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

What I learned from Diana Nyad, Soothsayer

– written by Axon –


photo of Diana Nyad, by Enrique de la Osa

Diana Nyad had three things that she wanted to say as she emerged, swollen, sunburned, and dehydrated from her grueling 103 mile, nearly 53 hour swim from Cuba to Key West: 1. Never give up, 2. You’re never too old to chase your dreams, and 3. It takes a team.

After 53 hours in the water.

I’ve been pondering those three statements, as some kind of important teaching; she, some kind of prophet emerging from days of self-sacrifice to re-tell hallucinations that have profound meaning. Well, Ok. I’m not really giving them that much power, but still! Those were THE 3 things she wanted to say with her swollen up tongue and fatigued body – they must be important.

What do they mean in my life or in the lives of the women closest to me?

1. Never give up

Last summer, swarms of jelly fish and fierce storms stood in Diana’s way, forcing her to quit after 42 hours of non-stop swimming. I remember watching and feeling for her (as much as I could, having only swum a few times for about a mile in open water. in a lake. with no sharks), admiring her grit, and thinking she was slightly crazy. This was not her first failure, it was her fourth attempt at that point.

But she didn’t give up. She used those experiences to make changes in her approach, to maximize her potential for success the next time. Beyond the universal truth that success is built on past failures, I think this is especially important for women/minorities/anyone in science to remember. I have watched seemingly charmed fellow grad students float through their PhDs with positive, interesting data, win early accolades by prestigious colleagues, only to flounder in the face of their first failure much later on. We should all see these failures for what they are, learn from them, regroup and move forward.

2. You’re never too old to chase your dreams

This one really hit home for me. Diana was a grand-motherly age of 64 years old when she finally reached her goal (and had been at it since she was 29). Most of my friends who have tenure-track jobs and tenure all do it by their late 30s. Horrible timing in terms of making a family, but still so young in the scheme of things!

One of the biggest obstacles for me in making in the decision to switch careers out of academia, was that I was so much OLDER than the 20-something/hipster/biotech/engineer/mathematician/recent grads on the job market. What do I wear to an interview that doesn’t broadcast that I’ve been spending my time in a lab for the past eight years, in my jeans and special “lab shoes” on the days that I wear flip-flops?

You’re never too old.

3. It takes a team

I cannot begin to tell you how much satisfaction I got by the fact that one of the KEY new team members for Diana’s successful swim was a JELLYFISH RESEARCHER!! (Yay basic science and translating into real-world problems) But she has a long list of team members, 35 to be exact, and she couldn’t have reached her goal without them.

This is particularly important for us independent scientist-types to remember. Collaborative projects can be way more productive than isolated ones. Learning to delegate is not something we learn as graduate students. As a post-doc with multiple projects running at one time, I’ve finally learned (with the help of some very capable undergrads) that I can get much more done if I spread the work around. And that I have become a much better teacher if what my student produces affects my productivity directly.

I feel lucky that I have a group of women that I work with everyday who are always up for a chat on the way to coffee, whom I trust in the lab to finish off the last step of whatever I have going as I rush out the door to pick up my kids (and who ask the same when I’m off kid picking up duty), and who I know have my back.


———————– ———— ——– —– — –  –

Job hunt update: I had my first interview! It turned out that it wasn’t a great fit, but I’m so glad to have it under my belt. I’m getting bolder in what I’m applying for and my resume and cover letter continue to evolve into something way more exciting with each new draft. Fingers crossed.

More on Axon’s journey from her previous post, Into The Ether, here…

Posted in Biology, Field Biology, Industry, Leaving Academia, Mentorship, Mom in Science, Post-doc, Women in Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

There’s a Special Place in Hell for Women Who Don’t Help Other Women In Science

a rhyme by Nucleus

In a quirky little land called Science,
the treatment of women is not always fair.
Many times our brains get overlooked
for the size of our chest, our clothing, our hair.

A simple switch of a man’s name to a woman’s
on papers or job applications
results in less salary, less mentoring
less promotions and less publications.

And while our biology demands that we reproduce
at a time most inconvenient for our career,
our psychology is affected in a harsher, more stressful way
than that of our male peers.

Some of us ignore these issues
and just focus on our science.
While others speak out against the injustice,
risking our careers with such defiance.

However we choose to live
in the career we love so dear,
there is one golden rule
to which we ladies should adhere:

We must help each other
by being mentors and facilitators.
We must be each other’s champions!!
in addition to being great scientists and educators.

I will never understand women
who lambast women-in-science groups.
Who berate the science and achievements of other women
and make them jump through more hoops.

And I will NEVER understand women
who don’t help women from underrepresented minorities,
because they have it a thousand times tougher
than those from the majorities.

Sisters, we may have the vote
and be allowed to get higher degrees these days,
but we have not yet been deemed completely equal
in the workplace.

Advocate for social, political, and economic rights
equal to those of the guys!
(After all, THIS is the definition of the word feminist.
Not “complaining-man-hater,” which to many may come as a surprise).

Befriend and help other women in science!
Be cognizant, contemplative, of what we have to go through.
Speak up for us. Be our guides, our inspirations!
Because to help break the cycle, we need you.

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

Reaching Beyond Labels

written by Golgi –

Label everything clearly, one of the most basic rules in laboratories. This simple practice allows for easy identification and for a cohesive working environment. Labels can make lab life easier and can even save your life, but what happens when you extend them to people? Most workplaces assign labels or titles to their employees. This same practice is not so different from what we see in the culture of academia. In research labs, there is a very clear hierarchy highest ranked by the principal investigator followed by post-docs, graduate students and undergraduates. Where someone fits in this hierarchy is among the very first things you learn about someone in science. With that label comes certain assumptions and expectations of who they are and what they can do.

As someone who has not scaled more than the first level of this climb, I am familiar with how labels can limit your experience in science. When I first joined a lab as undergrad, I was so eager to learn and contribute to the lab. That fire in me went out after a summer of siphoning snail tank water with my mouth. I became really disappointed with research in general and was too naive to realize that I shouldn’t have given up after my first lab experience.

It took two years and one wonderfully encouraging college advisor before I considered working in a lab again. The second lab I volunteered in, now employs me in a job that has a very blurry and indecipherable label in the best sense imaginable. On a day-to-day basis I bounce from one role to another whether I am restocking lab supplies, mentoring undergrads with their lab work or discussing data with the lab’s PI and my post-doc mentor. One year, I even had the chance to play field biologist in the German forest!

Although for HR purposes, my label is “Research Associate I”, it’s the people that I work with that help me break out of that box and encourage me to grow into this capable scientist that they see in me – one I sometimes doubt because of labels and society. Bottom line, labels exist for the sake of organization purposes, but when it comes to people, don’t take them so seriously that you limit growth and development of individuals.

Posted in Biology, Diversity, Increasing Diversity in Science, Lab Technician, Mentorship | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Rational, Emotional Scientist

written by Dendrite –

A big part of our job as scientists is to be objective- put all human, subjective feelings aside and try to look at the problem or interpret data through an unbiased lens.  But, contrary to popular belief, scientists are in fact people with opinions, emotions, and natural biases and I believe recognition of this is important.  And while I’ve discussed recognizing my own biases with others, I think this conversation needs to go beyond recognition and into acceptance that scientists are human and to treat them (each other) otherwise is just silly.  Scientists in general need a better balance between rational and emotional thinking, or at least a way of explaining and sharing emotions to other scientists without compromising their opinions of objective work.

Being objective doesn’t mean you can’t care or nurse a pet hypothesis for longer than you probably should.  Being a scientist does not mean you have to be a robot.

My favorite scientists (and people!) are those that acknowledge their emotional and human side.  Those that talk about their families, hopes, and irrational worries are great to be around, and still do kickass science.  I’ve encountered some old-school thinkers that would prefer science to stay science and emotions to stay at home.  To that I say, NO ONE LIKES YOU.  A lab is a workplace but it can also be a supportive community.

Sharing your life outside of the lab with those you work with creates better relationships. I believe it also enhances the work being done. It opens communication lines. People care about each others’ success and celebrate it!  The lab becomes more fun and who doesn’t want that? While academia does not have all the perks of working at Google, building good working/personal relationships can be a perk!  We all know the importance of being happy when it comes to productivity.

I’ve come to realize exactly how lucky I am to have friends and colleagues like the other Brainy Birds. Their interest in both my science and my life has provided an unparalleled level of support and enhanced my graduate school experience overall. Those impersonal PIs who try to run a lab like an assembly line need to realize and appreciate the value of the personalities of their lab members.  To the scientists that have personalities and show them, THANK YOU for making work fun!  I can only hope to create such a supportive, personal, fun environment when I have a lab of my own.

Posted in Biology, Graduate School, Mentorship | Tagged , | 4 Comments