Launch Committees: A walk to lunch

Many of my colleagues have been circulating an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about U. Michigan which has done exceptional work in promoting diversity and inclusion in the faculty and leadership in the College of Engineering (Chronicle article)

What they have done and what they have learned is exceptional, and they have made the investment to try new things, to study the outcomes, and to institutionalize the best practices.

Two of their major initiatives are their STRIDE program and Launch Committees. Launch committees are near and dear to my heart– they were envisioned and started by myself and GQ Zhang when we were at Case Western as part of the ADVANCE leadership program there.

GQ and I were told we would be the representatives from Engineering. I had just come on campus, and GQ was trying to be more integrated in Engineering (most of his time had been at the med. school), so it made sense. We had no idea what it meant, but we said we’d help. I’m sure information was shared with us, but like the good faculty we were, we had missed all of the information.

We were walking to a lunch meeting with the ADVANCE team and suddenly realized that we were supposed to have a plan for a project. GQ and I dropped back from the group. “Did you know we needed a plan and that we were presenting?” GQ responded, “No. Thoughts?” And so, as we walked we started talking about what we wished we would have had that would have helped us succeed.

There was no research, no investigating the literature. We just talked. Both of us felt like getting started was tremendously hard, and both of us felt incredibly isolated in our first positions. I had moved to Case Western in the hopes of being in a more collegial, collaborative environment. I vented about how frustrated I was that no one seems to think about where a person will go or what space they need until after they start. GQ wished people tried to help make connections.

Over the course of the walk, we put a plan together. By the time we sat down for lunch, Launch committees were born. I can’t help but think that seeing the lunch menu spurred the idea of calling it launch committees, but I don’t remember.

We were given a coach, Helen Williams, who was beyond great. We both wondered what a coach did, and as we learned, she helped us figure out how to implement it. She brought up the idea of a checklist so we could make sure all the committees covered the critical content. It also helped with tracking.

We were in the middle of a strategic hiring initiative, and GQ and I were both involved in the hiring, so it made it relatively seemless to organize them. We didn’t require the new faculty to have launch committees, but we were delighted that the vast majority wanted them. Our early data was promising. People had the space they needed earlier and, based on interviews, had more contacts and connections that were leading to collaborations.

After two years, we were supposed to turn over running the program to the associate dean for faculty development. Unfortunately, that person stepped down and the position wasn’t filled. We ran it in an ad hoc way for people and departments who were willing to participate, but it stopped being the norm.

We presented on the project at the IDEAL leadership Plenary ADVANCE meeting in 2011. A number of colleagues from the universities in attendance asked for the how to guide. We happily shared it. Our colleagues at U. Michigan ran with it and did formal studies of the impact and published the work.

Launch committees have a positive effect on getting faculty started and helping to support them as they grow and become part of the university. It is worth taking the time to invest early and often with new faculty in a formal way. It helps them get started, but it also helps to build a practice of collaboration across disciplines.

I’m thrilled that it has become a successful and formal part of U. Michigan’s approach to helping faculty be successful and that it is part of what has increased inclusion and diversity of the faculty. I hope more and more universities embrace the practice. I’ll never forget, though, that it all started when GQ and I asked what we would have liked and then tried to figure out how to make it happen as we walked to lunch.


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.

The infamous work-life balance and mentors

I just got back from a week long trip with my family. We drove down to Florida and back visiting Disney along the way. It was chaotic, exhausting, and wonderful.

Over the next month, I will be traveling a great deal for work. I enjoy getting to see other universities and building new collaborations, but I hate being away from my family. One of the big reasons I moved to this area was so I could go to study section and the like without having to fly.

During the Spring, I also teach at 8:30 in the morning which means I cannot do drop off. It also means that if my son wants to cuddle in the morning, one of our favorite things, he has to get up early. He does like clockwork because it matters to him.

There are also a lot of meetings in the Spring. AIMBE, SfB, ACS. I skip them to be home with my family.

In the meantime, I wonder what I’m missing. Will the world of science still be there when I go to those meetings again? Will anyone care about the work my lab is doing? Will it matter?

I think we’re doing incredibly important work, but it can be easy to convince myself otherwise. We don’t get a lot of accolades. Grant reviews are often incredibly brutal, and we still haven’t licenced a therapy after a long and intense number of years.

Like so many people, I feel guilty for being away from work, for traveling, for being away from my family, and I wonder most of the time whether or not I’m doing what I need to do to make the world better.

In the midst of this, I received an email from a colleague who apologized for not being available when I come to visit in the next few weeks. I told her I completely understood, no worries. She asked if I would be at one of the meetings I am skipping, and I apologized and said no. She wrote back to say that she’s trying to back off on obligations to spend more time with her family. She’s the head or chair of so many things, and she’s phenomenal at it. Hearing her say that she was going to make more time for her family gave me the space to breathe and feel better, for a small moment in time, about it. It was a huge, incredible gift. She has always been an incredible mentor, but she was never more incredible than in that moment.

The trip was wonderful. I think I’m more tired after it than before, but for 7 days, I spend every day and every evening with my son. We held hands, hunted for adventures, and snuggled. I’m looking forward to getting back to my lab and our work. I’m guessing my group enjoyed a few days off, too. I hope so.

There is no real balance, but I hope I can learn to appreciate the choices I make and at least push the worry about it to the side whether I’m in lab, visiting colleagues, mentoring people, or on holiday. I hope so. I also hope that I can help others to put aside the anxiety and do the best they can without guilt or insanity.


In 2007, I was invited to participate in a Kavali conference on the human healthspan. It focused on thinking about ways to help people live more of their lives with good health. It brought people from a wide range of disciplines to the table to talk in seminar rooms about the issues involving reducing disease burden, identifying assistive technologies, and other interventions.

I was invited because I had developed some approaches for drug delivery in the eye that were relevant for diseases of the aging eye.

What I brought to the meeting was something entirely different.

My mom had stage IV bladder cancer. I spent a week a month at home taking care of her. A year earlier she had moved in with me to get treatment for stage III bladder cancer. While the original treatment looked successful, three month later, the cancer had recurred in a range of tissues.

I brought the lived experience of taking care of someone with a serious, life ending illness. I knew more then that I ever will, I hope, about morphine doses, side effects, pain, financial challenges associated with care, and what it is like to try to help someone you love while being on the tenure track in academia.

I was supposed to talk about technologies, and to some degree I did. But the part that I brought and shared that was unique in that room was the experience of the caregiver. A big part of the conference was about the challenges of aging and how they could be managed, but no caregivers– people on the front lines of managing aging and illness were there, except me.

The conference was a great one for a variety of reasons. Professionally, I made connections that led to my next position, and personally, I made some wonderful friends and got a break from the day to day challenges of juggling everything.

When we think of inclusion, we often think of it along racial or gendered lines. That is certainly an important part of it. But different experiences and stories are also important. Sometimes, we can’t plan or expect how the experiences will be involved. What we can do is make sure we engage as many people from as many different perspectives as possible and give them the space to tell their stories. All of their stories, and not just the one we assumed they would represent. To start, we invite, and then we listen.

AP Classes and College

Nothing is more fun over lunch than reading old articles in the Washington Post. I came across one about how a number of the elite private schools in DC are going to no longer have AP classes.

I went to one of those schools (NCS), and I took a number of AP classes. Probably the most important classes I took were Calculus BC and Physic C over at St. Alban’s with Mr. Morse, truly one of the greatest teachers on the planet.

The letter regarding the move away from AP classes can be found here.

Here’s the thing– it smacks of privilege. The letter notes that more and more schools offer AP classes and that they are no longer suited to the few advanced students. Great. More students with that opportunity is a good thing to be celebrated. Removing AP classes ignores the fact that having classes that cover college-level material in a small class setting are a great gift, especially for a young woman like me who LOVED math and science but wondered if I would be able to hack it at MIT. Doing well and getting credit for those AP classes meant that I was well prepared. It also opened up my schedule. I could take a lighter load and do more research or graduate more quickly. For many of my current students, finishing a semester earlier means saving tens of thousands of dollars. AP classes and the exams make that possible.

The schools note that AP classes involve so many topics that nothing is dealt with in depth. I went far more in depth in my AP Physics C class with Mr. Morse than I ever did in college in a physics class. Some teachers have been quoted at saying that teaching to the AP test means they cannot do extended hands on experiments. We did extended, hands on experiments with Mr. Morse. We did them in college as well while moving at a break-neck pace. I survived and thrived in that environment in great part because of what I learned with Mr. Morse.

One doesn’t have to take an AP class to take the exam. Taking the exam and doing well is what allowed me to place out of classes and have more flexibility in college. But, I did well on those exams because I had teachers who worked really hard with me to make sure I understood the material I needed to know to do well. Physics came relatively easily. Calculus, to be honest, did not. My teacher in that class was committed to helping me succeed. I doubt I would have survived being an engineer without her. Embarrassingly, I can’t remember her name, but I do remember what she did. She fought all of my self doubt and insecurity, and she prepared me to be able to gut through when I was stuck which was often in college.

More and more college students are trying to figure out how to get degrees without being under a mountain of debt. Offering classes that help prepare them for college and allow them to, potentially, get a head start isn’t sacrificing depth for breadth as the letter writers state. It’s providing a foundation for success.