How do THEY do it all?

Staying organized, intensive scheduling, and prioritizing tasks is a critical skill that helps me be successful in my job, like many (but not all!) people in science and academia. In addition to my daily calendar schedule, I have a to-do list organized by both category and priority so I can quickly see what needs to be done next when I find a gap in my schedule, so not a second is wasted and so everything gets done. I think I’m above-average at staying organized and on-task, and have considered it an immutable trait of mine.

And yet, this last year I’ve found myself having a hard time keeping up with all the demands of my job, and not even getting to the items on my well-organized lists. I was having a hard time applying Eisenhower’s Principle, spending way too much time on tasks that were urgent and not important (so many emails!). I was just barely getting through the big and important tasks (lecture prep, grading/feedback). I wasn’t getting to some of the small but important tasks, and some of them just passed by, sometimes without my noticing.

A lot of the balls I began dropping were at home, where I don’t have the same careful scheduling and listing strategies as at work. And I’m not just talking about not cleaning the house. I forgot to renew my kids’ enrollment in childcare for the following year! The childcare turned out fine, but it became a major issue for me and my partner regarding allocation of duties, and trust.

But I was also dropping the ball at work, being late to almost everything, and even missing a couple of (non-critical) meetings. One wake-up call I had was when I realized I hadn’t submitted a student’s letter of recommendation by the date requested. Thank goodness it was at a place that had rolling deadlines, but that event had me scared that my inattention to critical tasks could really adversely impact someone else’s life!

This led me to wonder… how do other people do it all? When I ask this, I’m not taking the usual stance of awe of people who seem to have it all together. Instead, I’m wondering how the people who barely seem to be able to remember to comb their hair are able to do it all? How do those people who have messes of papers and food wrappers on their desks, instead of tidy checklists, manage to never miss a student’s recommendation deadline? Or at least never miss something so major as to get them fired, or disrespected, or to lose collaborations?

And I guess that’s the key. You actually can drop the ball on a lot of things with no serious consequences, other than someone being mad. And some Important Scientists I’ve met seem like they truly don’t notice or care when someone else is mad that they missed a meeting. Some people in this field say you just have to accept that some of the things you’re supposed to do are not going to get done.

I really don’t know if I can make that perspective work for me. I’ve got to check all of those boxes! So it’s the job, right? How is it reasonable for people (i.e. tenure-track scientists) to be expected to do so many things that they must work frantically at all hours and still have to just not do some of their tasks? I know that issue is much discussed and complained about, but my question now is how are so many people so bad at doing all their work, and still able to end up with successful careers? Tell me how to set down the balls and walk away without feeling like I’m failing!

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Posted in academia, advice, breathing, busy moms, efficiency, keeping sane, letting go, perfectionism, strengths and weaknesses, time management, work-life balance | Leave a comment

Book Club – The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist

Ben Barres was a remarkable scientist – a modern-day giant who will undoubtedly be remembered in the field of neuroscience as a pioneer in uncovering the critical role of glia. He will also be remembered as a powerful proponent for advancement of women in science, and a leader in recognizing the importance of strong mentorship and imploring scientists to do better for their trainees. While we at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman explore the daily experiences and some major issues that arise for women as scientists, Ben Barres was one of the few people who has the ability to directly compare the experience of being female and male in science, and has been publicly vocal about what he learned. His now famous anecdote is highlighted here (in an article about his public stance on the role of discrimination in keeping women from advancing in science): “After he began living as a man in 1997, Barres overheard another scientist say, ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but his work is much better than his sister’s work’” (Adams 2006, Stanford Report).

Perhaps surprisingly though, his autobiography, simply titled The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, does not focus on the contrasting experience between his experience as a young female scientist and the changes he experienced after transitioning to the male gender to which he had always felt he belonged. Instead, it is a telling of his life story that is so straightforward it reads almost as a ‘results’ section of a manuscript, with little interpretation or connection to other ideas and experiences. Even so, it is a compelling story that makes an easy read. The emphasis on Barres’s interest in scientific research is strong throughout the book, and he takes it to another level by following his life story with an entire section devoted to his research findings – his lab’s autobiography, if you will. The book also concludes with a section emphasizing his advocacy work.

Barres cover

Why we read it and what we got out of it:

Megan: I admire Ben Barres tremendously, both as a scientist and as a human, and was deeply saddened to hear about his death from pancreatic cancer. I would say that he and Maiken Nedergaard started a revolution in the way neuroscientists regard glia. I’ve also heard wonderful things about him from people who have worked with him– he seemed to have been that very rare scientist who was both well-respected and well-liked. I regret that I never had the opportunity to meet Ben Barres in person, but was glad to be able to read his autobiography to learn more about such a unique and intelligent scientist.

SweetScience: I couldn’t wait to read this book! I had great respect for Ben Barres since I saw him speak to a room full of mostly old white male PIs and take 5 minutes out of his research talk to belabor a point about the importance of mentoring women in science. I’ve enjoyed reading his various commentaries (see links throughout this post) and I wanted to know more about his life in his own words.

peírama: One of Ben Barres’ trainees, now a Harvard professor, taught part of the Cold Spring Harbor course that I attended. She was an impressive woman and spoke glowingly of him. As stated above, this book is a very straightforward telling and feels very much like the prose of a scientist. Regardless, he lived a very interesting life and I enjoyed reading about it and about his science.

 

What struck you about the story?

SweetScience: I was amazed by the remarkable outpouring of support Barres received when he wrote to his friends and colleagues about his decision to transition. It was incredibly heartwarming to read the positive responses. It also shocked me to hear that Barres apparently never experienced any kind of discrimination ever based on being transgender. I have so many questions about this, wondering about the representativeness of his story; I don’t know any other transgender person who reports experiencing no discrimination, and I worry a bit about popularizing a narrative where discrimination is not an issue. On the other hand, this is his story!

Megan: Like me, Ben Barres hails from a hard-working New Jersey family and was the first to go away to college. I didn’t know this before reading the book, and I could really relate to some of the struggles he describes around growing up.  
I also found the narrative around being transgender to be very educational and informative. I think the book did a great job describing what it was like to be a person, a scientist, who deeply and innately felt that their gender did not match who they were.

peírama:  A thing that struck me about the story was how different the field of science was not that long ago, but also how much it is the same. People could say incredibly biased things and not only was it without consequence, it was not even out of the ordinary. Barres was recruited (as a woman) to increase universities’ diversity. He struggled to get an R01 because he was studying something novel. Barres got tenure without having received an R01!

Did you have an ‘aha’ moment?

SweetScience: Even someone who experiences no apparent bias from their transgender identity was driven to consider suicide, apparently due solely to inner turmoil, not even depression. This was mentioned multiple times in Barres’s story, and was by far the most intimate aspect of the book.

Megan: This quote: “A counselor who works with people who have recently transitioned once told me that her most difficult challenge is helping male to female transsexuals understand that their suddenly vastly lowered social status is not because they are now transgender but because they are now women.” Woah.

peírama: This is not so much an ‘aha’ as a confirmation of what I already knew. Mentorship is incredibly important to a career in science. Barres repeats numerous times the ways in which his mentors were supportive personally and professionally. Having mentors that guide and support your scientific career and your scientific thinking is critical for a successful career and it is good that there are high-profile scientists out there championing its importance.

Was there anything you didn’t like about the book?

SweetScience: Another story of a scientist whose passion for the science is everything to them, and would rather be in the lab than spend a single day on vacation?! (See our Lab Girl book club post.)

Also, I have to admit I gave up reading the science section. I mean, I know glia are cool, but I don’t actually want to read about it. However, I love the existence of this science story as a story – hearing from a main player how things came about and progressed with the various other people in the lab and beyond.

Megan: Ben Barres was known to be a very supportive mentor, and has written extensively on the topic (two exemplary articles worth reading and sharing: https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(13)00907-0 and https://www.nature.com/news/stop-blocking-postdocs-paths-to-success-1.22515). Somehow, in my mind, I ascribed this high level of interpersonal and management skill to someone with a decent work-life balance, but from the book, I realized this was definitely not the case! Science was Ben Barres’ life, his lab was his home, and his colleagues and trainees were his family. He clearly had no regrets about how he spent his life, but I wonder where that leaves the rest of us who have families outside of the laboratory? Do we have any shot at scientific success (or even survival) if we can’t spend those sorts of hours in lab?

peírama: Ditto the above comments about the lab being his whole life. To each their own, but I wish that there was more representation of scientists who are able to balance family and career. The other thing I did not like was that although Ben Barres has very interesting observations about how gender roles play out in our society, he has some interesting blind spots. He starts off by describing how he knew he was meant to be a boy because he liked “boy things” like trains. It is definitely true that at the time that he was a child that was the viewpoint – boys like boy things, girls like girl things. However, there seemed to be no self-awareness in that description, no understanding that girls can like trains and still be girls.

 

Final thoughts

Megan: The quote on the cover says it all: “By far, the main difference that I have noticed is that people who don’t know I am transgender treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.” This was actually taken from a Nature commentary he authored rather than from the body of the book, but I think it does a great job of summarizing what I found most illuminating about The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist — the experience of a scientist who experienced being treated as both a woman and a man. The insights that this extremely unique perspective gave Ben Barres are disturbing yet also incredibly valuable to me, and I think, to the entire field.

peírama: This book is an easy read (especially if you skip the scientific details, though I personally enjoyed those) and an interesting look at a blessed scientific career and a transgender experience. I enjoyed this look through the lens of someone with so many experiences different from my own. Science is such a struggle and it is enjoyable to read this account of a life with so many successes, especially since the setbacks sail by so quickly in such a short book. Highly recommend to all scientists.

Posted in Book Club, bosses, change, diversity, early career scientist, female scientist, LGBT, memoir, mentoring, research, role models, sexism, support, women in science, work-life balance | Leave a comment

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!

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.

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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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