Gender exclusive STEM education?

This summer I enrolled my 6-year old daughter in a math camp exclusive to girls, “Girls Rock Math.” I knew about the existence of the camp before my daughter was old enough to enroll, and this year as she became eligible I did not hesitate to sign her up. She is showing keen interests in numbers and math, constantly performing arithmetic in her head. The one-week-long camp was held at a botanical garden, with its theme “Math-Magical Garden.” The campers explored patterns, shapes, mental math, and logical reasoning inspired by nature. My daughter had a great time. Everyday the camp ended with singing of inspiring and empowering songs about math, girls, female mathematicians, pi number, and not giving up, and she still sings the songs after five weeks.

In Seattle where I live, there were many other STEM camps and programs exclusively for girls. I marveled at the number of opportunities and thought this is a great era. Given the current demographics in STEM fields, girls interested in STEM could use all the opportunities and encouragement.

As summer ended I came to find out that Seattle Parks and Recreation newly created a science class for parents and children to attend together, called “Sonsational! Mad Science.” The original description of the class indicated that this class was for boys only. There was a bit of an uproar, and many concerned parents protested that it gave wrong messages to girls, and that the boys already had enough opportunities in STEM there was no need for new one. The office responded and claimed that the class was created in response to community requests. The city held “father-daughter dance” for more than 25 years with good attendance, and they were asked to organize a similar event for boys. Yes, nice dinners for girls and science for boys. Parks and Recreation later edited the description that even though the class is titled “Sonsational,” it is still open for all children. The office also claimed that the “father-daughter dance” is open for parents and children of any gender.

There were many responses and entertaining discussions in social media.  Many responders advocated to make the event title, description, and event itself gender neutral. Why not make it all inclusive? Why single out one sex in any activity? I got to thinking, should STEM education / programs be segregated between the sexes?  Is it helpful? To both sexes?  What are pros and cons?  

I asked my daughter, what if there were boys in the math camp?  Would things be different?  Would she still have liked it?  She said, boys tend to / can be more rough and disruptive than girls. The presence of boys would have made the camp less calm and peaceful.  She really enjoyed being with just girls and female teachers and assistants.  

Is this answer positive or negative?  Has she already formed a stereotype for boys?  A preference for not working with boys?  Should she just learn to get over roughness and disruptions and deal with it? Should she learn to cultivate and pursue her interests in any type of environment?  Is “Girls Rock Math” a good idea?

There are studies (for one) showing that graduates of all-girls schools have higher confidence in their math and science skills compared to their cohorts in coeducational schools. The proportion of girls who pursue careers in STEM fields is much higher in alumnae from single-sex schools than coed.  What is it about female-only education that produces such outcomes?

A recent survey by Microsoft lists conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models as reasons girls steer away from STEM fields. Perhaps those stereotypes and traditional gender expectations are less obvious and less reinforced in female-only surroundings.  So do we educate girls and boy separately, and build up their skills and confidence, and send them to the world?

Eventually, girls will grow up, go to college, and work side-by-side, up-and-down with male colleagues/superiors/subordinates.  If neither party was exposed to each other in professional settings until that point, would there be more seeds for conflicts than potentials for successful collaboration? Perhaps gender stereotypes are even more strengthened in segregated settings. If my daughter continued in girls-only camps and classes, she may never find out how to work with boys, or that there are calm and cooperative boys out there, too.

I suspect that the Google employee who wrote that now famous memo was never sufficiently exposed to female counterparts during his training.  If he was exposed to more female colleagues (i.e. bigger sample size), he might not have formed those blatant prejudices regarding women. Would not mutual respect be more likely together than separate?

It is a conundrum. How do we achieve equality, when one group is underrepresented?  Is segregation of the lagging group the best way?

Would I still enroll my daughter in “Girls Rock Math” next summer?  I have 6 months to think it over (sign ups start in Feb!).  My current parental challenge lies in maintaining my daughter’s math interest beyond the age of 15, segregated or not.

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Posted in confidence, diversity, education, female scientist, sexism, Uncategorized, Women in STEM | Leave a comment

Writing your own letter of recommendation

In response to a recent post, a reader asked for advice on writing a letter of recommendation – specifically for oneself! Yes, for better or worse, “minor fraud” and ethics aside for this post, this is very common and important so let’s discuss the logistics. For general recommendation letter writing guides and advice, see other sources such as this addendum to Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, a valuable resource for this transitional time in your career. This post will focus on writing a letter for/about yourself. I know many people feel it is simply wrong for a mentor to ask a trainee to write their own letter, but for the trainees who find themselves in this uncomfortable situation without other options, I hope this advice is useful.

First, it is a good idea to at least offer some version of this option to outline or draft your own letter to anyone you ask to submit a recommendation for you. It’s obviously helpful for them because they probably have many letters to write for you and others, and the submission process alone can be time consuming, so you’ll make their lives easier and make them happier to do this for you – and potentially keep doing it for (hopefully not too many) other applications in the future. However, it’s an opportunity for you as well, to make sure your letter addresses all the important aspects of your capabilities, and wonderful accomplishments you want to highlight. Even when recommenders don’t take you up on your offer to draft the letter, you would be wise to outline the specific points you wish them to address in the letter.

Basics: content

1) Accomplishments

First and foremost, the goal of the letter is to bring to life your many brilliant accomplishments and how wonderful it is to work with you. You should describe, in a coherent and succinct narrative, how the author came to know you, what impressed them about you, what you achieved while working with them, and where they see this work taking you in the future. Be sure to use concrete examples and the “show, don’t tell” principle.

2) Drive and ability

Throughout this narrative, and perhaps in a separate paragraph at the end, the letter should address how the writer has come to know your capabilities that make you well suited for the particular job you are applying for. Also include notes on your ambition/passion and how pleasant you are to work with.

3) Justifications

In your application package, there is no great way for you to explain difficulties you’ve encountered that might show up as gaps or deficits in your CV. Your recommender, however, is in the perfect position to explain such issues, so take advantage of this. Just remember to turn the negative into a positive. It could be as succinct as a sentence, “Despite Trainee’s year-long battle with a serious illness, Trainee managed to finish the research project, and published 2 first-author papers over the following two years, while also teaching an undergraduate course, showing Trainee’s commitment and determination.” Or it could go into detail on why a project didn’t work out and what outstanding qualities you applied to push it forward or move on to a winning project.

Fine points: writing

1) If you know your recommender’s voice/writing style, use it. This can be especially important and difficult if you have to write your own letter for multiple recommenders. Get a friend to help you rephrase things in one letter.

2) Be positive! Everything in this letter should be about how wonderful you are. Resist the urge to be modest or talk yourself out of boasting. If your recommender chooses to scale back anything you’ve said, or insert some more reserved comments, that is their right to do after you’ve given them the draft.

3) Tailor each letter to the institution/position you are applying to. This could just be a fillable spot in the salutation/introduction/ending sentences, i.e. (“…and so I am confident that Trainee will be a good fit for the X position at Y institution.”), but ideally you will have a specific reason you fit in or want this position, i.e. (“Trainee’s passion and experience uniting clinical and basic science research programs will be a unique addition to your department’s strengths in translational medicine.”)

Details:

Your recommenders should address the details such as putting the letter on letterhead paper and formatting when they do their own final edits. However, just in case they do copy, paste and send, you will want to make sure the draft is all set in terms of perfect grammar, etc., and point out if there’s anything in particular that needs to be changed, such as the fillable phrases mentioned above.

 

Finally, when asking for letters of recommendation, remember to make it as easy as possible on your recommenders: ask them far in advance (3-6 weeks) if they’d be willing to write you a good letter; at least 2 weeks in advance, give them a list of each place you’re applying, anything notable about your fit or excitement for that position, the name of the person or committee to address the letter to if known, the deadline for the letter, and the way in which it should be submitted.

All this is based on my experience writing letters for myself for/with mentors, and writing letters of recommendation for my own students, and advice I’ve read and received over the years. But I must say I’m a post-doc, not a professor, and so any advice from PIs and professors or other who have more experience writing letters, especially for scientific positions in academia, would be appreciated in the comments.

Good luck!

 

 

Posted in academia, advice, bosses, finishing postdoctoral training, graduate school, job search, mentoring, postdoc, professional, research, strengths and weaknesses, support, uncertainty | 1 Comment

When Your Pregnancy is a Job Hunt, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science Part II

Several months ago, I wrote about the experience of being 5 months pregnant and told that my postdoctoral mentor was leaving our institution.

This was my chance to leave my oppressive pit of a working environment without burning any bridges. This meant trying to find a new position before giving birth so that I might avoid unemployment. This was exciting. This was terrifying.

Four months later, I have a fellowship and a job lined up for after my “maternity leave” [read: unemployment]. I gave seminars and had interviews at 7 months, 8 months and 9.5 million months pregnant and each time have been pleasantly surprised that I portrayed myself first as a capable scientist and then as a pregnant woman (inevitable shortness of breath notwithstanding…). This experience has shown me what women are capable of, and given me a newfound respect for myself.

The Process:

Despite now feeling that this journey has ultimately been a success, I have never had a more confused, frustrated or nihilistic perception of my career and future. It was at once a frantic crisis and insignificant. During this experience, I not only interviewed for academic postdocs within my current institution and at nearby institutes, I applied for industry scientist positions – something I thought I would not do for several years to come, if at all (and thanks to very active support and a recommendation from our very own Curiouser&Curiouser, I was even invited to give a job talk!).

But all of these interviews were hard. Because throughout the whole process, I was so disenchanted with my previous aspirations, and overwhelmed with the possibility of entirely changing my career track when all the while all I actually cared about was keeping my little imminent offspring healthy and becoming a new parent. How could I possibly communicate my interests and goals in an honest way when my thoughts were in such an unmotivated place? Somehow, I channeled Ragamuffin circa 2016 for every interview and she did me a great service by masking my current intellectual turmoil.

I narrowed my opportunities down to two academic labs and an industry position (I had way more options with diverse potential than I expected, which made the whole process even more confusing). The industry opportunity continues to play out, but I expect this was more a chance for me to introduce myself and be remembered favorably when I apply for a more fitting position in the future. Of the academic labs, one lab was small and very low-key and would probably have prepared me well for a future industry position. The other lab was mid-sized with high expectations and would probably prepare me equally well for either a career in industry or academia. The small lab required finding my own funding, and only when I had secured that was I able to really consider which lab I preferred. It took me a month to decide.

What if I make the wrong choice because of pregnancy brain and end up hating my next position?

What if I misinterpret what lies ahead like I did with my current postdoc lab and wind up losing another year of productivity?

What if it turns out that my career goals change drastically after I become a parent and I chose the wrong work environment to accommodate whatever those are?

I calmed down a bit when my self-employed husband’s income (which crashed the day my PI announced his departure) started to recover, and I felt less guilty about the fiscal implications of staying in academia.

And after several communications with each of the PI’s (both women), I chose the mid-sized lab with high expectations because I felt a strong connection with the PI that made me believe I wanted to and could continue (for now) down the path I would have chosen a year ago. Because there were no wrong choices, only the next chapter of life.

Closing Up Shop:

I left my current lab last week to begin maternity leave. I put all the materials I’ve developed over the last year in cryostasis and labeled them to be shipped to my adjunct faculty oppressor so that he can continue my work (ostensibly) and take credit for my contributions (inevitably). I photocopied my lab notebook, backed up all my meticulous protocols, and archived my server emails so as to have a record of my contributions if I need to defend my right to authorship in 5 years (undoubtedly). I said heavy goodbyes to the colleagues who have been such wonderful influences over the last year, and begrudgingly said an adulatory and pleasant farewell to my PI. And left behind a year of professional struggle and wasted scientific effort.

 

And now, I am ecstatic to spend the remaining two weeks of my pregnancy job hunt-free. Bring it on.

Posted in academia, biotech, bosses, early career scientist, female scientist, industry, Interview, job search, postdoc, transitions, women in science | 2 Comments

Job Interview Questions

When I was first interviewing for jobs I got the question “what are your career goals?”  The question was something I had given a lot of thought to but I’d never actually transferred these ideas into an interview appropriate answer before.  I muddled through that interview, but I realized I could do much better if I forced myself to put my thoughts into actual words, so I started preparing for interviews by writing down potential interview questions and answers.  I think this has helped to make me more clear and succinct (when I’m nervous I tend to ramble) and I like that I get the chance to review what I said for previous interviews.

Recently, a lot of my friends and family have been applying to new jobs/promotions and I’ve been running practice interviews with them.  It feels good to have another use for all the research I put into finding/coming up with/remembering potential interview questions, so I’ve decided to also compile them here for our readers.  Please feel free to comment with any other questions you’ve come across.

Two general thoughts on interviewing…

  • Make your answers short and specific.
  • Keep things positive, if you want to highlight aspects that you didn’t like, try to put a positive spin on things, eg show how would improve things.

Best of luck to all the job applicants out there, I hope this helps!

Questions

– Tell me about yourself/how would you describe yourself?  This should be geared toward the job you are applying for not a general introduction.

– Tell me about your experience at ____ prior company/lab___.

– What did you like about ______ prior company/lab___?

– What do you wish was different about ___ prior company/lab___?

– Why do you want to leave your current position?

– What do you know about this position/company?

– What techniques/methods are you accustomed to using?

– What is your work style/how do you like to approach your work?

– What are your top 3 strengths/weaknesses?  Make sure to tailor this to the position.  If it was a R&D job I might feel ok mentioning that I get nervous talking in front of crowds (true) but if I was going for a science liaison position I would probably choose something else.

– Why are you interested in this job/company/institution?

– What are your expectations for this job/company?

– What is your management style/how do you like to be managed?

– Tell me about how you like to interact with your lab mates.

– How do you deal with conflict?

– What do you bring to this job/company?  This is an awesome opportunity to brag and really highlight why you should get the job

– Describe a setback and how you overcame it.

– Describe a conflict and how you overcame it.

– Describe a time you were working under pressure to get a project completed.

– Describe a mistake and what you did to correct it.

– Give an example of when you used scientific problem solving/a creative scientific approach to solve a problem.

– What motivates you scientifically?

– What are your career goals?

– Why are you leaving academia?

– What are your hobbies?

– Do you have any questions for me/us? You will probably use some up during the course of the conversation, so have a bunch.

– Do you have any concerns for us?

– How much do you want to make? I hate this one… I always try to say something like; I’m excited about this position and I would just like to be appropriately compensated. Ugh.

 

 

 

Posted in academia, advice, alternative career, biotech, communication styles, confidence, dream job, industry, industry vs academia, Interview, job search, new job, pharma, postdoc, presenting, professional, start up, transitions | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Cherries and cherry pits

For a long time, I was looking for a job. This was my vague list of demands:

Use my scientific knowledge

Use my critical thinking skills

Participate in goal-driven work

Good boss

Good team

As a medical policy research analyst, my demands have been met. My job is to analyze medical research and write policies for a health insurance company. Now, every day, I use my scientific knowledge for a specific goal. I read, critique, and interpret medical studies. I use my critical thinking skills to decide whether the evidence supports a medical procedure. I have a manager and a team I can talk to and get help from. Everyone is helpful and understanding.

Medical policy is quite different than anything I have done before, but it is not unfamiliar. When prepared for my interview, I told myself that I had done this before. I told myself how I had made decisions based on evidence in the lab and how that prepared me to make policy decisions. I made myself sound very convincing, but I wasn’t sure how true it was.

It is pretty true. Critical thinking is critical thinking and evidence is evidence. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot to learn. I need to learn what aspects of a study are the important ones. I need to learn how much evidence is “enough evidence.” But the basics of looking at evidence and making decisions? I have that.

So all that to say, while this job is different, it is also not so different. I will continue to do my job and to to learn. I will learn and grow and work and learn. And someday I will have a whole new set of skills and a new vague list of demands.

Posted in alternative career, dream job, Leaving Academia | Leave a comment

A day in the life of – a senior postdoc

Bananaroots is in her second postdoctoral position at a research institute in the UK, after completing her first postdoc at a major university in the Netherlands. She has a long-standing interest in plant diseases and a soft spot for bananas. She is curious about everything related to communication and is active in student mentoring, science outreach, science policy and science communication. In her free time, she enjoys Tai Chi, water sports cooking and traveling. Check out her short video about her project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4

 

I am not yet a group leader, but almost. All the signs point in the right direction. I have secured my own funding – a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Union. I have independently established my research line: Engineering resistance against Fusarium wilt in banana. I work in one of the world’s leading institutes on plant microbe interactions – The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in the UK. I write grant proposal and papers and I supervise a fantastic, small team of MSc students. My group leader is very supportive. He gives me all the freedom I need to conduct research, establish collaborations and lead my projects. Sometimes people want to do a PhD or postdoc with me. Unfortunately, I cannot accept any postdocs or PhDs until I have secured more funding and a more permanent position. So, that’s where I am at the moment. On the verge of my own research group.

So, what does a typical day in the life of a senior postdoc?

6 am I wake up, get into my running outfit and do a quick run in the park followed by a bit of stretching and Tai Chi. It’s quiet in the park at this time and the morning sun blinks lazily through the big, white clouds.

7.30 am Scrolling through Twitter at breakfast. I am active in science outreach and Twitter is my preferred medium. Get dressed and cycle to work.

9 am Checking my emails. Oh no! My banana shipment did not pass clearance at the airport. Working with bananas in the UK is not easy. At the beginning of my postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL), I established a collaboration with a nursery in Israel. They provide tissue culture banana plantlets free of charge. It’s a great collaboration, but today something went wrong. A document is missing. The shipment cannot be cleared at the airport’s agricultural inspection. I spend the next two hours emailing and phoning with our biosecurity officer, the courier, clearance at the airport and the nursery in Israel to get the banana plantlets released from the airport.

11 am One of my graduate students has been lurking around my office for a while and finally grasps her chance to get my attention. She is doing a MSc in plant breeding and genetics and wants to discuss her thesis draft with me. Working with students is one of my favourites. It’s like planting a flower and then watching it grow and blossom. Highly rewarding!

12 Time for lunch. I enjoy chatting with the colleagues of my group. They work on a different project together and also sit in another office.

12.30 pm Quick Twitter check. GM activists (both Pro and Con) debate the field trials for a Vitamin A-enriched banana (Golden Banana) in Uganda.

12.45 pm Time for lab work, I am preparing a big banana greenhouse bioassay for tomorrow. I harvest the fungal spores and bacteria and transport the banana plants from the clean chamber into the infection chamber.

2.45 pm On the way from the lab to the office, I run into a postdoc from another research group. We are organising a workshop in communication together for the institute’s postdoc and quickly discuss catering and location.

3 pm Telephone conference with the steering committee members of the World Banana Forum (WBF). The WBF is a permanent platform for stakeholders of the global banana supply chain, housed by the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. Policy work is very different from the fact-based research environment. The goal of today’s call with representatives of labour unions, NGOs, governments, producer organisations and retailers is to organize the third global banana conference in Switzerland this year. The call is scheduled for one hour, but, as usual, overruns and lasts almost two hours.

5 pm Catching up with emails. I answer questions of my grad students, order materials for experiments, update collaborators and ask for biological material to be send.

6 pm Finally, make it to the new emails. Good and bad news: My pre-proposal for a huge grant did not make it to the next round. I am not invited to submit a full proposal. Sad. It took a lot of time to prepare the pre-proposal. The good news: my abstract was selected for a talk at a scientific conference in September.

6.15 pm Admin stuff: I hand in my expenses, book flight tickets for the conference and write up my lab journal. We have recently switched to electronic lab journals. Electronic lab journals are awesome. I can quickly check and sign off my student’s lab journals, add PubMed references and large Excel files, share pages and projects with colleagues and when I leave, I will make a pdf of the journal and take it with me.

7.15 pm I get onto my bike and cycle home.

7.30 pm. Since I moved to England, I got into gardening. Tonight, I pick courgettes from my garden to cook a light dinner.

8 pm Last email check to make sure that the banana plantlets have left the airport and are on their way to TSL.

8.10 pm The rest of the evening is devoted to my project management assignment. The assignment is for a “Leadership and Management” course that runs over two years. Although it is a lot of work next to my postdoc, I enjoy the course a lot, because it provides new perspectives on communication, on managing research projects, motivating people, handling budget and leading a team/research group. The video is the result of my project management module.

 

 Twitter: @BananarootsBlog

Website: https://bananaroots.wordpress.com

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMS0L7Y56K4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in a day in the life, early career scientist, female scientist, postdoc, research | Leave a comment

Feedback on job applications

My partner and I applied separately for a number of Assistant Professor positions last year. We both had varying degrees of success at different institutions that really showed us where we stood in terms of what kinds of institutions were interested in us and also relative to other applicants. One thing that really solidified our understanding of our competitiveness was valuable feedback we each got from one person on a search committee.

Let me start by saying that, at least in this field, it is exceedingly rare to get feedback on your job applications. The couple of times before this I have gotten to any stage in the application process where I can communicate with people on the search committee, i.e. phone or video interview, I asked for feedback when I heard I didn’t get the position/interview, but never heard back on that request. So for each of us to have actually received feedback is amazing.

For me, the feedback came from a thoughtful search/department chair who knew how rare it was to receive feedback in the harrowing and opaque job search process, and made a point to reach out to tell me what happened with the search. In short, I was in the top four candidates after the phone interview, but they later ruled me out because my research methods overlapped more with existing faculty in the department than did other top candidates. This was such a relief for me to hear because it told me that it was essentially beyond my control* and that another similar position/department at another time could very likely lead to a good match, as I was one of the top candidates here.

That information, combined with my phone/video interviews and other non-offers told me that 1) My paper application is good overall – good enough to get phone interviews; 2) My interview skills are probably fine – good enough to potentially get me an offer; 3) It will need to be the right place at the right time, and since I’m picky about geography, it might not happen in a given year; and 4) This is all true for small liberal arts colleges – I didn’t get anywhere with the state schools or a couple more research-focused positions I applied to**.

The feedback my partner got was potentially even more valuable, in that it was thorough constructive criticism. This came from someone on the search committee at a place Partner did not get an interview offer, but the person was a friend and colleague of mine who has always been an amazing resource, going above and beyond to help. Unsolicited, she related some of the concerns that were raised about Partner’s research program and what was missing from a critical recommendation letter. She made the point that these issues may not be concerns at all at other institutions*, but it is still really valuable to know and consider that for future applications. She also noted the huge number of qualified candidates that applied for the job, which is always bittersweet to hear.

So we are both extremely grateful for the candid feedback and advice we received and can take into consideration for the future… and in the meantime, I have already paid it forward, giving feedback to applicants for a position in my lab. I am hopeful that more people will help each other out like this in the future – I know I will whenever I am in the position to do so!


*Although it is important to consider how your research fits in with existing research in the department, it is usually impossible to know exactly what the department is seeking. Typically small departments want a diverse array of research programs, especially if undergraduate research opportunities are an emphasis, while larger departments with a graduate program might be more interested in strengthening existing areas of research with more similar but complementary topics/techniques. It is possible to tailor research plans to fit one of these ideas, but you can’t know for sure which is more appealing for any given department/reviewer, so I usually try to keep my research plan with what I really want to do that fits that institution.

**This is because my experience makes me a good match for a small liberal arts college, not because, as some believe, it is a lower tier than a research-focused university, etc. Each type of position/institution is different, looks for different qualities in candidates, and one shouldn’t be thought of as a ‘backup’ if you can’t land your first choice.

Posted in academia, advice, early career scientist, finishing postdoctoral training, gratitude, Interview, job search, lack of jobs, mentoring, postdoc, strengths and weaknesses, support | Leave a comment