Parenthood and Science

An article in PNAS (The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM Erin A. Cech, Mary Blair-Loy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2019, 116 (10) 4182-4187; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1810862116) shows that nearly half of women and a quarter of men leave science following the birth or adoption of a child.

I did everything wrong when it came to having a child. I’d been told I couldn’t have children, so my son was a surprise– a welcome one, but a surprise nonetheless.

I wasn’t married. My partner and I hadn’t been dating that long. He was moving to a different state. We really hadn’t thought through anything up to that moment. When my son was born, he wouldn’t stop crying. It took 4.5 months to figure out what was going on. For those months, he didn’t nap, he barely slept, and I was as emotionally strung out as I have ever been.

During the first review I had after all of that, I was told I shouldn’t consider going up for promotion. I didn’t have the cv. Ironically, the year before, I had been told I was strong enough. After my son, there were those who asked me if I would continue. I started to wonder if I would continue, too.

I wasn’t as focused after my son. What I was, was more aware of the world around me. (And tired. Very tired.) I couldn’t be single minded as I had been before. My son has made me more human and, perhaps, more humane. My son has taught me that life happens. When life happens to others, I can recognize it in a new way. Hopefully, that helps me to be more supportive.

I love science. I always did. I still do. I now share that love with my son. I am just as excited as I ever was, but I leave the office to go home and be with him. I am tired, but I have incredible joy that finds its way into my work.

We need all kinds of people in science with all kinds of backgrounds and interests. We need to find a way to approach science less as a list of achievements, and more as a creative, collaborative enterprise where we can work together, support each other, and learn from each others’ experiences. Parents are a kind of cannery in the coal mine. With the stresses around limited funding, we can forget that when we look after each other– when there is give and take– when we actually say something supportive and kind to each other rather than take each other down– we can build a far better environment for all of us.

Climbing the Mountain

Today was a day to celebrate. I have a student who is defending her thesis next week. She’s brilliant and hardworking. She has a lot of data, but up to today, the data told a story of things tried and their outcomes. Today, that changed.

The student is making a new kind of material, and when she proposed it, her committee was very supportive but expressed serious reservations about whether or not the approach was possible. Those reservations are well founded. It wasn’t going to be easy.

Way, way back in my youth, I climbed fourteeners in Colorado. Climbing mountains is a funny business. It sounds incredibly hard, but when you get to the base of the mountain, if it is a clear day, you can see the top. It’s there. It’s doable. Then you start climbing.

It goes from being doable to impossible. Every step hurts. Your lungs scream for air. Your body burns. Your head dreams up awful things it would rather be doing. You will not make it to the top. It’s too windy, too wet, to hard. You suck on lemon drops to make your mouth stop hurting.

But, if you keep taking step after step, you’ll get to a ridge. I’m sure that some mountains don’t have ridges like this, but the ones I climbed always did. It is the spot where the top is in view again. Where you know you’ll get there. You can see it, feel it, and all the pain goes away. You still have to work, often very hard, but you’ll do it.

Today was that day in my student’s project, where she saw the mountain top again. She will get to the top of the mountain, and it is one heck of a beautiful view.

As hard as it was, I always loved mountain climbing. The one thing I love more, is getting to be a companion on the climb. Watching her as she has that moment is one of the greatest gifts I have had. I’m going to stay on the ridge and watch her summit, and it will be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

There are moments I truly love this job. This is one of those moments.

C of Shame

I was that graduate student. My first semester in grad. school, I got a C in thermo. This was a class I rocked as an undergrad and a topic that was fundamental to my research. I was incredibly ashamed. I tried to chalk it up to being in the lab 12 hours a day– wasn’t that why I was in grad. school– and to not spending enough time on the class, but it was still a terrible feeling. I knew that one could be asked to leave for a C, but everything else had gone so well. I had a published paper. I did well (ok, at least) in my other classes. That didn’t stop me, however, from feeling incredibly embarrassed and wondering whether or not this was for me. Still, I told myself, I could do this.

The grad. program director came to me to explain that I couldn’t take the qualifier and should leave the program. The best part was that he explained it to me in the hall in front of all of my fellow grad. students. My embarrassment exploded in to full on shame. I was a failure.

I didn’t know what to do. I was sure I could do the work– at least I thought I could do the work. When I wasn’t mortified, I couldn’t help but think this seemed like such a stupid reason to say I wasn’t up to the task of science. I went to my advisor. I worried about talking with him because I had just told him a few days before I thought I should change fields which would mean leaving his lab. He had every reason to wash his hands of me. I had announced I wanted to leave his lab, so why not grad. school?

I went into his office and explained that I had to leave. I didn’t know where else to go. He looked at me with one of the most intense looks I have seen. He walked out. I was sure he was disgusted by me. I was disgusted by me.

He came back. “You’ll take the qualifier. You’ll be fine.”

It turned out that he went into the grad. program directors’ office and explained to him that I had a paper, I could do the work, and I deserved the chance to prove it. From what my fellow grad. students told me, he was quite forceful. As one of them put it, “Your adivsor is a force of nature. Wow.”

I would have left the program and probably not gotten a PhD if it hadn’t been for him. He didn’t have to go to the mat for me, but he did, even though I was leaving his lab. I passed the qualifier, and when time came for my thesis committee, I couldn’t think of a better person to have on it than him. My new work was outside of his research area, but he graciously agreed and was an incredible mentor and colleague who always brought great questions.

50% of students who start PhDs in STEM fields leave without a PhD. How much of that is because people don’t have the mentor who will go to the mat for them, even after the student is ready to leave? Especially when they are asked to leave for things that do not represent their potential as an independent scientist. I was incredibly lucky. It shouldn’t have to come down to luck.