Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hanging by a thread

It's that time in the semester, nearing the end of classes, week after an enjoyable but not so productive holiday week, when grant deadlines abound, teaching responsibilities pile up, spouses are out of town and conference travel looms on the near horizon.  When I say, what the h(*& was I thinking when I agreed to do X for Prof. Y and my email inbox overflows.  Oh, and I agreed to host a seminar speaker this week!

Breath in, breath out.

Grant #1 finished.   Sponsor info for trainee's fellowship application done.  Major service responsibilities (largely done for the week).  Class for the week, done.  Spouse, home.  Seminar speaker, safely home.

I'm so looking forward to this conference next week from a scientific standpoint, although I'm feeling horribly guilty about being gone (my younger kiddo said Daddy (or Doggy??? hard to tell the difference) all the time while spouse was gone for a shorter trip.  Also, there is the whole Christmas thing and I need to start getting organized (e.g. shopping or at least online ordering).

When I leave for my conference next week, it will all be better right?    4 days of amazing science and beautiful scenery...  Now back to the list of things to do before I leave....

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


In the spirit of Thanksgiving and as a reminder in this crazy busy world, I want to say a few things I'm thankful for....

  • I'm thankful that both my husband and I have tenure at our private research university.  It was a long haul, but we made it through.  
  • I'm thankful for a very supportive spouse who shares much of the parenting load with me.
  • I'm thankful for our kiddos who are very cute and remind me that there is more to life than work.
  • I'm thankful for a wonderful school for said kiddos where I am confident they are happy and well stimulated socially and intellectually, allowing me to focus on work.
  • I'm thankful for a wonderful lab tech/manager who is supportive and trustworthy.
  • I'm thankful for my graduate students who are building a wonderful lab spirit in the new iteration of our lab (after the big wave of graduating students) and who are hard working scientists/engineers.
  • I'm thankful for my former grad students who are off doing their own wonderful things now and staying in touch to share the adventures.
  • I'm grateful to have receive some acknowledgement of my service work recently that has let me know that all of those committees I've been on through the years are actually worth something (both in terms of what they do around the university and in terms of my career).  
  • I'm grateful for a wonderful mentor who is so generous with her time and her reflection on challenges that lie ahead.  Her guidance and encouragement to take on new roles has been so key.  
Now back to that grant for next week's deadline!  What are you thankful for?

Monday, November 23, 2009

The leaky pipeline

I've seen a couple of interesting articles about the leaky pipeline lately and how despite the great increases in the number of PhDs, women are choosing not to pursue careers in academia at a higher rate then men in science and engineering.  So we will never get to parity (even with PhD rates for a given field) unless we address the reasons why women are not choosing academia.

Here is one on why so few parents in graduate school?
Another on how to improve this situation.

The second article comments on how by supplementing grant funds to cover the cost of paid maternity leave we can avoid penalizing women (unpaid maternity leave) or PIs (paid maternity leave -they are left without anyone to do the research during this period).  Allowing a supplement for grant for family leave would be a great benefit for both students/post-docs and PIs.  It would also help to fight the stigma that women might be more likely to take leave and therefore a PI might hire a male candidate or a female candidate.  There are still the details of how to hire someone to work on a project for a few months.  Another great solution to this proposed by FSP is extending the duration of grants to allow for the student/postdoc to do the work after their leave (oh and still giving a supplement to allow them to be paid during this time would be great too).

How to be family friendly without compromising grants?  It's a hard question.  I've only had experience with lab tech's in this area and there is at least a little more guidance on FMLA from our university (not necessarily in a good way).  Fortunately we could stretch to find other people in the lab to cover a short leave and get help from the department with some other items (e.g. ordering, etc.).

It's a hard problem.

PS.  Sorry for the radio silence here.  I have taken on some new responsibilities here which are important to the future of my department.  Don't really want to discuss them too much, but they have been occupying much of my mental energy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mentors and advocates

Recently I had lunch with the women faculty in engineering at my university.  Sadly it was a small number of women and currently we have a small number who are on campus (not on sabbatical, etc.).  We were discussing the way that women can easily take on too many service roles.  Key points that emerged were that it is really beneficial to have a senior advocate (male or female) to discuss appropriate service roles with and who can advise you on what committees are not too much work or worth the time investment.  Always respond to a request for service by asking for some time to think about it.  Then discuss the role with your advocate or mentor and determine if it is right for you.  Think about what would make you say yes (relief from another committee or duty, teaching relief, administrative support etc.) and request that as a condition for service.  Other good lines were, is this appropriate for an assistant professor (someone trying to get tenure) or how will this improve my tenure case?  Sometime women have a hard time saying no in the face of pressure from a chair or other powerful figure.  Asking for time to thing can by you time to make a rational decision (not based solely guilt) and help you find a nice way to say no.  I hope it was helpful for the others there.  That said, I did say yes to two major service commitments last week, so maybe I need to consider this advice myself!

Any good tips out there for saying no or balancing service requests?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Finding the writing groove

I'm in the midst of an R01, or rather hopefully nearing the end and I'm finally hitting my writing groove.  In graduate school I hated writing.  I almost lost my mind while writing my thesis and had to workout every day to break the monotony of being at a computer everyday for hours on end.  Now, it is my life largely.  Writing grants, papers, etc. But, I've gotten used to it.  Still the hardest part is getting started.  I often procrastinate until under pressure of a deadline.  But, if I can find a few hours of peace to think of the big picture and frame the work, then it all starts to flow.  This grant has been better than most because I'm writing it with a collaborator, Dr. X (a well know clinician) and Dr. X's research coordinator (research prof - RPY).  Dr. X is awesome at framing the need for our research and selling the big picture, as well as telling us what we are missing  or need to change in the grant.  RPY is awesome for making those edits and helping me write in general, especially when it comes to the items that are more Dr. X's area of expertise rather than mine.  We've been emailing drafts back and forth like maniacs these days. We might even break the intertubes. My point being, having a writing partner is so helpful ,someone to read and point out what is missing with each round of new drafts.  I'm also grateful to a lab member who generously proofread the whole stinking 27 pages for us.  We are nearing the final draft, and it's a whole week before the deadline!  Sometimes you can get there, although I did freak out two weeks ago when we still had much work left to do.

Now for my dream, to have my own RPY to write my grants for me.... Maybe some day when I'm chair. (Not sure I really want to be chair...)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The best laid plans...

In the summer when you are planning course that you have taught before, it sound so great to add a new lecture here or there.  Freshen things up or add something that the students really should know.....  It's all good until I get to the week of the lecture and then I realize that my prep for that lecture is going to require more than just pulling out my notes from last time and refreshing my memory on what I want to say.  I have to read new material, prepare new slides or board notes and it's going to take way more time than I normally budget for prep on this course I teach each year.  Oops.  These new lectures always sneak up on me too and I forget about them.

So this week I had one of those new lectures and it was painful to prepare.  I remembered why I had stopped teaching this lecture even though the students really should see the material.  I struggled to pack the obscure information into my brain in a hurry and seem like I know something about what I was saying.  It was not joyful, but it did get finished before class.  It wasn't my most brilliant lecture ever, but we made it through.  I did contemplate a quick topic change this morning, but vetoed that idea.  Since the new topic, while more interesting to me and taught every year was full of details as well that would have to be refreshed.

In hindsight I should have move this lecture to the week when I wasn't frantically trying to finish my R01 resubmission with a collaborator.  I was coasting along fine until I suddenly realized last week that it was mid-October and there was significant work remaining.  I'm feeling much better this week after major writing last week, but I still have many smaller details to work on and I like to have a little time to reflect on the whole draft and make sure it all fits together (and within the page limit).  Our research office has gotten stricter about deadlines with the whole online submission thing.  I think it will all come together and I'm desperately trying to finish before Halloween since we have a busy weekend with school parades and neighborhood parties....  I really don't want the darn thing hanging over my head.

Oh and just to add to the mix I just found out that the in-laws are coming to visit this weekend from out of town, as in tomorrow night!   OK sorry for the rant here but it was a really crazy day.  And as I always say (often in delusion) next week will be less crazy right?

PS Has anyone read the new Shriver report "A Woman's Nation".
It looks really interesting - addressing the growing number of women in the workforce, as breadwinners and dual career families.  I'm interested in hearing about the new balance of domestic duties when women are co-breadwinners.  Not focused on academia or engineering, but I think many of these issues are common among professional women.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Inclusive leadership

It seems that many conversations I have had recently are converging on a topic.  How can we be inclusive and open in developing talent for the future?  When you want to get involved in planning and service how do you do it?  Here are some thoughts and discussions...
In some professional societies there are open mechanisms for participating in conference planning and sub-groups within the discipline.  In others, I have no idea how it happens, except that someone on high makes a choice.  How do you get to be on the list they are choosing from?  Some of those career building experiences can be much harder to come by in some groups compared to others.  Are there open calls for a special symposium?
Likewise, at your university how do you get to be selected for positions of leadership or groomed for them?  Or does "the man" select the next chair of X?
I've realized that while this can be an issue for women and under-represented minorities, it's really an issue for anyone who isn't in the "old boy's network" .  If there isn't some important senior (read famous) person looking out for you, how do you break into the system?
So really transparent organizations make it easier for everyone to stand on a level playing field and participate when they wish.  This might hurt the future star hand picked by the old boys, but for everyone else it's a good thing.  So how can we strive for uniform and transparent organizations at both our universities and our societies?  Thoughts?

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I recently saw an interesting talk at a conference about diversity.  It was by a white man who has fearlessly fought for women and under-represented minorities (URM).   His department has >50% women or URM faculty (in a STEM field).  It's a relatively new department, but there was still clearly a major effort to recruit women and URM.  The amazing thing is that their publications/faculty, annual research $/faculty, and annual citations/faculty member are outstanding and would be respected for any department in the field, so they are clearly not sacrificing quality to hire these diverse faculty.  While I don't envision my department ever approaching this, it make me think that I need to be a conscious advocate for other women/URM.  When I think back to faculty searches where we passed on women/URM who went on to be successful faculty at other schools it makes me sad that they could have added to the numbers in our department.  It also makes me remember that I should make a conscious effort to always look for a qualified woman or URM for opportunities (awards, session chairs at meetings, etc.).  I know that I've been the beneficiary of many little (and not so little) boosts of this type and I need to pay it forward.  It also reminds me that although life isn't perfect as a woman in academia, things have sure come a long way in 50 years.  Heck even in 10 years, the number of women in my fields has increased and the percentage of women faculty having kids before tenure is much higher than it used to be.  So, while I long for the day when F equals greater than or equal to two in my department, I'm feeling inspired to try to affect change through big and little ways.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why did I go into academia?

I'm going to leave out some details here, but I'll give you some my reasons for why I went into academia.

1. I like to be more or less my own boss.  Sure I have a department chair to answer to and the university in general, but I'm largely my own boss.  I get to decide what science/engineering topics are cool and what research questions to explore.  As long as I find funding for them, I can study what I want. 

2. I get to choose what service activities to be involved with and I try to pick things I feel are important to my research, quality of life, or my community.  I've joined committies because I feel the cause is really important and I feel like I have made a difference (particulary for women), and well I like to have a say.

3. I have a pretty flexible schedule.  There is a lot of work to be done and with daycare hours I'm more limited to time the kids are in daycare or asleep.  But, I can with the except of classtime move things around on my whim, as long as I keep up with the never ending list of things to do.

4. I can think about research problems that can improve the lives of people.  I can stop to think about why and what the mechanism is.  I don't alway have to be thinking about a product that needs to role out or the bottom line. 

5. I get to hang out with really smart people (even if they are somewhat socially inept) and it's expected that I will always be learning something new.  More over the sharing of knowledge openly is encouraged. 

6.  I get to mentor/teach students and watch them mature into engineers/scientists.  I love hearing about where my former advisees and lab assistants have ended up.  What they learned that is helping them now and what they wish they had known.  This part of my job gives me great joy.  I love giving advice about where to go for graduate school. 

7. I also enjoy interacting with people from other schools/fields.  It's interesting to learn how different things can be in the humanities.  I love learning about new points of view (as I did when I lived abroad) and it makes me see my own field in a new light.  (e.g. the humanistis jaws drop when I tell them our normal teaching load is 1/1.)

There are many frustrating days and I sometimes lose sight of these things, so I am trying to remember the good parts of my job.  I also don't mean to imply that academia is the only place to find these things, although I think the student aspects are somewhat unique. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Balancing ambition and family

Great article in the Chronicle today about balancing ambition and family:
Superprofessor meets supermom.

Chávez-García articulates some of the thoughts that sometimes run through my head.  Do I want a third kid?  I've always said two would be great, but now that the little one is leaving babyhood behind (and heading into terrible toddler-hood tantrums) I look at newborns longingly.  I think the third one would send me over the cliff personally, but I do so love little babies.  I don't worry as much about it being career suicide (although maybe I should), but more just a logistical nightmare.

I also love the discussion in this article about why do we have children.  And why do we stop at whatever number we do choose?  Husband and I joke that is is so we'll have someone to put us in the nursing home one day.  But, is it also key to impart our values to future generations?  Which leads me to wonder, how well I'm doing in that category?  Am I imparting the values I want to share?  Please discuss...

Friday, September 25, 2009

NIH and engineers

So I will preface this post by saying that I am not an expert at the NIH system, but I have received funding from NIH and am currently in the process of renewing my grant.  Here is some advice for new comers to the NIH system that I wish I had known before starting the process.

1. Find a mentor that has NIH funding and is close enough to your field that they can read proposals and give you pointers.  Don't be afraid to ask someone you don't know too well at your institution or another.  Most people will say no if they don't feel up to it, but many people will be generous with their time.  I find that activities for women faculty is a great way to meet women in other departments/schools who might be willing to serve this role.  Keep searching until you find a careful and ruthless reader.  You don't want someone who will just correct your grammar you want someone who will tell you what you are doing wrong structurally and how you are shooting yourself down.

2. Learn the NIH funding mechanisms(and lingo) and look for smaller starter grants.  R03 (small research grant) and R15 (for institutions with little NIH funding) can be great mechanisms for getting started.  There are relatively few of these grants at study section and they are reviewed together, so it is easier to stand out. R21s are OK, but they are high risk/high reward proposals so they need to be a little more innovative than just the first Aim of your future R01.  Also the transitional K99/R00 grants are great if you are still a post-doc (and have a year or more to go).  These make you very attractive to future employers since you walk in the door with 3 years of funding for your research.  I have a friend who used this to leverage a faculty job with reduced teaching.

3. Get a copy of a funded proposal that is close enough to your field you can understand it.  Read it and note the structure, what are the key parts, and what strikes you as you read it.  Important points need to be reiterated clearly so that they are hammered home.

4. Start writing early.  Try to have a complete draft a month before the deadline so you can get critiques from others and have time to modify.  I find my best grants get put to rest for a week or so and then picked up and cleaned up before they are submitted.   Spend a lot of time on your Specific Aims page.  If you haven't sold the reviewer by the end of the first page, you are wasting your time.

5. You need preliminary data.  Even when it says you don't, you do.  So get to work on those experiments.  And, for R01s, that data needs to be published (or at least some of it does).  You need at least one publication on the project.  And if you have collaborators you are going to put on the grant, you need a publication with them.  You need proof that you can work as a team and get research data together that is publishable.  NIH is risk averse.  You are asking them for a lot of money (> than $1 million for an R01) and they want to know that you will be able to do what you say you will do.   Would a VC firm give you a million dollars for that project?  No then get more data.  (This is some of the tough love one of my mentors gave me and she was right!).  Don't waste your time submitting R01s until you have these publications no matter what others may tell you.

6.  You should probably be about 1/3 of the way through the research when you submit.  That's when you know you have enough data.

7.  Make good friends with a business manager/grant administrator who know NIH grants and have them guide you through the forms (it's not fun the first time).  Bring them coffee or whatever they like and treat them nicely.  People are always yelling about their grants and those who are nice often get the most help.

8.  Make sure that your work is hypothesis driven (even thought that's not what the guidelines say).  Reviewers like hypothesis drive research and be very clear about how you will measure outcomes.  E.g.:We will assess skin healing by x stain at 12 days and expect treatment x to show more skin cells in the wound than in untreated control.

9. Always write a cover letter.  Look at the institute within NIH that you think should fund your work and make sure your research falls in their area of interest.  Request this institute in your cover letter.  Look at the list of study sections that review research in your area (available online).   Ask a mentor for pointers here if they have study section recommendations.  Look at the members of the study sections.  Pick the one you think is most qualified to review your work.  When you look at the members you should recognize some names of people whose work you know.  If not this is a red flag that you are in the wrong place.  Find the right study section for your work.  REQUEST THIS STUDY SECTION IN YOUR COVER LETTER.  You don't want someone who knows little about your work guessing where it should be reviewed.  Guide it to the right place.  (PS If you don't like where your grant is assigned, you can appeal your study section if you do it right away!)

10.  Remember that almost no one is getting funded the first go around (especially these days).  Remember to check that new investigator box and hope for the best.  You get one revision (now) so you can use those comments to rewrite and you get an additional section (Introduction) to respond to the comments.  If you do a good job of addressing the comments your score generally goes up.  Be nice in your response, the same reviewers usually review your grant so offending them will not help your score.  Patience is key!

Please leave additional questions in the comments and I hope this was helpful.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The family timing question

One comment I received asked about timing and managing a family as a new professor.  I'm going to be a bit vague about details in an attempt to conceal my identity.  I have to say that there is no perfect time to have a family and if you wait for that perfect time, you will never have children.  There are times when it is easier and times when it is harder, but have friends that have had children in almost any of those situations and you can make it work, and it will never be easy.  I had the advantage of being on the younger side when I started my faculty position and thus I had the luxury of waiting a few years to get my lab up and running with a few graduate students trained before I got pregnant.  Thus, there was not a total leadership void in the lab when I was gone.  I also am fortunate to be at an institution that has a maternity leave policy for tenure track faculty that allows one semester's leave from teaching at full pay and a one semester extension of the tenure clock (this turns into one year in my department because cases are only reviewed in the fall).   So I had my first kiddo pre-tenure and the second post tenure.  My dream world goals were to get tenure and then have kids, but sometimes plans change in the real world.

As for timing in a theoretical world, I would say that is easier to either have your baby during your post-doc or after your first year on the job in a faculty position.  The first year for me was really hard because I had all these new demands on my time and I had a hard time prioritizing them.   After a few years I learned which things need to be done really well (grant applications) and the things that don't really matter so much.  Now, when I'm strapped for time I know what things to let slide or do the absolute minimum acceptable effort to get by.  Also, many things took me by surprise, advising weeks with 10+ hours of meetings, etc.  Now I know when to expect them and I can plan accordingly.  I also was busy trying to build my fake-it-till-you make-it image, meaning that I didn't feel like a professor so I had to think about how to act in a given situation very carefully and being pregnant/having a newborn during this time would have made it harder.  For me personally, being pregnant really made me realize that I am biologically different from all the men in my department (duh!).  As nice and understanding as many of them were (especially those who had young children) they still didn't know exactly what I was experiencing and my stomach was a glaring reminder of how different I was.  That being said, sometime biology works in mysterious ways and I have had plenty of friends who started their faculty positions pregnant or with a newborn in tow and they have lived to tell about it.

When you are a post-doc you are younger (read can handle those sleepless night better?) and you have few responsibilities (meetings, funding deadline, etc.) which are pros for starting your family early.  On the downside, you have less money for childcare expenses and you may have a more rigid experimental schedule that can easily be thrown out of whack by bed rest or a sick newborn.  Your partner may have a more flexible job during this time and I know some people who work in shifts during grad school/post-doc to avoid childcare expenses. This is easier to do in grad school/post-doc when there are fewer meetings/classes during the day, however this may be very detrimental to your relationship with your partner.

During your faculty years, you will have better financial resources to pay for childcare and you will be the boss (sort of), so you may feel less guilty about time away.  On the other hand, you will have more commitments - teaching, research, service, etc. that make it harder to juggle more limited time.  You may feel more stressed depending on what point you are at on the tenure track and you may or may not get relief from teaching and other duties (depending on your university).  If you are several years into starting your lab, you may be doing less hands on research, which could be good from a safety point of view and also allow research to continue (through your students) during your time on leave.

Each person's situation is different and it will be a big change for everyone.  I never thought that I could leave work before 6 pm everyday without feeling guilty, but that's what time my daycare closes, so it isn't even a choice.  One thing you need no matter when you have kids is a supportive partner.  Starting thinking and talking now about ways you can share the load and what you can outsource (house cleaning or yard work?). In our house we divide the pick-up/drop off duty for daycare, the meals, grocery shopping, laundry, sick kid coverage (think about alternating days with key commitments - e.g. classes) pet care, etc.  Somethings are hard to divide (being pregnant and lactating), so think about ways the other person can help pick up the slack.  And finally, remember that we become much more efficient when forced to be, so you will eliminate many non-essential activities when you need to.

For me, I knew that I wanted kids and a faculty position so it was just question of when.  Is it hard and chaotic? Yes!  Would I trade it for a calmer life without kiddos?  No way.  They are glad to see you no matter what kind of day you had, no matter whether your grant was funded or your manuscript was rejected.  And, they will always bring you back to earth by reminding you that they don't care if you are a professor or not, you still make the best human kleenex available (which might explain why I now wear very few non-machine washable items of clothing) and you can alway make the boo-boo better with a hug and a kiss (if only research problems were so easily solved).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

School year blues

Every fall it always hits me by surprise. How much busier it is with school in session! I'm lucky to have my summers free from teaching and focused on research. It's a busy time with more full time people in the lab. But then the freshmen arrive full of excitement and the new graduate students are all out pounding the pavement to find fall rotations. There are qualifying exams committees to participate in and all the orientaiton activities, all the meetings that were put off until everyone is back in town and those things that were supposed to be finished by the end of summer that I'm frantically trying to complete. This year was even busier due to a personal trip taken right before orientation started, and a toddler who managed to get sick twice in the first two weeks of classes resulting in 5 days of missed daycare and 1 trip to the ER for weekend care. Things are starting to settle into the fall routine (still crazy but the initial flurry has past). I'm going to try to post a little more often now and also hit some points from comments.

I'll just say that balancing a family and working is always a delicate act that is always near a tipping point. The 5 days of missed daycare in 2 weeks nearly sent me over the edge, even with a suportive spouse who splits the days with me. I think this is a challenge for women in academia and in the professional world in general. In academia, we move around more than many professions and often end up far from family support networks, which is fine when we are young, but more challenging when we have families with small children. Without backup care we are alway hit hard by sick kids. I'm very thankful that although I have a large amount of work to do, much of it can be done on my schedule (at home or at work) during the day or the night. Other than class and a few essential meetings, I can reschedule meetings or say no (something I'm trying to practice). I don't have a waiting room full of patients or court date that can't be changed. I can move things around if needed. Now, I won't kid you, when I'm home with a sick toddler I get little to no work done except during nap time but I can usually make up some of this at night after bedtime and it always helps me realize what absolutely has to be done. I've also learned that if you have a deadline that you are working on right until the last minute, someone will get sick, so plan ahead and try to leave yourself a little room for error. Always bring some work home with you (even if you have no intention of working), bring whatever you really need to get done tomorrow in case you don't make it in to work. And finally, have the number of a good baby sitting service that does emergency sick child backup care. It may be outrageously expensive, but if you have a PhD student defending or a grant deadline looming, it may be worth the cost to your pocket book to preserve your sanity. Just say to yourself, "this too shall pass" and the kiddos will get sick less frequently as they get older, less orally fixated and develop a stronger immune system.

I used to feel bad about canceling meetings for sick kids, but now I've realized it's just part of life. And rather than hide it (and the fact that I'm a mother in engineering) I've decided that being more open helps others have more realistic ideas of the challenges working moms face. I still get the important stuff done and it can be good sensitivity training for those who have stay-at-home spouses to take care of all those details.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Female Engineers Persistent

A recent article in the Chronicle comments on a study suggesting that female engineering students are retained at equal rates with male students, which is good news overall. However, I think the conclusion that there is no need to focus on retention is misplaced. Rather this suggests that efforts to retain female students are working (e.g. making things a little more friendly for women) and should be continued, while efforts to attract women should be increased.

My experience as academic adviser to >90 undergraduate engineering students is that preparation is probably the biggest factor in retention. Students who come in with a poor math or science (chemistry/physics) are the most likely to switch out of engineering. Another issue we have also observed is that students who are encouraged to start in courses that are too advanced their freshmen year are more likely to transfer our of engineering. For example starting in Calc II rather than Calc III, and having some repeated material but higher grade builds confidence and correlates with success. This tends to impact students from small (often rural schools) and inner city schools in a disproportionate way. So the new party line is to give up some of those AP credits, have an easier freshmen year and build confidence. I have mixed feeling about this since clearly this advice does not apply for super bright students and it's hard for me to tell in 15 minutes who these super bright kids.

What are your thoughts on the retention data? I do have to say I like the term persistence. I think you need to have a little staying power to survive as a female engineer.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer camp for scientists

I recently attended a Gordon conference (better known as summer camp for scientists). It was overall a great time. Rustic setting, good talks, a chance to see old friends and make new ones, a bit of time to reflect on my field in general..... I am encouraged by the increasing number of women in my field, both as faculty, but also as post-docs and students. It has definitely increased since my days as a graduate student. However, there are still some signs of the subtle undercurrent of a "man's world". I've grown used to it from hanging out with guys in college and graduate school, so sometimes I almost don't notice it. But then someone slips and says something in public without thinking, and you wonder, "is that what they are really thinking all the time?" It was also interesting to observe people's responses to the comments. I realized that when you know someone, you are more likely to dismiss their comments if they are generally supportive of women/minorities and nice to you. But, for students/post-docs who had never met these people they came off as real jerks and other actions they had taken (e.g. asking a harsh question of a female speaker) were viewed in a negative light after the comment. So, how do you deal with that? And if you were the chair of the conference, would you ask the person to apologize for making a clearly insensitive comment? Or would you stand up and simply state that this kind of comment is clearly not appropriate for the conference? Would it change your mind if the conference were on probation for having problems of this nature in the past?

I sometimes wonder if I have become a bit of an apologist or an enabler for those who say inappropriate things, but don't mean to. Is it OK if they are of a certain generation? I generally try to have a thick skin and let things roll off my back, but am I making things worse for the women who come after me by not calling out a comment out when I hear it? And what about when you hear someone of your own generation make the same type of comment?

We've decided to form a girls network. A list of women in the field to invite for talks and nominate for awards, plenary lectures, etc. I used to think one of my mentors was a little over the top about her promotion of women (sometimes at the clear expense of equally deserving men), but maybe she is right and women still do need an extra push. Any thoughts?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I went to a meeting today to discuss the mentoring procedures in different schools at my university (RU). We shared the programs in departments from romance languages to law. What struck me was the vast differences. In some departments all the senior faculty read the junior faculties publications and recommend journals/publishers for them. That's pretty different from my experience. I don't have any senior faculty in my field in the department and thus would not have anyone to make recommendations of this nature.

We also discussed the NRC report that recently came out. One of the most striking findings I saw was the difference in funding rates of women with mentors.

"Over all six fields surveyed female assistant professors with no mentors had a 68 percent probability of having grant funding versus 93 percent of women with mentors. This contrasts with the pattern for male assistant professors; those with no mentor had an 86 percent probability of having grant funding versus 83 percent for those with mentors."

So women with mentors have a much better funding rate. And, my read on this is that men get informal mentoring and thus don't need formal mentors to get the same guidance (a generalization of course). I have to say that my informal female mentors were instrumental in helping me learn to navigate the grant submission/review process. For more discussion see FemaleScienceProfessor.

I hope that as I move forward I can continue to find good informal mentoring from more senior faculty and also help to guide those who are at an earlier career stage.

Just as I was feeling like I might be getting on track for the summer progress, the phone rang with the dreaded caller id showing "daycare". AHH! Turns out that my son might actually have a little stomach bug. And I thought he was just trying to stall getting ready this morning with his "my tummy hurts" complaints. He has discovered the power illness in drawing attention away from his younger sibling and thus all illnesses are treated with skepticism lately. Of course after he was picked up early, he proceeded to run around the house playing like a crazy man. So he was not feeling too bad. Still, I've already begun the mental rearranging of all remaining tasks for this week and prioritizing of all meetings (ranking those that can be canceled or time that husband could flex to cover). Nothing so important we need to call the emergency sitting service...

Monday, July 13, 2009


Hello and welcome. I'm starting this blog to share my journey as a faculty member in engineering and mom of 2 young children. I am currently an associate professor of engineering at a private research university. My goal with this blog is to seek and share encouragement for other women in the sciences and engineering. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent.

I will refer to my research as studying wombats (not the actual subject). Currently I'm working on summer research and mentoring my summer undergraduates, as well as several graduate students in engineering. I just completed a submission of my renewal for my NIH R01.

Now I'm collecting the odds and ends that remain on the summer to-do list (editing papers, reviewing manuscripts, grant rewrite for fall submission deadline) and trying to plan how to best accomplish them in the remain month and change of my summer.