I am a Scientist AND a ___________.

Embrace the AND: Work-Life Balance for Women in STEM to Promote Equality in the Work Place

Today is National Women’s Equality Day (apparently it is also National Dog Day, which makes this female scientist with 2 dogs very happy). I consider myself very lucky as a female PhD student in a STEM field in 2016. Female scientists before me have sacrificed in ways that I do not need to and have paved the way for acceptance and encouragement of PhD seeking females. My female role models throughout my many years of school have been in all stages of life from single to married to mother. All are intelligent women who have made great contributions to society in their roles as scientist AND woman/wife/mother/mentor/sister/aunt/etc. All of my research advisors (2 during my undergrad and my PhD advisor) are male. Each has been supportive of my career goals as a woman in STEM. In fact, my PhD advisor once told me “You don’t have to go into a specific career if you don’t want to. Just make sure the reason you aren’t pursuing it isn’t because you think you can’t because you’re a girl”. Still, as a PhD seeking woman, I often get asked the question “What are you going to do when you get married and have kids?”.

science AND

Perhaps it is this question that makes women wonder early on whether they will be able to fulfill roles as scientist AND mother. Maybe this is what makes many women feel that they need to choose one path over the other. A career in science has been traditionally thought of as one that requires COMPLETE devotion. Even many men (whereas most men never need to choose between fatherhood and a career) have forgone families in order to dedicate their lives to science. Although more women are earning PhDs than ever before (41% of STEM PhDs were awarded to women in 2009), the number of female scientists pursuing careers in academia does not hold the same proportion. * Further examination into the personal lives of these women has revealed that unmarried women and women without children are more likely to pursue and hold tenure-track positions in academia than married women or women with children. These statistics indicate that the lack of work-life balance in academic and STEM fields may be causing women to leave science.

Stereotypes and “traditional” attitudes are not the only factors preventing women from achieving a work-life balance. Policies regarding maternity and paternity leave in the United States force many parents to choose between a career and childcare. The United States is the only developed country with no guaranteed paid maternity or paternity leave. California was the first state to have a paid leave program for new parents and large companies such as Netflix, Facebook, and Virgin Airlines are working to offer more flexible plans to help new parents. These policies work to create a better work-life balance to recruit and keep talent. But can these same types of policies be applied to careers in science? After all, 36% of researchers with children report a negative impact on their career if they pursued a work-life balance. ǂ Statistics such as these beg the question: are we losing talented female AND male scientists who want to have a family or a more balanced career and life?

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a major funder of scientific research in the US, is working to incorporate policies to support a healthy work-life balance. Specifically, they aim to increase the placement, advancement, and retention of women in STEM disciplines. Some of these policy changes include¥:

  • Flexible deadlines and extensions for submitting grants
  • Supplemental money in grants for research technicians
    • In labs where the majority of experimental work depends on graduate students who do not cost very much money, an experienced research technician can be a valuable asset if the advisor is unable to devote all of their time to the lab. Research technicians are rare in new labs that have limited funding. However, this is the time that many people may want to start families and need to devote time to their personal lives.
  • Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER (early development program for professors), all post-doctoral programs, and graduate research fellowship program.

Basically, as a leader in science in the US, the NSF is working to lead by example to other funding agencies, universities, and scientists to change what it takes to be a successful scientist. These policies will hopefully take unnecessary pressure off of early-career researchers who have or hope to start families while trying to succeed in the world of academia.

But, when all is said and done, how do you actually improve your work-life balance?

The Association for Women in Science conducts a workshop to develop a personal plan to achieve the work-life balance that you want. Here are a few recommendations from the AWIS to achieve your own work-life balance, or, as they define, “the level of personal fulfillment and professional success that are right for you”:

  • Define your situation. Work-life balance is a personal decision. Define what your own values and priorities are that will constitute your own balance.
  • Develop a strong support system. Family, friends, and close colleagues can all serve as support, coaches, and mentors when trying to achieve your balance.
  • Plan and prioritize. Keep your focus on your pre-determined priorities and learn to say no to non-priorities. I love Galit Lahav’s article “How to Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon” where she advises others to “compartmentalize your brain and calendar”. When you are working, be at work. When you are at home, be at home. Don’t worry about home when you’re at work and vice versa. This will make you more efficient and productive in the end.
  • Learn to say “no”. This one seems to be especially difficult for females compared to males with 55% of females struggling to say “no” compared to 47% of males in science. And saying “no” doesn’t only apply to tasks and favors colleagues, friends, and family ask of you. You might be saying “no” to doing your own laundry or cleaning (you can pay people to do that) or to how well a project needs to completed (is there a “good enough” point?).
  • Set guilt-free boundaries. If you need to leave work early to pick up a child from daycare, then come in early so you don’t need to feel guilty. Make others aware of your situation by setting clear boundaries from the beginning rather than feeling guilty later.
  • Recharge your batteries. Remember that you have to take care of yourself in order to be of any use to anybody else. Sleep well, eat well, take breaks, exercise, and do activities that you enjoy.

“Every time we are saying ‘yes’ to something, we are saying ‘no’ to something else.” –Tara Teppen of the University of Illinois, Chicago

*National Center for Education Statistics 2010-028; NSF SRS InfoBriefs 08-208, 11-305

ǂAssociation for Women in Science Work-Life Balance Executive Summary

¥ Balancing the Scale: NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative


Illuminating biology with biological glowers

Utilizing Biological Phenoma to study Biology: Bioluminescence

Quick: Is the glowing water in this picture photoshopped or real?

bioluminescent waves

Phil Hart [Copyright Phil Hart under a Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-share alike 2.5 license]

The correct answer is real! Yes, there is such a thing as naturally occurring glowing water. And it is made possible by a phenomenon called bioluminescence.

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that happens in a living organism to produce a beautiful glow. Last month a few of my friends were swimming at La Jolla Shores and noticed that the water around them lit up with every movement of their bodies. What made the water glow? Phytoplankton emitting light when agitated—every movement from waves, currents, fish, or, in this case, swimmers, sent colorful flashes throughout the water. Wanting to witness it for myself, we went out again to experience the “glowing waves”. Unfortunately, we were too late in the season to experience the full beauty of bioluminescent plankton lighting up the waves, but by rapidly swishing our hands underwater, we were still rewarded with small sparks of light. Although my encounter with bioluminescence fell short that evening, I do get to see it in action every day in the lab.

Today I introduce how scientists utilize bioluminescent properties to study biological phenomena at the molecular, cellular, and organism level. Throughout history humans have benefited from the natural glow produced by bioluminescent organisms such as the use of dried fish skins as a source of light in coal mines instead of lamps. Usage of these organisms has led researchers to ask the question: what makes these organisms glow? Seeking to understand bioluminescence at a molecular level has led researchers to produce fluorescent “tags”. These “tags” can be attached to an unlimited number of molecules and proteins to answer fundamental biological questions.

Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that takes place in a living organism to produce light. Although the most well-known organism to produce this glow might be the firefly, the majority of bioluminescent creatures are found in the ocean. Different organisms may vary in how they produce their unique glow, but the basic mechanism involves the enzyme* luciferase reacting with the light-emitting compound luciferin to produce light.

The beauty of naturally-glowing living organisms led researchers to investigate the underlying chemistry of this unique phenomenon. One researcher, Osamu Shimomura, began a lifelong relationship with bioluminescence when he found the structureǂ of luciferin in 1955. What followed was a quest to discover how different organisms produced their own unique glow. While investigating the bioluminescent jellyfish Aequorea victoria, Shimomura discovered green fluorescent protein (GFP). This discovery, and the consequent development of GFP, revolutionized biology. Scientists could now attach fluorescent proteins, such as GFP, to a molecule of their choice and literally watch biology in action by watching the fluorescently tagged molecules. In 2008, Shimomura, along with Martin Chalfie and Roger Tsien, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery and development of GFP.

Since the discovery of GFP, fluorescent proteins have been developed in a wide variety of colors for an extensive number of molecules and proteins. Although both fluorescent proteins and bioluminescence produce light, they work very differently. Rather than using a chemical reaction, fluorescent proteins produce certain light colors by using energy from other specific wavelengths of light. Fluorescent proteins create their unique glow when they are “excited” by a wavelength of light specific to the protein.¥ For example, GFP

GFPexcitationandemissionemits green light at ~510 nm after shining blue light at ~490 nm on the protein. By manipulating the protein, these light patterns can be optimized to produce different colors!


Source: Tsien Lab

Researchers can use these proteins to image biological events in real-time and real-space. This process is called fluorescent microscopy. Fluorescent microscopes work by first hitting a sample with an excitation light. A camera attached to the microscope then catches the light emitted from the sample. When specific molecules (proteins, compounds, parts of cells, etc) are tagged with different fluorescent proteins, researchers can watch, analyze, and quantify what is happening—whether this is of molecules by themselves, inside of a cell, or even inside of an organism. Advancing technology in fluorescent proteins, microscopes, and other emerging biological approaches are pushing the limits of how small we can go (can we look at very specific interactions inside of a cell?) and how many things we can watch at the same time (can I see 6 things inside of a cell at the same time rather than only 3?). These advances are enabling us to find answers to critical questions such as:

  • Why do some cells act differently than others, even when treated the same? This question has applications in cancer research, healing responses, and why certain drugs work for some people and not others.
  • Can we predict the movement patterns of cells in response to a specific stimulation? Take a look at my previous post on wound response to see an example of the importance of understanding cellular movement.
  • What are the differences between the actions of a single cell and the actions of a population of cells? Single cells do not always act the same, and yet, a population of cells has a very predictable response. Why?

Although still young, the use of fluorescent proteins in biology is an exciting and continually improving field. By applying fluorescent microscopy to quantitative biology methods, we can better understand biological events to answer some of the most complex biological questions, such as those listed above. Most importantly, the resulting images provide a snapshot into the hidden world of biology by providing a new level of detail into how we function as living organisms.

*An enzyme is a protein that accelerates chemical reactions. Here, it accelerates the chemical reaction that makes luciferin light up.

ǂ In order to understand how things work, scientists often need to first find the structure of their molecule or protein of interest. Structures can be found using a variety of methods.

€ A wavelength of light is a unit of measurement in a light spectrum. That is, each color of light that we see has a specific wavelength—this is the visible light region (390 nm –780 nm).

Light Spectra

¥ Each fluorescent protein has a specific excitation spectrum and emission spectrum. A spectrum is a pattern consisting of peaks and valleys at different wavelengths across the visible light spectrum. This spectrum is unique for every fluorescent protein. For example, the spectrum of GFP has an excitation peak at ~490 nm and an emission peak at ~510 nm. ­ The emission spectrum consists of a peak that emits the color for that wavelength – the green that you see in GFP. This happens only after a specific wavelength of light, or the peak found in the excitation spectrum, excites the fluorescent protein.

GFP spectrum


Part 3: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

Undergraduate Research at a Small University

Finding undergraduate research opportunities when you’re at a small university, primary undergraduate university (PUI), or community/ junior college can be challenging.  Professors at community/ junior colleges, and even at most PUIs, likely do not conduct independently funded research. Furthermore, if there is a research presence at the university, research options might be limited to a few disciplines with small research groups.

womeninscience_wikimedia commons

(Photo courtesy of NIH National Cancer Institute accessed via Wikimedia Commons.)

But don’t worry! Your future research dreams are not over just because you are attending a university or college with little or no research. In fact, there are quite a few advantages to being in this situation. Below is a list of the advantages of attending a non-research focused school in addition to some tips that may help you find a lab to work in during your undergraduate career.

  • Small university/college=small class sizes. Smaller class sizes mean that your professors will be able get to know you better (and vice versa). Good letters of recommendation can only come from professors who have had the opportunity to get to know you, which is more difficult in large class sizes. Additionally, professors at universities that are not focused on research do not have to devote as much, if any, time to research. That means they can devote more to the students.
  • Professors have connections. Even if professors aren’t currently conducting independent research, they most likely have conducted research in this past, either at the Master’s or PhD level. These experiences are valuable to learn from, and they may still have connections to former colleagues who are currently conducting research. Because your professor has been able to get to know you (see point 1!) they may be able to recommend you for research positions. Additionally, they will still have valuable advice and expertise on how to get into research, how to get to your next goal, etc.
  • Don’t fret about your research focus! One of the big secrets about undergraduate research is that your research emphasis doesn’t really The purpose of undergraduate research is to get a taste of what research is like, learn some basic skill sets, and start to learn how to think like a researcher. Therefore, just because you aren’t researching string theory or cancer or whatever else you think you might want to do for the rest of your life isn’t going to be the end of the world. My undergraduate research started in adiabatic calorimetry after which I moved to bioinorganic protein research. Neither of these have ANYTHING to do with quantitative biology or wound response, but they still gave me the experience I needed to get started on my research path. Even more, you may discover new interests by trying to research something you hadn’t considered before.
  • Summer opportunities are bountiful. Take advantage of summer opportunities at cool places! There are programs at larger universities specifically for students at colleges without research. Try e-mailing professors at a nearby university that has a heavier research component. Just because you aren’t a student there doesn’t mean you can’t work in a lab at that university. You can also look at national labs and opportunities abroad. Bonus: a lot of these are paid!
  • Taking time off between degrees is 100% okay! If you still feel you aren’t able to get the research experience you would like as an undergrad, take a year or two off after you graduate and find a “grown-up” research job. There’s no rush to start graduate school or any professional program. Take the time to figure out what your limitations are and get a taste for what science and research are like outside of a textbook. This will also strengthen your resume if and when you do apply for a higher degree program.

Don’t feel limited in your undergraduate research choices just because you aren’t at a major university. There are plenty of options to fulfill your research experience needs that may be more beneficial to your career in the end.

Special thanks to Katherine Nadler for providing insight into undergraduate research at a small university.

This is Part 3 in a series of posts for advice on doing undergraduate research. Find Part 1 HERE and Part 2 HERE.


How do cells find a wound after injury?

How do cells know where they are? It’s an important question we often take for granted, especially in situations like wound healing where cells that are closer to the wound need to respond differently than cells that are farther away. If cells don’t respond correctly it can lead to chronic wounds (wounds that don’t heal), excessive scarring, and even cancer. Here I highlight a study recently published in Currently Biology that demonstrates how hemocytes*  find their way to a wound. The Paul Martin Lab at the University of Bristol and the Michael P.H. Stumpf** group at the Imperial College London worked together using a combination of in vivo (meaning, experiments done in a living organism) wound data and computational simulations to answer the question of how hemocytes know which direction to travel following an injury in Drosophila (fly)*** embryos.


One way that cells figure out where they are is by using information from the wounded cells themselves. Injured cells release DAMPs (damage associated molecular patterns) which tell the neighboring healthy cells how far they are from the wound. To illustrate how DAMPs work, imagine you are sitting in the stands of the Shamu show (or what used to be the Shamu show, at least) at SeaWorld and you want to figure out how close you are to the tank. It should be easy enough, but here’s the catch: you can’t open your eyes and you can’t move. One way you could figure out how close you are is by measuring how wet you get when Shamu splashes the audience. If you are close to the tank, you will get soaked. If you are farther from the tank, you will stay dry. DAMPs work in a similar way. Cells that are closer to the wound receive a lot of DAMPs, and cells that are further away receive less. However, scientists still aren’t sure what exactly these DAMPs are and how they travel across cells to activate them to initiate a healing response. Here, Martin and Stumpf determine how DAMPs lead hemocytes to an injury.

Following an injury, hemocytes travel to the site of the wound to begin the healing process by following a gradient of DAMPs. However, the specific identity of these DAMPs and how they travel remains unknown. Since the technology to physically measure gradients formed by DAMPs is yet to be fully developed, the Martin and Stumpf groups developed a mathematical model to predict how the DAMP gradient forms based on how hemocytes traveled to a wound following an injury. They began by injuring flies and quantifying how hemocytes moved towards the wound. Quantifying hemocyte movement involved several parameters including how long it took the hemocyte to reach the wound, when the hemocyte began to move after the wound, and how many times the hemocyte changed directions while moving towards the wound.

The results of their experimental data combined with the computational model show 3 main points that differ from the current theory of DAMPs.

  1. The Martin and Stumpf labs found that DAMPs are released from the cells immediately surrounding the wound. This differs from prior predictions that DAMPs are released from the wounded cells themselves. The current theory of DAMP release is kind of like a water balloon that explodes when punctured. All of the water comes and gets anything in close proximity wet.
  2. The model revealed that there is only a single “wave” of DAMPS that lasts for only 30 minutes (as opposed to multiple releases over an extended period of time). This is significant when you think about how long a wound takes to heal-days and even weeks! That’s like taking a 2-week long road relying only on directions given to you in the first 30 minutes.
  3. DAMPs that recruit hemocytes to a wound travel by diffusion. That is, the healthy cells surrounding the wound do not use any sort of active mechanism to ensure that the DAMPs travel to the appropriate distance.

The Martin and Stumpf groups were also able to use their model to determine how hemocyte recruitment changes with multiple wounds, closely spaced wounds, and large wounds.

Multiple Wounds. For multiple wounds, they found that hemocytes become desensitized, or no longer respond, if the wound takes place less than 3 hours following the first wound. This makes sense when you think about how an organism needs to efficiently allocate its resources. If all of the hemocytes went to the new wound, then the old wound would not be able to continue healing. However, this might imply decreased healing for wounds occurring close to the first wound within a short time period. They also examined how hemocytes travel to wounds that are varying distances from each other.

Closely Spaced Wounds. Wounds that are very close together are essentially seen as “one wound” by hemocytes whereas wounds that are far apart are seen as two separate wounds. However, wounds at an intermediary distance displayed an interesting hemocyte behavior. Here, hemocytes between the wounds struggled to decide which wound to travel to, resulting in a decreased number of hemocytes at both wounds. It would be interesting to study whether this behavior causes wounds located at intermediary distances to heal less efficiently, but as of yet, no one has.

Large Wounds. The Martin and Stumpf groups studied the effects of very large wounds on hemocyte recruitment. Interestingly, they found that some large wounds healed appropriately while others did not. This is similar to clinical observations where chronic wounds cannot always be determined at the initial stage of wounding (meaning, you can’t tell if a wound is going to be chronic based simply by looking at it). This is the first time that a chronic wound model has been shown and will be of interest to future scientists to study what factors impact whether a wound will be chronic or not.   

So what does this mean in the broader world of science??

One of the most interesting thing that the Martin and Stumpf accomplished here was their ability to develop a mathematical model to predict the formation of the DAMP gradient. Mathematical models, although used heavily in other sciences such as physics and chemistry, have been slow to be adopted in biology. Biology can get messy, and therefore mathematical models can be difficult to implement. However, when technology to directly observe biological phenomena is still lacking, mathematical models can be a powerful tool. Although their model cannot tell you what the exact DAMPs released from the wound are (that will require more experiments), it provides a lot of clues to where researchers should be looking. This is a great example of the power of quantitative biology to solve biological problems.


*Hemocytes is the term for blood cells in invertebrates. In this case the invertebrate is a fly. Hemocytes are a part of the immune system and are required in the wound healing process.

**Weavers et al., Systems Analysis of the Dynamic Inflammatory Response to Tissue Damage Reveals Spatiotemporal Properties of the Wound Attractant Gradient, Current Biology (2016), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.06.012

***Why flies? The use of Drosphila embryos as a model is common in wound studies. They are transparent, making them easy to image under microscopes. Furthermore, flies are easy to genetically alter and, as far as immune response goes, work similarly to humans.