Both Science and Family– but not all at once

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My latest story for Science Careers is up– about women who took extended family breaks from their careers and came back to the laboratory. I was impressed with these women’s creativity in crafting career and family life in ways that worked for them.

What surprised me a little when I was doing the interviews for this article was that no one had really planned her break. Circumstances came up– new parenthood, illness, trailing spouse issues– and they figured out that staying home was best for them and their families. When circumstances changed, and they felt ready, they made moves back toward the workforce.

After I thought about it, the apparent lack of planning makes sense– how do you really know in advance how long you’d want to stay home with your children? Or if you’re dealing with a health issue, how do you plan a timeline for treatment? In many ways, you simply can’t.

But at the same time, if you have an idea that you might want to return at some future date, wouldn’t it be nice to have guidelines, to know that you have options? I hope the article shows women and men that they have choices, even though the road might not be easy.

When I spoke with Elizabeth Freeland, she mentioned a resource from the Institute of Physics— a best-practice guide for career breaks, and even some ideas for planning them. In a way, some of that information is common sense: stay in touch with mentors and employers and remain plugged into the science community by reading the literature and even attending conferences.

I think stories are more important than guidelines. If you know that others share the same struggles, made similar decisions, and have had successful careers, you know that all your hard work is not in vain. Universally, these women at some point in their journeys wondered if they were completely alone. Over time, they slowly met others who had made similar choices and had similar career aspirations. I’m grateful that they took the time to share their experiences and struggles with me and with the broader scientific community.

The overall message I hope scientists get from the story– yes, you have options when it comes to career and family. And most of all– however you decide to manage family balance– you’re not alone in the journey.

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Truth Values: women in the equation

It’s evolved into women in science month here at Webb of Science.

On October 9, I saw Gioia De Cari‘s one woman show, “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Larry Summers’ now infamous comments about women in science inspired her to turn her own experiences as a  math graduate student at MIT (she got a Master’s degree) into theater. My immediate reaction: this woman gets it. She articulates the experience of being a woman in an insular male-dominated world.

To be fair, I expect that chemistry is more female-friendly than mathematics, but some of De Cari’s stories– the office mate who professed his love to her even though she was married and the macho dynamics  of other offices– complete with posters of nuclear weapons– reminded me of some of my post-undergraduate experiences. Though I did my Ph.D. with a woman chemist, I spent a year in Germany in a department where most of the women were secretaries (one ran the stockroom, and there was another woman, an American, doing her Ph.D. on another floor). My adviser and my immediate colleagues– though all male– were tremendously supportive.

But I still had one jarring incident where I left a computer lab for a few minutes and returned to find a screensaver installed– a digital bare-breasted woman bouncing across my screen. I didn’t know how to deal with a situation like that in English, much less in German. I suspected that a student from another floor, a frequent user of the computer lab, had rigged up “bouncy babe,” but never knew for sure.

Continue reading Truth Values: women in the equation

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Chemistry Nobel, women, and the "choice"

A chocolate Nobel Prize
A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.

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Nobel Prize for telomeres: focusing on the ends of DNA

It’s Nobel Prize season again, and the science behind this particular award for Medicine feels like a familiar friend. I got my crash course in telomeres and telomerase from a group meeting talk that one of my lab colleagues gave almost exactly a decade ago.

The science recognized was done a quarter century ago. DNA sequences have protective caps called telomeres that are maintained by a riboenzyme, telomerase, but the implications for the scientific understanding of aging, cancer and stem cells remain active research areas. Telomeres get shorter as we age, and maintenance of telomeres in cancer cells may help them continue to survive and divide. Part of the understanding of stem cells and their capacity for regeneration (or to cause cancer) will come from a better understanding of their telomeres.

This Nobel Prize story has many of the plot points associated with great discoveries, particularly the discovery of the telomerase enzyme, by Carol Greider in Elizabeth Blackburn’s laboratory on Christmas Day 1984. But notably, this award goes to two women: Blackburn of UCSF and Greider of Johns Hopkins University (They share the award with Jack Szostak of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School).

Though I wish that there were enough female Nobelists to make a double double-X chromosome Prize in Medicine less notable, it’s definitely a good day for women in science.

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