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.

Additional things that piss me off on Monday

Our local Hyvee is full of this bastardized bullshittery, but I can’t find discos…


Because This One Goes to Eleven?

Earlier today I had a meeting with one of my most favorite-ist of collaborators. He’s a physician who joined our department a couple of years ago. Although his primary duty was to establish a fancy new clinical program, he’s also interested in research.  We’ve gotten to know each other and have developed a project looking at a proposed intervention for one of the diseases he sees in his clinical practice.

We’ve been able to develop some very nice complementary questions – he’s looking at the success of the intervention and I am able to evaluate the impact of the intervention on some physiological measurements I’m interested in. Sometimes collaborating with physicians in a medical school can be tough. They’re interested in the science, in theory, but not really committed to *doing* the project. This hasn’t been the case with my collaborator. He’s been right in the thick of the project and we’ve been having a blast doing these experiments, even when the first few weren’t completely successful.  At least, I’m having a blast..

high five

Our project has finally found it’s legs and is off and running. Still, when we met earlier today I was reminded that, for as atypical as he as been for a physician in our interactions, he still thinks like a physician and I still think like a scientist.

The point of our meeting was to look at the data we acquired during our last procedure and talk about how to analyze it in order to answer both of our questions. One of the contributions I am making to the project is actually collecting and recording said data and he didn’t realize that, when we do an experiment, I just let the acquisition system run for the entire duration of the experiment.  The data files are large, but still trivial in size compared to the amount of external and network data storage we have available.

He was surprised to see that we had data for the entire experiment and he asked, “Why is there so much data? When we do cases in the clinic, we just record one and move on.” My reply was, “But, now we have all the data. We have so many!!”

“But why do we need all that data?”
“Why would you delete any data if you didn’t have to? Who knows when you might need all the others?!!”

I realized that we were having a Spinal Tap-esque style conversation and my data acquisition system goes to eleven. He just wants to push a button and have a single, simple number to report, but just listen to it! You can go and have a bite and the data points! They have sustain!  You can collect data without all the mucky muck!! These data are like little baby angels singing!!

Those data points…they’re more like people to me…

If you only have ten, where can you go from there? I have one louder and these go to eleven.

Why would we ever delete data if we didn’t have to??



Preliminary Images From the Brand New Isis Lab…

There’s something about flipping through a book of enormous blueprints of the brand new lab your university is building you..


…that makes a woman feel like a next level diva…

The New Saga of the Old Aunt Sara

Things here are chaos right now, my lovelies. Complete and utter chaos. I’d like to tell you all that I am moving seamlessly and nonchalantly to my new MRU, but that is not the case. I am very confident in the realtor we have chosen and his recommendations about what we need to do to the house in our market for it to sell quickly. Included in his recommendations were new carpet. Not a carpet allowance, but new carpet in some of the rooms. Because of some delays unique to our current city’s economy, we still don’t have new carpet in the house. We allegedly get our new carpet this week and we are home today getting everything ready for the carpet installers. This has made me realize two things. 1) Getting the carpet installers here this week is a testament to the value of woman tears.  Sobbing women can occasionally be more effective than angry men at getting things done. 2) For as much as people complain about the difficulty of a life in academia, there’s no other job that I’ve ever had that would have offered me the freedom to get stuff done around here and make the time up elsewhere. I really do come and go as I please and I am thankful for that degree of autonomy.

Today the general chaos of our move has been punctuated by the strange. I’ve written a lot here about my mother and her family, but not much about my father and his family. My father is the oldest of three and I have two aunts on his side – Aunt Ricky and Aunt Sara.  They’re all very private and we don’t interact much.  Aunt Ricky has always been a free spirit. She has no children and spent most of her life unmarried. I was never entirely sure where she was living or who was in her life, but accepted that I could never be sure what to expect when she eventually turned up again.  For example, when I invited her to Little Isis’s baptism, she came with a man in tow. A man I had never met, who she then introduced as my “Uncle Tony” as though it was the most natural and obvious thing in the world that I would have an Uncle Tony and that, of course, this was the most appropriate place to learn of him for the first time. I’m not sure I still have an Uncle Tony, but on that day I did.

In comparison, Aunt Sara was painfully normal and predictable. She married my Uncle John in a predictable wedding. Had four predictable children who, predictably, attended Catholic school and, predictably, went to college.  Aunt Ricky would occasionally comment that Aunt Sara and Uncle John weren’t happy or were struggling, but they remained predictable. Christmas card predictable. Posts and pictures from their children on Facebook were predictable, all suggesting a stable family composed of Aunt Sara, Uncle John, and their shared offspring.

Last week, trying to gain some hold on the chaos in my own life, I finally sorted through the month’s worth of mail that had accumulated on my kitchen counter and found an envelope from Aunt Sara. Inside was an invitation that read “John and Sara invite you to celebrate their union…etc, etc, etc.” I smiled to myself thinking that, although it was unlikely I would make it to the East Coast town of my family’s origins to celebrate with them (and I find re-commitment ceremonies to be generally lame), Aunt Sara and Uncle John remained the one pillar of predictability in my family’s overall madness. I also felt hopeful that, despite the comments that Sara and John were struggling, they remained committed to each other 25 years after they were initially wed and wanted to share that joy with others.  I went to Target and bought a card with two ridiculous space hamsters on the front.

two hamsters

I was proud of myself for the coolness of my card. I wrote a note to Aunt Sara expressing my regret that I would not be able to make it home for the celebration, but that I was in awe of her commitment to her marriage and family and told her how inspirational she was to me. How much joy and strength it had brought me to watch her support her family and how I aspired to be as much of a blessing to my family as she was to hers. I then carried the card around with me in my bag all week, intending to mail it. Really, seriously, intending to mail it.

Well, thank fuck I didn’t.

This afternoon Aunt Sara called me and left me a voicemail asking if I would be coming to “her wedding” and asking me to call her so we could catch up. I called her back almost immediately and offered my “mea culpa” for not having responded more quickly to her invitation. I told her that we had been busy, how I was trying to sell my house so that I could move to a new university, and that I was happy for her.

Then she said some, frankly, strange fuckery. She said that she could empathize about how hard it is to sell a house because she was trying to sell hers and John was trying to sell his so that they could buy one together. And, John’s kids were grown and out of the house, so surely my house selling was harder because my kids are little. I thought to myself, “But aren’t your kids and John’s kids the same kids? Did my Uncle John have some rogue children?”  Then she kept telling me about how happy she was and how much she hoped I was coming to “the wedding” and how I should bring my children because she missed them and wanted to see them.

I hung up the phone, confused, until I began to appreciate the most obvious explanation. She was not celebrating her 25 year marriage to my Uncle John. She was marrying a whole new John. I called my father and caught him completely off guard when I began our conversation with, “WTF, Dad? Am I getting a new Uncle John?”  Papa Isis does not care for swearing out of his little girl, but today warranted some swearing. Damn it.

Indeed, that is exactly what is happening. I have been living in my own little sphere and, in the meantime, Aunt Sara divorced old Uncle John and met and fell in love with New Uncle John.  I feel no judgment over the end of her marriage. If she was unhappy before and is happier now, I am nothing but happy for her. I only feel strangeness over this invitation and phone call and the sense that I should know there was new Uncle John.

It’s not gaslighting, per se, but it was all treated as though, if we act like everything is normal and that this is how it has always been, then this is how it has always been. That moment of feeling like I might be the crazy one for not knowing there was a New John. Not that everyone else might be off their rockers..

Old John? Old John, who? Of course you knew that Old John was Old John and that now there is New John.

How the fuck was I supposed to know that?

That’s the part that has me a bit out of sorts.

gaslighting Sheldon]