Nobody Puts a Lady in the Corner

I recently shared my research and current career success at a departmental graduate seminar.   During this type of student-centered seminar, I always describe my experiences at the BEST PLACE EVER to do a post-doc (if you are interested in biomedical research) the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  OK.  I admit that I am biased and clearly do not have experimental data to support that it is indeed THE best place ever.  All I have is my amazing personal experiences there as both an undergBellyraduate researcher, and then later as a post-doctoral fellow (and it is probably worth noting that doing a post-doc at the NIH also provides one of the solutions listed for some of the problems highlighted later-better post-doc pay).  Anyhoo, as a part of my career path chat, I always show a picture of me pregnant near the end of my postdoc (left, purple belly)  and then another picture of my colleagues holding my baby boy.  So they get the picture that life happens while you are building your career.  It’s a freight train that will not be stopped.  And why should it be? 

During the Q & A, a female student raised her hand and asked me “So, how do you do it?  I mean you seem so successful and happy (I think this is THE more important of the 2 characteristics).  How were you able to manage having a husband and children and your career?  I thought you would have to choose.” What? NO MA’AM!  Why should I have to choose?  “Certainly adjustments have to be made but if you have a supportive network you can, indeed, have it all.” I said this very smoothly as if I am some magician revealing how the magic trick works.  And she seemed relieved and motivated and confident that she really would be able to choose this career path and be successful and happy. 

So, needless to say, I was as mad as Patrick Swayze’s character when he found Baby, sitting in the corner at the summer vacation resort’s finale performance in Dirty Dancing, when I read this article.  It details all the “Unsettling Stats about Women in Science”.  Now it begins by focusing on the field of ecology but could easily be applied to women in any biological research field. 

There were 10 pretty serious factors listed that can make pursuit of a career in biomedical research seem pretty undesirable to the female undergraduate considering this path.  These are all validated and backed up by links to the supporting data, and I cannot deny that I have personally been a victim of several on the list.  This left me highly irritated that this would undo all the positivity I had exuded to the worried seminar student.  Did I lie to her?… or mislead her intentionally?  No!  I am absolutely, and blissfully, in love with my work.  So this got me thinking….and thinking… about the 10 unsettling facts listed in the article, and really examine why I felt so SETTLED.  I asked myself “Why am I still joyfully happy everyday about having this job and going to work in spite of this list?!”:

  1. I LOVE what I do.  Period.  No list of disparities can ever change that or scare me off.  EVERY. DAY. I love my job. Period.
  2. They call me Charlie (no seriously…that’s what they call me).  Much of this list is in comparison to “what a man of equal training would have.” More, it seems, is the answer in all cases. The real truth is that there is inequality between men and women in almost EVERY career (and several other aspects of life).  But here is the thing.  I am not a man and I’m never going to be a man.  So I don’t see why these gender inequality issues should prevent any female science major from starting down this path today.  The “unsettling” article references many established women scientists who fight the good fight everyday to get these disparities equalized (you can find commentary from women at various stages online at Tenure, She wrote as well as online and via twitter of @DNLee5, as well as many others)….and you (and I) can join them when our time comes.  But first, you’ve got to start down the path. 
  3. There has never been….and will never be…another you.  And as a result, no one can predict what will be available or offered to you during your journey.  Each person’s journey is unique.
  4. Anything worth having is going to come with some challenges.  Not impossibilities.  Challenges.  To be overcome.  And you don’t start at the beginning looking at all the challenges to come up ahead.  It all starts with one step… and then another.  Challenges come, you look up, deal with them and then continue with your steps.  One challenge at a time
  5. You will not be alone!  Though the percentages are low compared to men, there are still many, many women who are extremely successful biomedical scientists.  They each have a story to tell and an experience that will help you navigate through the challenges as they come.  And nowadays you don’t have to meet or see them in person!  Many are accessible online providing stories, anecdotes and advice through blogs and tweets etc (including yours truly and see #2 above).  You will find a successful scientist for each new stage you enter (grad student, post-doc, mom, tenure-track, industry-track, administrative-track, government-track, clinical-track, tenured etc).  You just have look.
  6. Here is the thing though: Strive to be THE best at what you do.  I am not saying that some of the things on this list aren’t going to irritate the heck out of you one day….but focus on YOUR focus. The thing that really drives most of us in biomedical research at the end of the day is THE SCIENCE….and the discovery of something new that could impact public health. 

Personally, number 6 is what really puts it all in perspective for me.  I do what I do every day with the determination that the research in my lab will uncover something that will make a difference to someone with a hard-to-treat cancer.   I KNOW that I am not the first to have this mission and that I won’t be the last.   What I DON’T KNOW is whether I will be the one to make some significant discovery….or whether you will.  So be bold!  Take the first step and consider this as a career.

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My favorite part about the “Unsettling” list is that, at the end, they list some solutions to the problems discussed.  And what’s the number one solution?   MENTORSHIP!  If you’re thinking “But I don’t have a mentor….I just stumbled on this blog and now I am interested but have no mentor!” you’re wrong.  Email us or join us during “Virtual Office Hours” and let’s get you started.  A mentor, advice, and guidance are literally just a click away…… 

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