Saturday, September 02, 2006

Young, smart and female - they're out there

Never fear, there are still some bright young women scientists venturing into the academic world. I met one yesterday.

I have been looking for colleagues to inform me and collaborate with me on the issue of tumor stem cells. After emailing another department chairman, I was referred to a new faculty member - M.D., Ph.D, - who was working in this area at my Institution. We met over lunch at the faculty dining room to discuss what I'm doing and what she's doing, and whether there was a potential area of collaboration.

I was struck by how once again, science in general is a very small world. Turns out she did her undergraduate Chemistry degree at an Institution that I know well - Mt. Holyoke College in Western Massachusetts. This is an women's college, in a bucolic setting - in the vicinity of another top rate women's college, Smith College. The Chemistry department is top notch. I know this campus because I spent the final year of my Ph.D. doing experiments there. My first husband was a faculty member in the Chemistry department and after living separately for 1.5 years, I was able to convince my department at MIT to let me finish my final year of experiments out there. This was interesting because I had to establish my own protocols (i.e. radiation, human subjects, etc.), set up fund accounting, and determine what supplies I needed to do my work. Every two weeks I would travel back into Boston for a lab meeting and visit lab supplies to restock. At the time, I was rewashing, reracking and reusing pipet tips. I decided if I ever had to do this to survive in the lab, I would get out of science! I never realized until later though what a great experience this was for me to get a handle on what it meant, in some small way, to run my own lab. This also reminded me that I've always traveled a unique path when it comes to my science. I left graduate school after one year, worked for a year, came back, then finished my research off campus. Now I'm doing this sort-of-temporary, part time faculty position with no definite grasp on how this is all going to play out in my future. Oh well, it keeps life interesting......

In any case, this young faculty member was clearly the product of a good, strong education. I remember the undergraduate women that I met at Mt. Holyoke. They were smart, headstrong and well aware that they would encounter some obstacles in their professional journeys, solely due to their gender. At the time, I thought some of the stuff they were told was a little "over the top". Looking back I'm not so sure. She was outspoken, well read in her area and clearly driven. She had aligned herself well with the leaders in her field in the local area and was just 6 months into her new faculty position. I think she's going to do fine. My only complaint was that she hadn't mastered the art of listening but I suppose you are so involved in the start of your own lab, you forgot that others might have information to convey.

The sad part was she was already painfully aware of how difficult it would be to survive in academic science in the current climate - whether male or female. She was glad to be active in the clinic, despite the time it drained away from her research. At least she could treat patients and bring in a salary if this "research thing" didn't work out. We agreed to talk more after looking into a few articles and I left feeling good about knowing smart young women are still venturing into this thing we call academic science. I hope she makes it.

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