Advice to the early-career scientist.

Here is the second part of the interview with Rosemary Grant.  As with Rosie, we spoke about how she was mentored, some of her biggest personal challenges, and advice to the young.

Me:  Tell me about some of your early career mentors?

Rosemary: The three people who influenced me most were in the Genetics department at Edinburgh University. Conrad Waddington’s extraordinary insight into the mechanism of development was years ahead of his time. Douglas Falconer was writing his book on “Quantitative Genetics” when I first received lectures from him. This book became a classic in the field and even today we use his analytical techniques and ideas in many of our papers.  Charlotte Auerbach’s logic and clarity always made the most complex of problems understandable. All their classes in the Genetics department were small, and taught as group discussions. I remember these professors most for their excitement and love of curiosity-driven research, as well as for their tolerance of our naive questions.

Me: What advice did you get from some of these people?

Rosemary: I listened carefully to any academic advice from Waddington, Falconer and Auerbach. With regard to career advice at that time, people from other departments and outside the University stressed the unsuitability of combining a scientific career with marriage and even worse with children.  They believed it would have a detrimental impact on the lives of their husbands, which would in turn would influence one-self.  Surprisingly, this strong negative advice came as frequently from women as well as men. I thought if a man could combine a scientific career with marriage and a family, why could not a woman do so as well, if family tasks were shared?

Me:   This must have made it hard to be a woman in science at the time.  Do you think that the challenges women face today are the same or different?

Rosemary:  The challenges I faced in the 1950’s in Britain were different from those of today. The boarding school I went to was against “young ladies” with two brothers going to University, and discouraged me taking the University Entrance Exams. I circumvented that problem by leaving school, taking a job and a correspondence course, and doing the University Entrance Examinations with people, all men, applying from overseas. At University I found very little discrimination except from a few older men. The ratio of men to women across all subjects was 8:1. In the sciences there were proportionately even fewer women.

Me:  Wow.  Thankfully those statistics have changed, for at least the life science disciplines.  But it must have be a real challenge trying to be a scientist and a mother?

Rosemary: With two small children, and in those days a lack of good daycare facilities, and no relatives nearby, I stayed at home until they went to school. One day a week, on Mondays, I had a babysitter, and instead of spending that day catching up on household chores I spent it in the McGill University library catching up on research articles. This put me in a good position when I finally was able to return to research. The hiatus was not wasted; I found I had the ability to be more organized when juggling family and research than I was before I had a young family. Most importantly my husband (Peter) gave me immense support when the time came to return to full-time research.

Me:  I’ve read that you took your daughters with you on your annual expeditions to the Galapagos.  Is this how you balance your work and family life?

Rosemary: Yes, and it was a wonderful way. The children helped us and also did their own projects, which with our help they published. They are now adults with children of their own and they both say going to the Galápagos was an immensely rewarding and enjoyable part of their childhood, they would not have changed it for anything.

Me:  There is a lot of concern for what is called the leaky pipeline (at the postdoc level: male to female is 1:1, but at the faculty level it drops to 80:20).  What do you think can be done to increase the presence of women in science?

Rosemary: This leaky pipeline is a problem. I know many young women at this stage with either young children or with a wish to have a family, and from many discussions with them I don’t think there is any one solution. All the women I know who have left Academia at this stage have done so because they feel that the pressure of teaching, doing competitive research, and applying for grants would come at the expense of spending time with their children. Circumstances differ, but it helps to have a receptive and helpful husband who takes equal responsibility for the family. Some have solved their problem with live-in child-care, others having grandparents nearby, and still others have taken advantage of the increasing number of very good pre-schools connected to Universities. The best solution might be the Scandinavian approach with two-years of compulsory parental leave, the first year being taken by the mother, the second by the Father. I would also like to see an increase in scholarships that allow women or men to return to Academia after raising their young children.

Me: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions.  I just have one last one – What advice would you give students and postdocs looking for a career in academia?

Rosemary: My advice to young scientists – follow your heart, and if you are passionate about your research topic stick with it. If a break in your career is forced on you, continue reading and thinking about the problems that fascinate you.


About Dilara Ally

Dilara Ally works as a Bioinformatics Scientist for one of the hottest biofuel companies in San Diego, CA called SG Biofuels.
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