Filed under: Ways I don't ever want to have to improvise again

Oh for goodness' sake. My first "real" day back at work, and I had arranged everything perfectly. Even though dad is out of town so I'm flying solo, I got myself ready and fed, the car all packed up, set to go before the baby woke up. Get her in the car, successfully perform our ~2 hour/90 mile one way commute, make it to daycare on time, get to my office before my first meeting is about to start. Meetings scheduled chock-a-block all day, with only about 10 minutes in between at crucial bodily fluid collection times. Get to the first of those 10 minute time blocks, feeling like I'm gonna fricking explode, and:

OMFG I FORGOT THE %$%#@& DROP-INS LINERS AT HOME!!!!1111!!@1!12@!!@!

90 miles away. With no time to even rush to a freaking Walgreens. Let's just say the emergency improvisation involved blotting bags, a heat sealer and some lab tape. A friend dubbed me the McGuyver of moms, and indeed perhaps someday I will be worthy of this title. I totally shudder to think of what will happen if I ever forget the whole pump at home:

Repost: Graduate School Soul Searching

Reposted from 8/2008, right before I started my job as an assistant professor

I spent a few hours this week at a retreat for the undergraduate interdisciplinary scholars program from my postdoc institution (run by my postdoc mentor and another friend of mine), since it was at a center about half an hour from my new house and so it was not hard to pop over for dinner and a career panel session. These kids really are excellent, they go to a top-level undergrad school and got into a top-level research program that gives them some funding etc. Most of them leave their undergraduate career with graduate-student-level experience and some even leave with graduate-student-level understanding. Many end up with multiple papers from their projects, in high-end journals.

It was a lot of fun talking to them and hearing them present their posters, and laughing inside at the contrast between my own understanding of my undergraduate research and how well some of them REALLY GET what they are doing. I barely had a clue, I had good hands and I understood the overall point of what I did but it took until I was in grad school for me to think back and say, "Ahhhhhh, so THAT'S what I was doing..." But still, they are college kids and their enthusiasm pretty well outstrips their sophistication for the most part. The reality check of a long-term project, the weight of being responsible for your own destiny (and the research-life lesson that NOTHING EVER WORKS) hasn't hit them yet.

The theme of our career panel discussion was 'failure.' What do you do when things don't do what you want them to? When suddenly you're not a golden child anymore? When it dawns on you that YOUR ideas have to carry this enterprise, and suddenly your ideas aren't working the way they always did before? When the people around you aren't as supportive or nice, and the care bears undergrad special tea party is over? We all had plenty of stories, the kind of stories that probably just sound to the kids like 'and uphill both ways with no shoes in the snow blah blah blah...'

But in addition to us young faculty examples, there was an alum of the program back to talk about graduate school. As an undergraduate this kid was the star, he got so many papers in seriously good journals and worked so hard, all the while being a pleasant person to be around and staying generally popular. His research mentor pushed him really hard, got things out of him that he didn't know he had, and pulled his level of understanding of the science he was doing to that of at least a mid-year grad student. Succeeding was the norm, reinforcement of worth and purpose was the norm, and everybody talked about how well he would be able to do in grad school with such a start. Definitely golden-child paradigm, and just 3-4 years out of the program, already a legend to all of them.

Grad school however has been a different story for him. Not because he has done badly by any outward measure, or come anywhere close to failing, or even not made enough progress for his program's or his PI's requirements. Instead, it's the waking up to the real process of science and how it works for most people (even most high-level people), the part where hardly anything you do works, you have to keep plugging and plugging away at problems that seem so stupid, and nobody is there saying 'Come on, let's go, you can do it, one more rep' like your personal research trainer. It's having a PI who is much more 'watch and wait,' who leaves things up to you because it's your job to figure them out. And, how it feels when that progress just doesn't flow like it used to.

The room just quietened as he opened up and talked through it all, about coming to a place where you really start to ask yourself 'What am I worth? If I can't do this as well as I thought I could, if I can't make the contributions and have the ideas and jump to the starting line as easily as it looked like I could, am I still worth as much to it as when I could?' He articulated so simply and profoundly that classic struggle of growing up, between the 'ego' (in the psyche-sense not the colloquial), one's self, and relationship to WHY we do science: Because we can? Because it matters? Because people reward us for it? Because we want to know? And watching him let all those other kids in, to see in real-time what it is to transition from being a happy undergrad just having some fun in the lab, and doing really well at it as they all are, to an individual human being trying to find out if they are able to be worthwhile and important to the overall enterprise, was REALLY moving. He helped them to understand what graduate school is really all about in a way that we faculty people (even though we were all only about 10 years older than them) were just too far out to bring to them.

It is so fascinating to see someone grow like that. And although this guy is still in the middle of the hardest, crappiest, soul-searchingest phase of graduate school, you can see that his abilities, thoughtfulness and curiosity will bring him out of it. He really is sharp and an excellent communicator, and he has that fundamental individual reflective drive that makes the highs higher after coming through the darker lows. THIS is one of the reasons I want to be an academic scientist, for the opportunity to watch and be there for people coming around that bend--it's more than a little selfish, mostly for my own satisfaction and amusement, but I can comfort myself that it has value outside of that as well. Whether or not I can effectively help guide them around it will be another story--and besides, it really is something you figure out for yourself or you don't, no mentor can do it for you. But at least I get to have a job where part of my role is to be there to see it.

NSF revisions

I just had an extremely informative discussion with a PO at NSF about revising my proposal. One of the most useful tidbits was that it is actually BAD with NSF to do the whole "introduction to resubmission" thing with all your point-by-point revised items. With NSF, that can call attention to the negatives and keep reviewers (who are frequently different people than reviewed your grant first time around) from recognizing the awesomeness of your revised proposal. The advice was just to revise according to the overall comments and let the better proposal speak for itself.

The mythology of on-campus childcare

You know how when female faculty are being recruited, and the administration and others around like to make sure to point out the WONDERFUL ON CAMPUS CHILDCARE option(s) like a shining beacon of hope for the women of science? How they have one care-worker for every infant, and the little babies get a curriculum of tummy time, teething rings and naps. How it is just one of the things that {insert institution here} does to make life easier for female professors on the tenure track, along with turning off the tenure clock and giving actual parental leave. They draw us in, getting us to trust them that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY, YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL.

But I was e-talking to Isis today about my childcare woes, and she helped me realize the truth. On campus childcare is like the mighty unicorn, with its strong mane and glowing horn to light us to a new age of working motherhood. The unicorn that lives in rainbow land, dancing from baby to baby bestowing its magical wisdom into their tiny brains.

But you see, also like the mighty unicorn, on campus childcare is ACTUALLY NOT REAL. You get to see this cute, rainbow happy place with all (*8 of*) the little babies there (for a campus with thousands of faculty, at least a few tens of whom, if not hundreds, are probably gestating/newborning at any given time... not to mention the tens of thousands of students/trainees) and think "How wonderful! Here's an institution that is ready to support working moms!" But if you look real close up, such as when you're actually trying to get a spot in it, you see that the unicorn is actually a mutated goat with sparkle hair paint sprayed on (please see Figure 1 for illustration--note*: style copied directly from Isis for this message).
When it comes to putting the money and resources into something that would actually WORK for students, postdocs and faculty, it all gets revealed as an elaborate hoax. Just like unicorns, it's a lovely idea but must be a fantasy because your kid will never get to hold one and pet its sweet, shiny hair. You'll have to settle for the former petting zoo pony at best--at least it doesn't bite.