Ability and Desire

As a young scientist whose passions extend far beyond the lab bench, I’ve had varying amounts of difficulty believing that I should stick with an academic career. To be the kind of productive I like to be in lab, that I feel proud of, I have to give an awful lot of my intellectual/emotional energy and time to the bench. While satisfaction definitely comes with this level of productivity, it’s not sustainable for me over the long term. I generally end up too brain dead to do other things to fill me up like reading for fun, crafting, and playing Ultimate.

I watched Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist early in grad school. It was immediately clear to me that the life of a scientist that I was in the process of discovering and that is represented in the film was and is not how I want my life to look. The steps that I’ve taken since then to finish grad school and to pursue available career options have always been a conscious choice, not one I’m making because I feel forced out or like I couldn’t make it.

After a particularly great data week in lab, on a high from presenting the heck out of my research, or while having a fantastic discussion with my colleagues, I sometimes think to myself, “Yeah, I can do this!” The other side of the coin, though, which I seem to end up on much more often, is that, while I love to talk and think and read about science, I don’t love the actual doing of it.

In the Ivory Tower culture that calls all career paths but its own “alternative” and gossips constantly about people who can’t make it to or won’t go for the tenure track, it hasn’t been easy to accept this non-inclination in myself. But at the penultimate moment of my PhD, I am super clear. Academic science is not the place for me for much longer.

Could I do it? Probably. Do I want to? Not particularly, so why not go a different direction and make room for someone who does?

There’s fascinating conversation happening around the twitterverse and the blogosphere about life in academia and how much/little room it leaves for other things today and yesterday:

Partially storified (by @BabyAttachMode) twitter conversation here
Dr. Isis’s Post
In Baby Attach Mode’s Post
Potnia Theron’s Post
Barefoot Doctoral’s Post
NicoleandMaggie’s Post


Kate Clancy’s blog, Context and Variation, has been in my Google Reader since early grad school. I have always been in awe of how much of herself (both personal and professional) she shares online, so when I read the posts from Kate and Scicurious introducing their Science Online session exploring online identity, I marked it on my calendar to follow along via Twitter. I had a pretty light morning in lab that day, but if you missed it, you can read the wrap-up/Storify from Scicurious here. (I found Sci’s transitions between the tweets super helpful in grasping more of what went on in the session).

When I first started thinking about identity, I didn’t immediately think of my online identity. I am pretty new to being a science communicator online, and so far, especially since I’m pretty sure that only my parents are reading, I haven’t struggled much with my online identity.

Instead, I thought immediately about the challenges I’ve had throughout grad school feeling as though I am being honest about all of who I am. In the Storify from Scicurious, she mentions that the #scio13ID session had in attendance more women than men, a higher concentration of minorities, and more academics than in other sessions, which makes me think that it’s not just me who sometimes struggles with the question of how we portray ourselves in the different arenas of our lives.

In academic science, we often celebrate a scientist’s obsession with a research question to the exclusion of all other things about him or her. The biggest impact this aspect of science culture has on me, though, is that I feel the need to carefully control how much people know about me. I am proud of my time as a women’s Ultimate Frisbee player and coach, but I don’t shout about it at work. I love dyeing and screen printing fabric, but I doubt my labmates know it. I read fiction voraciously and am a member of three book clubs, but I limit literary conversations with my boss to what I’ve read in the scientific realm.

All of these parts of me (science, Ultimate, fiber arts, reading, etc.) combine to make up my identity, both as a scientist and as a person, but I still don’t feel comfortable confessing that I don’t spend all my time in lab or thinking about science. This discomfort is one reason I have always found Kate Clancy’s online identity to be surprising and inspiring: she shares many things about herself with readers/followers, while maintaining what seems to be a successful professional life as an anthropologist. I readily admit that I can be sensitive to criticism, but I bet I’m not the only one who keeps parts of her identity from scientific colleagues.

Along these lines, the concept of personal versus private definitely came up in the #scio13ID session. Participants talked mostly about sharing personal details to give weight to their writing, while keeping private things that should be. In terms of academic science, I and other young scientists don’t need to share every aspect of private life to feel as though our whole selves are being acknowledged. It would be nice, though, to feel as though we won’t be penalized for having interests, commitments, and passions outside the lab.

I am so thankful for everyone who tweeted from the #scio13ID session and especially to Kate Clancy and Scicurious for including those of us who weren’t physically present in this conversation. As I move forward in my career, at and away from the bench, off and online, I am going to keep in mind both the role that I play in how my identity is perceived and how my identity can work for me.

Reflections on my science communication course

This summer, as the end of my PhD started to actually feel as though it might someday approach, I sought guidance from a career pro at the Society for Developmental Biology meeting in Montreal. I told him I was pretty sure writing or communications would be a good fit for me, but asked if I need to go back to school and get a Master’s degree. At that point, I had looked into programs at Hopkins and UNC, the two places I will most likely be for the next step, and while they looked fascinating and helpful, I was (and still am) hesitant to commit to another year (or two) of school.

His answer was pragmatic: those programs are certainly an excellent way to learn science writing, but perhaps you could find another way to take that career path. Join the professional organization, he said, find some way to write pro bono, find a mentor, take a class, and all of these things will help you learn how the science writing world works and if it’s somewhere you really want to be.

With this advice in my pocket, I immediately joined NASW (such a great move!) and finished up the meeting. Getting back to lab meant getting back to work, and I didn’t think about his suggestions again for a couple of weeks. As the undergrads returned for the fall semester, though, it occurred to me that, since I had to be on campus, I should take advantage of any science writing-related class offerings.

When I found out that Communication of Science and Technology was being offered, I felt super-lucky, immediately emailed the professor to ask if I could audit, and received a positive response. On the first day, when Steve described the class as “practical,” I knew I was in the right place.

We covered basic news writing, as well as feature writing, podcasts, science videos, and blogging. As the only practicing scientist in the class, I had a lot to say about how science is actually performed, and a lot to hear from my undergraduate classmates about how and where they get their science news. Steve did an awesome job leading us through examples of science and science-related communication in the mass media. We read examples of great and not great writing and followed a few scicomm stories as they unfolded.

The best part of the course, though, was the personal realization of how important the work we began to learn is. One of my classmates, who had an especially long phone conversation with a scientist studying the long term effects of sports-related concussions, said, “That’s the reason we’re in this class, isn’t it? These people have a lot to say.” Scientists need to tell their stories to us, people who can hopefully communicate those stories clearly and well to everyone else. I am thankful that the advice I received this summer led me to the perfectly timed class, which helped me feel like the scicomm world is right where I want to be.