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.

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.