Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Invisibility Factor

I was catching up on blog reading and came across FemaleScienceProfessor's post about being an "invisible female scientist". I have run into this situation many times in my career. Just some examples:

At University 1 where my husband and I both had academic positions, we would routinely run into Professor A in the garage elevator. He would ALWAYS say hello to my husband, have a short chat and then exit the elevator with us. Yes, he knew me but clearly didn't feel it necessary to acknowledge my general presence in these situations. Other than being just plain rude, it showed his lack of respect for me as a faculty member.

At the Institution following this University, a promotional video was being produced and all faculty in the particular program to be discussed were asked to be available on a certain day for taping. There were 4 research faculty. Oh did I mention that no one bothered to tell me about it? In the end, I was asked to stand in when they interviewed my husband and they asked me a few questions. I couldn't gather enough energy to bother answering them in any interesting fashion because I was so pi#@ed off. I landed on the editing room floor.

At my current Institution, I'm sure that I have taken on a wispy, ethereal appearance because I can be walking past people that I have been introduced to several times and they pass as if they've never seen me before or actually DON'T see me! I'm the kind of person who will at least give a passing hello if I recognize someone. I can stop and see my reflection in the windows so I know that I exist. It fascinates me how often this happens. And this is probably one of the biggest issues I have with my current position. The issue of invisibility. I was prepared to give up some level of visibility by going part time, but I wasn't prepared for the lack of respect from my colleagues and almost complete invisibility to my Chairman and Institution.

I agree with Zuska though that not only to we as women have to speak up for ourselves but those male colleagues who are there in the moment these disrespectful interactions occur, also have to speak up. If they don't (and if we don't) then all of us remain part of the problem. (On a side note, the comments following Zuska's post are well worth the read. I laughed, I applauded, I got angry, and I asked myself why so many times I didn't speak up).

While I was writing this post, I remembered that when this used to happen to me in my younger days, I would make an effort to speak a bold "hello" or nod while vocalizing "Dr. X"'s name to those that liked to ignore my presence- just to force them to look up, maybe speak, and but mostly make them aware that they were lacking in social manners. I guess I've lost a bit of my edge with age but now that I've written this, I think I'm going to start up again.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

I was a Mother Superior but just for this weekend

I did it. I made it through another toddler birthday. And it was a good one.

My big guy turned 5 this weekend. On Friday, at his school, they do a special "circle time" where he talks about how he has grown up and the new things he can do. Then in the afternoon, he can bring a special celebration snack. I made 72 mini -blueberry/raspberry muffins and 64 chocolate-dipped strawberries - all on Thursday night because they only taste good when made fresh. I started at 7pm on Thursday night and finished at 11:15pm with the clean up. On Friday, I joined him at his school for his special circle time at 10am, had a parent/teacher conference from 10:30 - 11:30am about my younger daughter who has just transitioned into that house, stayed for part of their lunch at their insistence and finally got away at 12:30pm.

Did I mention I was coming down with a sore throat on Thursday night?

By Friday midday I was feeling pretty punk. Went home to eat a quick refrigerator grazing lunch, left to pick up the birthday cake at Costco and returned home about 2:30pm. Dropped off the cake and left to go to the party store for the essentials - plates, hats, etc. - returned at 3:30pm. Dropped off the stuff and left to pick up the kids. Did I mention I was feeling really bad by this time?

Friday night I did what I could to prepare for the party the next day but given how I was feeling, it seemed sleep was the best thing to get that night. The party was from 10:30am - 1:30pm on Saturday and we were expecting 4 friends and potentially two siblings and associated parents. I don't believe in the "invite everybody" parties. I like to have them more personal, in my home and with only the "friends" that my kids ask me to invite. I won't bore you with the details of the party except to say we had a "Mad Science" person come and put on a really great show. The kids were dazzled by the disappearing water, the dry ice "cloud", the firecracker colors, and a chance to make their own "slime". It was a great show and even the parents enjoyed it. Did I mention I gradually lost my voice over the course of the party? Anyway, after pizza and presents, and a little time outside as the rain stopped, all went home. My son remarked that this was "the best party ever". In the few times in life when it all falls together and you make your kids happy and fulfilled, it totally rocks to be a Mom. Now if I can only get my voice back.

Friday, January 26, 2007

SciDad's post

So here it is - the first of two installments from SciDad in response to my previous post regarding dual careers. SciDad says:

One of the illusions you lose about life pretty quickly is that the world is your oyster. Careers are not constructed like Lego from a big box of options in an open space. They resemble a dash through the woods, where occasionally you enter a clearing with only a couple of paths ahead. And you never know what is around the next corner - both in the bad and the good. After I had finished my 5+ years of post-doc I did not have any top-10 journal papers and so I did not have many choices for a faculty position. Against the advice (but with the support) of my mentor I went to an OK place, because I was ready for independence. This is not an unfamiliar condition in a career that keeps you as an underpaid, overworked trainee for close to 10 years... At the time SciMom and I decided that my career would take precedence - we were trying to have kids, so this seemed right to both of us. After a few years at OK place we were approached to consider a move. We went to Good place.

The latest move - which is most relevant to SciMom's recent post - grew from that first decision. I had in fact not looked for this move - we were both very happy at Good place where we had gone together, quite equally. While Good place had its limitations, the microenvironment was very supportive and we could have stayed there longer. But it was not a place that made research easy or that offered long-term possibilities or where it was easy to recruit good people for the lab.

Then I was approached by one of a handful - three or four - of top places for the work that I do (let's call it Top place). The difference is that if I told 10 randomly picked scientists the name of Good place and Top place, all would know Top place, and maybe 1 or 2 would know Good place. Plus, the position they asked me to compete for had a leadership aspect - literally one of a few positions like it in the world, in my particular area of interest. So, rather than me being restless, and moving around at the expense of my spouse, I seized a possibly once-in a lifetime chance to get one of the best positions for someone like me in the world!

As SciMom has said, we made some mistakes, that resulted in part from my excitement and my admittedly somewhat selfish desire to seize this amazing opportunity. Timing was rotten, in the sense that the kids are at a needy stage, and she decided to step back, which is more difficult at more demanding institutions. Also, how supportive the Chair is varies - and you don't know it until you are there a while, trust me.

I think the situation can be fixed - it will take some time, perhaps some changes in the funding climate overall and some more work on both our parts. I am trying very hard to obtain additional funding to support SciMom, and in return she is taking an active part in my work. The aim is to develop enough funds to hire a post-doc to work with her on her projects, with a view to getting data for a new grant. It will take a few years, but it can be done.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

No Comment

Over the last 6 months, I have read my favorite blogs, green with envy seeing the number of interesting and helpful comments their posts regularly receive on their blog entries. A few weeks ago, I found a comment on a post I had just added to my blog. Excited I clicked on it, only to find out it was spam! Grrrrrrrrr. This prompted me to go searching for a way to get rid of it. And that's when I stumbled on the settings for accepting comments. Ohhhhhh, these things have settings. Should you ever feel the desire to comment, it should be easier now.

Yeah, OK I confess, I'm only a part of this technology world because I live with the world's greatest computer and electronic wizard gadget guru who just happens to be my husband. (Like right now he regaling me with information about EVDO GSM cell phone something-or -other.) Anyway, he pulls me along (heels firmly planted in the ground) as he embraces the newest of new technologies. He helped me set up this blog. But as usual, I learn just enough to plow ahead because he's my very own troubleshooting manual so I don't have to learn it all upfront.

On that same note, he also reads this blog. I wasn't going to tell him about it so I could complain about him if I wanted. But then I decided knowing he would read it, would help me keep things in perspective. And after a recent post, he jokingly suggested he should be able to do a guest blog, telling his "side" of things. And so I invite him to do so. His perspective on the dual career challenges will probably be quite enlightening.
Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Oops, I did it again

(Note: in the process of finishing this entry up, I read post doc ergo propter doc's entry on dual careers and it's challenges. And apparently, there is a discussion about dual careers on the science careers forum)

I have found that the New Year has not brought much more in the way of "peace" about my particular part time academic position. I have spent an enormous amount of energy trying to put a finger on what makes this so hard, with the mindset that I might identify an aspect that I can change for the better. It's not like I haven't been in this situation before........

Job Recruitment 1: Husband takes first academic position at new University. I'm 2.5 years into my Assistant Professorship at current University where husband is postdoc, just landing first R29 NIH grant. Husband signs contract prior to any negotiations for me regarding a job. My negotiating power - zero. (We both agree, rookie mistake on his part but done not out of disregard for me but in the excitement of first independent academic position and pressure from University to sign; marriage survives) The department creates a faculty position for me. No real start up package -$20K to replace some of big equipment being left behind. R29 pays for technician and $800/month for supplies. Time in situation: 3 years
Pros: Had my own lab space, connected by a door with husband's. Had my own technician. Put out some nice papers. Had an extremely supportive Department Chairman. Chairman supported and I received promotion to Associate Professor.

Cons: No office; gave space up to be converted into a TC room for both labs so had a desk in the lab. Didn't have the respect of the department's other faculty. Wasn't in a department related to my primary research focus. Had to fight to get my own mailbox (no really, this required the Chairman's intervention!) No money to grow the lab and become more productive.
Job Recruitment 2: Husband looking at new position where I have friends. They are aware of the difficulties I have encountered in current position. New Institute does two recruitments - 2 trips, 2 seminars, 2 offers.
Pros: Had my own lab space. Had my own office. Had a full recruitment package including decent salary. Got to work with two colleagues that I've known for 10 years! Was very productive with a group of 4. Supportive Chairman who realized it was important to keep me happy if he wanted to keep husband around. Flexible schedule works well with arrival of first child.

Cons: Not in a department with others focused on my primary area of research so not much chance for local collaborations.....uh, that's about all the cons I could think of.
Job Recruitment 3: Husband recruited to big time Institute over the course of a year. No discussion to bring me down or find an independent faculty position. Decision is made to ask for part time position in part because newly adopted daughter will require a fair amount of medical visits but also because not asking for a full time, FTE-position will facilitate my husband's job and required scheduled move time.
Pros: Flexible schedule made it easy to accommodate the year of constant illnesses that my two kids experienced going from an in-home Nanny to a Montessori preschool! Established a good relationship with the family pediatrician, ENT, and opthalmologist at big-time Children's Hospital. ummm, can't think of any other pros!

Cons: Didn't ask for lab space so lab has been absorbed by husband's; maintaining a bench. Despite having both names outside the door, no one considers it part "my lab space". I am invisible to the other faculty members of my department. I didn't interview and I didn't give a seminar; sometimes appearances can mean a lot. I still haven't been added to the birthday lists for which a monthly lunch is held. Don't have a supportive Chairman; has no idea what I do, and doesn't care. No mentorship, no support - no start up package; maintaining one project on an R01 subcontract; other main lab project dead in the water. Trying to develop another project with minimal funds. Hate feeling invisible; not appreciated for what I could add to the department.
Lessons learned:

1. Don't start out by giving up too much. You can play second fiddle but make sure you still get to play. I should have never put myself in the position of joining a department where they didn't feel it was worthwhile for me to come down and give a seminar to the rest of the faculty. I am not seen as an important member of my department's faculty.

2. Pick a supportive Chairman, especially if you are moving to support your husband's career. Never take a position where the Chairman doesn't feel it necessary to have face time with you to talk about your work and how it will fit/help the department. You need a Chairman who can "think outside the box" and find a way to use your expertise to build and expand his department strengths. I remember reading "The Door in the Dream: Conversations with eminent women in science" by Elga Wasserman. It's a collection of personal stories about how they succeeded in their careers. One of the messages I took away was the importance of having a Chairman who is open-minded, interested, and supportive.

In all fairness, we did make a mutual decision early on in our relationship that his career would take priority and the reasons for that, both professional and personal, were solid and good. But within that framework, the decisions need to be made carefully and wisely. Which is why, given my previous experiences, I'm surprised I made some of the same mistakes in Recruitment Scenario 3 that were made in Scenario 1. But I did and now the next step is to try to find ways, in this sparse time of funding, to work my way back to a position of respect from a position of weakness, if that's even possible. I don't know if it is......

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Horn in the Woods

I have to end the year/start the new one doing something which quite frankly I'm terrible at doing - blowing my own horn. Remember this is Rule #2 of my Rules for Success. I've been working on this relatively new technique and trying to see if we might use it to answer some important questions in the cancer-field. After a year of working on it, part-time as I am, I am happy that an abstract I submitted to an International meeting was accepted for an oral presentation. I realize this is not a big deal on the scientific scale of things....but for me it's a small validation of what I've been trying to succeed at, under not so perfect circumstances.

The only negative came when I decided to email my department chairman with the progress I have been making, to let him know that I would be representing the Institution with a presentation at this International meeting. The next day, the departmental secretary came to me in the lab and said the Chairman wanted to speak with me. I thought "Great, he received my email, is interested (something new), and wants to have a brief chat". I was, at the time she came to see me, in the middle of a seven hour experimental marathon, which had to stay on schedule because my husband was out of town and I had to get the kids before the preschool closed. I told the assistant I couldn't stop to chat now but I would talk to him the next morning.

The next morning I called to say I was free to come over and speak with the Chairman. The response? "Oh he doesn't need to speak with you today. Yesterday he just wanted to know when your husband was going to be back in town." Hmmm, last I looked my husband had an assistant.

I know that this technique will not itself become a major grant. But it will most likely result in manuscripts, and it will most likely land me on some grants, which hopefully will bring in some of my salary. These are the things I think are necessary for me to continue to survive in the vast unknown called "Part time academic science position".

So good for me for getting my abstract accepted for an oral presentation.....toot toot! Now if a horn blows in the woods.............