Monthly Archives: March 2014

Off the Bench: Reflecting Back After Stepping Away

by Stephanie Levi, Ph.D.

Science has always been my first and greatest love. I was encouraged to try out research at the age of 19 after a professor (then at Kenyon College) noticed that I had an apparent inability to leave the lab once the formal lab session of my molecular biology course was over. While other students would stream out on their way to dinner after the lab ended, I would remain, where I would practice embedding insect brains in paraffin and try my hand sectioning them to see if a genetic mutation indeed caused the nerves leading from the brain to the eye to become jumbled, as my professor suspected.

I couldn’t let it go. I loved this stuff. One day after weeks of this, he finally said, “Stephanie, why don’t you give research a try?” An invitation to the lab was exciting, but intimidating – science was for “smart” people, for guys, you had to be a genius, and I was none of those things. But, with my mentor’s encouragement, I joined the lab and I’ve been a scientist (under the formal definition – I mean, everyone is a scientist) ever since.

The journey was filled with encouragement, support, exciting challenges. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago  in molecular genetics and cell biology. I published peer-reviewed journal articles, presented work at conferences all over the world and rubbed shoulders with the field’s best and brightest. But I’m not a scientific researcher anymore. What happened? Could I cut it? Yes. Did I love it? Yes. Was it hard? Sure. But that’s not the reason why I stepped away. And I know it’s not the reason many of my colleagues (male and female) do as well.

So, what is at the heart of the female-centric “brain drain” in STEM? I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, there were a few factors at play that I recognize in peers, some of which were cited in an article on theHuffington Post that caught my eye last year.  Work-life balance is certainly a factor, and I think this is true whether the individual in question has children or not. I remember seeing my advisor leaving the lab at 6:00 to have dinner with his family, and returning at 10:00 PM to continue working until 4:00 AM. He didn’t seem to mind, but I knew that I would, and I know that many of my friends in the program (male and female) would too. Our love of science wasn’t our entire lives, it was an important (and admittedly huge) part of our lives, but there was more to life – we hoped to have families, hobbies, to celebrate special occasions and holidays with our loved ones, and do the things that regular, non-researcher people do. It didn’t seem fully tenable with a research career, and we wondered how our next decades would be consumed by our research lives. Stepping away from the lab was not a choice made lightly, but it offered the chance to engage our scientific interests and also have the rest of it all. It was a gamble, but one we felt was worth taking. I suspect we weren’t alone. I would argue that “women’s issues” are just plain “human issues,” belonging to men as well. Many of us sought better work-life balance as we came of age scientifically, and left the world of research as we were convinced that it was incompatible with an equally healthy personal life.

I mentioned my graduate advisor above. What I did not mention is that he wasn’t working in the lab (the “fun part,” if you will), he was feverishly writing grants to fund the work that the rest of us were so fortunate to do. With ongoing federal cuts to science in the early 2000s (cuts that eased somewhat since 2008, but seem to loom constantly), that job became even harder. There was less money to go around for science (and many other areas), but increased need for the solutions that the sciences offer, such as cures, medications, solutions to issues such as global warming, water shortages, energy issues and more. This has left scientists scrambling for funds, writing grants aggressively to fund the groups of people doing the research itself. It’s a hard cycle to break into for a young investigator, and it’s compounded by the publish-or-perish culture espoused in the sciences: You don’t get grants unless you publish consistently, and that’s a tough thing to do without money in the first place. After a Ph.D., you do a post-doctoral fellowship, and another, and another, until you get a position. It’s sadly not a cycle that inspires hope in most, and when faced with this uncertain situation that demands every waking moment or the option to leverage our skills and abilities with more certainty, many go for door number two.

A second reason has to do with pure passion. While many of us adore science, we love other fields as well. I saw in myself a proficiency for communicating science with the public, sharing its real-world applications to get the public to care about science more in the hopes that they would nurture an interest in science and math fields in their children, educate themselves, and vote for politicians who supported funding for the sciences, and that’s how I’ve chosen to direct my career. Some of my scientist friends love to write – they became science journalists. Some love politics – they work for think tanks and ran for office. Some really loved business – they became patent officers and went to work for financial firms armed with their sharp analytical skills. We aren’t one dimensional, and our interests can take us in other directions and often do so. This means that we aren’t in the research pipeline anymore. Do women do this more often than men? Maybe, but I would offer that we’re all complex individuals with a variety of interests. When I knew that I could enjoy a satisfying career that offered the opportunity to engage with science, support others, improve diversity and representation in the sciences, and engage the public in science, I knew I had found my calling. I also know that I am in good company.

There is also bias, pure and simple, and I do think this influences the number of women who choose to pursue research careers. I could definitely feel that there was a boys’ club vibe in academic departments, and it’s not easy to be an “other,” no matter where you are. Community, support, and mentorship all matter, and not feeling like you have those pieces when you’re engaged in such demanding work can be the difference between success and failure. Interestingly, I would argue that it’s often unconscious – it did not occur to anyone that by not inviting the two women in the department to join the other faculty for lunch that those women felt isolated, but that’s what winds up happening even though all are (usually) well-intentioned. Important conversations happen at those casual lunches – collaborations are conceived, support is doled out, jokes are exchanged, and grant ideas are born. When these kinds of things happen in graduate school, they seed the idea that things will only get worse as we move farther into our research careers – and we bail out on them.

What’s the solution? I wish I had answers, but unfortunately, I only have ideas. Encouraging the inclusion of underrepresented individuals and women to assume leadership roles in the research community would be a great start. I also think that stronger policies that support work-life balance for men and women would help. Finally, making sure that our scientists are supported, and that the younger generation of up and coming scientists get the message that there are lots of ways to be a scientist would really make a difference. The change has to start with us, but the the way forward is more opaque than that affirmation suggests.


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Applied Words: Unseen Worlds – An Art + Science Party

Once upon a time, Science lived in a tower all by itself.  It never really got to talk with its friends, Art or Literature.  Then one day, a magical organization came along (The Guild Literary Complex) that called out to Science’s big, bright tower, “Science, come out to play!”  Science flew down the tower stairs, reunited with its old friends and lived happily ever after.

Okay, so maybe we’re not exactly experts at writing fairy tales (we’re much better at non-fiction – really), but there’s some truth to our (ridiculous) attempt – recent years have seen science hopping out of silos and mingling with other fields in a bevy of interdisciplinary adventures, as it should, since science really does intersect everything.  In March, we’re incredibly proud to partner with our good friends at the Guild Literary Complex, which has been working for over 25 years to showcase Chicago’s incredible literary talent, for a shared installment of their monthly series, “Applied Words,” which I am thrilled to be guest curating this month.  Applied Words features a series of incredible local writers reading on a theme, and this month’s theme is “Unseen Worlds,” inspired by the secret worlds scientists encounter in our work.

The event pulls together an all-star cast of scientists and writers (some do both), highlighting the incredible cross-disciplinary talents that Chicago boasts.  “Unseen Worlds” stemmed from the experiences that we scientists often have while doing exciting research that relies on the incredible microscopes at area institutions (but few in the public get the chance to experience – although we’re out to change that!).  It’s easy to be captivated by the images that microscopes capture, and the idea that there are worlds that are visible far beyond what our naked eye is capable of visualizing is exciting to scientists and non-scientists alike (just check out the images interspersed in this newsletter!).

Beyond that inspiration, there are communities of people who can’t necessarily access science easily or are underrepresented in STEM, and we see the theme as an opportunity to highlight these communities and populations, understand the connection between science and social justice, and support their engagement and interest in science and math.  The theme also crosses disciplines, exploring how science and the arts and humanities intersect, and what happens when they do.

The evening will also give you the opportunity to be the scientist and try your own hand at microscopy at one of our five microscope stations, and win some fun scientific swag by guessing the real identity of a series of everyday objects as seen under electron microscopes.  Join us to engage both sides of your brain through science and the arts!

The Details:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

7:30 PM

Schubas (3159 N Southport Ave, Chicago, IL 60657)

Free, 21+, No Pre-Registration Necessary, Red and Brown Lines to Belmont

Our Speakers:

Jotham (Joe) Austin, II received his BS in Biology from Penn State University-Behrend, but when not in the lab he was busy writing short stories and poems. He attended graduate school at Arizona State University, where he received his PhD in Botany. One could say his love of writing continued to blossom: Joe started reading his poems at coffeehouses and small venues around Tempe, AZ, and eventually formed a poetry/music combo with Robbie Roberson, director of Electron Microscopy. After taking a Postdoctoral position in Microscopy in Boulder, CO, he made his way to Chicago where he currently is Director of the University of Chicago’s Electron Microscopy Core Facility. Joe returned to creative writing after tearing his Achilles tendon, finishing his first novel, Pretty Small Things. He now knows the true meaning of rejection as he chases publication, but everyone loves his homebrew.

Paul Gorski   majored in biology and chemistry before taking a job as a technical copywriter. After coordinating his marketing department’s move to digital publishing in the early ‘90s, he moved on to develop and support digital publishing systems used by ad agencies, newspapers and publishers. Paul currently supports publishing workflows at the American Dental Association in Chicago. He also writes two weekly columns for The Rock River Times newspaper in Rockford, where he lives with his wife and children. Somewhere between Chicago and Rockford he pauses long enough to manage, the National Writers Union–Chicago website.

Vojislav Pejović (“voice-love peyovich”) is a neurobiologist by training and earns his living as a medical writer. In 2008, he published a critically acclaimed novel in his native Montenegro, and in 2010, translations of Charles Simic’s poetry in Serbo-Croatian. He also wrote a couple of movie scripts. His current project is a collection of stories in English and Serbo-Croatian. He lives in Evanston with his wife and their two sons.

Anne K. Yoder is a staff writer for the online literary magazine The Millions and is the co-editrix of Projecttile, a journal of nontraditional writing with a feminist bent. When she’s not dealing in words, she’s dealing in pharmaceuticals, legally. She’s a registered pharmacist in three states and she’s moonlighted as a hospital pharmacist for over ten years to support her writing habit. Her fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications.

About the Guild Literary Complex

For over 25 years, the Guild Literary Complex has been a community-based literary organization presenting and supporting diverse, divergent, and emerging voices through innovative programs including performances and readings.

The Guild Literary Complex believes that vibrant literature contributes to society and community, and that people should have access to quality literary experiences that engage them with dynamic juxtapositions of voices and ideas.

Past programs have included The International Writers Exchange, Muslim Women Writers, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry National Tour, Andrés Montoya as well as Cave Canem Literary Prizes (and other cohort residencies), and other author events/special programs.  Past presenters have included Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavio Paz, Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie, and many others.  Learn more about the Guild Literary Complex and signup for their mailing list and events at their website.

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