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


“Up” on a pedestal: mental illness and grad school, or mania and research

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after I was born, and shortly after her grandfather, who she loved deeply, suddenly died.  As an adult, I can make sense of it:  I can reason that the combined effects of grief and pregnancy on her body did something to bring to light an illness that had been latent; but when she told me when I was a child, I thought maybe if I hadn’t come along, my mom wouldn’t be sick.

Bipolar disorder is highly heritable, and both of my parents have diagnoses.  I’ve known this for most of my life and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.

It has taken years for me to push back against all of the ableist rhetoric that society has shoved into me.  The thought that depression was something I could just push through if I tried harder.  The idea that if I went on medication I would lose myself, I would change.  The notion that if I went to therapy I was weak.  That I couldn’t seek services because then it would be official, I’d be crazy, and what’s worse than that?

And frankly it’s all utter bullshit—but it took years to deprogram.

So here’s where I am now:  Continue reading

Evaluating my semester

This semester I’ve had a teaching leave. Fifteen weeks to focus on research and getting papers out and research done. I had lofty ambitions for this semester, and slightly unrealistic expectations for how much I could do.

The plan
The cut down version of my plan (after planning my semester with far more, realizing that was not going to happen and re-planning with less) was to get 2 papers written and submitted, with one of those resubmitted. Another paper drafted, and one major grant submitted.
My softer goals were to spend more time in the lab at the bench, attend 3 conferences and speaking at two of them (lined up well before the semester), and increase the time I spent reading broadly and thinking about the future of projects happening in the lab.

So how did I do?

Continue reading

Tweeting from a toxic lab

As somewhat of a Luddite who still carries a flip phone, I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying my experience on Twitter (which yes, hilariously I can only use from my desktop computer since I don’t have a smart phone). There are lots of blog posts about how scientists “should” use Twitter and get the “most” out of their time and energy on social media. But I want to focus on how graduate students and early career scholars who, like me, feel isolated and unsupported in a toxic lab situation can use Twitter* to their advantage.   (Check out some of our previous posts on toxic labs and lab culture here, here, and here.)

Connect with peers across the country

Actually, I should amend that to across the world. While you may be trapped at your desk analyzing data or writing your thesis, you can have real time conversations with fellow researchers all over. This seems like a cliché claim, but it’s true. It all depends on how you choose to reach out – just like networking in person. It’s been fun to have a small but eclectic group of people I converse with everyday, mostly other early career women scientists, even though we study wildly different things and live very far apart. We commiserate and celebrate milestones together – and if, like me, you don’t feel like you have a cheerleader for your accomplishments in your advisor or lab group, expanding your support network is a great feeling. Continue reading

Collaborations, Slurs, and Being Heard

TW: Discussion of homophobic slurs

There have been plenty of times in life when I’ve had men assume that I don’t know what I’m doing or saying, and treat me accordingly. I’m mostly used to it when I go to a car shop to pick up oil, but have recently had it happen in one of the most egregious manners I’ve ever experienced within academia. Continue reading

Supporting other people’s students

As I’ve progressed through academia, my relationships to grad students have changed. First, I looked up to them, then I was one of them. As a postdoc, I was friends with and also a mentor to many graduate students, and now as a faculty member I’m an advisor and mentor for my own and other grad students. So now that I am a faculty member, how can I be a good mentor for graduate students? Over the past few years, I’ve realized that I have thought a lot about how to advise my own graduate students, but I haven’t given much thought to mentoring other students.

A few interactions have made me examine this more closely. Over the past several years, I’ve had graduate students come to me for advice- in some cases because relatively serious issues have flared up in their own labs and in other cases to simply talk through more minor situations and brainstorm how to manage their relationships with their own advisors. I’m happy to know that grad students in my department feel that they have a safe space in which to consult with someone. But what is my appropriate role? (I’m talking here about general advice-giving, not more serious issues that require specific reporting actions on my part). Continue reading

When trainees go bad

Toxic work environments – including lab environments – are bad for everyone. They are utterly destructive to those involved, to the rest of the lab, and to the PI. We have discussed toxic mentors, problematic advisors, and mentoring styles, with the goal of understanding how to identify toxic situations and how to survive and get out intact. These situations are especially despicable due to power imbalances between PI and trainee.

But what happens when it’s not the mentor but a trainee that is the major source of problems in the lab? . This is a very different issue from toxic PIs – there isn’t the same kind of power imbalance, and there is much more protection for the PI than there is for trainees. Nevertheless, a problematic individual in the lab can cause massive amounts of stress for both the PI and the other trainees in the lab. We don’t often talk about “toxic” trainees, or even “difficult” trainees, or trainees that are making everything more difficult for everyone. Perhaps we should. Continue reading