Friday, April 30, 2010

The Scoop

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been scooped.

Being "scooped" refers to another researcher simultaneously doing the same thing you're doing, usually without you knowing, then publishing the findings before you. In practical terms, this amounts to wasting months or years of your life. Two years, in my case.

In my particular case, there was no malevolence or trickery; it was simply a case of scientist inbreeding. Scientist inbreeding is a term I use for the following problem: because scientists specialize in single molecules in single pathways in single cells of single organisms, it is inevitable that the new scientists you train will have the same specialization and ideas as you. Now imagine those ideas are genes. Everyone's heard the "number one rule of genetics": spread the genes around! We don't have babies with our cousins because we're related, we might have the same versions of genes, we don't want babies with legs coming out of their heads. Right? Unfortunately, in science, once you are part of a family it is likely that you will stay in that family and make science babies, many of which will also stay in the family. One big, happy family of mentors, mentors that used to be mentees, and new mentees, all working on the same system. Ideally, our scientist inbreeding would result in lots of people attacking different facets of the same system, or taking advantage of the same system in different ways... but sometimes we are working on the exact same thing, without even realizing it, and then we have a baby with legs coming out of its head. Well, one of them does. The other one has a publication or two and the sense that they did not waste the past two years of their life.

So I am angry. I'm not angry at my boss, or the people that scooped me, I suppose I'm mostly angry at myself for not publishing sooner. I shouldn't have taken off so much time for Christmas last year, I should have been writing my Methods while I was collecting animals, I should have analyzed my data faster, I should have been thinking of new spins on my story instead of whatever I actually think about, I should have realized the urgency to get my story out there before someone else did. When I read the paper that this other group published, I see things I had not thought of and things I think they did wrong. But mostly, what I see is a story that was mine. I have spent two years developing this story and now it's told. Although it bothers me that my name isn't the one on the paper (of course!), what bothers me more is that I didn't get to do the story-telling. That story was mine!

I'm frantically regrouping. I know there are parts of the story that they didn't tell, that I can scrape up and piece together. I know I'm being (only slightly) melodramatic when I say I've wasted the past two years of my life because I can probably still get a publication out of this. And, of course, I only mean my "work life" when I say "life"; I have certainly not wasted years of my LIFE per se.

I'll post about the positives that have come out of being scooped next. Stay tuned...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bus Etiquette

Let's talk a little about proper etiquette on a public bus. Many of the following rules seem like common sense; if these seem obvious to you, and you have never been on a public bus (or possibly all forms of public transit, with which I have no experience), TRUST ME in that people do not follow these rules.

The majority of the rules deal with a full bus, as social etiquette is more necessary when there is someone besides you and the bus driver on the bus. Although, there is never a good time to ride the bus naked. That one doesn't change. Here we go.

1. If the bus is full, and someone boards that might possibly need a seat more than you (e.g. elderly, handicapped, pregnant, carrying a large bag, carrying a small child), GIVE UP YOUR SEAT. If I see one more spry twenty-something lounging in a seat, rockin out to his iPod, oblivious to the eighty-year-old woman with diabetic foot ulcers desperately clutching the pole next to him as she tries not to face-plant when the driver brakes, I WILL PUNCH SOMEONE.

2. That rule is also extended to anyone that looks at least old enough to be your parent. This is out of respect, not because you should assume they are very near to death as with elderly folks in Rule #1. My parents would be quiet offended if you implied they were not capable of standing on a crowded bus, but they would certainly appreciate any youth that still "respects his elders."

3. If the bus is crowded, and there are people standing, your backpack/purse/newspaper/pet dragon BETTER NOT HAVE ITS OWN SEAT. Is your purse more important than any of your fellow passengers? Don't you have a lap? Will your backpack burst into flames if you put it on the floor under your seat? If your baggage is a small child that will fit in your lap, I can understand leaving them in their own seat, or putting them in your lap. However, if Rule #1 is true, put that kid in your lap (thereby forcing your youngling to obey #1. Start early.).

4. If you are on an aisle seat and approaching your stop, politely ask the person next to you if he or she would pull the signal for you. No one wants your stankity pit in his face when you awkwardly try to pull the line yourself. Additionally, you never know what the bus driver will do. One quick acceleration, and you are in your neighbor's lap. Awkward.

5. STOP SHOUTING. If I can hear you on the other end of the bus, you are TOO LOUD. If you are on your cell phone, just ASSUME YOU'RE TOO LOUD. Because you always, always are.

6. If your conversation is with someone across the aisle, it is very annoying. However, I understand these things happen and I am not against them in theory. BUT if you are going to annoy everyone by half-yelling about what Bob said at dinner last night, have the courtesy to keep your language clean. Whether or not I have my four-year-old with me is moot: no one wants to hear it.

7. If you are boarding and see someone sprinting down the street to catch the bus, don't ignore them. If they are only a few feet away, have the decency to enter the bus slowly, or be sure the driver sees them. We've all been that sweaty person with our jacket and backpack flying behind us and a bagel clenched in our teeth as we rush out of the house, only to end up chasing the bus down the street and eventually retreating to the bus stop, defeated and embarrassed.

8. Thank the bus driver when you get off the bus. He or she might be cranky, or a terrible driver, or creep everyone out by singing along with "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" on the radio... but would you want their job? Be thankful. Let's consider that a general rule.

Friday, April 16, 2010

AHHH!! AHHH!! HAS EVERYONE SEEN THIS?? (you know, all of you readers. The readerS of my blog. That's right bitches, it's PLURAL.)

Apparently they have discovered a new species of leech in the Amazon, in swimmers' noses. A leech with giant teeth (for a leech, anyway). This is why I don't swim in the Amazon. Well, that and this. And I suppose being on another continent contributes.

Okay, here's my real post.

Some jobs are less compatible with a family life, and that’s just the way it is. Is academia one of them? Does it have to be this way, or should we keep pushing for a change?

Everyone has to decide for him or herself how much time to spend at Work vs. Everything Else. If Everything Else includes a family, that decision becomes a much bigger deal, if for no other reason, other people are depending on you. This feeling of constant responsibility to someone else sets parents apart from the rest of the world. You may have a dog at home you think of as your “baby” (subtext: gag me) or you may be the one bringing the beer to the party tonight or, more seriously, you may be the caretaker for an infirmed parent. While the last situation may come close to what it is like to have kids, the other “someone is depending on me” situations are simply laughable in comparison. The point of this is not to garner pity for parents; it is to illustrate that most non-parents do not have to consider anyone but themselves and how heavily becoming a parent weighs in on every decision you make, every day. Not least of these is which career path to choose.

Some of you may have known what you wanted to do since you were a kid, and understood what that career demanded of you. I think most of us have/are figured/figuring it out as we go along, and that includes becoming parents in the middle of our pursuits and suddenly reconsidering our career choices. Will I have enough freedom to take off if my kid gets sick? What kind of child care can I afford? Can I get health insurance for my family? Is there enough time in the day to raise my family and do my job at the same time? Am I willing to travel, work weekends, and take work home? Is my boss sympathetic? If all of these issues can be satisfied now, will that remain true if I get promoted? What about when my kid starts school and wants to play soccer and gymnastics and have piano lessons?? These are the kinds of questions that the childless do not have to consider; the kinds of questions that make or break our career decisions.

In that light, there are probably no perfect jobs. Some sacrifices will have to be made, both on the job side and the parenting side. The question is: what are we willing to give up? Personally, I decided I could not have a family and all the things I want my family life to entail (e.g., cooking every night and weekends off) if I went into academia. Admittedly, the realization that I would probably suck at it helps a little with that decision… suckage notwithstanding, I understood that I was willing to give up some aspects of family life (being home all day with my kid) but not others, and academia was not conducive to that.

If this all seems reasonable, then it should go without saying that it never occurred to me to blame the “system” for my choice; I never felt forced into choosing something outside of academia. I knew what the job demanded, and I wasn’t willing to do what it took to make it. But for some reason, the seemingly logical progression from the last paragraph to the current appears to be a leap for many. Others expect the job to accommodate their life decisions; I’ll run the risk of sounding more conservative than I probably am by saying, That’s not your employer’s job. I do not think it is reasonable to expect your job to work for you, instead of the other way around. After all, how many med school students get to residency and complain “They’re not making time for me to have a life”? They knew what they were signing up for! Why does academia seem so different?

A comment (well, the comment. Hi, Queen of Spades!) on my last post got me thinking again about the employer’s obligation to the employee. While I agree with QoS that society certainly benefits from making it easier for women to have kids and a lucrative science career, I think it’s important to point out that academia isn’t the only way to go. I don’t think that’s what was said necessarily, but I think we’ve all experienced the academia-or-bust mindset, where anything else is simply referred to as “non-academic” or “non-traditional”. It’s important that we (continue to) make scientists aware that there are other options. LOTS of other options. I recently attended a seminar by Susan Basalla, co-author of So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia and oft-contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education, about finding a job outside of academia (she calls them “post-academic” jobs) and how to transition from The Ivory Tower into The Real World. The most stunning piece of advice I heard regarded the lack of confidence we may have in breaking into The Real World. Many of us feel that we are only trained to be academics, and we can offer nothing valuable outside of this. She argued quite convincingly that our training is extremely versatile, and the clincher was this:
If you don’t think you’ve acquired any skills by being in graduate school, look at the undergraduates you teach.

Really. I don’t just know more science than they do, I can assimilate information quickly, think critically, maximize efficiency, troubleshoot, relay complex information concisely and clearly… MAD SKILLZ up in here. MAD SKILLZ that employers want. MAD SKILLZ that the majority of people haven’t been taught. Say it with me, I am marketable!

Now, that being said, there are always going to be people that can make it work. I don’t mean to imply that you have to choose between family and academia. There are certainly good PIs (principal investigators/bosses of graduate students) out there that seem to also be good moms (and dads). I’m just not sure when they sleep.

Parenting Lesson of the Day

If your daughter is dubious about wearing her hair in pigtails because she doesn't want to be called "cute" or "adorable" (rather, "pretty" or "beautiful"), calling them "puppy dog ears" will NOT HELP.

Monday, April 12, 2010

An Unpopular Opinion

I do not feel discriminated against as a woman in Natural Sciences.

There. I said it. After a few days of reading blogs by other women in science, I'm somewhat overwhelmed and confused by the majority voice. It is angry, and it is injusticed. Men don't listen to us, the system only benefits men, men have it so easy in science, if only we had the same opportunities they do it would all be equal and that would make us happy. Not only does my personal experience not support the idea that we have it much harder, it also doesn't lead me to believe that if we did have equal opportunity (which I'm not sure we don't these days) that everything would be 50:50, much less make everyone happy. I think it's possible that women choose not to make it 50:50. Maybe I'm naive because I haven't started looking for a job. Maybe all this prejudice is post-PhD and once I experience it I'll take this all back in the next couple of years. Or maybe I won't...

Is it possible that we do choose not to go into/stay in academia more than men? Because, get this... women are different from men. WHAT? Yes, inherently different. Not just in a vaginas and penes (yes, that is the plural for penis) kind of way, but in a whole lotta other ways. I hope that if you're a biologist, you're not too species-centric to admit that the brains and behaviors of different sexes within the same species are different, and often in a predictable way, and that maybe humans are included on that list of species. If we agree on sex-specific behavior, why is it so hard to believe that women might want to stay home more than men? That women might want to cook dinner and have a few babies and keep her house tidy more than men? I KNOW, it's ridiculous and this kind of thinking is what brave women before me have fought so hard against. I get that, and I'm thankful we have opportunity beyond what we used to have. I really am. However... having the opportunity to do something doesn't necessitate that everyone will jump on board. You can open a door for me as many times as you want; if I like the room I'm in, why leave? The statistic I keep thinking about is that graduate school attendance is up in women (in some fields, equal to that of men) but that is certainly not being reflected at the faculty level. Now Faculty World is something I have not yet entered (and I'm not planning on it), so again, maybe there is a failure to take women in science seriously that negatively affects their hiring process. I do think there are some complaints from the Angry Mama Scientist camp that sound like outright prejudice (i.e., seem to have no rational basis and are simply unacceptable).

But there are some complaints that plausibly have a rational basis, especially in a competitive economy. Such as: the "liability" of a woman getting pregnant. Now before all the readers I don't have send me hate mail... when I interviewed for graduate school, I was five months pregnant and single. From my understanding, when it came down to Decision Day for the program, one of my interviewers called a professor I had as an undergraduate, with whom he happened to be fishing buddies. He asked my professor if I was "worth it" (read: worth the money and time they had to invest in me, since I clearly had a lot on my plate). Luckily, my professor said "yes" and I got in, but his response is really moot in this context. When I found out about this, I had the feminist knee-jerk response of outrage. How dare he even consider my pregnancy as a liability! How dare he think that because I'm about to have a baby, I'm not as smart or capable or worth investing in! Of all people, I am the one they should give a chance! Right? Are you nodding your head? But then I considered it from their point of view... they have to play the odds. Between my stipend, tuition, and insurance, I'm costing them a lot of money. If I was in their position, wouldn't I bet against the pregnant single (teenage, I forgot that part) mom? EVERY TIME. And as it turns out, I have made it this far.. but it was quite sketchy for awhile. Truth be told, I couldn't be in the lab as much as the rest of my cohort because daycare was only open 8-5. I couldn't study at home because my infant banged on the keyboard or screamed and I was the only one there to deal with it. I couldn't stay awake in class because my kid decided to stay up all night. The reality of the situation is there's some student out there who probably would have been more successful than me, probably given the university more return on their investment (they are a business, after all), probably published more than me... and they went somewhere else, or decided not to go to graduate school, or put it off... because I got in instead.

That doesn't seem fair. To them. So I think there's rational and irrational biases against women, and more against women with children, and I've experienced some of them but I'm not mad about most of them. The ones I am mad about are for a later post. I really just wanted to establish that this is not an angry mama scientist blog. I'd like to think I've joined the ranks of what I consider reasonable mama scientist blogs, which include the author of Motherhood, The Elephant in the Laboratory, whose archives encouraged me to write this at all.

My other crazy confession: all I want to do is stay home and write, have another baby, garden, sew, and have some goats and chickens. Turns out, I don't even want to be in academia, I want to be domesticated. There will be more on that too, I'm sure.

One Fish Two Fish

Three mornings a week, my life consists of fish. Watching fish, counting fish, chasing fish, weighing fish, administering drugs to fish... I spend a lot more time than the average human does with fish. Anthropomorphizing is inevitable.

Sometimes I feel like a therapist they don't quite trust. Every time they do something, I look down at my clipboard and make a note. Some of them stop what they're doing when they see me move and stare at me suspiciously. I think I'm making them paranoid.

Some of them learn the spots in the tank I can't maneuver to catch them, and I'm pretty sure they make it a point to go there first. They don't respond to my swearing.

One thing that's nice about plopping down in front of a tank of fish: they don't care how you sit in a dress.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Unauthorized Experimentation

I accidentally conducted an experiment on altruism in my daughter's daycare class this morning. Conducted within the regulations of the University Institute on Animal Care, of course.
When snack time was over, there was not enough juice for everyone to have seconds. However, there was also some extra milk in the fridge from the day before. When everyone had finished their snack and would normally be offered the option of more, I first offered to refill their cups with milk. Only one kid raised her hand. Dismayed, I then announced that there was not enough juice for everyone to have more and some kids would have to have milk. I offered milk again. No takers. I then offered the juice, and thirteen hands shot up. Realizing these were four year olds that perhaps did not understand the situation, I explained further that either some kids could take milk and others could have juice... or no one got more juice. Now. Did anyone want milk? My daughter decided she did (she was a compromised subject that will be excluded from the data set due to her previous experience in the stop-whining-c'est-la-vie-behavioral paradigm often enforced by her mother). No one else got milk. OR juice. (They could get their water bottles, in case some of you are worried about these poor children I'm accidentally experimenting on).
Conclusion? Four year olds do not understand taking one for the team. They do not sacrifice for the greater good of the colony, or population, or species. Other animals get this. Have we already taught it out of these little humans, to look out for Number One and Follow Your Heart and Stay True To Yourself at the age of four? Is it something we must all be taught lest we become selfish buttholes that drain society and have no regard for community and our fellow man? More importantly, IS THIS NIH-FUNDABLE?


Sort of?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Catching Up

I added two more blogs to my Reader that seem to be favorites in the scientific blogging community, specifically the personal-type blogs by folks in academia. Shoo, there are some angry people in academia. I hope you aren’t the ones reviewing my manuscripts! I find it striking that, had I only read their blogs, and only a few entries, I would have taken their bashings of other bloggers in their community as some kind of field standard, and subconsciously written off those other blogs. What is it about the mind (or maybe just mine) that mistakes passion for expertise? That simply because someone really doesn’t like someone else’s opinion, then it must truly be a crappy opinion? Good thing I kept reading and realized how generally disenchanted these people are with the entire system, and that it was still possible their hatees were reasonable human beings… reading their posts makes me happier with my current situation, another phenomenon of the mind that intrigues me. It’s not that their situation is worse than mine so my life looks better in comparison (although I wasn’t complaining in the first place, my life is pretty sweet most of the time), it’s something about hearing someone complain with great exuberance about something that doesn’t seem that bad from where I’m standing. And I don’t think I’m standing far from them.
In other news, I had a student ask to leave the laboratory period early because he had an interview the next morning and wanted to get home early. This is the same student that got in a yelling match with me in front of the class recently regarding whether or not female rats urinate from their vaginas. (I hope it goes without saying that he was the one arguing that yes, indeed, they did, where else would the urine come out?) So of course you don’t have to listen to me explain your homework! Of course you can leave early, because you’ve shown the utmost competence and respect! What?! WHAT? NO, SON! YOU MAY NOT! SIT DOWN!
Time to cover slip slides and go home. Hurrah.

Yes. Hello there.

I decided as part of the blog-beginning process, I should really look up other science blogs, especially those written by women or have a focus on being a mother at the same time. Holy nerds, there are at least ten of you (that’s as far as I’ve gotten)! This is, of course, sarcastic, because there are wayyyy more than that, and if I had really thought about it, I should have figured there would be many of you. After all, who likes to blog? The ladies. Is that sexist? Whatever. I love to talk and the Internet is an endless ear waiting to be filled. Who else likes to blog? Nerds. Is scientist a brand of Nerd? Why yes, yes it is.
So I started reading these blogs and I’m strongly feeling two things. One is that it’s totally overwhelming to look at everyone’s blogroll (yes, I just learned that word today. Hello, 2010!) because I see all these catchy blog names that I clearly should read before I start mine. This uncontrollable sense of needing to prepare to an impractical degree before beginning a project is a chronic problem of mine that often prevents projects from ever starting. Two, that reading these blogs actually discourages me from writing instead of the other way around. Not just writing a blog, but writing at all. There are so many more of you out there than I had previously thought, and some of you are more eloquent than me (although others are not, I would like to point out self-satisfyingly). I feel that I have nothing to contribute. It seems that most blogs, at least of the sort I have been maniacally clicking on for the past two hours, are started because people are lonely and want to find others like them, and people want to feel special by writing about something that hasn’t been covered. Well, I’m not particularly lonely, and now I don’t feel special. Isn’t that terribly appropriate of someone my age? What a bratty thing to say! But if you have a blog, I’d like to hear why you started yours, especially if it’s not one or both of those reasons. *cricket noises* Yes. I see. So. I was thinking, maybe I’m not just a mother and a scientist (because clearly that niche has been filled), maybe what makes me special is that I don’t want to go into academia, that I’m considering becoming a science writer instead. I should look for those blogs, I bet there aren’t many! Oh, hello Chronicle of Higher Education. I’ll just be over here, not being redundant at all.
What a terrible pity party this is. I didn’t even bring beer.
I know I should be encouraged by the other people out there that are like me, but I really thought I was doing this to give a voice to the voiceless, to represent the un(der)represented, and I see that that is not the case. What, then, is my driving force? And then it came to me.
It came to me and it brought with it that look on my face like I’m about to cry even though I’m not. Like the face-doubles on those Windows 7 commercials, only with less revelation and slightly more pain. I want to write because it’s the only thing I can imagine myself doing. Other little girls wanted to be an astronaut (I’m terrified of space), a ballet dancer (my ankles are as big as my knees), or on TV (I have the chest of a 12-year-old boy and still don’t know what to do with my hair in the morning). I wanted to be a writer. I have sheaves of terrible,
terrible poems and songs. I wrote all of my college papers the night before and got dirty looks when my neighbor saw my grades. I considered a substance abuse problem so my writing would be better (okay, not really. Not really). I correct everyone’s spelling and grammar and word choices, which my husband thinks is absolutely delightful and my daughter is growing to simply cherish. I’ve had an odd compulsion since I was thirteen to type everything I hear people say, including keyboard shortcuts for formatting (shift-how does ctrl-b that ctrl-b work shift/ shift/). I want to write. As a side-note, maybe I’m a little obsessive-compulsive. That’s almost as interesting as a heroin addiction, right?
So here I am, trying a blog. It had the lowest activation energy (thanks, Blogger!) out of all the possible starting points on my path to writer. Writing in my Etsy journal didn’t count anymore because it turned out to be mostly grocery lists and funny drawings of owls with bubbling flasks in their talons. Even though I might have nothing new to say, and my voice might not be revolutionary, and I don't have an English degree, and I misuse commas, I'm writing something.
And I can’t add any more blogs to my Google Reader right now. I only discovered how to use an RSS feed yesterday (I
know, okay??!) and I’m already following eighteen kajillion people. Maybe one day I’ll feel encouraged by this vast community of people like me, who might want to be my friend, but for now it’s simply intimidating. I also can’t read back over what I wrote. I don’t know how I’ll ever write a second draft of anything this way…