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.