Notes to my younger self

I recently found myself articulating something I wish I could have told my younger grad-student self: Go to your advisor even with problems you know she can’t solve.  I went through some rough patches in my first couple of years of grad school, so much self-doubt that I’ve since learned to file away under “impostor syndrome.”  And in those times when I wasn’t sure if I could make it, it was painfully hard to look around me and not see any gay science faculty.  It’s like my worst fears were suddenly being proven.  With empirical data.

I’ll leave for another post the importance of role models.  For now, this is about being an advisee.  I can’t say this advice is for everyone, but I happen to have the world’s best advisor (and yes, I’ve told her so).  In retrospect, I wish I’d had the courage (and common sense?) to bring some of my struggles to her.  For starters, it would have forced me to wrap words around my fears.  In order to tell her about them, I’d have to shrink the bogeyman in the shadows into something I could actually name and describe.  I think it would have made it a little less large and scary, facing it squarely like that.

Even more importantly, my advisor would have empathized and, in some fashion, understood.  She certainly would have cared that I was struggling.  I wonder what it would have been like to have that sort of validation, to have her hold a little space for me to wrestle with things instead of it all just taking place in my own head.  I wonder what it would have meant to me to know, to be told, that it’s OK to be struggling and scared.  To know that even if she can’t fix things for me, she’ll support me through it.

I know this is sounding like big deep scary emotional stuff — and remember that my advisor is, first and foremost, a scientist.  And yes, I have a really good support network of friends I turn to.  But turning to friends doesn’t break down the compartmentalizaton that was part of the problem.  I could really have used some way of feeling like all these parts of me were OK to have as a scientist.  I needed some validation in my professional life.  The conversation wouldn’t have looked this deep on the surface.  But small simple things can still carry an immense weight.  Just a small acceptance to make me recognize that I’m OK, warts and all.

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When I don’t know what I’m doing

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”   — Wernher von Braun

Yep, it’s been one of those days with novel mistakes and general fumbling-about-ness.  I can’t even claim that I was doing anything new and exciting — ti should have been routine but wasn’t.  Ah well, that’s science.

The quote from von Braun sometimes feels like my theme song for grad school.  It’s a good reminder that I’m no more incompetent than the next researcher.  So much of my research is using techniques that my lab isn’t familiar with or set up well for, protocols I have to alter significantly for my needs, and quite frankly stuff I’m making up as I go along.  There’s a fair bit of feeling stupid involved.  I’m just glad it’s mostly the sort of stupid that comes because I’m venturing into unknown territory.

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The thinking chair

One of the other professors on my floor has been looking for space to put a visiting grad student who’ll be working with his lab for the next two and a half months.  Our office is a bit deeper than the others on the floor, since we’re at the center of the outward-curved wall, so even though we’ve already got four grad students in the office the Powers that Be decreed that we make room for the visitor.

I said no.  Repeatedly.  I don’t want our office to get crowded. But the prof put his foot down and, quite simply, I lost that territory battle.

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Moose tracks

Here’s a guest post from my friend and (un-indicted) co-conspirator, Moose, as part of the Diversity in Science PRIDE Carnival:

I’m not really sure what topic to cover for the Diversity in Science PRIDE carnival, but I’m writing this anyways. My visibility is more important than my what-do-I-say silence, so count me in and I’ll tell you a bit about my experiences. Another queer STEM graduate student, working to make STEM fields a more welcoming place (and trying to do kick-ass research, that too). On a linguistic note, I’m going to use “queer” and “LGBTQ” interchangeably here. I intend for all identities to be encompassed by these terms.

I’ve been able to be cautiously out for much of my undergraduate and graduate school experience. From where I sit, life doesn’t have enough LGBTQ people in STEM but it’s still pretty good. I hope (let’s make this the hypothesis) that STEM fields, academia, and broader culture in the United States are all becoming more welcoming and safer for members of the LGBTQ community. National press coverage of trans and queer issues in high schools post-dates my high school career, but I’m still on the younger end of the academic track and I’ve had pretty good experiences as a queer student in STEM. Continue reading

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What if we stopped apologizing?

Among GLBTQ scientists, we often talk about when is best to come out in the job search.  Opinions range widely, from the first in-person interview to the post-offer negotiations.  We need to come out at some point, maybe because we’re trying to assess the climate in our potential new department, maybe because it’s time to negotiate support for a trailing partner.  But we fear possible biases and bigotries, and we try to minimize the risk by managing who knows what when.

If you stop and think about it for a minute, that entire conversation is built on a paradigm that being gay can only be a negative thing.  If you’re lucky, they’ll be neutral and it won’t be relevant; if not, you won’t even get an interview.  That’s a pretty defeatist attitude to take.  In moments like this we’re still basically apologizing for being gay and asking people not to hate us for it.

What would it look like if, instead, we saw being queer as one of the selling points in our application package? Continue reading

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Help! Send scientists!

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard from my fellow scientists (and others) something along the lines of, “It shouldn’t be any more important that I’m a lesbian than that I have brown eyes.”  The cultural norm seems to be to downplay being gay, to try to make it not relevant, not an issue, let’s move on please, ok?  So when I’ve been networking and advocating and what-have-you for queer science issues, I often get asked why I care?  Why does this matter so much to me?  And it’s been hard for me to put that into words.  But with a few years’ insights and hindsights, I’m beginning to articulate what I find at the tension between being queer and being a scientist.

To start with, there’s the simple fact that, as a grad student, science is much more a part of my identity than any job has ever been.  Though previously I’d studied science and worked in science, though I’ve been the one with a science background in a multidisciplinary crowd, this is the first time that I feel fully justified in claiming the label: “I’m a scientist.”  And it’s as much a statement of who I am, not just a job I do.  It’s not just a suit I put on for 9-to-5 and then go back to my real life.  To undertake – much less complete – a Ph.D. demands a deep motivation and commitment.  I’ve thrown my heart and soul into this work, damnit, and it’s drawn plenty of blood, sweat, and tears along the way.  I don’t know how to do that halfway, to give that much of myself and yet be only partly present.  I can’t keep part of me tucked away in some little box and only let it out after working hours.  Continue reading

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Passions for science

I’m looking ahead two years to graduation — I have plans to get the shiny new Ph.D. in May 2014.  And as of right now, I have absolutely no idea what comes next.  One way I’m exploring the wide world of possibilities is by looking at my passions.  I automatically put “science” down first, and it seems blog-worthy to tease apart what that actually means.  So let’s step into that stream of consciousness… Continue reading

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