Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Being a Woman Scientist

On my first day of kindergarten my Mom made me promise that I would go to college.   As the story goes, my reply was “Ok, Mom, but can I finish kindergarten first?”  I’ve been lucky to grow up with two very supportive parents, who pushed, pulled, and cheered me through twelve years of private schooling, four years of undergraduate school, fours years of graduate work for my M.S. and now are helping me work through my PhD.   
Education, for my parents, was always a privilege.  My Mom was told she wasn’t bright enough to go to college, most of my Dad’s family expected nothing of him.  For their families, education was not a priority.  My parents proved them wrong.  My parents both went to school and raised five kids, I was the “law school” baby, famously colicky the night before Dad’s Bar exam.  My Mom finished her undergraduate degree at forty, and taught for a year just to prove to herself that she could. 
We ate dinner together every night, debating and discussing politics, ethics, medicine, science, and poetry, always with the “good book” –a very large dictionary – nearby.  My parents worked hard to provide us with a good education, spent many nights helping us with homework, and teaching us to write as we worked on reports and essays for school.  They always pushed us to get professional degrees “Be a lawyer! Or a doctor!” and the house rule was that our family does not turn in sloppy work, even if it meant staying up all night to perfect the latest project. 
My sister and I are both in doctorate programs now; she’s in physics, I’m in ecology.   My younger brother is a talented musician who is working hard at producing his own album and building a name for himself.  My parents are immensely proud and brag about us every chance they get. 
But.  As beautiful as this story is, it has not been easy for me, nor my sister.  I have struggled as a woman in the sciences.  I’ve dealt with sexual harassment, lacking support of my instructors, discrimination at work, and a high level of competition from my classmates. 
As a student, I’ve sat through uncomfortable office hours, where my questions were met with smirks, struggling to get my professor to focus on my face, and trying to ignore the occasional, less then subtle innuendos -- and soon I began to bring a friend to office hours with me. 
Socially, being a scientist can be difficult.  Intelligence can be intimidating to some men, and when your friends introduce you as the brilliant scientist, people try to be interested, but their eyes glaze over after a minute or two and eventually they wander off. 
Working in the sciences, as an academic, I’ve made a conscious effort to become part of the “’ol boys’ club” – to do otherwise would be to miss out on essential networking, opportunities, and conversation.  Being in the club usually means meeting for drinks, discussing current events, academic policies and office politics, while also tolerating/ignoring/biting-your-tongue at the comments about the “little ladies” at home, the attractive students in class, or the new secretary’s well-fitted wardrobe.  While this gives me a strong advantage in my field, and will continue to, I hope that in the future I’ll find a more inclusive environment, with colleagues that are conscious of the degree of respect I deserve to encounter.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Suicide Prevention at OSU

I recently attended Suicide Prevention Training, held by OSU's UCAT and facilitated by Stephanie Rohdieck on 9/17/2013.  The training workshop focused on skills to identify at-risk behavior, and provided statistics regarding at risk populations at universities.

This training was not an easy experience for me.  Suicide is a very deeply personal topic for me.  I’ve lost several friends to suicide. The word suicide resonates deeply with me.  Culturally, there is a stigma surrounding it, a negative connotation that there must have been something wrong with the person. For me, however, the word suicide means that something has gone very wrong in a person’s life, and when they needed it the most, no one was there to help. 

I have done extensive reading regarding the potential warning signs and prevention, this training was specific for universities and I am glad I attended it.  However, when discussing suicide at a workshop there is some air of superficiality to it.  Not by the facilitator, who did an excellent job communicating the information and conveying her own story and emotions regarding suicide, but among those attending the workshop itself.  There was an air of separation in the workshop, distance from the reality of at-risk individuals.  While I am certain every person in the room would do their very best to help someone who was suicidal, I got the distinct impression that the majority were there for the certificate and only going through the motions. 

The choice to end your life comes only after all hope has run out. Only when enduring whatever pain, physical, emotional, mental, is too much and the effort to cling desperately to life is too much does a person choose suicide. The idea of seeking out help doesn’t occur to them, because who could possibly help with such a deeply personal issue?  For those at risk for suicide, there is no other escape.  It’s a dark, bleak, and painful world they live in, and many people do not have the strength or will to continue in it. 

As far as helping students, I try to be aware of the wellbeing of all my students.  Establishing a good rapport with students is essential.  If I ever have to discuss at risk behavior with a student I know that I’ll be doing my best, however awkward, uncomfortable, and emotional the confrontation/discussion may get.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Week 10!

It's week ten and I'm working my brain to mush. 

I aced my first class, which is good, but it was yet another water ecology course, so it doesn't really count as far as I'm concerned.  I'm taking two new seminars for the second half of the semester, in addition to the "parade of faculty" graduate seminar.  

The first seminar is on writing in hight impact journals.  The publish or perish mentality is thriving, as expected, in the ecology/evolutionary biology field.  I've been told I should try to write every day -- which is not difficult as I'm working to get my preliminary experiments planned and my proposal perfected.  I may start posting about some of the journal articles I'm reading -- be prepared for extreme nerdiness.  I may try to do a review paper and meta-analysis for my thesis, too.  I'm still trying to get my  master's work published too. 

The next seminar is an introduction to R.  "R is a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics."  My statistics know-how is need-to-know only -- that is, if I need to know it, I can look details up in a book and muddle my way to understanding.  I know enough that I can interpret statistics from journals etc -- but I'm lacking practical knowledge (i.e. how to run the programs).  I've used SPSS almost exclusively, but I'm finding R to be much more elegant and direct.  I am by no means a statistician.   But hopefully by the end of this seminar I can code some things in R and analyze my own data.  

It's been a stressful start, though.  I've been sick, stressed, and sleepless -- which doesn't help my 12-16 hour days.  BUT I absolutely LOVE being in school, doing research, and talking science with other, equally nerdy people.  There's something truely satisfying about being able to discuss the ideas and topics I'm learning and developing with people who are interested, engaged, and sometimes even excited about the science.  

I'm teaching, too.  This term I'm teaching outside the department, doing intro biology labs, which are a piece of cake since I've taught them using essentially the same techniques and the exact same book for lecture.  There are about 620 students taking just this section of biology, and I'm working with about 60 of them (two sections of ~30) for the labs.  

Teaching is great.  For me it helps to reinforce the basics of biology, while also reminding me that I need to be able to communicate in a way that someone who is new to biology will understand.  Having to explain (repeatedly) the simple concepts is a fantastic way to reinforce it for yourself.  

In terms of research:  I'm probably going to do a project examining interactions between bees and wasps and parasitoids, and the different landscape and habitat variable that might influence those.  That's a really REALLY broad idea, and of course will need to be narrowed down -- I like the idea of studying the mechanisms of parasitism, and the various tri-trophic interactions at play.  

Hopefully the rest of the semester goes a bit more smoothly -- and I DONT get the flu!