Thursday, December 7, 2017


Five years ago, I came to Carnegie Mellon and walked into an empty office. I didn't know what to make of the blank space, just for me. Private space was unheard of in my huge postdoc lab, and decorating my own home always required compromise with my husband.

Fig. 1. I started with some loaner tables and a poinsettia gifted to me by a kind staff member who thought my office looked pathetically bare. 

I bought paint samples and considered them in morning and afternoon lighting. I interviewed my colleagues about the types of desks they were using and their degree of satisfaction. I brought in an ass-ton of plants to add life and beauty and thoughtfully chose my decorations, rugs, and pillows. I wondered if I should be spending so much time making the space my own, but, secretly, I knew that this office would be home to the metamorphoses of my life.

I spent $800 on a desk chair, and it has ergonomically supported my rear end as I wrote my first grants, as I fawned over my students' data, as I called facilities about the never-ending clogged A level toilet, as I authored beautiful manuscripts, destined (I hope) to be of value to others. That chair held me when I did the most difficult thing I've done as a PI, which was to fire one of my students. And it held me when my nurse called to tell me that, after years of heartache, I was pregnant with my daughter.

These five years, each as important as the fingers on my left hand, have witnessed many firsts. Firsts can be thrilling, I suppose (my first time galloping on a horse that, incidentally, understood only Spanish comes to mind). Firsts in this job, though, are mentally challenging. Taxing. For me, the feeling of "been there, done that" has mostly been one of relief.

Fig. 2. The defining factors in each of my first five years.

So what were some of my firsts in this job as professor?
  • Negotiated the purchase of equipment (difficulty will depend on the sales person, your patience, and whether or not you're flush with cash - hahahhaa right)
  • Lectured to someone other than my husband
  • Calmed rioting students after I returned their midterm
  • Figured out how to return exams without causing riots
  • Endured an undergraduate escalate a grading disagreement to the Dean's office
  • Recruited and graduated a Ph.D. student
  • Advised Ph.D. students that passed and failed qualifying exams
  • Retained a student that I helped through a difficult time
  • Fired a graduate student
  • Sang karaoke at the department Festivus party and Ph.D. recruiting weekend 
  • Hired a postdoc
  • "Starred" in a promotional video about my research
  • Had researchers visit my group from abroad 
  • Threw a cocktail party for my departmental colleagues
  • Managed a grant from the Department of Defense (push-ups are not a requirement in my quarterly reports. thankfully.)
  • Pitched a review topic to an editor of a high profile journal. Was successful. Wrote review.
  • Presented my research to the Dean's Advisory Board
  • Cleaned non-self bodily fluids off of my office furniture
  • Recruited new faculty to my department 
  • Consulted for a pharmaceutical company (it is surprisingly unnerving for your opinion to be worth hundreds of dollars an hour to someone)
  • Sat on NIH study section
  • Met Jennifer Doudna :)
  • Assembled a promotion package
  • Gave a conference talk to a packed house of 500 people
  • Gave a conference talk to 15 people in a Grand Ballroom that seated 1500 (I wish I was kidding)
  • Gave a conference talk while hung over. I had to lean on the podium. 
  • Drove from Paris to the Swiss Alps on two hours of sleep in a car I could barely operate during French air and rail strikes to get to a Gordon Conference. The sandwich I had at a rest stop along a highway in France was possibly the best, most delicious, most memorable sandwich of my entire life.
Fig. 3. Difficult journeys lead to beautiful destinations, like the Swiss Alps. 

I know first experiences won't go away, and there will always be new things to keep this job interesting. But as the density of first experiences recedes, I can settle further into my $800 office chair, knowing that I've been able to handle a lot, and that surely, there is room for more. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Time I Cried in Front of the Dean

It was the Fall of 2015 when I found myself crying in the Dean's office. I forget the documented reason for the meeting, but I was discouraged. As the Dean and I discussed my (lack of) funding and other career challenges, I felt that special tingling in my eyes, a prelude to the tears that would meander down my cheeks and into my lap before I would get up to find myself a tissue.

I was over it, really.

The Dean continued to listen as I talked. There was no judgement in his gaze, and I felt no urge to apologize or verbally acknowledge my tears. He said many supportive things regarding my career challenges and told me a personal anecdote that made me feel better1.


I've spent most of my life mortified by my own tears. Perhaps because, as a child, I would be made fun of for them. Perhaps because I got a message that they are a sign of weakness. My attitude towards my salty accessories changed only once I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, and the work-life tango began in earnest. Being a new professor is stressful. Dealing with frequent, unrelenting professional rejection is stressful. Add in the personal - family illnesses, intensive house renovations, and the medical/physical/emotional ramifications of years of infertility - and there is most certainly reason to cry.

And so, I became a pro at crying at work, because work was life, and life was work. I stopped caring because I wasn't crying about trivial stuff. What were people going to say? Oh, she's crying because she had two grants rejected and she miscarried in the same week?!!?! Boo hoo, what a wuss.

Maybe a man wouldn't cry under the same circumstances, but I don't care about that either, because I am not a man. I am a woman2. And if we want women to be scientists, if we want women as professors and engineers, if we want them as leaders - for all of the good that they do, for their creativity and collaboration and emotional intelligence - then we need to be more accepting of tears in the workplace.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by supportive advisors, friends, and colleagues throughout my graduate and professional career. I've cried in front of my Ph.D. advisor, my postdoc advisor, my Department Head, my Dean, and a fair number of mostly male colleagues. Most recently, I cried during one of my lab's group meetings following an upsetting personnel issue. That last one caught me by surprise, but ultimately I decided that it was good for the group to see me like that, because I am setting an example for them.

I have also been the "recipient" of tears in the workplace, hosting both crying colleagues and students in my office. I keep tissues in close proximity to my meeting table, particularly in the last several weeks of the semester. I am pretty darn good at not passing judgement in these situations, although for the record, it is really not cool to get snot all over a professor's office furniture. (I have to say that I've been pretty surprised by the variety of assaults that office furniture must withstand in a university setting.)

How to handle tears in the workplace, no matter your gender? I have included a handy table below for your reference! [Edited to add: the best thing to do is to treat crying the way you would a sneeze.]

And finally, I will close with an apropos exchange from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes.
Jerry :     "What is this salty discharge?"
Elaine:    "Oh my God, you're crying."
Jerry:      "This is horrible. I care!"

1I have a pretty amazing Dean.
2Testosterone suppresses the act of crying.