Thursday, April 17, 2014

On mentors & paying it forward

After reading Marcelo Gleiser's excellent article "Find a mentor, be a mentor" at NPR this morning, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the importance of one of my mentors, Dr. Amy Cheng Vollmer.  I met Amy as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, and she has remained someone I have always turned to throughout grad school in my most frazzled "oh-my-god-what-do-I-do-now" moments.
"Hello Amy?  It's me Lizzy- what do I doooooooo?!" (image source)

I count myself beyond lucky to have been Amy's student.  Her passion for undergraduate education has been an inspiration.  The skill with which she teaches, her innovation and dedication are astounding -- something which I certainly appreciated then, but which leaves me even more awestruck after my own stumbling forays into teaching as a graduate student.  Amy is a force to be reckoned with in the classroom, a true master of her craft.  I have a million things I could write about in how Amy has inspired and guided me, but what I most wanted to reflect on this morning was Amy's role in my life outside the classroom.

My summer this year is going to be packed with BIG LIFE EVENTS: I'll be finishing my PhD and marrying my partner of ten years.  Without Amy's guidance (and by guidance I mean many hours of her listening to me agonize over what I was going to do with my life), I'm not sure either of those would have happened.

Approaching the end of undergrad, I wasn't sure what was next.  None of my research experiences, though they'd sparked my interested, had really light a fire.  I was interested in microbiology and I'd gotten it into my head that maybe I'd like some kind of microbes and minerals research, maybe this biogeochemistry thing (I read about it on the internet,  it looked like they got to go outside).  But.... I'd never actually done anything like that.  I'd never even taken an earth science class or actually done microbiology research. 
Image source

What if the problem was that I just didn't like research at all? What if I hated it? What was I going to really do with a PhD anyway?
image source

Simple, direct and suffering-no-fools, Amy pushed me -  Did I want seat at the table making decisions about science?  Well, yeah, I did.  Then go to grad school, follow your gut feeling, fill out those applications.

At that time, I'd been dating (dating who are we kidding? we moved in together after about a week) Nell for three years.  She was one of Amy's research students and was applying to vet school and also to combined DVM/ PhD programs - all of which are a) super competitive and b) there are approximately 2 of them with funding (those facts are probably related somehow).  We sent applications to schools in all the same cities and, totally committed to making it work, just waited to see how things would shake out. 

Fortunately, in the end, we had choices; but with choices comes the burden of having to choose things.  To prioritize things... things like your career, your relationship and the possibility of loads of student-debt.  Scary grown-up things. 

For Nell, the choice was, career-wise, a no-brainer:  full support for her combined degree at UC Davis vs. paying full tuition and forgoing the PhD-experience elsewhere.  For me, the choice was not at all obvious.  Davis wasn't my top choice, and I wasn't sure there were folks there who's research focus clicked with my interests.

When others asked where I thought I might go, I mentioned I was leaning towards Davis- "Who would you work with?  People aren't doing what you say you're interested in there?" When I explained, I got the disappointed, women-haven't-worked-this-hard-to-just-do-that look (or maybe I just imagined it?).

Following my partner would be what was wrong with women in science and leadership, right? (even if I was following another woman...)  I wanted to just stay together, but maybe we could make long-distance work.  Right? I needed to prioritize my career. I should:

When I brought my quandary to Amy, she told me to value all the parts of my life; and she didn't just say it, she meant it.  I could make an excellent research life for myself pretty much anywhere I was considering, but missing six years with your person in your twenties - that I couldn't make up.  If that mattered to me, I had to make that matter in my decision and figure the rest out.  There was nothing shameful, no backing off, involved in letting the rest of my life weigh in on my career decision. 

Amy was right.  I've carved out a niche for my particular research interests, learned a ton, and found amazing new mentors and friends along the way.  It has surely not all been smooth sailing.  There have been times with both my partner and my PhD where it wasn't clear what would happen to us, but Amy's confidence that my choice was a valid one has buoyed me throughout.

I realize now how relatively rare her advice was, and how vulnerable I was at that point in my career to whatever it was that my mentor would have told me to do.  It is a weird feminist line to navigate, and one Amy did with confident wisdom for which I am so incredibly grateful.

I hope I can be half the mentor to others that Amy has been for me.  I certainly have a lot to pay forward.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Don't hesitate, nominate!

Did you know today was International Women's Day? (I didn't, thanks Google!).

Celebrate by checking out a great post about gender inequities in nominations and awards for American Geophysical Union (AGU) Honors by Jessica Ball who writes at Magma Cum Laude at AGU blogs. (you gotta love a good academics/volcano/latin pun :)

Make a difference and nominate someone for an AGU honor before March 15!  
Read through the award listrequirements and the FAQ and see what YOU can do to recognize people.

Story behind the paper

My first paper on my dissertation work studying the pink berry microbial consortia was recently published - YAY!  To give folks some insight as to why I'm so excited about this project, I wrote a "Story behind the paper" article as a guest post on my adviser Jonathan Eisen's blog.  Check it out!

Story behind the paper:

Actual publication:

Wilbanks EG, Jaekel U, Salman V, Humphrey PT, Eisen JA, Facciotti MT, Zinder SH, Buckley DH, Druschel GK, Fike DA, Orphan VJ. (Accepted, 2014). Microscale sulfur cycling in the phototrophic pink berry consortia of the Sippewissett Salt Marsh. Environmental Microbiology. doi:10.1111/1462-2920.12388

Aren't they just darling?
The pink berries, bright little balls of bacteria, in a handful of marsh sediment

Getting started!

Below is one of my very favorite quotes.  It beautifully captures the reason I love my job as a microbial ecologist.  Studying more-or-less invisible creatures may sound boring or frustrating, but with a just little bit of vision, it's one of the most exciting expeditions imaginable. 

This is my vision for the Wild Microbe blog: to share little pieces of this world with you through stories about my own experiences, musing about amazing microbes, and overviews of recent publications.  Stay tuned!

"If I could do it all over again, and relive my vision in the twenty-first century, I would be a microbial ecologist. 

Ten billion bacteria live in a gram of ordinary soil, a mere pinch held between thumb and forefinger. They represent thousands of species, almost none of which are known to science.  Into that world I would go with the aid of modern microscopy and molecular analysis. 

I would cut my way through clonal forests sprawled across grains of sand, travel in an imagined submarine through drops of water proportionately the size of lakes, and track predators and prey in order to discover new life ways and alien food webs.  All this, and I need venture no farther than ten paces outside my laboratory building.

The jaguars, ants and the orchids would still occupy distant forests in all their splendor, but now they would be joined by an even stranger and vastly more complex living world virtually without end. "

–E.O. Wilson, The Naturalist