Earlier this week, Professor Terry McGlynn shared his story of how he found science as a career path on the Small Pond Science blog. As a woman in the academy who is also a scientist, I wanted to share some of my story.
Why? It’s not that I think I have a particular unique path to where I am now. Mostly I want to share it because there can be so many difficult things about being a woman in science and a woman in the academy. I’d like to take this opportunity to celebrate the path that led me here, to a mental and physical place where I work hard to do work I enjoy while mentoring women students in science – and to thank (although anonymously here) the many women mentors who helped get me here. It takes a village!
There’s certainly a stereotype that kids who have chemistry sets or collect fossils are the ones who grow up to be scientists. Maybe that’s true, but that wasn’t my path – and it wasn’t the way I was brought up. My family members couldn’t identify trees, never went hiking or camping, don’t work in science, and don’t have graduate degrees. I’d never gone to a national park or even a state park until I was an adult living on my own. Those activities and places aren’t accessible to many people for a variety of reasons – in my family’s case, my parents’ work schedules and (lack of disposable) income meant that joining extracurriculars or going on weekend trips were out of the question. So I spent a lot of time playing with dolls and, as I got older, reading.
I was very lucky that we lived in a place with very good public schools. So my first exposure to science was in the classroom – I remember a third grade project where we had to invent something and build a prototype. In retrospect, it was also my first exposure to people with PhDs – I had several middle school and high school teachers with doctorates, including women with PhDs.
I was also very lucky to live in an area with a good public library. As I got older, especially as a teenager, I spent a lot of time there – checking out books and CDs, discovering new authors and new musicians. I also was able to use the internet there, something we didn’t have at home. I think it’s important to acknowledge these great public resources that open doors. I am happy to pay taxes toward them, for my own use and for future generations.
Speaking of public goods, I also benefited from being encouraged to consider college at a public university. In fact, I only applied to public universities in my state, in large part to take advantage of the reduced tuition for in-state residents. Only in retrospect can I fully appreciate how important that was – state universities (despite now most getting so little state funding) on the whole provide excellent educations for comparably lower costs – and many have lots of opportunities to get involved in research.
As a work-study student, I worked my way through college from Day 1 (literally the day I was dropped off for orientation, I signed up to start working). At first I worked in the dining hall – hardly glamorous, but it helped pay the bills. Then I realized that there were jobs in laboratories. This seemed better – I wouldn’t be covered in dirty dishwater or work until late at night cleaning a dining hall – but in a vague sense, I really didn’t know what being in a lab meant. So I applied to all the open entry level positions in the biology department. I had an interview in 2 and was accepted into 1.
I couldn’t have imagined then that the lab I started washing dishes in would become my academic home. First I spent a summer doing research there instead of going home to be a camp counselor. Then I applied to a summer fellowship that gave me a small stipend to carve out an independent project. The PI thought that went well enough that she supported me in applying to a university-wide undergraduate research fellowship. Receiving that allowed me higher wages (it subsidized PIs hiring those folks), critical for a work study student (since the higher my wages, the fewer hours I had to work each semester to meet my quota towards tuition – I was working 20 or 30 hours per week) and the ability to carry out more independent research. With the help of an amazing mentor who was a PhD student, I wrote a senior honors thesis.
Note that I said she. I had NO IDEA at the time what a rarity it was to be in a lab that was entirely composed of women and nonwhite men. I can’t know how things would have been different if I had had a male PI or male mentor for my undergraduate research experiences, but I do know how powerful it was to have women mentors. Powerful in that gender was a non-issue in our lab. Powerful in many small, silent ways, if that makes sense. It was supportive in ways I can only point to in the past, because I wasn’t fully aware of them until I was in workplaces and labs that lacked these supports. Several of the lab members were also mothers, the first people I’d met who were trying to figure out how to “balance” academic life and parenting. I still look to these amazing women for career advice and research insight.
I still thank my lucky stars for great public support structures (like libraries and federal loans) that put me on a path towards a career in science. And I firmly believe we need to support these and advocate for them, even in times of strained and finite financial resources. But I am most thankful for the network of amazing and kind women who shared their expertise, their time, their energy, and their insight into work and life. They’re why I am where I am so far, and I try every day to be paying that forward to the students I have the privilege of working with in the lab and classroom.