Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Trip Through the “Milky” Way: Adventures in Astrophysics and Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and working can be done, and can be pursued for a year and beyond. Recently I’ve met three women who nursed to between 14 – 24 months while maintaining research astrophysics careers. Support is available, you just have to ask for it and you do have to plan a little bit. FYI, you can read up on the amazing health benefits to you and baby elsewhere (I recommend La Leche League). This is about astrophysics and breastfeeding, focusing on “travel” issues (including just being away from your normal routine).

For instance, in August when my daughter Anya was 5 months old (still completely sustained on breastmilk) I attended a NASA proposal review. I had to send an email to someone I did not know well, asking for a room in which to pump and for breaks during the review (I noted that I could only participate in the review if I got 20 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon). I also chatted with the panel chair before the review started. They really took care of me! Our panel room was partitioned and yours truly got the other side of the partitioned room as a pumping room. My panel chair (male, FYI) was willing to have the proposals on which I was conflicted be discussed slightly out-of-order so I was able to take my pumping breaks and not hold up deliberations. I did have to fess up to the whole committee about what I was doing (at first I tried not to, but one guy was kind of wondering why I kept disappearing through that wall partition). Luckily, I brought Medela “cleaning wipes” with me to the NASA review. The room was wonderfully convenient but there was no sink right there so I had to clean the parts of the pump using the wipes. I had a cooler pack for the milk (no refrigerator handy).

This year I am on research sabbatical with frequent trips to Northwestern in Chicago. I travel Southwest Airlines as they allow you to carry nearly-infinite "baby stuff" with you and I bring a nursing cover and breastpump with me. I managed to time the first visit to coincide with a personal trip so my parents were in Chicago and found a grad student through my personal network who was happy to watch my daughter for 2 days. I pump milk in the morning, leaving the “sitter” with milk, and then get together with Anya at lunchtime and mid-afternoon to nurse. Once again, I was pretty open about the whole thing, including asking colleagues for offices. I got multiple offers for locations to nurse within the department and enthusiastic help (doors opened, keys lent, etc.). Also, I started with a shorter trip involving no airplanes to State College, PA where I was able to establish an "away from home" pumping routine, that time with my mother-in-law with me. You may think it is crazy to travel with your mother-in-law, but you may find that a grandmother is perfect when you need to work, even if it isn't your mother. She focused on the kid so I could focus on work!

Next up, I’m taking my daughter, my husband and my breastpump on a trip to Greece (AGN/binaries conference) so I can keep the nursing going. So, I took baby steps (first a local NASA review, then a drive to State College, then a plane trip to Chicago, now we go international). The next new thing is that the pump operates on batteries (which I am testing today at home!) and I can bring little plastic bags into which to pump milk so I don’t need to pack a ton of collection bottles.

So far, so good but you have to plan and communicate, and as I hope is obvious, you have to really make breastfeeding a priority. But here I am at six months and Anya hasn’t been sick even once and is a very happy, healthy baby. I feel good too. So, it cost a little extra in terms of money for sitters, time arranging things, and time to pump, but it was really worth it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through MIT’s Male Math Maze

Caution: new blogger at work! I'm a theoretical astrophysicist and cosmologist at MIT and currently head of the Physics Department. I'm passionate about mentoring and increasing diversity in academia. I seek to make my institution a better place to work and study for everyone. It's a delight to share ideas and experiences with others working also for the health of the profession and those drawn to it. I relax with running, birdwatching and cooking. I have another blog at I'm excited to start blogging for Women in Astronomy!
Last weekend I saw, for the second time, Truth Values -- a wonderful solo play by actress Gioia De Cari, who as a math graduate student at MIT in the 1980s experienced a relentless series of slights and insults before finally calling it quits with a Master’s degree. She pursued a career in acting and might have given up telling her riveting story if Lawrence Summers had not inspired her with his remarks about innate gender differences in 2005.
De Cari’s story is a perfect example of how the accumulation of inequities and injustices leads to loss in the PhD pipeline. From being hit upon by her fellow graduate students after she told them she’s married, to being directed to serve cookies to the math seminar, to being treated inhumanely after her father’s death, she described many experiences leaving me feeling sad, angry, and even helpless. Yet the play is also full of laughter and human spirit, the product, perhaps, of long introspection. I found myself wondering how much of this mistreatment is still going on? Yes, we and our students tell each other it’s much better now. Yet I still hear about graduate students who are falsely told that they were admitted “because you’re a woman”.
This time I was one of the after-performance conversation leaders, together with a MIT senior double majoring in Nuclear Science and Engineering and Physics. The success and leadership of this student shows that we’ve come a long way, yet she, too, has received discouragement from a faculty member. When asked by an audience member what things I or the Physics Department had done to improve the situation for women, I remarked that enumerating a few steps is completely insufficient. One must transform the culture and we aim to do this a hundred different ways. I used to keep track of them, but it all boils down to one thing: Care for people. We must create a scientific community of excellence that values our community members as much as we value excellence.
Gioia De Cari’s response to her mistreatment has been to tell her story to packed audiences around the country – I encourage you to see it. Our response must be to create a culture of respect, dignity and encouragement for everyone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

AASWOMEN for September 17, 2010

This week's issues:

1. Invitation

2. 3-D Spatial Visualization: Why a Gender Gap?

3. Strategies for Addressing Harassment and Prejudice

4. Mentoring Vital To Nurturing Future Female Scientists

5. Conference for Undergraduate Women

6. Building a Better Pipeline

7. Observe the Moon Night

8. Univ. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Tenure-Track Assistant Professor

9. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN

10. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

Dr. Ms.

From the Washington Post: Report: More women than men in U.S. earned doctorates last year for first time

As the article notes, the gender ratio for undergraduate and masters degrees has been tipped toward women for a while now. So it was only matter of time before doctoral programs followed suit. But, how far up the pipeline can we go with this? As the article says:

But women who aspired to become college professors, a common path for those with doctorates, were hindered by the particular demands of faculty life. Studies have found that the tenure clock often collides with the biological clock: The busiest years of the academic career are the years that well-educated women tend to have children.

"Many women feel they have to choose between having a career in academics and having a family," said Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women. "Of course, they shouldn't have to."
Emphasis is mine. Couple that with the difficulty of establishing a foothold in a department with overwhelmingly male senior faculty and you have a pretty tough glass ceiling to break.

It's also important to realize that most of the gains for women have been made in fields like health sciences, social & behavioral sciences, and education. As the article states, "Men retained the lead in doctoral degrees until 2008, largely through their dominance in engineering, mathematics and the physical sciences." That includes astronomy.

The sobering message of the article is that even when we do achieve parity in doctoral degrees awarded, retaining those women and getting them into the ranks of senior faculty will still be an uphill battle.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Maybe There Is Hope After All

Greetings from Sweden, home of the most generous parental leave policies in the world!

I'm here attending a scientific conference this week. As I've been going to talks and interacting with people, I couldn't help but notice something interesting about the representation of women here, so I worked out the numbers during an idle moment. Here's what I found:

Women accounted for
42 of 126 participants 33% (probably an underestimate, since it's based solely on names)
7 of 20 contributed talks 35%
7 of 15 invited talks47% (actually one less, because one had to cancel at the last minute)
14 of 35 speakers total40%
2 of 13 session chairs15%

I'm willing to forgive them that last number. All in all, this makes me pretty proud to be part of this meeting. Of course, as I mentioned before, some subfields of astronomy do better than others are retaining women, and I happen to be in one of them. There really does seem to be something of a critical mass that's required before women begin to really feel welcome in a particular field of study.

As a side note, I had an interesting conversation about problems facing in astronomy with someone here, and he wasn't a woman, and I didn't bring it up.

Friday, September 3, 2010

AASWomen for September 3, 2010

Committee on the Status of Women
Issue of September 3, 2010
eds. Joan Schmelz, Caroline Simpson amp; Michele Montgomery

This week's issues:

1. The "Astronomy in Society" chapter of the Decadal Report

2. Essential Cosmology school

3. Young Leaders Program for Undergraduate Women in their Junior Year

4. Tenure-track Faculty Position in Astrophysics

5. National Research Council Canada (NRC) - Fellowship Postings


6. MIT Pappalardo Fellowships in Physics

7. AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships

8. How to Submit, Subscribe, or Unsubscribe to AASWOMEN

9. Access to Past Issues of AASWOMEN

Decadal Survey Town Hall redux

Yesterday, I went to the Decadal Survey Town Hall held at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC. This being within easy driving distance of University of Maryland, Goddard Space Flight Center, and Space Telescope Science Institute, I was fully expecting to have to fight for seating.

Only a few dozen people showed up.

Does this mean that everyone has heard their fill of the Decadal Survey already? That everyone is completely happy with the results? That they don't care about it? That the meeting wasn't well-publicized? That people are afraid of Washington, DC?

As for the Women in AstronomyTM perspective on the meeting, I believe I personally knew every woman except maybe one in the room. For all that astronomy is the study of the universe on the largest scales, it's a pretty small world.