When I first joined my current lab, I had an intense student-mentor. This student worked seven days a week, came into work at 5:00 AM and had nine publications on his CV. In addition to teaching technical skills at the bench, he was adamant about passing on his philosophy, “all that matters of your time here is that you get publications, especially first author. Publications are your only currency as a scientist.”
Doe-eyed, impressionable, first-year, grad-student me absorbed this mantra; I became somewhat reclusive. I worked at the bench nonstop, I begrudgingly attended mandatory seminars (usually while commenting that they were a waste of time), and I dismissed any voluntary activities outside of the lab. Fortunately, after two years of working like this, I had an epiphany. His advice was not for me.
When I solely worked for the sake of publishing, a few things happened to me that I disliked:
About six months ago, I decided to pop my lab bubble and pick up projects away from the bench. I mentor, I participate in STEM education outreach, I blog, and I will be guest lecturing for a graduate-level course this Friday. Coincidentally, these side gigs do not interfere with my productivity at the bench. As a result, my anxiety is fading and I am rediscovering why I love working in STEM.
Thinking of getting your own side hustle? Here are a few STEM hobbies you can have away from the bench:
1. Teaching – This might seem like an obvious one, but not all scientists have the opportunity to TA. Adjuncting and guest lecturing are great opportunities to hone your teaching skills.
Tips to get going: Ask professors if they’d like to host a guest lecturer, or offer to help out with office hours. Also, search for adjunct positions at local 4 year and/or community colleges.
2. Mentoring – Again, this might seem like a “duh!” suggestion. But keep in mind, mentoring is more than training at the bench. Mentoring includes helping scientists write, present, network, make figures, code, and much more!
Tips to get going: This is an easy one, offer to help. Many junior scientists would appreciate a helping hand but feel too shy or too guilty to ask for your time.
3. STEM education outreach – Education outreach differs from teaching because you are going to the communities in need. STEM lacks racial and socio-economical diversity. By performing STEM outreach, you assist in creating a level playing field for aspiring scientists. Examples of STEM outreach include teaching girls to code, holding panel discussions at disadvantaged high schools, and performing experiments with local science clubs.
Tips to get going: Your institution might already have STEM outreach programs, if not, reach out to local schools. Shoot an email to biology teachers, guidance counselors, and career centers. Most schools are thrilled to have graduate students visit.
4. Art/graphic design – It's remarkable how many scientists are also talented artists. Use your creativity to make unique figures/schematics, volunteer to design a logo for a conference, or offer to design the cover when your paper gets accepted.
Tips to get going: Practice! Display your artwork on social media, offer your services to an event organizer, or arrange a science-art competition.
5. Writing – Many of my science friends dread the writing stage (I love it, but maybe I’m an anomaly). Besides writing your thesis and manuscripts, there are various outlets for scientists to write!
Tips to get going: Volunteer to write for your institution’s newsletter, start a blog, offer to tutor students struggling with writing, or guest blog for Bolded Science!
6. Advocacy – Have a cause that you are passionate for? Odds are there is an advocacy group for that. Advocacy groups are constantly looking for volunteers to canvas, communicate their message, and participate in local events.
Tips to get going: Examples of advocacy groups include: 500 Women Scientists, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Scientist Action and Advocacy Network.
7. Organize an event – Coordinating a seminar, conference, or educational event is an excellent way to exercise your organization, communication, and management skills. Not to mention, it is a networking landmine!
Tips to get going: Don’t go it alone. Contact someone who already runs an event and offer your services. Another option is to invite speakers to participate in seminars at your institution.
8. Start an organization – So maybe you’ve done number seven, and you’re looking for something bigger! Start an organization that is needed in your field/community/institution.
Tips to get going: Find something you are passionate about and get a feel for coworkers and friends who would be interested. Book clubs, outreach clubs, journal seminars, and science policy societies are just a few ideas.
9. Take courses outside of STEM – Law classes, business classes, coding classes, medical history classes, marketing classes, writing classes! Science is interdisciplinary, you can widen your knowledge and pump up your resume by pursuing your non-scientific curiosities.
Tips to get going: Search your institution's course catalog and see if you can get a fee waiver through your program. Not at a University? Most colleges hold flexible night and online classes. Don’t need the college credit? Check out: TheGreatCourses.com
Having a side hustle is great for your mental health and self-worth, but it also looks great on your CV! Extra curriculars showcase your skills and interests that can make you stand out to a potential employer. Getting out of your lab shows initiative and a desire to be a part of your scientific community, a pretty awesome characteristic!
I am a married PhD candidate, you could also say that I am of “childbearing age,” 29 years old. I want children but currently making $30,000/ year and being in a constant state of anxiety, I should hold off. Career-oriented women often find themselves fighting the conservative narrative that women exist to be mothers. I’ve had multiple conversations with my mother about why I am not settling down with kids just yet. My rationalization usually goes something like, “I am choosing to establish my career and be financially competent before I have children, and as a scientist that takes a long time. My studies and my career development need to come first. Not to mention, I still haven’t been to Italy yet." The way I see it, I have at least 10 years of fertility left to go…. or do I?
About a month or so ago, I read Dr. Arghavan Salles’s (@arghavan_salles) article in Time, “I Spent My Fertile Years Training to Be a Surgeon. Now, It Might Be Too Late for Me to Have a Baby.” The article was so incredibly moving, I read it three times (and told all my friends about it). Dr. Salles explains she was exceedingly devoted to her medical studies that she didn’t take the time for family planning until she was 39. She decided to freeze her eggs, a time consuming, stressful, and expensive ordeal which leads her to share her perspective with us, “It is now my mission to raise awareness among younger women to take advantage of their fertility when they have it—which might mean getting pregnant sooner or freezing eggs or embryos earlier in life."
To reiterate, I'm used to the "women can do anything, we don't need babies mantra." I've sung that song multiple times. Although I believe that a woman can be happy without procreation, Dr. Salles's article brought me to an undeniable realization: I will be unhappy if I miss my opportunity to have children.
25% of women MDs experience infertility. When my friends heard this statistic, they assumed the infertility was due to stress. Although stress might be a contributing factor, age is the likely cause. It got me thinking, is the same true for scientists? After all, we have similar career paths: college, possibly a master’s degree, maybe a few years working in a lab, then PhD/MD school, then a postdoc/residency. At what point is it convenient to have a baby? According to a 2019 PNAS paper, 43% of new mothers in STEM cut back to part-time or leave the field altogether.
The PNAS paper provides evidence for something we already know, STEM has a pregnancy problem. Many of us have seen or experienced the issue first hand. At a women in science dinner my department held, a labmate of mine asked a reputable female PI if it was difficult for her to balance family and work. The PI was frustrated at this question, she rose her voice, “That is not something you worry about. If you want to be successful you focus on what is in front of you. Having or planning a family can be something that comes after. Right now, you focus on research.” Not surprisingly, when this same PI had a postdoc with a sick baby, the PI did not accommodate the postdoc’s needs. The female postdoc with a PhD in biophysics and four first-author publications is now a stay at home mother.
I spoke with a member of my PhD committee about this issue, explaining to her I was worried about being discriminated against if I do a postdoc and get pregnant soon after. She didn’t sugar coat it, “It’s very possible,” she said, “You will have to do your research and seek out a PI who will be supportive of you.” “How did you manage it?” I asked. “I had my children in Canada. I had a year off. I don’t know if I could have done it in the US.”
I realize this blog post might be disheartening, this is not my intention. Rather, this post is written in hopes to convince others that the culture of family planning in STEM needs to change. Here are a few ways you can help ignite that change:
A change in attitude towards pregnancy and parenthood in STEM is helpful, but it won’t be enough. We need to implement policies that support and protect new parents in STEM. There are numerous US family leave policies that fall short of ensuring time off for young scientists. I advocate for 4 months paid paternal leave for new parents – moms and dads. This policy isn’t so radical, 4 months is half the paid time off Canadian parents get. Furthermore, many companies in the private sector have adopted similar policies, Goldman Sachs, Google, and Microsoft to name a few. Advocating for parental leave not only helps women; it helps men and non-binary scientists build happy, loving families while also pursuing their scientific careers.
I recycle my cardboard boxes. I bring reusable shopping bags to the grocery store. I use reusable water bottles. Odds are, you also take the time and energy to make environmentally conscious habits. I applaud you for those choices. However, with Australia burning, the Amazon shrinking, and glaciers melting, it’s time for us to collectively agree that our small plastic saving gestures are not enough. Individual action is falling short of saving our planet. It is time for corporations, local governments, and federal governments to make sweeping policy changes. Here are four things that you can do to help our environment with a large-scale impact.
1. Contact your senators/representatives: As Americans we have the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In other words, we have the right to tell our elected officials when we are pissed off and when we want change! Up until recently, I was guilty of not knowing who my representative is. If you are like me, you can find your representative here: www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative
Contacting your representative is easy, write a letter, fill out a petition form on their website, or give them a call. Below is an example of a letter to your senator:
My name is Luke Skywalker, and I am a concerned constituent who resides at 74 Desert Dr. Outerskirts, Tatooine. I also work within your district, as I am employed as a Research Assistant at Tatooine’s Medical Research Hospital (TMRH).
I am writing today to convey my support for upholding environmental protection legislation. The current administration has consistently chosen actions which favor interests of big businesses over the needs of our planet. I find the rollbacks of Obama’s environmental protection laws unethical and the predicted adjustments to the National Environmental Policy Act unacceptable. Please fight for the strengthening our environmental protection laws. In doing so, you will be helping your current constituents as well as advocating for the interest of our future.
2. Petition your state and local government: Waiting for the federal government to implement policy can be frustrating. State and local governments may have a quicker turnaround for environmentally friendly legislation. Did you know that in Vermont it is illegal to throw away food scraps into a landfill? Did you know Connecticut has a plastic bag tax which influenced the major grocery store chain, Stop and shop, to ban plastic grocery bags? Did you know that Oregon, the bad-ass green state that it is, passed a bill that upholds Obama’s environmental protection laws in response to Trumps rollbacks? State governments have serious power that is sometimes overlooked.
Similar to the federal government, your state government should have online contact forms for your state Senators and representatives.
3. Volunteer for and donate to environmental advocacy groups: Big business is capable of lobbying the government for their interests and so are we! Numerous special interests groups exist specifically for climate change policy. Sierra Club (https://www.sierraclub.org/) is a grassroots advocacy group that fights for our right to a clean planet. Sierra Club has chapters all around the country, so get involved!
4. Speak up!
As a member of the academic and/or scientific community, remember that your opinion as an educated and critical thinker holds weight. We have twitter, social media, and Facebook for a reason, and it isn’t to post pictures of latte art (although that's cool too).
Educate your friends and family about climate change. Ask them to write to their senators. Talk to them about how awesome The Green New Deal is. Get more people involved in the climate change conversation.