Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Career Day

Saturday I participated in a Science Careeer Day for high school girls, mostly juniors. I did this last year, too. It was actually quite fun. It was great to see so many young women who are serious about school and interested in having careers in science. We spent about 20 minutes with each of five groups, with each group having about 10 students. I asked them whether they felt discrimated against or if they were ever teased by the boys for being smart and they all pretty much said the same thing. There is no longer much of a stigma associated with being smart and getting good grades, and that most of their upper-level science and math classes had more women than men in them. Most of the top acheivers are women. On the one hand, this is great, because it means more women will succeed in science. On the other hand, it is a little troubling, because I think it means that the boys are giving up. As the mother of two sons, I worry a little that our culture is starting to believe that intellectually challenging endeavors should be left to women. Men are supposed to do (a) physically demanding jobs, and (b) jobs involving the brokering of money and power. Maybe we see science as too "wussy". Is that a good thing? Our country needs more scientists and engineers. period. not more women OR more men, but more of both.

One of the other insights that I took away from Career Day was that we need to go talk to girls who don't think they are interested in STEM careers. The girls at this Career Day had volunteered to come because they already had some interest in STEM. So they are low-hanging fruit. I think we need to get engineers and scientists to go talk to the girls who are interesting in fashion design, cosmetology, art, etc., and talk to them about how many of these careers are becoming more and more technological. To design formulations for new nail polish, you need to know chemical engineering. To be an animator or designer, you need to understand CAD. And if you study STEM, then if your girlish enthusiasm for nail polish wears off, you still have a solid educational background and the basis for a lucrative career.

On a (somewhat) related subject: In my local newspaper today, they ran an article about the fastest-growing careers. Among them: home nurses aid (annual salary about $20K), personal trainer ($25K) and environmental engineer ($66K). Which would you rather train for?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Another notch in the belt

Monday I heard that one of the papers I submitted back in November was accepted for publication in the premiere journal in my field. Yay! Unfortunately my post-doc advisor is a co-author, so it doesn't count as heavily as I would wish toward tenure, but I am not complaining. I submitted the paper in Nov, got reviews back in Dec, and submitted the revised version 1/30, and got notified of its acceptance 2/6.

The other paper I submitted in Nov hasn't even come back with reviews yet.

When I made up my list of goals for 2006, it did not occur to me that I have to submit my re-appointment package in September. That gives me added incentive to get those four papers submitted for publication before then. I doubt I will be able to get all four in. I'll be happy with two. Student A's dissertation is coming along very well, and I should be able to get two good papers out of it (one without my post-doc advisor) fairly soon. I told her to go ahead and schedule her defense for mid-March. I'm probably more nervous than she is--she'll be my first PhD student to graduate. I'm so proud! But I am (irrationally?) afraid that her dissertation will be an embarrassment to all concerned. That's why I wouldn't let her schedule her defense until now. I didn't want to do to her what my advisor did to me and cancel her defense at the last moment. But she is working her butt off and has made enormous progress in the last couple of weeks, so I am feeling a lot more comfortable about the whole thing.

I am also trying to hire my first post-doc, which is a harrowing experience. Actually he or she would be only partly mine, and would belong more to my friend and collaborator, Donna. But it is still difficult, since the money we have is divided between two grants which require different skills and last for different lengths of time. It is a big responsibility to hire people. The worst part is having to disappoint the very qualified people who interviewed but don't quite fit our needs. That becomes especially difficult when they are foreign and must find a job or their visas will expire and they will have to return to their home country.

The funding situation in our field is dire and seems to get worse by the day. Exhibit A is Bush's proposed budget, which will once again cut back EPA funding. I have been advised not to bother applying for EPA money. One of our professors was "awarded" a $1 million EPA grant, but the money never showed up. After more than a year of waiting, he finally got the money by lobbying through our congressmen. It seems the only way you can get money these days is if your research is directly related to human health or homeland security. Otherwise you have to figure out how to do research with no money. Even graduate student fellowships are drying up. Many fellowships require that the applicant be a US citizen or permanent resident, which disqualifies about 75% of our graduate students. The few that are open to foreign students recieve hundreds of applications for one or two awards.

The only silver lining in all of this is that I haven't had to spend as much time writing proposals lately, so I can concentrate on getting papers out. Slim consolation.