Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Letter to A Daughter

In case you haven't been following Dr. Isis' Letters to Our Daughters Project, this is me telling you that you should.  Here's how she describes the project:

When I was a graduate student, I took a physiology class in which I was given the assignment to recreate my scientific family tree. When I did, I found that my family tree is composed some brilliant scientists. But, my family tree is also composed entirely of men, plus me. The same is true of the tree from my postdoc. I have scientific fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, but no aunts, grandmothers, or mothers. As I considered my career path in science, I found myself wanting and needing the perspective of more senior women scientists.

The inspiration for my Letters to Our Daughters Project comes from my hope that we can recreate our family tree here, creating a forum where the mothers and aunts in our fields (which I hope to not limit to physiology, but that's where I'll start because that's who I know) can share their wisdom with us. I think there is a wealth of information among these successful women and I hope to use this forum to share it with young scientists who are yearning for that knowledge.

I was extremely flattered when Dr. Isis asked me to contribute a letter to her Project, because I totally worship her blog.  She's funny and smart and pulls no punches when she takes on the patriarchy.  (Also, she's totally hot.) However, as much as I love her, I'm not going to abandon my sensible shoes any time soon.  Anyway, when a Goddess asks you for something, you do it! Here's the link to my letter at her blog, and I'm cross-posting it below:

I have no daughters, either in my personal life (my kids are boys) or in my academic life (no advisees yet), but it's fun to imagine that I might have a daughter one day.  So here is my letter to my hypothetical daughter in astronomy.

Dear Daughter,

For some reason, despite not having quite made it being faculty yet, people (i.e. Isis) seem to think I have words to wisdom to impart.  See, I'm a little reluctant to give out advice because I realize that everyone is different.  What worked for me might not work for you.  On the other hand, I might be able to point you to the friend of a friend of a friend of mine who can better relate to you.  

So here's my advice: you are not alone.  Whatever it is you're going through, you're almost certainly not the first.  Sure, there may not be many other women in astronomy in your situation, but if you look around, maybe you'll find a woman in mathematics or physiology who has gone through or is going through the same thing.  

The example from my own life that comes to mind is when I decided to have children in grad school.  It was the right decision for me, but at the time I felt like I was the only woman astronomer in the world who had chosen to get pregnant while still a student.  Certainly, I was the first woman grad student in my department to have children and not drop out.  Meanwhile, all my friends outside astronomy who were having kids were becoming stay-at-home moms.  I felt alone and scared and uncertain in spite of the support I received from my advisor, my department, and my fellow grad students.  Everyone was so nice to me, and yet I didn't think they could truly empathize with me.

One day, during the final months of finishing my thesis or possibly after (my memory of that time period is pretty hazy), a senior research astronomer dropped by my office.  She had seen me going around with my babies from time to time, and she told me that she had decided to have kids during grad school, too.  She congratulated me on both the kids and making it through grad school, and gave me encouragement to keep on going.

Since then, I have found other women who have had babies in grad school and continued on to successful careers.  (Vera Rubin, for example.)  It made such a difference to know that other people had done what I was trying to do, and to know that it was possible to make it work.  It might be hard, but at least it was possible.  And I seem to have set an example for other people myself: I know of at least one other student from my grad department who chose to start her family before graduating. 

So work your network.  Remember, networking is not just about buttering up muckity-mucks to increase your profile.  It's also about getting to know people who share your experiences, and also about simply making friends.  Academia can be very isolating, especially if you're part of a minority group, like a woman or a mother.  Luckily, in this day and age the internet makes it so much easier to connect to other people.  I wish blogs like Isis' had been around when my kids were born.  Don't be afraid to reach out for help or advice.  Those of us who know what it feels like to be alone are happy to help you out.  

Best of luck to you,


Anonymous said...

Just a minor note on networking: perhaps paradoxically, in the academe you have an extra networking opportunity: just ask people pointed (and well-thought) questions on (or related to) their research. More material on this, and on the academic networking in general, can be found here.

Diane Turnshek said...

Wonderful letter, Hannah. Kudos to you for making it through grad school with young children. I didn't (four sons), but I always kept my toes in the water and now that they're older I'm back to teaching astronomy.

FYI, at the time, Vera Rubin yelled at me for being a wimp. It's a story I tell my classes. It brings a smile, and the students understand better why people listened so well to her when she said we're missing most of the mass of the galaxy.