Why I’m Marching

Because when we first learned we were having a son, my husband and I had the same thought: “we have to raise him not to be an asshole.” That son is now a sweet, kind three-year-old who is equally fond of cement mixers and princess dresses, T-ball and his toy kitchen. He has a little brother now, too. I am the mother of two sons. And I want them to grow into strong, intelligent, thoughtful men who treat all women (and all people) as respected equals. This task is made rather more difficult when the highest office in the land is occupied by a man who treats women like objects, publicly insults and belittles them, doubles down on those insults, who has boasted about sexual assault, on tape, for God’s sake, and still managed to be wildly popular among a significant fraction of the population. I march to send the message to my sons: this is not what real manhood looks like.

Because the office of president can no longer be held up as something to aspire to. Instead, if my kids exhibit any presidential behavior whatsoever, they shall face the mother of all Time-Outs.

Because in addition to sons, I also have nieces. Two of them are under 4 years old. Imagine if you were a little girl, and the only president you’d ever known was a woman. Imagine how your vision of your own potential would be expanded by such a reality–how you would be able to take for granted certain possibilities that women have fought hard for for centuries, that apparently still hover out of reach. And now imagine that the only president you’ve known is a misogynist with zero qualifications for governance, who nevertheless managed to get elected over a woman who was probably the most qualified and experienced candidate for president we’ve seen in the last fifty years. This, unfortunately, is a dynamic my nieces will encounter over and over in their lives. But they should hear me say it’s not right, and it never will be.

Because the day after Election Day in 2008, I went to the Oakland drop-in center for homeless women and kids where I used to cook breakfast every Wednesday. Over coffee I listened to the families talk about the election results, giddy, still a little disbelieving. Several were African-American women with school-aged kids. I listened to these mothers of young black boys and girls as they shared their hopes for the future, tears in their eyes. How, whatever else Obama would or would not accomplish, he had already given them, and especially their sons, a great gift: the chance to see someone that looked like them in the White House.

Because I can’t imagine what mother could possibly get that same almost holy thrill from seeing Donald Trump elected.

Because I have met and worked with a lot of people who came to this country without documents, and I know how desperate most of them are for a better life, how hard they have worked to get here and stay here, and how limited their options are. “I’m not against immigrants,” I hear many citizens say, “I just want them to come the legal way, to get in line with everyone else.” What these citizens don’t know is that for the poor, and for many people fleeing extremely dangerous situations in war- or violence-torn nations, there is no line. There is no legal alternative. Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform. Until that happens, we need compassion and leeway for those who are here in the shadows.

Because I personally know Dreamers who have lived their whole lives in this country after being brought here illegally as children. They are as American as I am and they deserve a chance to thrive here and to give back to the country they’ve made their own. If Trump revokes DACA, they could be deported to countries where they have never lived, where they don’t know anyone, where they don’t speak the language. This makes America poorer.

Because in this mainstream-Christian society, freedom of religion don’t mean a thing unless it applies to other religions.

Because once fossil fuels are pumped up and burned, they can’t be put back in the ground. Once coral reefs are bleached or old-growth forests are cut down, they not coming back in my lifetime. Once a river is fouled with mine tailings or pipeline spills, the ecosystem that depends on it may be destroyed forever. I have faith that we will recover from many Trump-era policies, but a failure to act on climate now may hasten disaster from which we will never recover. Indeed it may already be too late.

Because I’m one of those nasty women, and I’m not going to let this shit happen again.

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Endangered Scientistas: My Marriage as Case-Control Study, Part II

Read Part I first, okay?

The postdoc.

That time in a scientist’s life that my graduate advisor described as the best, the most rewarding: that three-to-six-year period after the Ph.D. where you become a virtual apprentice in someone else’s lab, working under the umbrella of an established scientist, but developing your own projects and interests. You’re free of the additional stresses of both the graduate student (classes, teaching assistantships, one bitch of a learning curve) and the principal investigator (grant-writing, committees, teaching, personnel management, fancier dress code, and the list goes on). You are free to focus on pure research–a love of which is, we hope, the reason you got into this line of work in the first place.

My husband and I were both looking forward to our postdocs. Me especially, maybe. I love doing research–the actual doing of it, the handiwork involved, as well as the thinking that precedes and follows each bit of action. It’s the closest I ever come to making art. In college I worked in a histology lab where my weekly work was to cut very thin slices of skin from salamanders (don’t ask–or do), float them on the surface of a water bath, and, using delicate paintbrushes to manipulate the fragile tissues, mount them on glass slides to be stained in a panoply of bright colors.

So yes, I was excited to do research full-time, and I’d chosen a topic that deeply interests me: immunity to malaria, one of the most devastating diseases of humankind. My husband planned to study a different kind of immunity: responses to parasitic worms and to allergens, which the body treats similarly for reasons that are still murky but intriguing. We’d been in the same lab in grad school; now we were diversifying our joint portfolio, if you will. This was important for our long-term careers, since it’s unlikely that a single university or research institution would want to hire two people who study the same thing.

So began our first tangle with the two-body problem. We had to find two labs in the same geographical region that aligned with our respective interests. And they had to be good labs–labs with the funding, reputation, and intellectual environment to set us up for success.

We started by picking cities: Boston, Seattle, San Francisco. These are places with a high concentration of research institutions, improving our chances of both finding a good lab. But much to our surprise, when we each started looking for specific labs to join, my husband–let’s call him Dr. J–couldn’t find a single one in the Boston area that had what he was looking for. And I couldn’t find one in San Francisco (or Berkeley or Palo Alto) that seemed a good fit for me.

I won’t walk you through all the discussions we had–about switching out Boston for Philadelphia; about whether, if we did our postdocs in Seattle, we stood much chance of staying there long-term (we like Seattle, and it’s unusual to be hired as faculty in the same place you did your postdoc). Suffice to say, there was no one place that would put us both in top-notch postdocs that aligned with our interests. One of us was going to have to settle. But who?

Oh–and there was more factor to consider: we wanted a kid.

We were both pushing thirty, and while that’s not an old age for first-time parents anymore, we had various reasons for wanting to plunge into parenthood sooner rather than later. This meant that during our postdocs, we (but mostly I) could expect to need some time off from work. Possibly a lot of time, since we were really hoping to care for our child at home for at least six months before putting him/her in daycare. We also decided that in order to (1) have the kind of work-life balance we craved and (2) give our child (or perhaps children) the home environment we wanted, only one of us would pursue a career as a principle investigator. That was the person whose career we should prioritize; that was the person who should get the best postdoc.

That person was my husband.

I want to be clear here: I fully participated in this decision, I signed off on it, I still think it was the right one for us. And in part, we chose to prioritize Dr. J’s career because of personal preference: he had long hoped to run his own lab, while my own interests are more varied and I felt I could be happy in a less high-profile research setting.

But did science’s gender bias play a role in shaping our decision? You bet it did. For one thing, we knew that I would get at least some paid maternity leave after having a baby, while university policy doesn’t grant a single day of paid leave for fathers. Thus I would likely take more time off, freeing my husband to put in more time in the lab. For another thing, statistically speaking, Dr. J stood a better chance than I did of running the postdoc gauntlet and coming out at the other end with a faculty job–at which (again, statistically speaking) he would possess more earning power than I would as a woman.

And there were less tangible considerations, too–like how my husband felt more like a peer to the mostly male professors we interact with, making it easier for him to imagine being one of them. How my entire life–long before I ever thought about having children in a concrete way–I have assumed that I would bear most of the burden of caring for them, and so I have always factored this into my own vision of my career and my life’s work.

I could write a whole essay about these invisible cultural cues… and hopefully I will, someday. But we’ll leave it here for the time being: we moved to San Francisco, where my husband joined a well-regarded lab with obscene amounts of money, and I joined a new, unknown, poorly funded malaria lab that would go on to fold several years later.

Oh, and we had that kid, and yes, he is worth it, ya’ll. Charlie Brown postdoc and all.

 

 

Guns DO Kill People, Idiots

Orlando.

It’s been five days since a gunman there killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in American history. I learned about the massacre early that Sunday morning, it having been my turn to get up with the two-year-old when he made his usual, irritatingly perky appearance at our bedside. I logged into Facebook, wanting to mark the moment somehow, to say to my little corner of the world that I was awake and aware and horrified. I stared at the little status update box while my son ate his whole bowl of oatmeal-peanutbutter-raisins-banana-moreraisinsplease, and half of mine.

In the end, I posted nothing. No words worthy of the tragedy or the anger it inspired in me.

In part, my speechlessness came from having too much to say, from not being able to choose among the themes, most of them all too familiar, that jockeyed for position on the page. Gun violence, again. Homophobia, again. Religion twisted, used to justify insane and evil acts, again. The inevitable backlash that would follow, the vitriol against Muslims, against immigrants (though this gunman was an American citizen, born here, and no Trumpian ban on immigration of Muslims or Syrians or any other group would have prevented this homegrown terror).

In an emergency room, faced with a patient with multiple life-threatening injuries, you treat the most serious one first. The one that will kill you the quickest. Over the last few days, as politicians have made their usual murmurs and then shrugged their collective shoulders, it has become clear to me that the thing that will kill us first is a system in which pretty much anyone–including a man who’s been investigated multiple times by the FBI for terror connections–can buy a weapon capable of killing many people in a matter of minutes. The hatred for LGBTQ folk, the radicalized religion–those are things we need to tackle, but neither of those on its own enables such mass slaughter–and getting rid of them won’t get rid of gun violence. As long as people have access to assault weapons, a small number of those people will use those weapons to perpetrate mass violence.

This comes home to me especially today, on the one-year anniversary of the Mother Emmanuel shootings in South Carolina. That gunman was a white American, who mowed down black Americans in their house of worship. We can’t stop others like him by closing our borders, or shutting all the gay bars, or alienating moderate Muslims. We could, however, make it a little harder for him to acquire a gun.

Would stricter gun laws end gun violence in this country? Probably not. But reduce it? Evidence from around the globe suggests yes. And anyway, isn’t it time we tried to fix the problem, even if our attempts fail, or are only partially successful? Isn’t it time to do more than offer prayers for the victims?

 

Endangered Scientistas: My Marriage as Case-Control Study, Part I.

Over the last two or three years, I’ve become increasingly aware that I am a member of an endangered species, a dwindling tribe. Other specimens like me are dropping like flies everywhere I look: some who I went to college with, others I slogged through graduate school with, still others I’ve worked and networked with. Gone.

I’m talking, of course, about female scientists. Or as I like to call us, Scientistas. That has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Mostly, it’s just exactly the word scientist, which is, mostly, just exactly what we are. But then there’s that “a,” the feminine ending from the Romance Languages, a sort of asterisk after the word that could link to a footnote as long as the history of science itself. And there’s the entire suffix, ista, with all it invokes: feminista, Zapatista, maybe even a touch of the barista (after all, we spend our days mixing and brewing) and the fashionista (may I say, that white coat looks amazing with those sensibly close-toed shoes).

I’ve been a full-time Scientista for a decade now, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to meditate on my own mortality, career-wise. This has everything to do with the fact that three years ago, I entered the black box known as… the postdoc.

The postdoc–short for postdoctoral fellowship–is a sort of science apprenticeship, lasting anywhere from three to six years in the life sciences (or longer, in certain Bermuda Triangle laboratories), that customarily follows the Ph.D. It’s a must for scientists who want to land a faculty job at a university, as well as a number of jobs in industry, government, and beyond.

It’s also the stage at which an unsettling number of women leave science. It’s the “leaky pipeline” problem: there are plenty of women studying biology (my field) in college and graduate school, and a fair number of these women go on to do postdocs. But during and after the postdoc, the numbers of Scientistas drop sharply, startlingly. In my own graduate class at the University of California, Berkeley, slightly more than half the students were women; among the department’s faculty, about 20 percent were (and are). In my division there was one female professor, out of a dozen. I took classes from 12 different professors; not one of them was female.

It’s like this at universities all across the country. In fact, Berkeley is better than some. And it’s not simply a matter of needing to let the predominantly male old guard “age out;” when I started grad school, the three youngest and most recently hired professors in my division were all men. (Aside #1: not only men, but white men. People of color are also unevenly represented in science faculty, and this is also a huge concern.) (Aside#2: since I graduated, my division has hired two new female faculty members, who seem like total rock stars, as well as another male professor.)

I’m hardly the first to note or lament the disparity between the number of women who earn advanced degrees in the sciences, and the number who stick around to become professors and principal investigators. But now, three years into my postdoc, I find myself running into this issue in a very concrete way. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do after my postdoc, and it’s tough. In addition to the challenges people must navigate in any career–juggling job opportunities, family obligations, financial considerations–I feel an added pressure to excel in science, to run the gauntlet all the way through–because so many women don’t.

But will I? Will I stay in science, or will I leave? And if I leave, will it be because I really wanted to–because the life of a PI isn’t for me–or because I feel a preponderance of forces stacked up against me? Ultimately: is it because I’m a girl?

This is a complex question for a complex situation. There are many reasons why I might leave science, and a number of them don’t involve gender. Funding and professorships in short supply. Interest in other career paths. How to tell whether my choices are truly altered by the fact that I’m a woman–or more accurately, by the fact that a career in science poses unique challenges for me as a woman? Biologists love complexity, but we also like to simplify things in order to get to the bottom of them. What we need here is a control.

Enter my husband.

We met in graduate school at UC Berkeley. We earned our degrees in the same laboratory, under the guidance of the same mentor, who wrote us both similarly glowing letters of recommendation when we completed our dissertations. We graduated the same year, with identical degrees from one of the best-regarded programs in the country. Our publications records differ in an admittedly important way: mine is substantially longer, with several papers published in well-regarded papers, but my husband’s has the cachet of a paper published in Nature, arguably the top scientific journal.

Even so, when you throw in our other fellowships and honors and round off, we both left graduate school as fairly hot prospects with strong resumes (or CVs, as we call them in the sciences). And when we went shopping for postdocs, we both received job offers everywhere we interviewed.

Do you see where I’m going with this? My husband is me: the same skills set, the same training, the same career path up to the point where our postdocs begin. The “only” difference between us is that little “a:” Scientist versus Scientista.**

Now that I’ve defined the case (me) and the control (my husband), the experiment can begin, the data can be analyzed. How has my scientific journey been shaped by the fact that I’m a woman? How has it been different from my husband’s, who for the most part has interacted with the same people that I have, in the same settings, but as a man? I hope to dissect this, a little at a time, in future posts. Stay tuned.

 

**Yes. Okay. There are other differences between us as well. My husband’s fondness for aerobic exercise, for example, and his unholy love for banana-flavored ice cream. Still, I have to start somewhere.

The Tinies That Bind

This is the story of how I learned the Spanish word for scabies.

I was twenty-one years old and I had just graduated from college with a degree in biology. This is useful if you want to go to medical school or work in a research lab; it is not so useful if your plan is to spend a year and a half volunteering in a house of hospitality for migrants and refugees on the Texas-Mexico border. Most of the other volunteers were in the same boat as me. We were doing things we didn’t know how to do in a language we barely spoke, and our only qualification was that we were willing to work for free.

Nevertheless I loved it. It wasn’t long before I settled into the work with all my heart, finding a giddy joy in the mundane tasks of answering doors, mopping floors, sorting beans into the great big beat-up pot that bubbled day and night on the ancient gas stove.

I had been there for only a month or two when one of our guests rushed into the office where a few of the other volunteers and I were working, shouting in Spanish. “Come quick! Maria’s in labor!”

Naturally, our first question was: Which Maria?

This was a women’s shelter in Mexico. Half our guests were named Maria Something-or-Other, Maria de la Cruz or Maria de Jesus or Maria Teresa. And several of the Marias were pregnant. But we weren’t expecting the woman in question to be Maria Victoria, because Maria Victoria was only some five months along. I did not know a lot about pregnancy, except how to avoid it, but I was pretty sure that going into labor at five months was bad news bears.

We rushed out to the patio. Sure enough, Maria Victoria (we called her Vicky) was standing there with her hands on her belly, rocking back and forth, a wordless moan issuing from her parted lips, which were turned to the sky. The front of her dress was soaked and there was a puddle at her feet. “Oh God,” we volunteers hissed to each other in English, keeping what we hoped were calm expressions. “Her water broke.”    “NOT GOOD.”   “What should we do?”   “Don’t ask me. I’m twenty-one and I have a degree in biology.” And so on.

We brought her into the volunteer sala and had her lie down on the couch. Someone brought her apple juice, slabs of toast with margarine, a wash cloth for her forehead. Meanwhile I went to the office to call the hospital. We dialed emergency numbers a lot at the shelter; our guests tended to have issues. The people on the other end of the line knew us well. “Oh hey,” I said, “it’s me, at the shelter. Yes, again. No police this time.”

The paramedics showed up fifteen or twenty minutes later. We brought them right into the sala. They clustered around Vicky, four or five big burly guys and one woman, and examined her and talked to her quietly in Spanish, too much for me to follow. Then they looked back at me and the other volunteers, crowded in the doorway.

“Well?” we said. “Is she okay? Is the baby okay? Are you taking her in?” They looked at us strangely. “She’s fine,” one of the medics said. “She’s not in labor.”

We rushed to protest. “She is most definitely in labor! Her water broke! We saw the puddle!”

The medic sighed and motioned us out to the hallway. “She is not in labor. Her water is not broken. That puddle, that came from somewhere else, you understand?” He tapped the side of his head. And I realized what he was trying to say, which was that 1.  Vicky had peed on herself, and 2. she might be just a wee bit off her rocker.

This we knew.

“Oh, and one more thing,” said the medic. “Did you notice those red bumps she has on her wrists?” Oh yes, we said instantly. She’d told us she had eczema. We assured him that were giving her all sorts of moisturizing creams and lotions for it. The medic laughed without much humor and shook his head. “That is not eczema.” He took out a little pad of paper and a pen and wrote down a word I didn’t know, that none of us knew. “This is what she has.” He wrote down something else. “And this is what you need to get. For all of you, probably.”  

Twenty minutes later, standing in an aisle of the corner pharmacy, scanning the bilingual instructions on a box of pyrethrin, I learned the Spanish word for scabies.

I began to feel very itchy.

And I felt angry, too, furious in fact–angry with Maria Victoria for bringing scabies into our house and telling us it was eczema, angry when I thought of all the affectionate hugs she’d bestowed upon the volunteers, which had probably served to transfer tiny little skin-digging bugs onto our own bodies. And I was annoyed that she’d faked her own labor, caused us to worry and scurry and look foolish in front of the paramedics, who already thought, quite rightly I suppose, that we volunteers were in over our heads.

But then, standing there surrounded by the boxes of creams and pills and Band-Aids, I saw things for a moment from outside myself. I thought of Vicky–a homeless, penniless, pregnant woman with no prospects, staying in a shelter with no privacy and very little control over her very existence. I thought: maybe she just wanted to call the shots for once, to have the world revolve around her for a little while.

And you know what?

I get that.

I bought up the store’s entire supply of pyrethrin and headed home, feeling oddly comforted by the knowledge that even though we came from very different backgrounds, all of us who lived at the shelter–volunteers and guests alike–shared some fundamental things in common. Like: we all needed to be taken care of once in a while.

Also, we all had scabies.

Rilke After Ants

The ants are gone.

They’ve been staging raids on our kitchen for months now, uneven ribbons of them unspooling along the wall and up the sides of cabinets and along the rim of the trash can. They seem to multiply every time the air gets warm or it rains too much, or maybe it’s the fog settling down, or the angle of light in this hemisphere at this time of year–some mysterious combination of perfectly normal weather events that we have yet to work out precisely. Whatever it is, some mornings I wake to find scads of ants, whole rush-hour commuter trains of ants, Sherman-marching through the kitchen and setting upon every crumb left on the floor or counter from the night before.

Oh, did I mention that we have a toddler? A lovely, boisterous, brown-eyed toddler whose job description (which I have never been allowed to read, let alone edit) apparently stipulates “the liberal sprinkling of crumbs on all flat surfaces before bed each night” as a requirement. The ants assigned to crumb patrol in our kitchen can really just phone this one in.

But they don’t. No, our ants want to work for their food. As much as I despise them, I will grudgingly admit that these ants are some industrious little bugs. (Are ants bugs? Google later.) I’ve found them in closed boxes of cereal, in a zip-locked bag of sugar. The latter looked like an ant farm when I discovered it, almost cool in a creepy-crawly way. I put it into the freezer, next to the Frosted Mini-Wheats, which as it happens freeze quite well. We’ve had ants in the butter dish, in a pile of my son’s used Kleenex, swarming out of a piece of fruit I’d just cut into.

It’s nasty, y’all.

And don’t think we’ve just been sitting around and watching them have their way with the space where we cook and eat. (Or, you know, just sitting around and blogging about it, which would somehow be worse.) There’s a bottle of Windex, which has never been used on actual windows, that we keep handy to rain death on the ants and wipe out their pheromone trails. (Science!) We keep the sugar bowl in the fridge now, and move the trash can around to make it harder to find, and I try, I really try, to sweep up after our little Hansel-Gretel impersonator with his pockets of crumbs.

The clincher, of course, would be to cut the ants off at the source. More than once I’ve followed the trail of antmen back to where they they’re entering the apartment, and sealed the hole with lab tape.

But it’s like Whack-a-Mole. They just find another opening. And recently they’ve discovered an entrance that is beyond the power of lab tape to fix, a long wide crack under the bedroom baseboard heater. (The bedroom! Two rooms away!) When I saw that crack, something in me laid down arms and gave up. Well, I thought, that’s it then. We’ve got ants. Some people have credit card debt or weird skin allergies. We have ants. My mother came to visit a few weeks ago and looked side-eye at the ants on the counter, scrabbling out the calligraphy that only they can read. She didn’t say so, but I knew she was shocked and disturbed. I’d felt that way once too, before the ants broke me in. “Yeah,” I said, “we have ants. They’re annoying.” Sigh. Shrug.

And then. And then? First thing last Saturday morning we discovered a particularly gleeful revelry of ants, contra-dancing along a smear of peanut butter on the kitchen counter. A thick line of them lead down the side of the cabinet, across the kitchen floor, down the hall, through the bedroom. I windexed the living shit out of them while crying tears of despair. And in that moment, somewhere between me and my husband, the thought formed: NO. No, we do not have ants. I mean yes, okay, we do have ants, but we are not people who have ants. It’s not, like, a character trait. It’s not a immutable burden simply to be endured. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The boys went out to the hardware store and were back in fifteen minutes with a tube of caulk. My husband smeared great thick gobs of it into the crack under the heater. It was not pretty. Our landlord may disapprove of it, if he ever sticks his head down there. But fifteen minutes after the caulk had dried, we noticed a difference.

There were still ants. But they seemed confused now, piling up at the end of their former superhighway and then wandering aimlessly off trail. As I windexed and wiped up the leggy little bodies, they weren’t instantly replaced by more leggy little bodies.

I didn’t hope too hard, at first. I’ve made fixes before that didn’t last. There were still ants in the kitchen, stragglers and slackers moseying across the tile and in the fruit bowl and along the edge of the sink. But later that day, we left for the weekend, and when I came back 48 hours later…

…the ants were gone.

It’s been a week now. I left a few pieces of granola on the counter last night, almost deliberately. This morning they were untouched. The ants are gone.

I’ve read Rilke. What young poet hasn’t? And I’ve found words to live by in his letters–like the command to love the questions more than the answers, to circle them like like locked rooms that you will one day have the key to enter, or like letters written in a foreign tongue that you may one day hope to speak. But Rilke’s famous ringing edict–you must change your life–has always put me off. Underneath it I hear judgment: your life is terrible, and it’s all your fault. I imagine Rilke sitting across from me at my kitchen table, spooning ant-laced sugar into his tea, saying sternly: you know, you really must change your life.

I can’t, I think to myself on bad days. I can’t.

It was this prison of thought that my husband broke through when he brought home the caulk and began, recklessly and messily, to fill in the cracks.

Forget must, Rilke. I love you, but I don’t need to hear anymore about what I must do. I’m thirty-three years old. I pay my own bills. I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I’ve read all those job descriptions, okay? I know what I must do, and most days I do it, and some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed.

And yet–and yet. We had ants, and now we don’t.

Say it with me: shout it: carve it into marble.

You can change your life.