…So, how did I make it (so far)?
It is disheartening to see over and over again young female scientists, graduate students and postdocs, questioning if being an academic scientist is an achievable and worthy goal. There is a growing feeling that it is now harder to “make it”, it is a struggle not worth going through, impossible to do if you want to have kids and participate in their lives, and science has become too political and rather unfair. So, I decided to share parts of my story with the hope of inspiring those passionate about science yet wondering if this is a viable path.
Why do I think my story is worth sharing? Well, according to all conventional rules of “how to be successful in academia” I did it all wrong. I've never studied in American “top tier” institutions, have never worked under big-name scientists, and haven't publish in “single-word” named journals. I got married at 25, came to the US that same year and had my first kid three months after landing. I had my second kid four years later while working towards my PhD. My husband is also a scientist and we went to graduate school together in NY. We did not have close relatives in the US and no additional financial support besides our stipends. I stayed in the same lab after I finished my PhD for a postdoc, and after that, as non-tenure track Assistant Professor. So, what made it possible?
I think that this summarizes it:
I was very lucky and met great people, I had personal and professional goals and worked strategically and hard towards them no matter how bent the path was, I was very resilient, and I did this all over again and again until I am where I am now…(and I don’t mean location).
This is my story:
After finishing our Master degrees at a University in Chile, my then fiancé and I wanted to move to the US to pursue a PhD. A few months before moving we got married and, very shortly after, we were expecting our first child. At the time it seemed a major setback. Having a baby in a different country? Would we have health insurance in the US? How would I understand what to do, where to go, how would I communicate with my doctor? A phone call from my father put it all in perspective… “Don't think on canceling your trip because of the baby, it will work out”. My husband took a technician job in the US under the supervision of a Chilean colleague and we moved.
We arrived in New York the winter of 1996 with the goal of getting a PhD. My husband had a technician job and I had a 5 months old belly. I immediately began looking for a volunteering position in a research laboratory to “step” into the system before the baby was born (thank God for youth grit!). We met with a scientist that my mentor in Chile knew and I asked him if he knew anyone that would take me as a volunteer in his/her lab (yes, with my big belly). He recommended the lab of a “nice” guy. The nice guy did not only accept me pregnant and with mediocre English, but he also covered the cost of practice books for standardized tests for graduate school applications, gave my family some economic relief (as I could not get paid due to my VISA status), and accepted me in the laboratory after my baby was born, put a crib in his office, and entertained him while I was at the microscope. Alan, I owe you my career. Yes, this is the kind of people that you want to cross your path with. I was there for a little longer than a year and I am a very proud first author of a paper from the work that I share with my son that looked over my shoulder from his backpack carrier while I worked.
That year, we were accepted to grad school. We felt rich with two student stipends. But we quickly realized that we couldn’t afford regular childcare in Manhattan and we had to become creative to find a solution for our son. We teamed with a colleague to share a nanny for a while, we brought our younger sisters from Chile that covered us for another few months, and eventually we put our son in daycare that we could barely afford. When our second son arrived, my youngest had started public school (I’ll confess that this was somewhat calculated).
I picked a small lab for my grad school Thesis work. I heard my PI giving a talk in an internal seminar and I liked his work on a topic that I had long been interested on. It turned out that he was also a nice guy and did not fire me when I told him that I was pregnant with my second son, or that I had to leave the lab at 4 pm everyday because the only affordable daycare kicked my kid out of the door at that time. My husband and I came up with a formula and covered each other up very well during daycare activities, kids sicknesses, and daycare closures. Here is when I will say that having the right partner is an essential part of the equation. We put our boys to bed at 8 pm every day, so we could study or work after that (not much rest really). The usually overlooked flexibility of science was a blessing as we could get our jobs done while having a family (yes, we considered our grad school positions a Job).
I finished my PhD in four and a half years and waited for my husband to find a postdoc. He ended up staying in NY, so I stayed in the same lab…for a long time. Although I knew that I was putting myself in a very difficult position, it worked, because it meant less stress for my family and I loved my project. But I had to do things differently, and with the support of my PI, I did. His lab had grown a lot in those years and he agreed to let me run my own project, have a grad student, and be corresponding author of manuscripts coming out of that. After three years I was promoted to non-tenure track Assistant Professor. This was key as I could start writing my own grants. He paid for a tech to work for me and we kept a constant flow of manuscripts in good (but not top tier) journals. This was very important, as I needed to prove that I was independent to get funding under my name. The project went very well, getting funding took years and much iteration…but it eventually happened, and four years into my non-tenure track Assistant Professor position I had 3 NIH-funded grants (about 400K/year direct cost) and all the tools I needed to start my independent lab. This was the winter of 2010. Five and a half years later I am a tenured associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania...
If you wonder, we normally took 2-3 week vacations every year and my husband and I went together to most school activities, trips, swim meets, and music performances of our kids. What did we miss? Social, yes, social life was what we did left out…something had to be left out. No lunch with classmates, extended coffee times, or going out for drinks. With the kids older and more independent, we are now back into it. Thankfully, social time provides instant gratification and you can always jump back into it!
May 6th, 2016.