Monday, July 31, 2006

Am I doing anything well?

I've been waiting to be struck by creative lightning to write something interesting on my blog. In the meantime, I've been reading a lot of blogs lately about women scientists and their careers, challenges, accomplishments etc. I've shared some of these women's experiences, some are different than mine. I feel like there is a community of women out there that I have a lot in common with and yet at the same time I feel completely isolated. Then it hit me. That's what been bothering me lately. I feel alone at sea in my own complex world of science and motherhood. I moved to my current position about 1.5 years ago and I made a calculated decision to "sign up" for a part time academic research faculty position to allow for my husband's career to flourish but also to take the time to get my youngest the physical and occupational therapies that she needs. It was a calculated decision for all the right reasons. So why the glum face?
I don't know anyone like me. I'm 45 year old associate professor level scientist, and an older parent with a 4 year old and a 2.5 year old. I'm part time but really, let's not kid ourselves, there's no doing part-time science. I'm at work a lot more (by my own choice) because I don't want to disappear from the scientific world that I love and gain so much energy from. And yet, I don't feel a part of my department. I didn't interview for the position; it was just created. I'm the wife of the recruit. I don't publicize my part-time status. It makes me feel like an impostor - someone who doesn't possess the ability to be academically successful full time while having young children. I don't have anyone in my lab now except a technician whose leaving. I'm the only hands on my project and I'm just trying to make slow and steady progress. I think there must be very few people who know what it feels like to try to do science with little money, no extra hands and little support or interest from others, especially in this era of limited governmental funding. I'm my own motivator, my own creative director, my own data generator. The energy tank is getting low.

Then there's the Mommy me. I have the responsibility of the two children every morning. I get them up, feed them, dress them, get all of their preschool "stuff" together and get them to their respective schools. Some mornings it takes all my energy to accomplish just the above. And I especially hate Mondays because of all the nap linens and swim stuff that accompanies the usual packs and such. When I get to work, it feels like it should be "me" time! I just want to sit down and have a nice cup of coffee and a muffin and browse the internet.

Then it starts again in the afternoon. I pick up the kids. I never know what I will get but often I get whining about stopping for a donut or arguing over what CD to play (yes I did say the kids are 4 and 2.5 years old). I get home in time to start dinner. I used to enjoy cooking. Now it's just a chore. Two picky eaters sap the fun out of trying new things. Sometimes the play in the next room gets loud and rowdy and I resent it. It's been a long day and my experiment didn't work! I yell and then I feel bad. How come I took this part time position to be a better parent and now I'm losing it over some loud screaming in the play microphone?

When the kids are finally in bed and asleep, I see all the laundry and picking up and next day preparation that needs to be done. If I choose to sit down to watch a show on TV, I may not get up again. Then I feel like I've wasted my precious night hours. Finally, I flop exhausted into bed at the end of the day and wonder if I feel like I'm failing at work AND I feel like I'm not being a good parent, what the heck am I doing?

See this just turned into a bitching session..... I knew I didn't have anything worthwhile to add to my blog.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Commenting on the commentary

I was just reading Dr. Barres commentary in the July 13th issue of Nature addressing the current "hot" topic of gender issues relating to the ability of women to succeed in science. I would do a synopsis of the article but a nice one was already done by Propter Doc with a follow up. I confess to having only discovered this issue of Nature because I was rifling through a pile of "stuff" that has been accumulating on my kitchen counter because a) said husband just celebrated his 40th and I was running around like a lunatic trying to make it special, b) I subscribe to the local newspaper but only get around to reading it about once a week, c) I'm behind in reading both my Parents and Parenting magazines and my Bon Appetite issues ( I have two picky eaters of 4.5 and 2.5 years of age; I should give up the Bon Appetite) and d) there was some mail like this issue of Nature that had somehow found it's way under the large box holding my 24 hour urine sample kit - a story for another blog!

Anyway, I'd like to add two comments to Dr. Barres' article and Propter Doc's synopsis for doing a better job of advancing women in the science fields. First, I think academic institutions should add a list of women faculty, their contact information as well as academic interests into the new recruit folders for every female graduate student, postdoc and faculty member. The ELSO database that was just set up in Europe is a great example of how a compilation of such information on women in science can benefit young women entering or thinking of entering science. And to follow that up, we women in academics need to do a better job as serving as mentors for these women. As I've blogged before, I've worked with women who when they "made" it, forgot what it was about the system that made it so hard for them to reach the point where they are. Thank goodness some really good scientists like Dr. Nusslein-Volhard who, despite being a Nobel Prize winner, can still see the struggles of young female scientists.

Second, as Harvard seems to have committed to doing and Dr. Nusslein-Volhard is doing, let's put some money where it really counts. Child-care benefits, re-entry grants, equivalent start-up packages and mentoring-grants. Let's stop talking about the genetics of women's ability until we equalize the social barriers that exist to their advancement.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sehr gut Dr. Nusslein-Volhard

I was reading the latest email of WICR member news from WICR communication guru Pam Marino and ran across another interesting story about women in science. This caught my eye for two reasons. One because it was something done by Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, a woman scientist who won the Nobel Prize in 1995 along with Dr. Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis for their characterizedaion as to how the genes in a fertilized egg direct the formation of an embryo. Dr. Nüsslein-Volhard was just the 10th woman to win a Nobel Prize in one of the sciences. But second, if that isn't amazing enough, she then set up a foundation in her name to award grants to promising German women scientists to help in the care of children and running of the household. She was recently interviewed by Claudia Dreifus for the New York Times (videos also available). In reading this, I was stunned to learn that she never had children and yet understands the drain they can have on a woman's career. In the interview she states:
In German science, we have a special problem. We lose talented women at the time they get pregnant. Some of it occurs because they are encouraged — by their husbands, bosses and the government — to take long maternity leaves. Germanic thinking has it that children can only be properly brought up if the actual mother is cleaning and picking up. Many stop their research for two or three years. Later, these young women find it difficult to get back. They drop out.
I don't think this is a German-specific problem except that in the US the long maternity/family leaves don't exist. I can see where a year out of the lab would make it incredibly difficult to ge back in and be competitive, even if your job is still there waiting for you.

She was also asked about Harvard University's Lawrence Summers comments on women and science which I've blogged on previously. Her response:
In mathematics and science, there is no difference in the intelligence of men and women. The difference in genes between men and women is simply the Y chromosome, which has nothing to do with intelligence.
What troubles me is that some might think: "Well, if the president of Harvard says this, it must be true. He's just being attacked because he said something politically incorrect." What Summers said was scientifically incorrect.
Thank you for the level-headed and unemotional response to that story.

And despite having won the Nobel Prize, apparently her skill in the kitchen still gets mentioned in articles about her:
Q. Every article I've read about you mentions that you bake an incredible chocolate cake. Why is that?
A. It's true! They want to make sure "she's still a woman." There is terrible prejudice against women who are successful. If she's beautiful, she must be stupid. And if a woman is smart, she must be ugly — or nasty. I think it makes some people feel better to learn I bake good chocolate cake.

So nice to see a smart, level-headed scientist who made it to the pinnacle of her career, use her position to do something practical about keeping talented women in the science field. I know there are many nights when I look at the work bag and then look at the play room looking like the result of a nuclear explosion, the information about tomorrow's field trip, the swimsuits that need to be clean for tomorrow's splash day, the blueberries I bought days ago in hopes of making muffins for the kids breakfast and I have to say, 95% of the time, the work loses out. If I actually sit down to do something work related at night, it's not until after 10pm.

No offense to husbands who do more than most husbands (like mine) but you don't see half of what I do to keep the household and children's lives running. It's no wonder I'm good at printing out scientific papers but never seem to find the time to read them. Maybe a grant to pay someone to read papers and distill the informaition into one useful paragraph should be established - now there's something I could really use!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Tumors have faces

I read with great sadness Abel PharmBoy's story about the unexpected death of the brother of one of his past lab workers from a staph infection, related to his treatment for osteosarcoma. This young man was battling his cancer, and seemingly doing well. To be felled by an opportunistic infection seems unfair.

These kinds of stories always seem to hit me more emotionally now than they used to. Maybe it's because I'm getting older or maybe it's because I have two small children. I don't know. Since I work in the cancer research field, I spend a lot of time thinking about cancer. It's a lot easier to do this if you forget the patients and the people behind the tumors. We cancer researchers talk about our "tumor banks" as prized possessions, which they are for research purposes. Yet it can seem a bit glib at times to be "glad" to have such extensive ones. We like to say in our manuscript introductions "over 170,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the US this year". But those numbers and tumors have families, dreams, futures and potential - most of which will be cut short. I had an experience back when I first opened my own cancer research lab that has stayed with me all these years and always reminds me that tumors have faces.

I had just started my first independent laboratory at a University where the 1995 America's Cup yacht race was being played out. This was the year America3 had its first ever, all-female crew. The wife of one of the coaches for the America3 team had been diagnosed and was being treated locally for breast cancer. She wanted to hold a fund-raising event for breast cancer research to benefit the Cancer Center and for some reason, my laboratory was selected as the destination for these funds. I remember meeting Candace. She was a warm, open, engaging, energetic and smart woman; I liked her instantly. She was excited about doing something for breast cancer research. You wouldn't have even known she was sick, except her hair was gone from the chemotherapy.

The fundraiser was a chance to take a sail with the crew on the America3 training boat. Now I have some sailing experience from my youth, racing on a 14 foot Lightning at our local sail club, but this was something altogether different. You really got a feel for the science and technology that went into designing this spectacular boat. What was even more impressive was that the crew took the time, during this very intense and important yachting event, to hold this fundraiser. It was quite successful and along with some matching dollars, made a respectable contribution to my budget. I felt an enormous responsibility to Candace and the Cancer Center to use this money wisely. After all, it came from the hard work and dedication of someone currently battling breast cancer.

When the race was over, I had the opportunity to meet Candace for lunch at my favorite local restaurant overlooking the ocean. She was upbeat, exicted about the potential of being associated with the next America's Cup in New Zealand in a few years, and thrilled to have her hair growing back. She showed me a picture of her two little girls (aged 8 and 5 then I think) dressed in frilly sundresses and floppy hats- beautiful kids. I have that picture seared in my mind because they were so adorable and I wondered how it was she balanced such a positive attitude with the thoughts of potentially missing out on the trials and triumphs of those two beautiful children. We hugged, we wished each other well and we parted.

Some months later, and I really can't remember when, I returned to my office and listened to my phone messages. On one message was the voice of a male but he spoke so softly I couldn't understand the message. I must have played it 20 times. Then I finally deciphered it as Candace's husband calling to tell me she had passed away (was I really on the "must call" list? I was so humbled by that). I called him back and spoke to him briefly but what could I say? I hung up and just sat for awhile. I thought about the face behind that tumor and that battle with breast cancer. I felt depressed. I felt sad for the family to have lost such a strong and vibrant woman.

For some reason, even before Abel PharmBoy's post, I'd been thinking about Candace a lot lately. I wondered how her family was doing but I hadn't kept in touch and did I want to intrude on their lives if I was a reminder of a very bad time they had put behind them. Armed with little information, a 15 minute internet search connected me with her husband's place of work. I sent an email to the company and left it up to him to return my email. Much to my surprise, he did and we exchanged updates on our lives. The family is doing well and he added:

"All they way to the end Candace did whatever she could to help others. If the A3 fund racer helped you in your mission to find a cure and possibly have let other cancer victims spend some more time with their loved ones she would have been so pleased."

I kept Candace's pathology report on my desk for many years and through many moves, as a reminder that tumors have faces. For me it's important to remember that what I am doing is not just for the advancement of science and yes, a "cure" for cancer, but more importantly, it's for people like Candace; it's for the patient and their children and the lost time.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

A viral 4th

I'm resurfacing after a 7 day fight with what must be the worst "viral" infection I've ever had. I slight cold turned into a massive sore throat and an nasal-only cold like I've never had before. That turned into a high fever and vomiting, flat on my back for two days experience from which I have been slowly crawling back to normal existence. The kindly doctor on call on Monday (I could post forever on why these things always happen over a holiday weekend!) prescribed me Azithromycin on the off chance it was strep throat although she didn't think I would have the whole body symptoms. At this point I was thinking of strep that had gone systemic - for some reason I've never forgotten that Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, died of systemic strep after ignoring a sore throat. Anyway 3 hours after taking the first double dose of a short course of this antibiotic, I developed a rapid pulse, flushed face and neck and a general uneasiness about taking anymore of it. I called the pharamcist and I could tell he was reading the same info I had in front of me - not very useful. I went on line and found some additional information on the side effects of this antibiotic. Now I'm not a pharamcist nor an MD but as a cancer researcher I hang out with a lot of them and my general interest in medicine has allowed me a reasonable enough background to look on line and make some simple decisions for myself. I am a strong proponent of taking and finishing your meds but in this case, I discontinued them.

I'm grateful for the on call doctor. She spent at least 5 minutes talking to me. In what was most likely a more female-type question, she asked about kids in the house and recent sicknesses. Well, yes two weeks ago both kids had an "out of nowhere" fever for 24-36 hours. Oh and yes, the little 2.5 year old who never throws up, projectile vomited all over me and the bedroom one night for an hour about a week ago, and then went happily off to sleep. I guess what I've learned is that you don't always have "Mommy-immunity", which I seem to have a lot compared to my husband, even though I ususally do most of the sick-child caring.

Thankfully I have a husband who took over last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday morning to allow me to just vegetate and be miserable in bed. I don't know what they ate, wore, did, what time they went to bed, nothing (and I usually know ALL of these things). These kind of wipe-outs for me really hit me emotionally too because I can't be there for my family. It really makes you realize how lucky you are when you have your health. Don't ever take it lightly.