A few months ago, in a fit of frustration over something un-bloggable that was going on at work, I cornered the Dean of my institution in the hallway and asked if he/she might support the formation of a Women’s Faculty Group. I posted about this briefly at the time I made the original request- and as some of you may remember- the Dean was quite enthusiastic about the whole concept, he/she threw money and administrative support at me for the effort- and further promised to support anything and everything I might wish for in this regard. I also had the blessing of my chair in this effort- which, I didn’t really ask for until after all the plans had been laid.
I thought I would use a post to update you on how this little exploratory effort has been progressing. I made the original request to the Dean to do this back in the spring. I had a summer and spring that were rather full with grant and paper writing, and people are generally out of town during the summer anyway- so I waited until the fall to put the first meeting together. Now- this little adventure takes very little of my effort to organize, because the Dean’s Assistant takes care of all the arrangements- and I mean ALL the arrangements… all I do is show up and lead the meeting. I’m pleased to report that we are meeting once per month, and have good attendance ( about 2/3 of the female faculty at each meeting, <20 people)- so far we have had three meetings. All the attendees seem pleased about the chance to meet, mentor, discuss issues etc. We decided that for the first several meetings we would have volunteers from the group talk a little about their research programs- and more generally about how they arrived at the stage in their career where they now are. We have women faculty at all career stages- and there are a couple of them in my institution that had multiple children prior to getting tenure. Because I usually feel very isolated as a younger academic career woman with 2 kids … pre-tenure… I’ve been pretty excited about being connected to these women.
At one of our recent meetings, one of these two women- I’ll call her Accomplished Science Professor (ASP), who as it happens is one of the most senior women career-wise in the group, spoke about her experiences from her arrival here to the present. It struck me how many of the experiences she described from her early career mirror the experiences that I am having right now. First, she described a welcoming department of all male colleagues, most of them mid-career. Now, you might think that this was a hostile environment for her to start her career in- but that’s not how she described it at all. Her description was of a group of highly successful and supportive senior colleagues who wanted nothing more than her success, and in fact they were personally invested in her success- encouraging her to submit on every deadline, reading her proposals, actively teaching her the ropes.
Second, ASP described the extreme highs and lows that you can experience in this line of work. Early in her career she went from worrying about how she was going to keep the lab going, laying off laboratory staff, and sitting in her office feeling the despair that funding might never come through to having two grants get funded simultaneously. Literally overnight things changed from a situation where ASP had one foot out the door of academic science and into flipping burgers…. to her lab being awesomely funded and thriving. However, it wasn’t some freak of nature that this happened- the $$ didn’t just fall from the sky, ASP was submitting every single grant she was eligible to apply for. This point resonated so much with me- you probably do not realize how down I was earlier this year about my own prospects for independent funding- but I am going to tell you now that I was very, very depressed about this earlier this year. And this in the face of the high of my over-the-top enthusiasm about my projects, piles of data, the graduation of a master’s student and imminent graduation of my first Ph.D. student, and my awesome collaborators. This year I’ve had the very lowest of the career lows and the very highest of the highs. These extremes can be dizzying.
Finally, I realized during ASP’s presentation that I so often (naively) think of this career as a straight line in terms of career progression and research interests- but this is not always so. ASPs path has had a fair number of detours and unexpected developments- and instead of fighting them to stay on a pre-determined path, she embraced each new opportunity and took some chances that have paid off well for her. In addition to her academic endeavors, she is now interfacing with scientists from other disciplines all over campus and is well on the way to starting a small company of her own. It seems like many times the most interesting people I have met in this career have had a twisting and turning career path, and during their academic careers they take little detours into developing a company on the side, or writing patents- or whatever- that can sometimes turn out to be fascinating, fulfilling and successful.
Anyway- it feels great to know this accomplished person, and to have her around as a mentor. I’m looking forward to future meetings for which we have the following tentative plans:
1. Develop a list of suggestions to the NIH working group for women in biomedical careers (run out of the ORWH and the office of the director of the NIH)- as it turns out one of the members of our group is a newly inducted member of this task force which meets twice yearly. I am collecting suggestions from the blogosphere too- so send me all your ideas and I’ll do my best to advocate for them.
2. Invite female graduate students and postdocs to several of our meetings per year. This is important, I think, to show female students in my (and any) institution that are getting graduate degrees in basic science what it is really like to be in academia from the inside.