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Columbia’s first Women in Science Symposium- Guest Blog

This is another in my series of student guest blogs. This one by Grace Musser

 

Two weekends ago I attended and presented a poster at the First Annual Women In Science at Columbia (WISC) Graduate Research Symposium. The Symposium included speakers from many different disciplines within STEM fields and included speakers that focused on professional development and conflict resolution in the lab. These latter speakers were particularly valuable as they focused on these topics in a way that was particularly geared towards women.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Chloë Bulinski, was especially inspiring. From the start it was clear that Chloë was all around what many women in science aspire to be: a highly lauded professor at Columbia University, a pioneer in her field, and a loving mother. It was so aspiring to hear from a woman who successfully wears so many hats, and especially empowering when she emphasized one of the most important aspects of choosing a program: making sure that the place you choose will place as little stress as possible on you outside of school and research so that you can do your best work.

As a women in the STEM sciences and a daughter a mother in the STEM sciences, I have often been told of and shown the disqualifiers and difficulties plaguing women in STEM and indeed almost any field today. The admonishments from my and others’ advisors, professors and even fellow graduate students themselves often ring to the tune of “you have to choose between your children and your career,” “you have to choose between your relationship and your career,” “you have to go to x school no matter what the financial or emotional cost,” “you need to devote your time to research and publish no matter what else is going on,” “there are many times when your laptop should be your only friend.” This coupled with watching my mother’s difficulty in finding even a high school biology teaching job due to her focus on raising her children even after winning a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a Fulbright, earning her Ph.D. from Berkeley, and conducting research internationally, provided me with a bleak outlook on the choices I will “need” to face in the future of my career.

Despite this, Chloë’s statement gave me an incredible amount of hope. Here was a renowned Columbia professor telling us that we didn’t need to strain our relationships or our pocketbooks to go to “the best” program as what matters most was how those programs could be best for us, and essentially shattering the mythic notion that the best research comes from being trapped in the lab with little to no social life—a romantic notion that is limiting to anyone, but especially to women.     While I feel that there is still a huge stigma against becoming a stay-at-home mom during part of your career and focusing on anything other than research, Chloë’s statement made me hopeful: as more women become involved in STEM and show that we can be all-star scientists while still being doting wives and partners or super moms if we wish, maybe we can truly start creating a world where it is admitted that good science often is catalyzed by and can certainly include a full life, and where women are not looked down upon or punished for choosing to interface more with the world outside of academia or the lab.

I face this issue as a visual artist as well, and see many parallels between the two romantic figures; like the mad scientist mythos, the romanticized “starving artist” is expected to live in the streets, starve, neglect themselves and basically do anything to just be able to continue making their work as it is their “calling.” The reality is that, once again, even making art largely requires art supplies, a safe shelter, storage space, food, and money for all of the above—not to mention that subsequent depression, starvation, and the resulting fatigue stymies inspiration more often than not.

What I find most disturbing about both of these myths is that they encourage one to live only for their work, essentially limiting one to a very narrow aspect of life—and seem to be born of a paternalistic ideal. This is especially strange to me as both science and art are creative fields, and creativity requires new ideas, communication, and building off of the work of others. Thus both of these myths not only limit one’s life but the quality of the work itself—and in Chloë’s words, “that is no way to live.”

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