Women in STEM Profiles

I am starting a weekly profile of an amazing woman who has chosen a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). I am hoping this will be a medium to share some great science, but also the stories of how women move through their career in STEM/academia. My goal for this repository of stories is to foster role-models for future women in STEM, and to inform the public what the life of a kick-ass lady scientist is like!

If you are interested in being profiled, please fill out this information for and I will get back to you ASAP.

If you would like to be profiled fill in your information here: https://goo.gl/forms/Ln2kkAxUVTulCRGz1

If you would like to nominate someone to be profiled, please fill in their information here: https://goo.gl/forms/VX8YCA07LkdWVyFI2

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I am slowly building a few more social media profiles for this project.  We are now on:

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THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING THIS PROJECT!

Lauren

 

International Postdoc: Lessons in Adaptablilty

I am an international postdoc. If you would have asked me mid-PhD if I would be working abroad for my postdoc, I would have instantly responded, ‘No!’ However, life has a funny way of adding unexpected twists and turns. So, here I am, almost through my second year postdocing in Canada!

I have struggled for a balance in tone and information in this blog post for months. I have been concerned about admitting vulnerability, and how that might look for my ability to adapt both academically and personally. I have been a bit afraid to admit that I wasn’t superwoman, and that it is okay to feel overwhelmed some days. After all of this hemming and hawing, I concluded it may be helpful for me to share some of my struggles. Partially for me to own that I am working towards overcoming them AND maybe I’ll make someone feel less alone in their transition to a different town or country.

Moving from the United States to Canada, I was expecting an almost seamless transition between countries. What I expected, and what I experienced were very different. I still experience many moments of culture shock, even though I am in North America. Obviously, the amount of culture shock you will experience will vary widely based upon your background, and by the country where you land. What I want to use this portion of the post is to cover what I didn’t expect.

I am lucky in that Canada is my husband’s native country. He has some ability to navigate, and I can mooch off of his abilities sometimes.  Unfortunately, most of the time he doesn’t recognize that I am struggling to figure out something which comes innately to him. I have tried to get better at speaking up; however, it is embarrassing to admit that although you are an adult, you just don’t know how that works in this country. I also have to admit I overwhelmed by ability to deal with change. Across one year I: finishing my PhD, moved internationally, completed an academic job search, then started that new job, and got married. In hindsight, I don’t know why I was in such a rush to get everything done in such a short period of time!

Moving, Visas and Border Patrol:

In my opinion, my move went pretty smoothly. If you had asked me in the middle of the move, I might sung a different tune. I chose to have a very light move between Chicago and Calgary. I packed a small sedan with my two cats, my fiancé, and the items that would fit in my trunk.  I also sent non-essential items in a set of boxes via FedEx, hoping they would arrive shortly after I did. At the shipping office, I consulted FexEx Agents and labeled all of the import documents as advised, and paid a huge shipping bill. Fairly confident my stuff was in safe hands, I started my 2-day journey to the Great White North. Traveling with two sedated cats is less than ideal! Other than an hour where I was convinced the cats were about to pee in my backseat, I made it to the border without much incident. I nervously sat in my car at the border, expecting a painful interrogation in my near future. I had a whole binder of documents and evidence to help with the interview.  When my name was called, they asked for exactly two of my documents, my offer letter and my passport. Within an hour I was happily on my way to my new apartment.  I was vastly over-prepared for my border crossing, but I would do the same if I had to do it again.

I arrived in town on Saturday night, and I had scheduled to start working the following Monday. I didn’t actually get started working until Thursday that week because talking to FedEx became my full time job. On Monday morning, I received notice that all of my boxes had been turned away at the border. Back to an address, where I no longer lived. I began frantically calling FedEx offices, the shipping depot, border control and embassies. After a month of frantic calls and filling out additional paperwork, my boxes eventually arrived. Lesson learned, a small trailer is likely less difficult to navigate than shipping companies.

The international economy affects my pocketbook.

I know it is a bit frivolous, but I really like to shop, like a lot. As a graduate student I filled this need by being a personal shopper to my friends. I now have a few dollars leftover each month, but I find myself struggling to find joy in this pursuit. First, some of the stores which were my go-to locations don’t exist up here. Secondly, and more importantly, with the exchange rate / falling Canadian dollar I am in a constant state of sticker shock. One of the after-effects of being a  lifelong student is that I refuse to pay full price (except food). I find it harder to enjoy shopping when I break out in a cold sweat after plunking down $100 for a pair of pants, which I know I could find for $30 in the US. I have gotten many lectures about supply and demand from my husband, but it still hasn’t made this any easier for me.

A less superficial difficulty, is that I am paying back student loans in a different country. First, the exchange rate is currently making this a bit of a nightmare. With the dollars I earn (Canadian), My money gets hit with a 30% decrease in value when trying to pay off my loans in US dollars. There are two main factors which make this difficult. First, in order to maintain an additional discount on my student loan interest rate, the payments must be automatically deducted from a US based bank account. At face value this isn’t a problem, until you get an additional cash penalty doing an international money transfer. The second hurdle, is that with current depreciation of the Canadian dollar, I am having difficulty budgeting for the future. I have a set monthly payment, but my cost can vary dramatically from month to month. I try and over budget, but if the trend continues, I may not be able to afford having my paycheck be in Canadian dollars.

Daily Life: Things are just different.

Different does not mean bad, different just means different. Even though I moved to a country on the same continent, I still find myself pausing after some social interactions to mull over how something had just gone completely sideways from what I expected. I spent my entire life within the Midwest, which led me to expect some social interaction when completing everyday errands. While buying a bottle of wine or a coffee, I am used to some mindless chit-chat with the employee behind the counter. This doesn’t seem to happen in Calgary, people think I am weird when I start talking about the weather at the grocery store. Mind you, there is a strong likelihood I am just plain weird! However, not belonging or understanding local customs can definitely make you feel like an outsider. I can only imagine this is amplified when they culture is significantly different than your own.

I have also experienced general social culture shock. Many people in Alberta have families early, I am in my mid 30’s, just got married, and have no children. This is completely within the norm in academia, but outside of the social norm where I am living. This has led to some awkward situations trying to find a social life (which honestly I still am struggling with). I have found there are either couples my age with young children, or younger adults with no kids. In both of these situations I feel out of place, like I am in a very different stage of my life. I have tried to make a push to be more involved within the university, but again with limited success. The best way I can put it is people are either looking for a bar date, or a play date.  I am somewhere in-between…

Hiraeth: a homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was

One of the biggest problems for me adjusting to a new country was my inability to recreate my old routine. For me this came down to the city infrastructure. It is very important to my sanity that I live in a walk-able city. Calgary just isn’t one of those places. My daily routine in Chicago included riding transit to work and home, walking to the Pilates studio to work out and then maybe hitting the local grocery store on my way back to pick up dinner supplies. This life just isn’t possible in Calgary due to the weather, city structure and transit systems. Quite honestly, I am still challenged with making the city work for me. What I have found helpful is focusing on the few places I have found which I love, like a local coffee shop, a cheese shop, etc. I still feel like bits of what I need in my life are missing, but I keep trying to find something similar to fill the hole.

Finally, being homesick is real. If you have never lived outside of your comfort zone, this may be a big shock to your system. I had never lived outside of the Midwest. Although I have traveled extensively within the USA, I had never spent significant amounts of time outside of the country. For some people, this will be a non-issue, but if you have a difficult time dealing with change it is a good idea to get a social support net in place as soon as possible. Some labs are extremely social, while others barely speak to each other outside of work. Make sure you know what kind of environment you are entering and how that may affect your mental health. Try and schedule Skype dates, or take up letter writing to keep in contact with old friends. I have even played cards against humanity over Skype with friends of mine from high school. This may also be the perfect opportunity to adopt a furry friend into your life.

Another sad fact is that you will miss things from your old life. I have yet to meet one of my dearest friend’s daughter, and it breaks my heart every time I see pictures of her on Facebook. Also, I have missed Christmas with my parents across the past two years, as it’s not feasible to fly multiple times during the holiday season. However, I do make it a priority to go home every year for Thanksgiving, where we celebrate both holidays together. Also, by not flying at Christmas, when flights are very expensive, we have the money to try and visit another time during the year.

Some Final Thoughts…

I am not saying that my experience has been the typical experience for someone moving to an international postdoc, or even within the norm. These are just some things I have struggled enough with that I wasn’t prepared to encounter with my move. All of this aside, I do think the move was a good choice, and has certainly made me a more worldly person. I am also significantly more empathetic to immigrants who have traveled a more difficult road than myself. I hope if you are considering an international academic position, or a big move, this has helped in some way. Also feel free to ask questions in the comments section, I’ll do my best to answer.

P.S. Midwesterners, please send proper sweet corn.

This is the third posting in a series about being an international postdoc.

Parenting a toddler as a Postdoctoral Scholar

- P u l s e -

Before I wrote this, I had a chance to read Stephanie’s post describing her experience raising school-aged children during her postdoc. Much of what she described resonates with my situation; that said, I have a 3 year-old boy and hopefully I can provide a slightly different perspective. Being a postdoc with a toddler presents many unique challenges and experiences.

In January 2014, I arrived in Calgary from Hungary, with my not-quite-1yr-old and my Hungarian husband, but our struggle with childcare actually started many months before that.

I felt fortunate to find an ideal postdoc position in my home province but my supervisors were eager to have someone start on the project and would only wait a few months for me to join. That meant we needed to immigrate to Calgary on short notice. Neither of our families lived in Calgary so we were in desperate need of childcare. I quickly…

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Parenting school-aged children as a Postdoctoral Scholar

- P u l s e -

Well, it’s 3:30pm on Thursday – time to pick up my sons from after school care, drop one off at dance lessons, meet up with my husband to do the kid trade-off, then head back to the lab.  Maybe I should eat something now?  Nope, don’t have time.  At least I have a flexible schedule so I can make it work, and a very understanding boss.  This is my life as a postdoc with school-aged kids.

It can be hectic, but having kids and being a postdoc certainly can be done.  However, you do need LOTS of support.  I am lucky in that I have a very supportive husband who also has a lot of flexibility with his job.  Without that, it would be extremely difficult, and I probably wouldn’t be able to put in the required hours.  Well, maybe if I didn’t sleep, but I really need sleep!

Many…

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Blog: Postdoc-ing for Dummies

natalie matosin

Feb 2016. It’s been over a year since I submitted my PhD thesis, and I’m finally starting to settle into postdoc shoes. Although I’m feeling relaxed about it now, I look back and realise that I felt very overwhelmed during the transition from PhD to postdoc. It came in waves, where I felt like I was totally on top of things and adapting really quickly to the new work and environment, to feeling like I was completely out of my depth. I had lost my safety net, and was starting to develop a serious case of imposter syndrome.

During one wave of ‘what-the-hell-is-happening-to-me’, I decided it would be helpful to think about what was the purpose of being a postdoc, what I should be aiming to get out of it, and whether I was ticking all things off the “postdoc bucket list”. I found some articles online written by other postdocs, detailing the various issues that they had faced. However I didn’t really…

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International Postdoc: What to Ask Yourself

These questions stem from some of the frank conversations I should have had before starting an international position. There is no “correct” motivation to taking an international postdoctoral position. When considering any move, you need to be honest with yourself and identify your priorities. These questions are designed to help you think about the potential move and how it will impact your personal life. Some of these are philosophical questions, while some are more practical. None of these questions have a right or a wrong answer.

Finally, some of these questions will likely extend to any position where you may experience a cultural shift. My sister moved to Texas from the Midwest, and said she has experienced culture shock, sometimes equal to my own.

These questions are not in any particular order, so one good place to start might be to prioritize them for yourself. Let me know in the comments if you have additional questions to add to the list, or personal experiences being an international postdoc.

  1. Quality of Life –
    • Does this location offer the quality of life I am used to? –AND– Does this location offer a quality of life that I need?
    • The first part of this exercise is to identify the pieces of your current life that you cannot live without, or livability. You need to prioritize and contrast how each location scores based on your list. Livability includes things like:
      • Safety and crime
      • Access to medical care
      • Public transportation access & cost
      • Climate
      • Walk-ability of city
      • Social and Religious tolerance
      • Environmental issues (like smog) and access to nature
      • Quality and design of architecture
      • Economic conditions
      • Diversity
  1. Social Support Network –
    • Do you have a social support network in place that can support you across your transition, either in your home country or destination?
    • Will some of your social support network be coming with you? Friends, family? Do you expect them to need support during this transition?
    • Is there infrastructure in place to help you adapt to the new social environment at your destination university? Are you the type of person to utilize these programs?
    • Will being physically distant from some family members and friends cause issues in your relationships? What are your feelings about this potential source of strain?
  2. Family Challenges –
    • If you have a spouse or significant other, will they be making the journey with you? Are they excited by the opportunity or hesitant?
    • Will the country recognize your marriage? Does this have an impact on securing visas for your significant other or children?
    • If you have children, will they be making the journey with you? How do you think they will adapt to the change?
    • Are your parents supportive of the move? Do you have elderly parents for whom you are a primary caregiver?  Will they be able to come with you?
  3. Personal Hurdles –
    • Do you have a disability or a chronic illness that is going to impact your transition? Are the established medical treatments you are receiving available in the location you hope to move? Is the standard level of care similar?
    • Do you follow a specific diet due to religious or ethical reasons? Does this location have the infrastructure to continue this diet?
  4. Financial Limitations —
    • Many countries require a minimum amount of money to be in your bank account before you can immigrate. Will the university be able to help you secure these funds, or can you supply them on your own?
    • What is the stability of the exchange rate between your home country and potential destination?
    • Do you have any financial obligations in your home country that will remain during your postdoc, like a mortgage, student loan payments? Do you have the ability to maintain these payments?
    • If you are supporting dependents or family, will the offered salary be sufficient for you to maintain your quality of life?
    • If you are unable to start work immediately, do you have an emergency fund to tide you over until your first paycheck? When will your first paycheck be issued?
    • If you lose your funding source, or are terminated from your position, how long do you have to secure a new position or leave the country?  (Thanks to Rinjikou for the suggested question!)
  5. Language Barriers —
    • Are you comfortable speaking the language of the country and university?
    • If you are not, is there a requirement to speak in the language of the country or university for your work and social life?
  6. Cultural Barriers –
    • Are you a social or racial minority in the potential designation city? Is there a culture or history of intolerance within this city?
    • Are there religious organizations for you to continue your chosen spiritual lifestyle? If not, is there a community that follows the same religion as you?
  7. Coping with Stress –
    • Are you the type of person who has a difficult time dealing with change?
    • How different is the culture compared to your home country? How do you think you will react to a different culture?
    • Have you experienced homesickness before? Were you able to cope with homesickness, or did it affect your ability to enjoy your new surroundings?
    • If your plan for moving falls apart, how is this going to impact you? Do you have a backup plan?
  8. Long Term Prospects –
    • What is the timeframe you expect to be out of your home country?
    • Do you expect to return to your home country?
    • If you make the move, do you want it to be permanent? If so, are there ways to improve your chances of permanent residency during your postdoctoral position?
    • Is this the right country for long-term immigration?
  9. What is your motivation for taking an international postdoc?
    • I purposely left this open ended, you need to identify what is important to you!

This is the second posting in a series about being an international postdoc. If you are looking for questions to ask in your interviews, you can find them in my first article “International PostDoc: What to Ask”.

 

NEXT WEEK… Some of my personal experiences as an international postdoc.