Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Role Models

The March edition of Scientiae is calling for submissions on role models of women making history. The prompt:
During Women's History Month we tend to look backward and acknowledge the hard work and suffering that got us where we are today. For a change, let's acknowledge history in the making and the motivations that make it possible. Who are your role models? Who first got you interested in your field, or opened new doors for you? Who inspires you on a daily basis and makes you believe in the future of science, technology, or the world?

My inspiration to become a scientist is something that's not entirely easy to nail down. I think in some sense, I was always interested in the subject. There are a lot of medical professionals on my mother's side of the family -- my grandfather was a surgeon, an uncle is a psychiatrist, and my mother and grandmother have both worked in nursing. I was raised by people who share a sense of curiosity and intellectual commitment, especially related to the study of the human body.

In school, I had a series of awesome science teachers who encouraged the development of my interest in science. My seventh grade science teacher, Ms. Bozeman, had the thrilling job of teaching life science to a gang of rowdy middle schoolers. Everyone loved her class -- we had pet snakes and tarantulas in the classroom, we got to dissect frogs, we watched uncomfortably hilarious videos about sex education. In seventh grade, I was not especially studious, although eager to learn. Ms. Bozeman did everything she could to encourage me to complete my homework and notebook assignments so that I could get the 'A' I deserved (I usually did very well on tests, but was too lazy to do other assignments). I mostly ignored these attempts, but looking back, I'm glad that my teacher was paying enough attention to me to judge my actual abilities, not just my skill at filling out worksheets. During a quick Googling spree I learned that Ms. Bozeman now has an asteroid named after her -- how rad is that?! And how rad is NASA for acknowledging the work of middle school science teachers when they name celestial bodies?!

In high school, my favorite science class was chemistry. Part of this, I think, came from my intuitive grasp of a subject that other students found to be difficult. My best friend through most of school was one of our valedictorians (yes, I went to the sort of over-achieving high school that has a nine-way tie for valedictorian), and chemistry was the only subject where I ever did better than her on exams. She still did well, but I remember how thrilling it was to have her ask me about things she didn't understand, and to teach her a thing or two for a change. Being the perfect sweetheart that she is, she never took any sort of grade discrepancies personally, and our friendship continues to this day.

But, much of the credit for my success in and love of chemistry is due to my teacher, Ms. M.J. Booher. A lot of students were scared of her, because of her no-nonsense approach to classroom discipline and generally tough attitude. But, some of us learned that she could also be great fun, and even managed to make her laugh occasionally. She demanded respect from her students, but returned it in kind. I was in her class for two years (a year of honors chemistry followed by a year of AP chemistry) and learned a lot -- so much that I was able to skip my first year of chemistry in college! That head start in science at the college level gave me time to take extra credits and ultimately earn a dual BS/MS degree in a total of four years.

When I was in her classes, Ms. Booher would often jokingly refer to herself as "a junior" -- meaning that she planned to teach for two more years, and then she would be eligible for retirement. When I looked her up to write this blog post, I saw that she actually surpassed the 30-year mark for teaching, and was still in the classroom as recently as 2006 (I graduate high school in 2002), going above and beyond the call of duty to serve her understaffed department and unappreciative school board. Here you can read an editorial on teacher salaries that she wrote in my home town's newspaper. I don't follow the local news there too closely and I'm not sure what proposal she refers to, or whether it passed, but I know that I wouldn't want to go up against my old teacher in this kind of a fight. I hope the school board listened.

Once I reached college, I had the great privilege of working with some of the finest women neuroscientists around, including Prof. Eve Marder (former President of the Society for Neuroscience) and MacArthur Fellow Prof. Gina Turrigiano. They taught my classes, they helped mentor me in the lab, and they provided examples of the incredible achievements that women in my field can attain. My undergraduate department had so many awesome female faculty, in fact, that I remember being somewhat puzzled by the whole Larry Summers fiasco about women in science that occurred during my junior year. Gender discrepancies in the sciences just weren't very apparent to me, at an institution like Brandeis.

But, of course, these discrepancies do exist. After I graduated from college and began working full-time as a research technician, I discovered the science blogosphere. Specifically, I found a bunch of blogs dedicated to women's issues in STEM, in which women bloggers shared their experiences and raged against the patriarchal machine. At that point, I was still unsure of what I wanted to do with my scientific education. Reading the stories of these women helped me to discover my own passion for science, and my determination to succeed even in a field where I might experience outright discrimination or subtler setbacks. I read everything I could find that was written by female scientists, professors, postdocs, and graduate students. I read about their successes and failures, their careers and families, their joys and concerns. Without the wealth of information provided by these people, I wonder if I would have decided to go on to graduate school. All of that reading made me feel both inspired to take the next step and prepared for the difficulties that lay ahead.

Which brings us to now: graduate school. I've been a PhD student for less than a year, but already I find myself surrounded by new role models. While my current department lacks some of the female superstardom of Brandeis's neuroscience faculty, I have met great women professors here who have aided in my scientific training as well as provided personal support through groups like Emory Women in Neuroscience. I'm also continually inspired by my peers: my cohort is overwhelmingly female, and these young women remind me each day that I'm not the only one reaching toward lofty scientific goals. I also enjoy the support of older students -- second-years, third-years, and beyond -- who have handed down their wisdom on classes, rotations, and school/life balance.

As I reflect on all of these people who have helped me get where I am today, I'm anxious to give something back to other women like me. Although I'm relatively inexperienced, I, too, have support to offer. This semester, I'll be working on a Brain Awareness Month project in the Atlanta public school system, designed to expose K-12 students to neuroscience taught by real scientists. It's not the same as teaching high school for 30+ years, but it's a chance to reach out to young kids and hopefully show them something new and exciting. Then, starting next year, I'll be serving as a TA in at least one class. We have the option to choose graduate or undergraduate classes, but I think I'd like the opportunity to work with undergrads. It may be naive to think that a TA can have a major impact, but I'd like to put myself out there and do what I can to teach these students about science, and about how to pursue scientific careers themselves. Meanwhile, I'll continue to interact with my current amazing cohort as we help each other through each grueling exam. I'm also privileged to interact with the next generation of prospective graduate students in my program, answering their questions over email and participating in interviews and recruitment events.

I have no delusions that doing any of these things makes me some kind of a hero, but I think this is a good start, at least. The whole idea of "history in the making" means I don't know exactly how everything is going to go, yet. All I can do is my best, when it comes to giving back -- with thanks to those who helped me make it this far.

(Written for .)

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