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Who Run the World? (Girls Girls)

By Meghan Sullivan

A few weeks ago, I was at a scientific writing conference up in Madison, Wisconsin. It was an amazing opportunity, one I didn’t fully appreciate until we were half-way through the opening reception, when I finally realized the guy I’d spent the night talking to was the Keynote speaker slated to kick the conference off the next day (tips for confidence: if you’re going somewhere with bigwigs, don’t look up their profile pictures beforehand; blind ignorance can be a great opener. If you’re lucky, they might even find it charming).

Anyway, I was excited. Walking home after the last session, I rang up my mom back in Jersey, gushing about the journalists I’d met, this guy, that woman, oh! and Emily Willingham, who runs a blog called Double X Science (which, check it out if you haven’t already, it’s awesome). Science about women! For women! Celebrating women!

“Meghan,” she said, sounding – careful. “This isn’t…full of men-haters, is it?” What? I wanted to ask. What could she possibly mean?  Science writing? Feminism? Madison? My mother thinks about feminists the same way other people think about performance artists; it makes me feel uncomfortable, I hate it when they do that in public, the men that participate in it are probably gay, and all together there aren’t enough shaved limbs involved.

The thing is, feminism is still a dirty word, perhaps especially in science circles. Last weekend at the Chicago Council on Science and Technology’s Women In Science symposium, feminism per se wasn’t mentioned during the plenary talks, but ultimately it didn’t matter. Much like my mom, who raised three headstrong daughters and occupies a senior position at hospital back home, you don’t necessarily need to call a spade a spade in order to garden with it. Feminism is something that happens along the way. Almost every woman I spoke to admitted that at the start of their career, no matter their age, they thought that the old boys club days were long behind them, that they would be entering their chosen field more or less as equals. And each of them admitted that the farther they got, the more competitive their station became, they felt themselves being pulled back, mired in small slights and disappointments.

The Women in Science symposium was organized to give women researchers the resources they need to make progress in their careers and a network to support them when the going gets tough.

Dr. Alice Huang

It’s hard to tell someone how to succeed; what they encounter may be entirely different from your own experiences. Because of this, many of Saturday’s talks ran along the lines of “this is how I did it.” It was part biographical sketch, part personal philosophy, mixed up with their science and personal brands of humor – that’s one thing that seems pretty consistent with these women, they’re able to laugh, let things slide. In the opening Keynote, Dr Alice Huang, science veteran of more than 50 years, said that first you have to have a sense of humor, you’ve got to be able to laugh. It keeps us sane and it makes men nervous.

Despite the varied backgrounds – Alice Huang was born and raised in China, Vicky Prince in England, Kawatar Hafidi in Morocco – and the myriad of scientific interests (physics, math, biology, medicine), the talks ultimately came down to a bullet list of suggests. We’re scientists, after all, we like our facts simply and neatly presented. A few of the suggestions cropped up again and again, and I’ve done my best to stitch them together here:

Dr. Vicky Prince

1. Aim high & do what you love – If there’s one thing that’s sure to make you unsuccessful it’s believing you’ll be unsuccessful. “If I had listened to the whiffs of self doubt along my way, I never would have made it,” Dr. Alice Huang said, former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). A lot of science is sheer determination, dedication to a question that no one has answered before. If you don’t believe you’ll get it done, no one’s going to give you the grant money to do it. And you have to work at something you love. Grad school, academia, it’s a lot of work to keep on the right side of the publish or perish seesaw. If you’re going to put that much time in, it should be something that captures you. “And,” Dr Vicky Prince, Dean of Graduate Students at the University of Chicago said, “If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll probably be really good at it.” That doesn’t hurt either.

2. Pass it on – Mentor. If there’s one thing you have time for, even if it’s sporadic or rare, mentor. Let people know you’re willing to be a resource, be someone that they can come to for advice. “When you get to the top,” Huang said, “Don’t forget that you’re a woman.” If you’re in graduate school, you might have the chance to get an undergrad interested in science. If you’re the head of department, you might be able to alter then entire landscape at your University. When you succeed, your voice with be all the more powerful if you take the time to speak out.

3. Don’t take on more than you want to – At least one woman I know on faculty in a male dominated department has run herself ragged with committee after committee. On some level, it’s strategic for the department. We need to look diverse! Drag out the token female! But if you don’t want to do it, if you’re not interested in doing it, then don’t do it. Your time is valuable and you’ll have enough on your plate trying to keep your head afloat in your field as it is.

4. Laugh, grow a thick skin – This doesn’t mean ignore discrimination – call people out if they’re grumbling about a woman not knowing what she’s talking about/is unqualified for some vague reason. But, be able to laugh. One woman recounted a story in which she was sitting on a hiring panel where one male colleague said that he’d really like to hire a female candidate as she was well qualified and pretty, besides. Without missing a beat, she shot back, “Oh yes? Well I like this male candidate, he has really nice legs.” More likely than not you’ll startle someone into realizing they were way out of line. The other side of this coin is don’t take things personally. Scientists love to pick each other a part, scoff at data, roll their eyes at leaps in logic – it’s how we’re made, we’re taught to be critical from the very start of our scientific education. Take it in stride and listen to criticism.

Dr. Pauline Maki

5. If you want a family, have one – This trope always comes up when the phrase “women in science,” is uttered. “It is time to get rid of the career success versus marriage myth,” Huang said. Scientists work long and strange hours – but so do medical residents, the majority of whom are women. In fact, a study entitled “Do babies matter,” found that of women academics who worked full time, there was no difference in the career progression for those with or without children. We’ve got to put this one to bed, ladies. Dr Pauline Maki, a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, had her first child at 42. “I did graduate school, post docs numbers one and two, and NIH training all during my peak reproductive years. Oops,” she said, laughing, “Don’t do what I did.”

Dr. Kawtar Hafidi

In the end, having a family might not just be a neutral effect on your career, there are benefits. “My husband has two children,” Dr Kawtar Hafidi, physicist at Argonne National Labs, said, “Our son and me.” She credited her husband for her success, which wasn’t an uncommon sentiment at the symposium. The success of many of these women was partner-dependent. No one said their careers had been held back by their relationships, their families. “Life is experiences,” Huang said, “And one of those experiences is having children…No one should be expected to give that up.”

Dr. Romila Singh

As Dr. Romila Singh, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the Workplace at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee pointed out, “This is not a just a woman’s problem.” It’s not just an issue for feminists, this is not only a matter of equal rights. An ecosystem is only as successful as it is diverse; the same is true for science. As long as we’re throwing away talent, we’re holding back progress, creating our own, self-inflicted bottle neck. So, shoulders to the grindstone, push ahead.

Rosie the Riveter said it first and said it best. We can do it, ladies. Just watch.

Guest Blogger Meghan Sullivan is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, chasing her PhD down the rabbit hole.  You can find her at her bench, pleading with experiments, or at her keyboard, trying to cobble together blog posts that bring the bench to the kitchen table.

 She lives in a hippie co-op with 20+ of her closest friends.  One day she’ll get around to growing up.
 


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Science for the Masses: Join me for my Workshop at the University of Chicago!

The lovely folks at the University of Chicago’s Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) Chicago Careers in Science and Technology (CCIST), will be hosting me for a special workshop this Thursday, May 10 at my Ph.D. alma mater!  Read on for details, I hope to see you there!

Science for the Masses: Communicating Science to the Public, Making Science Sexy, and Taking it to the Streets (or: The Art of Science Outreach and Public Engagement)

A workshop with Stephanie Levi, Ph.D., Molecular Geneticist, Outreach and Education Specialist, and Founder of Science is Sexy and Night Lab

Science is captivating, game-changing, and constantly innovating our world while helping us learn about our universe, and ourselves. As scientists, we know the thrill of getting that elusive positive result that makes our story come together, the excitement of discovery, and the beauty of the natural world, but the public doesn’t always have the opportunity to share in the scientific ride. More than ever, the need for scientists to reach out to the public to engage them in the wonder and impact of science is critical. Granting agencies are requiring that funded individuals perform broader-impacts work to disseminate their work to the public, and the voting public needs to know what’s going on at your bench to vote wisely in support of funding for science and keep the funds flowing in, for starters! While numerous programs exist to engage youth in science and mathematics, there are surprisingly few that engage the adult public – but the interest and curiosity of adults for scientific information is immense.

Fortunately, a world of science outreach and communication has exploded in the last few years. As a scientist, you are in a unique position to give the masses what they want, but some skills and techniques are needed to get you started. Join Stephanie Levi, Ph.D. ’09, Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, for a workshop about science outreach and engagement. She’ll talk about how she started her fun and successful outreach program, Science is Sexy, while a graduate student at the U of C studying the secret life of the Golgi, and she’ll share with you a vast toolkit of outreach strategies to help you get started on an outreach career, regardless of how much or little time you can invest at this point. She’ll also talk about her path from the bench to running an outreach program for undergraduates at the Midwest’s only four-year Hispanic Serving Institution, to adventures in the non-profit sector, as well as her forays into journalism. You’ll leave the workshop with an outreach starter packet, and lots of great ideas. Whether you plan to stay in academia for life, or want to make the leap into an outreach career, this workshop is for you.

Date:  Thursday, May 10th

Time:  5 -6:30 pm CT

Location:  Ida Noyes Hall, East Lounge on the second floor (1212 E. 59th St. Chicago, Illinois 60637 )

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Night Lab: The Science of Smell

It’s happened to all of us: we catch a slight whiff of a familiar scent – an old love’s perfume, cookies in the oven, lilacs blooming – and suddenly we are transported to a time and place in our distant past. But how and why do scents evoke emotion, what else does our sense of smell influence, and how does our sense of smell actually work? Join us for Night Lab: The Science of Smell, where we’ll unravel the scientific mysteries of this most interesting sense. Dr. Alan Hirsch, Director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation will share his cutting-edge research on smell and taste, illuminating how our sense of smell influences human emotion, mood, behavior, diseases states, consumer preferences and weight loss. You’ll also learn about how your sense of smell connects with the most primitive part of your brain, linking scents with emotions, and the neurobiology of scent. Like any good scientist, everyone will get do their own experiments, smelling and tasting their way through the evening.

When: April 12, 2012
Time: 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM
Where: Schubas (3159 N. Southport Avenue)
Details: FREE, No Pre-Registration Required
Brown Line to Southport
21+

About Dr. Hirsch
Alan Hirsch, M.D., F.A.C.P., a board-certified neurologist and psychaiatrist, is a nationally recognized smell and taste expert. He currently serves as a faculty member in the Department of Medicine at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center, and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Neurology and Department of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center. Dr. Hirsch has written seven books on the science of smell and taste, and holds multiple patents relating to the use of olfactory mechanisms to influence biological responses.

The Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation works to advance research and knowledge on the effects of smell and taste on human emotion, mood, behavior and disease states, and is committed to helping people overcome the loss of smell and taste sensations, and enabling those with normal sensory abilities to use their sense of smell and taste to their full potential. The foundation specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of smell and taste-related disorders.

About Night Lab:
Created by a scientist with a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology (who wasn’t always so hot at math herself) Science is Sexy gives non-scientists and scientists alike a short and sweet taste of science in their everyday lives, highlighting the people and organizations that make Chicago a rockstar city for science. While offering adults in the city innovative opportunities to engage in the excitement, beauty, and ubiquity of science, our programs give scientists and members of Chicago’s science community a fabulous way to connect to the rest of the city outside of the lab. Our programs are perfect for people who flunked chemistry, think genes come from The Gap, or think “that’s hard!” when they hear the word molecular. Whether you are just curious about science or a professional scientist, Night Lab is for you.

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#ChiSciTweetup (Vol. 2)

We’re doing it again!  Join science friends new and old from all over the region to meet, mingle, and Tweet the evening away at Chicago’s second bi-monthly Science Tweetup! The Chicago Science Tweetup will bring together science communicators, promoters and enthusiasts to meet up, catch up, and collaborate.  The conversation will be free-form, and for our second mixer, bring your favorite science t-shirt to display.  (Thanks to Tom for the idea!  Come with more ideas for mixers so that we can all try something new at each event!

Naturally, we’ll have treats.

We’ll be in the upstairs space at Schubas, which features a great menu at the Harmony Grill, and an extensive beer list.

The hashtag for this event is #ChiSciTweet2. See you there!

This Sunday!
March 4, 2012
Schubas, Upstairs Space
5:00 PM-8:00 PM
Free

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Night Lab: The Science of Love and Attraction

Night Lab, part of Science is Sexy’s Chicago’s science series for adults, returns to Schubas just in time for Valentine’s Day, where we’ll attempt to unravel the scientific mysteries behind love and attraction.

When it comes to the science behind love and attraction, Northwestern University’s Eli Finkel, Ph.D., is on the case.  An Associate Professor of Psychology and the head scientist of Northwestern’s Self-Control and Relationship Lab, Eli has studied everything from the science behind initial romantic attraction, to human dynamics in romantic relationships, to why couples fight, and how they make up.  At tonight’s event, Eli will deliver the scientific report card on the online dating industry – and they won’t be putting this one on the fridge. Unheard of  just twenty years ago, online dating is now a billion dollar industry and one of the most common ways for singles to meet potential partners. Dating sites make bold claims about their ability to introduce singles to compatible relationship partners, frequently promising to deliver a “soulmate.” But do these dating sites live up to the hype?  Eli will be showing us the science behind the online dating world to answer this question. He gives credit where it is due, but he also dresses down the online dating industry when it behaves in ways that undermine romantic attraction or that mislead singles.  You’ll leave armed with the scientific know-how you need to really make online dating sites work for you, and have a better love life, whether you’re single or partnered.

We’ll then switch gears to learn about the art and science of sex and film ratings with Rebecca Fons, who is the Education Program Manager at the Chicago International Film Festival, as well as a producer of numerous short films and the popular web series Quilty.  Rebecca will discuss how sex intersects the Motion Picture Association of America’s film rating policy, talk about the amazing dynamics of how actors “do it” without actually “doing it,” enlighten us to how sex scenes are filmed, and more!

Come ready to add your favorite songs to Night Lab’s make-out playlist and play scientist by trying your hand at figuring out which phase of a relationship subjects were in by looking at their brain activity in a brain scan!  Two lucky trivia winners will receive a copy of The Science of Kissing by Sheril Kirshenbaum gifts from Early to Bed.   Scientific valentines will be on hand to exchange as we unravel the molecular mysteries behind love and lust.   Night Lab is where science meets sexy.

When: February 12, 2012, 6:30 PM-8:30 PM

Where: Schubas (3159 North Southport Avenue)

Details:  FREE

Brown or Red Line to Belmont

21+

No Pre-Registration Required

The Chicago Council on Science and Technology is a proud marketing partner for this program.

ABOUT NIGHT LAB:

Created by a scientist with a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology (who wasn’t always so hot at math herself) Science is Sexy gives non-scientists and scientists alike a short and sweet taste of science in their everyday lives, highlighting the people and organizations that make Chicago a rockstar city for science.  While offering adults in the city innovative opportunities to engage in the excitement, beauty, and ubiquity of science, our programs give scientists and members of Chicago’s science community a fabulous way to connect to the rest of the city outside of the lab.  Our programs are perfect for people who flunked chemistry, think genes come from The Gap, or think “that’s hard!” when they hear the word molecular. Whether you are just curious about science or a professional scientist, Night Lab is for you.

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This Sunday: We’re Hosting Chicago’s First Science Tweetup!

If you’re into science, social media, education, outreach, fun, or any of the above, have we got something for you.

Join science friends new and old from all over the region to meet, mingle, and Tweet the evening away at Chicago’s first bi-monthly Science Tweetup! The Chicago Science Tweetup (Volume 1) will bring together science communicators, promoters and enthusiasts to meet up, catch up, and collaborate.  The conversation will be free-form, and to kickstart it, the topic of this tweetup will be “Using Social Media to make connections in Science.”  For our first mixer, we’ll have a science book swap, so please bring a science book you’ve enjoyed to trade with another guest.  Thanks to Tom Ruginis for the idea for our first mixer!  Come with more ideas for mixers so that we can all try something new at each event!

Check out our super-cute logo…we MAY have a treat for all of our guests!

We’ll be in the upstairs space at Schubas, which features a great menu at the Harmony Grill, and an extensive beer list. Bonus: You can catch the 8:00 PM show if you dig the band!

The hashtag for this event is #ChiSciTweet1 See you there!

This Sunday!
January 15, 2012
Schubas, Upstairs Space
5:00 PM-8:00 PM
Free

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Off the Bench: Skills that Pay the Bills

I am so happy to share the latest installment of my column for scientists who are noodling the idea of working in a field off the bench.  It’s been about two and a half years since I started my current job, which does not have me doing research full-time, but has me running an initiative at the Midwest’s only four year Hispanic Serving Institution aimed at helping students, particularly underrepresented and low-income students, get the support and resources they need to succeed in STEM fields and move into lifetime careers in math and science (and those are broad careers!).  If you are considering leaving the bench, it is a rewarding path, but I’m here to tell you, you’re going to have a major learning curve to climb when you transition from bench research to an administrative position. Allow me to illustrate:

The following is a short selection of my skills as a bench scientist:

Fluorescence microscopy
Molecular cloning
Electroporation
Chemical Precipitation transformation
Cell Culture
Thin-section transmission electron microscopy
Electron Tomography
High-pressure freeze substitution of cells
Immunoelectron microscopy
Western/southern blotting
Running gels like my life depended on it
Immunofluorescence
Live cell imaging
Analysis of literature
Crazy-good notetaking/record keeping/Data maintenance
Grant writing/proposal composition

Now, here’s what I need in my current position:

Budget maintenance
Managerial Skills
Event planning
Massive networking skills
Advising/counseling students
Grant writing/proposal composition
Reporting of activities/priorities to governing board

Seemingly, only one skill translates-the grant writing.  Bummer.

Well, I sort of predicted this.  I wanted to make sure I wasn’t about to hit the end of my graduate program short on the tools I would need to go outside of a research career.  So, here is a short selection of what I did:

Mentored students of various ages-high school, undergraduate, returning, non-traditional students.  Invested in them in the same way I would have invested in myself.  They all have multiple first author publications now.

Wrote.  A lot.  About things other than science.  And sometimes about science.  Built a portfolio of writing material.  I’m not claiming to be Steinbeck here, but I got a few articles under my belt, did a little editing, edited people’s papers in the lab, did some for a publishing company in Asia, you know got some experience.

Did A LOT of outreach.  Volunteered for various programs to bring science to kids, science weeks, science years, got involved through professional societies, this is going to have to be another article.

I also discussed science with my fabulous grandmother.  Every time she told me she didn’t care about what I was saying, I retooled my message.  This was helpful.

Served on the young professionals’ board for Human Rights Watch in Chicago.  Took me away from the bench a couple of Thursday evenings a month, but you know what I have to do in my job?  Work with a board.  You know what I don’t do?  Work in a lab.  Do you think this may have been a good investment of my time, even though it may not have seemed to get me to the end of my thesis right away?  I do.

By the end of all this, in addition to the short list of previously mentioned science skills, I could:

Manage a budget (you think my outreach efforts were free?)

Network like crazy (Seriously.)

Mentor students to the Ph.D., or the direction of their choice.  (Ahem.  Click this and search for Levi.)

Create programs for students that would actually make a difference in their ability to pursue their dreams.

Better understand how a board works.

Wrote fabulous press pieces for events and their outcomes.

Knew how to conduct program assessment.

Learned how to translate my bench experience into something that would actually help others, whether in science or the public.

My hope is that you will reach for experiences and tools that will enable you to generate a portfolio of skills that will enable you to be really ready for the job you want after this.  If you want a post-doc and to become a faculty member, the skills you gain on a traditional academic path are primarily the ones you need, although the exercises of getting experience beyond the bench will be a useful one for your own career, and will hopefully help you better understand students you are mentoring who may want to take a non-traditional path.  If you’re thinking of a job away from the bench, my suggestion is to find out what that is, what the day to day will be like, and then make sure you’re getting the experiences you need in order to be able to cover the bases of the job.  The degree is your ticket in, but these experiences distinguish you from every other Ph.D. out there, giving you a wide array of tools to work with and make you the candidate for your dream job.

The cool part is that these skills are so transferable, you can’t lose.  You can do such a wide array of things with your degree and background, and it’s just a matter of strengthening different professional muscle groups depending on your goals, and how they change.

So do some exploring, find some role models or carve your own path out, and make it happen.  You’re a science rockstar.

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