Honoring the One Who Came Before Me, Led Me, and Loved Me…

me and marilyn.jpgTonight’s blog post comes from a place of pure and unequivocal sadness. I learned from a dear colleague that my friend and mentor Marilyn Merker passed away last week.

I can’t tell you how heartbroken I am. A piece of me will never be right. The only way I can think of to deal with incredible sadness is to tell you about Marilyn and why she was so incredibly special to me. I met Marilyn a decade ago as a newly minted postdoc, attending the Experimental Biology meeting alone for the first time. Another mentor recruited me to take over as the trainee representative for our section (the Respiration Section). I had only been to this meeting twice, and previously as a member of a different society. I had no idea what I was doing.

The next morning, I attended my first committee meeting and Marilyn was in charge. I was warned in advance by the person who had recruited me, “When Marilyn is in charge, you get two minutes to speak because she keeps everything running on time.”  I was in such awe of this woman who commanded so much authority, I have no idea what I said. I remember ending it with a “Yes, ma’am” because I was intimidated by the strong woman in front of me who was clearly running the show.

I saw Marilyn later in the meeting, and she asked me whether I would be coming to the banquet. I had no idea what she was talking about.  There was a banquet? She reached into her purse and handed me a ticket and several free drink coupons. I learned later that this was how she built so much goodwill in our group.  She invited anyone who was interested and made them feel included.  She bought dozens of extra tickets out of her own pocket and handed them out. She bought so many drinks. When I later asked her about her views on committees, she told me she would welcome anyone who showed up and did the work. I now realize the wisdom of her ways. I knew immediately that she was a force, but came to appreciate her community-building efforts.

But, none of that is as important as the friendship I built with her. A senior professor and clueless trainee scientist. We were an odd pairing. After that first meeting, she sought me out. We built an event at the meeting and, as time passed, built a friendship. She shared so openly of herself. She taught me everything she knew about women and science and politics and frequently laughed at what she had accomplished despite having to learn it all along the way. She was one of the few women who climbed the ladder and helped those behind her climb it too.

We moved from seeing each other at meetings to talking regularly by phone and email. Whenever I ran into a roadblock, she was the first person I called. I loved calling her because, every time I called, she answered the phone already in uproarious laughter. Her infectious laugh made me laugh and, after that, whatever I was calling about seemed trivial.  We came to seek each other out at meetings, sharing cocktails and commiserating over life and love. Every interaction restored my soul.

I knew Marilyn talked to her children several times a week and she bragged about them Baby TDevery time I saw her. I called her for advice when I was pregnant with my daughter and invited her to my baby shower. At my baby shower, as I held TD in my arms, she told me, “Brace yourself. My daughter told me as a teenager, ‘I hate you and I don’t even know why.’  Survive those early years and they become human.” She was right. No one can lift me up and break my heart like my daughter. We had an agreement that we would someday write a book called “Daughters are assholes and other life lessons.”  We laughed over planning the chapters.

I went to her whenever I needed advice on how to manage children and my career. She was one of my two most important mentors. I feel like so much of the advice I have given was hers to begin with. When I started thinking about a third child she said, “Whatever the hell for? What are you trying to get? There is no third kind!” She was right. I didn’t want another child. I wanted to fill the hole that was in my heart.

She wrote me a letter for my first faculty position. She listened to me cry when I went through my divorce, and eventually gave her blessing for my marriage to Strange.  She came to visit me and had me as a guest in her home.  We ate watermelon soup and drank chardonnay. She said to me once that, if she had to do it all over again, she would have wanted me to be her mother. I think she was humorously acknowledging that, over the years, she had become so much more than a mentor to me. She had become a mother to me and I loved her so much.  The loss of her hurts as deeply as when I lost my mother and tonight I am not ok.

One summer I decided to run the Chicago half marathon and I stayed at her house the night before. I told her my plans to run the next morning. She told me, “That’s a stupid idea” and then ushered me out the door to walk around the neighborhood. We talked about life and love, and how she wished she knew she was supposed to ask for tenure when she was younger. None of the men around her had told her what was important.  Her grant was running out and her university was going to force her into emeritus status. I could feel that it was not her time, but she shared with me a piece of advice that has become the guiding principle of my life. It’s the most important piece of advice anyone has ever given me. She said that her mother had once taught her, “It’s hardest to give love and money to the people that need it the most.” I remind myself of that at least once a day. More than anyone I have ever met, she loved with her whole heart.

She went silent over the last 6 months, and I suppose I knew something was going on. I didn’t know she was sick and she didn’t offer up the information.  So, tonight’s news comes as a shock and is a devastating loss.

I’m not sure how to process things yet and ending this post feels like acknowledging the truth. I’ll never answer the phone again to hear her hysterical laughter. I can’t ask her what to do when my children hate me, or when my grant doesn’t get discussed. She was one of the most important women in my life and her loss has caused irreparable damage to my heart.


Thoughts on Why #MeToo at #ExpBio is So Important

This year I have been glad to return to my usual meeting stomping ground, Experimental Biology. I have been an American Physiological Society member, one of the societies present at the meeting, for 12 years and can say without a doubt that the society has been transformative for my career. I have made so many good connections with people who are genuinely kind, have looked out for me, and have advanced my career. I’ve had great women mentors. They’re good people who I think want to make science and society better, and they have always had a strong commitment to trainees.

But, I wrote the other day that even from a society with a strong commitment to junior scientist development, there are too many symposia on diversity and inclusion that are targeted at trainees. Teaching trainees how to fit in and navigate academic culture. How to deal with uncomfortable situations, act professionally, manage career and life. Trainees attend, but there’s only ever a smattering of senior faculty. There aren’t enough talks aimed at faculty and senior members, teaching them about the challenges that young women face, the prevalence of sexual misconduct, and ways that we can make science a more hospitable place.

But this year, friend of the blog and boot lover @mclneuro came to Experimental Biology to share her experience. I arrived after her talk, but did as I usually do when I get to the meeting – I went to the lobby bar to see who I could find. It warmed my cold, cold heart when @mclneuro was the first person I saw, holding court among the people that had attended her talk. We met, hugged for about 10 minutes, and she said some incredibly kind things and I was my typically socially awkward self in response. That’s when I really noticed that the people sitting around her were my colleagues. People I have known for at least a decade and interact with every year, but with whom I had never really had a conversation about sexual harassment, discrimination, and misconduct.  

And these people were seriously engaged. They listened to stories and asked how they could help. We talked about the different barriers that exist for the advancement of women – everything from rape and sexual abuse to the insidious bias that permeates so many corners of academia. It made me emotional to hear my colleagues talking and listening, and sincerely wanting to be part of the solution.  The thing is, it took a talk and a visit from an outsider to bring these people together

I am so sorry for the path that @mclneuro has been forced to walk, but I am so proud of her for being a warrior and using her experiences to make science better. It’s not easy to share your pain publicly and to put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable.

I’ve been asked many times since I started blogging in 2008, “Why do you write about your life? Why put your struggles on display?” and my answer is always because the community needs to see it. Others may find value in seeing how others are dealing with the struggles we all face, and at the very least to know that they’re not alone.  There are no words for how heartbroken I am for the struggles @mclneuro has had to share, but I’m grateful that she came into my community and opened so many of the eyes around me. She’s important and the work she’s doing is important.  I am eternally thankful to her for coming to us and hope that other groups will see the wisdom in listening to her story. As @mclneuro might agree, it’s time to stop suffering in silence and time for our colleagues to wake the fuck up.

More Thoughts on Policing Women and Bad Behavers

I spent a lot of time thinking about yesterday’s post where a conference presenter offered fashion and presentation tips to young women in an astroscience symposium. Even in the shower this morning. All I could think about was that silly slide. And then I got soap in my eyes and cursed the world.

Here’s the thing that still gets under my skin. We (as the expanse of academia, not as an individual or smaller group) spend a lot of time teaching under-represented groups to conform. I do think that there is value in teaching people about the inside baseball of the institution to allow them to be strategic in their decisions. As a first generation student, there have been plenty of times that academic culture has felt foreign to me.  But, there’s a difference between informing young professionals about the norms and mores of a culture and prescribing behaviors. It’s a further leap over the line when we imply that there is a prescription for behavior that will lead to success. As I mentioned yesterday, there are plenty of data to suggest that underrepresented groups are treated differently than the majority culture, regardless of how they behave.

And that got me to thinking. How many times have I seen sessions at national conferencegiphys aimed at young women and under-represented scientists about how to behave, dress, balance family, present, network, etc.

About a fucktillion. I’ve even participated in some of them.  If career progression was influenced by the quantity of professionally styled, workplace appropriate cardigans, I’d be chancellor by now.

How many sessions have I seen targeted at university leadership about how to create a welcoming and diverse culture, encouraging them to explore whether the norms are helpful or harmful?

None. Ever. It’s like a unicorn. You can tell me they exist, but I can’t tell you that I remember seeing a single one.

So, maybe I’d be a little more tolerant of our continued brow beating of young scientists if I had any sense that there was a push at the national level to get disciplines to look meaningfully at their own navels. That people weren’t just trying to pound square pegs into round holes in order to keep their own environments peaceful. In that case, the square pegs just gotta keep looking for square holes.

As we advance, we must double down on our commitment to integrity and the value of the individual.

It continues to be a trope that science and behavior are not connected. Friend of the blog and the Queen of the #MeTooSTEM movement @McLNeuo posted the following comment from National Academy of Sciences member Robert Weinberg on the potential expulsion of NAS members found guilty of sexual harassment and misconduct:

Weinberg response

Last night, I wrote in reply… 

I don’t understand how you can untangle the quality of a person’s character from the quality of a person’s science. The scientific method itself is a code of conduct. It seems plausible that someone who doesn’t value the dignity and integrity of a person wouldn’t value the dignity and integrity of the scientific process.

P’shaw, you say? Well, it appears ole Bob Weinberg has contributed data in support of my hypothesis…



So, what’s the point of this Tuesday afternoon rambling?

It’s great that organizations like NIH and NAS are taking sexual harassment seriously, but the problems of bias and discrimination are insidious and can be more subtle.  Scientific societies and national-level endeavors put an enormous amount of resources into training young scientists to fit into the academic mold, but how much effort is there into training leaders to recognize their own biases, and biases within their institution? How are national level groups working with these leaders to offer tools to combat these problems? Not simply through symposia at meetings where information is received passively, but through working groups where the stakeholders and participants are identified and report back to the community (for example, these guys).

As I get ready to head to the Experimental Biology meeting at the end of the week, I’m hoping that future meetings will include more opportunities to create cultures of inclusion and integrity and the departmental and institutional level.

Thank Heavens We’re Still Policing Women’s Wardrobes in the Name of Science

When I started blogging nearly 11 years ago, I would post a “Shoe of the Week” because…well…I love shoes. I love shoes and makeup and cardigans and jewelry and all sorts of other clothing. Except pants. Pant are dumb. The mid-aughts were a tough time for me, as women’s shoes became dominated by platforms and 5″ heels, and open-toed boots, but I waited patiently for the fashion world to come back to its senses.  I’m glad we’re back to a more rational time.


For example, these are beautiful. (Source)

I figured of all the controversial stuff I ever wrote, shaking my fist at the tomfoolerly of academic culture, the shoes would be least among them. I was, of course, younger and far more naïve. Some folks loved the shoes. Some folks thought I was a tool of the patriarchy. Some folks thought it displayed a certain silliness that meant I couldn’t possibly be a serious scientist. How could I love shoes and make up and also be focused on my career?!?!? And why wasn’t I more interested in conforming to the a-gendered norms that had gotten so many women so far (allegedly)?

(Fast forward….my career is doing ok)

The more I read comments from people who thought that I should be behaving differently, the more I realized that it wasn’t about me. It was about making the others feel comfortable with my place in the world. The presence of under-represented groups in academia does not make the general academic population feel uncomfortable and a lot of professionalism talks are aimed at training these folks how to “pass.” How to dress more masculine as to not be threatening. How to change your speech so that you are not threatening. How to act less gay, less black, less feminine, less barrio, less trans.  If we spent as much time teaching the majority culture to not be assholes as we do teaching others to fit in, the world would be a better place.

I remember my optimism from those days when I thought that there would be a time when it would be acceptable to just be who we are.  Part of what makes science wonderful is that our imagination, creativity, and differences lead to new ideas.  Fast forward to today when the following advice was apparently given at a women scientist’s symposium…

Conference poster

h/t to @GoAstroMo

And it just breaks my heart that we are still doing this to young women. Particularly, that woman are doing this to other women. Teaching them not the be “a distraction” by “showing too much skin.” Even if we ignore that there are groups of women who have been colonized and sexualized for decades, which would be wrong for us to do, it is fundamentally wrong to teach young women that there is some magical combination of behaviors that will cause the patriarchy to unlock the door of advancement.  Sometimes, even when you do everything “right”, you learn that you’re not welcome in a space because the people in the space are racist/misogynist/homophobic/fools.

That’s when it’s time to be a distraction.