Friday, January 31, 2014

I have moved!!

Since I'm in the mood for moving anyway (preparing to move the whole family + all our stuff across the Atlantic soon) I decided to move my blog too.
You can now find my shiny new blog at Please come and check it out!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Do as I say, not as I do: advice for foreign post-docs in the US - part I

I have been in the US for nearly four years to do my post-doctoral training, and now that we're almost moving back, I feel that I have a lot of useful information to share with the internet. Even though 90% of my readers are in the US, I hope that there are enough people out there that can benefit from the things I've encountered. And maybe it's useful for USians as well. Because with many things, I realize now that I could have done things differently, hence the title.

For this first part, I want to talk about the thing that is on my mind right now: maternity leave. In my homecountry, women get 16 weeks off around the birth of their child. This is mandated by the government, so there are no differences in policies per university like in the US (where there is no such thing as paid maternity leave mandated by the government). When I talked about this on twitter today I discovered that for many, many graduate students and post-docs, there are no regulations regarding maternity, paternity or adoption leave at all. This leaves people very vulnerable, because it is up to your advisor to determine how long your leave can be and whether it is paid or unpaid. So if you're looking for a post-doc and you have the intention to start a family in the near future, it might be wise to VERY CAREFULLY try to find out what your future PI's view on leave is.

Some positions, like my current position, make you eligible to apply for Family and Medical Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, you might want to study this before starting your family, because it requires you for example to be employed for longer than a year before you have a baby and to work a certain amount of hours to be eligible. In my homecountry, there's really not a lot you need to do to apply for this type of leave, but here in the US I found that you need to carefully follow the rules and make sure you are eligible before applying. This is especially important because if you don't get paid during your leave, you still need to pay for your health insurance that is normally taken out of your paycheck. In my university, when applying for FMLA you first need to finish all your sick, annual and personal days before the unpaid leave starts. So when you're considering having a baby it might be worth trying to save as many days as you can to make sure the unpaid portion of your leave is as short as possible. One might ask: but then what do you do when your baby is sick after you've gone back to work and you have no days left? I have no clue at all… Which brings me to the following question from twitter:

Please comment if your university or institute does, because others might be able to change this at their institute!
So as with many things my most important advice about maternity, paternity or adoption leave is: READ TEH FUCKING MANUAL!!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Babywearing a newborn

My newborn is not so new anymore (already 6 weeks old!), but I started wearing him in a sling for the first time when he was just 5 days old.
5-day old Little Brother in a woven wrap
I often get asked on what the best way is to wear such a tiny baby. I already wrote previously about how important it is to position your baby in the correct way: with their back arched and their legs spread so their knees are higher than their bottom (froggy legs). This is hard to accomplish in most of the structured carriers (like Ergo), because the baby's legs are too small to fit in the carrier properly when they are newborns. The Ergo does have a baby insert, but even there it is quite difficult to get the baby positioned properly. Many people use a Babybjorn for their newborn, but with those it is impossible to attain the recommended position for the baby. So my answer is always that it's best to wear your newborn in a wrap. 

Wraps come either stretchy (like the Moby) or woven (like the one I'm using in the picture). I like woven wraps better because once you know how to tie them you have more control than with a stretchy wrap. Also, BlueEyes was born in the middle of the summer and where we live a stretchy wrap, with three layers of thick cotton was WAY too hot. Tying a wrap might seem challenging at first, but with a bit of practice it's almost like tying your shoe laces. 

Here's a good video (that's not me) of how to do an FWCC (front wrap cross carry) using a woven wrap. I sometimes put a rolled up wash cloth in the top rail of the wrap to add some head support.
And here's a good video (also not me) of how to put your newborn in a stretchy wrap:


Thursday, January 16, 2014

So how many papers does having a baby cost?

I think we've all read the correspondence piece in Nature yesterday on how we don't need to worry about gender bias, because it really all comes down to women having babies and therefore publishing less papers. Lukas Koube, the author, already wrote this as a comment last year, but apparently Nature still thought this piece was worthy of being put in the journal. I don't think I need to add anything to what Melissa WilsonSayres wrote about it yesterday. She already says that it really is possible to be a scientist AND a parent, and that babies are often made by more than one person, and that the other parent (often, but not always a man) can also pitch in. And as we established last week, science is about generating ideas (or not?) and I might as well generate a scientific idea while nursing, or while changing a diaper.

Okay maybe I do want to add something: Really, Nature? Did you think someone who has published zero scientific papers knows whether you can publish papers while pregnant or taking care of a baby? And Lukas Koube, do you really think that that is the only thing holding women in science back?!

But it is something that is on my mind often: how many papers would I have had during this post-doc if I wouldn't have had children? Would I have worked harder and/or longer? I can say that I've become a lot more efficient since having BlueEyes. Perhaps I'm not in the lab as long, but I am very productive while I'm there (and so is my husband I have to add). But let's be scientific and calculate this: When I leave here in two months I will have been a post-doc for four years, in which I have had 2 children. I have taken 3 and 4 months of leave*, so that adds up to 7 months of not doing experiments (although currently a tech is doing some of my experiments). Also, during my pregnancies I was less productive than during non-pregnant periods because of being nauseous and tired and foggy (although working also helped to keep my mind off of feeling crappy)**. And the 1+ year of sleep deprivation also didn't add to productivity (but that was divided mostly equal between my husband and me). So say that I missed somewhere between 6 months to a year in productivity out of four years. That's 12.5-25% of my post-doc. I think that's an overestimation, but that would mean that instead of 4 papers I would have 3. Or instead of one or more high impact factor papers I would have medium impact factor papers.

BUT there are so many more factors to this: could better mentoring have led to more productivity (YES!), are publications in high impact factor journals dependent on which field you work in (yes), whether your data are negative (yes), whether stuff works like it's supposed to (yes), etc etc.

So to conclude: assuming I make it through the "post-doc to faculty bottle neck", in the bigger scheme of my scientific career this is going to be peanuts. If I am a scientist for the next 35 years (until I'm 65), then that 6 months to a year is only 1-2% of the time. And not every woman has children. So any disproportion of female to male authors more than 1% is due to something else than having babies. There, Lukas Koube. I just used some science to calculate this WHILE AT HOME WITH A BABY!

The biggest problem right now: using my precious nap time to blog about this instead of work on a paper...

* I know that some people (are able to) take more leave, and I also realize that many female scientists (at least me) won't be able to sit at home for 3 months without thinking or doing any science.
** Here I should add that my pregnancies were pretty smooth sailing, and I know that for some it can be 9 months of total agony. And for some people the process of becoming pregnant takes a lot of mental, emotional and physical energy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On tandem nursing

A while back, I wrote about finding myself nursing BlueEyes while I was pregnant with Little Brother. I thought that BlueEyes would wean himself when my milk would dry up due to my pregnancy. But that didn't happen. BlueEyes didn't seem to care whether there was milk or not, he would just continue to nurse. And the closer I got to Little Brother being born, the less I felt like weaning a toddler who would probably not stop nursing without a fuss. And I didn't want BlueEyes to get the feeling that he was being replaced by the new baby. So now I find myself tandem nursing a toddler and a newborn.

It's not that we don't have certain rules. I taught BlueEyes pretty early on that if he wanted to nurse he wasn't supposed to pull on my shirt, but he had to sign (before he could talk) or ask to nurse. And a little later, I imposed the rule that I counted back from 5 to 1 and then he had to stop nursing, to stop the endless nursing sessions he would have. And now we have the rule that Little Brother always nurses first (although this is still a hard one for BlueEyes) and that BlueEyes can only nurse in bed, so before and after sleeping.

So yeah, five years ago I didn't even realize this was a thing: tandem nursing. But it is, and now you know it too.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Homecountry nostalgia: Elfstedentocht

With some pillows and a boppy it's totally possible to nurse a baby and type on your computer at the same time. However, sometimes being trapped under a nursing and/or sleeping baby is a perfect excuse to watch some tv. Just now I watched this highly recommendable (but not subtitled) homecountry show about the Elfstedentocht in 1997. It nearly made me cry from all the nostalgic feelings. Since 98% of my readers are not from my homecountry, I should probably explain.

The "Elfstedentocht" (eleven cities tour) is an ice-skating event that last happened in 1997. To me that sounds like yesterday, but in reality that's 17 years ago (crap, that makes me feel kinda old). This event is a 200 km (120 mile) skating tour on natural ice in one of the northern provinces in the homecountry. A province so far away that people even speak their own language. Every year the main question during the winter is whether this epic tour is going to take place or not. Only 16.000 people can skate during this event and the other 16 million inhabitants of the homecountry travel to said province to party and encourage the skaters. But with global warming and such, the last time the ice was thick enough to hold this many people was in 1997. So we nostalgically look back and wonder when the next time will be. In the meantime, there are a bunch of "alternative Elfstedentochten" where people skate 120 miles on ice somewhere else in the world and there's a host of other Elfstedentochten, where people use rowing boats, bicycles, motor cycles and what not to complete the same route. Yours truly cycled the tour once and rowed it twice (but with rowing it's a relay race, I should add).

The entire internet could not provide me with a clip with English subtitles but here's the 1997 finish. Also, this was the winter fashion in 1997. Also quite interesting.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The idea-for-an-experiment generator

Yesterday, Scicurious wrote a very honest post about how she thought that she didn't have enough ideas to write grants and stay in academic science. This is something that I hear around me every now and then (mostly from women). I have given this some thought before: how brilliant do your ideas have to be? Because I think that is what people mean when they say they don't have enough ideas: that they don't have enough brilliant ideas. But honestly, I think that the percentage of brilliant ideas in science is maybe 1-2% of all the science that is done. I think that the bulk of science is to repeat something with a slight modification to come up with something 'new'. For example instead of looking at the dopamine system in behavior A, you now study the opioid system and you have another grant proposal. Of course nobody admits that this is how they come up with new experiments, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most PIs will have a variation of the machine below in their office somewhere. 

The optogenetics experiment generator: pick your opsin, roll the bingo wheel for brain region A, spin the wheel of fortune for brain region B and roll the dice for your behavior of choice. This generator can be modified for experiments in any field of life science and beyond.