Having Dinner with Women in Science

Here at the University of Idaho (Go Vandals) we have some awesome resources in the biology department (IBEST, BCB program, BEACON to name a few).

But by far the most interesting an influential for me over the course of my graduate career has been the Randall Women in Science seminar.  It’s not that each seminar has deeply touched me because as a woman I am able to better connect with other women when they speak about any topic in science. Nor is it that each seminar happens to be exactly what I want to study/do when I grow up. But it has allowed me to talk to women have not only survived but thrived in science.

Jane Randall

Jan Randall and her gardening skills

But first, some history. The seminar series exists because of Dr. Jan Randall, who is on the faculty at San Fransisco State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Idaho’s Department of Biological Sciences (Go Vandals). She studied social structure in animals once thought to be asocial. Additionally she was (among many other things): a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the Board of Directors of the Endangered Species Coalition, and Secretary of the Animal Behavior Society, and a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. Her website notes that she is enjoying gardening and traveling in her retirement.

In addition to all her accomplishments in science, she put an emphasis on promoting women in science. And one of her iniatives is the Randall Women in Science seminar. Since 2003, twice a year, women in science, often at the top of their respective fields, are brought to give a talk at the University of Idaho. It is an amazing opportunity as a department to bring excellent seminar speakers to the Palouse to talk about their work.

And yes, the free food and drink is wonderful.

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But by far what’s more wonderful is the opportunity to sit and talk candidly with women in science who are on the other end of the career ladder. We are all just starting, working on PhDs and postdocs, while the seminar speakers are well established and completing their careers. So we have questions about how to do this science thing as a woman, some of which we make a point to ask every speaker. It occurred to me last night (at a wonderful Randall seminar dinner) that I’ll be leaving the Palouse soon, and perhaps it’s time to reflect on the answers to these questions we have asked so many influential women.

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Question 1: When is a good time to have children?

This is usually the first question, as it is something all of us are thinking about. Science is EXTREMELY demanding early in your career. During your PhD we are flirting with the poverty line (dependent on your discipline/department), and having babies is expensive. Your postdoc is all about getting papers out and finding a job, which requires long hours and a fluid location, especially given it’s not likely that you’ll stay in the same town you postdoc in indefinitely. And then once you have a faculty position, the tenure clock is ticking and you have very little time to get funding and papers out the door. Financially and professionally, when in there is a good time to have a baby? What’s that you say? You can just wait till you have tenure? What about fertility?

One was a VERY successful scientist who waited till she was established (and was actually pregnant at the dinner).

Another told us how they decided to start having children during their postdoc. You’ll notice I say “they”, her husband was her co-PI and the shared child rearing 50-50.

Yet another one told us she didn’t think it was possible to have children and be successful. That she had had a number of VERY supportive partners, and made the decision to put her career first.

One other speaker told us how she had had her first child during her PhD and the department wrote her off, and didn’t think she would finish. But she (this is a theme among the success stories) decided that she had to be more efficient with her time. She could only work from 9-5 so she did nothing during those hours EXCEPT work. No reading the paper, no socializing, no talking. Like a Jedi master, she focused on the tasks at hand so she could do more with the hours she had available.

You must have the efficiency and mind control of a jedi

You must have the efficiency and mind control of a jedi.

What struck me the most is how each woman had a different strategy. There is not really good answer to this question. So the overall pattern was “This science thing is important to me. How can I make my life work within its confines?”.

Question 2: Have you felt discriminated against as a woman in science?

Surprisingly most people said no to this question. But there were some exceptions:

One scientist told us how she had tried to report a professor in her department for sexual harassment. He had propositioned his graduate student and threatened to kick her out of the program if his advances were rebuffed. The student went to our seminar speaker, who promptly approached the dean. The dean told her it wasn’t an issue, and she handed in her resignation the moment she found another job. This was the most extreme example, and we had a long discussion about how to avoid departments where the good old boys club still reigns supreme.

Another scientist told us she had only once felt discrimination. She had an established lab, a few successful graduates, a number of grants, and an impressive publication record. She is inarguably at the top of her field. But when she went for a job interview (a lateral move, she already had an established lab) she was told that she was too timid and the chair of the department doubted Women_in_Science3whether she would be able to run a research lab of her own. She laughed and left.

And another told us how she had been told that she couldn’t have an extra year on her tenure clock because she was having twins. So she jumped over the chair, the dean of science and the dean of the college and went to the president of the university and asked for the extra year so that she could spend time with her children. She was one of the first women granted this extension.

Question 3: How do you deal with the two body problem?

Most of our speakers have a spouse outside of science. But there were a few that faced the difficulty of balancing two careers.

One speaker gave us the whole love story of her marriage with her husband. They worked together, both with respect to their family and with their research. I have seen this work in a number of situations and find it admirable but difficult to achieve.

Another, both her and her husband were in the same field. They applied for the same jobs. He got a job, and she was a spousal hire. The department chair thanks her husband almost daily for bringing her to their department.

Conclusion:

We all face these questions and concerns, especially early in our career. What has amazed me is how much variety there has been in answers. How differently each of these women have tackled these very fundament and challenging problems. It has been inspiring, not knowing that it will be easy, but knowing that we can figure it out, as many have before us. And that there are places/ways for us to succeed in this academic realm.

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