There are the people that inspire us at a young age to pursue (in my case) science, and then there are the women that help you achieve that career. Today’s ‘career exploration’ is from a woman who mentored me while we were both in graduate school. Her enthusiasm is infectious, her lab skillz invaluable, and she was/is an amazing teacher. She’s now a new faculty member at a small liberal arts college whose students don’t know how lucky they are.
As always, feel free to nominate a
mentor or friend to be grilled about their career choices!
When you were a little girl, what
did you want to be when you grew up?
Well, when I was young I sought to
distinguish myself from my friends who wanted to be like Kristi Yamaguchi and
so I said I wanted to be the ice skating choreographer. Later in high school I
sought to distinguish myself yet again from my fellow biology students who
wanted to be doctors or marine biologists by professing a love of plants. I had
spent much of my childhood hiking with my family and also had worked a lot of
summer jobs in landscaping. I plunged head-first into a botany degree day one
of college and haven’t looked back since. I think I’m a bit unusual in my lack
of shopping around.
How did you decide to start on your
current career? Are you happy with your current job in relation to what you
I found out that my undergraduate
degree did not necessarily prepare me for a job running a greenhouse like I
initially thought it would, but luckily I had completed several fairly
extensive undergraduate research projects with a wonderful professor mentor in
my program and this opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in
research. I also was delighted to discover a world of adventure in traveling
for fieldwork and research in far-off lands. While in graduate school, I found
that many of my favorite experiences were as a teaching assistant or working
with undergraduates in the lab. In my job as a biology professor at a great
liberal arts school, I get to both continue my research with fantastic
undergraduate researchers and dedicate myself to being an outstanding
teacher. I am extremely happy with my job! It is even better than what I
had thought I could ever get, honestly.
Do you have to worry about
when/if to have children?
Yes, I certainly do and time ticks
by. We don’t currently have children, but very much want some, sooner
than later. This is my primary worry about my job right now. I do see men and
women around me at my institution with babies and young children, and that is
very heartening. I worry about not having built up enough good will or
established enough of a track record pre-tenure to have everyone OK with me
taking a bit of time off, which is allowed for by my contract. I also
worry that my desire for my career or ability to keep it all together might
diminish after I have kids. It is so easy to keep putting it off and thinking
that work should come first, but that is ultimately not satisfying. In our
case, I don’t think it would be a good idea to wait until tenure. Luckily, I’ve
watched other female friends around me have children as academics and have seen
that they are successful at both being mothers and professors.
What role does your spouse or
partner play in your career development?
My husband has been vital to all
parts of my career development. He is not a scientists but he keeps up
with all that I do, asks great questions and motivates me when things are
tough. He has moved with me multiple times as my career in academia has
progressed, having to change the trajectory of his career and find new jobs
multiple times. I am forever humbled and grateful for this and am so lucky to
have him. It is hard as a professional couple for everyone to have everything
they want at exactly the same time, I think.
Did you ever experience a ‘glass
ceiling’ or discrimination as a woman? Are you willing to share your
Not really, to be honest, but I do
hear stories from women slightly older than me about being questioned about
their pregnancies, or who were passed over for tenure or jobs in the first
place. Sometimes I’ve seen white men progress in this line of work
further than their merit deserves, while it seems that women and minorities
have to work a bit harder with less room for error to get to the same places.
In general, though, I’m feeling very positive about the position of women in
sciences & academia.
What does ‘having it all’ mean to
you personally? Do you feel like you can achieve it?
To me, having it all means being
happy, healthy, and personally and professionally satisfied. I do feel like I’m
pretty darn close as of now, though it feels like there is less room for many
of the other ‘things’ that I used to do, like hobbies or spontaneous
travel. I do find being a new professor to be extraordinarily exhausting,
but I’m also truly delighted to go to work and interact with my students every
day. I am very happy to be in a job position now where hopefully we won’t
have to move anymore, as that was very taxing. The stability and the protection
of tenure-track also put my mind at ease and help keep my focused on what I
need to do to be successful. I feel more confident and inspired than I have in
a long time.
How can we encourage women to pursue
their dream jobs?
Developing a strong network of women
in similar stages of their career (and just ahead) has been so crucial for me.
The mentorship process is so crucial and so we should look out for other
opportunities to talk formally or informally to other women and girls around us
(and men, too!) Being approachable and also unafraid to discuss the human
aspects of a life in science is also key. We need to see from each other that
we can and should expect to succeed and not compromise for both the
professional and personal life that we want, and that others around us will
share in our joys and struggles every step of the way.