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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2 responses to “Off the Bench: Reflecting Back After Stepping Away

  1. Excellent and well written article Stephanie — well grounded with a balanced perspective, thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I just found your blog, and I really appreciate this article! I am currently a 4th year Mol Bio PhD student thinking about leaving the bench for Public Outreach and Education. It’s a bit scary, but it helps to hear others talk about their experiences! Thanks! And I look forward to keeping up with your blog!

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