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Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory

Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out

EDITED BY Emily Monosson
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press,
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory
    Book Description:

    About half of the undergraduate and roughly 40 percent of graduate degree recipients in science and engineering are women. As increasing numbers of these women pursue research careers in science, many who choose to have children discover the unique difficulties of balancing a professional life in these highly competitive (and often male-dominated) fields with the demands of motherhood. Although this issue directly affects the career advancement of women scientists, it is rarely discussed as a professional concern, leaving individuals to face the dilemma on their own.

    To address this obvious but unacknowledged crisis-the elephant in the laboratory, according to one scientist-Emily Monosson, an independent toxicologist, has brought together 34 women scientists from overlapping generations and several fields of research-including physics, chemistry, geography, paleontology, and ecology, among others-to share their experiences.

    From women who began their careers in the 1970s and brought their newborns to work, breastfeeding them under ponchos, to graduate students today, the authors of the candid essays written for this groundbreaking volume reveal a range of career choices: the authors work part-time and full-time; they opt out and then opt back in; they become entrepreneurs and job share; they teach high school and have achieved tenure.

    The personal stories that comprise Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory not only show the many ways in which women can successfully combine motherhood and a career in science but also address and redefine what it means to be a successful scientist. These valuable narratives encourage institutions of higher education and scientific research to accommodate the needs of scientists who decide to have children.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5907-8
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    “Most of us thought we would work and have kids, at least that was what we were brought up thinking we would do—no problem. But really we were kind of duped. None of us realized how hard it is.”¹

    This quote hit home. I am a split personality, the product of my mother—whose job it was to keep the house, raise the kids, and support my father—and my father, who loved his work and held in highest esteem the university faculty who taught him about science, math, and business. Although I strive to be like my mother,...

  5. Section I. 1970s

    • [SECTION I Introduction]
      (pp. 21-24)

      It was winter 1974, and I was tallying the sugars, fats, and proteins that had sustained me for a week. My eighth-grade science class, under the direction of Mrs. Leary, was to keep an honest log of everything we consumed—the tuna casseroles, baked potatoes, and meat loaf, along with the M&Ms, coffee milk, ice-cream sandwiches, Oreos, and Ring-Dings (information that I did not share with my mother) over the course of a week. It was in Mrs. Leary’s class that I learned an astounding fact: my average daily calorie consumption far exceeded that of my nemesis, Stephen Epstein, the...

    • Balancing Family and Career Demands with 20/20 Hindsight
      (pp. 25-30)
      Aviva Brecher

      As an over-sixty baby boomer scientist, I welcome this opportunity to look back, share life and career stories, and offer advice to younger women who want to have it all: successful and productive science careers, good jobs, motherhood and a harmonious family life, clean homes, loving husbands, and appreciative bosses. I had a chance to think about which, if any, of my life’s “lessons learned” would be of interest or helpful to younger women facing similar career and life choices today.

      It is astonishing that they are asking today the same questions about how to successfully manage and blend careers...

    • Extreme Motherhood: You Can’t Get There from Here
      (pp. 31-34)
      Joan S. Baizer

      I seem to have lived my life out of order. I married, divorced, and had a baby, in that order. And now, at an age when many colleagues are contemplating retirement, I am as engrossed in my work as a postdoc.

      I was married at twenty-one, three days after graduating from college in 1968, to a high school boyfriend. I had become very interested in neuroscience and knew I wanted to do a graduate degree, but my choice of graduate school was determined by his choice, not atypical for 1968. We stayed together through graduate school and postdocs but separated...

    • Careers versus Child Care in Academia
      (pp. 35-40)
      Deborah Ross

      I decided that I wanted to be a biologist in junior high school, following my first exposure to a real biology course. My parents had always encouraged me to excel in science and mathematics. My father was an electrical engineer who tended to have science-based hobbies such as rock collecting and astronomy. My mother had a master’s degree in medieval English history, unusual for a woman in the 1920s. After I graduated from grade school, she became a substitute teacher for English and history classes. Although she enjoyed more traditional pursuits like sewing and embroidery, she was an avid bird-watcher...

    • Identities: Looking Back over Forty Years as a Social Scientist, Woman, and Mother
      (pp. 41-50)
      Marilyn Wilkey Merritt

      A scientist of the so-called soft variety, I write as an ethnographic linguist—after forty years of motherhood, a decade of being a grandmother (“Meremom”), and twelve postdoctoral years living overseas. I grew up in America’s heartland, in small town midwest Missouri, where my encouraging family and teachers made anything seem possible. I moved away for higher education and early on embraced the identities of wife and mother, only gradually sensing the situational threats to my emerging professional identity. By my thirties the feminist mantras of “Be the best” (impossible without opportunity) and “Have a supportive husband” (even the most...

    • Costs and Rewards of Success in Academia, or Bouncing into the Rubber Ceiling
      (pp. 51-55)
      Marla S. McIntosh

      Born in Chicago in 1952, I came of age during the feminist revolution and began life as a college student at the University of Illinois in 1970. Although I was not too concerned about declaring a major, my academic goal was to not study teaching, nursing, social work, or any other girl-friendly major. In my sophomore year I chose a major after my new best buddy, Kevin, suggested forestry. Swept up in the “ban the bra” and the “back to the land” movements, I thought forestry sounded like the perfect subject. I could see myself as a macho forest ranger,...

    • One Set of Choices as a Mom and Scientist
      (pp. 56-60)
      Suzanne Epstein

      My first and most important science mentor was my father, a chemist, who occasionally took my brother and me to visit his laboratory, worked on projects with us at home, and read to us books like Rachel Carson’s The Sea around Us. When he reached the end of that particular book, he told us with a twinkle in his eye that there would be an oral exam. There was only one question: what topics about the sea were not included in the book? Our discussion of that wonderful question went on for a long time.

      Other early mentors were a...

  6. Section II. 1980s

    • [SECTION II Introduction]
      (pp. 61-62)

      It is dead silent in the laboratory at 3:00 a.m. I fear that I am the only one in Haring Hall, the cavernous old building on the University of California, Davis campus. The -80ºC freezer where I store my precious samples of mouse lungs, livers, and spleens is in the basement, three floors below. My mother would have a fit if she knew, and I know I will never tell her that I am here alone spinning samples on a campus where the partially completed 46,000 square-foot veterinary diagnostic lab has just burned to the ground, the letters ALF (Animal...

    • Three Sides of the Balance
      (pp. 63-66)
      Anne Douglass

      Much has been written in the past few decades about women’s efforts to balance work and family, including the challenges facing women in science. The balance between family and work can seem precarious when mommy is a scientist. My daughters and I think we are unusual, maybe unique. I have survived the balance and created a successful career in atmospheric science; my five children have grown and thrived; and two of my daughters have chosen scientific careers of their own. Katherine, my oldest daughter, is a physician specializing in emergency medicine. Elizabeth, my second daughter, is about to complete her...

    • The Accidental Astronomer
      (pp. 67-72)
      Stefi Baum

      Graduating from college in 1980, I was determined to have a large family (four kids, dogs, cats, the whole nine yards) in addition to a career. I was married in graduate school to another young astronomer, and my husband and I have made many decisions guided by our “family first” priority, sometimes putting our careers at risk at critical stages. This could have turned out badly, but in the end, probably with a large amount of luck and certainly with an enormous amount of hard work (both in the lab and in the home), we persevered. For me, the important...

    • At Home with Toxicology: A Career Evolves
      (pp. 73-78)
      Emily Monosson

      A few years ago I attended the twenty-third annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), an organization to which I’d paid my dues for more than ten years. In organizations like SETAC your affiliation, be it academia, government, nongovernmental organization, or industry, is your badge of honor. It’s also required by the computer that spits out the badges. So when asked for my affiliation, to the horror of my traveling companion and colleague at the time, I said “housewife.”

      Admittedly, I was feeling particularly accomplished that day, so I didn’t mind “outing” myself as a part-time scientist....

    • Geological Consulting and Kids: An Unpredictable Balancing Act?
      (pp. 79-82)
      Debra Hanneman

      Nineteen eighty-nine was a banner year for me. I finished my PhD in geology in May and then had my first son in December—not exactly the easiest path to career advancement. But with what was going on in the rest of the world with the Berlin Wall falling, the Tiananmen Square uprising, and the U.S. invasion of Panama—I couldn’t complain too much. I was actively looking for a position in academia, but I was also doing consulting work in the earth sciences. As a few more months went by, my preference for consulting work began to take precedence...

    • Career Scientists and the Shared Academic Position
      (pp. 83-88)
      Carol B. de Wet

      For me, it all began twenty-six years ago, in 1981, when I was a senior in college and attended a geology lecture. I was an undergraduate at Smith College and had grown up in an environment where gender was never considered a reason for not doing something (my father taught astronomy at Wellesley College). But on this particular occasion the guest lecturer, in responding to a question after her talk, made an assertion that changed my life. She said it was “impossible for a woman to have a successful career in science and be a mother.” I don’t remember whether...

  7. Section III. 1990s

    • [SECTION III Introduction]
      (pp. 89-92)

      “Ladies,” said the policeman, “I wouldn’t go there if I were you—and you, especially in your condition.” He looked down at my pregnant belly. Adria and I exchanged glances, thanked him, and headed on toward the Roanoke Yacht Club, a small cinder-block building somewhere behind the loading docks at Newark Airport. The “club” was one of our contaminated field sites; but it was also a gathering spot for some of the locals and a place where one would more likely expect to see bodies floating under the bridge than yachts.

      Several weeks later, as our first field season neared...

    • Less Pay, a Little Less Work
      (pp. 93-97)
      Heidi Newberg

      I have walked the straight and narrow path to success in physics. I went from college to graduate school, from graduate school to a postdoc, accepted my first tenure-track position five years after my PhD, and was tenured at age thirty-eight. At no point in my career did I ever dare to dream that this would be possible. And even now, I wonder how long my career in research will last and how successful I can continue to be. I never doubted my own intelligence or skillfulness. But I have always known I wanted children and a happy family more...

    • Reflections of a Female Scientist with Outside Interests
      (pp. 98-101)
      Christine Seroogy

      Gender bias in science clearly exists. One has to wonder if this is because for some women, work is secondary to family responsibilities or whether women lack the aptitude to be successful in the pursuit of a scientific career. The data suggest the former conclusion.¹ For example, women who have children soon after receiving their graduate degrees are much less likely to achieve tenure than their male counterparts.² Recently a prominent female scientist at a renowned institution on the East Coast shared with me her own experiences with female graduate and postdoctoral students who had children during their time in...

    • Part-Time at a National Laboratory: A Split Life
      (pp. 102-107)
      Rebecca A. Efroymson

      The most challenging day of my split life between motherhood and science is a blur. The manicurist at National Airport watched us make a dozen laps around her cart, sometimes clearing it, sometimes crashing into it, and sometimes entangling ourselves in its legs. I used to wonder how many women had layovers long enough for an airport manicure (and nails long enough to want one), but that thought was the furthest from my mind as I attempted to corral my toddler between laps and temper tantrums. I was thankful for three things—that I had checked our luggage, that I...

    • The Eternal Quest for Balance: A Career in Five Acts, No Intermission
      (pp. 108-112)
      Theresa M. Wizemann

      It takes the earth approximately 365.2425 days to make one full orbit around the sun. Since it’s too difficult to manage a calendar with a quarter day, every four years we throw in one extra. As graduate students each trying to accomplish sufficient research to fill a dissertation, Leap Day seemed to be the only free time my fiancé and I were going to find to get married. And so we did, in the campus chapel (after making sure my cell cultures were fed for the weekend). Thus begins the story of our family and our eternal quest for balance....

    • Reflections on Motherhood and Science
      (pp. 113-116)
      Teresa Capone Cook

      The e-mail read, “I hope you will consider writing an essay about your experience as both a scientist and a mother.” My first thought was, “OK, no question about my being a mother, but am I really a scientist?” It’s true I have a doctorate in biology, but some days it seems as if all that happened a long time ago. I am not currently conducting research, writing grants, or publishing manuscripts. I have even let my membership in AAAS expire. On the other hand, I read Science News, occasionally delve into primary sources, and can still converse intelligibly with...

    • The Benefits of Four-Dumbbell Support
      (pp. 117-120)
      Catherine O’Riordan

      Title Nine sport clothing categorizes its running bras by the number of dumbbells needed for support. The dumbbells indicate strength of support, and a four-dumbbell bra is the most you can get. These bras are sold to women with serious curves, who seldom appear in the catalog’s action photos or modeling their clothes. I am one of those women whose running routine would not be possible without this level of support. I need to run and bike and swim. In addition to providing health benefits, intense physical exercise releases stress and helps me to cope. The four-dumbbell support enables me...

    • Extraordinary Commitments of Time and Energy
      (pp. 121-124)
      Deborah Harris

      In January 2005 Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University at the time, gave a provocative speech about why there are so few women in “top positions” in science and technology. His remarks were off the record, but he offered the hypotheses that there are “innate differences” between men’s and women’s brains, that top positions require “extraordinary commitments of time and energy,” and that “few married women with children were willing to make such sacrifices.” I was dumbfounded. The “innate differences” issue was so completely absurd and has been time and again disproved that I didn’t even bother to get annoyed...

    • Finding My Way Back to the Bench: An Unexpectedly Satisfying Destination
      (pp. 125-129)
      A. Pia Abola

      I was never one of those little girls who dreamed of the ideal wedding, the ideal husband, and the single-family detached house in the suburbs complete with a white picket fence. I am the daughter of educational immigrants—two Filipinos who came to the United States for graduate school and ended up staying here where the opportunities are. My upbringing stressed hard work, striving for excellence, and the importance of education. My dreams were of being a successful scientist, although it was not until college that I settled on a specific discipline: biochemistry. Since I am Filipina, my upbringing also...

    • Mothering Primates
      (pp. 130-134)
      Devin Reese

      The motivation for the choices I have made about my science career and motherhood really came home to me in a recent job interview. An astute interviewer asked me, “Are you sure you are ready to take on this job after having been home with your children so much?” I surprised myself by answering, without pause, “I am sure. I am a very ambitious person. That ambition that drove me to devote myself in such a focused manner to my children during their early years now drives me to ramp up my own career again.” Since that day, in thinking...

    • Finding the Right Balance, Personal and Professional, as a Mother in Science
      (pp. 135-139)
      Gayle Barbin Zydlewski

      I made a conscious decision to become a biologist when I realized in high school that this was a field that truly challenged me. While most other sciences came easy, it seemed the concepts of biology and ecology were a little more abstract, interesting, and harder to grasp. In my early years as an undergraduate I easily made my way through calculus, chemistry, and physics, and though professors in those fields tried to convince me to change my major, I held my ground. While in college, I never once noticed that all my professors were men until one day when...

    • What? I Don’t Need a PhD to Potty-Train My Children?
      (pp. 140-144)
      Nanette J. Pazdernik

      Oh, to be naïve and young and dedicated to my career above all else. . . . That is how it all started. I grew up in a small Wisconsin town and went to a small school and saw the same people day after day after day. Fascinated with the nature that surrounded me, I loved to watch how the world changed ever so slowly each passing season. Where and how did the fish survive the winter? How did the trees survive? How did I manage those long, cold winters?

      School! That is how I survived the winter. I loved...

    • Variety, Challenge, and Flexibility: The Benefits of Straying from the Narrow Path
      (pp. 145-147)
      Marguerite Toscano

      Part-timing was never in my grand scheme. I was groomed for academia by my master’s thesis advisor at the University of Delaware and went on to get a PhD, thinking and knowing this was my path. After looking into situations where both my husband and I could work and study in the same location, I chose my PhD program, in large part, because my husband was offered a good job nearby. Unfortunately for me, this turned out to be the wrong program, but I toughed it out for six grueling years because transferring would have meant a long-distance marriage and...

    • The Balancing Act
      (pp. 148-152)
      Kim M. Fowler

      I am lucky. I have two healthy and smart sons, an amazing husband, supportive parents, and a career doing the research about which I am passionate. My “luck” is managed through the act of balancing my professional, family, and personal aspects of life. When life is running smoothly, the balancing seems natural and easy. However, there are days and weeks when one part of my life needs more attention than others. If I can’t gain the balance I seek in a day, I look for it within a week or month. The daily imbalance doesn’t cause the same level of...

    • Juggling through Life’s Transitions
      (pp. 153-155)
      Cal Baier-Anderson

      I am an only child, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I have no doubt that this simple fact influenced my chosen path. My mother was a bright woman, but her personal growth was severely limited by her role at home. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was, and this had its impact. Her pain spilled over into my life. In response, I concluded that my life would be different. There are two fundamental assumptions that form the foundation of my life: that I will have a career that will allow me to be financially and...

    • Having It All, Just Not All at the Same Time
      (pp. 156-162)
      Andrea L. Kalfoglou

      When I began my doctoral program in 1994, my mother asked me how I planned to both raise a family and have a high-powered career. My response to her was, “It isn’t the administrative assistants who have the power to negotiate their terms of employment.” I also loved my field and couldn’t imagine doing anything else but pursuing my doctorate. I’ve managed to have two children and an interesting career, but it has required major sacrifices and has been physically and emotionally demanding. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things.

      You have to be willing to make sacrifices. My...

  8. Section IV. 2000s

    • [SECTION IV Introduction]
      (pp. 163-166)

      The sun fades into the ocean. We lift a toast to the New Year and to the twelve consecutive New Years for which we have gathered from across the country. We are friends and colleagues, husbands and wives, parents and children. We are six individual families, and we are ten PhD scientists, two science teachers, one engineer, and nine children.

      For twelve years we’ve set aside one glorious week a year, isolated from work, home, and extended family. We celebrate tenure awards and support one another through doubts about career choices and changes. While chopping vegetables for dinner or spreading...

    • Exploring Less-Traveled Paths
      (pp. 167-171)
      Deborah Duffy

      When my daughter was born, I was on the traditional academic path working as a postdoctoral fellow (studying animal behavior) and applying for tenure-track jobs. I had all sorts of wonderfully naïve fantasies about how I would seamlessly blend being a mother and an academic. I pictured myself serenely breast-feeding my daughter while working on a manuscript or carrying her in a sling while attending meetings and seminars. Boy, was I wrong! Breast-feeding didn’t come easily, and there was nothing serene about it for the first few months. Usually, by the time I managed to get her into the sling...

    • Standing Up
      (pp. 172-176)
      Gina D. Wesley-Hunt

      I was fired for getting pregnant, and it felt like a kick to the gut. I never saw it coming—who would? I was a postdoctoral researcher at a government institution, I was funded under a government grant, it was 2006, and I had all the pieces to build a brilliant career—or so I thought. I never expected my gender and reproductive status to destroy the path I was on. And make no mistake: this is a form of gender discrimination. The emotional scars and the career upheaval are still very fresh, but after giving birth to my daughter...

    • Because of Our Mom, a True Rocket Scientist
      (pp. 177-182)
      Elizabeth Douglass and Katherine Douglass

      I grew up as the daughter of scientists. Dad was a chemist, Mom was an atmospheric scientist, and I was one of five kids who found this arrangement completely normal. Both my parents had jobs, and the same was true for all of my friends’ parents. As far as I could tell, “scientist” was just another job, like “teacher” or “firefighter” or anything else.

      I’m currently a graduate student in oceanography, and it is only now that I really realize that science is different. Science is not an eight-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week job. Long hours, including weekends, are the norm rather than...

    • On Being What You Love
      (pp. 183-186)
      Rachel Obbard

      I am a scientist. That may seem simplistic, and in retrospect it has always been obvious, but it has certainly taken me a while to come around to it. I am also a mother. That, too, is obvious, although I like to think it’s not unless the kids are standing right next to me. Like most working women, I worry that I am not getting the balance right and that I am not giving my children enough of my time and energy. But having struggled through single parenthood and a midlife career change to become someone I am finally proud...

    • Parsimony Is What We Are Taught, Not What We Live
      (pp. 187-193)
      Sofia Katerina Refetoff Zahed

      We are taught in the sciences that the most parsimonious answer is likely to be the right one. However, this is not the case if you are living a dual life of mother and scientist. The simplest explanation is certainly not the most likely to be true. If it were, you would not be raising children while simultaneously pursuing a doctoral degree. The two are mutually inhibitory. Student life means working long hours and receiving little money for your efforts. Child rearing means working long hours and receiving no money for your efforts. Therefore, if you are busy in the...

    • Role Models: Out with the Old and In with the New
      (pp. 194-198)
      Marie Remiker

      After two years of graduate school, I fell in love with the man of my dreams. He was an ecologist, and my research field station was located in the city where he lived and worked. We met through colleagues, and two years later we were married. We had a cozy three-bedroom home in a small town, but I didn’t live there. I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment about two hundred miles south of our home, where my university was located. After two years of commuting (seven hours of driving every weekend) during the school year, we decided we had...

    • Pursuing Science and Motherhood
      (pp. 199-202)
      Kimberly D’Anna

      I am a researcher, a student, and a mother. I am like any other graduate student in that I study for courses, attend seminars, and investigate research questions. However, I am unlike most students in that I collect food stamps and child care funds from the county in order to support my son and myself. I spend much of the day planning every minute after 5:00 p.m., from arriving at day care on time to dinner to arranging activities to attempting to enforce bedtime. Each morning I try to arrive in the laboratory by eight o’clock to begin a day’s...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 203-208)

    Among the tens of thousands of women in the United States who have turned their passion for the sciences into a profession, the thirty-four contributors to this volume are professors, research scientists, grade school teachers, and writers; they mentor graduate students, turn children on to science in the local park, translate complex scientific research for politicians and the lay public, and inform policy; many also juggle day care (or did at one time) and quality time with their children and loved ones.

    The women who penned these chapters were once girls who mucked around in swamps, wondered about invisible worlds,...

  10. Contributors
    (pp. 209-220)