My heroes of science

Now that I've been at this trying-to-run-a-lab business for two years, I want to say thank you to the people that helped me get there. Of course there are my scientific mentors and my parents (my dad still gives me the most valuable advice and now that I am old enough to no longer care what other people think I am proud instead of ashamed of it). But we are so lucky to live in a time where you can get helpful advice and good suggestions from just about anyone. So this shout out is to two ladies who are no longer updating their blogs, it seems, but who were really valuable to me as a postdoc.

You see, as a postdoc everything was going pretty well. I was in a great lab. The atmosphere was good. My experimental life had seen worse times. I took advantage of the career development seminars that were offered on campus (something I find that my current university could do better at) and then... I was slowly starting to realise that there were many more ambitious postdocs out there then jobs on the market. I had worked so hard to get to the top of the pyramid* and now it turned out that there were all these other workers fighting for standing room. WTF?

And so I started reading. I read books (I can really recommend "what color is your parachute" because 1) it helped me realise that yes, this is what I really want to do and so it gave me energy to really fight for that opportunity to get a faculty position and 2) it helped me realise that something that is a seemingly random for just about anybody else can be a priority or a deal breaker for me and that is okay!). But I also read blogs. Especially blogs from female scientists, because as much as we are all equal science-wise, I was slowly starting to realise that men and women are different and the experience of a 6'5" white alpha male is going to be different than that of a 5'5" timid woman.**

I had two super useful blogs on my blogroll.

First, I was an avid reader of FemaleScienceProfessor ( She was in a different field, and she already had tenure, but she was so rational and calm and she made it all seem so possible, while still addressing all of these issues that women in academia encounter. She made it seem like there were mountains to conquer, but at least she made them seen conquerable. She gave me insight and quiet confidence and for that I want to say: thank you.

Second, I devoured YoungFemaleScientist ( She was a little bit ahead of me and so I had to catch up on about 2 years of blogpost when I first starting following her. But that wasn't too much trouble. She addressed everything with more emotion and drama. But boy, did she usually hit the nail on the head! She made me feel like she was out there in the jungle with me, playing scout and forcing our path through the bushes. Every now and then she really struck a cord and I commented on her blogposts. Anonymously. She also made me reflect on the type of environment I was in and liked to be in. None of my experiences were ever as bad as the stuff she described, but she made me super aware and helped me develop feelers for all of the bad stuff that could be lurking out there, in the jungle. For that I also want to say: thank you. And I do hope that she is still going to give us that book she was always talking about.

In the end, these two ladies and fine scientists have helped me strike a healthy balance. One in which I am no longer blissfully unaware, and completely comfortable in calling out the men I work with when I think they are off in their opinion on female scientists. But also one were I am not completely paranoid. Because I am not unique due to the fact that I am a female scientist. I am unique because I am me. And my life is neither of their stories. But I sure am glad that they were there to guide me along the way.

* this is five years ago and little old me was so naive as to think that I was at the top of the pyramid. Haha, a little training-wheels pyramid maybe, blissfully unaware that the climb of Cheops' pyramid was yet about to start.

** I never wanted to believe that at first. I didn't want to believe that until I started reading more about this and while no, this doesn't hold for ALL men or ALL women, I think that on average males are more comfortable playing the (scientific) career game than women. A hunter mentality (scream and pound yourself on the test) is definitely more visible and sometimes, it feels, better appreciated than a more nurturing stance. Oh boy, how do I say this without sounding unfeminist or sexist?

Managing the budget: financial insecurities

My parents taught me how to handle money. I spend it wisely, I don't buy stuff I cannot afford and I am super good at saving. I don't live on the edge. Now that I have my own lab, I notice that I am handling my lab budget in the same way. I want to make sure that we have enough money for experiments, which are always more difficult to interpret than planned and which always require more follow up than the aims section in my grants promised.

In a recent comic I read at the Node (originally from the Journal of Cell Science), Mole suggests keeping a monthly budget: if this month's funds run out, people can no longer order. They can read instead. Fortunately, my peeps read papers on their own and the only one who should be forced to spend more time reading the literature is me, alas.

I am slightly less strict than Mole (I must confess that I am also never sure whether Mole's advice is to be taken seriously - could someone fill me in on that?): I check throughout the year (every three months or so) to make sure that as a group we don't overspend on an annual basis. I know what that number is, because I do allocate a virtual amount of money to spend on reagents as well as on mice in a spreadsheet where I keep tabs of all my grants.
It was difficult to decide what strategy to follow at first. Both during my PhD and postdoc I was in the lab of established scientists who were pretty well off. They always had a bit of money here and there. I was hardly ever told not to order stuff (at least not for financial reasons - one of my PIs did have the occasional nasty habit of not signing off on orders if he didn't like the experiments you were planning to do). My rich mentors never taught or told me anything about budgeting.
Starting out on my own, funds were considerably more tight and, being the goody two shoes that I am, one of my worst fears was to overspend and to run out of money. At the same time, I didn't want my people to suffer from joining a small, junior lab. They shouldn't feel like they cannot order stuff when they have an exciting new idea. So I am educating my lab members like my parents educated me: Think about what you need before ordering, make sure we don't buy stuff we already have, try to find the cheapest price, but if you really need it: get it. So far, we are doing okay.

My biggest concern now is to decide how far I can stretch my grants when it comes to hiring new people. I am now facing a situation where I got a few "smaller" grants* and I am not sure what to do. The "problem"** is that this grant only pays for, say, half a PhD. In my ideal world, I would save that money until I would get another grant that would pay for the other half, but that's not how it works. The granting agencies want you to start spending that money within the fiscal year (so their bookkeeping checks out), but I am just not comfortable hiring someone when I am not sure I will have money to keep them for the second half of their contract as well. My risk averseness doesn't really serve me well here. I can already imagine the sleepless nights and the stress that is going to bring me. So how do others deal with this? Should I just get over it? Do others ask the department to tie them over in case something doesn't work out in the end? Any good or bad experiences are welcome in the comments.

* it's funny how quickly you start to think about a certain number as "small" simply because you are now also dealing with amounts of money you only used to hear about in the Powerball lottery.

**its also funny how having money can be as much as a problem as not having money, just a different kind of problem.

My time flies

I really needed to be away from the lab for a bit. I was completely exhausted and I spent all of my free time surrounding Christmas and New Years sleeping 10 hours per night whenever I could. The rest of the time was spent sensibly watching Netflix, but only the good stuff, like season 9 of HIMYM (finally). On the Sunday before going back to the lab I still couldn't imagine being at work again, but then Monday came and before I knew it I was back to 10 hour days instead of 10 hour nights.

It's funny. You can be away from the lab and the world just keeps turning, but the minute you are back there is shitloads more stuff that needs to be done than time to actually get to even half of it. That's what I find the most depressing, I think.

I decided that I really needed to start keeping track of my time. And so I decided that I will try to schedule all meetings that are not about content on Mondays through Wednesdays, with Thursdays and Fridays solely dedicated to science. That means the odd experiment every now and again, writing grants and papers, and talking to my people about actual data. And, hopefully, reading a paper every now and then or simply think about a problem for 2 hours. Ah, 2 hours of undevoted attention without a knock on the door. Of course I can spend time on science on Mondays through Wednesdays, the challenge will be to keep Thursdays and Fridays free of teaching/politics/other stuff.
It worked this week. I just looked at my calendar and of course there are already appointments seeping into Thursday. Man, this is about as tough as sticking to some crazy new diet. But here too, there is no failure, there is only a chance to begin again.

The second thing I started to do was actually logging my time. I want to do that for a couple of weeks straight to really see where my time goes. The first thing I noticed was how easily I let myself be interrupted. When someone comes in, I never send anyone away. I always jump up to help/talk/listen. And then it takes me a while to get back into what I was doing. Or, worse, I forgot what I was doing and start up something else. Total time drain! What a wake up call.

Also: e-mail. I am trying to NOT answer e-mail first thing in the morning. Instead, I do it once mid-day around lunch and once in the evening, before going home. Which is risky, because it means there will never be a clean line of being finished and so I will stay at work until forever (which is a risk anyways, because I am definitely an evening person).

I also try to eat better, because I can no longer pretend that chocolate cookies at 11 pm are a decent dinner for a grown up. That's why I had home-made salad on Monday and Tuesday, cooked a real meal at home (at 10 pm, but that's still progress). And then I fell off the wagon and had pizza on Thursday and cookies for dinner on Friday. I swear I need someone to take care of me. Oprah would not approve.

To be continued and, once I have logged stuff for a month or so (which takes a lot of time, actually, because since I apparently let my self be so easily distracted/claimed, I am logging lots of 15 minutes this, 15 minutes thats) I will be able to make bar graphs to see where the time goes. Yay.