Saving Ourselves From Our Ambitions and What Drives a Scientist

Michael Tomasson has a new post on his blog that, to quote the lyrical poet Trey Songz, has me feeling “some kind of way” about my training as a scientist. Michael remembers fondly the pre-college experiences that made him excited about science, the poor grades he received in didactic college science classes that discouraged him, and the first hands on science experiences he had that made him think he might want a career in science.

I smiled as I read it because, in some ways, our experiences are similar. I didn’t have the same cognition as a child that I “loved science” as Michael did, but in retrospect I clearly loved science. I loved  Cosmos and my telescope and almost all of the books I read as a girl revolved around science.  In college, I failed miserably in some didactic classes, mostly because I was bored. But, getting into a lab during my last semester completely turned my feeling about science around.

I can remember that, at each stage of my training (undergrad, grad, and postdoc) I had a lot of moments where I thought to myself “science is the worst decision I ever made.”  Those might be posts for another time, but there are still so many parts of science that bring me so much joy that outweigh those moments.

Yesterday I was away from my office, working on a project with a collaborator, when I got an email from the technician that helped me with my postdoc work.  He has been a technician in my field longer than I have been alive and has helped train dozens of grad students and postdocs. He’s worked with some of the biggest personalities in our field and I was curious about that. So, I once asked him, “Who has been the most difficult postdoc you’ve ever worked with?” Maybe I shouldn’t have asked a question I didn’t really want the answer to. His answer, without skipping a beat, was “Definitely you. You’re ambitious and you swear a lot.”

I tempered my swearing a bit after that, but not my ambition. We spent hours and hours and hours in the dark together, collecting data. To break up some of the monotony, we would tell jokes. Really, really corny jokes.  It made me happy when he emailed me yesterday with a single line of text…

What’s brown and sticky?

It made me feel so warm that he was thinking of me and maybe missing our tomfoolery.  Maybe he was looking back on our experiments with the fondness I did, even when we were both stressed out of gourds at the time. The joy of doing science, combined with the amazing people I’ve known is what has kept me in science. Those experiences of having my hands in the belly of science, combined with seeing the passion in others, has made me love science as a profession.

group hug

I think that’s why I read the following stand alone sentence in Michael’s post with trepidation…

Younger scientists need protection from the ambitions of their elders.

It’s a sentence that apparently also caught Drugmonkey’s eye, although I am not exactly sure why. I think the idea that ambition is a bad thing is a bag thing. I know that there are some that believe that science should be a noble and priestly calling. We should all be motivated by our love of our questions and not necessarily by indices of success.  I think that’s a load of fuckery.

I fully fess up to my ambition. I admit that it is a point of personal pride to be the expert in what I do and to be respected for it by my peers. I want to take over the world.  I want to be the best in my field and I want to be well-funded to explore the stuff I think is important. I don’t want the #struggleplate equivalent of an academic career.


Part of my ambition, however, is a desire to train the best junior scientists. If I am successful, the people that come out of my lab will be successful.  I can see where ambition can be negative when a PI nurtures that ambition on the back of those more junior to her, but it need not necessarily be that way and I reject the idea that my goals and achievements are necessarily the antithesis to those of the people more junior.

But, while I think that my own success can greatly influence the success of those I train, I also worry about infantilizing trainee scientists. Graduate students and postdocs are adults who have already survived a bachelors degree. They sometimes have families or own homes or do other grown up things. Yes, I acknowledge that there are cases of PIs who really fuck their trainees, but I also find myself growing less tolerant of people who complain that “If only their PI had done X..” they would have achieved Y and it’s their PIs fault that they didn’t accomplish their dreams. I say if there is some thing you think you’re not getting in your lab, seek it out and find it. Use your committee. Find a group of mentors to give you diverse perspectives. At the end of the day, whining gets you nowhere. Be a damned adult.

Ambition is not bad.



Dr. Isis’s Shoe of the Year…

I post a lot of pictures of very fancy, very sparkly shoes, but this is actually how I am happiest. Love…


Incremental Advances, Flirting With Your Peers and Staying Home With Your Babies..

I had a couple of thoughts rambling around in my brain. I wanted to write about all of them, but I didn’t really have enough for a post from each of them, so I thought I would just write about everything…

1) Proflike’s post about women at conferences is not about flirting at conferences.

Friend-of-the-blog ProflikeSubstance has a post up right now about the pressure women feel at scientific conferences to be the object of their male colleagues’ unchecked fuckneed. Our dear buddy writes:

So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you’re out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.

Now, I admit that when I first read the post, and the comments that filled the comment thread, I rolled my eyes so hard that I almost damaged my optic nerves.

beyonce eyeroll

My eye roll was born not of anything our friend and colleague had to say, but rather the onslaught of clueless d00dliness that followed in the comments.

I get it. You’re worried that you’ll be at a conference, not looking for love. Not even knowing that something is missing in your life. But, for the first time in forever you see a woman at the bar of the conference hotel and decide that she is the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen. Your eyes meet. She moves closer to you and you ask if you can buy her next Midori sour. Next thing you know, you’re back in her room, professing your eternal love and devotion to her while she licks room service ice cream off your naked body, and discovering that you both yell “p<0.05″  when you orgasm.

However will this cosmic love connection happen if you can’t even flirt with her!?!

This post is not for you, my friend.

No,  I believe there to be a more insidious problem in academic science. There is a definitive cohort of men, mostly of the sort with saggy, wrinkly, grey-haired ballsacks, that treat academic conferences as an all-you-can-eat pussy buffet and they feel the need to try and stick their face in every dish.

buffet gif

They’re not there to treat their (especially junior) female colleagues with respect and support. They’re there to drink too much, be obnoxious, and treat their female colleagues as fuckholes. While I have admittedly found them to be in the minority, one rotten scientist spoils the bunch and there are certainly some events I avoid because the men get drunken and lecherous. While I generally stand by the fact that the safest advice is “Don’t fuck where you eat,” I’m not against finding true love…

I am against being generally creepy, sexually inappropriate, and trying to fuck everything that comes within three feet of your Cialis-fueld erection just because you’re away from home and your wife stopped fucking you in 1984. I think that is the subculture Proflike has identified and I appreciate his call to others to put an end to it when they see it.

2) There are some things that make academia the greatest job ever.

This morning I overslept a little and found Little Isis playing on the iPad. He tugged hard at my heart strings and told me that he missed being able to spend the day together. So, since I generally do what I want, I decided to do what I want and spend the day with him. I did take him to one meeting, but otherwise we ate flaming hot Cheetos and watched monster movies and cartoons all day. I’ve worked in industry and government and I can’t think of another job where I’d be able to come and go as I please so freely. Admittedly, no one is busting my nuts because I am doing pretty well here, but I enjoy a spectacular amount of freedom compared to most other jobs I could have, even if I as having similar success.

3) Rejection sucks

It sucks harder when you get smacked with the stock critique that your work wasn’t “innovative” enough or represents an “incremental advance.” I’m not saying that I completely buy Michael Eisen‘s wackadoodle Northern Californian Open Access  ideals, but I am softening a bit. Some people wouldn’t know innovative if it stood up and bit them in the face…

[Addendum: I did not have a paper rejected. Don't you all know who I am?]

Addendum for a Tuesday Afternoon…

I think I woke up a little saltier than I thought this morning. I maybe shouldn’t read anything else people have sent me, lest I be accused of not being “kind”…

Ask Dr. Isis – What Does a Woman Gotta Give Back?

I like emails like the one below. They make me feel all warm and glow-y and proud of all you little science muppets. Reading this one made me think of when I was out interviewing this past year. After I gave my seminar, a woman in the audience came up to me and introduced herself as a graduate student in the program. She told me, “I know you’re Dr. Isis and I can’t believe you might be coming here.” Truth is, I thought very highly of the work being done in her lab, and in the department, and I couldn’t believe they might be considering me. Funny how it’s all relative…

My most recent letter writer writes [redaction a la Isis]..

The fantastically fabulous Dr. Isis,

This may be old hat now (I haven’t seen shoes on your blog in a long time), but I humbly submit this shoe offering as a thank you:

plaza heel

I am a graduate student in [science] at your MRU. (I purposefully avoided the Nature twitter bomb that dropped your real name out of respect to you, but I recognize our MRU town in your twitter pics from time to time.) I have been a lurker of your blog for my entire PhD experience. Your advice, humor, and get-real-with-it attitude has been a highlight of my academic journey. I’m defending my dissertation in 6 short weeks, and I’m certain I’d be in a sadder state had it not been for your blog.

It’s not easy being a lady scientist, and I only have a few strong female [scientists] I consider role models. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your experiences with the world. Thank you for having the courage to provide a glimpse of your reality as a woman in the sciences.

I’m also moving to a new MRU soon for my first postdoc. I seriously considered leaving academia behind me, but I’m stuck with this notion that I have some responsibility to make my little corner of the sciences a more supportive and safe place for all. I’ve done quite a bit as a graduate student to improve things in my current department. Should I have spent that time working on non-research objectives? Maybe not, but no one else was going to do it. And so when I was thinking of not taking a postdoc but doing something else (although not knowing what that “else” would be), I heard comments about how it would be a “disservice to the community”, and don’t I feel like I have “so much to offer my field”?

Could I enact positive change in a different career? Perhaps. Should I really make myself do this academia thing for the sake of others? I think there are some complicated feelings there I haven’t quite worked out.

I’ve worried that having doubts about this career path makes me a weak researcher, or a less-than-exemplary lady scientist. But that’s some fuckery, isn’t it? I can’t bring myself down like that. You’ve shown me that there’s no reason to apologize for being bad-ass, don’t listen to the naysayers, but I also need to look out for me. I don’t know where that will lead me in the future, but I’ll try to consider my “inner Isis” as I move forward.
I wish you all the best in your new MRU, but I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to thank you while we’re under the same MRU umbrella. Thanks for being real and sharing your life with us readers.



I could not be more tickled to see a fierce lady scientist earning her PhD in a challenging and rigorous field and moving on to great things. And yes, Virginia. Yes, I still like shoes, even if I don’t get to blog as much as I used to.  Still, there is indeed some fuckery in this email and I wanted to make sure that I had unleashed my definitive opinion on such matters on the science internet, lest my thoughts on the matter be unknown to all…

Transitioning from being a graduate student to a postdoc is hard and, for me, it was a time of serious career angst. I had outgrown my graduate lab, was butting heads with my mentor who just wanted to be retired, and I was fussy as fuck about it all. I moved halfway across the country with my family and the structure of my life was incredibly different. I was the lone ranger in my lab for a long time but, having recently received a degree that allegedly suggested I had achieved some high level mastery of my field, I realized that I knew even less about the ways of the academic world than I thought I had.  Not only did I feel like a complete and total dumb ass, but I had no data. As a graduate student I had a little swagger because I had completed some experiments and had some findings people were interested in. As a brand new postdoc I felt stupid, unproductive, and completely unsure of myself. It was not an easy transition, but patience and a lot of hours in the lab ultimately paid off for me. I guess the point is, even for those of us who choose to stay in academia, this particular transition can be angsty as fuck.

Then you’re a postdoc for a little while and you get all…

janeway eyeroll 1

And, if things go well and you are so inclined, you eventually move on to being a PI, you have a little more angst of a different sort, and then you get even more…

Oh really janeway

The point is, I think it’s normal to have doubts about academic science when you’re a graduate student. If you’re certain you hate academia, move on to something else. But, if it’s “doubt” and you’re mobile, it’s worth spending a little time as a postdoc to figure things out – whether you are man, woman, or bear. Once you get over the transition, being a postdoc can be really hilarious.

Still, there’s one part of this email that I want to definitively address. Do any of us have a responsibility to stay in science because there aren’t enough woman, people of color, LGBT scientists, disabled scientists, etc…?

janeway no

That shit is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

The only responsibility in the world that you have as you are choosing a career is to pick something that you think will make you feel happy and productive and fulfilled and let you feed your family.  I’m not going to become an astronaut because there haven’t been a lot of people like me in space because I am prone to a little motion sickness and I have an aversion to vomiting. If the idea of academia makes you equally sick to your stomach, don’t do it. I like it here, but that doesn’t mean everyone should. Becoming Associate Professor of Who Gives a Fuck is not the definitive marker of one’s success. My personal goal has always been to strive to be able to look back as I am laying in some hospital bed dying, hopefully not too demented out of my gourd, and be able to say “That was a pretty hilarious life.”  I feel no personal responsibility to stay in academic science in order to help it meet its magical rainbow unicorn quota.

However, should one choose to stay in academic science,  I do think you have a responsibility to not be a total dick. If you get through the door, you have a responsibility to hold it open for the people coming up behind you as often as you can and, when you find barriers to inclusion and find yourself armed to the teeth because you’ve become a total bad ass, you have a duty to try to blast through them (while simultaneously not blasting your own junk off. No one’s saying you should set the ship on self-destruct).  As this reader has discovered through her own work, that can be a very fulfilling experience.

janeway with gun

You’d have that responsibility in any career path, but first choose the career path that makes you happy.

The great and powerful Isis has spoken.