Thursday, June 23, 2011

Woman (with two kids and cancer) in Science

The New York Times recently ran an article in which they interviewed four female scientists at the top of their fields.  These women are role models for women everywhere, in every field, regardless of aspirations.

I was eager to listen to the full interview that is available with the article.  I have always benefited from learning the milieu of ways that other women have progressed in science.  Taking time off to have kids, hiring some help at home, and choosing (not settling) to teach are just some of the ways that women strike a harmonious balance between Science and Life.  And so it was with great disappointment that I heard three of the four women interviewed say that they would not recommend a scientific career to their daughters.


They say it has been hard, perhaps too hard, and that they have become hardened.  They have made too many sacrifices for too little pay-off.  I really am in no position to judge, but it seems to me that so much unhappiness should amount to a career change.      

Everyone has struggles.  Right now my struggles happen to be fighting cancer and being a fantastic mom while trying to build my scientific career.  It's hard, and I could do without the cancer, but I love it.  Yea, it's a lot of work, but the best things in life often result from Work.  No other field would allow me to be as creative, innovative, and challenged as I am in science.  In no other field could I isolate DNA, take photographs, and read (scientific) stories all in one day.  I am a microbial explorer, and it's awesome.    

I don't profess to be at the top of my field, or even in the middle of it.  Also, I recognize that I am fortunate in ways that are particularly essential to building a scientific career:  supportive spouse, family, boss, mentors, and work environment.  Perhaps these top-of-the-field women struggled with some of the individuals in their would-be support network, thus souring their perspective.  Maybe getting to the top is harder than simply chugging along in the pile.  I wouldn't know.  Their experience is theirs, and I suppose that painting a falsely rosy picture never helped anyone.  I guess I just would have preferred to hear a more positive perspective from the top, because I guarantee there are some happy-at-the-top women out there.

Azalea and Eleanor, you can be whatever you want to be when you grow up.  I'll love and support you no matter what.  But for the record, science rocks.  


  1. Thanks for the post H! Very timely for this mom/almost-scientist. Thank you for reminding me that science rocks!

    I was having a full-on pity-party for myself tonight. Just one of those weeks where nothing seemed to be going right. But I agree with your sentiments.

    1) Science is FUN! One of my most sacred parenting goals is to convince my children of this fact.

    2) Balance is hard for everyone. Balance is hard for scientists. But science isn't all-or-nothing. I believe its important to accept our own limitations but also challenge ourselves to do better as parents/spouses/professionals/friends/etc.

    3) I hope science will be waiting for me when I'm done with my pity party!

  2. Being at the top in your field and being at the top in regard to management are 2 very different playing fields.

    You don't specify but my guess is that these ladies may have morphed into a management level job which takes them (usually by necessity) out of the areas which they were really interested in pursuing (the hard science)? While management is more of a soft science (dealing with people), is rarely easy and escalates you to a whole different level of stress and frustration. It depends on your personality but people can make themselves miserable simply by trying to crawl to the "top" of the heap - you've got to do what you're good at and what you enjoy. When it ceases being fun it's time to review where you are and how you got there...

  3. I couldn't agree with more- you lovely microbial explorer! An inspiration to me, to your girls and to scientists everywhere!

    love and hugs,
    the plant explorer

  4. Good point, rswebscan. There is definitely a distinction between a scientific "top" and a scientific administrator "top".

    Cheers to the plant and psychological explorers in my life, Martha and Maggie! May the science always be there for you.

  5. Heather,

    My aunt Mary is a pioneering woman in science (she's getting close to 80 now), and went through all of the trials and tribulations. She is *very* encouraging to young women scientists -- especially my daughter. She definitely would encourage young women to enter the profession!

    John B.

  6. Often times we forget why we are doing what we do. Life gets in the way of that sometimes and I have been very guilty of that. I gave up spending time with my children when sometimes maybe I shouldn't have. We all make choices and the true learning in life is when we realize that everyone is doing the best they can, and not to regret the choices we have made.
    You have been a bright star and inspiration to many, my young scientist. The glory is not that the chosen task is easy,it rarely is, but that one moves with grace and it appears to the outsider as if it were. You my dear, are a perfect example of this.

  7. Ultimately you have to do what gets you fired up. I think women in science actually have it better than a lot of other fields such as law/ business where "face-time" is really important. A career that judges more on output than face-time is always a working mom's friend.

    That being said there are numerous reasons I might not recommend a career in science to my kid regardless of gender. There are fewer jobs for more and more PhD's and most of us PhD's will end up in administrative or technical positions once held by people with bachelors or high school diplomas. Of course this is the trend in many fields.

  8. Geez maleez - what a skewed story. Why must the media always work so hard to perpetuate stereotypes that hold the veiled (or not so veiled) warning to our society to get in step with the family values/religious/patriarchal models that were sold to use a half century ago? Come on NYT! Reporters and editors who are too obliging to the advertisers they depend on to talk about casting off old, outdated models those advertisers are clinging to. Heather, I could just see you in one of those "target women" ads - you'd be on the floor (in need of sweeping and a good antibacterial mopping so your children don't get the plague) playing with your children saying, "I've had this bottle of Magic Floor Cleaner for the past 10 years. I just can't find time between playing with the girls, hanging with my husband, allowing myself some time to do the things I like, and getting good rest to even bother thinking about how clean my floor is. Amazingly - my girls have lived through unsanitized floors they're whole lives and seem to be surviving exceptionally well! Maybe I'll pour out the cleaner and use it as a vase!" Then, the scene cuts to you and Ian instructing the girls in laboratory safety as you all work on the lab bench Eleanor and Ian built together. You go Science Woman!

  9. I need an editor - in so many ways - but especially for:

    us, not use, in the 4th line from top
    their, not they're, in the 4th line from the bottom

  10. Oh, Phooey! You and Ian have worked out a system that works perfectly well for you. Dad gets to be a hands-on parent, the girls get to be loved by two parents, and you get to be "Science Woman". As long as it works out for your family, it's right. You will make it work for you. And, in the meantime, you are searching for a new way to help humanity. It is a win-win situation.