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Darby Dyar on being a good scientific citizen and managing work time

October 29, 2010

Dr. Darby DyarA million years ago, when I was a brand-new graduate student and still wet behind the ears, I saw a notice on the bulletin board at LPSC inviting women at the conference to meetup in an attendee’s hotel room after the poster session.  I was way too intimidated to go as a new graduate student in an all-male research group, but I’ve thought about it since then, and wondered how things may have been different had I gone and seen women doing the balancing act — and succeeding.

By happy coincidence, Dr. Darby Dyar, one of the organizers of that meetup, with Dr. Andrea Koziol, was nominated to be a featured woman in planetary science on this site, and she has graciously agreed.  In this post, she tells us about her early career, and shares some really good advice.

When did you first become interested in space science?

I grew up in Indiana in the 60’s, so becoming any kind of scientist was not something I even imagined because I never knew a woman scientist.  I graduated from high school having taken only 9th-grade biology, and was convinced I’d never need science again.  I did gain two useful things from high school, however.  They had a grant to teach computer programming, a then-unheard of endeavor, and I learned the basic fundamentals of programming. I also took a very strong series of math courses culminating in calculus, in which, by my senior year, I was the only girl.  I learned a lot from that experience about survival skills in an all-male class, which came in handy later.

But I ended up at Wellesley, which is an all-women’s liberal arts college, where I decided to major in art history.  Somewhere in my sophomore year my advisor gently reminded me that I needed to fulfill a science course.  I asked around to find out which one was the easiest, and reluctantly enrolled in Geology 101.  The first day of class I slunk into the lecture hall and planted myself in the back row with a disinterested expression.  This rapidly changed when a woman walked in and gave a knock-your-eyes-out great lecture full of slides of cool geology and succinct explanations. That professor, Meg Thompson, eventually became a good friend and inspiration.  So I took another geology course, and another, and ended up with a double-major.  I had to take a year of physics and chemistry courses during my senior year, which nearly killed me because I’d never even met those subjects before, but my geology faculty tutored me through when I needed help.

My life as a planetary scientist began in the middle of my senior year when I was looking for a job to bring in a little extra money. One of my Wellesley profs steered me to Roger Burns at MIT, who was looking for someone who could do lab work (on lunar samples!) and computer programming.  This went so well that Roger talked me into applying to MIT for graduate school (I had originally planned to pursue structural geology), and NASA supplied funding for a cool Ph.D. project involving cooling rates of lunar glasses, so I became a geochemist instead of an art historian!

Ironically, when I left MIT, I also left planetary science behind.  In an act of incredible generosity, Roger sat me down and said, effectively, that he didn’t want to compete with me going forward (who was he kidding?, I thought).  So we decided that henceforth he would focus only on extraterrestrial applications of Mössbauer spectroscopy, and I would do terrestrial samples only.  We respected this unusual arrangement and often sent potential users to each other over the ensuing years.  In hindsight, my time as a terrestrial geologist served me very well: I taught field camp, worked in the southwest and the northeast, worked with engineers to develop some new technologies for mineral analysis, and ended up understanding a lot of fundamental processes that have great application to problems in planetary science.  After Roger died suddenly from cancer, I came back to the field with fresh eyes.

 What were/are your career goals?  How are you fulfilling them?

My original goal was to find work that I was passionate about, that supported me financially, in a place where I wanted to be, surrounded by people I liked.  It took me many years to get there, but I finally think I’m achieved that goal.  Intellectually, I continue to be driven to explore the fundamental relationships between mineralogy, spectroscopy, and geology on terrestrial planets.  I am happy to be at a place in my career and life that allows me to work on big problems with the luxury of taking my time to figure things out and look at the science problems holistically – this is one of the best things about having an academic job.  I would rather write one excellent paper that addresses an entire problem than several papers that answer only parts of a problem.

I also find myself working towards a different, less self-absorbed goal. Although I love my research, I truly find that my greatest joy comes from helping others succeed. Looking back at my career so far, I realize that my most important accomplishments have not been books, proposals, or papers, but people whose lives I have touched, including my own two children. So I now spend a lot of time and effort working to make things better and easier for others to become scientists, especially women. 

When I started graduate school, there were no women faculty in my department, and only a handful of women graduate students.  Though times have changed somewhat, I feel frustrated that women still obtain graduate degrees and tenure in greatly diminished numbers relative to men, and the leadership in science teams and other aspects of planetary science is still predominantly male.  Every year I show my students a photo of the science team for the Mars Exploration Rovers and ask them “what’s wrong with this picture?” to encourage them to think about how to change the gender balance in this discipline. I was motivated to write my mineralogy textbook by the realization that I’d never seen a science textbook written by a woman at anything but an introductory level – what kind of message does that send?  I aspire to work on a planetary mission because I want people to see that a woman can mix wellness checkups, exam grading, soccer carpools, thesis defenses, and dinner-making with telecons, ops planning, and instrument calibrations (though not always perfectly, and hopefully not all at the same time!). I believe that one of the most important outcomes of planetary science is that every mission gets the general public excited about exploration and science, and that will ultimately lead to creating more scientists, including women.

It’s important to also add that being an educator is not an entirely an altruistic undertaking! One of the best parts of my job has been experiencing life vicariously through the lives of my former students. They’ve traveled the world in the Peace Corps, worked on Mars, Mercury, and lunar missions, pursued science journalism, film-making, space law, and fiction writing, to name a few.  It’s a privilege to have been part of all these lives… 

What role has mentoring played in your work life?

I had wonderful mentors at Wellesley College, including my art professors who encouraged me to pursue both an avocation and a profession.  I was closely supported by Roger Burns and Charles Guidotti, both dear friends and great sources of support and both lost too soon to cancer.  George Rossman is always there for me to give scientific advice.  Jerry Delaney of Rutgers University has been a long-term source of support; he single-handedly dragged me back out of terrestrial geology and into planetary science after Roger Burns died. 

I have often wished for women mentors as I’ve progressed through my career but they are few and far between.  My generation of women scientists has had to make it up as we go along!  I have a weekly breakfast with my friends Tekla Harms and Sheila Seaman, both geologists and colleagues in the Pioneer Valley here; we mix pancakes and talk of aging parents with laughter over our careers and our colleagues, and it’s immensely helpful.  Perhaps obviously, the fact that I had no women mentors has inspired me to mentor and improve the lot of others.

Tell us about the life of a researcher at a large university like the University of Oregon, vs. the life of a researcher at a college like Mount Holyoke.  Are the institutional priorities or expectations very different?  How does it affect your science?

When I started teaching in Oregon in 1987, the Chair explained to me that my emphasis should be on research, grant-writing, and graduate education; teaching and undergraduate students were to be lower on my scale of priorities.  I was never very comfortable with this situation.  One of my students once looked at my 16-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week life as a scientist and said “Darby, I respect you, but I really don’t want to be like you.”  This really shook me up, and I resolved to make some changes in my life.

In contrast, Mount Holyoke is a wonderful place for me. My job here is explicitly about education, and doing research is a way to serve that mission by informing and inspiring my teaching and also by training the next generation of a scientifically-literate public. The College values me most for my teaching, which helps put proposal success in perspective – I will still have a paycheck if all federal funding goes away tomorrow! The College provides resources like computers, technical and machine shop support, and administrative assistance – and even pays for one trip per year to a conference. I benefit from close proximity to colleagues in all the science departments, and thus have tremendous intellectual resources to help me when I pursue interdisciplinary questions.  The downside is that my teaching load is considerably higher than at a research university, and my responsibilities to students and institutional committees are great.  Luckily, my collaborators know to expect slow responses during the 26 weeks of the year when I’m teaching. I often can’t act on ideas as rapidly as I would like, I can’t write papers fast enough, and I have to turn down opportunities (invited talks, review panels, etc.) too often. But I have a steady supply of incredibly bright, highly-motivated undergraduates who work in my lab; after two or three years with them, they stack up against any grad student I ever had. And, now that I have tenure, I have a job for life, near my husband’s job. 

In terms of research success, I have found that reviewers base their judgments on my proposals and papers and my capabilities as a scientist rather than on the perceived research prestige of the institution where I teach. However, I work very hard to make sure I am as productive as my colleagues at other types of institutions, so there’s no question that I will accomplish the proposal goals I set out.  About 2/3 of my peer-reviewed papers have been published in the last 1/3 of my career since coming to Mount Holyoke (and having children, which has forced me to become more efficient with time management). I do sometimes envy my colleagues who can attend research talks regularly, and just walk down the hall to have interesting discussions about planetary science, but I spend a lot of time with collaborators by email and the telephone, which helps. As communications have changed, the opportunities to do science outside of traditional venues are changing fast too (witness the success of the Planetary Science Institute model), which I applaud heartily.  Much of my best writing is done in my home office, watching the seasons change as the wild turkeys stroll by outside.  So I’m very grateful for the balance and flexibility that being at Mount Holyoke brings to my life and my career.

You have mentored many younger scientists, who do speak highly of your words.  What do you wish you’d been told as a postdoc or graduate student?

Let me begin by noting that some of these items ARE things I was told as a graduate student…

Become (if you aren’t already) a well-rounded human being, with authentic and supportive relationships with family and friends.  Cultivate and prioritize having hobbies and a life outside your profession that includes things you do to take care of yourself and others. Of all the things I learned from working with Roger Burns, this lesson was the most important.

It’s OK to put priorities relating to your personal life ahead of those of your professional life – as long as you realize that there will be consequences (sometimes heartbreaking!). The hardest thing I ever did was to quit my job on the verge of tenure to relocate 300 miles away so I could live full-time in the same town as my husband and kids (then aged 1 and 3 years). But it was an easy and obvious decision that I will never regret.

You’re never too young to spend time mentoring others to help them become scientists.  These gestures will end up coming back to you in unexpected and wonderful ways.

Another thing I learned from Roger Burns: treat everyone the same.  Although he was a senior professor at MIT, Roger interacted with everyone from the janitor to his students to his colleagues with respect, caring, and humility. He was always a gentleman, and he had high standards for professionalism.

Be a good scientific citizen.  For every paper you submit, agree to review two others.  For every proposal, review four.  Organize a conference (once in your career).  Become an associate editor for a journal, and serve until you’ve handled more papers than you think you’ll ever write.  Lead a committee in your professional society. Serve on review panels when asked, and when possible.  Learn from all these experiences! Do all these things at times in your career when your other commitments are fewer, so that when life gets busier, you’ll still feel that you’ve done your share.

Persistence matters.  I was 44 years old when I finally got tenure, after teaching for 17 years…

Never collaborate with people you don’t like, or who can’t accept you for what you are.

Training yourself to be an expert in a single technique can be risky because it can lead to becoming a “one-trick pony.” Try not to overspecialize. It’s far better to build a reputation as someone who asks interesting scientific questions and then teaches herself the techniques needed to answer those questions in creative, original, and integrative ways.

Build your work in planetary science on a firm foundation of terrestrial geology and/or extrasolar astronomy.  If you want a job in academia, this is a necessity for finding and keeping a job. Diversify your funding sources among NASA, Research Corporation, DOE, and NSF.

When it comes to balancing all the competing demands of a busy life, someone once told me to “throw money at the problem.”  I know a woman who not only pays someone to clean her house, but also hires a cook to come three days a week to make dinner so she can spend time with her kids in those critical few hours after daycare ends.  Hire a student to drive carpools for you when possible.  Your sanity is worth the financial cost.

Learn to be flexible and always be prepared.  Adapt your career to your situation in life, and manage your work time wisely so as to maximize your family time.  Save up some extra data when you’re pregnant so you’ll have something to write up after your baby is born.  Deliver your kids to day care the minute it opens, and pick them up at closing time so you can get the most work done while they are otherwise happily engaged, and can then devote time exclusively to them when you are home.  Always have with you a paper or proposal to review when you’re waiting in line to pick up your kids. Set aside a less-urgent project to do on the days when you’re home with a sick child. Do your grading at the kitchen table next to your kids while they are doing their homework (misery loves company!). Bring your laptop so you can work while your elderly parents doze in the nursing home and still be there when they wake up again.

Finally, accept the fact that you really can’t do it all to perfection. This isn’t easy.  Decide what’s most important in your life, and set your priorities to reflect those decisions. There are many times when my life is simply out of control, but I’ve learned to have faith in the way I’ve ordered my priorities and just stick to working down my list, starting with what’s most important. Learn when to strive for perfection and when an 80% effort is good enough. Plan for chaos: don’t let things like abstracts, proposal reviews or presentations wait until the last minute, because that invites disaster. Pay a little more and buy refundable/changeable plane tickets (or fly Southwest!). Always have a back-up plan.

Thank you, Darby! 

Dr. Dyar is being featured here as one of 51 Women in Planetary Science, a series of interviews with successful women scientists on career choices, sequencing, publishing, review panels, and other tips for success. Questions or suggestions for future interviews can be sent to us directly or to our email list, which all women in planetary science can join!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Sona permalink
    November 15, 2010 1:27 am

    wonderful…. i will print these words and hold on to them….. 🙂

  2. Kim permalink
    November 6, 2010 9:43 pm

    Thanks for interviewing Darby, and thanks, Darby, for being an inspiring scientist and educator.

  3. sutari permalink
    November 1, 2010 11:19 am

    This is a great interview with a lot of really great advice. Her experience at Oregon was similar to mine (as a grad student) at Brown – we looked at our 24/7 professors and said, “no way, if this is the kind of life you have to live to be a successful planetary researcher, forget it”.

    But wow – at the risk of offending Darby, who clearly holds Roger Burns in high esteem, I am stunned by her “incredible generosity” comment. Maybe this didn’t come across as she intended. But the way I read it…. I see this as someone who took her in, trained her, taught her, and then decided that she was “too good” and didn’t want to share tight planetary research money with her, so “generously” gave her the Earth.

    This is as bad as the researchers who have huge “kingdoms” of graduate students, who churn them out year after year, with no plans to retire, no idea of where they might go and do similar work, but who still manage to make you feel like a failure if you leave academia.

  4. October 29, 2010 7:17 pm

    Great interview, lots of fantastic advice!

  5. Elena Amador permalink
    October 29, 2010 5:37 pm

    As a new graduate student in planetary sciences, this was so inspiring! Thank you, the last section had great advice!

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