Can you be physically incompatible with a career?

For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”.  In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?

Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science. Continue reading

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Life on a work visa

This year, like the two that preceded it and at least the next to follow, I will be unable to make summer plans. As someone with a non-permanent position, I am constantly chasing opportunities and gearing up to take the next step, move on to the next position. I expect to live in a different location from one year to the next. As a non-permanent resident, my journey is compounded by visa complications that make me unable to travel for anywhere from 2-4 months around the summer months.

This means a not insignificant amount of lost opportunities for me. I never accept invitations to teach at summer schools or speak at conferences or workshops. I don’t even apply for summer conferences, I just don’t know where I’ll be over the summer and in the following year. In fact, right now, as I worry about a commitment I foolishly made two years ago to attend an event this July, I am unable to make travel plans because the one thing I do know is that I will not live in the same place in July as I do now. But where I will live – and more relevantly, where I should book a flight from/to – that is at the moment a mystery. These difficulties, and the anxieties that they give rise to, are shared between all of us who have temporary jobs.

Being born a citizen of the “wrong” country brings with it an additional layer of complexity, beyond that experienced by other transient academics. Continue reading

Field season safety: Part II

This is Part II of my Field Season Safety series; the first tackled road and driving safety.  [Editor’s note: this post was written and published online before yesterday’s tragedy in Oregon. Our thoughts are with the school and community in Umpqua.]

After yet another horrific school shooting yesterday, it’s high time to revisit gun culture and regulations in the US.* While that topic is far too big a concept for this blog post**, gun culture and safety does intersect with the academy, research, and fieldwork. There is terrible violence that has been carried out on college campuses with guns. But my post today focuses on how guns affect fieldwork safety for students, technicians, and other researchers***.

Guns could be pretty much anywhere you work

Gun laws in the US are fairly lax, including those for concealed handguns. This means, frankly, that almost anyone could be carrying a gun. Even if it doesn’t look like it. That may sound like some kind of scare tactic, but it’s not. 2013 research by the Pew Research Center found that 1/3 of US households claimed to own a gun – but that there are somewhere near 300 million guns owned by citizens in the US (so excluding law enforcement, etc). That’s nearly one gun per person in the country. So it’s important to know. Continue reading

Field season safety: a tale in two parts

Field season is coming up fast as the spring semester winds down, and even though I’m done with fieldwork now, it’s on my mind as my labmates gear up for theirs. Field season safety in particular is on my mind. There have been great recent articles and blogs about the dangers of sexual assault and unwanted contact while conducting fieldwork, especially in remote locations or isolated conditions. But I want to focus on two different, potentially overlooked and very American aspects of safety: cars and guns. Today I’m just talking about cars and road safety, and my next post will be about guns.

Working in the “field,” wherever that may be, often requires driving to field sites. For my own research, I was often driving for more hours in a given day than sampling at each site, due to the distance between field sites and frequency of sampling. While the sheer number of hours I’ve logged behind the wheel may be at the far end of the spectrum, driving for at least two hours per fieldwork day is common for others in my lab and department.  Since fieldwork is often collaborative, the driving is also often split between the research team. This means that undergraduate students, technicians, graduate students, and postdocs all rotate driving shifts throughout the day and across the field season. I never gave much thought to trusting my field crew with driving and our field vehicle until an incident a few years back. Two undergraduates who worked for me and I were in the car. One of the undergraduates was driving, and as he was pulling out from a field site, he took a weird angle going up a short hill (this was not on a paved road) and our vehicle rolled over. Fortunately, no one was injured and we were traveling so slowly (since we had just started the vehicle) that the car was not totaled. However, it was a deeply humbling and frankly terrifying experience for everyone involved. Continue reading

Becoming a Manager

While I was a grad student, I spent all of my time inside the details of my Ph.D. research program, focused almost exclusively on what the problem-of-the week was and trying to solve it. During my time as a post doc, I’ve found that not only do I need to continue solving the problem-of-the-week, but I also have to oversee a number of students and help them to solve their own problems-of-the week and provide projects for them that are appropriate to their skill levels that also challenge them intellectually. In essence, I’ve become middle management for our lab. Continue reading

Creating a Healthier Academia

This past week I was lucky to be able to attend the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, which is one of the (if not the) largest gatherings of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the world. With over 3,000 attendees, it’s one of very few spaces where trans people are in the majority.

In its thirteenth year of providing space for trans people and health care providers.

In its thirteenth year of providing space for trans people and health care providers.

It’s a strange feeling, suddenly being surrounded by others like you. One that I seem to share with many other trans people in STEM, based on how few trans people raised their hands when a session chair asked, “How many of you have met another trans person in your field before this workshop?” The session was hosted by an organization called oSTEM, or Out in STEM. During the workshop, we brainstormed ways to make the fields better for trans people: ways of calling out inappropriate behavior, how academic curricula fail trans students, role models and lack of overlapping social circles, and how to create a healthier environment. I want to focus on that last one a little, because there were a lot of important points that came out of it.

Continue reading

Blurred lines in the field

A six hour car ride to a field site. A fourteen mile hike in the wilderness. Two months living together in tents in the middle of nowhere.   These types of experiences are common to those of us that work ‘in the field’ – i.e., not always stationed at our home base. And they all lead to situations where the lines between mentorship and friendship are likely to become just a little bit fuzzy. Let’s be honest, you can only talk for so long about experimental design. Now that I’m in my first summer of field work as a professor, and looking at the friendship-mentorship boundary from the other side, I’ve been thinking about where that boundary should be, how to set it (in the field), and how to reset it upon return to ‘normal’ life. Continue reading