Category Archives: women in science

Women in Science: Marginalization is Subtle and Very, Very, Real.

I’m an oceanographer. Oceanography, ocean science, physical science – however you want to put it, it’s a male-dominated field. That never deterred me in the slightest, and I never felt that I was disadvantaged by being female. Until my postdoc. It took my awhile to wrap my head around the full story, but in hindsight I was severely marginalized and type-cast from the outset. It would have been the end of my career if it wasn’t for my own tenacity, the incredible support of my science husband (Simon), and my the professional network that I developed during graduate school.

 To My Fellow Women in Science & Tech – Do Not Get Stuck in the Girl Box

I graduated from Scripps Institution of Oceanography with a PhD – a stellar school. I left with a great resume and outstanding reference letters. After an intentional break for maternity leave, I started a postdoctoral fellowship at an institution that will remain nameless in this post. My two children* both turned one year old during my postdoc, during which time I published three first author peer-reviewed publications. I only published one in which I was not first author, which was with my science husband Simon (my husband). That’s your first clue that something was off.

It took nearly the entire three years of my postdoctoral fellowship for me to realize how badly I had been placed into the girl box. It was a subtle slide that started off with an unfortunate combination – my enthusiasm and willingness to help out, coupled with an institution where the predominant demographic is white men over age 50, and some stereotypical attitudes associated with that demographic.

How It Happened:

I arrived on the first day of my postdoc eager to meet my new colleagues and get started on my proposed scientific work. There were a variety of hurdles to cross to get my computer, get my computer on the network, software installed, trainings completed, etc. My advisor did not make any major efforts to introduce me to the other scientists aside from those in our immediate research group, so I wandered through the hallways and asked people for help with various technical issues (Do you know where I can get a copy of MATLAB?) and tried to learn about what they do.

It should have been clear within a few weeks that I was in danger. I was asked to help plan a baby shower for a colleague, which I responded to with an enthusiastic yes thinking it would help me get to know people. More concerningly, no one had any interest in talking to me about science. I would ask them and incorporate others’ work in mine, but the curiosity and collaboration was not reciprocal. They were vaguely interested in my proposed project and said things like “that will be a useful study”. In hindsight, I now see they really couldn’t have cared less about my dissertation work on coral reefs and climate change. They didn’t know my advisor or colleagues from graduate school. Everyone had their own project or task, and almost no one was interested in deviating from that task. I was on a fellowship, which sounds great, but what it really meant is that no one had any investment in me or reason to loop me in to ongoing projects and research groups. I was on my own.

At the baby shower, the other organizers and I received accolades on the event planning. Several people, including my new advisor, had indicated to me that my new place of work sorely lacked the type of social events and mixing of disciplines that my graduate school did well. I like event planning. I am good at it. But I made a mistake when I started advocating the idea of the chili cook-off, which my advisor had suggested I do. People were excited! They were finally talking to me! About chili, but still – it was a start that would surely lead to scientific discussion and collaboration in the future.

Let’s cut to the chase here. The chili cook-off was great – a huge success by all accounts. Everyone up my chain of command arrived, brought chili, and thanked me for organizing. In fact, everyone including my highest superior liked it so much that they asked me to do another cook-off. Except they didn’t want another chili cook-off next year – they wanted another cook-off in three months. And another after that. Three cook-offs a year for chili, barbecue, and pies. Help planning the Christmas party every December. Organizing baby showers and lunches. Organize an elaborate potluck dinner for visiting external reviewers and also please make dessert. I worked in a place with very few women, and very few young people, so I was an obvious choice to spearhead and help with all of these activities. At every one, my praises were sung for party planning skills and ability to bring people together. I felt I couldn’t say no. I had become the token young female event planner. I was asked by my advisor’s boss’ boss repeatedly and in person to plan these events “or else the holiday party may not happen.” (Read – this extremely busy man went out of his way to personally track me down to ask me to plan a party, but not to congratulate me on my recently funded grant or publication or anything else pertaining to my actual job description, nor to ask how my job was going.)

I was not without party planning help – but my help had been at this institution longer, and was far wiser to not invest too much time or enthusiasm in these activities. (My help also came solely from the young female demographic, and you’ve probably ascertained by now that there weren’t many of us in this particular research division). I burned out on it too over time. It wasn’t fun, and the time commitment snowballed. People kept asking for more social events, and events with greater complexity.

I love organizing and planning events, but if I wanted to be the party planner I would not have gotten a PhD in science and I certainly wouldn’t be applying for high level research and science jobs.

Things started to get ugly after about two years. I had written a proposal for funding which my advisor submitted on an idea that we came up with together, but heavily relied on my expertise in coral reefs. The proposal was funded! However, I was not offered a permanent job, even though there was now an obvious source of money to start paying me from and I had demonstrated an ability to pull in outside funding. Simon was more concerned than me, and pushed me to start applying for other jobs. Soon we were both fully entrenched in finding permanent science jobs – an exhausting process. The full details of our dual job hunt are a story for another day, but what you need to know is that we found pairs of jobs at a couple of places that represented a net improvement in work and quality of life for our family. We found those jobs without any help from either of our postdoc advisors or the chain of command at my postdoc. Instead, we did quite a bit of leg work on our own and relied on our extremely wonderful support system from graduate school and some folks at a funding agency, who came through for us in a big way on many fronts.

Without any support from my advisor, I published a peer-reviewed paper on my work as a postdoc. He told me in front of Simon to abandon the work after I had nearly finished, my first and so far only publication in a new field, but I submitted it anyway. It was accepted first go with minor revisions on the same day that my advisor’s boss’ boss, the same man who repeatedly gave me glowing accolades for bringing the division together, who told me with a straight face that he valued me immensely as a scientist and wished me all the best in my new position, who gave a sincere speech in front of others emphasizing that I should reach out to him for help if I ever needed it, notified me that he was uncomfortable providing reference letters for me for the faculty jobs I am currently applying for.

I am forgiving, and I give people the benefit of the doubt. Simon will say that I am far too forgiving and trusting. He has a point, because it actually took me the entire three years to realize that none of the folks I worked with ever valued or respected me as a scientist. They never had any intention of hiring me into a permanent position. They appreciated me organizing social events for them on my time, and thought I was a nice person. They were happy to give me an office and get credit for my publications and presentations when I was funded by a postdoctoral fellowship. They were happy to take the money I brought in. But I will go so far as to say that most of them pigeonholed me from the start as an idealistic young female that wanted to save the world, and to the subsequent conclusion that I was not a “real” scientist.

This is the trap. Simply by being an enthusiastic young female, if placed in a sub-optimal setting (and there are many – I now have a keen nose during job interviews), you risk being labeled as “not a serious scientist” and placed in the girl box. By being female, and particularly by being a younger female, you are at high risk of being asked to spend time performing historically female roles such as planning holiday lunches, which do not further your scientific career whatsoever. If you decline, people then think that you are both not that great of a scientist and mean. If you accept, you have to spend a bunch of time organizing events, and you’ve also given yourself a life sentence that significantly reduces the time available to you for your actual job.

It wasn’t obvious. I’ve heard stories from people involved in cruel or abusive relationships – everyone starts off with high hopes and good intentions, so it is harder to see the warning signs at the beginning – that remind me of the chain of events that occurred. Once you realize that you’re in trouble, you’re already in too deep. Let me be explicit that I did not experience anything at my postdoctoral position that would alarm an HR department or fall into the category of abuse or harassment. Rather, I realized over time that I had been marginalized, likely as a result of my demographic, which was harmful in the long term for my career.

I was naive. Our graduate school, Scripps, is a special place where most of the scientists and students are genuinely curious and want to hear about research outside of their area of expertise. Offering to help with social events is a good idea because lots of people do, so you not only meet the other people helping out, but you have more name recognition and a better chance of knowing your local expert on carbon chemistry or predatory plankton when you need them. I honestly thought that by instigating a few social events at my new place of work, I could foster that type of environment.

Experience as a student, postdoc, or professional scientist depends so much on the institution. I wish I had realized just how different attitudes are from place to place before I launched into my postdoc bright-eyed and expecting the same type of atmosphere I had recently graduated from at Scripps.

As much as I hate to say this, I am sharing my story as a cautionary tale. Avoid pigeonholes. Volunteer strategically. Learn to say no without being offensive. The more we do it, the more women in science will be seen as equals. Use caution when choosing a new workplace – entering a position where you are in an extreme minority is going to mean you have an uphill battle ahead of you. Really talk to other employees, especially more senior women (or more senior folks close to your demographic). Now I’m generalizing, but senior women have always been willing to take time to chat with me behind a closed door about the truths of working at a particular institution. I underestimated that battle in a big way. I hope that you learn from my mistake. I sure did.

 

* I have two small children. I do not think that being a mother played a major role in this story. The biggest thing that may have gone differently if we waited to have kids is that I would have been more willing to take one of the other postdocs I was offered, which were geographically further from Simon’s position but involved a more engaged group of scientists. I may have picked up on the issues described above sooner and been able to get out faster if I hadn’t been dealing with a newborn and associated concerns about job security.

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Family Fieldwork V2.0: Notes from the Field

The last three weeks zoomed by on this little island, and we are wrapping up data collections and switching over to conference mode for our last week in Hawaii.

So how is it going? The short answer is fairly well. We (I) spent a huge amount of time prior to arriving carefully selecting a house that was suitable for kids and grandparents, planning travel to arrive a few days early so we could adjust & set up, finding local stores and restaurants, sussing out activities for them, and packing items like power outlet covers and night lights so we could quickly “baby-proof” the beach house. These efforts paid off, as the children made a fairly smooth transition to life in Hawaii. We had a very long day of travel and arrived after their bedtime, so thankfully they were tired enough to sleep until 5am local time the first morning (that’s 10am in Virginia- they usually would wake up at 7:30). Joey was good to go after that. Blake had a few tough nights and we had a little more trouble getting his nap schedule on track, but we are now cruising along with a good routine for everyone. The team agreed that the most crucial piece of planning to everyone’s happiness was the house – easy walk to the beach, bedrooms for everyone plus a lab, and a spacious backyard safe for the kids to play in.

We got into work relatively quickly, sorting out instruments, unpacking gear, and connecting with local colleagues. We had tank experiments up and running within days. Weather kept us off of the water longer than we had hoped, but we managed to start collecting in-water data within a week of arrival and are now on track. Our first week was very busy and the boys started asking for more time with us. Thankfully we crossed off a few big hurdles early on (tank experiments!) and were able to adjust our schedule so that we had a fun family activity with them every few days. We are living in Kailua on the windward side of Oahu, so grand adventures like kayaking, hiking, and swimming are easily within reach for morning play before nap.

The boys love spending time with their grandparents, and the beach is a few minutes walk from our front door, so in general their days are spent playing in the sand, swimming in the surf, and enjoying our luxurious backyard complete with banana trees while Simon & I work. When the weather keeps us off the water and/or we are able to schedule half a day off, we take them further afield to different parts of Oahu for hiking, beaches, tide pool exploration, and a couple of memorable boat & kayak excursions.

We have almost completed our data collections, both in water and in tanks with collaborators at the University of Hawaii. We have a few instruments still taking data that we need to pick up early next week before we ship our equipment back to NRL on Thursday, but otherwise we are starting to clean and pack gear. In terms of work, we have shifted to preparing our presentations for the ASLO Meeting this week. My talk is tomorrow morning, so I’m finalizing the details of my powerpoint presentation today while Simon takes the kids on a rock pool adventure (apparently the sea urchins were their favorite animal). We are also taking care to back up data, start running codes for quality control, and organize our notes and photos from the trip.

A few highlights from our time here include Joey’s growing knowledge of sea animals. After reading a couple of books about sea turtles ingesting trash by mistake, he has led us on quite a few beach clean-ups. Blake is now walking confidently on grass, sand, and rocks. Both boys love to play in the ocean, and scramble around on dark black lava rocks in bare feet with smiles on their faces. We are very happy with our decision to bring them along, and are immensely grateful to the spoilers (Grammy & Papa) for caring for the boys so well and on an ever-changing schedule while we take care of our fieldwork requirements and juggle work needs with family time.

Family Fieldwork V2.0 – Hawaii!

We ticked off a major bucket list item recently with our first Freeman & Freeman peer-reviewed scientific paper. Another is on the horizon, our first joint family fieldwork adventure with kids in tow!

This expedition has been years in the making, from applying to proposals & gathering funds, sussing out a timeline, and making a plan where we could bring the boys, caregivers, and still get our work done. Here’s what is going to happen & how we got there:

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Our destination (more or less)

Me & Simon (the science team), Joey & Blake (the nuggets), and Grammy & Papa (the caregivers) are flying to Honolulu on February 1 for one month. We are staying at a rental house by Kailua beach, a short drive from the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base and Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay, where Simon & I will be working. In addition to space for the six of us, the house has a semi-attached “in-law suite” that will serve as our lab.

It all started with a NASA proposal two years ago that I developed with my postdoc advisor, to inform the HySPIRI satellite mission during an expedition to Hawaii. NASA will fly over the Hawaiian Island chain with hyperspectral remote sensing imagers to simulate HySPIRI data, and during the same time a science team will be collecting data on the ground to validate and test the imagery. We are on the coral reef team. My question is how well coral reef health can be determined from some of the highest quality satellite imagery, utilizing the relative proportion of coral and fleshy macroalgae as the metric of health. This proportion can be detected from space with the correct sensor, and is a well established indicator of coral reef ecosystem state. A healthier reef has more live coral, and a more degraded reef has been overgrown with fleshy macroalgae.

The Freeman & Freeman paper that came out in December was a thorough investigation of passive acoustic indicators of coral reef state in the Hawaiian Islands from our 2012 fieldwork. One of our most interesting finds was that different acoustic signals come from reefs with lots of coral (healthier reefs), versus reefs with lots of fleshy macroalgae (more degraded reefs). We were very interested in testing this further, and seeing if we could use remote sensing & acoustics together to improve the overall ability to determine coral reef state from afar. When Simon started his fellowship as a federal scientist in June, he was given start-up funds and has been able to dedicate part of them to his own, complimentary experiments in Kaneohe Bay in February.

The timeline was heavily constrained by flight time for the NASA aircraft and instruments, but thankfully it was confirmed with enough advance notice that we have been able to get all of our coordinating pieces into place. Simon requested and scheduled his experiment. My parents were able to take a month away from work & home duties, which meant that we could bring the boys. We can’t express enough gratitude to them, as neither of us would be willing to leave our kids for a month right now. The kids, in turn, are so excited for a month on the beach with their grandparents:

We have dreamed for far longer than we have been parents about conducting joint fieldwork and having our children along, a-la Rosemary and Peter Grant style. What an incredible experience for them – an opportunity to live in a new place, enjoy a new culture, and learn about the diversity of the natural world. Not to mention lots of QT with the grandparents. We are beyond excited that this is happening, and can’t wait to share it with you over the blog-channels in the next few weeks.

 

Family Fieldwork v1.0: North Carolina Edition

One of our long-term dreams as a science family is to take on “family fieldwork.” The idea is that Simon & I would conduct joint or collaboratory fieldwork in the same location, and bring along our kids and caregivers for them. We are so excited to have the opportunity to do just that during the month of February when we will return to Hawaii. In the meantime, Simon had a short work trip to Nags Head, North Carolina last weekend and we were able to put together a mini-version of family fieldwork to try it out.

We visited Nags Head to facilitate collection of large, fresh, whole pelagic fishes including tuna and wahoo. These fish subsequently traveled with Simon & a colleague to San Diego for high resolution scanning in an MRI machine. The resultant data are a key first step to Simon’s newest project at NRL developing a fish-inspired autonomous underwater vehicle.

November is the tail end of the season for the fish of interest, so a three-day window was allotted where Simon could assess the daily catch from his vendor fisherman and pick the specimens he wanted, then carefully package them for shipping to San Diego. Time was critical as he wanted to ensure the fish were whole fresh specimens (fresh is better when it comes to MRI) and never frozen.

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The beach in front access across from our rental house – a highlight for Joey & Blake

The fish collection window fell over a holiday weekend, so I made plans to join Simon and bring the boys & their grandparents along for the ride. We rented a house in Nags Head across the street from the beach and brought along a stroller and sand toys. Overall, everything worked. The kids and I made it home safely, Simon is in San Diego proceeding with data collection from the fish scans, and the grandparents are still excited about our trip to Hawaii.

That said, we learned quite a few things to operate more smoothly next time!

Our children are still very young (3 years, 10 months) so having a safe space for both of them to play indoors is critical. When we travel to Hawaii I’ll bring/buy extra outlet covers, baby gates, pop-up toy storage, and doorknob covers.

This past weekend was REALLY hectic because of the aforementioned time crunch on getting the fish into the MRI as quickly as possible. We were only in Nags Head for three days. In addition, we had extra people coming and going from the house. This was definitely stressful for the boys. I was reminded (again) that we need to keep everything as simple as possible for them, and preserve their routine. I think things will be easier in Hawaii since we are there for a whole month, and they’ll have more time to get settled and used to the family fieldwork norm.

On the same note, buffer days are really critical for kids. I had a free day with them after arriving in Nags Head, and spent another day with them at the grandparents’ house in Williamsburg before returning to our home in Alexandria. That extra time really helped them re-group and stay happy.

The final challenge with family fieldwork is delineating my time between work and kids. At home, I never work when I’m with them – I reserve all work things for when I’m at my office, or when they are asleep. This is a harder line to draw with a shared house in a new place. We are still piecing plans together, but now will prioritize a clear schedule of work time as well as a separated office space in the house that the boys will not usually be allowed to access. I’m glad a have a few more months to brainstorm before we go so that V2.0 Hawaii Edition gets off to a smooth start!

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Time with Grammy is always special. We love that family fieldwork gives both our kids and our parents extra special memories together.

Babies & Science Meetings

Blake crossed off two big firsts last month – his first flights and his first scientific conference. He has many more of both ahead of him, so I’m glad to report that everything went well.

Joey stayed home with his grandparents while Simon, Blake, and I flew to New Orleans, Louisiana for the AGU Ocean Sciences Meeting (OSM). We were quickly reminded of how easy it is to fly with an infant compared to a toddler!

We were thrilled to see lots of kids running around OSM, from tiny to school age. AGU kindly provides onsite daycare at a reasonable cost, with no obligation (parents can drop kids off when needed and pay by the hour). The meeting is divided into talks during the day, mixed with town hall meetings and big plenary talks, followed by poster sessions in the evening. The poster sessions are prime kid territory – there are food and drinks available, its already loud, and the posters are in a huge open space! Blake is too little to run around, but he was a great mascot at our poster.

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Blake helps attract interested scientists to our poster detailing some cool results from our family fieldwork in Hawaii 2012.

At just over two months old, Blake was perfectly travel sized and spent most of his time engaging in that newborn specialty – sleep. Since he isn’t yet on a very regular schedule and likes to be with us all of the time, it was pretty easy to haul him around the conference in a baby carrier. Both Simon & I were participating in the meeting, so we could trade off baby duty. Simon held Blake in the back of the room during my talk. Some may find that distracting, but I was really pleased to have them there for support! He was also a good sport about participating in all of the lunch and evening networking & socializing that goes hand-in-hand with most conferences. This was a particularly fun meeting for us as we had the chance to reconnect with many friends and colleagues from Scripps, including one of the greats – Walter Munk – who Blake was photographed with.

We’ve employed a variety of strategies at scientific conferences in the past – bring baby & caregiver, bring baby & extra parent, leave baby & 1 parent at home, leave baby (once toddler-sized) with grandparents… Unfortunately this situation doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution. But with some creative thinking, its definitely possible to pull it off. In our experience, it is rewarding and fun to bring kids along. When you are on break from the meeting you get a mini-family vacation in a cool new city, your old friends and colleagues get to meet your kid, and your baby is taking in the latest ocean science developments to prepare for kindergarten. That said, a baby older than about 6 months really requires a dedicated caregiver in our experience.

The adventures of Joey & Blake will kick into high gear in April – stay tuned!

Dual Science Family Dilemmas: The Two-Conference Week

An important part of being scientists is to attend scientific conferences where we share our work, learn about recent progress in the field, and liaise with collaborators and colleagues.  We were presented with a fairly unusual situation a couple of weeks ago, even for us. Both Simon and I had scientific conferences during the same week – in different cities. The acoustics meeting (Simon) was in Indianapolis, Indiana and the optics meeting (Lauren) was in Portland, Maine. A few years ago this wouldn’t have mattered aside from us missing each other, but it was a pretty big challenge to figure out how Joey would be cared for during that week. Normally for work travel we would employ one of the following strategies:

  1. All three of us travel to the site of the conference. The parent who is not involved in the conference takes the lead role in caring for Joey, while the other tends to scientific duties. The family would reunite in the evenings and during midday break sort of like a normal working day at home.
  2. The parent involved in the meeting travels alone. The other parent stays home with Joey and takes the full care load. During work hours, Joey is with his nanny.
  3. Joey is left at the grandparents’ resort while the two parents go to their meetings.
Thanks Uncle Joe!
Thanks Uncle Joe!

The fact that we each had a meeting at the same time in different cities completely ruled out 1 and 2, and 3 was not an option on this particular week. We first weighed the importance of the meetings and decided we would both very much like to go to our respective events. We then began emailing our friends, asking if they would like a free trip to Maine in exchange for hanging out with a fun one-year old during the day. This was surprisingly successful, and before we knew it we had booked a third flight on air points for Uncle Joe to come along to Maine to care for Joey.

How It Worked:
Crib with a view - Joey's digs in Maine
Crib with a view – Joey’s digs in Maine
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Joey’s favorite part of the hotel room was this mirror

All 3 Freemans went to Maine first for a long weekend, where we stayed in the conference hotel. Joe arrived on Sunday night, also staying in the hotel with us. Simon stayed until Monday night to give Joe the down-low on childcare, and then took another flight to Indianapolis. For the remainder of the week, I got up with Joey each day and prepared him for his morning events, then left J&J to eat breakfast and go to various sessions. I ran back upstairs at 11:30 to take care of Joey’s nap-time routine. Joe stayed in the dark room working during nap-time while I returned to meeting activities. The evenings varied, but at a minimum I met the guys to take care of bedtime.

What We Thought:

IMG_9964First off, we felt extremely grateful to Joe for taking time out of his own life to care for Joey extensively and spend relatively little time with me. I felt guilty often during the week for leaving him in a dark room for 3 hours while Joey napped and the sound machine played rainforest noises… all the while I was having an enjoyable social lunch at the pub next door.

IMG_9933Overall, I don’t think we could ask for a much better setup. I wasn’t comfortable hiring a local caregiver without meeting them first (which there wasn’t time for). Joey adores his Uncle Joe, and I daresay vice versa is also true. I was able to participate actively in the meeting, show off Joey to fellow scientists at key times, and develop meaningful collaborations. I left the main social event (awards banquet) for half an hour to put Joey to bed, but managed to eat my dinner first and get back in time for dessert and entertainment. Joey was very happy all week, and enjoyed Portland’s prolific parks, crisp weather, and excellent children’s museum.

Back to Work!

 

Very official with my own yellow name badge - PD stands for postdoc!
Very official with my own yellow name badge – PD stands for postdoc!

I’m back at work this week! Everything became very real on Monday when I waited in line to receive my name badge and found my office already said “Dr. Lauren Freeman” on the door. It has been a hectic month getting ready to send me in to work every day and Joey to childcare. I’ve been outfitting both of us with the best of the back to school sales, from a little red lunch bag with bicycles for Joey’s daily snacks and two midday meals to new work-appropriate attire for me. NRL has a slightly more formal expected dress code than Scripps (as in just having walked in from surfing or swimming and hanging your wetsuit out of your office window is no longer an option).

Joey's day care bag is stocked with everything a baby needs - change of clothes, blanket, and lots of diapers, all meticulously labeled "Joey F." on the tags.
Joey’s day care bag is stocked with everything a baby needs – change of clothes, blanket, and lots of diapers, all meticulously labeled with “Joey F.”

The first week has been extra hectic because none of our carefully selected care providers were available until September 1 (a fact that didn’t become clear until a couple of days before I started work, due to a communication error on the other end). Simon and I have been working a dreaded “split schedule” this week. I leave the house at 6:45 and work until just after lunch while Simon gets up with Joey, takes him for a morning activity, feeds him, and puts him down for his nap. We switch off between 1 and 2, and Simon is able to work until 8, getting home just in time for a quick family dinner before we put Joey to bed. It has been intense, but surprisingly fulfilling. I enjoy my time with Joey more now that it is limited, and I feel proud after having accomplished things at my job, taken Joey to the pool, and made dinner all in one day. That said, I am also glad that this heavy schedule was only for one week!

I am genuinely surprised at how HAPPY we all are about this. Leading up to my first day was a bit of a roller coaster – some days I’d be very excited about working, but I often felt concerned or sad about leaving Joey. While I certainly miss him very much at the office, I am excited for all of the new things that he gets to learn and experience! He is currently alternating between a nanny that takes him out on the town and teaches him

Joey also fits into his daycare bag very well
Joey also fits into his daycare bag very well

Portuguese, and a home daycare where he is making friends with other little people and learning how to share. At the same time, I feel a marvelous sense of freedom when I reach the office and know that someone else is fully responsible for his care over the next couple of hours. I am still on call if there were an emergency of course, and Iove getting photos on my phone or email of his adventures, but I appreciate the break to be me (non-mom me, that is). I think more than anything, our whole family is a little relieved to be on a semi-regular schedule again.

We have been reading a variety of media that have all boiled down to the same conclusion – low stress and high life happiness is paramount for your kids (and for yourself!) Objective surveys and studies have found that children of working parents and stay-at-home parents do not have dramatically different happiness levels, nor is one group smarter, more prone to certain behaviors, or better at school. Parents of each group often tout their method as being ‘better for the children’ for a variety of reasons, but at the end of the day when kids are asked what they want they all ask for their parents to act less stressed out, please. In fact, the over-intense parenting that is becoming more common today is linked with depression in your kids.

I digress – the point I’m getting at here is to go forth and do what makes you happy. For us, that means me and Simon both working on science and Joey enjoying himself in daycare/with a nanny in the meantime. I wouldn’t have guessed it from the outset, but we’ve been planning together over the past several months for a setup that keeps all three of us happy. Reading about the Harvard Grant Study and surveys of what makes kids happy over the past couple of weeks has really solidified those choices for me. There are several books and articles linked throughout this post that we have really enjoyed – I hope that you do too!

On Grad School & Science Work With a Baby

On Grad School & Science Work With a Small Baby

In Summary:

  • The later part of a PhD program can be a great time to have a baby
  • If you are married to another PhD student, you can use the flexible scheduling to your advantage x2
  • Be realistic about your goals – when someone tells you that you can get 2-4 hours of work done a day when your kid is 3 weeks old, believe them. 
  • Having a supportive partner, family, and friends makes a huge difference
  • So does your own attitude. 
  • Take advantage of the help! If people offer to bring you a meal, take your kid for a walk so you can work/nap, run a load of laundry, etc – always say yes!
  • Pay it forward when you can – always offer to help new moms in a way that makes sense to you. If babies aren’t your thing, bring over food or do a household chore 🙂
  • Don’t be afraid of childcare – it is worth the money to not have stress over being able to get work done!
  • Your baby and family are unique – work with what you have.
  • Ultimately what your family does is up to your family – no one can tell you that you were wrong. It is your responsibility to make it work.
Joey's first TG - Scripps Friday evening social hour - exactly 2 weeks old.
Joey’s first TG – Scripps Friday evening social hour – exactly 2 weeks old.

It was part luck and part careful planning, but I wound up being able to take a full 9 months off of work to spend with Joey during his first year. When he was born, Simon and I were still PhD students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I graduated when he was 3 months old, and since then have been on self-proclaimed ‘maternity leave.’ I start my new position as an NRC Postdoctoral Fellow on August 25 – a couple of weeks after Joey’s first birthday.

We spent a good amount of time before getting pregnant thinking about the best time to slot in a baby or two with our career plans. Several of our professors indicated to us that the end of grad school is actually a great time – the hours are super flexible since near the end your main task is writing and editing your dissertation and associated manuscripts. This was a little tough to believe during our hectic first years of classes, but we decided to give it a shot!

Pregnant and didn't know it yet, last week in Hawaii after our six month field work odyssey.
Pregnant and didn’t know it yet, last week in Hawaii after our six month field work odyssey.

Soon after Simon’s and my joint field expedition to Hawaii, we found out we were pregnant with Joey.

Having a kid in grad school worked out very well for us. We had been in San Diego long enough to have a great support network, and at Scripps long enough to be established with our own shared office. We installed an electric baby swing, and within a couple weeks of Joey’s arrival we started bringing him into work with us. We would work during his naps, then feed and change him and periodically take him for walks along the beach.

Joey hangs out in a drawer traditionally used to store foraminefera samples in the Norris Lab while Simon writes his dissertation. Photo- Jill Harris
Joey hangs out in a drawer traditionally used to store foraminefera samples in the Norris Lab while Simon writes his dissertation. Photo- Jill Harris

We spent long hours at Scripps in the time immediately preceding our defenses. I remember still being there at 10:00pm on the night of Halloween and feeling guilty that I hadn’t gotten Joey a Halloween costume, so I took a photo of him wearing a dinosaur hat. He probably missed out on a few other things during his first few months since we were so caught up in work, but he was an incredibly good sport about letting us get what we needed done, and he also wound up getting to spend his entire days with one or both of his parents. We had some excellent friend babysitters that would take him for long walks when we needed to really focus, and my mom came to stay a couple of times before we graduated to help take some of the care duties so that Simon and I could both get our work done.

Joey's sort of lame first Halloween costume, pictured in our office well after sunset on Friday October 31, 2013
Joey’s sort of lame first Halloween costume, pictured in our office well after sunset on Friday October 31, 2013

I had always intended to continue working after having kids. Simon and I dream of a joint science job somewhere beautiful along the water down the road. But after careful consultation with my advisors and assessment of our life situation, we decided to take 3 months off as a family after graduating to travel and visit Joey’s extended family/fatherland, and I stalled on my job search so that I could stay home with Joey until he was 1 year old. I’ve gotten less science work done during that time than I had hoped (two submitted papers instead of four), but more life work – updating the family photos, organizing our new townhouse, spending time with Joey and my family, and other good stuff like that.

Mama & Daddy graduated vacation to the BVI to try out our dream yachting lifestyle
Mama & Daddy graduated vacation to the BVI to try out our dream yachting lifestyle

 Now that my start date is closing in, we are tackling the hardest parenting job we have faced yet – finding Joey suitable care while we work. The first daycare we visited us bluntly informed us that Joey would cry for the first several weeks after being dropped off at their house, may not eat, and probably would stop sleeping all night because he was so distressed by the change after being spoiled by a year at home with his mama. I imagine this was a poor example of a daycare provider (we haven’t visited another yet), but it was still a crummy first experience. We took the initiative to look into other daycares, nanny-shares, and part-time babysitters. We are still searching, but slowly honing in on the best choice for our family. Thank goodness I started this hunt six weeks before my job start date!

*UPDATE 11-20-14: Joey has a wonderful nanny that we all three love. She stays with him 3-4 days a week. On the other days, Simon & I work a split schedule*

I am so grateful for the extra time I got to spend with Joey, and also so excited to be returning to full-time work soon! Sometimes it is hard to keep the long-term perspective in our sights, but usually the other of Simon or I is quick to remind the distressed person why we are making these choices. The biggest key to our happiness is being realistic – how many hours a week could one work if providing 80% of the care for a small baby? What could one achieve in that time? If it isn’t enough, how can we pull in friends or childcare professionals to help us achieve our goals?

The academic and professional science environment can be a wonderful place to have a weird schedule, accommodate a growing family, and get in a lot of cool work travel. Ultimately it is up to you the scientist to be pro-active about making the situation meet your needs.

All newly minted Scripps docters sign the Surfside rafters after receiving their PhD. Joey is the first thesis baby to be included with this esteemed collection.
All newly minted Scripps docters sign the Surfside rafters after receiving their PhD. Joey is the first thesis baby to be included with this esteemed collection.

Mama Science Vacation

Mama Science Vacation

It was inevitable, although I did it sooner than many moms (and later than many other moms). I left Joey with his Grammy and Papa for a week of luxury baby resort – swimming, beach, friends, relatives, a dog, a big house, and tons of toys and books – while I went off on a science adventure without him. It would be easy for me to spend the week feeling sad and guilty for abandoning my child and husband, but I knew from the outset that I couldn’t do that. Several people including Joey and Simon worked hard to ensure that I could make this happen, and the least I could do to repay them is get the most out of my trip!

Day 1:

I am en route to the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station on St. John, USVI. I am going to help fellow Scripps grad and science mom extraordinaire Jessica Carilli with her exciting fieldwork. Jess makes a living by studying the records left in corals skeletons, and in this particular case is looking for the signature of sediment runoff in the coral record. The first step to getting at that record is extracting cores – long, cylindrical, sections of coral – for her to take back to her lab and study. Divers take the cores from both living and dead corals with an underwater drill, which is powered by SCUBA tanks. That’s where I come in – dive buddy was needed! I’m so happy to be back in the water and for the opportunity to work with a Scripps friend. While we aren’t working on Jessica’s data collection, you can assume that I will either be off exploring the reef with my mask and snorkel or working hard on my own papers. I set an ambitious goal of submitting two additional manuscripts for review before I start work (hopefully September 1), so I have a lot to do!

This is a fun learning experience for me also. I have never taken coral cores before. Simon’s and my work in Hawaii has prepared me for the innovative requirements of fieldwork, as well as for handling large and unwieldy objects underwater. The tools and methods we are using on this trip are new to me though, and I have much to gain from this experience.

In the meantime, Joey is hanging out with two of his favorite people and making the rounds to his Williamsburg fan club. He is already being spoiled by his grandparents, and while he gets excited to see Simon and I on Facetime or Skype, does not seem to be distressed by our absence. I am grateful that he is still small enough to take this in stride and not really understand that we aren’t in the same geographic area as him right now. It will be a very happy family reunion for all three Freemans next weekend, regardless!

Day 2:

We spent today getting settled into the VIERS field station and exploring the nearby reefs to suss out field sites in Lameshur Bay.

The cabin is very nice – two big bedrooms with a toilet/sink each and a kitchen in between. There is power, but everything is open air- a strip of screens around the entire building (all of the buildings), clothesline outside, super nice outside shower with warm water (soooo pleasant last night! moonlight, stars, crickets and frogs… I was in love). There are ceiling fans and it is cool enough to sleep inside. Our kitchen has a stove-top only, coffeepot, and small microwave. Most of our meals will be prepared in our cabin. There is a large ‘camp’ with many cabins, a communal cafeteria, office, little museum from the tektite project, and other living amenities. They have short (2 day) camps for kids here. Then it is a short walk or drive to the ‘lab’ which has lab space, a little dive locker (closet with lockers and drying rack), pier, small boat, freshwater shower, etc.

We visited the lab today to set up and run through our basic procedures. We are planning to start diving/collecting cores tomorrow morning. Today we went for a long snorkel to explore Lameshur Bay near the field station. The land part of the park is beautiful, dense jungle singing with birds and insects (no frightening bites yet!). The underwater park has scattered coral reefs and seagrass beds, with a wide variety of fish. The water is unbelievably warm – far warmer than anything we experienced in Hawaii.

I of course left my camera in the dive locker so photos will have to be added later, but wanted to leave a little bit of an update ☺

The Academic Interview

I have recently been getting to know the academic interview or “job talk” very well, as I search for an amenable position to begin in the late summer/early fall. I also have learned from the questions of friends and family that this is a somewhat unusual and unknown process, so I thought I’d break it down for you.

As with many jobs, academics start with some sort of job application. The specifics vary, but in general for postdocs I have been asked for a copy of my curriculum vitae (CV, a more academic version of a resume); the names and contact information for three references (I use my PhD advisor, co-advisor, and a collaborator from my dissertation committee); a cover letter; and a brief statement of research interests and/or proposed research.

Then a variety of hurdles must be crossed. Not everyone adheres to all of them, but in general the order is:

  1. Someone reads your cover letter, CV, and proposed research statement. If they feel that you are a strong candidate, they contact your referees for letters of recommendation.
  2. If your letters pass muster, you may be contacted for an interview via skype or telephone.
  3. Finally, if you are doing really well, you are invited to give a job talk.
  4. At this point (and possibly also before) a committee meets to discuss your merits compared with other candidates. They select a first choice, and make them an offer. If the first choice declines, they move on to their 2nd ranked candidate, etc.
  5. If you are lucky (VERY lucky in these days of limited funding for science) you have multiple offers and can use them to try to leverage more funds or a more flexible work schedule from your first choice.

The main interview I’m referring to in this post is the ‘job talk.’ I get the impression my friends in other fields that their interviews are scheduled events in which they dress up in a suit, visit a climate-controlled location, and answer questions from a committee for 30-75 minutes before being excused. The job talk is quite different.

Academics are wonderful people, but tend to organize these things at the last minute. You set up the date and time and arrange your travel to the institution. Usually the hosting institution pays for you, but not always. If it is particularly far away you may need to spend a night or two in a hotel.

About 0.25-24 hours before you arrive, you will be given a schedule of the day’s events. This consists of tightly packed meetings with as many scientists and researchers as possible at the institution to discuss one another’s research, some kind of lunch meeting, and a scheduled talk. Here is a sample schedule from my interview at Princeton/GFDL:

(Lauren – wake up at 5:30, drive to metro station, take metro to union station in downtown DC to get on Amtrak northbound at 7:20am)
9:46am pickup at Trenton Station
10:30 – Scientist Meeting 1
11:00 – Scientist Meeting 2
11:30 – Scientist Meeting 3
12:00 – Lunch with Scientist 1 & 4
1:00 – Scientist Meeting 5
1:30 – Head to seminar location
2:00 – Seminar – “Oceanographic Controls on Coral Reef Habitats in
Present and Future Climates” (given by me)
3:00 – Scientist Meeting 6
3:30 – Scientist Meeting 7
4:00 – Scientist Meeting 8 (Phew! at least this is someone I went to grad school with!)
4:45 – drop-off at Trenton Station
(arrive in Union Station DC at 8pm. Metro and drive. Hope to arrive home by 9:15 so that I can kiss my kiddo goodnight)

Since you are traveling to this place, you spend that time googling each individual on the list so you know what they look like, what their general field is, and what they have recently been publishing on. (This is especially important if you have never heard of them before.) I must note that Amtrak is great for this as you have spacious accommodations, free wifi, outlets for charing, and access to a snack cart with coffee.

The entire day is an interview. While it is best to appear relaxed, intelligent, and entertaining, you (should be!) constantly thinking in the back of your head – this person will get to vote on whether or not I get a position here. Make sure that they know it would be foolish to vote no. The meetings will focus on science, but topics can range from microbreweries to family life to fine literature. You don’t have to study these things ahead of time, but you may have to discuss them with some degree of charisma. Scientists love debates and analytically solving problems, so healthy disagreement is great – just be prepared to back up your claim. (For example, I am willing to point out unsustainable seafoods offered on a restaurant menu at the lunch event.)

The schedule is quite tightly packed (see above). You are unlikely to have a reasonable number of chances to go to the bathroom, fill your water bottle, or get a much needed coffee since you woke up at 5:30 am to meet with these people. If you see even the tiniest opportunity or someone frees you early – take it. Even if you just went to the bathroom 45 minutes ago, go again, and at least take the 2 minutes to yourself to regroup.

The talk is either the best or worst part depending on how you look at it. For about 45 minutes, you are allowed to speak uninterrupted about yourself and your research. For about 45 minutes, everyone is staring at you and you must be careful to not say ‘um’ or play with your hair. This is an excellent time to be confident and engaging. The talk itself is usually adapted from one you gave in the past. I started with my PhD defense talk and have made several spin-offs since. No two talks are identical, but once you have the pieces to work from it isn’t that hard to put it together. The delivery is key. After the talk, you don’t have to spend half of each meeting explaining what you do, and of course you will be more relaxed.

The job talk day is different to a classic interview. You certainly want to look presentable, but most academic institutions don’t expect you to wear a suit (I don’t – but I do switch out my everyday flip-flops for flats). Your demeanor and your science are the two most important factors. The meeting rooms may be hot, cold, small, dark, or really nice – but almost never a polished conference room with aircon running and a large fancy wooden table in the middle. You may have to walk up and down hills or stairs (this was a particularly big deal at Scripps – I remember feeling terrible for visiting scientists as I led them up and down ‘the hill’ along the 300 meter high sea cliff). Finding the locations of meetings is almost impossible if you don’t already have familiarity with the complex, so always ask for help. Instead of feeling scrutinized, there is a much warmer, welcoming feeling. Often scientists engage you with tales of how much they love their institution and how much you will also love it there. Because the truth is, you are interviewing them too. This full day process gives you a very real chance to learn who you would be working with and what science life is like at this new place. You get the sense that it is a low-key private club. If you leave thinking that everyone wanted you to join and also feeling that you would like to join, you have done well.

Finally, the wait time on this whole process can be REALLY long.  I still have pending applications that I submitted last October. So rest assured, I will be letting you know when I have accepted an offer. I am far more anxious about this than you are!