Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Balance: Are you always this enthusiastic?

This post is excerpted from a chapter I wrote for Mom the Chemistry Professor (2018 edition).

"Are you always this enthusiastic?"

I get asked this question frequently. I can’t help it – I love my job. I love the creativity and autonomy of independent research. I love the gratifying feeling of seeing a project brought to completion and published for others to read. Most of all, I love the opportunity to teach and mentor so many talented and unique students. And, I realize how close I came to not pursuing this career path.

Somewhere near the end of my time as an undergraduate, I realized that my dream job was to be a chemistry professor at a major research university. However, I also dreamed of someday having a family, and in my mind, these two dreams were mutually exclusive. As a result, I spent the following ten years in a sort of career goal limbo, knowing what I really wanted to do, but convinced that it was unattainable.

It’s not that I’m afraid of working hard. I just know that there are only so many hours in each day, and there didn’t seem to be enough to simultaneously meet the demands of an academic career and raise children. I’m also generally not afraid to take on a new challenge, even if failure is a possible outcome. But, as anyone who has worked in a research lab knows, an academic job is not something that you can simply “try out.” Upon accepting an academic position, my Department would be investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to get my lab started up, and my students would be counting on me to see them through their Ph.D. studies and continue to mentor them throughout their careers.

During the first year of our postdocs, my husband John and I welcomed our first son, Evan. Becoming parents was nothing short of amazing, and everything we had been told about the unimaginable and unconditional love you feel for your children was true. And, because I so enjoyed spending time with my family, I became even more strongly convinced that an academic career was inherently incompatible with the work-life balance that I wanted.

As the end of my postdoc approached, I needed to start making real decisions about my career choice. My undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral mentors each expressed that they supported me no matter what career I chose. But, they also each knew that I dreamed of a career in academia. I often tell students that they can’t underestimate the value of working for supportive and encouraging research advisors, and in my case, this made a tremendous difference in my career trajectory. As I agonized over whether to apply for academic jobs, my advisors each listened patiently to my concerns and struggles, then dispensed with wise advice that essentially boiled down to “Don’t overthink it. If this is the career that you really want, then just go for it.”

My interview experience was probably pretty typical – entirely nerve-wracking, but surprisingly fun. From the first day of my first interview, I realized that this was the job I was meant to do, and going on interviews gave me the chance to meet many of my science “heroes” face-to-face. At the end of my interviews, the University of Utah was my top choice, as the job involved a joint appointment in an interdisciplinary institute on campus, which would provide a collaborative framework that was ideal for much of my research. I was also very drawn to the collegial atmosphere in the Department of Chemistry and the presence of a large number of female mentors who seemed to effectively balance family life with being at the top of their research fields. So, receiving the offer from Utah was a dream come true, and we quickly accepted and began packing our bags.

The best advice I received for starting a lab came from my graduate advisor, Jeff Moore. He told me to simply recruit good people, teach them how to learn and think as scientists, and then set them loose to do great things. I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to recruit a group of creative, talented, and independent-minded students to join my lab, and am very proud to say that they now run the place. Having myself benefitted from this mentoring style throughout my education, I feel that the autonomy it affords makes research fun and gratifying, and it prepares students to eventually embark upon their own independent careers. Also, as a side-benefit of choosing not to micromanage all of my students’ projects, I am able to carve out a reasonable amount of time to spend with my family.

Sometime in my first couple of years at Utah, John and I started to ponder the inevitable question of whether we wanted to have another child. We decided that we did want to expand our family, but this brought up the tricky question of when. During my training, it seemed that the canonical advice for female students and postdocs was something along the lines of “you can have both an academic career and a family . . . just wait until after tenure to have kids.” Needless to say, I had already gone against this advice once, and couldn’t help but question the wisdom of having a second child before tenure. In a conversation with one of my female colleagues, I cautiously mentioned that I was pondering having a second child, expecting to hear that this was a fantastically terrible idea at that point in my career. Her response surprised me, as she said “there’s really never a perfect time, so if you want another kid, just go for it.”

John and I were blessed to welcome Owen into our family during my third year at Utah, and while my colleague was right that there is no perfect time, and having another child before tenure certainly did add stress in some ways, I can’t imagine life without both of my precious kids. I am also very fortunate that my Department was completely supportive through this time. Our University policy provided me with one semester of teaching release so that I could stay home part-time with my son, and I was given the option to extend my tenure clock by one year. Importantly, I was universally encouraged by my colleagues to exercise this option, even if I didn’t think I would ultimately need the extra time.

I am now in the fifth year of my independent career at Utah, and thus my long-term success as both a mother and an academic is still up in the air. However, I do feel very proud that I have gone after my dream job, and have managed to maintain what I consider to be a reasonable balance between enjoying my family and initiating a successful research program. The last five years have certainly not been without challenges, but having my whole family share in these pre-tenure years has also had some fantastic benefits as well, and what follows is my attempt to give an honest picture of these ups and downs.

Time. This was certainly my biggest barrier to attempting an academic career. Throughout my education, I had seen the large amount of work that is required of faculty members, and just couldn’t fathom how I could balance this with raising children. In fairness to my former advisors, they did each seem to achieve a nice work-life balance. However, I always imagined that this was only possible because they possessed a super-human ability to function without sleep. Based upon my personal experience so far, it is in fact reasonable to run a vibrant research lab, write grants, teach, and take care of committee work, all while still spending time with family and managing to get a reasonable amount of sleep. I’m sure that each person finds different solutions to making this work, but for me, two of the bigger pieces of the puzzle are the ability to write fairly quickly and a refusal to micromanage my students and their research. But, this is by no means the only solution to the problem.

To offer an alternative perspective on the time issue, I’m pretty sure that if I polled all of the faculty in my Department and asked them whether they felt that they had enough time to do all of the job-related tasks that they wanted to, almost all of them would say “no.” No matter how much time you have, there is always another grant application that could be written, another experiment that could be done in the lab, or another research article that could be read. So, whether or not we have children, we all have to draw the line somewhere and leave something undone that we would have liked to do. And, arguably, having less time actually helps to focus and clarify which things are the most important and thus worthy of spending time on. 

Discrimination. In an ideal world, this would be a non-issue. Unfortunately, however, this does still happen, so it’s good to be prepared for it. One incident that stands out clearly occurred as I was nearing the end of my time in graduate school. I had lined up a postdoc position, and on the date of my thesis defense, I received a phone call from my putative future advisor. During this phone call, the professor explained that because I was female, there was some chance that I might become pregnant, and thus not be able to work in lab for a time. So, they had decided to rescind my postdoc offer. I struggled with whether or not to include this story here, partly because it’s something I’ve moved on from and care not to think about, but also because it can be distressing to younger female scientists. However, this experience taught me a very valuable lesson that I think is worth sharing. While I was of course traumatized by losing this postdoc opportunity over the fact that I was female (and having this happen mere hours before my thesis defense), in the long run, this was the best thing that could have happened. All of my former research advisors have clearly supported me during my time in their labs and throughout my job search. However, what I didn’t fully appreciate until recently is that I will benefit from their support in many ways throughout my career. Thus, it was absolutely worth going through this emotionally painful experience to learn the valuable lesson that if someone is not supportive of you and your goals, then they aren’t worth working for.

Labwork while pregnant. My last story brings up the very real and practical issue of how one does go about having children during the labwork-intensive years of graduate school or postdoc. This issue is more specific to “wet lab” disciplines such as organic chemistry, where daily job duties can involve working with hazardous materials including carcinogens and teratogens. Fortunately, overall lab safety has improved significantly in the past few years, but the problem still exists that an accidental chemical spill could be devastating if it causes exposure during pregnancy. I have seen a number of strategies employed in this situation, sometimes involving time out of the lab to write manuscripts, or a dramatic shift in research project to something that minimizes use of hazardous chemicals. I was fortunate that my postdoc lab was largely segregated by discipline with organic chemists in one wing and molecular biologists in the other. So, even though I was doing mostly organic synthesis, I was able to work amidst the molecular biologists, which meant really only having to worry about hazards from my own experiments. To further minimize risk, I wore extra personal protective equipment, became very skilled at reading MSDSs, and did all of my experiments in the fume hood (even those using only a few microliters of solvent). Also, if a procedure used chemicals that were known carcinogens or teratogens, I simply found an alternative procedure. Going to these great lengths definitely slowed my research progress a bit, but I was able to successfully do my job during this time, which is something that many women in my field are told is impossible.

Maternity leave. No matter how super-human you are, everyone needs some sort of maternity leave. So, this may seem like a bit of a no-brainer. However, I have found that maternity leave during graduate school or postdoc is very different from that while a professor. As a postdoc, I was primarily just responsible for my own work, and that work largely revolved around doing experiments in lab. After my first son was born, I was given nine weeks of paid leave – as a side note, I will take this opportunity to thank my postdoc advisor, as I was only technically entitled to six weeks of leave and he generously told me to take an extra three weeks. Because my project more or less came to a halt while I was on leave, I was able to spend those nine weeks focused almost exclusively on caring for my new baby. However, at the end of that time, I was immediately back to work full-time and my son was in day care full-time.

By the time my second son was born, I was in the middle of writing a grant, had committed to teach a class shortly after my due date, and was advising a lab of ten people. So, while I had some vision that I would take at least two weeks completely off of work, I found myself answering emails while in labor, while in the hospital recovering, and basically every day thereafter. Perhaps other women have stronger willpower than I to simply ignore their email for a time. But, I found that I was actually less stressed knowing that my students were getting timely advice on their research and that I wouldn’t be coming back to 500 emails in my inbox. While this lack of time completely away from work had its drawbacks, there was a tremendous benefit to the flexibility that my job affords. Between the teaching release provided by my Department and my ability to do much of my work from home while my son took naps, I was able to stay home part time with him for almost a full year, getting to participate more in the fun milestones that come during that time.

Travel. Travel is a generally fun, and pretty much inevitable part of this job. My first bout of intensive travel came when I was interviewing for academic jobs. This was by far the most difficult time of travel, as I was gone anywhere from 2-4 days each week for almost three months straight. Moreover, Evan was about 18 months old, which was old enough to realize that I was gone, but not old enough to realize that I was coming back. The past two years have seen this cycle repeated, as I’ve frequently traveled for my “tenure tour” during Owen’s toddler years. I did want to highlight, though, that while travel right now has the downside of taking me away from my family, there will come a time when my kids will be old enough to join me for some of these trips. I see this as a tremendous benefit to the job, as it will not only provide extra time together as a family, but my kids will grow up getting to see a large number of fun and exciting places around the world.

Rejection. Along with travel, this is an inevitable part of working in academia. As an academic principle investigator, I regularly send out manuscripts and grant applications, which reviewed by other scientists and judged based on factors including novelty, innovation, significance, and impact. Especially in these financially lean times, only a small fraction of grant applications are ultimately successful, and the inherent subjectivity of the review process can make the sting of rejection all the more great. One of my greatest disappointments with grant writing came during the fall of my third year at Utah. I had spent a month putting together my first grant application to the National Institutes of Health. My lab had some very exciting preliminary data, and what I felt were creative and important experiments planned. I had very high hopes for the application, and thus was taken by surprise when it received only mildly enthusiastic reviews and was not funded. Upon receiving this news, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment and frustration. I came home that evening and told my family the bad news. My husband, who is also a chemist and knows well the sting of the review process, said that he loved me no matter how successful I ultimately was in my academic career. And, I realized that my then 4-year-old, like most of the general population, didn’t even know what an NIH grant is, and couldn’t care less whether or not mine was funded. He just wanted to have fun and play games together like every other evening. Writing this story, I realize how overly dramatic I might seem – I sound as if the world was ending because one grant was not funded. But, it’s hard not to take things this personally – each grant application represents approximately a month of hard work, and even more, in research, your value is largely determined by your thoughts and ideas. So, a rejection of your research can feel very much like a personal attack. This story highlights what is by far my least favorite thing about my job. However, I saved it for last because it also highlights one of the best aspects of having both a family and an academic career. It is inevitable that I’m going to face both success and rejection along this career path, and while it is especially sweet to celebrate successes with my entire family, a hug and a smile from my kids can almost completely wipe away the devastation of having a grant or paper rejected.

It is with great excitement that I see the landscape for women in academia rapidly shifting, and I realize that I owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to the women who were pioneers in the generation before be, frequently starting their careers as the only female faculty member in their department. While statistics show that women still make up a small minority of tenured faculty in Chemistry, many of the people I know starting as Assistant Professors in the last few years are women. For some women, a key barrier seems to still be the notion that having a family and pursuing an academic career are inherently incompatible. I hope that my story (and those of many other women) demonstrates that it is possible to successfully run a lab while raising children, I and encourage women who are pondering their career options to “just go for it” if an academic career is what they aspire to.