Tuesday, August 21, 2007

People who have helped me

A couple of posts ago, someone suggested that, rather than always writing about people who have screwed me over, I should write about people who have helped me.

The first female science teacher I had who liked me was in junior high school. She used to tell my parents that I should be a scientist, but I was embarrassed by the attention in front of the other kids, and really couldn't understand why she was impressed with me. I wasn't more enthusiastic about her class than I was about others, and I definitely didn't feel like I excelled at science. At all. I just wanted to go home and read novels in my bedroom with the door shut.

In high school, my only female science teacher was for a biology class. So she was an influence, even though I didn't realize at the the time how rare female science teachers were, much less science teachers of her caliber. She was outstanding.

I also had a physics teacher who was really patient with me, and I remember being excited about his class because he was very theatrical and always did lots of demonstrations that made everything seem fundamentally important to real life. I wasn't the best student in the class, by a long shot, but I always appreciated that he was not the sort to play favorites and that I was just lucky enough to have a good teacher.

In college, I had a TA for biology who encouraged me to take the hardest classes I could find, and join a lab as soon as possible. That was good advice.

My freshman year biology seminar was taught by a guy who gave a weekly assignment to read a journal article and ask three questions about it. I loved that guy! He treated us like young colleagues who might have interesting ideas, rather than the peanut gallery audience, as some lecturers did.

I worked in several labs as a student, and had several people take me under their wing and answer my stupid questions. A technician taught me molecular biology, and I worked with a very patient graduate student in a chemistry lab. They spent a lot of time with me and I don't know if I thanked them as much at the time as they deserved. I did email them years later to say thank you and tell them I got a PhD. They didn't sound surprised at all, which of course surprised me. But they didn't know how often, during grad school, I wondered how I would ever finish.

I worked with two women graduate students during college, neither of whom is in academia anymore. I find that discouraging, since one was a fantastic teacher, and the other is an incredibly creative person. Both of them were role models, so to see them become discouraged and feel that they had no choice but to look elsewhere, to me typifies the kind of negative signals young women receive all the time in science. To this day, seeing women get beaten down and leave is the most frustrating thing for me.

None of the PIs I worked with were women, until much later. There was a senior female postdoc in one of the labs who always encouraged me. Well actually she told me to go to medical school instead of graduate school, and at the time I just laughed at her, but later I realized why she said that. Especially in the current climate, it's much easier to get funding, even to do basic research, if you have an MD. There are a lot of grants specifically for clinical fellows and researchers, and MDs are generally also eligible for everything PhDs can apply for. So it just gives you more options. But I still think I would have hated medical school. Too regimented.

And I have to thank my best friend from grad school. She knows, but I would never have made it through without her. I count myself very lucky to have made such good friends in grad school.

Even if she does ask me periodically if I'm not sure I don't want to quit.

She has a hard time seeing me suffer, and I know that she can't help asking, even though she knows the answer is always the same: I'm not ready to give up yet. I'm always setting these goals, and saying "we'll see after that, I just want to do this one more thing." And it has been like that for several years now.

After that, it gets blurry. Maybe it's too soon, but it's hard for me to really be grateful to very many people who helped me in grad school or as a postdoc, since most of them did it grudgingly and only because I wouldn't take no for an answer.

I don't count my friends, of course. I mean the faculty and staff whose job it was to help me, as a student.

In most cases, getting help from them was a double-edged sword. Almost every person who inspired me also discouraged me or made my job harder than it needed to be, whether they meant to or not.

There was one female postdoc- also not in academia anymore- who gave me a good piece of advice that I'll always remember. She said when she felt like quitting science, she would go to the library and read non-specialist magazines that talked about other kinds of research, like astronomy or automotive engineering.

Just as a reminder that there was a reason we got into this. Sometimes it's really good to remember how to get excited about the wow-ness of what we do. The forest, instead of the trees.

There have been tons of people who have helped me in little ways over the years. The person who dropped what they were doing to help me find something. Probably hundreds of those. The person who answered a random email from a stranger halfway across the world. At least dozens of those.

But I'm still always amazed by the kindness of strangers. It's not a given, by any means, that people will help you. For every email I've sent and gotten help, I've probably sent three others that came back with an unhelpful answer, or else I never received a response at all. So that makes me really appreciate it when I email someone and the person responds right away.

I've had several collaborators like that, and in every case I count myself lucky that we crossed paths at the right time and had an excuse to work together.

I think the most altruistic people are the emeritus professors, whom I've never met in person but whom I've emailed long after their retirement to ask about some paper they published 20 or even 40 years ago. In most cases they've tried really hard to help me, and it was always clear that they just enjoyed the excuse to talk about science. I've learned a lot from them.

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At 6:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear MsPhD, love your blog, have never commented before -- let me tell you MY situation, and please advise if you can.

I'm starting my 4th year of grad school after three full years (plus three years as a technician) working in a high-powered, MD-driven, hierarchical lab where I was fairly happy. In short, I was driven out of the lab because of a personal relationship I had with a junior faculty in the department - we are now engaged to be married. The PI, a clinical chairman and internationally renowned in his field, told me after 3 years that he could no longer mentor me -- not too much of a stretch, since his idea of "mentoring" was once monthly meetings to inform him what was happening with the project. Nevertheless, I was settled, productive and relatively happy in the lab. Would have graduated ahead of schedule.

I had only a short time to find a new advisor, and went to a lab which I was led to believe was equally well funded, well renowned, etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The new lab is staffed with four technicians, one post-doc and one other grad student. The techs run the show, and treat me as a hapless underling even though I've been doing this for 6 years, have spoken at international meetings, and am generally considered at the top of my grad school class. Now I have techs trying to impose their own lack of skill (they can't get an assay to work if their life depended on it) onto me and my project. The PI is approaching retirement, ruled by his techs, and clearly disinterested in moving the research forward in an aggressive way. I don't want to rock the boat, or revolutionize their lab -- I just want to graduate, and I'm one paper away. I feel such rage with my previous advisor over what happened to me, and I feel myself slipping into downright depression over the dismal situation in my current lab, where they have one functional p1000 between the 8 of them. Arrgghhhh!! I don't want to change labs again (i've only been here for 6 weeks), but I'm worried my technical skills will start to slip, and my committee chair (very supportive of me) told me people may start to think of me negatively because of my association with this lab. What to do??

Anonymous in Cleveland

At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I asked for it, I got it! Thank you for telling about all of the helpful people in science...female AND male. I think this is a small step in the right direction. Although sometimes hard to find, there are people out there who can help you reach your goals or steer you away from pitfalls.

Just an observation: you seem to have a great deal of angst toward men. Is this just men in science or do you have the same feelings in other aspects of your life? You seem to be very thoughtful when it comes to your job, but sometime so thoughtless when describing men in your life.

I see (read) you as a person who has a great deal to give. Find avenues to success instead of listing obstacles...I think you will be much happier and sucessful.

Keep On Pluggin' !!!

At 9:44 AM, Anonymous Plant Master Flash said...

This is a really great exercise to do on one's own. It makes an even better blog post. :)

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Kate said...

Wounderful...simply wounderful.


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