Friday, June 26, 2009

Thank Goodness for Nametags

I made my first attempt at balancing work and motherhood: with Little One at about 6 weeks of age, I attended part of a conference. The most complicated part was timing feedings and arranging childcare while I chaired a session late in the day, when Little One is fussiest.

I had it all worked out... I had found a quiet place to nurse at the conference site, and my sister was to bring Little One there so that I could nurse during the coffee break before the session I had to chair. That would give me about 2.5 hours before I had to feed next, enough time to chair the session.

The execution of the plan was not as smooth as it could have been, though: it turned out that Little One was quite hungry (ergo upset) just before I fed her, and in my rush I decided not to take off my blouse (nursing tank underneath), but just to unbutton it. Little One fed enthusiastically, and finished about 5 minutes before I had to chair the session... leaving a huge milk stain right down the front of my shirt at chest height. What to do?

Then I remembered my nametag, which was on a lanyard for this conference. I shortened the lanyard a bit, and it covered the stain perfectly. I was able to chair the session without revealing my wet blouse and Little One slept until I got back. So all is well that ends well.

I can honestly say that this is the first time that I have been thankful for nametags at conferences. I also learned to always take off my outer layer when nursing at a conference, or else to bring a change of clothes :)

Looking like an Astronomer

I've been having my 15 minutes of (very minor) fame this week. I'm not sure how to blog about the details of all this while remaining anonymous. I might give up on that next week as it will all get much more interesting, but for now I'll remain cryptic and just tell you that for some reason there was interest in writing about me as a role model for women in science in the local and university papers - so I had to have my photo taken.

So obviously I made some effort to not look like the stereotype of a scientist. I wore a dress, and jewelry and even (shock horror) make-up. I think I did a good job. The photographer for the local paper commented that I didn't look how he expected. In his own slightly sexist way he went on to comment about how it was weird that his picture of a scientist was an old guy with white hair. He said I look nothing like Patrick Moore and that's a surprise according to him.

There was a builder in the kitchen/common room the day I was having my photos taken and he was obviously curious and asked the reason for all the attention. I explained to him and he looked a bit taken aback. "Women in science he said.... hmmmm.... you're not one of these doctors are you?". I said I did have a doctorate in astronomy. Obviously something he didn't expect either.

As women in science we are surrounded mostly by men who are quite used to our presence (in their own way). It doesn't take much to be reminded though that to the vast majority of the public the idea of women doing science is still totally alien.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Observations at the science museum

A couple of weeks ago, we took our son for a day trip to the national science museum of this country, which is not too far from where we live. Perhaps "museum" is not the best word, it's the kind of place that is filled with hand-on games and activities that teach you something about science. You know the kind I'm talking about. This one was very impressive, especially for the size of the country. It's also almost exclusively about physics and math, so Boyfriend and I were like kids at Disneyland. They had some of the usual stuff, but some very cool things too I had never seen before. We all had a really good time.

While I was there, I couldn't help to put on my "gender in science bias" glasses, and I saw things that surprised me. Mostly, there were a lot more boys than girls around. There weren't that many young children there, at 4.5 years Chatton was one of the youngest, mostly 8-16 year olds I would say. There were so many teenage boys, that it really made you wonder where they had put all the girls. Perhaps there was just a gigantic school group of boys (but again, where were the girls taken to, gender-separated schools are really not the thing around here), or is it possible that parents will tend to go to a place like that more if they have boys than if they have girls? I'm not sure what was going on, I'd like to go back another time and see if I observe the same thing. But wouldn't it be very sad if for some reason girls were on average deprived of such experiences, where science is just about having fun?

I also had the feeling that girls (and women) were more attracted to the math and geometry kind of activities than the more physics-related ones. But again, I would need more data to support that observation.

No matter what, Chatton had an amazing time there, we had to work hard to convince him to leave after more than five hours. He obviously didn't get much from the physical concepts behind the games, but still he was exposed to all of it and enjoyed every second of it. Isn't that what we should do to get people excited about science - and especially girls! I really hope then that my observation is wrong...

Sunday, June 14, 2009


I love Apple. I've actually never owned a PC, and have been a convert since buying my first laptop with my har won savings in graduate school (one year a laptop the next have my wisdom teeth out). Anyway I always thought the plugs Mac makes are quite ingenious. It's the same in any country apart from a neat little bit you can interchange which goes into the plug socket (and which I'm sure has a cool name). Great I thought - if/when I move country all I have to do is buy that little bit.

But Apple, ever after their "iMonopoly" only sell those little bits in packs of 6 including every an adapter for every region - and that pack costs something like $30. That's right - you spend money to buy again the same plug adapter that came with your computer (along with one for every other region in the world - but still). You can't buy them separately.

But postdocs - ever ingenious - have come up with a solution. We move around a lot - all over the world. And we buy computers often. After our transatlantic move I had 2 US plugs, but not the kind I needed.... I offered to swap (via dept. wide email) - and within minutes (literally) had 3 offers. You can't use more than one at a time I suppose. In the end the person didn't even want my spare US adapter. But recently another postdoc asked for it. Well not so recently I suppose, but I recently got around to finding it and giving it to her. And in return - I am to get a European adapter. Somehow this neatness and recycling has given me so much satisfaction I wanted to blog about it - plus I'm stuck on a plane going to a conference (without little one) so I have time on my hands!

Since moving I have bought a new computer - so now I have 2 UK plugs. I'm sure one day this will be useful and I will swap with a grateful postdoc just moving into the country, or perhaps a frequently travelling Mac loving astronomer.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Birth Survey and Pre-Natal Yoga

I don't think I have ever blogged before about how much I appreciated and valued my experiences with prenatal yoga. I attended pre-natal yoga classes once or twice a week throughout my entire pregnancy. Because we have moved since little one was born, I have not kept in touch with any of the women I met in the yoga classes, but their friendship was extremely valuable to me while pregnant and in the early weeks/months of little one's life. In fact I liked pre-natal yoga so much that now I find ordinary yoga a little too impersonal and rushed most of the time.

I found that pre-natal yoga was not only good for my pregnant body, but also my mind. Each session I attended started with each woman introducing herself, her stage of pregnancy and talking about the symptoms she was experiencing. The teacher would both start and end with helpful information about treating symptoms, and other useful hints. I credit pre-natal yoga (and Ina May) with giving me the strength and courage to go for a natural childbirth. It also helped me get through the rough weeks of morning (and all day) sickness at the beginning of my pregnancy.

My favourite pre-natal yoga teacher has a blog which I still keep up with. On her blog this week she featured The Birth Survey which just seems like such a good idea that I also wanted to mention it. The idea is that women (in the USA) can input their experiences with prenatal and childbirth providers. The eventual aim is to have a database of experiences which pregnant women can then use to inform their choices over where to deliver and who to have take care of them during pregnancy. It is quite a long survey, but you can save and return to it later.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Handbags in Space - What?

I'm really not sure what to make of this one. Handbags in Space. Luis Vuitton is featuring astronauts Sally Ride, Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin in his latest handbag adverts. Huh?!

Silence is the Enemy

Just wanted to support the "Silence is the Enemy" Campaign. Lucky for me I have no personal experience, or even know of anyone with any personal experience of the horrifying crimes of rape or sexual assuault. I find it difficult to even think about - let alone talk about, and that's the point of the campaign.

It's all written much more eloquently than I could manage in other places.

For example:

Monday, June 1, 2009

Postdoc Life from the Other Side

Quite a lot of this blog so far has been about the postdoc experience - fairly natural since two of us are postdocs, and our newest member only recently stopped being one.

Over at Female Science Professor today is a post about the new NSF rules which require a statement on how postdocs will be mentored to be included in any proposal including a request for postdoc funding.

I appreciate that NSF is trying with this list, but I don't think it'll change anything. I bet FemaleScienceProfessor is a great postdoc supervisor, but her comments about the new list hi-light for me how this will be taken by the vast majority of profs - just another hoop to jump through, and not really important at all.

Her comments on Item 2 are particularly annoying to me - I hear this all the time - that academic staff just don't know how to help their students find jobs outside of academia. Yet they are willing to (passively or otherwise) support a system that will dump the majority of young scientists out of academia into this situation.... hmmm. You must all have past students and postdocs who've been through this experience before - why not connect them with your current students and postdocs to help in the mentoring process. It's not only in parenting that it can (and arguably should) "take a village".

I think the postdoc system has to change, and will in the coming years. How it will happen and what can be done to help the change come smoothly I do not know. I can't even figure out how to get myself out of it at the moment! But it'll be interesting to see what the research scientist career path looks like 50 years from now (I'll be 80 - not totally unrealistic I hope). At least it's better now - except perhaps for some of the well connected young white males - than it was 50 years ago!

For some suggestions for change I recommend you look through the State of the Profession white papers from the Astro 2010 review process which you can find here.