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.




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.