and fluid being injected into her tiny muscles but she is surprisingly awesome (and sleepy) afterwards.  Just as I thought I might actually get a good chunk of work done while she is sleeping, I have a panicked thought – “I have ZERO clothes to wear to this interview!” I don’t even have a proper bra to fit my nursing boobs.  I was living in sleep bras and hadn’t considered that I would have gone up 3 cup sizes!

I call a friend’s mom who had offered help in passing one day and take her up on her offer.  When she arrives, I pass off the baby, jump in my car, and head to the mall. I don’t even realize the significance of leaving my child with a stranger for the first time until later.

Hubs calls from work trip – his flight is cancelled.  His arrival home before our Wednesday flight for my interview might not happen.  I burst into tears and wish horrible things upon his colleague who requested he make this “quick” trip.

T minus 2 days

Baby is unhappy about the shots from yesterday.  She wants to be held all the time.  She wants to be bounced.  I work on my talk, one handed, while bouncing on an exercise ball.

Luckily, hubs manages to negotiate a flight home and arrives in the afternoon.  I give another practice talk to him and the babe.  And then he takes her on a walk while I frantically try to sketch out my chalk talk.  I am banking on finishing my seminar talk after the babe goes to sleep.  I did not realize how long it would take to pack for a baby.  Four hours later, I take out my computer… and fall asleep on it.

T minus 24 hours


A day-time cross-country flight used to mean that I could get a bit of work done.  I only have a few things I want to change in my talk and one more article I want to read, and everything else I am at peace with not getting done.  The babe is a dream travel baby.  After I nurse, she starts to fall asleep on me.  Following the don’t move the baby rule, I slump into the seat and take out my iPad to read the article.  I make it through the first page and then I have a squirmer on my hands.  And then an upset baby.  Diaper change.  The hubs offers to deal with this one.  He changes her on my seat when I make a mad dash to the bathroom (amazing how one can forget to pee with so much going on)

She falls asleep on the hubs.  I quietly take out my computer and start fixing up one of my graphs.  20 minutes of work and she is awake again, and hungry.

Nursing, burping, baby falling asleep.  Twenty more minutes of work.  Another diaper change.  Please put away all electronic devices as we prepare for landing.

A six hour flight never felt so short.

T minus 12 hours

We rent a car from the airport because we had requested to fly into a major city rather than the small airport nearby the University that would require a connection.  We are a two-hour drive away.  I will finish my talk in the car.  I forget that working in a car makes me carsick.  I do the bare minimum to satisfy my perfectionist brain and put my computer away.

T minus 10 hours


We arrive at the hotel.  I nurse and then hubs gets her ready for bed while I cruise through my talk one last time to make sure it isn’t full of surprises.


T minus 8 hours


I want to try to get a bit of sleep but the babe is not going down.  She decides she needs to eat again (cluster feeding is back!) and since we have bottles at the ready for tomorrow, hubs heads out of the room to give her a bottle so that I can try to sleep.  I have barely closed my eyes when I hear the “all hands on deck” request.

We have a class 5 assplosion (our affectionate term for a poop so grand it escapes the bounds of the diaper).  Baby is covered in crap.  And then she starts pooping more while we have her on her tiny changing mat on the hotel bed.  Mad dash to grab a towel, contain the mess, get a new diaper.  It’s 11:30 pm and I am holding the baby by her feet, all three of us covered in poop and pee…. and now spit up. We settle in by midnight.  The adrenaline burst does not help the get sleep before the interview thing.  Plus, I am up again at 3:30 to nurse.

T minus 2 hours


6:00 am. Time to nurse.  Might as well start getting ready too. I need extra time to pack up all of my pumping supplies, cruise my talk one more time, put on makeup and straighten my hair for the first time in six weeks, and make sure the hubs has everything he’ll need for the day (I won’t see him again until 5:30pm).

T minus ZERO


8:00 am.  Breakfast with the search chair.  Here we go….

Posted in Biology, Giving Talks, Increasing Diversity in Science, Job talks, Maternity Leave, Mom in Science, Post-doc, Synapse, Women in Science | 3 Comments

Cultivating a Confident STEM Girl

post by Synapse-


Innate biases.  Confidence issues.  Concern about being “smart”…. and pretty much everything that could happen during those teenage years.

Let’s just say, I’m a bit nervous about having a baby girl.

Yes, yes, I know.  She already has a head start given that her mother is the example of “scientist” in the parental unit.

But what I can control and what I can’t control is already a frustrating consideration.  This tiny stranger is going to be born in the next few days and my biggest concern revolves around her confidence as a woman.  It seems crazy but I have this overwhelming concern that I need to get off on the right foot – what if confidence issues begin the moment a baby is born with girl parts and dressed in pink?

As a new not-yet parent, my theory has always been that a link exists between innate biases and confidence issues.  Humans instinctively treat girls differently than boys.

How much more often are boys allowed to attempt to scale a fence, fall and learn from this mistake? How much more often do we jump to the aid of a little girl struggling with something? Or worse, ask a little boy to help her.  And are these the situations that set the stage for whether or not a girl/woman boldly goes out to conquer her dreams or slinks into the corner and waits for someone to help her or worse, opportunity to pass her by.

I have had the conversation with my husband about treating this baby girl exactly as he would treat a baby boy – let her explore, let her scrape her knees, let her fall off ladders (very very short ones, of course, and only onto very soft surfaces), let her try to figure something out on her own before assisting, let her help out the boys.  He gets it. He thinks I am a bit obsessed and borderline crazy about the issue, but he gets it.

But what about everyone else in this world that may come into contact with my baby girl?  Is the baby in pink treated differently than the baby in blue and does this actually matter later in life?

My grandparents have already declared that she is going to be the “prettiest baby” and to that I replied “and SMART!”

I have tried to limit the amount of pink in her wardrobe and replaced it with yellow, green, blue and one really awesome camouflage onesie, but the grandparents are pretty stoked about having a little girl grandbaby so she will still be rocking quite a bit of pink.

And then comes the world of branding and gender specific toys. I am not going to force her to play with trucks over dolls but why WHY does even the simplest toy have to have be gender specific or have some kind trademarked character associated with it?

I am not advocating for a culture shift towards complete gender neutrality.  This experiment is actually going on in Sweden and came up in conversation with a Swedish friend when I was going off about this issue. In Sweden, they traditionally use the feminine pronoun “hon” and the masculine pronoun is “han”.  Recently, they introduced a new gender neutral pronoun – “hen”.  And yes, this is actually used in Sweden.  My friend’s young nieces use it naturally because this is what they hear in school.

So what are my options?

Do I start building a confidence bubble for my baby girl now?

Or just find my own confidence that she will be able to see through all the bullshit and find her own way, raise her hand in math class, and proudly reply to her grandparents “and SMART!” when they tell her how pretty she is?

Posted in Biology, Dad-in-science, Diversity, Girls in Science, Increasing Diversity in Science, Mentorship, Mom in Science, Parenthood, STEM, Synapse, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Life’s a Bench: transitioning from undergrad researcher to lab technician

post by Golgi –


At first glance, the transition from college student to research associate didn’t seem like a big life change. I had worked in this lab as an undergraduate and would spend anywhere from 4-10 hours a week at the bench. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the lab. It provided a type of challenge that was a welcome break from the typical lecture hall environment. So it felt like it would be a more or less effortless adjustment to take on lab work full time.

Now that I have been working in the lab for about two years, I can see that it was a much bigger transition than I had imagined. Most notably, I’m coming to understand the true meaning of carrying a research project through from beginning to end. As an undergrad, I tackled small subsets of projects, but now I am conducting lab work for entire projects. It’s stressful and exciting at the same time. It means spending a lot of time at a lab bench, possibly developing carpel tunnel, but hey, I’m in my twenties so I basically regenerate in my sleep and feel brand new in the morning.

But in all seriousness, bench work can be repetitive and draining both physically and mentally, so it’s very important for me to continue a very engaging and active lifestyle. The most efficient way for me to stay sane is to take on hobbies that keep me healthy and socially engaged at the same time. For example, I recently picked up indoor bouldering. It’s a great way to stay in shape, feel like a badass chick, and make new friends to boot!

Posted in Biology, Diversity, Graduate School, Lab Technician, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Cleavage to Kitty Emoticons: Students Behaving Too Casually..

– things the Birds talk about (**VERY informally**) during their morning walks together for coffee/tea-


Nucleus:  “I just checked myself out in the mirror in the ladies bathroom and noticed I’m showing a little too much cleavage today. And I thought lovely – I should have worn one of those things.. those things – what are they called?”

Synapse: “A dickie?”

Nucleus: “A what?”

Synape: “You know – a dickie!”

Dendrite: “An ascot?”

Synapse: “No, a dickie! You know, like a fake undershirt thing.”

Dendrite: “Those fake turtle necks?”

Synapse: “NO! Come on you guys! A dickie!”

(heated conversation ensues debating the difference between a dickie and an ascot…concluding with Nucleus telling Dendrite she promises to wear an ascot to the lab one of these days just for her.)

Dendrite: “Ok seriously, what do you do when one of your undergraduates you’re working with in the lab walks into work with a see-through shirt and lacey pink bra underneath?”

Nucleus: “Oh, I remember her..”

Axon:  “Ha!”

Dendrite: “Do you say, hey, what you’re wearing is inappropriate? Or do you not say anything?”

Nucleus: “That’s tricky – because you want to support her right to express herself and be herself..”

Synapse: “Through her boobs?”

Dendrite: “Or should we have a talk about professionalism, and maybe – unfortunately –how  perceptions of us can be based on how we look. So showing your boobs may not be the perception you want to give..”

Axon: “Synapse – what’s going on with your situation? The one you told me about. Did you say something?”

Golgi: “What situation?”

Synapse: “Oh, my undergrad doesn’t have a boob issue – this was different. She sends me these emails and is SUPER casual in them. I guess I would consider myself her boss of sorts – the person she has to report to at least, but when she writes me, her email is chock full of language and emoticons that I don’t even understand..”

Nucleus: “Does she make the kitty face?”

Synapse: “The kitty face? Is that what that is?? I don’t even know..”

Dendrite: “Well in our university – or really our lab for that matter – a hierarchy isn’t really that well pronounced. We sometimes get trained by undergrads and vice versa, and post-docs, PIs, grad students, etc. go out and have meals, drinks and hang out. It’s pretty relaxed.  But either way, I think she should be sending more professional emails in general, regardless if you’re her boss.”

Nucleus: “Always err on the side of caution..”

Dendrite: “Yup. And you know my students for the class I’m – when they email me, there’s no Hi, Dendrite, would you mind answering this question. It’s very, BAM here’s my question. No salutation, no signature. Just rude. Email is not a text.”

Nucleus: “But really, what you have to ask yourself is, is this the way they conduct themselves outside of this place, when they’re looking for actual jobs..”

Synapse: “So then is it our responsibility to step in and say, hey – when you email a PI, your professor, teaching assistant, etc., …”

Dendrite: “No kitty faces! Or any emoticons for that matter! And don’t wear a see-through top when you go to interview.”

Synapse: “You know, for the longest time, I thought the caret with the 3 was a garden gnome mooning..”

Nucleus: “It’s supposed to be a heart, right?”

Synapse: “Yes!”

Nucleus: “Oh. Well, I think the mooning gnome is much cooler.”

Axon: “Ha! Well, I do think the relationships we make in the lab are special and hard to define. When you have been working there for a while, it’s a different relationship. You’re chatting while you’re doing stuff at the bench and share more about what’s going on in each others’ lives, and they start to look at you less as a boss. I mean, they still know that you’re a mentor, but you become really familiar. And when those walls get broken down, they communicate in a way that’s more like that of their generation..”

Synapse: “Kitty faces?”

Axon: “I guess!”

Synapse: “So I’m not sure if I should say something or not then. What did you guys do about the girl with the bra?”

Axon: “We didn’t say anything to her.”

Synapse: “You didn’t?”

Axon: “No..”

Nucleus: “Ahhhh wait a sec. (Professor)X did (the male PI of the lab)..”

Dendrite: “Which was totally inappropriate!”

Nucleus: “Well it puts him at risk for all sorts of sexual harassment stuff, I’m sure. I mean, he’s a male, and the boss, and he’s commenting on being able to see a hot pink bra through a purposefully see-through crop top. Because remember what she responded with? ‘Oh, do you like what you see?’ ”

Synapse: “What! Creepy…”

Nucleus: “I know. So sometimes, because of the legalities, I feel like it’s up to us women to help look out and advise other women.”

Everyone expresses their agreement with this…

Nucleus: “Something else to consider is this – I’ve worked in other countries, mostly in Latin America, where in many places women are much more free with their bodies and choice of style than here in the conservative U.S..  Legs, boobs, butts – they’re all beautiful and why hide them in any situation? Maybe our culture is just too damn conservative?!”

Synapse: “Sing it, Nucleus!”

Nucleus: “So should we hold everyone we work with to the more conservative dress standard we find in the states? I mean, relative to places less conservative?”

Synapse: “Yeah but ok, a full on bra showing – is that culturally accepted in any lab?”

A few dirty jokes follow….

Synapse: “Golgi, you’re of the younger generation – well, younger than us, having just graduated from college. What do you think about my email issue? Because when I was an undergraduate, we didn’t actively communicate via email really, especially with the PI. But you did. Do you think that if you were ever bridging the gap of being too familiar…or if there was something off-putting about the way you dressed, would you want someone in the lab to tell you?”

Golgi: “I think I would have appreciated someone coming to me in a non-judgmental way. You know, being really kind and somehow letting me know that what I’m doing or how I’m doing it isn’t very professional. Well, concerning the email thing, I can’t relate because I always spend an hour or more writing my emails to more senior people..”

Nucleus: “Haha! I don’t think that’s a bad characteristic to have at an early stage. Have you guys ever seen that PhD comic about this? Where the student or post-doc – I can’t remember- spends forever writing an email to the PI, only to get a one word response? You get! as you gain experience..”

Golgi: “But, Synapse, I think I know who you’re talking about, and that seems to be her personality. Extremely casual. That’s just how she is, so I think she has no clue. I think it would be really beneficial to inform her in a very nice way.”

Dendrite: “This reminds me of one of my students a had a while ago. He came across as the most uninterested, surly, don’t give a shit person ever. So I sat him down and said, Hey. I know you’re interested in this subject, and you’re smart. I know you want to do well and are interested in grad school, but how you’re coming across – your presentation – is that you really don’t care. Here’s why – and I gave him all the specifics, from what he said to even his posture. And he seemed to respond well and change up his act. As for emails and 5 billion emoticons…”


Dendrite: “Yeah! But pointing out that the way students act or the way they present themselves is important if they want to work in a lab. If they want to get any job, really. Most jobs, at least.”

Nucleus: “In my experience, a good way to talk to them is just to say I really care about you and your career, and if you continue this way you will receive, by more judgmental people, less mentoring and less opportunities. So let me help you by showing you, telling you, how you can fix this and increase your options in the future…”

Synapse: “My sister works in journalism, and she always is telling me how shocked she is when she receives super casual emails. She’s like, you’re applying for a writing job. No LOLs or shortening in any way..”

Nucleus: “Emoacronyms? Is that even a word?”

Synapse: “Exactly. No Emoto..whatever you said..”

Nucleus: “Look, I think there is a big difference between an advisor and a mentor. Not all advisors are good mentors, and not all mentors are advisors. An advisor talks to you about the science. We, as mentors to our students in the lab, yes, discuss science of course, but we have to go beyond the science. Because all these other things – visible pink bras and gnome butt hearts – can affect our work, and our students’ chances of getting into grad school, med school, and jobs later on.”

Axon: “Looking back, I think someone should have definitely said something to that other undergraduate who was here – see-through shirt girl. Another woman.  Another  woman mentor should have said, you know, you should just grab a sweater and put it on right now for these reasons…”

Synapse: “You should have just said, You need to wear a lab coat to have a protective layer, which is a required safety precaution here in the lab..”

—————— ———– ——- —- — — –






Posted in Biology, Coffee Cart Chat, Diversity, Graduate School, Mentorship, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So, Was Your Pregnancy Planned or Unplanned?

– by Dendrite –


Alright internet, here it goes: I’m pregnant!

I started off relatively calm but, as is common, a few months after my husband and I started trying I still wasn’t pregnant.  I was pretty frustrated because I’m a BIOLOGIST.  I have an in-depth understanding of the female reproductive cycle, what happens when sperm meets egg, yada yada yada, but this had no bearing on my actual fertility.  Here was Kim Kardashian, flaunting her enormous, completely ignorant baby bump for all to see and my knowledge of human biology didn’t mean beans (or in this case, baby).  I knew rationally that it didn’t matter how much I knew, but it sure felt like it should matter!  I can even draw and label all of a person’s reproductive parts on the board for students without giggling!

Worries about fertility were soon put to rest when I saw that positive pregnancy test (yay!). 

Now I’ve been interested in reproduction, babies, and women’s health issues for a long time so have asked other women some pretty personal questions, though I’d like to think I do it with some tact.  But it seems there is just something about pregnancy that dissolves many a person’s social filter entirely to dust.

Many moms warned me about what people might do as I announce the news; strangers reaching for my belly, giving unsolicited childrearing advice, giving predictions about exactly how much pain I’ll be in during labor.  What thoroughly surprised me though was one of the first comments I received when I started telling people I was pregnant. 

I went to the dentist for a routine cleaning and I told my hygienist I was pregnant to avoid x-rays and the like.  The first words out of her mouth?

“So was this pregnancy planned or unplanned?”

Um.  What??

Luckily she was starting to clean my teeth at this point so I was able to mumble some sort of “uh huh” answer. 

On the way home from this visit I was pretty offended and started thinking about how I should have responded.  What I wanted to say was “What business is it of yours?  Don’t you realize that this is offensive whatever my answer might be?  How do you know we haven’t been trying for years?  Maybe it is unplanned, and then SO WHAT?”   But my deeply ingrained Midwestern niceness kept me from saying any of these things to her or future “Judy Judy”s.

After a few rounds of strangers asking me this question I realized what about it bothered me so much.  What exactly is this person trying to figure out?  And what are they thinking in the case of either answer?

If I answer unplanned, I would potentially feel embarrassed to say this, and judged for getting pregnant on accident.  If planned, it means they are judging my family planning skills, right? 

So though I’m very excited to be having this baby and even think I might do a reasonably good job “balancing” baby and work (ha!), I keep worrying everyone (committee members, potential employers, colleagues, family etc.) is thinking the same thing:

“Why did you choose to have a baby when you are in graduate school?  Shouldn’t you complete your degree first?  What makes you think you are even ready for a baby?” 

While professionally there may be challenges associated with my gestational status, personally I need to push down the judgment I feel when I get asked “Planned or unplanned?” and respond like my husband:

“It doesn’t matter now, does it?” 

And watch the bewildered looks on their faces.

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Coffee Cart Chat with 5 Brainy Birds: What makes you feel productive?

– things the Birds talk about (**VERY informally**) during their morning walks together for coffee/tea-


After gathering at a central lab location, all the 5 Brainy Birds grab their mugs and head off for coffee/tea. During their walk to and from the cart, the conversation goes something like this:

Dendrite: “Did you guys see that email from Prof. X about P values?”

Nucleus: “Yes! What utter bullshit.”

Golgi: “I didn’t see it – what did it say?”

Nucleus: “Basically, that some big result from some big impact journal was crap because they claim significance of a P value of 0.06. You know, because P< 0.05 is a magical place where only discoveries can be made. I mean, hello, that graph was worth a thousand statistics.”

Axon: “Wait – this is what we should talk about today for our first officially documented 5 Brainy Birds Chat! P values!”

Everyone else: “Naaaahhhh..”

Dendrite: “That’s not very women-in-sciencey. Well, I guess it is women talking about science..”

Everyone else: “True”

ensue long pause in conversation, as all the Birds feel they must now censor themselves and talk about something very clever and important…

..after more silence and awkward banter, it was decided that the Birds would just be themselves and talk about whatever pops into their heads..

Synapse: “Really, what is it about these little 10 minute jaunts together to get caffeinated that make us feel so good?  I mean, besides the caffeine..”

Nucleus: “It gives us a chance to VENT! You would not BELIEVE this stupid house inspection fiasco we’re dealing with right now – we just got this huge fine even though THEY missed their appointment to meet with us (…venting continues, while the other 4 Brainy Birds nod with disgust and agree. Nucleus takes a deep breath and feels a bit better with the solidarity of the Birds…)

Golgi: “Venting is certainly important. Especially here at work, where we have so much to get done and so many issues to deal with along the way.”

Synapse: “Oh and how about just a stretch and walk away from your desk break,” she says as she puts her hands on her back and does a little standing back bend, followed by a rubbing of a very pregnant belly.  “Or a badly needed pee break. Or snack break. I need these, people, to work! More than ever now! It makes me more productive in the long run.”

Nucleus: “Speaking of feeling productive, I was talking with Prof. Y the other day, and she was telling me this strategy she uses to increase productivity. Considering she’s one of the most productive people on the planet AND a great mom and person in general, I’m taking her advice and trying it out.”

Dendrite: “Is this the rocks thing you told me about?”

Nucleus: “Yes! Boulders, Rocks, and Sand. Ok, in your head, think of the three biggest Boulders you wish to accomplish this semester. For example, you want to make headway on Project 1, wrap up Project 2, and write a pre-proposal to submit to X granting agency. Now make yourself a handful of rocks. For example, you need to 1. Finish this paper, 2. Start this paper, 3. Submit a symposium proposal, 4. Work on your website, 5. Give a talk, 6. Prepare your class lecture…etc. Then there’s the sand: all the little stuff you do day to day that’s not super important. Like answering email, checking facebook, etc.  Of course, priorities are subject to change depending on the person..

“Ok, now imagine a glass you have to fill. This represents your productivity. To optimize productivity, you would put in the boulders first (tend to the big stuff before everything), then the rocks, then the sand, because it will fill in all those crevices. Wah-la! Productivity!”

Axon: “So this is her thing? And how she advises her lab? And it works?”

Nucleus: “Seems too! Yesterday I focused only on my Boulders and felt so damn productive. What makes you all feel productive?”

Dendrite: “Lists. Checking things off lists. Sometimes I write down things I’ve already done just so I can check them off and feel that high.”

Axon: “I make lists now and post them on all of my project binders. That way I or Golgi or anyone else working on the project can check off things when they do them.”

Golgi: “I love that you do that, Axon. It’s like crack – the checking off of things.”

Synapse: (the Birds have just arrived back in the lab, and she runs to her desk. She produces writing pads with multiple lists) “This is my monthly list, and these are my weekly lists!”

Nucleus: “So in essence, all these lists are like Boulders, Rocks, and Sand, except with this rock concept, you can prioritize maybe a bit better? For me, I like the visualization aspect of big things versus little things.”

Axon: “Yeah it’s interesting to see what everyone has to make them feel productive, because that’s so important to well-being at work. At least for all of us, I know it is.”

5BB Coffee Cart Chat question to ponder: What makes you feel productive?

Posted in Biology, Coffee Cart Chat, Graduate School, Post-doc, Women in Science | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Looking in the Mirror

by Synapse –


One of my favorite quotes comes from the Women in the World Summit in 2012.  It’s not about science, it’s about politics, but it really resonated with me.

“A guy is at a law firm or he owns his own business, and someone says to him, ‘Hey, you should really think about running for state legislature.’ And he goes and looks in the mirror and says, ‘Yes I should.’ Women will hear that same — if they even have that same conversation, which they don’t as often — and will look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, but I don’t know that much about foreign policy,’ or, ‘Oh, I haven’t been doing my job long enough.’ Women may need to get a little bit of the phony self-confidence that it takes to run for office.”

— Anne Kornblut, Deputy Political Editor, Washington Post

I love that Anna Kornblut describes the male side of this as “phony self-confidence” rather than the female side as a lack of confidence.  I find the woman in this scenario being realistic, considering aspects of herself that would make her an inadequate candidate.  The man in this scenario doesn’t pause. He does not consider any aspects of himself that would make him right or wrong or inadequate. He dives right in. Almost as if to say “Why not? I’ll figure it out.”  Pausing stalls momentum.  Being realistic causes pausing.

The consequences of being realistic while men simply forge ahead is evident throughout the professional world.

Women are less likely to ask for a raise.  So we get paid less.

Women are less likely to apply for jobs or promotions that they consider themselves unqualified for.  So we don’t get them.

The way I often feel that this quote applies to women in science, especially at the stage I currently find myself, is in the question “Can I run my own lab?”. For those of us continuing to push down the academic path, this is our next transition point, seeking the tenure-track position.  Staring down into the abyss of complete independence that we have worked so hard for.  And hesitating.

We do not actually need to rely on phony self-confidence to answer this question though. At this point, we should be well stocked with some we-freaking-earned-it self confidence.  We have our PhD.  We have years of postdoc experience under our belt. We have mentored students. We have worked independently on research projects and designed our own studies.  We have published.  We have done everything (and sometimes more!) than our male colleagues at the same level.

But the angst-ridden question of “Can I run my own lab?” has come into conversation many times with female friends and colleagues.  (Interestingly, it is a very rare topic with male counterparts).  And, despite its frustrating female leaning tendency, amongst friends, this angst seems natural to express.

But when we let it escape from this safe zone and we allow ourselves to pause and reflect and consider any bit of inadequacy, this question can affect how we apply for tenure-track jobs.  For one, we may hold back from applying to certain jobs that we feel are out of reach. Two, when we do apply and score an interview, the question will inevitably be turned on us… with a spotlight.  “Can this candidate run her/his own lab” is THE question that faculty members like to drill during the interview process.  And here, there is no room for angst.  No room for lack of confidence in the answer being anything but a firm YES.

I can pump myself up with the best of them to find the confidence in my research capabilities and my long-term project goals.  Yet I still hesitate to apply for jobs that I consider a stretch.  And I know I have wavered during interviews when I face off against those faculty members who seem to enjoy finding a weak point to twist. These are the times when true confidence is no longer sufficient and the phony self-confidence needs to take over.

We need that phony self-confidence because there will always be a small seed of doubt. Perhaps we can blame higher estrogen levels for allowing that seed to grow and overwhelm our true confidence while shaking our fists that our male counterparts benefit from testosterone’s magic doubt-seed suppressing capabilities.

But perhaps we just need to learn how to fake it. Fling ourselves into the abyss headfirst. No looking back. Apply for that job. Interview without any exposing weak points. Allow no time for pause and reflection.

Look confidently in the mirror and declare “Hell yeah I can run my own lab”.

And then walk away.

Posted in Biology, Diversity, Increasing Diversity in Science, Mom in Science, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 4 Comments