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1999 WICB / Career Strategy Columns (Archive)

A Crash Course in Management; Elizabeth Marincola

Most people who are managers — those who are responsible for the supervision of people, money and/or other resources — have not been formally trained in management. Many untrained managers rise to the challenge successfully. Harold Varmus is a stunning example of an untrained manager who is finishing a spectacular tenure as Director of a $15 billion, 16,000-person federal agency, having never managed anything more extensive than his own lab.

But every successful manager has learned lessons along the way. Here are some to consider:

  1. Don't Act, Ask
    The first thing a new manager should do, even before the first day on the job, is to draw out those who are already there. Ask the previous manager what his greatest contribution and biggest mistake was; ask current employees what they like and dislike about the environment; ask the clerical staff how operations can be improved; ask the supervisor for her expectations; ask the grounds keepers for a good route for a walk and about security concerns. Collecting this important information has the added benefit of signaling that the new manager values others' opinions.

    Don't take immediate action. If it is clear that changes should be made, for example in personnel, ask several people in the organization for their advice before doing anything. Even after building confidence and experience, asking others for advice is rarely harmful and always helpful, if it is considered seriously.
  2. Sincerity and Equity are More Effective than Flattery and Favoritism
    The most enduring working relationships are those built on honesty and consistency. It is tempting to give into insecurities by pandering to employees, but the loyalty it may engender is fickle. Be quick to note when others have done good work, but don't feel that each day must be started by making the rounds telling people how nice they look or inquiring about their children or pets. People can smell insincerity quickly. They respect those who respect their own time. In a professional setting it is better to be respected than adored; to be trusted than everyone's best friend.
  3. Be Specific in Your Criticism
    If someone makes a mistake or produces poor work, it is the manager's responsibility to let him know it and why. First, look for aspects of the work that can be praised. Compare the work to assignments produced by the same person that were done better. Praise publicly, but criticize privately. Criticism should be clear and helpful, not punitive. Do not generalize criticism: stick to the actual mistakes made in the case at hand. Do not apologize for having to confront someone with their weaknesses: it is not only the manager's job, but she is also helping colleagues improve, which is to everyone's benefit.
  4. Don't Apologize
    Perhaps having internalized the traditional subordinate mother's role of an earlier generation, women in particular often have a hard time asking people to do something for them, even if it is the person's job, such as with a secretary or assistant. “Please” should be used abundantly, but “sorry” should be used sparingly. For example, "would you please copy this paper for me?" is more appropriate than, "I'm sorry, would you mind copying this paper for me?" if it is indeed the person's job to perform such tasks. "Can you do me a favor and...?" is another form that should be avoided (unless it is a favor, e.g. something personal). Many women are so used to being apologetic about managing other people that they are not even conscious of this terminology, which weakens them.
  5. Drive Your Own Priorities
    There is not necessarily a correlation between how insistent or anxious people are for the manager's attention and the importance of their projects. Give your attention to what is most important, not what (who) is loudest in demanding your attention. An exception to this rule is if a quick review by the manager will allow an entire production process to move forward. Managers who are over-responsive to the most insistent demands will not be able to effectively achieve their most important objectives.
  6. Let Others Look Good
    Resist the instinct to be jealous of colleagues. If the organization (lab, department, company) looks good, everyone looks good. Encourage junior colleagues to give a paper, make a presentation, serve on a committee or author a memo when appropriate. One person cannot pretend to be as knowledgeable about each aspect of an operation as the sum of all the others. This also satisfies the employees' natural need to be recognized for their own work, contributing to the retention of valuable people.

    One caveat, though, is that the manager will ultimately be held accountable for the work of others. Allowing others to take the credit they deserve does not extend to relinquishing involvement and control. In the end, the manager is accountable for the quality of work.

  7. It's the Money, Stupid!
    In almost any work environment, whether or not the purpose of the organization is to make money, the bottom line is... the bottom line. Be certain that the financial aspects of risky and/or creative projects are fully analyzed in advance. Storms are weathered much more successfully if detractors cannot say, "and besides, look at the money she's lost us!"
  8. Penny Wisdom is Pound Foolishness
    Pay people what they're worth within the constraints of the organization. In reviewing salary, the guiding principle should be how badly hurt the organization would be in the long run if the person in question were to leave. For service and knowledge industries, employees are the most valuable assets of an organization. Turnover is expensive in training, lost productivity, and the uncertainty of being able to recruit a replacement effectively.
  9. Negotiate for the Long Term
    In negotiations, leave something on the table. The most successful negotiations leave all parties feeling they have "won." Decide which variables are most important and concede something of the others. For example, an offer of a lower starting salary to a new employee may be made more attractive by a flexible start date or a travel allowance. Always assume an ongoing business relationship with negotiating partners.
  10. Set an Example
    Acknowledge mistakes, and apologize. Work hard. Perform beyond the level expected of employees. Start meetings on time to avoid a culture of tardiness and consequent lost time. Follow through. Actively defend subordinates when they have been unfairly accused. Have a sense of humor, especially about yourself.

—Elizabeth Marincola, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Increasing Representation of People of Color in Science; Lydia Villa-Komaroff

In the influential 1945 report Science – the Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush observed, “there are talented individuals in every segment of the population, but with few exceptions, those without the means of buying higher education go without it. Here is a tremendous waste of the greatest resource of a nation – the intelligence of its citizens.” Since that report, over half a century ago, there have been substantial efforts to increase the participation of both women and minorities in the scientific endeavor. In at least some fields, including cell biology, substantial progress has been made with respect to the participation of women, but the participation of minority individuals continues to be disappointingly low.

To increase the number of underrepresented minorities in science, there are three areas that must be addressed: getting children through high school with the expectation of going to college, maintaining interest in science throughout college, and increasing the number of students who enter graduate programs in science.

In an attempt to recruit and retain minority individuals in scientific fields, a large number of programs aimed at undergraduates have been implemented. These programs are designed to retain interested undergraduates in science and recruit them into graduate programs. As a whole, these programs can be considered a modest success, since the number of minority individuals obtaining degrees in science, math and engineering has increased very slightly, while the overall number of students graduating with science degrees has declined. However, if the status quo is only sustained, there will be no substantial change in the representation of minority individuals in science.

It may be that the only way to make a substantial difference in the number of minority individuals in science is to intervene in early childhood. Particularly with underrepresented individuals, children must be given the opportunity to envision a future beyond that of their immediate circumstances. There is not a child under six who is not intensely interested in the way the world works. Unfortunately, most children lose this interest before they leave elementary school. If the natural interest that every child has in science could be maintained, many more children from all backgrounds would enter science. In addition, children seem to conclude very early that there are some professions that are not open to them. This is vividly illustrated by a comment made by a 4-year-old to his mother, a lawyer, after visiting with his aunts, one a banker, one a scientist. “Oh, Mom,” he said, “I can’t be a lawyer, I can’t be a banker, and I can’t be a scientist, because those are girls’ jobs!” Children need to see images of people they can identify with as scientists to give them a sense of possibility and the belief that they belong in the mainstream world.

One highly successful program aimed at elementary-aged minority children is the Mothers and Daughters Program in El Paso, Texas. This program was established in 1986 by Josephina Villamil Tinajero, Professor of Bilingual Education and Assistant Dean in the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso, who is also a child of a Texas barrio. Tinajero began the program in an attempt to reduce the high level of teen pregnancy, increase high school graduation rates, and increase college enrollment which had been essentially nonexistent, among children growing up in the poor neighborhoods of El Paso. In these families English is spoken poorly if at all, there is no family history of higher education, and both the children and their parents have low expectations of themselves.

There are four key approaches instrumental to the success of the Mothers and Daughters Program. First, children and parents are involved when the children are young. Tinajero reasoned that intervention must occur before the children enter adolescence, when peer pressure and hormonal changes make outside influence difficult, so the program focuses on sixth graders. Second, at least one parent is required to be heavily involved in the program. Third, the program provides experiences that instill children with the feeling that they are both capable of and entitled to a college education. Finally, the program provides adult role models.

Potential program participants are identified by fifth grade teachers as those girls who show great promise but are at risk because of economic, family or neighborhood problems. When a group of candidates is identified, an invitation to participate in the Mothers and Daughters Program is extended to both mothers and their daughters. Participants enter a one-year program where they visit the University of Texas campus several times, including at least one overnight visit in a dorm. They have the opportunity to meet and talk to students. They also meet and question Mexican-American women in a variety of professions including policewomen, lawyers, judges, accountants, scientists, writers and airline pilots. At the end-of-the-year ceremony, the mothers and daughters make pledges to each other. The daughters pledge to do their homework everyday, to finish high school, to not get pregnant until after marriage. The mothers pledge to help the daughters find a place to do homework, and to support their daughters' ambitions. Participants decide on the pledges they wish to make and write the pledges on decorative paper provided by the program. The handwritten pledges are often framed and placed prominently in homes. Unfortunately, the program can maintain only occasional contact with the students after the sixth grade year.

In the first cohort of 33 girls, 32 graduated from high school, 10 as honor students, and all of the 32 enrolled in college. Three mothers in this cohort have graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso, and many others are pursuing their education. Over 1600 daughters and their mothers have participated in the program since its inception in 1986. Many of the former participants who are currently in college are acting as “big sisters” for new sixth graders entering the program. In addition, the rate of teen pregnancy in the program participants is far lower than for their classmates.

The Mothers and Daughters Program has been so successful that it has been extended to five University of Texas systems as well as institutions in other parts of the Southwest. In 1998, Tinajero began a similar program for boys and their fathers, and she is developing programs to enhance the math and science skills of teachers. The programs have been supported by AT&T, the Rotary Club, the Kellogg Foundation, the Freedom Forum, Meadow Foundation and Southwestern Bell.

Margaret Mead once observed that it took three generations of education before a woman would aspire to and obtain an advanced degree. Only 1% of Hispanic women have advanced degrees, and fewer than 7% of PhDs in the sciences are awarded to minority individuals. These disappointing numbers represent several generations of lost talent. Unless we expand the availability of programs such as Mothers and Daughters, we will continue to lose the talent of a significant portion of our population.

—Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Northwestern University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Crossing to the Other Side; Julie Theriot

Scientific research is usually a collaborative effort, most successful and most fun when performed by a team of individuals who complement each others’ knowledge and talents. In academia, small laboratories are generally directed by just one person, the faculty member or principal investigator (the P.I.). The success and happiness of the lab depends in large measure on the ability of the P.I. to keep the team working together smoothly. The relevant people-management skills are taught in business schools, but are not generally part of Ph.D. or postdoctoral training.

In academic research, the transition from team member to team director is usually sharp. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows often get the opportunity to train more junior members of their lab, and some even directly supervise the work of a technician, but it is rare to gain experience in managing a whole group at these stages. For most faculty members, the start of the first appointment as an assistant professor marks a time when the individual stops being one of "us", the team of postdoctoral fellows, students, and technicians that do the bulk of the work, and suddenly becomes one of "them", the P.I.’s.

The sharpness and completeness of this transition takes many new assistant professors by surprise, and its artificiality makes scientists at this point in their careers extremely susceptible to the "Impostor Phenomenon" (described in the October 1997 ASCB Newsletter WICB column). Particularly difficult is the transition to playing the opposite part in the mentor-student relationship. Science is one of the few professions that is still entered by apprenticeship, and the dynamic between graduate students and faculty is complex. A little informal surveying has revealed some common themes and experiences on the part of those doing the crossing over:

"Graduate students listen too carefully to everything I say."

Even though the new P.I. is the same person she was a month before as a postdoctoral fellow, with no more wisdom and very little more experience, her words suddenly carry disproportionate weight. Students are much more likely to remember an offhand comment or supposition of a P.I. than the P.I. is likely to remember it herself. An off-color remark or moment of inappropriate public behavior, which would have been laughed at and forgotten when the P.I. was one of "us," can become a rich source of gossip after she has crossed over to the other side. And no matter how hard a P.I. tries to be unobtrusive, her personality quirks will be diligently noted and faithfully reproduced in student skits.

The best way to deal with this is to learn to choose words carefully. We all remember how a few cutting words from our own graduate advisor could sting, and, likewise, how justified praise at the right moment could mean so much. Do not worry too much about the quirks. Students don’t make fun of the faculty they despise; being lampooned is a real sign of affection.

"Graduate students don’t listen to anything I say."

Of course, the P.I. does not get to select which words the students choose to retain. In a competitive research field, it is often important to get results quickly; a few weeks or months of delay can mean getting scooped. Since the new P.I. has spent so much time learning to do science, is now so good at it, and has so much riding on the early success of the new lab, the temptation is strong to rescue a floundering student’s work (in the planning, experimental or analysis stage) by saying, "here, let me just do that." Good graduate advisors must develop a balance between guiding students and letting them figure things out for themselves, even if this sometimes takes longer than just doing the work for the students. Many students will be smart and opinionated (maybe like the P.I. once was in graduate school) and will prefer to try new things their own way. This can be frustrating for a P.I. who feels that she is usually right. A common and useful solution is to let the student do things both ways. If the P.I. is right, the student will figure this out, and perhaps take advice more easily in the future. If the student’s way turns out to be better, then everyone is better off anyway.

"Nobody in the lab ever tells me when there are problems."

When the P.I. spends much of the time alone in an office that is separated from the lab, major conflicts can arise among the team that do not come to light until weeks or months later. It is a shock to many new assistant professors to learn that the famous obliviousness of most faculty is not necessarily innate, but happens because people can only process the available information. Lab citizens can carefully and restrictively filter this relevant information. A new P.I.’s increased visibility as one of "them" means that everyone is aware of her presence. For example, silence will descend when a P.I. enters a crowded and cheerful elevator, and she will probably hear less swearing than she is accustomed to in the lab.

In the one-on-one advisor-student relationship, the filtering can be an impediment to the progress of the research. Many students are happy to speak to their advisor when things are working, but avoid them when things are not; they may be reluctant to admit confusion or defeat. A P.I. must, therefore, learn to listen carefully and closely to what the student does not say, since silence probably indicates perplexity. It is important to ferret out the problems, with patience and compassion.

"My students don’t tolerate my faults; I am just a human being."

One graduate student weighs in, "I’ve heard this ‘The P. I. is a human being’ schtick before. I just don’t buy it." There may be no immediate solution to this, but someday this graduate student is likely to be running a lab of his own. Like new parents who suddenly develop an appreciation for the behavior and foibles of their own parents, new assistant professors almost always have retroactive sympathy for their former advisors.

In the end, every new assistant professor must develop her or his own style of mentoring and managing a research group. Senior colleagues can be an invaluable source of advice, and friends in business or other fields who manage teams of people may be even more helpful. The learning curve is very steep for the first few years, but when the team works well together to develop a new breakthrough, the taste of success is much sweeter than individual accomplishment.

–Julie Theriot for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


The Scholarship of Teaching; Christopher Dobson

New faculty members commonly make their instructional debut by diving head-first into teaching, with little formal training or preparation in pedagogy, to either sink or swim. Naturally, many instructors adopt a teaching method based primarily on how they were taught as students. This seems reasonable, but is it effective?

Although effectiveness as a teacher is difficult to measure, any such measurement should be based on its impact on student learning. The central importance of learning was highlighted in the seminal article, From Teaching to Learning–A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education (1995), and more recently in the national videoconference, Tools for Transformation: Making the Learning Paradigm a Reality (1999). The purpose of both was to advocate systemic change at a national level that would place the focus of educators on learning.

Many instructors attempt to improve their teaching over time by adopting ad hoc pedagogical techniques. But without systematic and purposeful implementation, an individual’s teaching method may not change significantly over the course of a career. While instructors often measure their teaching effectiveness by the successes of their students after graduation, some students may succeed in spite of our teaching, not because of it.

Instructors at all levels need a formal and comprehensive treatment, a scholarship of teaching, with the ultimate goal of increasing student learning. In addition, educators need a working model that they can use to guide their professional development in a systematic and purposeful manner over the course of their careers. Such a model must be general enough to encompass as many aspects of teaching as possible, yet specific enough to have practical value.

The model presented here is based on the concept of scholarship defined by Ernest Boyer in Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate (1990). Boyer’s development of scholarship, however, was in relation to discipline-specific research, rather than teaching per se. The model embraces three distinct yet overlapping elements that coalesce to form the body of one’s teaching. These elements are a scholarly approach, rationale and classroom practice. In brief, successful teachers have a rationale for their teaching methods, based on an adequate knowledge of their discipline and pedagogy that translates into effective classroom practice. The scholarly approach, which consists of a mindset that compels a persistent exploration of one’s teaching, serves as the mechanism that continues to inform an educator’s rationale and classroom practice over time. It is the most central and cohesive element of the model.

Traits that characterize the mindset of a scholarly approach include inquiry, reflection and receptiveness. Inquisitive scholars continually question teaching methods with the purpose of improving student learning. They actively reflect on their teaching, openly inviting constructive criticism from peers. Scholars are receptive to new ideas and demonstrate a willingness to try new teaching techniques.

This scholarly mindset drives an exploration of one’s teaching through activities, such as discovery, integration, application and interaction. Discoveries germane to teaching can be made through classroom observation, experimentation and assessment, as well as through activities, such as reviewing the literature and attending conferences. Scholars integrate the results of this exploration with their knowledge of pedagogy and apply their findings to future teaching methods in the classroom. Scholars share their discoveries by interacting with colleagues through discussion, publications and presentations.

Since teachers are unique individuals, success in any component of the model is relative, and subject to continual refinement. Serving as a road map, the model can guide an educator’s professional development by targeting specific components of the model for development.

The scholarly approach is not new. Academic researchers typically employ a scholarly approach when contributing to knowledge in their field. They are inherently inquisitive and reflective about their study subject, engaging in various methods of discovery, integration, application and interaction. Readily apparent in the sciences, researchers regularly investigate the causal relationships of natural phenomena. During this exploration, it is essential that researchers be receptive to new ideas and demonstrate a willingness to modify their methods as needed. Integration of findings with an existing understanding of their field and application of this product is crucial in realizing the larger implications of their work. Interaction with colleagues through publications and presentations is the natural culmination of their efforts.

The scholarly approach, typically seen in research, can be directed with the same rigor to developing aspects of one’s teaching rationale and classroom practice. For example, teachers can approach the classroom as researchers and attempt to assess the effectiveness of both their teaching and their impact on student learning. Based on this evaluation, educators can modify both their rationale and classroom practice accordingly.

By practicing a scholarship of teaching, educators can accumulate a number of teaching strategies, each based on sound rationale and intended for specific learning situations. Over time they acquire a portable toolbox of pedagogical methods and the ability to discern opportunities for employing various techniques. In other words, they become excellent classroom practitioners whose methods are prescribed by a rationale based on a sound knowledge of their discipline and pedagogy, which is tested and strengthened over time by a vigorous scholarly approach.

–Christopher Dobson, Idaho State University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee

The author is a graduate student in the Doctor of Arts program in Biology at Idaho State University. Sharolyn Belzer and Stephen Burton were instrumental in the development of this model. Their assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

  • Barr, Robert B. and John Tagg. 1995. "From Teaching to Learning–A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education." Change, November/ December.
  • Boyer, Ernest L. 1990. Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Princeton, New Jersey.
  • "Tools for Transformation: Making the Learning Paradigm a Reality." Produced by Palomar College and presented via satellite by PBS, February, 4, 1999.


Optimizing the Family-Career Balance; Elizabeth Marincola

People in general, but perhaps mothers more than anyone, are phenomenal self-rationalizers. Thus, if a woman voluntarily foregoes a profession to raise her children without conflict of a demanding career, she will believe passionately that this choice, and the personal, financial, marital, and moral sacrifices it entails was the correct one for her family. No less passionate is the woman who believes that continuing to invest in her career as she raises her family is in the best interest of her family. This should not be surprising, since all parents love their children more than anything and put their welfare first.

For those of us who have the choice to work, a caution: if you ever hear the expression "Super Mom" or "Super Dad," you should immediately reject it and focus on reality. The Superhuman Parent is an accolade earned exclusively by women and men who have no choices. These are parents for whom working is not a social statement nor a feminist right, but an economic necessity and often a monotonous burden.

Those who have the luxury of choosing to develop a career and who are passionate about their work will find a way to maintain and build it while raising their family. Conversely, those who are fearful of how children will fit into their impossible life won’t regret finding the courage of their conviction: parenthood will make the importance of everything else fade in comparison.

Simultaneously building a career and raising a family demands tradeoffs among time, money and intimacy. For example, parents may wish to be the one to take their children to the pediatrician or participate in school field trips. However, if others do the laundry and/or grocery shopping, there is little emotional "expense" to the family. Invest in the best possible childcare and homecare you can find. Even if one entire income is devoted to these needs in the early years, it should be considered an investment in career and family.

Work hard, long and efficiently when possible in order to be free of guilt when the children need you. Conversely, go on every field trip you can so when you can’t, you won’t hear, "but Mom, you never come!" Try to avoid regularly constraining both ends of the workday. Many partners develop a pattern whereby one goes to work early, even before the children wake up, while the other gets the children to school or daycare before going to work. The partner on the early shift may be able to get home correspondingly early, and supervise homework while cooking dinner, allowing the late shift partner to work into the evening. In this way, each can take advantage of precious quiet office time, while maximizing the hours in the day that children can enjoy parental attention.

All parents are anxious to maximize time with their children. Scientists may be more anxious than most, because time is particularly precious, and maybe because anxiety is in their nature. Here are some nuts-and-bolts suggestions from one mother's thirty child-years of experience:

  • If just those and all those for whom you are directly responsible (typically children and spouse) are at home, don't answer the phone. That's why God invented voice mail. There's nothing that can't wait. An involved conversation easily derails an activity or conversation.
  • Eat dinner together every possible night. This may mean late dinners and/ or resuming work (preferably from home) after children are in bed. As my grandfather the Rabbi used to say, "there's no greater blessing than eight [or ten or six] feet under the table."
  • Eliminate music, telephone or other distractions when your children are in the car. The conversation it can inspire is amazing. A typical moment: total silence from your five-year-old for three blocks, followed by a voice from the backseat: "when people die, the world still stays here... right?"
  • "Quality time" is defined by a common focus and the opportunity for satisfying conversation. Thus, pulling weeds can be richly rewarding; conversely, the circus or ballpark may contribute little to your relationship with your children if other adults demand your attention and the children are reduced to an annoyance.
  • Involve your children in your work in appropriate ways as they grow. The less of a black hole "the office," the less mystery and resentment it engenders. Talk about the day’s excitement or problem in a way your children can understand. This allows them to get closer to you by sharing your real frustrations and satisfactions, and also helps cultivate their skills of listening, empathy and analysis. Ask their advice; it may be good.

The key to sanity may be to eliminate everything imaginable that serves neither your family relationship nor your career. This may include activities which seemed inexpendable previously, like reading the newspaper, regular exercise or eating breakfast.

A career in science is a noble investment in society but it is also an economic and moral investment in your family. Parents who actively seek to peel away expendable burdens, and account aggressively for their expendability, may be pleasantly surprised that even a career in science, as demanding as it may be, can leave significant time for the family, as long as there are no illusions that there will be much time for anything else. But, then again, nothing else will seem as fun and satisfying.

Adapted from the Fae Golden Kass Lecture, Harvard Medical School, May 1999.

–Elizabeth Marincola for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Crying in the Workplace; Maureen Brandon

Every human experiences a range of emotions, including happiness, fear, anger or sadness, during a normal workday. Some of these emotions are elicited by events which occur during the workday, and some remain in the forefront of a person’s consciousness due to events that have occurred in their personal lives. Social mores, however, move most people to largely suppress their emotions in the presence of co-workers. But emotions are powerful and are often uncontrollable at the most inopportune moments, sometimes leaving a person struggling to hold back tears.

As children, both boys and girls express their emotions through crying. However, boys quickly learn from their peers in elementary school, and sometimes from their parents, that they should not cry. By middle school, the rules governing public display of emotion are ingrained in most young men and they begin to learn other ways to express emotions. Girls, on the other hand, feel less constraints on their ability to express emotions and may cry publicly at least through high school.

An adult crying in public attracts attention, but more so when the crier is male. Most people are extremely uncomfortable around a man who is crying. Because it is a rare event, it is assumed that very strong emotions have caused the man to cry, and that these emotions result from events that the average person, especially one not intimately connected to the individual, cannot effectively manage. It is more natural for a woman to cry in public, but it is not always appropriate, especially in the workplace.

If a professional woman cries in conversation with a male supervisor, especially if it happens often and/or in mixed company, the crying may be interpreted by others as a sign of incompetence, even if there is evidence that suggests otherwise. Therefore, in order to be successful in the work environment typical for most women scientists, women are well-advised to control their natural tendency to cry in response to emotions. While this may be unfair, it is important to remember that men, in similar situations, are also struggling to control their emotions. Men are just less likely to be suppressing tears.

Women use numerous ways to control crying. For example, they may maintain stony silence, exhibit slow, methodical reasoning or shout. Of these options, shouting may best grab the attention of male supervisors, because it is a common male response, but it is increasingly viewed by both men and women as even less professional than crying. Many women are successful in controlling tears in the presence of male supervisors or coworkers, then cry in the privacy of their offices at the first opportunity.

What should a woman who has difficulty controlling tears do to handle her emotions at work? One suggestion is to anticipate and mentally prepare for an emotionally-charged encounter, such as meeting the Chair to review a poor evaluation. Imagining the possible scenarios for the meeting and allowing herself to feel the related emotions may steel her for the actual meeting. If the tears come even after mental preparation, it is important to explain that crying is a response to other emotions. In this example, it may be effective to say, "I am frustrated because I do not understand what the department expects of me." This helps the Chair understand the deeper reasons for the emotions and overlook the tears.

In addition to controlling their own emotions, everyone must also deal with the emotions of the people around them. In the world of science, these people include colleagues, as well as students and staff in laboratories, offices and classrooms. Both men and women have difficulty knowing how to react when they are confronted with someone who is crying. The normal human tendency is to comfort the distressed person, but often people are so embarrassed and unsure how to react that they are reduced to offering platitudes. In order to help, one must first accept crying as an honest expression of emotion that is rooted in deeper issues. If the crier’s emotions are validated by acknowledging that other people in the same situation have responded in the same manner, then the crier may feel comfortable enough to explain the issues underlying the tears. For example, instructors often witness students crying after learning of a failing grade. The instructor’s response could be, "I understand that the grade upsets you. Would you like to talk about your interest in this area so I can help you decide if this is the best course for you?" The instructor may learn, for example, that the student is a biology major only because of family pressure to attend medical school. If the student's own interests and abilities lie in another field, then the instructor can advise the student on a more productive course of study.

Professional women may disagree with the idea that they are best off suppressing their natural means of expressing emotion in order to succeed in a male-dominated work place. However, the reality is that all workers must recognize that current professional standards of emoting do not include the freedom to cry in public. Additionally, it would serve people at all levels of an organization and of both sexes to better understand the range of emotional expressions and the ultimate meaning behind them.

–Maureen Brandon, Idaho State University, and Virginia Allen, Chair, Department of Counseling, Idaho State University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Resource Bureau Identifies Women Speakers; Caroline Kane and Sandra Masur

Have you scanned the composition of a blue-ribbon panel or hot topic symposium and been distressed that women scientists are under-represented or even absent? Have you been told by organizers that there was only one appropriate woman scientist and she turned them down?

The Women in Cell Biology Committee (WICB) of the American Society for Cell Biology has taken the initiative to assist such organizers. Most of us can name more than one outstanding woman scientist who speaks well and would be an excellent panel or symposium participant. How to make organizers aware of these individuals is more challenging. Placing an advertisement in Nature or Science stating, "Brainy Women with Innovative Research Programs Available for Exciting Presentations at Scientific Conferences" does not seem appropriate. Instead, WICB has established a Resource Bureau, a list of prominent women scientists in a variety of fields who have volunteered to provide referrals to women scientists with excellent research programs and compelling speaking skills, and to recommend them for meetings and committee memberships.

The members of the Resource Bureau are all frequent invitees and attendees at professional meetings in their respective disciplines. The Bureau functions as a source of expert advice for organizers, rather than as a list of volunteer speakers or panelists. Indeed, Bureau members are excellent candidates for such activities, but their goal is to showcase the larger number of women scientists who might not be familiar to organizers and planners. They will discuss with organizers women scientists with whom they may be less familiar, but who would add to the expertise and excellence of a panel or a meeting. In particular, this mechanism of expert referrals could provide the names of "rising stars" augmenting the well-known scientists who appear regularly on short lists. In this way, the Bureau members can facilitate efforts to reflect the diversity of excellence in science in committees, review panels and meeting speakers.

The WICB Committee is particularly concerned about international conferences that often lack women speakers. The Resource Bureau is especially in need of international members who can provide organizers throughout the world with advice for improving the representation of women on their speaker lists.

The Bureau listing is disseminated semi-annually to nearly two dozen major conference organizers, including the Gordon Conferences and the Keystone Symposia. Meeting organizers are invited to contact a Bureau member with expertise in a particular field to discuss a potential speaker or to receive suggestions about appropriate women speakers. Suggestions about additional organizations that should receive the list are welcome.

The National Institutes of Health has recently required a larger representation by women in NIH-sponsored meetings. We believe that this mandate has ignited the interest of organizers to expand their pool of speakers. Our hope is that recommending excellent speakers who are women will both produce momentum for and reinforce the wisdom of these guidelines.

The Resource Bureau membership includes names, affiliations, telephone numbers and email addresses. To comment on the Resource Bureau or to offer to participate, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

–Caroline Kane and Sandra Masur for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


Making the Transition from Academia to Industry; Frank Boschelli

For most students, postdocs and faculty whose only experience with science is in academia, the work life in industry is an unknown quantity. Yet the current job market suggests that many of these scientists will end up working in the pharmaceutical or biotech industry. This perspective on the worlds of academia and industry comes from a scientist who recently made the transition from a biochemistry department in a large medical school to the pharmaceutical industry.

The first few years in a faculty job are stressful, invigorating, exasperating and almost impossibly demanding. Most academics spend long hours and weekends teaching, experimenting, keeping up with the literature, writing grants and papers, and constantly worrying about research money. The two most common types of academic appointments are in medical schools or in science divisions in universities with undergraduate and graduate students. In general, medical schools have limited resources for graduate student support, so most research labs are small and faculty members do their own experiments and grunt work, like washing glassware. Faculty working in an undergraduate/graduate school setting do considerably more teaching, but correspondingly less labwork and are responsible for a larger number of graduate and undergraduate students. The differences in research productivity between a medical school and an undergraduate/graduate school faculty appointment can thus be significant.

The rewards for all this hard work can be exhilarating. It can be very satisfying for a faculty member to see a graduate student they have trained get a Ph.D., observe their students’ discoveries in the lab or the classroom, or influence the path of a younger person. Also, the satisfaction of creating a successful research program is a feeling that most people will never experience.

In the pharmaceutical industry, the hours are shorter, the weekends are your own, there is no grant writing and the pay is generally higher, but other choices are circumscribed. Scientists may not like their supervisors or the project to which they have been assigned. They can especially dislike what is perceived as interference by business managers of the company.

The duties of an industrial scientist are more postdoc-like; that is, the days are spent doing experiments. It is unusual for bench level scientists to devise their own projects. However, there is the opportunity to eventually become a lab director who chooses the research projects in the lab. This type of position usually requires longer work hours and frequent travel, more or less what would happen with an academic job. An industrial lab manager thus resembles an academic lab head, but is subject to constraints imposed by research directions desired by the scientific and business leaders in the company (while an academic researcher might be guided by the leanings of grant study sections). Additionally, an industrial lab director will usually have greater constraints in dealing with personnel than an academic lab head, since more formal personnel commitments are generally the case in industry compared to academia.

Another important difference between academics and industry is resources. In marked contrast to the academic scientist, industrial scientists do not do every experimental protocol themselves, but can generally rely on core facilities staffed by people who perform specialized tasks. An industrial scientist is also more likely to buy supplies and reagents that speed up the work with less regard to the expense of these labor-saving reagents because their salaries are more costly to the company than the supplies they use.

Perhaps the most important disadvantage to working in industry is the possibility of being "let go," not because of poor performance, but because the company is being restructured, downsized, or the business managers have decided to terminate certain projects. There is also the possibility of being unexpectedly transferred to a different company location. In academic terms, these situations are similar to being considered for tenure repeatedly at random moments throughout your scientific career!

In general, an industry job gives the scientist the flexibility in deciding whether to adopt an ambitious, intense approach to work, or a kinder, gentler pace where satisfaction can come from many different avenues. An academic career is likely to be much harder on a family than a career in industry. The first few years as a non-tenured faculty member could well be times of constant tension caused by the opposing needs of your home life and your work.

If you are still confused about which career path is right for you but lean toward academia, consider these questions: Can you look at a scientific problem, map out a logical, believable course of action, and write up a five-year plan describing that course of action? Are you then willing to make personal sacrifices to bring this plan to fruition? If so, give it the old college try, you may just love it. If not, a different but potentially no less rewarding career as an industrial scientist may be just for you.

–Frank Boschelli, Wyeth-Ayerst Research, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


WICB Helping Scientists and Facilitating Research; W. Sue Shafer

A Federal Job as a Scientist Administrator
Will I lose my lab if my next grant isn't funded? What happens if I don't get tenure? Can I promise my graduate students productive careers? I'm feeling so stale, how much longer can I be productive? Faculty members often think such thoughts as they race from the lab to the lecture hall to the next committee meeting. More and more scientists immersed in academia are considering other career tracks, including challenging opportunities which abound in the federal government. Opportunities for a short sabbatical or an entire career change appear on the home pages of dozens of government agencies.

As a "Fed," you can do research, manage portfolios of cutting-edge science, write science documents, or examine patents and drug applications. This article will focus on government careers managing biological or medical research. The jobs described below are found at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Who would be a good candidate for a federal job managing research? A cell biologist who holds a Ph.D., M.D. or has equivalent experience, and has supervised and engaged in research in academia, industry, or federal laboratories would be a good candidate. Most successful candidates also will have had independent grant support. Both junior and more senior scientists will find openings of interest.

What kinds of jobs are available? Two entry level scientific positions at the National Institutes of Health are Scientific Program Director (SPD) and Scientific Review Administrator (SRA). In general, SPDs manage grant portfolios within the institutes at the NIH, and SRAs manage committees responsible for the scientific merit review of grant applications submitted to the NIH. Both types of positions are described in the following paragraphs.

Scientific Program Directors act as liaisons between scientists and the federal government. They play two different roles. In one capacity, they interface between applicants and the government officials making funding decisions. They advise applicants by steering them to an appropriate institute at the NIH and providing help in preparing their applications. They attend Study Section meetings to hear the discussion of the applications being reviewed. After the initial review, the SPD reads the written critique of the review proceedings, sends it to the applicant, advises the applicant regarding the chances of funding, and prepares for the second level of review by the advisory council. The council consists of senior scientists and lay members who advise the institute on policy matters, proposed scientific initiatives, and funding priorities, and who also oversee the fairness of review. SPDs discuss with council members problem cases, appeals, and applications scored beyond the payline which staff may try to fund. After the council meeting, SPDs meet with their colleagues within their institute to determine which applications are paid and the level of funding. SPDs also work in partnership with grant management professionals, who are responsible for the business management of a grant, to check for overlapping support and to resolve any remaining policy (e.g. salary cap) or scientific (e.g. human subjects) issues prior to making the award.

In another capacity, SPDs develop the ideas on which the institute bases its decisions to initiate new programs, overcome research barriers, or provide infrastructure needed to support research. After awards are made, SPDs monitor progress in the portfolios they manage, and communicate in lay person's language significant scientific advances in their area of scientific expertise. For example, an SPD might write a "highlight" describing the research which determined the structure of tubulin to three angstroms resolution and the position of taxol in that structure. This highlight can then be used by the institute director to explain the importance of this advance to the public or Congress. SPDs also identify promising new scientific areas in need of support by attending scientific meetings, reading journals, and analyzing progress reports. For example, the next generation of high-resolution molecular structures will require access to more powerful electron microscopes. SPDs play a key role in making equipment like this available to the investigators who need them.

SPD and ASCB member Marion Zatz has been with the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) for 14 years. Trained as an immunologist, she left her academic research career to start a new program of molecular immunobiology in NIGMS. She also assumed responsibility for a portfolio of grants in a new field for her – cell biology. She currently is a Branch Chief in the Division of Genetics & Developmental Biology, and, in addition, handles predoctoral research training grants. Her face lights up as she talks about why she enjoys her job. She says, "two things I like most about my job are the broad overview of science that I get, and the opportunity to learn new areas of science and see how they connect. I often tell people that I'm a social worker for scientists. I really enjoy the people part of the job and feeling that I'm helping applicants and grantees."

New SPD Laurie Tompkins says, "I came from an academic background, 18 years as a faculty member at a large state-related university. I became an SPD because I wanted to use the skills that I'd developed as a faculty member for another purpose. Eighteen years is a long time to spend in the same job! I wanted to become immersed in aspects of science that I had neglected for years while focusing on my own narrow specialty, and do some good for the scientific community on a larger scale than I could accomplish simply by running my own laboratory. Although I have only been at NIH for two months, I am already up and running; because grant cycles overlap, there is no ‘dead time' in the year, and I have more balls in the air on a typical day than I ever had in academia. What I like most about my new job is working with people – established investigators, young assistant professors applying for grants for the first time, even postdocs and senior graduate students (part of my job involves awarding and administering postdoctoral fellowships). Every day, grant holders and would-be grant holders get in touch with me to talk about interesting results, inquire about funding opportunities, ask me to clarify rules and regulations, express anxiety about the fate of their applications, or (on occasion) to vent. To my surprise, when I deal with investigators, I find that that I use the same ‘people skills' that I used in academia to deal with students and fellow faculty members".

Scientific Review Administrators manage the initial scientific peer review that is the heart of the two-tiered review system at the NIH. This peer review system is used to evaluate the quality of a scientific proposal and to establish recommendations on the budget needed to carry out the project. Most SRAs at the NIH work at the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), formerly called the Division of Research Grants. A smaller number manage reviews within the individual institutes.

In CSR, some SRAs act as referral officers, assigning incoming applications to the appropriate initial review group and institute. SRAs assemble review committees by adding appropriate members to a standing committee or developing a specially tailored committee, if the applications require it. Once the committee is assembled, SRAs assign reviewers to the specific applications for which they will provide a critique, and communicate information about review policies to the reviewers. Above all, SRAs ensure that confidentiality is maintained and conflicts of interest are avoided. Working closely with the chairman of the committee, the SRA presides as the government official at the Study Section meeting, prepares the summary statement to report the results of each review, and attends the council meeting to respond to any questions that may arise. SRAs also read applications, journals, and attend scientific meetings in order to keep current with scientific advances and to identify scientists who may be future members of review committees.

Both SPDs and SRAs have important roles in developing and implementing the policies that govern the system of receipt, referral, review, funding, and post award monitoring at the NIH. In partnership, they frequently participate in "road shows" or mock study sections at universities and scientific meetings. These activities allow investigators in the field to become more familiar with operations and scientific priorities at the NIH, and to get first-hand advice on preparing successful applications.

ASCB member Sally Amero, a new SRA, recounts, "my position as an SRA requires an understanding of developments in my scientific area of expertise, good rapport with the scientific community, an understanding of the review process, and the ability to communicate large volumes of scientific information. Here, I really enjoy interacting with researchers in my field, both applicants and reviewers, and constantly assimilating new scientific ideas and cutting-edge developments. I also enjoy the challenge of bringing together the right mix of reviewers in terms of scientific expertise and compatibility, and watching the group dynamics unfold in Study Section meetings. Thus, my new position is a good match for my intellectual interests and interpersonal skills."

Longtime SRA Ramesh Nayak, also an ASCB member and a molecular and cell biologist, views his 21-year career with NIH with gratification. "As an SRA of a chartered study section, the thing I like best is interacting with the applicant community concerning their application, and also the consultant community since they serve on the committee for four years as regular members of the panel. It is also of great satisfaction to work and interact with the NIH staff both within CSR and the institutes. I really enjoy attending scientific meetings where we can see how the science in a particular area is progressing. A final comment is that organizing a scientific workshop in an exciting area of science has always been great fun and rewarding to all who have participated in this endeavor... over the years I have organized five workshops, all in exciting areas of science."

In addition to entry level SRA and SPD positions, more senior scientists will see openings for division director, institute director, deputy institute director and other positions which require not only experience in managing scientific research, but also higher level management experience.

Is this a good time to work at the NIH? Yes! Science is thriving; the American people want their tax dollars invested in research that will better their future; and scientists are needed, as never before, to shape research in 2000 and beyond. Congress passed a fiscal year 1999 budget in which all science agencies received a healthy increase in funding. Being one of the largest science agencies, last year, the NIH received a $2 billion dollar increase (14.4%), bringing its budget to $15.6 billion. Scientists at the NIH have been meeting with their colleagues and with disease-related patient advocacy groups to determine the needs and priorities that should govern the spending of these additional funds.

Basic research is leading to prevention, treatments, medical devices, drugs, and vaccines at accelerating rates. What are the most crucial investments to increase this momentum? How many investigators should we train for the future? What kinds of training programs will best equip these investigators to work on the problems of the future? How can we bring more underrepresented minorities into science and into the patient populations in our clinical trials? How can we train more clinicians to do research? Can we predict how individual people will metabolize drugs and optimize our treatments using this information? Can we understand the mechanisms that cause stress and how this leads to disease? Can we visualize the cell, intact, at atomic resolution, and better understand how it functions? These are some of the questions and challenges facing the NIH today.

There has never a more exciting time to join the federal team.

–W. Sue Shafer, Deputy Director, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the National Institutes of Health, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee


WICB Annual Meeting Report; Sally Amero and Maureen Brandon

Career Discussion Lunch
Over four hundred participants gathered for the Careers Discussion Lunch and Women in Cell Biology (WICB) Awards presentation, which were hosted by the WICB and Education committees. The lunches are designed to provide a forum for networking among cell biologists who face important career decisions at all stages of professional development. Participants request in advance to be seated at a lunch table dedicated to discussing a particular career issue, such as finding a good postdoctoral fellowship or academic position, breaking into industrial or biotechnology job markets, or gathering information about a new career. Each table is assigned a discussion leader with experience in that career issue.

Discussion groups are charged with exchanging contact information for networking purposes, sharing useful career tactics, and brainstorming new solutions to career problems. At one table, for example, participants exchanged their strategies for changing careers. Of the five participants at the table, two were pursuing MBA degrees in evening courses and one had completed internship training in university administration. At another table, five postdoctoral fellows and graduate students discussed job application strategies, such as how to establish a network, where to find resource materials, and how to identify a collegial work environment. Suggestions for discussion topics for the 1999 Career Discussion Lunch are currently being accepted by the WICB Committee. Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. at (612) 625-4718.

WICB Awards
Prior to lunch, WICB Chair Zena Werb presented the WICB Junior and Senior Awards to Daphne Preuss and Christine Guthrie, respectively. The WICB Junior Award recognizes the scientific accomplishments of a woman cell biologist at the junior level (usually before the tenure decision for comparable career stage), while the WICB Senior Award recognizes both scientific excellence and history of mentorship of a distinguished male or female cell biologist. For the first time, the WICB awards included a monetary prize. This was made possible by a generous donation from an anonymous ASCB member. In announcing the awards, Werb also issued a pledge challenge to other Society members in order to establish an endowment for the WICB awards. Anyone wishing to contribute to the endowment fund should contact the This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. at (301) 530-7153.

Daphne Preuss of the University of Chicago was recognized for her contributions to developing the technique of immunoelectron microscopy of yeast and for identifying the plant centromere. In accepting the WICB Junior Award, Preuss praised the quality of science at the ASCB Annual Meeting, acknowledged the importance of mentors to her success, and encouraged young women to become scientists. Christine Guthrie of the University of California, San Francisco, recipient of the WICB Senior Award, was honored for her outstanding accomplishments in elucidating the mechanism of pre-mRNA splicing in yeast, and in mentoring many talented students and postdoctoral fellows into successful scientific careers. Guthrie remarked that this award is especially meaningful because it is the only award that honors mentoring and science. She also thanked her students and postdoctoral fellows for contributing to her own personal growth and for "doing the science".

Evening Session on Mentoring
The WICB evening panel discussion addressed the theme "Your Students' Career Choices: Mentoring Young Scientists into the 21st Century". The program was designed to address career issues that young scientists encounter in today's job market, which preclude the promise of an academic faculty position for the majority of students and postdoctoral fellows. WICB member Caroline Kane, the organizer and moderator of the program, introduced the importance – for trainees and mentors alike – of developing into the professional they would like to be. Short presentations followed from panelists Jill Fuss, Joe Gall, and Michael Alvarez. Fuss, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, is developing a graduate seminar series on career options. In her presentation, she advised mentors to recognize that not all students will choose academic careers, and that those non-academic careers should not be referred to as "alternative."

She also suggested that independence is the best skill to teach graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Gall, a former ASCB President who is at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is a widely-recognized cell biologist and prolific mentor of students and postdoctoral fellows. He suggested that mentors begin discussing their students' career goals with them as soon as the students select the mentor. He also said that mentors can and should make students feel comfortable and confident about their career plans, no matter what they are. Alvarez directs a campus-wide center at the University of California, San Francisco that provides career resources for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, with the goal of enabling them to make informed career choices. He remarked that people who have difficulty moving out of non-tenure track academic positions, like postdoctoral fellowships, do not recognize how their skills apply in other arenas. The remaining portion of the program was devoted to fielding questions from the approximately 225 members of the audience.

Several themes emerged from the presentations and ensuing discussion. First, careers inside and outside of academia demand the best possible scientific training and are equally competitive. Industry, journalism, government, and education at the high school and undergraduate levels were cited as fields that need top-notch scientists because of their importance to the scientific enterprise. Second, trainees must assume self-responsibility for packaging their skills and paving the road for their careers.

In fact, the 80-10-10 rule was proposed: of their total time and energies, trainees should apply 80% to science, 10% to defining the broad applications of their training, and 10% to networking. Trainees were also encouraged to organize student associations and invite career speakers to their campuses, to obtain information by surfing the web (useful web sites are listed at the end of this article), and to familiarize themselves with individuals in careers that they find interesting. Third, students and postdoctoral fellows are frustrated by the naiveté, with respect to career issues, that they perceive among those who are training them. Thus, mentors were encouraged to discuss career issues with students at the earliest opportunity and to expand their own networks to non-academic circles that could benefit their trainees. Also, academic administrators were encouraged to develop internship and externship programs with biotechnology concerns, law offices, and publishers.

The panelists agreed that career decisions based on personal interests and motivation are more likely to produce satisfying careers than decisions based on the expectations of others, such as mentors or family members. They also agreed on the importance of making informed decisions. According to Fuss, "the more we know, the more motivated we will be."

Information about the career series at UC Berkeley is available online.

The UCSF Career Center web site is located online

Public Policy Fellowships are available at the following websites:

  • aaas.org
  • acs.org
  • acs.org
  • aps.org
  • asmusa.org
  • apa.org.
  • nae.edu highlights the achievements of women engineers and provides information on education, careers, and mentoring.

The NIH offers career information.

-Sally Amero, the National Institutes of Health, and Maureen Brandon, Idaho State University, for the Women in Cell Biology Committees


What a Life! Five Views from Women Cell Biologists Across the Pond; Carol Featherstone

From a European viewpoint, the traditional obstacles faced by U.S. women scientists to finding a job and winning grants and promotions seem to be slowly crumbling. Progressively more women occupy faculty positions in the United States. But is the same true for women cell biologists in Europe? In this article, women cell biologists in five European nations offer their views on the status of women scientists in their home countries, and their own experiences of getting started as group leaders.

Direct comparisons of the experiences of European women cell biologists are difficult to make due to the enormously different scientific infrastructures and cultures across Europe. However, one common experience stands out: those highly successful female cell biologists who find positions in top national institutions experience little subsequent gender discrimination. Nevertheless, it remains the case that many fewer European women reach these positions than do men.

This continued barrier may be due to a relatively slower reversal of gender discrimination in European institutions that have been traditionally dominated by men. As a consequence, few role models of a successful scientist, wife and mother exist for young women in European countries. It is clear that even in the most supportive environments, it is difficult to balance the demands of child-rearing with an intense job. This is not unique to cell biology, science or even to women. The challenge remains of how to construct a culture that allows women and men to give their best both at work and at home.

The Italian National Research Council (CNR), Cell and Molecular Biology Center
Milan, Italy

On the face of it, women are doing quite well in cell biology in Italy. Labs and seminar rooms in university departments and the CNR (Italy's National Research Council) institutes are teeming with women, who appear more numerous than men. Many of these women are students or non-tenured personnel, who will probably not remain in research. However, when considering only investigators with stable positions, the situation for women still looks good: women occupy a sizeable percentage of tenured positions in biomedical departments and CNR institutes where research in cell biology is carried out. For instance, in 1994 (the most recent year for which there is published information), in many basic science departments of the Medical School at the University of Milan, up to 100% of open tenured research positions (the first step of the university career) were filled by women. In addition, the majority of associate professors and many full professors at that institution were female as well.

This seems to suggest that all is well with women in cell biology in Italy. But in reality, highly-educated women are often employed in lower-responsibility, lower-paying jobs than their male counterparts, even though the educational status and employment rates of women have increased dramatically over the past decades. Professions in which women are over-represented generally are of low prestige and unattractive to men, such as teaching in primary and secondary schools. Employment policies in more competitive areas, such as private business, clearly discriminate against females. I believe that these discriminatory attitudes are unlikely to change until Italian women themselves modify their aspirations and begin to fight more incisively for equal opportunities.

Sadly, the large number of women in cell biology in Italy does not reflect a healthy situation for women scientists, but rather the unhealthy status of Italian cell biology. The few new institutes outside of the public university and CNR systems (such as the DIBIT and the European Oncology Institute in Milan) which carry out first-rate research in cell and molecular biology, are almost entirely male-dominated, confirming that the success of women is confined to low-prestige institutions. With new legislation on research and the universities, and with the increasing importance of private agencies that fund research according to scientific rather than political criteria, the more productive labs in cell biology should have better opportunities to expand, and to offer attractive jobs to talented young people of either gender. In this setting, committed women must find a way to contribute their share to the growth of Italian cell biology.

The Pasteur Institute
Paris, France

The new discipline of cellular microbiology lies at the interface between microbiology and cell biology. Setting up a cellular microbiology lab as this discipline was emerging was a unique experience. The work fascinated many cell biologists in France and world-wide, which produced a supportive and very rewarding atmosphere. Microbiologists, too, were very supportive of this new way of studying microbial pathogenesis by looking at both the pathogen and the mammalian cells during infection. The commitment of the Pasteur Institute to microbiology also facilitated the establishment of the new lab. Being a woman in this setting was not a handicap.

By contrast, being a woman scientist is not easy. The success of science is highly dependent on the time invested in it; raising the daily dilemma, particularly for women with children, of whether to spend more time in the lab or at home, and whether to take work home. Balancing the priorities is not an easy task! For those who are starting out on a career in science, I think it is important to say it is do-able, and worth it!

The Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC)
Lausanne, Switzerland

What is it like to be a woman scientist in Switzerland? Lonely.

In many ways Switzerland is a Mecca for scientific research. A country with half the population of New York City publishes more scientific articles per capita than any other country in the world. In many fields, the combined impact of these publications is also among the highest in the world. Good students and postdocs are still abundant; funding, although less than it once was, is still adequate; and the country's nine universities and technical institutes, and several independent research institutes, welcome scientists from the world over. Yet, despite this wealth, less than 2% of the scientific professorial staff is female, and less than 6% is female in all science taken together.

In the biological sciences, which claims a strong female representation in most countries, there are no more than six female full professors in Switzer-land, and four or five women leading groups in research institutes. It is telling that very few of these female scientists were born and raised in Switzerland.

This situation exists almost certainly because there are so few women in leading scientific positions that we fail to excite the dreams and aspirations of those young Swiss women ambitious enough to enter science. There is no one to say, “you can do it,” or whose very presence states implicitly, “I did it, you can, too.” Probably the most blatant example of this sad state is the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, which can boast a remarkable record of never having had a female professor on its faculty, although year after year the graduating class of hand-selected biologists has many female students.

Strangely enough, the lack of women scientists in Switzerland is not due to an intensely anti-female attitude. After pursuing my scientific career in Switz-erland for the past 20 years, I can say I have felt strongly supported at every point, unhindered, or at least unaware of prejudices against me as a woman. When I set up my laboratory at ISREC (the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research) 12 years ago, with a three-month-old son at home, I felt the entire support of my colleagues. Indeed, ISREC was one of the few institutes that could claim two women on its staff: Heidi Diggelmann had been a senior group leader who had worked at ISREC since the early 1970s (Heidi now serves as head of the Swiss National Science Foundation.)

The reasons for the dearth of women in Swiss science are unclear, but working in that environment does get lonely. Working with men is enjoyable, but there are moments when it would be nice to have a female colleague to share the frustrations of a school system that sends children home for a two-hour lunch break every day, no supervised study periods, Wednesday afternoons off and a two-week vacation in October. It would also be good to commiserate with a female colleague when your best female graduate student is told by an advisor that there are “too many women in science” or when you see a female head hitting that glass ceiling for the umpteenth time.

Setting up a laboratory as a woman in Switzerland is a wonderful, enriching experience. Come thick-skinned and confident, but do come!

University of Cologne
Cologne, Germany

Setting up a lab is widely considered to be one of the worst phases in a scientist's career, as opposed to getting a job, which is glamorous. Since everything is considered to be harder for women, setting up a lab as a woman must be Hell! I have set up a lab twice, and the experiences represented both extremes.

My first job after my postdoctoral period was at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany. The Institute immediately granted me three months of a ‘mini-sabbatical' at the University of California, San Francisco. That was the first bit of paradise: complete freedom in a wacky environment to pursue wacky ideas that would form the basis of my work in Tübingen.

Before arriving in Tübingen, I had decided that I would do an experiment in my first week. This was made possible by a number of factors. Firstly, a wonderful and experienced technician, Barbara Grunewald, who enjoyed science as much as anyone. Secondly, fantastic material and intellectual support from the Institute and Janni Nüsslein-Volhard and her lab members. And finally, and perhaps most relevant, complete personal freedom. I was single, slept on the floor in somebody's apartment, and spent 18 hours a day in the lab having a good time. My grants were written, most of the equipment was ordered, there were no administrative duties or students or postdocs under my tutelage.

The second experience at the Institute for Genetics at Cologne was a complete contrast. Many of the conditions were similar: excellently trained and committed staff, an enthusiastic research environment, plenty of resources. The differences were the students, postdocs and family to look after. There was no sleeping on the floor or in the lab, no 18-hour working days, and no hope of doing an experiment in the first week, or even the first month, or six months. With two tiny children, grant writing became a nightmare.

Of course, what men often have that women do not, is a supportive wife-cum-manager who provides them with some of the freedom enjoyed by single people.

This does not mean that setting up a lab is particularly bad for women. My husband, Jonathan Howard, who moved from Cambridge to Cologne at the same time, obviously faced similar problems. In addition to taking care of the children, he had to deal with a new language and a new academic culture. This is a particularly European problem, which is very much underestimated, and probably affects European science much more than the supposed plight of female scientists.

Of course, what men often have that women do not, is a supportive wife-cum-manager who provides them with some of the freedom enjoyed by single people. But the desire to do science one hundred percent is equally hard to fulfill for a man whose wife is waiting for him to come home for dinner as it is for a woman who has to be home to cook dinner. Total commitment is a prerequisite for success in this profession, and complete freedom, at least in the early phase of the career, is an enormous benefit, whether you're male or female.

Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research
London, UK

The hardest decision facing any young PI, whatever country they live in, is whether and when to have children. Although countries may vary in their maternity leave laws, in reality, young PIs cannot take time off or work part-time if they want to remain competitive. Having watched other women setting up laboratories, it is clear that this is much easier to do without small children. It can work fine if the children are older (teenagers are probably glad that Mum is out of the house for long hours), but starting up a lab with a small baby is absolutely crazy. Expect to be constantly tired, unable to think, keep up with the literature or go to meetings, and to feel generally out of touch. On the rare occasions I accepted invitations to give talks, I either had to cancel because one of my children was rushed to the hospital, or was completely shell-shocked from a sleepless night. I marvelled at the success of those women without children, who can spend endless evenings in the laboratory writing Cell papers instead of washing baby clothes and preparing baby food. While it is true that male PIs with small children also lose sleep, most do not share all the other chores associated with bringing up a family. I only survived this period because I had a wonderful technician and a very sympathetic department head. There is much to be said for taking family planning advice before setting up a lab!

The hardest decision facing any young PI, whatever country they live in, is whether and when to have children.

In spite of this, many women in the UK run laboratories in biomedical research. Gender-bias in appointing or promoting women here does not seem to be an issue. In fact, in the fields of cell and developmental biology, there are now far more female than male students, technicians and postdocs. Some labs are composed of only women, and several lab heads have admitted to recruiting men just to adjust the balance! This bias towards women scientists is gradually being noticed in the faculty. When I set up lab five years ago, I was the first woman PI to be appointed in our ten-year-old institute. Within four years, two more women were appointed. Still, when I give talks and ‘do the rounds' afterwards chatting to PIs, most of them are men.

On the financial front, women PIs in the UK apply for far fewer grants than men, although they are not less successful than men in being awarded grants. This presumably means that they run smaller labs, do not have time to write grants for family reasons, or are stuck in lectureships with high teaching loads. The latter is most likely to be the reason for the lack of grant applications from female PIs. Labs run by established PIs who do not have to teach are generally larger than labs run by PIs with big teaching commitments. There may be proportionally more women in university positions with large teaching loads, than in non-university institutions.

Unlike cell biology labs, the molecular, biochemical or structural-based research labs in the UK are still predominantly male at all levels. In the physical and chemical sciences, there are even fewer women. The UK Women in Science and Engineering web site suggests that this is because girls are discouraged from careers in chemistry and physics at an early age, either through society-driven prejudices, or through the influence of teachers and peers at school. If the predominance of men in chemistry and physics professions was shown to be genetically based, and the gene was cloned, then I would stop worrying about whether my daughters will be interested in chemistry!

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This month's WICB column was commissioned by the ASCB International Affairs Committee.



As the countdown to the next millennium draws closer, it seems that the life of a working cell biologist grows more hectic everyday: too many commitments, too many demands, days that are too short. How do you manage your time and keep control of your professional and personal life?

“No” is one of the most powerful words in the English language. When I was asked to write this article, my first inclination was to say “No”. But I said “Yes”, because I felt that I had the responsibility to do so. I have learned to control my life, get satisfaction from doing an excellent job, make decisions, take chances, and have fun. So, how do you decide when to say “No” and, more importantly, when to say “Yes”?

When to Say “Yes.”
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Saying “Yes” always has a cost, even when there is a benefit. Develop a clear concept of your reasons for saying “Yes” or “No” to requests. First ask, “do I have the time?” There are time-consuming activities that need to be done for career advancement, personal interest, or other positive motives. Set career objectives and priorities, realizing the inherent obligations. However, recognize that there is a fine line between entitlement and helping out. Try to avoid being exploited.

Secondly, ask, “do I know how to do this?” If you do not have the expertise, then avoid the challenge. A poor job benefits no one.

Setting priorities helps to develop a set of responses, although not all situations are black and white. Trust your inner voice that you are doing things for the right reasons. Some examples of these are included below.

Being a good citizen. While managing time is a prime goal, good citizenship is expected, too. Agreeing to laboratory, university and public duties is an essential part of the scientific and educational endeavor. Science is largely self-motivated and self-governed. We all need to take part, but you don’t need to be a saint.

Responsibility. Faculty members, students, postdocs, teachers, researchers, and administrators have certain duties and responsibilities to teach, serve on committees, mentor and engage in public service. It is irresponsible to shirk these responsibilities, or to do such a bad job that you will not be asked to do them in the future.

Career Advancement. Visibility and recognition of research activities and teaching are essential to move ahead in a career as a scientist. A career involves investment and sacrifice, such as agreeing to write review articles, giving research seminars, attending meetings, reviewing papers and grants, and getting involved in the activities of your school and professional societies. Be as selective as possible to achieve the most from the most efficient expenditure of time. Quality counts more then quantity.

Interest. Define your specific interests when setting priorities. If you are passionate about encouraging girls to get interested in science, mentoring graduate students, or interacting with politicians, then say “Yes” to activities that have these goals, even at the expense of other requests.

Why to Say “Yes.”
Analyze why you say “Yes.” Do you agree to do things for the wrong reasons? Here is a small set of examples:

Flattery. Are you seduced into saying “Yes,” because you are told that you are the only one who would do a stellar job? Are you flattered to be asked to give a lecture by a caller who tells you how wonderful your last article is, and how only you will make their lecture series complete? Perhaps you are approached by an old graduate school buddy to review a grant, manuscript, or college program because you have the unique and perfect qualifications to do a good job. Accept the compliment graciously, but do not agree to the flatterer’s request as payment for the praise. Recognition that is only of value as a commodity is not worth the paper it is written on.

Criticism. This is just as effective as praise for getting people to do things they do not want to do. The hint that someone is not a dedicated teacher or a sensitive mentor lowers self-esteem and coerces others into making a commitment for fear of offending someone. Take time to evaluate your imperfections, the source of the criticism, and its intent before agreeing to do something.

Desire for approval. Do you say “Yes” to teaching an additional course during a semester off for research, or sitting on twice as many committees as your colleagues, because the department chair will approve of going beyond the call of duty? The problem with saying “Yes” for approval is that soon those extra tasks become an expectation. When you take on more tasks to show how indispensable you are, you eventually burn out.

Intimidation. Do you say “Yes” to unreasonable requests out of fear for your professional life? For example, do you do extra shifts, postpone a planned vacation to do another set of experiments, show up at a meeting or revise the curriculum at two days’ notice because the requester hints that if you don’t you will not get a merit increase, a good letter of recommendation, or a positive recommendation for tenure? Insecurity makes people do unnecessary things out of fear of offending a supervisor.

Avoiding conflict. Too often people say “Yes” to avoid conflict at all costs. They end up being a de facto martyr, and see themselves as powerless to change their lives, time management, space, or salary.

Greed. Do you agree to teach a course in the summer rather than taking the time to do research or write a paper, because you will get paid extra? Do you say “Yes” to give a lecture at a boring meeting, because they will give you a large honorarium? There is nothing wrong with being self-serving so long as it is not at the expense of something more important in the long run.

Picking up the slack. Do others take advantage of your inability to say “No” to dump unpopular tasks on you, such as clearing out 50-year-old department files, or teaching a third introductory course so that the department does not have to hire another lecturer? If no one else is willing to do these things, perhaps they are not worth doing.

Don’t be manipulated because others are irresponsible with their deadlines. Resist the temptation to do other peoples’ work because they are chronically late, or do such a poor job that they appear to be incompetent and will not be asked again.

Guilt. If you feel guilty about having gone on vacation, taken a sabbatical, taken parental leave, or made a mistake, wait until the guilt subsides before committing to any additional responsibilities.

When to Say “No.”
Saying “No” is essential to achieving your personal and professional goals. It is an indication that you value your time, energy, talents and experience, and that you control your life. Striking a balance between enjoying life as a cell biologist and resenting the demands put upon you is essential to personal and professional empowerment.

Saying “No” can be a right or an option. You have the right to say “No” if you have questions about the ethics, professional standards or quality of the request. You have the right to invoke your conscience in making decisions. You have the option of declining career-building duties, if the timing is wrong, you can’t do a good job, or meet a deadline.

Your priorities are critical factors in saying “No”. It is essential to have plans for achieving goals. It helps to make a list of everything to which you say “Yes” and “No” over a month or year to evaluate how you are doing. Once a pattern emerges, begin planning for a year, five years, a career.

Once you have learned to say “No,” avoid using your newfound assertiveness as a weapon to refuse to do tasks with sadistic glee. This can boomerang.

How to Say “No.”
Learning to say “No” is not negativism. It actually frees you to say “Yes” to the things that really matter. It is essential to make choices. There is a world of difference between knowing what you do not want to do and refusing to do it, and knowing what you want and going for it. Get advice from friends and colleagues that seem to have their priorities right.

Using “No” is more powerful in declining than saying, “I don’t think so.” It helps to practice saying “No” to friends, family or labmates. If you resent always doing the ordering, replenishing the photocopier paper, or taking a speaker out to dinner, then take a stand and say “No!”

Determine whether the answer is, “No”, “Yes” or “Maybe.” It is OK to ask for time to think it over. Ascertain exactly what the request entails. Is one lecture or a whole course needed?

While it is not necessary to offer an explanation for your refusal, it is often useful to give a brief legitimate reason for saying “No”. Avoid a long, drawn-out excuse or explanation, or you may be argued out of your refusal.

You can say “No”, while agreeing to do part of the request.

Offer alternatives by suggesting someone else to do the work, or giving a student or fellow the chance to give the talk or write the review. However, be careful that supervising the substitute is not time-consuming.

Sometimes, saying “No” actually postpones saying “Yes.” Maybe you can’t do it now because of your teaching schedule, but you can do it next semester.

Be prepared for people who do not want “No” for an answer to have difficulty getting the point. If the person persists after several “No” answers, try silence, or change the subject.

If you feel that you are being manipulated or volunteered, verbalize your desire to be consulted first.

It is OK to change a “Yes” answer to a “No” answer.

Finally, don’t feel guilty. It is not up to you to solve everyone’s problems or to do everything.

—Zena Werb, Chair, ASCB Women in Cell Biology; Department of Anatomy, University of California, San Francisco, for the Women in Cell Biology Committee References

  • Helpful Hints for Assertive Behavior: Saying “No”. Michigan State Counseling Center.
  • Consulting Skills For Professionals. Murray Hiebert and Colleagues, Inc. How to Say “NO,”with Options.
  • Smith, Manuel J., Yes, I can say no: a parent’s guide to assertiveness training for children. New York: Arbor House, 1986.
  • Fensterheim, Herbert and Baer, Jean. Don’t say yes when you want to say no: how assertiveness training can change your life. New York: McKay, 1975.
  • Chenevert, Melodie. STAT: special techniques in assertiveness training for women in the health professions. 4th ed. St. Louis: Mosby, 1994

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