Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Is it hopeless?

Over at Women in Astronomy they posted in the weekly STATUS newsletter a review of a seminar given by Prof. Katheryn Johnston last week summarizing some results from the social and psychological science research along with her personal perspective on why women progress so slow in science. I recommend you check out her slides which are posted here: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/cfawis/kathryn_johnston.pdf.

I actually think I've seen this presentation before, but something in it really hit a cord this morning and I'm feeling pretty down about the whole thing.

Check out these two figures below taken from Prof. Johnston's presentation.

This first one is used to illustrate one depressing point - if the spotlight is not kept on the issue then no progress is made. I believe we're in a phase in which the vast majority of people think the problem is fixed. The graph in fact supports that. At the American Astronomical Society meeting this January the Women's lunch was given over to a panel discussion on the topic of if the women's group was even needed any more (the answer thankfully was yes). I also think most people are well intentioned and believe they know about this problem and are sensitive to it. But they also think that as scientists they should objectively pick the best person for the job.... funny how that's so often a man....

This second excerpt from Prof. Johnston's presentations illustrates that point. The figure is from a Nature commentary on why so few women (compared to the number of applicants) were winning a prestigous medical fellowship. The authors of the paper tried to objectively rate young scientist's impact score (based on number of papers, citations etc.). They then plot this against a peer reviewed measure of the scientist's competence. Only the very best of the women (measured by the "objective" impact) were rated as competent as any of the men.

This is something I've worried about for a long time. Obviously women succeed. Even women with children succeed. But I suspect they are only the best of the best. Most of us cannot hope to compete with them - and shouldn't have to.

Why did this hit a cord this morning. Well I think it's because I'm beginning to develop a "reasonable suspicion" that this has happened to me.... but it's so hard to judge when it's you personally. It's so hard for me to say "I'm as good, or better, than that person" in any objective way..... I don't want to look (or be) bitter, or self serving. However there are some objective measures.... I can look at my citation index. Lately I keep hearing (generally as friendly advice on how to get a job) that my publication rate is not "good enough". I agree it could be better, but I'm proud of the impact I've had in terms of some significantly cited papers, and I have 2 almost complete papers in the pipeline I should be working on now (instead of blogging about this I suppose!). Anyway my anecdotal evidence is that I applied for a job recently, and since I know people close to the hiring committee I got some inside information. My "average publication history" was the reason I was given for not being on the shortlist. Those interviewed apparently had "fantastic" publication records, and "several more years" of experience than me.... This all seemed very reasonable, until I found out who they hired and looked him up. We have comparable citation indexes, and I have slightly more experience. If I'm fair he has a few more papers than me - but a lot of them are large collaboration papers while most of mine are first or second author......hmmm.... OK so maybe I was being told a "kind" reason for my failure in this case, but it does make me wonder what I actually have to do to get a job....

Friday, May 22, 2009

A very good week

This may sound trivial, but I'm very excited about this and have to share it: it's 2pm on Friday and I have actually managed to cross off everything from my "to do" list of the week! I've been making these lists every Monday morning for a few years now, to get my mind back into work mode after the weekend, and this is the first time I ever accomplish everything I was planning to do by Friday.
This is exactly the kind of productive, successful weeks I need right now - hurray! So I'm giving myself a pat on the back, and will reward myself by leaving work earlier than usual to do a little bit of much needed baby shopping :-)

Famous Astronomoms: Venetia Phair

The second entry into my Famous Astronomoms series feels a bit like a cheat, since she's not very famous, and also arguably not really an astronomer. But I check - she was definitely a mom, and I think her story is interesting so I wanted to include it.

You will be forgiven for not knowing who Venetia Phair is, especially as her only contribution to astronomy was made almost 80 years ago under her maiden name of Venetia Burney. Venetia Burney, in March 1930, was an 11 year old Oxford school girl who was the first person to suggest the name "Pluto" for the recently discovered planet. She benefited from making this suggestion to her grandfather, who happened to know an Oxford Professor of Astronomy (Herbert Hall Turner). I'm not surprised that Venetia's grandfather thought her idea brilliant enough to put it in a quick note to Turner which he dropped at his house on the way to the library (my little one's grandfather has already suggested she's a genius), but it is perhaps surprising that Turner also thought the idea good enough to merit telegramming it to the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and that the staff there (including Clyde Tombaugh - the discoverer of the planet) liked it enough to adopt it.

This picture shows Venetia Burney age 11 around the time she named Pluto.

Venetia got widespread fame at the time for her suggestion, and a prize of £5 from her grandfather (a lot of money in 1930). Even before the recent fuss about the demotion of Pluto from a major planet there was some renewed interest in Mrs. Phair's story, with some BBC press. She also has an asteroid named after her (6235 Burney) and an instrument on board the New Horizons spacecraft (currently enroute to Pluto).

In 2006 the IAU voted to demote Pluto to a dwarf planet (rather than risk having to make perhaps dozens of outer solar system objects planets). Venetia Phair was quoted on this of saying "At my age, I've been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet", and also commented on the slight irony that interest in Pluto seems to have gotten larger after it was demoted.

Venetia Phair did not become a professional astronomer, but she did go on to work in a STEM field - studying Mathematics at Cambridge University. For a while she worked as a chartered accountant, and then as a teacher of economics and mathematics at a girls school (first in London, later in Sussex). It appears that she continued to work after her marriage in 1947, switching to teaching only in 1950. This would have been relatively unusual in the UK at the time. She only retired as a teacher in the 1980s, which is consistent with her working until past the UK state retirement age of 60 (for women). It is not commented at which point during this her son was born, but clearly she was a working mother for at least part of the time.

Venetia Phair passed away on April 30th this year, age 90. There is a more extensive obituary of her in the Daily Telegraph Science Obituaries. She is survived by her son.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gro Baby Diapers

OK - so it's odd to blog about diapers right after blogging about our adventures in potty training, but I really want to try these "Gro Baby" diapers either with little one or with (hypothetical) next baby. The beauty of cloth is that you can re-use them with future children, or even pass them down (well cleaned of course) like other baby stuff, so it doesn't really matter that we're nearly done with diapering (fingers crossed). Some people even sell their used cloth diapers online recovering much of their initial cost. But I digress.

Gro Baby are having a giveaway for people who blog either their opinions about these new diapers, or that they'd like to try them. So I apologise for using the blog in this way, but I really do want to try these diapers.

They look quite similar to the bumGenius one size we use, but the thing which really intrigues me is that you don't have to wash the whole diaper every time. The absorbent part lies on top of the outer shell (instead of in a pocket) so you can remove just that bit to wash. When I first learned about pocket diapers that's how I thought they worked, and I was disappointed to find out you had to wash the whole thing each time. Now I'm used to that system, and I wonder if having the absorbent bit right next to the skin will cause the same kind of nappy rash we got with prefolds. I like that the pocket liner acts like the outer layer in a disposable nappy - moving the wetness away from the skin.

So basically I'm intrigued to try these out and see. Let's hope the Giveaway they are having isn't too good to be true and I actually will now get one to try!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Adventures in Potty Training

Little one is almost 27 months and we have decided to start potty training. This is all helped by her desire to wear the "big girl pants" (cloth training pants) which I got for her on a recent trip to the US (much cheaper over there than here!).

Transitions always seem to be more work that I expect. I remember my delight at starting to feed solid food quickly souring on the realisation that this was just an extra thing to be fitted into every day. Of course now she's weaned and can feed herself it's all much less work - but it was a long trip from there to here. Transitions to crawling and walking were much the same - initial delight at the new skill changed quickly to a realisation that life would never be the same again and would involve a lot more running around on my part!

These transitions also seem to happen when they happen - regardless of how much you do or do not want them. Little one decided for herself when to stop nursing luckilly before the point I thought she was too old. She also just switched to a big girl bed one night - and never looked back.

So I'm approaching potty training somewhat cautiously. I'm not really sure that anything I do will help much. I do not want to spend much dealing with nappies (diapers), but I'm very anxious about what it means to take a potty trained toddler out for the day - or on a long car journey....

So far the entire experience has been a huge roller coaster of success and failure. Had I written this post last Thursday I would have been saying how hopeless it all looked. At that point little one had been in the training pants for 3 days straight with absolutely no success at using the potty - although some impressive stats on how long she hold in her pee at nursery! If it wasn't for her insistence on wearing pants (and the fact that since we cloth diaper at some level a dirty diaper or dirty training pants and clothing are about equal) I would have given up for a while. But Friday was a huge success - no "accidents" all day, and both pee and poop in the potty. She got a lot of stickers on Friday night! Then came a weekend of peeing and pooping in her pants, followed by a successful day at nursery again on Monday. This led to a lot of wondering if maybe she'll get it at nursery (perhaps because of peer pressure, and a much more fixed routine) but not at home.... and then she used the potty at home! So Monday night I was thinking we almost had it. But then yesterday was completely unsuccessful altogether. Who knows what today will bring! It's adding a whole new dimension of excitement to life, along with many more conversations about wee wee and poo poo than I would have thought possible.

We really do live in a galaxy!

I saw this wonderful time lapse movie over at Bad Astronomy and just had to share.

Galactic Center of Milky Way Rises over Texas Star Party from William Castleman on Vimeo.

Spectacular! I'd love to see this, but I'd never have the patience to sit out all night to do so.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Will I really get a maternity leave?

Technically, yes. My institution gives me 16 weeks at full pay, and nobody is taking that away from me. But will that mean that I can put work completely on the side and focus on baby during these 16 weeks? Well, that's another question...

I am now about a month away from my due date, and still desperately trying to finish off a couple of research projects. It's not so much a countdown until the moment when I will get to meet my daughther, but more like keeping track of how much working time I have left. This could very well be the last time I'm ever pregnant, so I'm starting to be frustrated to be so obsessed with work deadlines, rather than focussing on the little person inside me. Something has to change soon though, because at this point we have no name for baby, not a single baby item in the house, and obviously haven't even thought of starting to pack a bag for the hospital!

On the other hand, I've been telling myself it's okay to be focussing on work right now, because when baby comes, I can put all of that aside, and focus on her for the next 3.5 months. But I'm really starting to wonder if that will be possible. I'm sure that throughout my maternity leave I'll keep finding in my inbox papers to review, problems to address, data to deal with, etc. And I know I will feel guilty if I don't deal with these things, because this is really a kind of job that never stops. Even though I would be in my right not to do anything work-related for 16 weeks, I know I won't be able to do it. Because it would feel so unnatural after so many years never really taking a break and because, as understanding and supportive as my colleagues/collaborators/friends are, they are in that set of mind too and will expect me to still be responding to work requests.

So I'm sad and conflicted about this. This is my one chance to have a little break from work, which in itself would be wonderful. But it's also a very special time when our family will grow from 3 to 4, a time we should spend together making memories, free of any nagging work problems. Even if I dared shutting off my email and tried ignoring work problems, I know they would keep running in the back of my mind nonetheless. This is why I say that I doubt I will get the real carefree maternity leave I'm dreaming about, in good part by my own twisted fault.

This all makes me again so glad we had Chatton mid-way through our PhDs when we were comparatively so carefree, and so admiring of women who have children as young faculty, when responsibilities and worries must be even worse that mine right now!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Oh you're an Astronomer - that's interesting!

One of the things I love about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this gives a real opening to educate about science, and frankly it's just fun to have a job everyone thinks is "cool".

One of the things I hate about being an Astronomer is that pretty much everyone is interested in what you do - this has led to some very sticky airplane/taxi ride conversations about why Einstein is wrong, or how my science education has closed my mind to alternative theories etc. etc. Also I'm a bit scared of the effect on hairdressers who I do still want to make me look nice - generally an area I try to stay away from when getting my haircut!

These kinds of conversations have come up a lot recently as I've just got back from a long trip - there's nothing like long airplane/taxi rides to stimulate conversation with strangers. I would say I had two of the first kind, and only one of the second, so that's not bad.

On the first long plane ride my neighbour was clearly dying to ask a question after he got out of me what I do. I managed to be unfriendly enough that he waited until almost the end of the flight (showing great tact on his behalf - I needed to get some work done and enjoy my "alone" time) and then we had a nice conversation about the Big Bang and how Physics can't explain things right back to it yet since we can't yet reconcile quantum mechanics and strong gravity. A risky area, but I think it went well. Also I broke some misconceptions by working on my latest crochet project during the flight - he seemed unreasonably impressed that astrophysics and crochet are not mutually exclusive.

The second conversation did not go so well. Probably didn't help that it happened right at the end of my journey when all I wanted to do was collapse in my hotel room. I had a taxi driver with probably the smallest amount of tact I've ever seen in a person (and that's saying a lot given how much time I spend with astronomers) who really wanted to educate me about how my science training has closed my mind to the fact that Einstein must be wrong about gravity. I don't actually remember much about the conversation - except that it left me wanting to remind myself what Einstein had to say about time dilation in gravitational fields and learn more about experiments on Earth which try to test this. His complaints has something to do with that and involved spouting equations to me at midnight local time while I struggled to stay awake.

Proving that not all taxi drivers are tactless was conversation number three. Also at the end of a long journey - but one in which I slept much more - and was on the way home to little one, already putting me in a much better mood. We had a nice conversation about how the size of the Milky Way makes it unlikely that aliens have actually visited Earth, even if they (in my opinion) are quite likely to exist somewhere. I think I managed to confuse him with my "oreo cookie", western Europe size comparison (if the solar system is an oreo cookie, the Milky Way is the size of western Europe - or North America if you prefer), but he seemed happy with the conversation and complemented me on my clear explanations. That taxi ride ended very amicably - and I learned that in his opinion I could sell electronics, and probably even "cheeky stuff" like extended warrentees (his other job was as a manager in an electronics store), so I'll think about that as an alternative career!

Congratulations "AstronomyMommy"!

Just wanted to post congratulations to "AstronomyMommy" who I happen to know just had her baby - a little girl - on the due date I believe! I don't expect we'll be hearing much from AstronomyMommy for a little while, but once she gets settled in I look forward to reading her insights in the journey of motherhood. Welcome to "the club" AstronomyMommy!