Since graduating I have mostly interacted with non-scientists.  Husband is a scientist, of course, and sometimes we go to his work parties, but by and large, nearly everyone I know here is not a scientist.  In talking to these non-scientist friends, I have discovered that not everybody has the same types of conversations that we have.  Two recent examples spring to mind:

1.  Most people, upon setting up an ultrasonic humidifier in their daughter’s room think merely in terms of making the air easier to breathe while their daughter has a cold.  Apparently, they do not have lengthy conversations about how an ultrasonic humidifier actually works, and they certainly don’t discuss the nature of temperature and what you are actually measuring when you measure temperature.

2.  Most people, when giving their daughter a bath, make words with the little foam letter bath toys that you stick to the tile and they probably put away the letters after the bath is done.  They do not keep rearranging the letters each time they use the toilet such that they have a silent argument about which is better:  PV = nRT or PV = NKT.

I’m sure there are more examples, but since I see nothing unusual about these conversations, I don’t realize that non-scientists don’t talk about these things until I tell a non-scientist friend about the conversation (they find these conversations highly amusing).

What if?

What would doing research be like if I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I was ever going to graduate?

What would it be like to be in a lab and know, if it all went pear-shaped, I could quit without losing everything I had worked for the last 8 years?

Would a string of experimental failures be as crushing as it once was if I was actually sane and had a good support system?


Hello?  Anyone out there?  It’s been so long since I’ve posted anything at all here, that I’m not sure anyone is paying attention.  Actually, it’s been so long since I had anything to do with this blog and the email address that is associated with it that I had trouble logging into both accounts and had to prove to Google and WordPress that, yes, indeed, I am the owner of these accounts that have been dormant for so long.

It would be difficult to tell you everything that has happened in the past couple of years in one post and I’m not sure it would be particularly helpful or interesting.  The short answer is that I’ve been staying home with my daughter, Monkey, volunteering in certain places, teaching some at home science classes, and trying to figure out what to do with my life when/if Monkey starts preschool.  I will want/need to re-enter the workforce at that point but the question is, what sort of work will I do?  What do I want to do?

Among other things, I’ve been considering looking for a lab job.  Not a post-doc, some sort of senior technician/lab manager sort of job.  Something 9-5 with benefits.  Does such a thing even exist for people with a PhD?  I dunno.  Do I really want to go back to that life?  I dunno.  Although, I’m starting to realize that, in fact, it wouldn’t be going back to the kind of life I experienced in grad school.  The stakes are different and not nearly as high.  And, frankly, I care less about what people think of me and my intelligence.  I’m not sure when that happened or why.  I suppose graduating helped me with that, in a way.  It’s not like top tier schools hand out PhDs like candy, I must possess a fair amount of intelligence and tenacity or I wouldn’t have graduated.  What I forgot while I was there was that I always had that intelligence and tenacity or I never would have gotten in the program in the first place.

So, what would research be like without the constant pressure to prove myself, the overwhelming loneliness and desire to just finish already so I can get on with my life?  Maybe it would still suck.  But, maybe, it might be interesting or even fun.  It might be worth trying to find out.

Letting go

In the last couple of days, I have noticed that I’ve been a little in denial about the fact that I’m leaving the lab for good.  The first moment of realization came when I started cleaning out my shelf in the -20 freezer.  I had kept every cut plasmid and purified insert that I had used for cloning over my entire graduate career (because, yes, I did sometimes reuse them in other cloning projects).  I had also kept a large number of genomic DNA preps, diluted primers, vectors that had been linearized for integration into the genome and PCR products.  In all, I had around 12 boxes of this stuff.  And it was hard–really, really hard–to just throw it in the garbage can.  I kept thinking, “But, what if I need this?”

See, I’m a packrat.  A major packrat.  I have a very difficult time getting rid of things so it’s a good thing I’ve moved every 4 years or so because that forces me to purge my belongings.  Usually, all I have to do is consider the likelihood that I’ll use an item again and compare that to how much I really want to have to pack it in a box.  When my husband moved to California, it was even easier because I had to look at an item and decide if I really wanted to pay to ship it clear across the country.

In the case of lab, it should be even more cut and dried.  I’m leaving.  I’m not just leaving this lab, I’m leaving benchwork.  I am not ever planning on working in a lab again.  Therefore, I absolutely do not need any of this stuff.  Not a bit of it.  I had to keep telling myself that, though, while I threw out old plates and precultures from the cold room and cloning intermediates from the freezer and files in my desk.  I’d say, “But what if I need it?” and then wonder under what circumstances in my post-lab life I could possibly need the manual from a Qiagen miniprep kit.  I still can’t force myself to throw out my NEB catalog, though.  That thing has been my companion and reference book for so long, it would be like throwing away a part of myself.  And who knows, maybe one day I’ll be making dinner and I will suddenly really want to know if you can do a double digest with BamHI and HindIII.  Granted, this seems highly unlikely, but you never know.  I just can’t part with it.  Maybe after a year or so of being out of the lab I will be able to throw it out.

The thing of it is that, including the years I spent as a tech, I’ve spent about the last 12 years of my life working at a lab bench.  And, while I’m still certain I do not want to do a post-doc, leaving the lab bench has me feeling a little scared and a lot sad.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am overjoyed at the fact that when I go on vacation I will no longer have to ask someone to look after my yeast plates as well as my pet.  I am thrilled beyond measure that I will never again need to do a ritual dance around the PCR machine or have such bad lab karma that I get my grandmother to send me a bottle of holy water which I then proceed to wipe down my bench with because it’s either that or sit in a corner and cry.  I will never again stomp into lab and shout, “For the love of Qiagen, why can’t people clean up after themselves when they spill a culture in the shaking incubator?  Why???”

But there are plenty of things that I will miss, too.  I’ll miss going to see a really good seminar and then coming back to the lab to discuss it.  I’ll miss being in the lab when someone finally, finally gets the result she’s been waiting for and she runs through the lab screaming, “I did it!  I did it!” while waving a picture of a western blot.  I’ll miss being the person waving a picture of a western blot.

And so, I imagine that when I wipe down my lab bench for the very last time, there will be a few tears shed.

Mothers in science

Over at Mrs. Comet Hunter’s place, I found a link to a free online book: Mothers in Science:  64 Ways to Have it All (pdf download).

The book was put together by the Royal Society with this purpose in mind:

The aim of this book is to illustrate, graphically, that it is perfectly possible to combine a successful and fulfilling career in research science with motherhood, and that there are no rules about how to do this. On each page you will find a timeline showing on one side, the career path of a research group leader in academic science, and on the other side, important events in her family life. Each contributor has also provided a brief text about their research and about how they have combined their career and family commitments.

We hear so many negative things about being a mom and a scientist, it’s nice to see something positive for a change.


Recently, I have become a fan of Dr. Isis (this reminds me, I really need to update my blogroll; half of the blogs I read aren’t even on it, but I digress).   The other day, she wrote a post in response to a comment over at Female Science Professor‘s place.  In it, she discussed correcting people who failed to use the title “Dr.”  Last I looked, there were 95 comments to this post so it seems that a whole lot of people have a whole lot to say on this subject.

As do I.

[Note: For the purposes of this discussion, my name shall be Abigail Italiana and my husband’s name shall be Eric Longfrenchname.  Neither of those names are our real first or last names (obviously).]

Let’s start with the title “Mrs.”  Despite my nom de blog, I do not go by “Mrs.” in real life.  This is because I did not change my last name upon marriage (more on this in a minute).  To me, and to society in general I think, the title Mrs. is followed by Husband’s Last Name.  Calling me Mrs. Italiana would imply that I married someone with the last name Italiana which I did not.  Therefore, the only Mrs. Italiana I know of is married to my brother (my mother is divorced and remarried and is now Mrs. Stepfatherslastname).  Taking that into account, I prefer to be called Ms. Italiana.

I am not Mrs. Longfrenchname and I am MOST DEFINITELY NOT Mrs. Eric Longfrenchname and anyone who calls me that should be shot even if they are my husband’s relatives.  (Christmas cards are notoriously addressed this way and put me in a foul mood when I receive them which sort of defeats the purpose of sending the card.)

However, I am rarely called Ms. Italiana because people, upon seeing my last name and the wedding ring on my finger, will inevitably call me Mrs. Italiana.  This is not a bad assumption on their part, I suppose.  For many people, it happens to not be a problem.  However, it irks the hell out of me.  So, when people address me as Mrs. Italiana, I have two choices.  I can either say, “I prefer Ms. Italiana,” or I can just ignore it.  And, what I do depends upon my mood at that particular moment.  If I am going to be interacting with this person quite a bit, I will likely correct them.  If not, I’ll probably just let it go, even though I’m annoyed.

Part of the reason I let it go, I’m ashamed to admit, is because often when I tell people to call me Ms. they give me a look that says, “Oh, so you’re one of those women.”  I really hate that look.  Or, they look at me all confused, or maybe even ask why I prefer Ms. and then I feel the need to launch into an explanation of my reasoning (although, theoretically, I could just say, “Because I do.”).   If I’m not prepared to deal with it, I just cave.  I’m working on this issue.

Given all of that, I’m rather looking forward to earning a new title.  In theory it would mean that I would receive Christmas cards and wedding invitations addressed to Dr. Italiana.  Or, at the very least, addressed to Dr. and Dr. Eric Longfrenchname which, while still oppressive at least gives a nod to the fact that I did something with my life and am not just my husband’s possession (or, you know, that I’m a well-educated possession).  I’m not going to hold my breath, though.

Still, I feel better about the idea of insisting on Dr. vs Mrs. rather than Ms. vs Mrs.  Nobody asks you why you prefer Dr. instead of Mrs.  They may think it’s pretentious or elitist, but nobody looks at you like, “Why the hell do you want to be called Dr.?”  They just call you Dr. and leave it at that (though they may ask for medical advice, but since the majority of people I interact with who call me Mrs. Italiana are medical doctors, I doubt they will ask me for medical advice.  They may look disparagingly at me if, when questioned, I tell them that I have a PhD, not an MD but they can shove it up their ass).

Now, going back to why I did not change my name when I got married.  I never really thought about this much when I was growing up, though I was never really one to pair my first name with boy du jour‘s last name in my diary or anything like that.  When I went to college, I noted that women scientists often did not change their last names upon marriage and that idea appealed to me a lot.  I even informed my husband very early in our relationship that I was not planning on changing my last name if we ever got married as I could see no advantage since his last name was longer and more unpronounceable than the last name I was born with.

Then, Mr. Longfrenchname and I got engaged and I really started thinking about this seriously.  One thing I had not factored in was having children.  It seemed convenient to have the same last name as my children if only to show that yes, I was their mother.  Also, I had these visions of getting into some sort of accident in a foreign hospital while my husband and I were traveling and nobody believing we were married because we didn’t have the same last name and not being able to have next of kin priveleges (this is extremely far-fetched, I know, but I had some problems with anxiety and paranoia at this time).  And then I thought about maybe having problems traveling with my children because we wouldn’t have the same last name (this happened to my mother while traveling with my sister after my mother got remarried).

So, I considered compromising and having a “professional” name (Dr. Italiana; which is what I would publish under) and a “personal” name (Mrs. Longfrenchname which is what the PTA would call me).  But, when I ran this past a woman scientist of my acquaintance she became livid and insisted having two last names was unethical and that when you publish under a name you are in effect telling people that you stand by your work and if they have a problem with it they can contact you and how can they do that if you are listed in the phone book under a different name than the one you publish under.  I thought that this was perhaps an extreme view since anyone who would be looking me up to communicate about a publication would be looking me up in a university directory and I would therefore be listed under my “professional” name.  But, I didn’t want to piss anyone off and felt that if other people thought the same was as she did then maybe I would be shooting myself in the foot.  So, I considered hyphenation.

My husband vetoed that one right away.  My name would have been Abigail Italiana-Longfrenchname with my real life name being just as long as this made up name and since both of our last names are often mispelled the chance of anyone ever spelling my name right (much less pronouncing it right) was low.  As I considered this argument, I realized that would include anyone who was trying to look up my name in pubmed.  All kinds of people would get frustrated trying to look me up as they inevitably spelled my name wrong.  And then, I hit upon an idea.  I looked up each of our last names in pubmed.  There were no hits for my last name.  None at all.  And a ton of hits for husband’s last name (not for him, he’s in astrophysics).  I confess this was one of the deciding factors in choosing to keep my last name.

But the primary reason was I liked being Abigail Italiana.*  It had taken me a very long time to be comfortable with who I was and my name seemed to be integrally tied to that identity.  So, why would I change it?  What would that mean?  Who would that person be?  It also made me feel like I was somehow supposed to change my identity upon marriage which seemed unfair since husband didn’t have to change his identity (btw, we did, briefly, consider him taking my last name but he had already published under his last name whereas I had not yet published).  To me, marriage wasn’t going to make me a different person so why should my name reflect that?

*It occurs to me that this is a somewhat funny statement since I blog under a pseudonym.  However, I do that to maintain my privacy not because I’m changing my identity.

Some suggestions

In my previous post, I pointed out that thesis advisers and degree programs should be providing training in aspects of being a scientist beyond benchwork. I also said I would provide ideas for how to do that.

How the degree program can help

First and foremost, let’s tell students early on that they need more than good “hands” to make it in the world of science. I agree that, after a certain period of time, this should become obvious to anyone with half a brain and any observational skills whatsoever. But, instead of waiting for students to figure it out on their own, why don’t we tell them right off the bat what reality is?

For first year students:

In my first year of grad school, I had classes on various scientific subjects. I also took one ethics class (although, to be honest, I’m not sure the program would have provided that had it not been required by NIH), and I was required to attend a lunchtime seminar series in which each of the faculty in the program presented their research to us. This was supposed to help us in choosing a lab and just give us an idea of the kind of research that was going on at our institution. Sometimes, these talks were very boring, but mostly they were useful.

I’d very much like to see another seminar series added to the roster.* The first seminar in the series should be Reality Check. The faculty should sit down with the students and tell them all of the dirty little secrets about science that all of us thought scientists were above until we actually started training to be scientists. Science is not a meritocracy. Fame matters. Quantity of publications matters. Who you know matters. Appearance matters. Gender matters. In short, right away students should be told, bluntly, that scientists are just like every other professionals in the world, that science is like any other profession in the world and you ignore that to your peril. Forget letting them figure it out on their own. Just come right out and say it. Give students the chance to start preparing for those aspects of science when they first start the program.

The rest of the seminar series would be about all of those aspects of science that aren’t research. Each could be led by faculty who are particularly good at that aspect. Get the Howard Hughes Investigator to talk to students about writing successful grant applications. Get the department chair to talk about networking. And so on.

For more senior students:

Give the students specific opportunities to practice some of these skills. Have formal dinners to practice networking skills (to make this have slightly more realism, have the dinner with faculty from a different department, that is, people that the students may not know very well). Require every student to invite a seminar speaker. Require every student to apply for some sort of fellowship (regardless of whether you think they are truly competitive for that fellowship; the idea is to give them some experience in applying for funding).

What PIs can do

When I was a waitress, in very nearly every job I had, I had to do what was called shadowing. When I first started, I was assigned to another waitress and had to follow her around. Then, after doing that a couple of nights, she had to follow me around and help me out if necessary. Likewise, I suggest that you include your students in the nitty-gritty of being a scientist. Bring a student along if you are taking a speaker to lunch. If it’s a more senior student, have them make the arrangements for lunch. Give your junior students copies of your grant applications to read. Ask your senior students to write sections of your grant applications. Show your junior students how to review a paper for a journal. Get your senior students to review the paper and discuss it with you. Ask your students what they thought of a particular faculty candidate. Express your opinions about a particular faculty candidate.

And, for the love of God, take them with you to scientific conferences and spend some time introducing them to people. I love my adviser to death but the man goes to ground when he’s at a conference. It is, of course, my job then to ask him to introduce me to a specific person.** Which I do. And he does. But then he disappears again.

These are only a few suggestions, touching on only a few aspects of being a successful scientist. I’m sure that faculty know better than I what one needs to be successful in science. All I ask is that they share this information with their students in a more systematic way.

What the students can do

If your adviser does not include you in these important aspects of Science, then ask her to. Ask if you can help review a paper. Ask to see her grants (especially ones you are contributing data for). Ask to write a section of the next grant. Ask if you can tag along when she takes the speaker to lunch. Ask if there is a way for students to invite a speaker and if there isn’t, ask if your adviser will do it on your behalf and allow you to arrange the details.

Ultimately, the person who cares the most about your training is you. You are the person most affected by poor training. Sure, it hurts your adviser to a certain degree but it hurts you a lot. So take charge. Don’t let them get away with a half-assed attempt at training you. Make them do their jobs. Nobody else is going to do this for you.

[Edited to add:  PhysioProf points out in the comments that I misinterpreted his comment to Drugmonkey’s post.  I’m glad he made the effort to clarify.  It goes to show that there are advisers out there who are not as unreasonable as we students seem to think they are.  However, I am leaving the following section as is because (1) I have heard many students complain about something that their adviser is not doing and when I ask if they have talked to their advisers about this, the answer is almost always no and (2) if I changed it then Physioprof’s comment to this post make no sense and I do not like to delete comments.]

Finally, I would like to address something that PhysioProf said in the comments of Drugmonkey’s post.

PhysioProf says:

The shit DrugMonkey is talking about ain’t that frigging complicated. It’s not like quantum chemistry or something. A small investment of effort goes a long way.

My husband is an astrophysicist (stick with me here, I do have a point). He is, quite literally, a rocket scientist. In the early days of our marriage, when some gift-giving occasion rolled around I would start dropping hints about what I would like to get. I would say things like, “You know, I really liked the earrings so-and-so gave me for Christmas. Every time I wear them, I think of her.” Or, “So-and-so’s husband took her to Snooty Restaurant for their anniversary.” And every time, he would not get me the jewelry or not take me to Snooty Restaurant. And I thought, “He’s a smart guy, he should figure this out. After all, it’s not rocket science. If he really cared, he would pay more attention.” For his part, my husband could not understand why I was sometimes disappointed with the gifts he gave me. They were perfectly lovely gifts. They were on my amazon wish list (he knows better to try to get creative after a disastrous instance in which my college diploma was shellacked) and yet I was not happy with them.

Finally, I gave up on the hints. Recently, I have flat-out just told him what I want. Here are two examples:

“I know that we are celebrating my birthday late because you will be out of town but if flowers or candy or something from you does not show up in lab on my birthday I will be upset.”

“I have run out of Chanel No. 5. When I was getting low, I asked for some for Valentine’s Day, but you got me something else. I then asked you for some for my birthday but you got me something else. Both of these were lovely gifts and I appreciate them. However, if you do not get me Chanel No. 5 for Christmas, I am going to go out and buy it for myself, now that I am completely out of it. So, you can either have that expense incorporated into what we normally spend for Christmas gifts, or it can be an extra expense to figure into the budget. Your choice.”

I got flowers on my birthday. I got Chanel No. 5 for Christmas. I was happy. My husband was happy that I was happy. In short, things have been much smoother now that I have decided to just come right out and ask what I want from him and tell him what I think he needs to know. The man is brilliant in many aspects of science. He does a lot of math in which there are no numbers whatsoever. Likewise, he is a terrific husband in many, many ways. But he is clueless when it comes to giving gifts.

Being straightforward about expectations is helpful for any relationship and the adviser-trainee one is no exception. Trainees, you think your advisers should know that they should be teaching you how to write grants. Advisers, you think your students should just know that they should go to seminars or that if you think out loud about a particular problem you are experiencing they should just know that this is your way of training them.

Screw that.

Just come right out and say, “Hey, I’m going to be writing lots of grants in my future, so I would like some advice on how to do so.” Or, “I notice that you haven’t been going to seminars. Attending seminars is an important part of your scientific training and I expect you to attend more in the future.”

There is merit to forcing students to figure some things out for themselves. However, I cannot see any sense in watching someone consistently do something wrong and not at least tell them that this is something that needs to be fixed.


*Do not, I beg you, ask me why I don’t suggest this to The Powers That Be. I have. They do not think this is the sort of thing that I should be focusing on at this stage in my career. *sigh*

**Yes, I know I could introduce myself, but sometimes I don’t even know what this person looks like. And don’t tell me to look them up on their departmental website because I happen to know that the pictures of faculty on our departmental website are old. In one case, a certain professor has a full head of hair in his photo and I happen to know that he has not even had half a head of hair for the last 8 years.

My 2 cents

Over at ScienceBlogs, Janet Stemwedel has begun a series of posts entitled “The project of being a grownup scientist.” She first talks about being a graduate student and realizing that being a “grownup” scientist is not just a matter of being able to do research. There is grant-writing, networking, mentoring, managing a lab, determining where to submit a paper, how to deal with reviewers, how to be a reviewer, and so on. She then speculates about why advisers don’t talk to their trainees about these sorts of things.

Drugmonkey, has a slightly different take. His post is entitled, “Scientific Careerism 101: Yes grad students and post-docs it IS your fault.” His is the perspective of the adviser and he wonders why students are not more proactive. He asks why trainees do not pay attention, why they do not ask for help, why they do not go to seminars anymore (I admit, I’m confused about that one as well, this doesn’t seem to be much of a problem at my institution since at most seminars there are far more students than faculty), and why students don’t realize that graduate school is a job. These are all good questions.

Well, I am a student. And I have a few questions of my own.

Why, when students request programs to help them with career development (as we have at so many curriculum committee meetings at my institution) are we told, “That’s not what you should be focusing on?”

Why, when we wish to pursue career development opportunities, are we chastised for not being in lab slaving away at research?

How, after four years of undergrad work where requirements are specifically laid out for you, are we supposed to figure out that there is more to being a scientist than research, and, if by some chance we do figure it out, how are we supposed to know how to accomplish that part of our education without any instruction? Divine revelation?

In short, why don’t advisers realize they have responsibilities to their students above and beyond funding and troubleshooting experiments?

Frankly, if someone tells me one more time, “Oh, you just pick that up as you go along,” as an explanation for whatever arcane aspect of careerism I have just asked advice for, I am going to bash their head in with a crystal ball. Pick it up how exactly? Could you please be just a tad more specific? I ask you, would you send a student down to the electron microscope and say, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure it out sooner or later”? Seriously, why are we given so much training in important things like “how not to break this absurdly expensive piece of equipment” and not given any advice at all in how not to break our careers*? Why are we required to sit through hours of radiation safety training about how to properly fill out radioactive waste disposal forms and not given one–just one–seminar writing a successful grant?

Now, as it happens, I agree with Drugmonkey to a certain extent. I do think that students and post-docs should be more pro-active about career development. Some students really are quite good at this. However, some students do not even seem to realize that the decisions they are making now have a large impact on their future careers. Forget networking, I mean things like, “If you want to be faculty at a top research institution, you are going to have to have a phenomenal post-doc career. You are going to have to get a position with a super-star. You are not going to get that position if, as a graduate student, you only publish one paper in a 3rd tier journal. You just aren’t.” It’s like they have forgotten everything they ever learned about getting into a good college and then getting into a good graduate school. And, it can take awhile for students to catch on that there is more to being a scientist than benchwork, sometimes too long (I know one student who, in his 4th year, still thinks there is not much of a difference between being a tech and being a graduate student; this explains a lot about how much progress he has made on his thesis work). This is not acceptable.


Students are in graduate school to–not to put too fine a point on it–be trained. We are there to be educated. If graduate school were strictly a job, then there wouldn’t be a question of tuition, nor would there be a degree at the end of it. And our advisers would probably get into trouble for how many hours they expect us to work.

We are not little data-making machines. We are not “cheap labor.” We do not exist solely to provide data for papers for advisers to pad their CVs. We are not fully formed scientists who are only there to put a little time in so that we can go on to become little perfect clones of our advisers. We are trainees. Yes, we should be proactive about our own education and career development. But our advisers (and degree programs) should be, too. There needs to be acknowledgment on the part of The Powers That Be that they have some role in training us to become fully-fledged scientists with all that entails.

I’m not talking about spoon-feeding us information. Not only is that not desirable, it’s not helpful. Someone who is spoon-fed everything is ultimately not able to eat on her own. What I mean is that advisers and students need to be partners in the students’ education. Each side should recognize that they have responsibilities and act accordingly.

Degree programs also should recognize that they need to provide more than classwork on various scientific subjects. In the ideal situation, the student’s thesis adviser would provide all of the training that student requires. But, as we know, many situations are far from ideal. Advisers may either not recognize that they should be doing a little more for their students than paying their tuition or they may simply not be very good at some particular aspect of being a “grownup” scientist.

Now, I try not to be the kind of person that sits and complains that there are problems but not provide any solutions. Those are in the next post.


*A student’s future career is actually quite a bit more expensive to the adviser than most pieces of equipment if you consider that, by paying tuition and a stipend, advisers are investing in that student’s future.