Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Confessions of a Jackass

So, I'm a pretty literate person in general. And I've been in science for a long time. But I seem to be incapable of properly pronouncing the word centrifuge. I pronounce it Sen-Ter-Fyooj instead of Sen-Truh-Fyooj. It's the equialent of my radiation safety officer pronouncing nuclear as Noo-Kyuh-Ler instead of Noo-Clee-Er (which he did... repeatedly).

What are your embarassing professional foibles?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Baby Love

Good One

This morning, Bean and I were enjoying our 20 minutes together, after she wakes up before I have to leave for work. We changed her diaper, got her fed, and then had a few minutes to play on the bed. As we're playing, I'm kissing her and we're laughing and smiling. I go in to kiss her little mouth, and *Blah*... she spits up all over my mouth. Luckily my mouth was completely closed, so I just got spit up on my face, but it was definitely pretty disgusting nonetheless.

Bean seemed quite proud of herself and gave me a big sloppy grin.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Grown-up night out

Since my mother-in-law is currently in town, Husband and I got to go on a date last night. This makes the third time that we've been able to go out since Bean was born. Once to a party when Bean had fallen asleep and my mom was there to take care of her. Then last weekend for our wedding anniversary and my MIL was there. And last night.

Husband and I wanted to go see this documentary we had heard about on NPR called No End In Sight. It was an amazing piece on the Iraq war, focused basically on the failed reconstruction efforts, and how mistakes made by Bremmer, Cheney, and Rumsfeld contributed to/caused the insurgency in Iraq. It also spent a considerable amount of time discussing the current situation for Iraqi civilians. It was horrifying.

What was equally horrifying was that on a Saturday night, the 7:00 showing, there were only 9 people in the audience including us.

I spent the rest of the night thinking about how Iraqi mothers are raising their children in a land where they can not protect them from violence and fear. About how these women can not send their children to school because there are no schools. How these children can be abducted at gun point by brutal mafias who plan to extort money from their impoverished families.

I've never felt more vunerable or more lucky in my entire life.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Baby steps

This morning, Bean found her feet!

Laying on the changing table this morning, Bean was all coos and smiles (as usual). She curled up like a potato bug and caught one of her feet in what seemed like an accident. But then she repeated and repeated it, catching her little feet with her hands and drawing them into her chest. We put her "wrist rattle" around one of her ankles this morning before leaving her with grandma for the day. She should have a lot of fun with that.

It was all very exciting. Bean is growing and changing so fast, adding new little skills all the time. This mommy thing sure is fun.

Academia vs. The Dark Side

Yesterday a friend of mine posed the question to me: Why are you in academia again? Why not run screaming to the open arms of industry where you will receive: More money, Better benefits, Better hours, Less guilt.

Why don't we many scientists take industry positions? It's a simple question with a somewhat complex answer.

1. Less job security. Of course there is the well known job security of a tenure track position, but even if you do not plan to run your own lab, you can expect pretty reasonable job security as a technician, staff scientist, or perpetual postdoc. In the 8 years I have been at the bench, I have only EVER seen one person actually get fired. And he was only let go because the PI hasn't secured funding in several years, so the professor kindly suggested that it would be wise for this technician to find a new position as soon as he could. So it's pretty nice to know you won't get fired on a whim.

2. Going into industry is seen as selling out. There is a definite culture among academic scientists that you are fighting the good fight. Perhaps because the hours and pay are lousy, and the tangible benefits are sometimes hard to come by, so we all console ourselves by saying that we are in fact "better" than those who go into industry. Our crappy pay and long hours makes us noble. So anyone who leaves acadmia for industry is a traitor, someone for whom science is (*gasp*) a career instead of a passion. And this bias, this passed judgement, makes it very difficult to come BACK to academia once you leave. If you leave academia, you are no longer be seen as dedicated to science and the common good. So when you leave academia, you had better be sure that you're leaving for good, because they're going to change the locks as soon as you are out the door.

3. Less control over your own research. The catch with industry is that for the most part you are not eligible for public funding (not that there's much money around for academic science these days). So in industry you have to make your own money. Either through investors who believe you will soon make money, or through the sale of some product. So in industry, you are constantly looking for the next source of income to fund your future research. Which means you can no longer follow projects wherever they may lead you. You can only follow the questions that might soon make you some money. Mama's gotta pay for her shiny new pipetteman somehow. So someone (usually not the researchers) makes decisions on whether or not a project is viable, and whether or not it gets to keep going. Coming from academia, where you usually determine the direction of your own project, this kind of control can be difficult to give up.

4. The devil you know vs. the devil you don't. It's very hard to make a life-changing decision. Especially when you know that once you leave you can't come back. So in some ways it's just very easy to stick with the comfort of your current displeasure, rather than face the brave new world of industry. What if you hate it? What if everything "they" tell you about industry is true? What will you do then?

So for the time being, I'll be riding out my postdoc untill Husband lands his faculty position. Then, once we're settled, I can make a decision as to what the future holds for me. Will I get a staff scientist position in academia? Will I get a position in industry so we can afford to live in a real house? Will I run away to nursing school and leave research behind forever? Who knows. But for the time being, you'll often find me searching the job postings in the back of Science.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pumping in the girls room

Little Bean is strictly breast fed thus far. And I am back at work full time. So three times a day I sit down for the little ritual of pumping my milk. Or rather, Bean's milk. Before I returned to work, I was fully prepared for doing so. I had my pump, my bottles, my little ice pack and cooler case, my microwave sterilization bags. All I needed was a place to do it.

The department just moved into a new buliding. This buliding is large and fancy-looking (though poorly poorly designed when it comes to it being a functional lab space). The building is so large, in fact, that there are many empty offices waiting for shiny new faculty to fill them. I had supposed, in my naivete, that the department would gladly allow me to use this totally unoccupied space to pump. After all, it is sitting empy, and I need a space to pump. And all the admin people in charge of handing out keys ARE WOMEN. So, a few weeks before my return to work, I kindly asked if I might be allowed to use one of the empty offices to pump in.

At first, the situation seemed hopeful. The woman I emailed in Admin was polite and said that the department ought to see what they could do to accomodate me. This was followed by two weeks of silence. Then I got the run-around. "You'll have to talk to person B about this" says person A. "Well, I'll have to talk to person A about this," says person B. Then finally, after several weeks of polite pestering, I delivered the entire spiel about why pumping was necessary to my continued success breastfeeding, how breastfeeding my baby benefits my boss and therefore the department, and why I think their pussyfooting is just one more example of how academic science doesn't support science-moms.

I received a fairly cordial reply from the woman saying that the department couldn't be expected to provide a space that would only be used an hour or two a day at most (nevermind that there are currently offices being used for exactly 0.0 hours per day), and that the department DOES support science-moms by providing a generous maternity leave policy (I can't really argue with that as 3 months is RELATIVELY generous), and that I am more than welcome to pump in shower room attached to the ladies bathroom but an office is out of the question. She also assured me that, as a woman who breastfed two babys for 10 months each many years ago, the situation for working moms has improved.

Excuse me? Just because the situation has "improved" over the past 20 years doesn't mean that it's good. Just because woman make $0.75 on the dollar instead of $0.50 on the dollar doesn't mean we should accept it with a polite thank you.

But the administration wouldn't budge, and so I am in fact pumping in the bathroom. And for those of you who might think it's not a big deal to be pumping in the bathroom, I'll remind you that when I pump, I am preparing FOOD. Go make your lunch in the bathroom and see how you feel about it.


This weekend, I had a DNA prep in the ultracentrifuge. My entire Monday schedule was predicated on the success of this run, and frankly so was the rest of my week. Well, I came in Monday morning to find the ultra sitting there quietly, power switch in the Off position. It turns out the power switch is also a circuit breaker, and something terrible had occurred, causing the ultra to politely turn itself off. On consulting with my lab mates, it turns out our other ultra exploded this weekend (not in a spectacular or dangerous way, more in a smelly, burning way). So I call the service guy to come out and take a look at both our centrifuges ASAP.

And it turns out the only other ultracentrifuge in the building: also broken.

Good one, God.

Friday, August 17, 2007

One of those days

Yesterday at work was one of those days. One of those days when you end up messing up your experiments so badly that in a few hours you set yourself back by a week or more. When you would be further ahead if you just hadn't shown up. When you just have to throw your hands up in the air and say "Okay, Thursday, you win" and leave before you ruin anything else.

Today I'm dealing with the aftermath. Deciding what can be saved and what has to be thrown out and redone. It's my least favorite kind of science day.

While mama's away...

I'm sure every mother who returns to work has a post like this. But nonetheless...

She's growing and changing while I'm at work!!! Last night I came home from work, and our little 4 month old, Bean, was making a few new noises. I commented to my mother-in-law (who is filling in on baby duty until Bean starts daycare in September), who replied that Bean had been "talking" all day. Well, I took Bean on a walk at the park, and she talked the entire way around the lake. For about 90 minutes straight she seemed to be exploring her voice and making new sounds and just generally making noise. It was like a switch had been flipped. She suddenly realized that "Hey, I can make noise" and was just having a fantastic time doing so. It was amazing, and I was ecstatic. We had a great time "talking" to each other.

Later on, when the day finally winded down and I got into bed, I was sad. The first full week I went back to work (at the end of July), Bean learned to grab toys with her hands. And now she's found her voice. While I was away. It's both wonderful and bittersweet.

Stupid job.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


I've been happily married for two years now to my wonderful husband, fellow biology post-doc Husband. Husband is an excellent scientist, working for a card carrying member of the Old Boys Club. Husband is planning to apply for faculty positions next fall. There was a time when I, too, dreamed of getting an academic faculty position as well... but in grad school I realized that most of the time the Old Boys Club doesn't take too kindly to female faculty (or even male faculty!) with "families". So I have long since given up on the idea of running my own lab. I'd rather be a good mom and a decent staff scientist than a stressed out mom who can't possibly work enough hours to please her (predominantly male) peers.

So here I am. I started my post-doc in June of 2006 in a well-respected lab. When interviewing for post-docs, I was specifically looking for a place that I thought would be family friendly, because Husband and I were planning to start one. When I interviewed with the lab I ultimately chose, there was a technician in the lab who was (very) pregnant. The whole lab seemed to work reasonable hours, and talked about both science and other interests. Good sign, right? And of course the lab does excellent research, there were projects just waiting for hands, and the lab was small but convivial.

After reading that it can take a year or more to get pregnant, Husband and I threw out my birth control pills the day of my grad school defense, and then promptly went on our belated but wonderful honeymoon. When we returned, I got to work in my new lab. I was pregnant within 2 months. We were extremely surprised that everything had happened so quickly, but ecstatic nonetheless.

When I told my boss, Dr. DNA, the happy news, her reaction was less than pleased. There were comments like "Was it an accident?" and "Better you than me." Not quite the reception I'd hoped for, but I got through it and could be happy. Husband's boss, OBC, was even less warm and fuzzy. OBC made comments to indicate he thought Husband was ruining his career, etc. When he realized the "damage" was already done, OBC settled for the closing jab "Well, you gotta a lot of work to get done before that baby is born."

But childless bosses aside, Husband and I were happy. There were more than a few trials and tribulations during the pregnancy, but no health issues (other than the typical pregnancy woes). Our darling baby girl, Bean, was born in April, and I spent the first 90 days of her sweet little life on maternity leave, returning to work just 4 weeks ago. I was so sad about going back to work, I would have seriously considered taking an extra month of unpaid leave (not that we can afford it), except that my boss, Dr. DNA, is so excited to keep my project moving that I think she would have started giving it away to our new graduate student if I had delayed my return...

So I'm back to work. Baby Girl is doing okay, adjusting just fine. Her mother, on the other hand is struggling to keep her shit together.