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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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.