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Mama, Ph.D.

September 3, 2008

I am not, despite my best intentions, an academic.

Oh, I thought I would be one, once, growing up in the halls of medical school, sitting in on classes when my mentor-professor allowed it, dreaming of days to come as I toiled in the lab for $8 an hour.

I studied hard.  I kept my head down.  I loved going to class, and listening to the lecturer, and taking out my books at home and finding new tidbits that were not mentioned before.

I loved office hours, gathering in a dark office with other interested (or desperate) students, listening and asking questions and trying to feel sympathy for the guy at the chalkboard who would sweat and forget the right hand rule.

I loved everything about the new school year, from new textbooks to new shoes, and even today I got a little giggle out of buying my preschooler his first big boy backpack.

But somewhere along the way I became disillusioned about the academic life.  In my case, as a physicist specializing in space science, the culture wasn’t what I had expected when I started out.  The days were long, grueling, and solitary for those of us not teaching.  For those teaching, the days were full of rehashed equations and undergrads who lost interest by October.  Office hours became lonely duties, and it was rare that a student wandered in.

My work — which I wanted to love — wasn’t all that I had hoped it would be.  Outgoing and social, I soon spent day after day after day alone in a cold “clean room” picking 10 nm size particles off of one gold thumbtack and putting them on another.  I would go home exhausted, spent, with particles dancing before my eyes, having had stimulating conversations with no one.  Again.

But my friends upstairs fared little better.  Their work was also repetitive and lonely, each of us closed tightly inside a room where we took measurements, tested fibers, operated a spectrometer, or derived equation after equation in hopes of our work adding up to something new.

The pressure of getting and keeping and getting grants again seemed an everpresent threat, and even undergraduates could tell when it was time to start the signature cycle.

My later work revolved around the actions of a trio of isotopes — Ti, V, and Cr — in a medium that most people have never even given a second thought.  Or a first.  (It’s called the interstellar medium; it’s what most people call “empty space.”  Only it’s not, and that’s what makes it interesting.)  I loved this work, and I loved the group of people that I worked with, but it was at this time that I realized what really makes me tick.

Talking to people.  Listening to new ideas.  Helping those dreams come true.  And so I fell in love with science policy, and I went to NASA Headquarters to use both my science and my policy experience right out of the box, skipping years of transiency, worry, work toward the mythical tenure track that we’re told is about to be taken away right before our eyes.

I loved it.

But a part of my heart is still in academia.  I worked for years to make it easier for academics to focus on their research, cutting red tape, adding efficiencies, and making things happen in Washington.  Now I consult to try to do the same thing, and I’m working with a new group called Women in Planetary Science that has some similar hopes, as well as bring babies into the public equation.

Because we still don’t have nursing rooms in every science building.  Heck, not every science building even has a bathroom for women, besides the one for secretaries at the main office.  We don’t have babysitting at conferences, automatic stopping of the tenure clock, even colleagues who are generally happy for us when, miracle of miracles, a baby comes along that ISN’T a major paper or a scientific success.

Men say getting a new mission off the ground is “like giving birth.”  A particularly difficult-to-select paper is called, “my baby.”  Funding gimmies are tossed off with a shrug and the words, “no one can argue with that; it’s like mom and apple pie.” But where is mom — and where are the real babies — in the halls of academia?

Sarah Palin, it turns out, is breaking these barriers up in Alaska as we speak.  Love her or hate her, there is a baby in her office, a jar of baby food on her desk, and a 7 year old in the chair next to her.  She is showing her colleagues that you can be a mom and a governor, and I applaud her for that.

But there are so many more mothers out there doing this delicate balance of baby and research, pumping and lecturing, keeping things going academically while raising a child alone or with a partner, and their voices need to be heard too.

That’s why I’m in love with the new book Mama, Ph.D.  It’s a collection of stories from academic mamas who lay bare their souls about the hard times, the good parts, the special challenges (pumping in a maintenance closet — and then the dean walks in!), and why it’s all worthwhile.  I think it’s also a good casebook of the situation today in many departments, and I hope that it will be used by someone or somegroup to start making changes.  I hope.

Go check it out.  Read about the theater director who takes her son to see the plays she’s directing, from backstage, with crayons.  Meet the mom who adopted a child after years of infertility and a brain tumor, who found her balance at a nearby women’s college.  Learn from the mathematician finding balance with three kids and a promising career.  Gaze at the woman women with burgeoning bellies who still find strength to teach five classes and hold office hours.

I admire these women, for the lives they lead, and the sacrifices that they make to be fulfilled, to support their families, and to bring education and truth to the children that we raise up too.  I only wish that the world would make it a little easier to both follow a passion and raise children passionately.

This book was sent to me for review by Mother Talk.  Like all the books I’m sent, it will be donated to my local library.

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