“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


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

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

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

Always rushing, never celebrating

One of the most discomfiting moments of last semester came in my lab meeting in late November. I’d just submitted a big grant and we had gotten past a conference where my students presented preliminary results and research plans. I felt like celebrating. But we were also in the throes of the end of semester craziness. I asked the students to go around the table and tell the group what they’d accomplished during the semester and what they still wanted to get done. The first student quickly listed off about 5 things she wanted to accomplish before the end of the term. There was a long pause and then she managed to articulate one thing she’d accomplish already. I gently reminded her about the poster she’d presented only the week before. There was an “Oh yeah, there was that.” And what about the fellowship application she’d submitted a week before that? “Right, that too.” We moved on to the next student. She listed close to 10 things she wanted to get done before the term ended in 3 weeks. And then she tried to pass off to the next student. “But what did you accomplish?”, I queried. She said that she’d made a poster, but had to be prompted before she’d include instrumenting a field site and beginning data collection (a massive undertaking) in her list of things she’d achieved during the semester. We moved onto the third student…and the same thing happened. Even having watched me prompt her colleagues for their achievements, she still focused on the to-do list. And so it went.

Those few minutes have stuck with me, because I’m tremendously proud of what my students have gotten done in the few short months they’ve been in graduate school, but I’m also worried that I’m setting the wrong tone for them. Continue reading

What kind of a mentor do I want to be?

Remember those teenaged fights with your parents that inevitably ended with some iteration of “I will never forget what it’s like to be a teenager when I’m an adult!”? In spite of our best intentions, I think we are doomed to forget, to some extent. Now, as I prepare to start my first faculty position, I find myself trying to remember all of those things I promised myself during the struggles of graduate school, when I fantasized about what kind of mentor I wanted to be one day.

I count myself lucky to have had a fantastic mentor. He remembered to praise (a rare trait), gave good feedback, and was supportive. I was able to talk to him about my  family troubles, or a problem with my health (perhaps that is as much a testament to my being an over-sharer as it is to his emotional intelligence). We had open discussions about my anxieties or fears. He always listened, gave me constructive feedback, offered validation when I needed it, and pushed me to do better.

Our lab group was close. Continue reading