An Open Letter to CWSEM

Dear Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine:

A couple of days ago I noticed that you posted on your website an old list of 50 ‘must-read’ blogs written by women in science and engineering, borrowed from another (?perhaps dubious?) website.

First, let me say- THANKS for noticing that there are many of us women (and our allies) out here in the blogosphere talking about issues related to being a woman in science/engineering/medicine etc! I think it is totally cool that you have picked this up- we’ve been having conversations out here for some time now, and between all of us we have quite a following. Many of us are the only woman in the departments that employ us, and this can be very isolating. Online communities, blogging, and social networking sites let us get together from all over the world and discuss relevant work and work-life balance issues in an immediate way.   Having legitimate and esteemed organizations such as yours, notice and promote us- goes a long way toward toward publicizing and increasing participation in these conversations. Promoting this venue and listening to the  conversations that occur here should spur some creative thinking about, and implementation of, innovative policies to increase the participation of women in STEM.  At least a girl can dream.

Second, I’d like to encourage you members of the CWSEM to go out there into the blog wilderness, and actually read some of our blogs, if you haven’t already. Check out the blogrolls on each of our blogs (mine is right down there on the right side of your screen!), and come up with your VERY OWN  list of blogs written by scientists, engineers, and doctors- both men and women, that discuss issues related to gender balance, family friendliness, navigating academia, grantsmanship, career development and the like. Then post YOUR favorites on your site!  Listing your own favorites will be infinitely more credible than posting a list you dragged up and parroted from somewhere on the internetz. Seriously.

I’ll be looking forward to seeing your very own list, I’ll keep my eye on your website!

Most Sincerely-


Mom Heroics

See that witch pumpkin on the far right?

I carved that son-of-a-gun.

AFTER 3 glasses of wine.

In the dark.


I know my way around sharp objects, but in this case it is a miracle that I still have 10 fingers.

A mom’s got to do, what a mom’s got to do.

It is the small victories.

CWSEM picks up list of 50 “must-read” blogs written by Women in Science and Engineering

Apparently the list of the the 50 must-read women science bloggers that was posted months ago on the Phlebotomy Technician School website has caught the attention of the  Committee on Women in Science, Engineering and Medicine, a standing committee of the National Research Council (NRC).  The CWSEM  has re-posted this list of the top 50 ‘Must-Read Blogs’ written by women in science and engineering on its very own website. To quote from the PTS site that was re-quoted by CWSEM:

Women have long played an important role in scientific developments and discourse, however, this role has historically received relatively less recognition and coverage as compared to their male counterparts. Over the last few years, however, blogging has opened up a way for leading women in science to bring to light the important improvements women have made, the struggles they still encounter, and the strategies they set up for their work to be recognized.”

All I have to say is that’s pretty cool and… !WOOT! girls- we hit the big time! We may have started out on the PTS website, …. but we’ve been discovered by the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine…

I’m going to poke around a bit on their website… between manuscripts!

I Hate Journal Club

Not really. I just don’t like what journal club has become. It has become a boring recitation of a paper. Period.

Without any general overview of the subject and context from other related literature.

Without any enthusiasm for the subject, or understanding whether or why the topic is important.

Without explanation of important terminology and jargon- indeed sometimes without the understanding of the presenter of what the jargon means.

Without participation and discussion from the non-faculty in the audience.

Without the audience coming prepared by reading the paper… and gosh, we don’t even have to go to the library and photocopy it ourselves anymore.

I’m sick to death of it, and I’m not taking it anymore.

First, for all of you that are making an effort, I applaud you. Seriously. This goes for presenters and active participants alike. It is tough to get up there in front of an audience and present something that maybe isn’t your primary area of interest, give the background, learn the jargon- explain someone else’s work in a coherent and constructively critical way. You are only at the beginning of your training, your business is going include doing some permutation of these tasks every single day of your research career. Good on you for embracing this opportunity.

Second, for those of you that just show up- you have taken the first step and I applaud you for that- but journal club is yours to improve and learn from. You need to take the next steps now- READ the paper and ASK QUESTIONS.  Now don’t even tell me you were too busy to read the paper- you won’t find any sympathy from me on this one. I’ll bet you a million bucks that you and I don’t even measure busy on the same scale, and I read the paper in advance, and I looked up the jargon. This REALLY is not that time consuming, you could probably fit it in between PCR reactions.

Third- there is this issue of participation. I know you all are frightened to look like fools in front of the rest of the audience- but you are going to have to get over this one. Journal club is a fairly friendly, audience restricted venue- if you can’t test your participation skills here- where the hell can you test them?? At a Gordon Conference… or maybe at a Cold Spring Harbor meeting…?  Trust me on this one and test the waters of active participation at journal club at your home institution in a more limited venue.

And what is the absolute worst that can happen if you do participate?? You could get slapped down once or twice?! I KNOW that this is hard, and it feels bad… but I promise you that it is extremely likely that tomorrow no one except you will remember whatever thing you said- and you’ll be one question closer to confidence in this area.

Finally- don’t do this because you ‘have to’ or because I told you to. Show some intellectual curiosity about your chosen field…

Things Change, People Change

A friend came to visit me last week, and that person commented on something I had written on this blog in sort of a sideways fashion. It is a relief when friends recognize some grief you are holding in, or pick out some off-hand comment you made that just doesn’t sound right- and give you the window to let it go. Anyway- that conversation has given me the courage to write about a few things that are going on with me that are difficult.

I have a picture on my office wall of a large group of young people in caps and gowns- taken almost 20 years ago. They appear to have no cares on a very happy day. I am one of the people in that picture. I remember what life was like then, I had few responsibilities- I was trying to made it through grad school (which was 50% girls FYI), was fairly naive, was NOT in a position that had any power whatsoever, and really only had to handle one task at a time. Oh maybe I remember some more ideal version of the past than was reality, maybe- probably- looking back now, it looks pretty perfect though.  I can say for certain that I never expected that my career would become important to me, and that managing the balance of my job, my marriage and my children would shape me as it has.

People who have known me a long time, comment that I have changed. I’m never sure how to take that- and on one level that hurts, on another level- I know it is true. At that second level, I want to scream-


And I’m not much one for screaming- maybe that helps you to understand how much emotion is behind those simple words.

How have I changed? I’ll just stick with one aspect of this for now.  I have developed a hard edge to my personality- an assertiveness that I’m sometimes unsure how to channel or control at work and in other parts of my life. This edge is something that I sensed before many times in women I knew who were higher up the academic ladder than me, but I never understood. There is a strong societal message that it is just unbecoming for girls to have this edge, this assertive (maybe sometimes even aggressive) way from time to time.  Us girls are so programmed to be NICE, be accommodating, to go with the consensus, to be reasonable. When I assert myself, which lots of times just feels like plain old protecting myself… I get told that I’m not being ‘nice’ (insert more screaming). A remark that I imagine is much more loaded and cutting to a woman than to a man.  I feel like I work up against that societal message time and time again every day and it is wearing…. and it is like double jeopardy to be called out for not ‘nice’ because of it.

So am I different now because of this- heck YES.  Was there any other option? I don’t think so.

Gates Foundation Grand Challenge Winners: Dr. Allison Ficht

The winners of the third round of the Gates Foundation Grand Challenge were announced yesterday. I don’t know how I missed that…but someone who is pretty well known in my little slice of biology, Dr. Allison Rice-Ficht, was one of the winners…


Here is the text released by the Gates Foundation:

Recreating a “Sticky Coating” Used by Parasitic Worms to Deliver Intranasal Vaccines

Allison Ficht of Texas A&M Health Science Center in the U.S. will recreate a protein used by parasitic worms to seal their egg cases and use it as a “sticky coating” for intranasal vaccines. If successful, this coating could protect the antigens during administration, affix them to the nasal passages and erode to slowly release the antigens for an enhanced immune response.

How cool is that? Contratulations Dr. Rice-Ficht!!

Growing Pains

I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful mix of people in the lab. They work well together and are a real team. When one member of the group has been stressed or over the top about something, everyone else has pitched in to lighten that person’s load. I don’t know if I have set this up consciously, or if it was just lucky random chance that things worked out this way. I do know that I laid out the expectation for each hire that we were going to work together as a team (yes, that is the royal ‘we’), and that we should all be considerate and respectful toward each other. Perhaps one factor that has contributed to this supportive and cooperative atmosphere was the relative absence of dominating personalities thus far. Then again, maybe not.

I realize now that with growth of my group, that the personality and cooperativity of the group may change. I admire assertiveness, but I realize that having very assertive individuals as employees may be a double edged sword. On the one side, if you want a science career, especially if you are a girl, and you aren’t assertive- your career path is going to be that much more difficult. A little assertiveness goes a long way.

But excessive assertiveness can also create problems when you expect individuals to function as a team. Excessive assertiveness or aggressiveness can make some members of the team feel continuously disrespected, and undermine morale. An uncomfortable atmosphere in the lab can make people not want to be there- they start thinking more about intra-lab politics, and less about the next experiment and how to push projects forward. Conflict follows. I’m sure almost everyone who has run a lab (or a team of any kind) has had to deal with one person who seems to poison the whole atompshere of the group, perhaps because of their aggressive nature.

So today I ask: How do you foster individual assertiveness, while maintaining the productive functioning of your research ‘team’?  Does this have to be actively taught and managed? When do you step into festering conflicts between lab members and promote fairness in the group?   I do not know of many colleagues that actively manage these aspects of their lab groups (nor have I had many conversations with other PIs about this), and I’ve seen conflict be extremely damaging to morale and productivity. I am erring more toward taking an active role to manage these situations myself. And golly- I’m practically a professional at conflict management at home (I mean,  I have two girls ..11 and 7)… but I hardly think I can put my trainees in time out when they are fightin’ and bickerin’. Or maybe I should…