Early mentors and Shit my department chair says and Why I was gone

My postdoc mentor and I had a rocky road. No surprise there. We were both strong women who thought we new it all. I learned a lot from her, and she helped me get a great first job. She new my PhD advisor was a jerk and would write less than stellar letters for me. She came to me to discuss the content of her letters for me as a way of offsetting his letters. I learned a fair amount of how to be a good advisor from her.

Our paths crossed intermittently over the next 20 years, as she established a collaboration with the Department Chair from Hell. It worked for her because she wanted to do the science and he wanted the glory. She was an MD/PhD who actually was doing science and had given up practice. He was an MD who didn’t really understand research. It was a good and productive collaboration for a number of years, at least two NIH grants worth.

Then she got an adenocarcinoma. She had lots of radiation therapy, including transcranial. It impacted her mentation, but she was still functioning as a scientist. She went into remission for about 7 years, and did well. The experiments had moved from her MRU to our MRU (and I got to see her a lot, which was good). The  grant moved to my MRU, and the not-yet-Chair-from-Hell became the PI. Then, he became chair, her cancer came back, and she had more therapy.

The chair from hell became unhappy about “her commitment to the work”. He was totally neurotic about what the Dean Would Think About His Work.  So he threw her off the grant, took back her subcontract. He spent at least three hours justifying this to me. “There is so much more I can do with the money than support her”. Mind you, she was still working and productive. I thought he was an ass. This was not the first time, but one of the earliest.

Then, a few years later, her cancer got much worse. I didn’t know till near the end. The dept chair finally said something to me. I was leaving for a scientific meeting in Japan in three days. I decided to go up to where she lived (about 4 hr drive) and say goodbye. I told him this and he said (and this IS a quote, it is carved in stone in my head) “Now that I am chair, I only have time for one trip, and I would rather go to her memorial and speak”.

I did see her, she was not entirely there. I said to her there were three things I would like her to know: She made a difference to the world of science, She made a difference to me and my career, and I thank her for both of these things. She squeezed my hand. I cried all the way home.

That was nearly 10 years ago. Fast forward to today. One of my colleagues, a long time collaborator just turned 80. He lives in Europe. He still reads my grants and papers and calls me out on my bullshit. His wife called me to invite me to a surprise party for him. I pulled money out of savings and went. I am glad I did. It is good to have friends of different ages. It is good to appreciate them while they are alive.




Alma and Isadora

Obviously pseudos. Alma & Isadora are junior faculty. I mentor both, though their fields/areas of research are not mine. Alma is up for tenure in 2 years. Isadora in 4-5. I love them both. Really. They are my friends, albeit younger ones. They are both funded. Productive. Have a solid number of pubs. Do good teaching. Have responded well to early mentoring suggestions about improvement. I think they will both get tenure. They don’t. I am thoroughly committed to helping them. The world of academics is a better place for both of them in it. Their ability to mentor is just starting, but I see that they will grow into the kind of faculty that will be able to help others.

Grow into. That’s the key word here. They have similar problems, though are in different departments (and know each other vaguely in the way that the relatively small number of junior women know of each other).

I have been trying to put my finger on with what do they exactly need help. The glib answer is that they are so neurotic about tenure that they, caring people in general, have lost sight of what their interactions with others are.  They have screwed up in the people part of running their labs. When a departmental admin asst (i.e. secretary person) asked me “are all young female faculty such jerks?”, it became clear to me that this was a situation for which help & mentoring might matter. Angering support staff can impact your career. It can impact your ability to get grants out, to get handouts uploaded for class at the last minute, get purchase orders submitted in a timely fashion.

Why are these women perceived as being somewhat of a pain in the ass? Let’s do Isadora first (I have a sense this will become an ongoing set of posts). Isadora is 1.5 years into her job. She got wretched teaching reviews the first year, and sat down and figured out why and worked her ass off to improve them. She asked me to listen to one of her lectures and offer suggestions. She went to the school-wide teaching mentorship services and talked and listened. And she knocked the teaching ball out of the park the 2nd year. All the time being productive, and having a small grant and writing the big ones.

She hired a tech. It was a disaster. The “chemistry” wasn’t right. This happens. Things went from bad to very bad over 2 months. That also happens. But in her dept, the tech staff are tight. One person is unhappy and tells the others. That’s how the admin staff came to believe that Isadora was a jerk. I don’t want to debate or really even discuss the rights and wrongs of that pathway of communication. What is important is that it exists. At Isadora’s request I stepped in to help mediate at a meeting requested by HR. I was at a meeting that was not a good one. Everyone said inappropriate things. The tech brought up a very personal issue that Isadora had confided. Isadora tried to shut the tech down in the middle of explaining things. Everyone was crying, but not in a good cathartic way, that afterwards everyone joins hands and says I’m sorry. It was a “I hate you, and you are horrible” kind of way. I feel I kept it from being worse, but no one would think it was a success.

The tech needed/did not want to give up the job. Isadora felt the tech was lazy, incompetent and spent her days surfing the web. A couple of things were clear to me after talking to everyone. 1) the tech did not understand what she had done wrong & just wanted to make things “right” so she could keep the job. 2) some of the problems blamed on the tech were things Isadora had done.

The tech finally got another job. My role, now,  is to help Isadora not make the same mistake again.

I hate the tenure system. It helps promote and reinforce situations like this. Tenure becomes more important than being a mensch. Success at every step along the way seems to be make it or break it.  But just like glamour journals, tenure is not going away any time soon. And mentors need to figure out how to help the untenured.

Telling Isadora to calm down is counter-productive. When I was young (and even now) telling me to calm down would make me apoplectic. (what a lovely word). It was patronizing, condescending and by and large irrelevant. Isadora will listen. I need to find the words and ideas to get to here. This is not easy (for me, at least).

She needs to let go of the tenure anxiety a little bit. She needs to enjoy the path a bit more. She needs to understand that the people around her are people, with their own skills, foibles, strengths, and yes weaknesses.

She also needs (need, need, need…. not a good word) to understand that working with a tech is not a symmetric relationship. I think sometimes that we think about “fairness” too much. This is not about fair. This is about she needs to keep herself at a higher standard of interaction. She may hate being a “boss”, but being friends and equals (and confiding personal things, for example) is not a good idea and doesn’t get the science done.

As little as we may like “traditional formal relationships” there is a utility to them. Early on I had problems being friends with my students who were near my age. What a disaster. There are times when you have to tell someone how to do something, or ask them to get something done. It flows the other way far less (although in a good lab, it can and does). To me this formal does not mean that people who “report to you” are slaves, with no right to respect and consideration. It means that the communication is about what needs to be done. The communication is clear, precise and without emotional overtones.

Feelings about tenure are just that – feelings. Clear and precise instructions, explanations need to be done without the feelings. I think that many men find this easier (but not all) than women.

There is more to this, but I’m just working my way through it.


Depression and our relationship to work

There is little in life I consider “luck” (let alone angels looking after you – but irritation with that is another post). The world is big enough that it presents itself to all of us as essentially random. Our ability to respond to that randomness, and sort out things that might be good (for us? to us?) from those that are not is a matter of skill, intelligence, and training.

What one is given in genes is also random. And sometimes there are traits one receives or doesn’t that, while random, are tempting to classify as “luck”. Things like Huntington’s disease.Various members of my family struggled and still struggle with depression. I am lucky in that I do not seem to have this. I have been depressed. very depressed – but its what the shrinks call “situational” – unexpected death of young people, ending a long term relationship. I have coped, sometimes with more skill and grace than others.

There is a post on Jezebel about depression. The title is “I feel like I failed”. I read a little of this with mixed feelings: empathy for the writers, sad for my family members. And a healthy of dose of let’s move on here. But it made me think about another one of those “green, green, green” situations that we/I/many mentees have with our work.

When I was younger, a grant proposal rejection would make me feel depressed for days. I’d be unhappy and feel like I failed. Like there was no point in being a scientist. Like who the hell would ever fund me? Like I would never get tenure and I would be a crazy lady living in one room filled with cats or newspapers and recycling tin cans for a living. Eventually it would give way to anger (those fuckers, I’ll show them, they don’t think this is worthwhile? ha!). I was so wrapped up in my work: it was an extension of me.

I also noticed that lots of my male colleagues (and I was the only woman in the department for large stretches of my early career) didn’t exactly have the same response. Or if they did, it didn’t come to the lab with them. One of the things support for women (in my early days) kept saying was: men see rejection/problems as hurdles that they must jump over, but women see them as road blocks, mountains, oceans and by and large insurmountable (insurcrossable?). That was young me, for sure.

Now, getting rejected, getting a stupid review, losing a political struggle still gets an emotional response from me. But its often irritation and anger as much as “I have failed”. I think thats just age (on the other hand, I can’t run 5Ks anymore). In fact, to my perception (with NO data to back it up), many younger colleagues, now, of all genders, have more anger and disbelief at rejection than depression (Maria for sure).

So why is this green green green? Because thinking you are failure from a proposal rejection, or not getting a specific job is very blue. The sense of entitlement that makes you say “how dare they” in response to the same result is very yellow. I am glad my response to NIH funding decisions is no longer so strongly emotional. But it is emotional, a little bit, because I love what I do. I can’t stop feeling about it.  But it’s in a healthier range.






Dr. Isis on pants (and Saffire on too much butt for one pair of jeans)

Dr. Isis waxes profound and true: Pants Are Stupid…

I have, however, frequently thought to myself “Who has this actual waist to hip ratio?” or “These pants are clearly not meant for asses bred and born in the barrio.”  Pants are a god damned nuisance.

One of my favorite songs from Saffire is “too much butt for one pair of jeans”

Sergio Valenti and Calvin Klein
They aren’t ready for these hips of mine
They me be designers but they haven’t designed
Jeans to fit your valentine
They make womens’ clothes for the long and the lean
I got too much butt for one pair of jeans

Well you know on a plane it’s a little bit tight
My butt’s wedged in for the whole damn flight.
And if you’re next to me you’d better be nice.
Cause this butt can be a flotation device.
If we go down–ah you know what I mean.

Job Search Advice

I am sure that people have said this in other places. In particular if you are looking for a job and have not seen Dr. Becca’s aggregator then you have not lived. But this is on the top of mind right now.

I’m on a search committee for a position outside of my area of research, but in basic science, not for a clinical position. There are (of course) lots of politics swirling around the position. Its not a standard TT replacement for a particular line in the dept, but something awarded by the Dean for Good Reasons. Importantly it is a TT addition to the department, and to the group within the department in this area. And it has a weird ad that is a political compromise amongst some of the forces within the group that is hiring. That history in the end may not matter, but it seems to me more than the average amount of broo-hoo-ha going on. I try, as my mother recommended, to rise above it.

The person who came in yesterday was clearly brilliant.  Funded, ja ja, published, doing important science (significant and innovative), etc. Someone told this candidate to craft the talk to reach parts of the department not in the group. So the talk started with a slide of a neuron and its parts labeled (given that I think some people in the dept don’t know this, it was probably an ok start). But it went downhill. I was lost after about 15 min. So was someone in the group who talked to me about it later. In a meeting with candidate, when I pushed about bigger picture and relevance, the candidate came through: everything that should have been in the talk.

So, the advice? Firstly: read the ad. If it says that its a broad biology department, remember there are going to be plant physiologists and insect neurobiologists and macrosystems ecologists. It is hard to talk to everyone, but context is critical. It is an art to show that you know your stuff, that you’ve done Important Work, and yet not lose people. But that is what impresses on a job search.

Secondly, do your research. This is easy now (compared to pre-web). Read the web page of everyone in the dept (unless the dept is 80 people, then you can probably stick with the division). Make lists of what areas are being worked on. You may actually meet these people. Talk to the search chair – ask what they are expecting. Who will be at the talk (people from other departments?)?

Thirdly, practice your talk to someone who is not in your group, but who has gone to job talks. Get them to tear it apart.

Yes you are scientist, but as is true for grant applications, you are trying to persuade someone. If the expressions “selling yourself” and “selling your science” make your skin crawl because they are not pure, and sully you and your science, then figure out what phrasing you need to understand that you are not making the decision. Someone else is. And you need to persuade, help, convince, whatever word you like. Science is a team sport. And part of the purpose of the interview is to determine if you can be part of their team.