Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Entitlement and unwanted attention

I had a post all planned out about positive things. And I still plan on finishing that post at some point... (let's be honest... in 3 more months or so?)

But then the internet exploded with #YesAllWomen and important conversations surrounding a mass murder committed because a man felt entitled to have sex with any woman he wanted.

I tweeted about it, because I am really, really angry, and sad, and tired of hearing about these stories. I wasn't going to write about it here, because I don't really know what to say about it. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about harassment on my walk to work, and how it IS scary when you're a woman and a man (or men) is giving you unwanted attention. This is, of course, still a regular occurrence, whether on the bus or while walking.

These interactions with strangers have been on the front of my mind when thinking about #YesAllWomen, and so have interactions with men at work. I still don't have anything new to say about these incidents, but they suck.

All day today, though, I've had another series of memories running through my head. Last night, I read this post at The Daily Beast by Arthur Chu about misogyny, entitlement and nerds. (Don't read the comments don't read the comments don't read the comments)

Twice in my life I've been stalked or harassed fairly constantly by a classmate. One instance lasted for roughly 6 years, the other for about 2 years - a total of ~8 years between the ages of 10 and 18 that I spent fending off advances from two different classmates. Both of these boys happen to be "nerds". For basically my entire adolescence, I was that girl, the target of a boy's affection that I just didn't want.

Eight years of "just don't be so nice to him if you don't want his attention" - because of course, it was my fault.

Eight years of "you should be flattered, he's just being nice"- because insisting on sitting by me on the bus, even if I was already sitting with someone, following me through the halls at school when I was trying to talk to my friends, and following me all the way home after school - those are all "nice" behaviors.

"If you just go out with him a few times, he'll leave you alone" said the friends of one of the guys.

"You're being too picky, just because he isn't a jock doesn't mean he isn't worth dating" said girls who were my "friends".

(there was a lot more, but I'm not going to go into details here)

And the scene I've been replaying constantly today: "One day I'm going to turn on the news and see that he murdered you for turning him down one too many times, and they'll be interviewing people we go to school with and they'll all be like... yep, he was creepy" my friend said one day. And we laughed about it.

We laughed about it because it was such a NORMAL thing, for a nerdy guy to not "get" social cues and follow a girl around constantly. It was so engrained in our view of the world - that this was a thing that happened - we didn't question it, we just laughed about it and made JOKES about murder.

I think what actually bothers me the most right now is that it took reading an article about this phenomenon for me to even realize just how screwed up these relationships (in the sense that we were classmates who interacted on a near daily basis) were.

Sure, the more recent events are fresher in my mind, because they happened a week ago or a month ago, rather than 10+ years ago. They also feel scarier, because these are grown men, not pre-teens/teenagers. But I also think it was such a normalized thing growing up, that I never really stopped to think about whether that behavior was okay. It was annoying, but it was part of life.

But it's not. It's not okay to make someone else uncomfortable on a regular basis because you're attracted to them. No one is entitled to sex or a date with anyone else.

I don't know what I'd tell my little sister-in-law or cousin if one of them told me this was happening at their high school. I think I'd start with "this isn't okay, and you're completely right to be upset by it".  But what should she do? That I don't know. I'm trying to picture my SIL telling me about something like this the next time I see her, and it just makes me want to scream with frustration that there would be NOTHING that I could tell her that would make it okay, or that would make it stop, or that would protect her. But we need to do better. We need to tell kids that this kind of behavior is wrong, and stop normalizing this entitlement.

*ETA: I think there's a slight semantics issue here, so I want to be clear: I don't believe that boys naturally objectify/harass/stalk girls, or naturally feel entitled to their attention, I think this is something society teaches them - so when I say we need to tell or teach kids something, I mean INSTEAD of what "we" are teaching them now - not that we need to teach them in order to reverse some natural instinct to harass. But this is complicated and I am not an expert in psychology or sociology*

Saturday, March 1, 2014


To make a long story very, very short: since the last time I wrote, things have continued to improve, and I'm in the process of applying for postdoc positions (and a fellowship which I won't name here due to my irrational fear of someone finding this blog). I will try to actually write about the past 6 months at some point, but in the meantime...

Every year since I started this blog, I tried to write this post during this week. But every year, I've chickened out. Even now, as I type this...I'm not sure I have anything worth saying. But I think it needs to be said anyway.

Last April and May, I had a relapse of anorexia nervosa. I've been battling one eating disorder or another on and off for the past 10 years (mostly off for the past 5). This past week has been NEDAwareness week , and this year, I'm done hiding.

It's always been hard for me to finish a post about this, because when I'm healthy it all just seems so stupid. Because I know that eating is important. And that your value is not determined by what you look like (for goodness sake, I wrote that post in April!). But I also know that eating disorders are not a choice. it's silly to call my behavior stupid, when it wasn't really by choice.

However, I also do what can trigger a relapse, for me: stress, not getting enough sleep (like when I thought I wasn't going to graduate), unintentionally losing a little bit of weight (stress+trying to fight it with pilates)...those are the big ones. Spending time with my family (which I did in February) doesn't tend to help either.

So in April I lost 6 pounds. That might not sound like a lot, but I have a low body fat percentage to begin with, and losing 6 pounds puts me in an unhealthy range. All through April and May, my clothes were hanging off of me, I was exhausted, everything ached, and I was generally miserable. But in my head, I was bigger than I should be, and somehow that mattered greatly. 

In June, Ryan's cousin passed away, and I realized 2 things as we were buying plane tickets and planning to go to the funeral. One was that if my casual clothes were hanging off of me, my dress clothes would look huge and frumpy too. The second was that when someone dies, people tend to bring food. Lots of food. And considering I usually eat nearly as much as Ryan and his brothers, someone might notice if I wasn't eating.

So, I started eating more, and I gained a few pounds back before we left. The combination of eating, being surrounded by so much love, and the wake up call of another young relative dying - life is short and all that - and the act of eating as a family activity (and starting to gain the weight back), that combination worked. I realized how harmful what I was doing was, and I stopped.

I'm always a little afraid of another relapse. It's common. It's happened to me multiple times. I especially worry about if/when I get will I react to those kinds of physical changes? It's a little scary.

I do have hope, though, that this recovery will be longer than the last. It has already been nearly a year, and before this I was going on nearly 4 years. I know that full recovery is possible. It might not always be easy, but then I suppose not many things in life really are.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Part VI: Putting My Head Down but also Speaking Up

After my meeting with my program director back in the beginning of March, I decided that the only thing I could do was to do the best I could, and get myself through grad school, one step at a time. I had sent an email to the bioinformatics postdoc and FormerPostdoc asking them to include me the next time they discussed the project so I could get more involved, and spent an afternoon sorting out the data access issue.

I started dressing a little nicer (fewer T-shirts, more cute tops, but still mostly jeans), as much to put me in a more "professional" or "adult" frame of mind as anything. In lab, I put my head down and worked harder than ever before on getting things done - a review I was working on, the project with FormerPostdoc, and the project with current labmate. I took shorter lunch breaks and coffee breaks, and tried not to socialize while I was working, even if it was a tedious task.

I forced myself to speak up more - this was really hard, but I tried to just ask whatever question came to mind in lab meetings or group meetings or journal club. Some of the questions were good, some were less insightful, but I made an effort to get past the discomfort and speak up more. I wish I could say it got easier, but it's only a little easier now. Maybe with more practice it will keep getting easier.

We started having group meetings with the bioinformatics team again, and although it took me a little while to get caught up on the bioinformatics side of things, I did my best to participate and was able to share my data and talk about the biology side of things. 

And I say "able to share", because FormerPostdoc tried to do it for me. After we had set the meeting time, he sent me an email asking for my data so that he could present it to the group before we talked about the next steps for the bioinformatics team. I got that email while I was standing at the bus stop one morning, and thought it was weird. I showed it to my friend to be sure that I wasn't just overreacting, and he declared it "messed up". 

I sent FormerPostdoc an email back with a summary of my data and said that since I'd be at the meeting, I could present it (I did send him the raw data after the meeting too). I'm not sure what his deal is, whether he was intentionally keeping me out of the loop, or whether he just doesn't realize when he's doing something like that. 

A few meetings later (mid-April), we were discussing a biology experiment to answer a remaining question. FormerPostdoc laid out the basic outline of the experiment, and I suggested an addition to rule out another possible answer more clearly (basically to run the same experiment in parallel with another protein - sort of another control, but really more like another experimental test). 

FormerPostdoc said that we didn't need to run both to come to conclusion X. 
I said that if we don't run both, we can't completely rule out conclusion Y, and if I were a reviewer, I would ask about conclusion Y. 
FP said that if the reviewers ask about it, we can run it, but it was going to be a waste. 
I pointed out that running the two in parallel would require less time, and we could use the same controls - saving money. It wasn't going to be hard to add one more sample, so we should just do it now. 
FP said no, not worth it. Conclusion Y is going to be wrong anyway.

At this point, I'm thinking that I must be missing something, that there's something published out there ruling out conclusion Y. But then I thought - I'm not going to let my insecurity keep me quiet. If I'm wrong, oh well. If I'm right, we potentially save a lot of hassle during the review I kept fighting.

Me: Even if you don't want to put all the data in the paper, at least we'll have it so that WHEN the reviewers ask we can just put it in or add a statement or whatever, and we won't have to do any more work then! 
FP: Conclusion Y is wrong. And the reviewers aren't going to ask. 
Me: BUT I WOULD ASK if I were a reviewer. 

At this point, both of us had raised our voices and everyone in the room was looking at me like I was crazy. Fortunately, my PI stepped in - 

She asked FP why he was so convinced that conclusion X was right, had someone else published something supporting conclusion X over conclusion Y? Could we just cite that to rule out conclusion Y?
No, he said, he was just sure that conclusion X is right. (If you "just know" things, then why are we wasting all this time and money doing the actual science?)
PI: Well, you're usually right FP, but I think Allison has a point. If the reviewers ask, we'll want to show them some actual data. It's probably worth the extra $100 or so in reagents and extra few minutes at each step to just do both. 

I'm not sure if that was a significant moment to my PI, or if anyone else took note of it, but to me, it was significant - I almost backed down because I didn't like the confrontational style of the conversation, but I didn't. I felt strongly that my logic was sound and that I shouldn't let FP dismiss me so easily. (I believe that if there was ever a real ethical or major science issue I always would have fought for what I thought was right, but since this was relatively minor and no real harm would have come of NOT doing what I thought, it was a lot harder to fight for). The bioinformatics team as a whole seems to take me a little more seriously now, thought I can't say for sure that this one incident was the tipping point, or whether I'd just been around contributing enough that they started to recognize my ideas more. 

The rest of April and May passed pretty much the same - I worked hard, I tried to take care of myself, I started to feel a little more like I could get though this.

We originally wanted to get the paper submitted by the end of June, so by early June things were a little more tense. Everything wasn't completed, so we all worked like crazy to finish things up, to edit each other's writing, and the frame the paper in the best way - which meant more experiments! 

There was a minor incident with FP regarding the experiment when he thought I might need help from someone to do a technique which I am currently the lab expert on. Before he left, he was probably the lab expert on this technique - but he trained me, and should know that I know what I'm doing. I guess he has know way of knowing how I've progressed since he left, except that I authored a review on the technique. This pissed me off, because if nothing else, he should know that a senior grad student in this lab would know how to do this technique WELL ENOUGH, but also because I was more than proficient when he left. Basically I've concluded that FP just doesn't respect me, and there's probably nothing I can do about it. 

At any rate, the experiment worked quite well, and we were just about done. I planned out my other experiments around the rest of the stuff I needed to do for this paper, had an editing schedule, and I felt almost good. 

But because 2013 is apparently trying really hard to be the worst year ever, in the midst of this frantic race to the finish line, tragedy struck

to be continued...

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Jumping Ahead

Before I continue the chronological events that have happened this year, I want to jump ahead to last week. I'm meeting with my PI this week about what I "want to do with my life" after grad school, and I've taken so long to write this series out that I'm really behind...but I want to at least write this out to process it better. 

I had all but made up my mind last weekend that I was going to plan on leaving academia. I had definitely made up my mind that being a PI was not my end goal anymore, and if I do a post-doc it will be as a means to an end of a research-related job (more on that later, I think). I had taken the Science Careers myIDP thing, which (unsurprisingly) had PI-type careers near the bottom of my suggested career matches.

But then, Friday night was our first grad student social of the year. I intended to go for an hour or so, meet our new students, and chat with a few friends. I ended up staying for several hours and had some conversations that I'm thinking about now:

Z- not someone I'm really friends with, but someone I talk to now and then - told me I looked happier than I have in a really long time. I don't remember what was happening when he said that - it seemed really out of the blue, and it sort of surprised me. I guess I thought I had hidden my stress pretty well...maybe I haven't hidden this as well as I thought, or maybe he's just really perceptive. Either way, I thought well...yeah. Ryan's been happier in his new lab lately. I'm feeling better about my thesis/grad school experience, and I'm becoming okay with not following the "traditional" path after grad school.

Then I was talking to my friend C, who is now that president of the student council (we were both members of the council last year). We stepped out of earshot of the party so he could vent about council stuff. Then we started talking about lab stuff, and I sort of spilled a lot of what's been going on. C was sympathetic, and had some similarly crappy (though not in quite the same way) experiences this past year, but also reminded me of a lot of the reasons I came here in the first place/why I like research:

You get to be an expert in your field, and you get to come up with cool and important questions to answer. You get to figure things out every day that no one else works on (hopefully, anyway). Science is awesome. Learning is awesome. Talking to other people about their science is awesome.

He also pointed out that the experience I'm having in my lab is only one experience. Three-ish years, with a handful of people, and one PI.

He suggested that we'll never be on the same "bottom rung" again, like I was when I started in my lab and FormerPostDoc started being dismissive of me and my ideas, which I was never really able to shake. This seems especially true for people like us who came to grad school straight out of college- 22 years old, fresh out of years and years of following instructions. We'll be taken more seriously, he said, and when you're a PI you can choose who to work with, and not work with people who are dismissive of you.

I do think these last statements he made are a bit colored by his male privilege. It is harder for a female scientist to be taken seriously by some people than a male scientist, so I'd probably always be starting a bit behind my male colleagues. Things are better, and I think there is hope that things will continue to improve, but I also think it's worth noting that C and I will likely never have the same experience starting in a new place in science. (I also think C knows this and hates this, but we had both had several beers on empty stomachs at this point, so I'm not going to dwell on it).

I've been thinking about this all weekend, and a lot of what C said has been stuck in my head. Maybe this is all just a bad lab fit. Maybe I was right to choose to come to grad school with academia as my intended career path. Maybe I would make a good PI.

But then I think about what Z said... and yes, my unhappiness this year has been largely driven by a bad experience, and compounded by Ryan's problems. But maybe that's the experience I'll have all through academia. The hours are tough, the work is hard, and on top of my own insecurities I'm not sure I get taken as seriously as I'd like to, which makes it feel harder. I'm a woman, I'm tall but physically small, which I think makes it easier for people (men especially) to "bully" me, and I'm "conventionally attractive", which leads to some less-than-desirable treatment by some men (Oh, did I mention the part where on Friday I also got hit on by the director of a core facility I use all the time? Yeah...).

Do I really want any of this THAT badly? Am I willing to bet my happiness on the idea that THIS lab hasn't been the greatest experience, but the next one will be better? I know that a lot of this is prevalent throughout our society, and no matter what job I take next I'll likely work with men (and women!) who don't take me as seriously as some other people at first, unless I really step up my game. And I'm not sure how much of my insecurity will go away in a different job, but I know that I will have a hard time getting rid of it in this field.

I'm scared that not doing a post-doc means shutting the door on anything academic forever. I'm kind of not sold on being a PI anymore, but I love the idea of outreach type work, and I also really like the idea of teaching. But I'm also afraid that another 3-5 years of this will be another 3-5 years of feeling insecure and exhausted and just plain unhappy. I know that no job is going to be perfect, and there's always going to be bad with the good.

I'm just not sure how much I'm willing to fight anymore. How much longer can I fight in a system that rewards people who are self-promoters, when that's not me? A system that does tend to favor men, a system that will be even harder to survive in if I have kids (some of the stuff C hinted at that he's heard while sitting in on academic hearings made me want to vomit)? How much can I fight the insecurities I've developed about this career?

This feels like giving up. I guess in a lot of ways, it is giving up. It also feels a little bit like failure.

Despite the general cutthroat nature of academia, I think that among my classmates and my program-mates - by and large, we want to see each other succeed. We encourage each other to keep going because we want to see each other succeed, and, honestly, I think because we want to say we came from this school/program that produced all these other successful people. And we've been so conditioned to believe that THIS IS SUCCESS: getting a good post-doc at a good institution and then getting a faculty position at a good institution. We women hear all this talk about the leaky pipeline and how we might have to fight but we can do it and we can change the face of academia. So stepping away feels like failure. And it feels like letting down the next cohort of women who will come into grad school and see the drop-off of women up ahead.

But at some point... personal happiness is more important than trying to fix the system. This has probably been the worst year of my life (and I realize how lucky I am that this is the case). I'm afraid of missing out on an opportunity to do something amazing in academia, but I'm also afraid of "wasting" years of my life- wasting time, energy, and brain power - on something that isn't right.

This is, apparently, a rather typical Millennial view of work - that it should be fulfilling and awesome. This is how we were raised- to follow our passion and do what we love and to forget convention and having lots of money. But it's also apparently pretty typical of Millennial women to have a fear of making the wrong choice. I don't often think I fit the Millennial mold very well, but in this case I guess I do.  I just wish I knew I wanted SOMETHING badly enough to fight for it, rather than worrying about looking for something else.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Part V: Program Director

Oh gosh, where has the time gone? Well, when we left off, it was late February and I had just met with my new favorite committee member and had a lot to think about. I also still needed to talk to my program director, which I wasn't really looking forward to. 

I set up the meeting with my program director for the first week of March, and set aside a good hour or so - I expected this to be a long conversation. You may recall that a few weeks prior to this meeting, I had spoken to the first group of interviewees for our program (some of whom are now here! Where did the summer go?!?), and program director was very, very complimentary to me. Like, weirdly so.

When I sat down in his office, he started talking before I could get a word in

PD: "I was very surprised when your PI told me about this...issue. It was right after your talk at retreat, which was excellent."

In my head: Hold on - she talked to him about this back in early January? And he KNEW about this when I talked to the recruits? And still acted like I was all super awesome? WTF. 

PD: "I'm not happy that she didn't talk to you sooner. She should have addressed this with YOU before coming to me. I'm not sure what she expected me to do about it, without having talked to you first. Like I said, I was pretty shocked, and I'm guessing you were too?"

Me: "ummm...yeah."

The conversation only lasted about 15 minutes. I told him what I had discussed with New Favorite Committee Member . I told him about not being invited to the meetings with the bioinformatics team. He told me my boss says I just didn't show up. I told him I can get the emails from a postdoc, showing that I wasn't on the emails about meeting times/places, and I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to show up at an unknown place at an unknown time. He told me that wasn't necessary, and to be more assertive in getting on to the email list, getting access to the data, and pestering people to make sure I was invited.

Fine, I said, I will try my best to be more assertive.

Go do better, he said. And let me know if things get worse. I hope that this is the worst of your graduate career, that this is just the result of some miscommunication and bad timing.

to be continued...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Part IV: New Favorite Committee Member

I was supposed to be in Michigan from Saturday-Tuesday afternoon, but Monday night I got a call from the airline that my flight back had been cancelled due to weather. I rescheduled the flight for Wednesday afternoon, and sorted out the mess of missing an extra day (including rescheduling my meeting with my last committee member).

Of course, my flights were delayed going back (I did take advantage of the extra time in an airport in Michigan to drink a Bell's Two Hearted, which is my favorite beer - good enough even to pay airport prices!). By the time I got home to our condo it was after midnight, and I was dehydrated and hungry (in retrospect, drinking beer and not eating any food or drinking any water before getting on the first plane did not help). I was just happy I didn't miss my connecting flight because of the earlier delays! 

I met with my last committee member on Thursday morning (exhausted and dehydrated, and with emotions still all over the place). I sat down in his office and apologized for rescheduling at the last minute. He said he understood, of course, and he was sorry I had to travel for a funeral. He told me that my boss had emailed him about the "issues", he read the explanation she had attached to my signature form to be sure it was the same, and then asked what I had to say about it. 

I told him which parts I thought were accurate- I don't share my ideas very assertively, and I haven't been LEADING the project, but I also thought I had been working hard and that while all of my data didn't necessarily fit what we expected, that didn't make it bad data, just bad luck. Maybe I don't read as much as I should, but I definitely read some and think about the project. 

He told me that most grad students need to read more, but that it seemed like the real problem was in the leading the project category. He thought that especially for students who (like me) had come to grad school straight from undergrad, this transition from "follower" to "leader" is difficult, because we've been in school for years and years and years with someone telling us what to do, and all of a sudden, with nothing to mark where the transition occurs, we're expected to take over. This is an important transition, he said, but it could happen at different times for different students.

This was extremely helpful, because while I am certainly not blaming my boss for what has been going on, it made me realize that I didn't somehow miss the memo that I was supposed to be doing something different RIGHT NOW- there (probably) wasn't one! 

We moved on to talking about my science, and after I answered his questions about the details of the project, he asked another question - "how do you feel about the project's scientific content? ... as in, is this really your science passion?"

"I'm not trying to trap you!" he added " do you actually feel about it? Maybe this just isn't the right subfield for you".

I contemplated that for a minute, and (it's hard to explain without the scientific details that I don't want to share for the sake of semi-anonymity) told him that I do like this subfield a lot, but I think I've been stuck in a sub-sub-field, and concluded that if I had pushed to do something else with it, maybe things would be going better. 

"What about [huge pile of bioinformatics data]?" he asked, "I know some of that was generated by FormerPostDoc, but didn't you say some of it came from your mice? And you should use the older data too, it all ties together"

"Yes, but I don't have access to any of that data" I explained.

He pushed back from his desk "What do you mean you don't have access? You don't know how? or...?"

I explained that a year ago I'd asked multiple times for access to the data portal, but at first the bioinformatics postdoc was busy, then he couldn't get my username accepted, then he was busy again, and no one was telling me when the meetings with the whole team were. At some point, I found out from another postdoc when the group meeting with the bioinformatics team was and I went to one, but they only talked about this project for about 5 minutes, then spent the rest of the time on another lab project, and my boss told me to stop coming until they finished other project, because that was to be the priority. Then, more recently, FormerPostDoc and NewBioinformaticsPostDoc had started skyping about the project, but I didn't know about it until after it happened. 

"But Allison... this is what ties the whole project together! You're being criticized for not connecting the dots, but you don't have anything to connect them with! You need access to this data!"

We talked about what I needed to do to get access to the data, to be sure I knew about the next meeting, and he told me I needed to come up with a list of ideas and questions based on the data so that I could contribute to the next meeting. We also talked about the idea that FormerPostDoc probably feels a lot of pressure as a new faculty at a really good school and is just bulldozing ahead to get this paper out, but that there is plenty of work and data to go around. (I also realized after this meeting that FPD is the one who was there when this incident happened, and I'm not sure he's ever fully trusted me since then)

Finally, we talked about what I want to do when I graduate. I told him that I had wanted to stay in academia, but now I wasn't so sure. He asked why, and I said (for the first time out loud) that I wasn't sure I was smart enough, or capable. He told me he didn't think I should look at it that way, and that while I had made some mistakes, that was part of school and learning. Get access to the data, he said, and get involved in the meetings, and reassess once you're actually a member of the team. FPD does not own this project, and as the graduate student who took it over when he left, you have every right to be a part of it. He pointed out that if I didn't take responsibility for my thesis, I'd be in a bad spot, but there was still plenty of time to turn this thing around, as long as I DID it.  

So I thanked him and headed out determined to get access to my data, and ready to schedule the meeting with my program director (which I was still dreading a bit). 

to be continued...

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Part III - Family Influences

Part I
Part II

I'm going to diverge a bit from actual lab/grad school stuff here, but it's all related... (in my head, anyway).

While I was in Michigan for my friend's mom's funeral, a couple of things happened that I didn't really notice at the time, but that I would look back on over the following month or so and realize were actually significant (to me).

In the first hour I spent with my mom's whole extended family on Saturday, no one would ask me about school/lab/work. We talked about my haircut, my weight, my skin, my outfit, and Ryan, Pod, and Bug. Then, when my brother got home, they all asked him about his classes, which professors he was going to ask for letters of recommendation from, whether he had decided to change his major or keep it, and all sorts of other questions about school...

Then, when his girlfriend came over to visit, my grandma asked her how her grandparents were doing - because my grandparents went to high school with my brother's girlfriend's grandparents.

The first bit should have been obvious, but I think I've become so used to it that I didn't really notice: My family treats men and women differently. They value women based on what we look like more so than what we've done. This is certainly part of the reason that I reacted so strongly to that Dove Real Beauty sketches thing (my reaction post here). I could write about his for days, but for now I'll try to stick to the part that relates to grad school: I was raised to believe that my value is determined by what I look like.

This is something that is prevalent in our society, and as much as I'd like to think I'm smarter than all that, I've definitely internalized this message. Whether I was smarter than listening to the media or not, I definitely listened to my family. And being told to stop raising my hand so much because the boys wouldn't want to date me if they thought I was smarter than them? That stuck with me. That stuck with me really, really hard. And I am fortunate enough to have a loving, kind family that spends a LOT of time together, so of course I've always wanted to make them happy. Their expectation has always been verbalized as something along the lines of "be pretty, be feminine, be nice, find a husband"...and to find that husband, you have to date boys...and to date boys, according to my mother, you probably shouldn't let on that you're smarter than them (or almost as smart as them, as the case may be).

That memory of being told not to raise my hand so much hit me hard this spring. It's still hard for me to speak up in lab meetings or classes or seminars. Some of that is definitely because I'm introverted. But I've been so worried about what people will think of me as a woman that I have an even harder time speaking up. Because nice, pretty, marriage-material girls don't speak up in class (says my family). Nice, pretty (aka valuable, according to my family), marriage-material girls speak when spoken too, and never, ever interrupt. Or argue. Especially with a man.

I'm not going to sit here and blame this all on my family, or society, or anything else. It's just that I've never REALLY realized how deeply these feelings were ingrained until this year. This is certainly not unique to my family, but again, I just never really realized how much they pushed this message.

The other thing - the grandparents going to school together thing- was a little more subtle, but when I realized what it meant, I was sort of shocked. ALL of the other members of my generation in my mom's family (that are old enough) are married to or are in a serious relationship with someone whose family has also been in my hometown for at least 2 generations. This is also true for most of my mom's generation. This is what my family does, apparently, is marry people who also grew up in my hometown and never leave the area. Or, leave the area for a few years, but then come back, have kids, and start the whole thing over.

My hometown is not tiny, and I've never felt like I was doing something crazy by moving so far away and not planning to come back. But I've realized now that in the back of my mind there's always been this tiny nagging voice that says "you'll come back. it's only a matter of time". And every time I talk to my mom, she asks when we're coming back to visit, when we're having kids, and when we're MOVING back to Michigan. She doesn't ask when I'm moving back to my hometown, specifically, because she knows there are no jobs for PhDs in biomedical sciences there. But she HAS pointed out that there's a pharmaceutical company not TOO far away.

I'm truly lucky to have a family that is loving, and generally supportive - I know that I am lucky compared to a lot of people. I do. But over the years, this sort of superficially supportive thing has gotten under my skin. They've increased my doubts that I can do this - academia - because they have this expectation that I'll come back "home". And I got married (young, I might add), but I haven't had kids and WHAT IS THE POINT OF MARRIAGE IF NOT TO HAVE KIDS (says my family). It hasn't felt this way until recently, but I am breaking tradition. I am pursuing a career that won't let me move back "home", I'm not sure if I'm going to have kids. I'm pursuing a career that will require me to stop being so "girly" and stand up for myself, speak up, and make myself heard.

I know that a lot of people go off and make their own paths. I know that a lot of people don't do what their family expects them to do. And I know that for a lot of people, this causes a great deal of stress, drama, and bad feelings within their family. I don't think I'm special or different for any of this. I just didn't realize until recently that I wasn't doing what my family expected. I didn't realize that my family really and truly thinks that this whole "science thing" is just a phase, and that getting a PhD is just for fun and that I'll be back. Or maybe they don't actually think that, but they're holding on to their fantasy so that they don't have to deal with the fact that I'm not coming back. I don't know. It's weird. But, I think now that I realize these things I can be prepared, mentally, when I talk to them. And when I'm feeling insecure or afraid to speak up, I can try to ask myself if I'm just trying to meet their expectations.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Things that need to be written - Part II

Part I

In mid January, I was on top of the world. Sure, my boss had missed my (really good) talk (for no particular reason other than she doesn't like to stay for the whole retreat), but at the time, this didn't really bother me. My talk at the conference was fine, and if she had concerns about my speaking skills she would have made suggestions after the conference, and she would have been there to see if I improved.

In early February, I gave a talk to the first group of students the department was trying to recruit, and my program director who was there gave me a lot of praise after. Like...I was a little taken aback, because it was really not that big of a deal to talk to a small group of interviewees. I was riding in the elevator up to lab with the PI who had talked to the recruits after THAT, and she asked me if I ended up winning the talk award at retreat. No... did I place? No. She was surprised and told me she thought my talk was great, and got off the elevator.

It was kind of a weird morning, but I felt like it was just confirmation that I was doing fine.

Later that week, though, I had the conversation with my boss that I summarized here. We were going over my status report for my upcoming committee meeting, and she expressed her concerns:  I wasn't coming up with enough ideas, or if I was, I wasn't sharing them. I didn't have good enough data. I probably wasn't working, or reading, enough. If I was planning to do a postdoc, I should probably reconsider, because it would be harder than grad school. And, if I didn't get it together, I might not graduate.

I was shocked. I felt like this had come out of no where. Previously, my boss has given me constructive criticism (of course!), but it's always seemed relatively minor. And there's usually good stuff, too. This was just...a storm of negativity. 

She told me to go talk to my program director before or after my committee meeting and figure things out. In my head, I'm trying to figure out how this conversation is going to go- "hey, program director, I know you think I'm super awesome and you wanted me to help recruit our top students, but it turns out I actually might not graduate"? He had just given me all this seemingly excessive praise, so I was really not looking forward to this meeting.

At the end of my committee meeting, the committee had a few suggestions about my project, and then they have to sign a form with some questions, one of which is something about whether the student had taken responsibility for the project. As usual, the committee members nodded along as my PI asked the questions, but then when she got to the responsibility one she just looked at them for a while and said "really?"

My favorite committee member (I rotated in her lab as well, so I also knew her a little better than the others coming in) came to my defense a bit, and said that I was clearly taking RESPONSIBILITY for the project, but she suggested that I could be LEADING the project better. One of the other committee members also suggested some things I could improve on, but they all seemed to think that things were generally okay, and filled out the form as such. My boss then added a long explanation on a separate form, and told me to take it to my program director after I met with my absent committee member the next week.

That was Tuesday. Tuesday night I didn't sleep well, and at 5:00 on Wednesday morning (my mom's birthday), my phone went off - my best friend's mom had lost her battle with cancer. My friend wasn't really in the mood for talking, but I expressed my condolences and asked her to keep me updated. Her mom had been in hospice care, so they already had some arrangements made, and later that afternoon I got a mass text with the details-visitation Sunday, Mass on Monday. My friend texted me again and said she knew I was too busy, but she just wanted me to know what was going on so I was on the updates list. On my way to seminar, I called my mom to wish her happy birthday and also give her the bad news/good news: bad news was friend's mom had died, but good news (for my mom) was that I was coming to Michigan!

I got her schedule so I wouldn't have to rent a car, found someone to replace me at recruitment dinner on Saturday, and informed the students in charge of dinner. After seminar, I booked my plane tickets, and called my friend. She didn't answer, but I left her a voicemail saying when I was coming, and that I needed to see my family for a bit, but if there was any time that they needed a driver or dog care or anything to let me know, otherwise I'd see her at the visitation.

I made arrangements for my rotation student to have productive things to do on Monday and Tuesday, and worked like a crazy person to get my own work settled before I left. Most of the time I would agonize over a last minute decision to miss 2 days of work, but just then I knew I needed a break and I absolutely felt it was worth it to be there for my friend.

to be continued...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Things that need to be written - Part I

It's time to be more open about the things that have been going on this year. Like I said in my last post, things are feeling better lately, but I want to share the struggles I've had this year. The more I look at this list of bullet points, though, the more I think this is a longer story than one post. Much longer. And this is a story that goes back further than just this year, and I want to write that out too.

I've debated about where to start this story. The beginning, when I was a kid? The present and work backwards? I think it's going to make the most sense to start at the beginning of this year, and then bring in the past when I want to.

But really, although I didn't know that things were going this way until February of this year, I think the current state of things started earlier- something like a full year ago. In fact, I blogged about this last August - I was submitting an abstract for a conference, and my boss thought I'd possibly get asked to give a talk, which sort of freaked me out.

As far as I can tell, that conversation was when things between my boss and I started to change.

Though I've always been a bit insecure, I had grown to be at least mildly confident in my lab abilities by last summer. I had a lot of experience, decent grades, and a successful qualifying exam. under my belt. But in that moment of thinking about giving a talk, I was a little scared, and I let it show. My boss was not impressed.

Then in October, as those of you who've been around for a while know, my abstract got selected for a talk! Despite my initial fears, I felt pretty good and I thought things were great. I tried to buckle down to really prepare for the talk.

The talk went pretty well. I think I focused on the little things that went wrong a lot afterword, but I did feel pretty good. I had this sort of "fake it till you make it" attitude going on, and I was actually drafting a post about it, but waiting until after the upcoming department retreat to post it - I was hoping that I could count a successful talk there as "making it".

Looking back, I do think the talk went pretty well...but here's the important thing: I wasn't totally myself, because it was so early and I was so tired. I wasn't as dynamic as I usually am, and I probably didn't answer questions as quickly as I could have otherwise.

I'm not sure if this is actually an important detail, but it feels like one right now. I wasn't at my best when I gave that conference talk. The talk was FINE, but it wasn't GREAT. And to be perfectly honest, I am capable of giving a great talk. I haven't believed it all the time, but it's true. I am a good speaker, and I had a lot of good feedback about the content of my talk.

I think the second department retreat is where this part of the story ends. It's held on a Thursday/Friday, and the 4th year students (as well as some faculty) give talks. There are also posters and skits and a party and food and drinks...and of course, my talk was scheduled for Friday morning, so I couldn't stay at the party Thursday night. I mean, I could have. And, in fact, the student who ended up winning the talks stayed late at the party and was clearly hung over the next morning during said talk. There was a lot of "behind the scenes" anger and drama over the judging this year, so that I didn't win one of the awards was disappointing, but not overly surprising. It was clearly all political.

I could have stayed up late Friday, drinking free alcohol and having fun with my friends, but instead I went to bed at midnight. Even knowing the judging was crazy, I wouldn't have done anything different, because I wouldn't show up to give a talk when I was hung over, or even sleep deprived if I had the option of going to bed at a decent hour (not like the conference where I was doing conference stuff the whole time, and not sleeping well because of the hotel).

This talk actually went really, really well. I felt good about it (but still dwelled a bit on the little tiny things I could have said differently). I answered the questions really well, including one from our sort-of rival PI that was clearly meant to trip me up. If anything, I think that helped me, because I was able to prove my grasp on the topic, in a sense. The talk went so well that the most famous PI from our department, who is super hardcore and quite frankly a little scary, stopped a conversation with another relatively well known PI from the department (who is not known for being nice), stepped across the hall, and told me that my talk was really good. I was floored. The other PI also added her praise and I nearly skipped down the hall, I was so relieved and happy.

Why am I spending so much time writing about that talk? Well, partly because it just felt good. And if you had told me right then how bad things were about to get, I wouldn't have believed it. I had made it, guys, I had faked it until I made it, and I was a good representative of my department, selected as the student to give a talk to the top recruits. I gave a talk I could be proud of, the kind of talk I knew I was capable of. Two of the "biggest" PIs in the department went out of their way to praise me. I was on top of the world.

But here's the other thing: my boss wasn't there.

to be continued...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Things are Getting Better (Ramblings)

Earlier this week, I felt like things finally turned around, at least in my head. 

After a slightly rough day, I started to write a blog post venting about all the things that I felt were going wrong. Some combination of writing everything out (in incoherent bullet points), and I don't know what else...maybe just enough time passing, or maybe there was no combination of things, maybe I just finally sorted all my thoughts and feelings out. I don't know.

What I do know, is that for the first time since early February, I have a good mental idea about when I'm trying to graduate, and what I'm trying to do after that. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I feel better than I have in a long time. And my boss is on board with this timeline! 

I'm still going to publish that other post, but it needs to be edited. I'm going to try to edit it so that the feelings are still there, but so that it reads coherently. One thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is that we - grad students, friends, family - would probably all benefit from being a little more honest with each other. I've noticed that when people I go to school with change labs or leave school or change programs, everyone around is usually really surprised. I think it's a surprise because up until that last minute, they all tell most of us that everything is normal and fine. 

Of course, I don't think that we should be negative all the time, or dwell on the negative. And there doesn't seem to be much point in shouting about the sky falling when often we're just going through a rough patch and things will get better. 

Anyway, this is a lot of rambling, but I just wanted to frame my next post a bit without making that post any longer...