How to welcome a new person to your department

I recently went to a fun dinner party with a few colleagues from my new department, and I’d estimate that about half the faculty know me by name if they see me in the halls, which is pretty good… except that I wish I was saying this a year ago! I’m not all that new to the department, just finishing my second year. My entire first year, I had exactly two people in my department who were not my direct supervisors make an effort to talk to me.

When I’m on the other side, in a position to welcome a newcomer, I want to do a better job helping people feel comfortable and get integrated. Here’s my plan, and I encourage you to apply it in your world!

  1. If I know a new person is set to join my department I will ask my chair or person-in-the-know ahead of time for details about when they are arriving in town and starting, so I can be prepared to welcome them right away.
  2. I will have a short list (based on my own experience starting out) of things that a new person will find helpful, in the institution and in the town/area. This list will include the right people to talk to about certain common requests, where the most convenient lunch places and cafes are near the office, regular meetings and seminars of interest to get on the calendar, helpful resources outside the department, and other tips and tricks for navigating a new place. I’ll try to mention these helpful pieces of advice as they come up in conversation or when I think they’ll find them useful.
  3. When the person arrives I will go to their office and introduce myself (even if we met in an interview before – most people appreciate a reminder when they’re feeling like everything is new) and invite them to have lunch or a snack at that nearby cafe they’ll definitely want to know about.
  4. When there is a meeting or seminar or department event, I will ask the new person if they know about it, to make sure they’re on the right email distribution lists, and find out if they are going, and if they want to walk or ride together.
  5. I will not judge a newcomer for seeming standoffish. The burden should not be on the new person to introduce themselves or initiate interactions.

Even in my family I see newcomers (i.e. siblings’ significant others) struggling to find a place, and the regular crowd not making room and then wondering why the newcomer is “so hard to get to know”. It’s very difficult to insert yourself into a social dynamic that is years in the making and you know very little about! The onus is on the comfortable residents to make the new person feel welcome.

My goal is to help people get comfortable, be effective and productive, and know they have someone specific they can ask for help. I look forward to welcoming the next person to my world, and I hope you’ll consider how you can too!

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Posted in academia, advice, early career scientist, empathy, Environment, mentoring, new job, support | Leave a comment

I Am Not an Easy Man

I am trying to brush up on my French, so the other day I browsed the French movies available on Netflix. I scrolled through serious dramas, adventure sagas, and dark comedies. Among these was Je ne suis pas un homme facile, or I Am Not an Easy Man. The trailer was cute, a little goofy. It featured a man cheesily hitting on a woman, using a line he clearly uses often. Its theme was some kind of a switcheroo. It was hard to tell from the trailer whether it would be good or just gimmicky. But I had to pick a movie, so I decided to give it a chance.

The movie starts off with the main character going about his day with a good smattering of chauvinism. He doesn’t consider women’s needs in his product design, he treats women like objects to be acquired, etc. Then he hits his head and it all changes. Women are suddenly in charge.

Again, this concept could get gimmicky, and perhaps it is a little. But at the same time the movie is amazingly spot on. I think of myself as a feminist and I think about the ways the world is biased for men. Despite that there were still things that the movie switched up that made me think about the way I view the world. Things that I take for granted as just the way the world is were turned upside down.

I watched the movie with my husband and he enjoyed it. He also is a feminist and still, like me, found his view of “the way things are” questioned. We are so entrenched in the way things are that we make excuses, conscious or not, for inequalities that we observe.

I have been telling everyone about the movie and encouraging them to watch it. I was surprised by two instances of husbands of strong women I know seeming deeply uninterested in the movie. I encourage you to watch this, and if you have a male partner to encourage him to watch it. Please report back your thoughts and their responses!

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Navigating lab in a wheelchair

As I wrote about previously, I had a string of bad luck and illness this winter that culminated in my passing out in the bathroom and somehow fracturing the 1st-4th metatarsals and the inferior cuneiform of my foot. My injury is called a Lisfranc fracture, named for Napoleon’s surgeon who first described this injury in soldiers who were thrown from horseback with one foot stuck in the stirrups. Fun fact: Jaques Lisfranc was known for his ability to amputate a foot in less than a minute.

Thankfully, amputation is no longer the recommended treatment. But, it’s still a severe injury that requires a prolonged period of non-weight-bearing and rest in order to heal. As the orthopedist in the hospital was explaining this to me, I was wondering how I’d be able to manage in lab, and whether I’d be able to conduct experiments.

For mobility, I had a couple of options. I could continue on crutches. I could use a knee-scooter. Or I could use a wheelchair. I used crutches to hobble around my house and go on a few initial forays into lab, but soon realized they were a poor choice because you can’t carry anything! When you’re doing wet lab work and running experiments, you absolutely need to transport things– sometimes very fragile or toxic things– while moving. The knee scooter presented a similar dilemma because you need your hands to steer it, and to hold onto. So I decided to get a wheelchair, which I bought online (insurance didn’t cover any supportive device). My PI said he’d never had a person in a wheelchair in lab, and we weren’t sure how well it would work.

It was both harder and easier than I expected. I fitted my wheelchair with multiple devices and pouches to increase my ability to carry things. To do tissue culture, I transported my cells from their incubator to the tissue culture hood using a tray on my lab. Still, tissue culture was definitely the most challenging aspect of my work because it was difficult to wheel myself around the cramped tissue culture room without knocking anything over or getting tangled up in tubes from the vacuum flasks, all while keeping my poor cells steady! I could not have continued tissue culture work at all in my previous lab, where the incubators and hoods are crammed in a space so narrow that you have to turn sideways to walk through, so I was glad that in my current lab, at least my wheelchair physically fit into the space. Microscopy, on the other hand, was very easy– I just pulled my wheelchair up to the scope and continued as normal. Most benchwork (PCRs, immunos, etc) was fine, too. The main difference was that the bench, built for a comfortable standing height, was at eye level for me, which was sometimes awkward. I did occasionally have to stand on my one good leg to reach machinery or solutions on shelves, so for someone who was not able to stand at all, this could present more of a challenge. I was also not able to get to a number of talks I would ordinarily have attended because the lecture halls or buildings were not wheelchair accessible. For the most part, though, lab work was easier to conduct from a wheelchair than I expected. One reason for this is because I currently work in a handicapped-accessible building. There are elevators and bathrooms on every floor, and even the cafeteria was accessible to me. All in all, tissue culture was the most challenging aspect of my labwork on wheels, but I still managed not to kill my cells!

What was harder than expected were the psychological aspects of being in a wheelchair. Although a wheelchair was the most practical solution to my being able to work while keeping weight off my foot, I understand why most people opt for a knee scooter if possible. In a wheelchair, instead of being at eye-level with people, you’re stuck conversing at belt-level, which is awkward. I stood out as ‘the woman in the wheelchair’ which is not, ideally, what I want to be known for at work. I also had to learn to accept help, especially with the heavy doors in my building, which was hard for me. However, after my wheelchair got wedged in a bathroom door after I declined help from someone who offered to keep it open for me, and I became hopelessly stuck until the next person came along to lend a hand, I realized that it was probably best to just accept and say “Thank you!” to all the busy strangers and colleagues who reached out with small gestures of aid every day.

Posted in women in science | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A reprise…. how the heck are you guys doing it all?!?

I’m writing to kind of follow up on this post written by another blogger a few months ago.

I am also having a really hard time right now.

In the late fall, an upper respiratory virus made its way through our family. My husband got over it in about a week, but my son developed croup severe enough to spend a night in the ER and I just couldn’t get over it. My cough got worse, I developed a sinus infection, but my GP didn’t prescribe anything, just told me to take care of myself and I’d be fine as I was a “young, healthy adult” who should be able to fight this off. Unfortunately, about a week later, I felt significantly worse and went to Urgent Care. I’d developed both viral and bacterial pneumonia. I was admitted to the hospital later that night, severely ill with low blood oxygenation*. Thankfully, I responded well to IV antibiotics and went home the next day. I was advised to stay home for a few weeks and to rest, continue antibiotic and steroid treatment, and to drink lots of fluids.

I took a few days off work, bed-bound with a fatigue unlike anything I’ve ever felt, when I heard my son crying in the middle of the night, “Mommy, I need a napkin!” Understatement of the century– he’d been sick all over the place and, thus, norovirus (aka the stomach flu) announced its presence in our household. My son was really ill for 5 days and nights– normally, norovirus lasts ~24-48 hours in adults, but it can last longer in young children. I caught it from him– it’s hard not to when you’re caring for a sick kid!

My husband and I dove into lab whenever we got the chance, and emailed our colleagues between doctor’s appointments and my bleach-cleaning everything and doing endless rounds of laundry while my husband and son cuddled while watching endless episodes of Paw Patrol.

There are few things as exhausting as caring for a sick child. It’s 24 hours, day and night, of cleaning and monitoring and cuddling and calming. It’s emotionally draining– your child doesn’t understand what’s happening to their body, is scared, sick, and needs constant reassurance. And it’s scary for parents, too– small children are so vulnerable and can get very sick very quickly.

Well, I thought that caring for a toddler with norovirus while I had pneumonia and norovirus myself, simultaneously, was as bad as it could get. But, haha, I learned the important lesson that things can always get worse, and tend to do so especially when you’re worn down. The night of Dec. 26th, I woke up feeling strange. I stood up to get a drink and then passed out repeatedly. I fell and hurt my foot so badly I couldn’t bear weight on it.

Back to the hospital, via ambulance this time, where I was admitted again. My foot was fractured in 5 places. After 4 days of tests to figure out what was causing me to pass out, the diagnosis was that I was ‘really run down’. I was severely dehydrated and had electrolyte imbalances. I’d been running a fever for 3 straight weeks, trying to take care of my son, coordinate Christmas, clean my house, and keep up with work.

I’d burned through all my paid leave (vacation and sick time) and between my foot and illnesses, I wasn’t up to physically getting to work. Amazingly, my boss agreed to let me work from home for ~2 weeks until I was on my feet again (figuratively, not literally, as I’ll be in a wheelchair for at least another month). My colleagues stepped up in a way that was nothing short of remarkable. My son returned to daycare. And I started to feel better, though I am still in a wheelchair and unable to walk, and I needed another course of steroids and antibiotics to finally bring my fever down. I got the great news that I wouldn’t need surgery on my foot and felt like maybe we’d get to take a breath…

And then, last night, my son fell ill again. I just started to cry.

The doctors told me that it was just bad luck that we’ve been so sick. There’s nothing clinically wrong with our immune systems.

But it feels like we’re stuck in a cycle we just can’t get out of. We’re all so tired and run down. We don’t have any extended family who can help. It’s just my husband and I, and it’s grueling. We don’t have time to recover before the next thing happens. And we also have to send my son back to daycare before he’s fully rested** because we have to get back to work. So I feel like his poor immune system is getting hammered, too.

Is it just us? Am I missing something? Clearly, most other working parents aren’t going around in wheelchairs with pneumonia and needing to be admitting to the hospital because they’re so run down that they keep losing consciousness. I mean, this is so absurd!

The standard advice is to learn to ask for and accept help from a ‘village’– but without extended family, who do you ask? It’s not like people are banging down our door, offering chicken soup and a hand with the laundry. Surely, there must be other working parents in America with children in daycare who don’t have grandparents to lend a hand? If so, how are you managing?

Would a nanny at least reduce the onslaught of daycare germs (though I don’t think we can afford it and I love our daycare other than the illness issues)? Is there a magical immune supplement that my Google and PubMed searches haven’t yet revealed that will help us not get sick***?

I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out how to get better and avoid such extreme burn-out from happening again, as we were in a similar situation last January/February so I don’t think this is a one-off. Short of either my husband or I becoming a stay-at-home parent, are there any ideas?

Seriously, how are you guys coping?

* from a neuroscience perspective, the low blood oxygenation-induced delusions were very fascinating (in retrospect, of course). I may post about them another time.

** I’d never send him to daycare still sick, but I think ideally, he’d have a day or two of R&R before heading back to germ central.

*** yes, of course, we vaccinate!

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Growth Mindset

seedling

My 7-year old already struggles with not wanting to do things if he doesn’t feel like he’s good at them. I try to instill in him the understanding that you only get to be good at things by doing them. But whether our culture has permeated him already or it is innate, he already, at this tender age, is shy of things that do not come naturally to him.

I’m not sure that I am much better at embracing the growth mindset. It is hard not to think of myself as who I have been until this point. What else do I know but what I have been? But of course, who I have been does not have to be the model for who I become. I can learn new things and become good at things with which I currently struggle. Even hard things.

It is easy for me to see a path for my son to change. At that age you are clearly not the person who you will grow up to be, and so many options are available to you. He has people in his life to guide him and many examples of people to be like.

It is less easy for me to see a path for myself. I am happy with my life as a whole and with many aspects of it. However, there are things that I do that I fear I am not good at and ways that I do things that I fear do not serve me well.

What advice would I give my son. I would say, you need to have a goal in mind, an example of what you’re moving toward. I would say, you need to have a plan of how to get there, tasks to perform that will strengthen the areas you wish to strengthen. I would say you need to practice. No one becomes good at playing guitar by wishing they could play like Jimi Hendrix and no one becomes good at being a leader by wishing they could lead like Nancy Pelosi.

It is hard, though, to know what I am missing precisely enough to know what to change. In guitar there are plenty of lessons and books that teach you step by step. I’m sure there are books and classes out there on all kinds of things, but how do I know what is the right one? Do I have time to select one let alone read one? Can I really change?

From an outsider’s perspective, I am probably making the same kind of excuses my son makes. I should just buckle down, believe in my ability to learn and grow, make a plan and execute. Have you done that as an adult? How have you made it work for you?

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The Three-Postdoc Postdoc

This new year, I will be starting a new job. Sort of.

This will be my third postdoc in as many years. Because my first mentor left the institution one year after I started (coinciding with the birth of my son), and because under the circumstances I made too many concessions when choosing my next mentor, I now have two red flags on my CV. I am about to become a Post-Post-Postdoc.

There are many reasons that I have ultimately chosen to bruise my resume with another eyebrow-raising transition. They all fall under the umbrella of misaligned goals and expectations between myself and my mentor. Some highlights are:

  • She (a mother herself) expects me to work as if I am not a parent,
  • Has refused every scientific or infrastructural suggestion I have made to facilitate progress,
  • Has asked me to quit my fellowship training program to commit more hours to lab work,
  • Has stated that the extensive medical attention my son has required in his first year is irrelevant, and
  • Has encouraged trying to change my husband’s work hours (as if we are not already both burning the candle at both ends) to facilitate my working longer.

Role models who have blazed the trail for women research scientists have made these sacrifices (and more) to get to lead their owns labs at research intensive institutions. My present mentor included. Though I have always wanted to be one of these women, I am not willing to make these sacrifices. And as I turn 33, I have accepted that this is a choice and a desire, not a failure.

My commitment to teaching and making science accessible to the next generation outweighs my interest in leading scientific research, and my career goals have transformed over my first two postdocs to reflect this. I am now focused on leading a small research program and a teaching intensive institution. It is for these reasons that I pursue yet another postdoc instead of diving into the job market. In order to be eligible for entrance into the professoriate, I need to have publications in the new field I plan to research, and I could stand a bit more teaching and management training from my fellowship.

Academia has trained generations of scientists that following a 1-PhD to 1-Postdoc training track in progressively higher-power prestigious labs will assuredly lead to high impact publications and success in a tenured research scientist position. I always wanted to brut force my way through this so that as a research scientist I could run a lab that broke with this outdated dogma, and provided a supportive environment where both science and young scientists could flourish.

But it turns out that I am not willing to endure the particular flavor of misery in my current prestigious high-power lab for the next 6 years in order to approach the slim chance of achieving this. And what’s more, there are already women who have done and are doing this. And they deserve the support of talented, motivated postdocs as they build their labs. So, my next lab mentor is a young investigator invested in mentorship, teaching, effectiveness, collaboration and productivity. And I have laid all my cards on the table, as has she. She is supportive of my continued fellowship training (which is both dear to my heart and clutch to my academic future), and of my publication goals over the next 2-3 years.

I aim to upset the dogma, and look at my Post-Post-Postdoc experience not as a series of red flags, but as a unique experience that challenges and diversifies my strengths. And in a new environment that supports my professional goals as well as personal life, I think I have a pretty good shot at success.

Perhaps I can be a role model after all.

Posted in academia, confidence, Laboratory, motherhood, postdoc, Women in STEM | Leave a comment

There and back again

Commutes. For some, they’re a breeze and for others they’re a nightmare. It is not a part of the workday we normally talk about but they can have a huge impact on wellbeing and mental state, which can affect work and home life. Commutes can affect decisions about where to live, what job to take, and what else you are able to fit into your day. Here we talk about our various commutes and how they fit into our lives.

Peirama

I have had a variety of commutes since finishing grad school. I’ve taken public transportation with kids in tow and I’ve also driven. There are pros and cons to those…I enjoyed the podcasts in the car, both kid- and adult-oriented. I can make some recommendations if you’re interested! (OK, since you twisted my arm, highly recommend The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, Stories Podcast, and The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel for listening that you’re planning to do with your kids) The public transportation commute was nice because it gave me extra time to read with my kids or do my own thing while not having to worry about driving or having the stress of traffic.

I now bike commute. I am lucky enough that my kids’ school is just a half mile from where I live, so it’s easy enough to take the younger one in the bike trailer and the older one on his own bike and then take off for work. Actually, my husband does drop off, so I just head straight to work on my bike in the morning and stop off on my way home to pick them up. However, between biking and changing etc, my total commute time per day is around an hour and a half, which feels like a large chunk of time. Because of this I work from home several days a week. I know that I am incredibly lucky to have the ability to do that and I think all employers should make that option as easy as possible. Obviously lab work cannot be done at home, but during periods of writing, etc, it should be an option.

Notarealteacher

The school I teach at is located right downtown in a fairly major city. I thankfully live a short, 12 minute drive away. The problem for me has never been traffic, but parking. In order to get both my kids to school on time, we all have to be out the door by 6:55 AM (sometime, I’ll write a post on how to survive the stressful half an hour between 6:30-7:00 AM). For a number of years, my husband dropped us all off at daycare/work; after work, I then took the bus home and retrieved my car. I’d subsequently go and pick up the kids. When I missed the bus or forgot my keys at work (which happened more times than I care to admit), I’d be upwards of an hour later to pick up my kids. On those days, my kids might spend almost 10 hours at daycare. I’d spend the rest of the evening lamenting how I’d missed one of the few daily hours I get to spend with my children.

I’ve finally decided to fork over the $13/day that it costs to park downtown each day. I find I am infinitely less stressed knowing that I can pick up my kids on my way home at the end of the day. I most certainly feel guilt over the cost and environmental impact (especially given my teacher’s salary); but I’m trying to view it as part of the cost of having kids. On the list of must-haves for my next job: A great, big open-access parking lot.

SweetScience

I recently moved from a major city to a small city and was so excited to give up stressful, crowded subway rides and long walks on sidewalks either disgusting or decrepit. Unexpectedly though, my new drive is possibly even more stressful. We are a one-car family, and so we all have to get out the door together as early as possible, a daily feat. Then we decide for the morning and afternoon who will be dropped off or picked up by whom and in what order, always an annoying negotiation. Even though our three office/childcare locations are within a mile of each other, all about 10 minutes from home, the whole commute takes about an hour door-to-door. In a major city it’s a given that parking will be impossible, so you work around however you can. In a small city surrounded by rural areas though, it’s incredibly frustrating. My institution offers only one place to park for new employees (it’s probably a 7-year wait to get the next level parking), and it happens to be on the exact opposite end of campus from my office, about a 20 minute walk in decent weather. Every day while I walk I curse the situation and draft a letter in my head to the parking office, just like every day in the big city the worst part of my day was my commute and I sent letters to the public transportation office. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. I’d love to embrace the walk and time to think alone, but I can’t get past the way I plan my days and life around the commute more than my job or activities, and so it’s negatively affecting those aspects of my life.

Megan

“Are you going to see your friends today at daycare?” I ask my son. We’re both sitting in the backseat of our 15-year old Lincoln Town Car. My husband is driving.

“The light is green!” my toddler exclaims.

“Why don’t you finish your waffle?” I ask him. Yes, he often gets his breakfast on the road.

“Green for GO!” he exclaims, shooting his fist into the air. Of course he’s right in theory that green means go but we’re stuck in morning rush-hour traffic so we’re not really going anywhere. My son keeps a running tally of the colors of the cars and trucks around us, which I find adorable (but anyone else might find annoying!)

We live in a city with an OK public transportation system. There’s also a great bike path that leads almost directly from our house to work (about an 8-mile pedal). However, the issue with biking or taking public transport is the daycare drop-off. Our daycare is en route to work via car, but isn’t feasible to get to via bus or train, and is a difficult bike ride on a hilly and busy road– just not doable for me with a toddler and all his diapers, snacks, crafts, etc. in tow. So my husband and I are currently sucking up the car commute, which takes nearly an hour door-to-door each way, plus parking costs (we pay over $200 monthly). Thankfully, we work close enough to each other that we can carpool.

In the afternoons, I have a cell phone alarm that goes off at 5PM, which is when I need to leave work. My husband typically takes the bus home later. I literally run across campus to the parking garage and fight rush hour traffic to get to my son’s daycare before it closes at 6. I try not to be the last parent in his class to pick him up, but that happens more often than I’d like. Honestly, I find this the most stressful part of my day– from rushing to finish my experiments promptly by 5 to fighting other drivers on the city streets. I try to use the time in the car to listen to public radio and catch up on the news, but it still feels like wasted, anxious time. Thankfully, the giant hug I get from my son when I pick him up makes all the rushing worth it!

 

What does your commute look like? How has your life changed to accommodate your commute?

 

Posted in busy moms, Uncategorized | Leave a comment