Sunday, October 30, 2011

They Took My Joy__I Want It Back

Those of you familiar with rhythm and blues singer, Bettye LaVette, will recognize the title of this post as the lyrics from the song, "Joy", written for her by Lucinda Williams. I was sitting in the audience listening to LaVette singing this song when it hit me that these lyrics described something I've been feeling lately....about science.

It may sound strange that I had this reaction to this song, which reflects LaVette's early career struggles in Detroit, New York, and Memphis. LaVette has been singing for a long time now (she's in her 60s), but only recently has been "discovered", earning a Grammy nomination for "Best Contemporary Blues Album" and and an award for "Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist".  But there are many parallels between the competitive worlds of music and science in finding success and simultaneously keeping one's "joy".

LaVette has been in the music business for over forty years, much of it struggling to gain respect and recognition for her work. If you listen to her perform today, you see why critics call her "the greatest soul singer in American music". LaVette is a consummate performer. She's not just technically good; she reaches out and grabs the audience emotionally. Her voice literally oozes raw emotion, gritty and defiant.  The video link above does not do justice to the actual, live experience, but gives some idea about her style.  As I listened to her performance, I recognized (without knowing anything about her history) the years of practice and focused effort required to attain the level of expertise I was witnessing.  I knew I was in the presence of someone unique, someone who had struggled to become the best.  She made it seem effortless, of course. That's the hallmark of an artist at the top of her profession.

Many talented women working in competitive fields are often overlooked. As we all know, this is the story for women in science. Actually, more than overlooked. Many of us struggled to even be allowed to practice science. Even without the early discrimination, however, women would have had a difficult time (and still do).  Science is a hard profession.  It's especially hard when our work goes unrecognized, and the joy we once felt at doing science is slowly, inexorably ground out of us.  The things that attracted us to it in the first place (curiosity, passion, concern for the environment, a desire to help others) are gradually bled out of us in the struggle to find research funds, to publish, to fit into a male-dominated world, and to gain a modicum of respect.

This is what LaVette sings about in "Joy". Of her early years trying to make it in a hard industry. First in Detroit, then New York, and later in West Memphis and Muscle Shoals (Alabama). The song's lyrics describe how she lost her joy and looked for it in different places; in the end, she sings that "I don't want you anymore...cause you took my joy" and finally "you took my joy...I want it back".  The song describes the loss of joy, the subsequent search for it, the despair at ever finding it, the dismissal of what led to the loss of joy, and then the angry demand for getting her joy back.

I can only imagine the struggles a young, black woman went through during the early 60s in America and in the highly competitive world of music.  She put out her first single in 1962, but did not cut her first album until 1982--twenty years later.  And twenty more years went by before she began to receive major awards and recognition commensurate with her talent.  How many of you could continue in this way, for so long, for so little?  But she clearly kept at it, honing her craft.  During the performance I saw, LaVette talked ironically about her recent "discovery" by the music industry and the awards and nominations that are now being showered on her.  I think there are a number of women, in many laboratories and offices around the world, who are shaking their heads at similar ironies.

How can such obvious talent be overlooked for so long?  I've talked about "talent" in previous blog posts and how it is not something one is necessarily born with, but instead is the result of "deliberate practice" conducted over thousands of hours. Perhaps a person is borne with a suite of physical, intellectual, and emotional attributes that predisposes them to be musicians, artists, or scientists.  But it still takes enormous amounts of time and focused energy to acquire the necessary technical skills and confidence to outperform everyone else with those inherent attributes.  To observers, their performance seems effortless; hence, the perception that it did not require much effort or practice to achieve.  We may intellectually recognize that a famous musician or athlete has to spend a lot of time practicing her craft, but emotionally we believe that they must have a special talent that no one else has.

I think people believe in "natural talent" because they don't want to consider having to invest all that time and effort on something and then fail to succeed at it.  It's easier to say, "Well, I tried, but I just wasn't as talented as Bob or Sue (who outperformed us)." Unfortunately for these people, the belief that talent, not hard work and practice, is all that is required to succeed will doom them to mediocrity, if not outright failure. Many other people, especially young people, want success and fame now, in their twenties, certainly by their thirties. Why should it wait until they are old and can't enjoy it? It's much easier to watch someone like LaVette perform and think, "I could do that, only if I had the talent." Or luck.  That's the other belief about "sudden" success.  One only has to watch the early tryouts for American Idol to see that hundreds of thousands of young people believe they have the talent to be performers, yet have exerted little effort at developing their skills. The naivete is simply breathtaking.

The truth is that to become really good at something, even if you have some basic "talent" for it, requires a lot of work, sacrifice, and time.  My guess is that even for the best, it is about ten percent talent and ninety percent drive, hard work, and endless (deliberate) practice.  Maybe a few, exceedingly lucky people hit it big early in their career, but if you look at the history of most early achievers or so-called prodigies, you find that they have spent at least ten years at hard practice before they were "discovered".

If so much time and effort are required to attain a high level of skill, how can one possibly keep going without reward or acknowledgment for so long? That has been the lot of LaVette in the music field and is also the story of many women in science.  We plug along while watching less talented men sail past us.  But we are catching up. A few women are getting the recognition they deserve.  And the struggle has given us something that those, who have not had to work hard, lack. We have put more effort into developing our talents, creating our unique voices, and learning to persevere.  We've had to, to survive. LaVette's style, for example, would not be so emotionally charged, so compelling, or so distinctive without that long, hard experience getting to where she is today.  I think the same is true for women in science. We've had to work harder and smarter than male colleagues, but it has made us unique.

There is a message here for women in science, which is why I'm describing Bettye LaVette's story. It's not that we should keep struggling because success will eventually come. That might be one eventuality of perseverance at a career and a welcome reward at the end.  It might be one lesson to learn from her story.  No, the message is about not losing one's joy in the pursuit of one's dream.  From the moment we make the decision to embark on a science career (or any career), we begin to give up some of those early ideals, passions, dreams, and other emotions that attracted us in the first place. We begin to compromise as we encounter the realities in the process of training, getting a job, and keeping that job.  Some of us manage to hang on to a few of our early dreams and passions, but I doubt that there are many mature scientists out there who are completely satisfied with their scientific emotional well-being.  All one has to do is ask, "Do you still feel the same joy and excitement (about your work) as you did when you first dreamed about being a scientist?"

In the beginning, many of us are simply driven by the need to know and are completely satisfied with finding the answer (as well as the process of looking for it).  We don't need an award to feel good about figuring something out. But somehow, we gradually move away from that simple satisfaction to wanting more as we advance through school and into the working world. For some, it's to beat the competition to publication, or to gain international standing in the scientific community, or to win prestigious awards or positions on panels, or all of these. These achievements are all false goals that bring only temporary satisfaction and, worse, feed the desire for bigger and better accolades.  We get focused on numbers of publications and citations, our H-index, landing a big grant, or getting our next paper published in a Glamor Science Mag. These are the measures of "success" by which others judge us and may be important for us to advance in a science career, but we should take care that the pursuit of such things does not take over our emotional well-being. If we do, we risk losing that original joy of seeking knowledge and making discoveries.

When I was a child, I experienced the simple pleasures of discovery and learning. I saw that scientists could continue seeking knowledge and experiencing that joy of discovery...and make a career of it.  What a deal!  I recognized that this aspect set a science career apart from many other types of careers one might choose from.  I could actually do work that I loved to do and be paid for it.  Interestingly, this emotional reward that scientists enjoy is the same for musicians and artists.  Their work is their passion; their passion is their work. This is another interesting parallel that the Bettye LaVette story has reminded me of: how closely related science and art are from an emotional (and creative) standpoint.

What I did not realize, when starting out, was how difficult it would be to sustain that original joy; how career setbacks, professional jealousies, work-life pressures, struggle for respect and recognition, and other factors could dampen and bury my joy.  I imagine that that is what LaVette is singing about. In the process of doing what she loves (singing), she lost her joy. The business (and politics) of music must interfere greatly with the sheer joy of performing music.  And the same is true of science.  Women in science may find themselves singing the same song...if they are not careful.

So after almost forty years in science, I can relate to the refrain, "they took my joy....I want it back".  I don't just want it back; like Bettye LeVette, I'm demanding it back.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Clone Me

You finally have your own lab and are ready to hire one or more technicians and/or a lab manager plus post-docs and students. Do you hire someone who is like you or completely different (assuming candidates of equal qualifications)?

Some scientists seem to hire clones of themselves.  Perhaps they assume that it will be easier to interact with someone who is more like themselves or that their work habits will be more to their liking.  With a large team, the thinking might be that a homogeneous group will work better together, be more productive, and efficient.  Early in my career, I favored people who were similar to me in terms of work habits, organization, and personality.  I discovered, however, that a more diverse group or partnership is better at problem solving and more creative overall than one with very similar personalities and skills.

When I started out as a PI, I had one assistant/technician, and the two of us worked side-by-side doing fieldwork and labwork. I felt most comfortable working with another woman whose personality and work habits were similar to mine.  In other words, a clone of myself.  My research often took us on field trips of a week or more to distant locations where we would be spending 24/7 together.  I knew that I wanted someone who (like me) was hard-working, uncomplaining, quiet, well-organized, and generally task-oriented.  After technical qualifications, personality and work ethic were important considerations for me.  Anyone who has done fieldwork knows that personality clashes or disagreements over work habits can frequently arise and cause much misery, especially for the project leader.  Such clashes can, of course, occur in the lab or office setting, but are magnified during travel, living in close quarters, and in conjunction with various logistical and other travel-related problems, which add to the overall stress.  Fieldwork is difficult enough without having to deal with someone who has to be constantly cajoled into getting up early or working late to finish a task or who complains about everything.  If my research had been totally lab-based, I could see (maybe) working with someone whose personality was, let's say, abrasive, as long as they did the work.  However, I knew that the person I selected as an assistant also needed to be a good travel companion and would be easy to get along with.

My point is that my early decisions about a research assistant were driven by a narrow focus on personality and anticipated working conditions (in addition to the obvious technical qualifications).   It did not occur to me then that there might be advantages to having someone quite different from me as an assistant.  This early situation also differed from later in my career when I had a larger research group with up to ten people (employees, students, volunteers).  With a larger group, there was a greater opportunity to work with people who were very different from me in personality and problem-solving skills. 

When we consider diversity in relation to the workforce, it is usually from a legal, EEO standpoint: race, religion, age, gender.  However, that is not what I'm referring to here.  I'm talking about diversity in interpersonal skills, work habits, and personality traits that influence important skills such as problem solving.  When you are hiring someone, you are concerned with two main aspects: their technical qualifications and how they will fit into (and contribute to) the work environment in your lab.  As employers, we tend to focus on the technical aspects and neglect to fully examine how that person will complement the existing team.  If we do consider the latter, it may be to seek out someone like us, rather than someone very different.  This approach can, of course, get us into trouble if it leads us to exclude certain protected groups that happen to differ from us. Aside from the legal ramifications, this approach is short-sighted in terms of developing a team that has diverse problem-solving or interpersonal skills and consequently has a broader range than a more homogeneous group.

I did not begin thinking seriously about diversity with respect to my research group until a problem arose with a postdoc.  This postdoc caused a lot of bad feelings within my research group, which included students and several master's level technicians.  Her main problem was "PhDitis"--she felt that she was superior to anyone lacking a Ph.D., regardless of their experience and skills.  At the time, I had several excellent technicians who had master's degrees, but with years of job experience.  Some were experts in certain lab analyses....techniques that this postdoc had never performed herself.  Yet she still felt that she knew better than they did...and often expressed this sentiment.  As you might imagine, there was quite a bit of grumbling.  I had tried talking to this postdoc about how skilled my technicians were and that they really responded better when their expertise was appreciated and acknowledged. Unfortunately, these words fell on deaf ears.  So I came up with another approach.

After doing a bit of reading about team diversity, I assigned my group a paper on the topic (which, unfortunately, I can no longer find--this was some years ago) to be discussed at our weekly lab meeting. I also asked each person to take an online test (similar to this one) that would identify their "personality type"--according to a Myers-Briggs typology.  When we met, we listed everyone's personality type and discussed the makeup of our group, whether our personalities were complimentary or duplicative, and which personalities our group was missing.  This exercise was intended to be a fun way to get everyone to understand and appreciate what each person brought to the group.  I don't recall the exact breakdown, but we had quite a diversity of personality types.

Most everyone seemed to find the exercise enjoyable and interesting (and a welcome departure from our usual lab meetings).  Most everyone understood why I organized this particular lab meeting and expressed a positive reaction to my added comments about how each person, regardless of background or educational achievement, was important to the success of the research we conducted.  There was one exception.  You can guess who did not recognize the reason for this meeting and who argued about the relative contributions of individuals to a team effort.

Although I failed to change the post-doc's mind about the value of team members with different educational backgrounds, I developed a deeper appreciation of diversity and the potential benefits to a research group and to me as a PI.  When I later considered applicants for positions in my group, I especially looked for well-qualified people who were complimentary to me in personality.  I'm more introverted and tend to be a perfectionist, for example.  So I began hiring assistants who were outgoing and had interpersonal skills that I lacked.  A PI who is naturally gregarious but disorganized might benefit, for example, from hiring someone who was highly organized, efficient, and more introverted.  Someone else might be a "big-picture" kind of thinker and would benefit from hiring a person who is more detail-oriented.  If you are a PI who tends to be "low-key" and modest (and reluctant to self-promote), you might benefit from an assistant who talks a lot about your research successes, someone who essentially does your bragging for you. These are just a few examples. You can probably think of more...that especially relate to you and your situation.

Everyone has one or more short-comings in terms of work habits and/or personality.  Even if you have a well-rounded personality and good work habits, it's unlikely that you will possess ALL the problem-solving or interpersonal skills to cope with every professional situation.  For example, previous posts have talked about leadership styles here and here, which can differ dramatically in terms of interpersonal skills. Leaders tend to fall into two types: those with good interpersonal skills and a focus on their followers' needs and those who are more task-oriented.  The first type of leader has mostly communal qualities: nurturing, sensitive, sympathetic, warm, collegial; the second type has agentic qualities: aggressive, dominant, ambitious, controlling.  If you fall into one of these categories, it's likely that you lack the qualities of the other type of leader (although it's possible to combine some qualities of both).  Some of these traits might be changed with effort, but others are hard-wired and resistant to change. 

Recognizing my limitations (e.g., interpersonal skills) was a prerequisite to identifying the type of assistant who might enhance my team.  It's not easy to examine one's limitations, but the effort can pay off in the long-run.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What About Bob?

We are discussing a hypothetical scenario involving Jennifer, a scientist working for a consulting company, who has a problem with her co-worker Bob (see previous two posts). Jennifer has discovered that Bob is communicating on her behalf with the manager of a refuge where she is leading an important project. The refuge manager feels more comfortable communicating with Bob, even though Bob is not part of Jennifer's project.  Instead of calling or emailing Jennifer, who is the project lead, the manager is contacting Bob, with whom he is better acquainted and has dealt with in the past.

Jennifer initially thought that Bob was just trying to be helpful....but now is not so sure. 

I posed the possibility that Bob might have an ulterior motive for his actions, evident by his persistence in intercepting and responding to messages about Jennifer's project. In the last post, I noted that Jennifer failed to deal effectively with Bob in the beginning. In addition to straightening things out with the refuge manager, she should have confronted Bob and asked him not to respond to any more messages on her instead forward emails or otherwise direct any communications to her.  Instead, she made the mistake of thanking Bob for the forwarded messages, which apparently encouraged him to continue.

Let's assume that the situation has not improved, and Bob is still interjecting himself into Jennifer's affairs, even after being asked to stop. This is a warning sign that Bob is probably trying to undermine Jennifer.

What should Jennifer do? Storm into Bob's office and demand that he butt out? That's not likely to work, especially if Bob is deliberately trying to sabotage Jennifer's project.  Even if Bob is simply a bumbling idiot who doesn't realize the damage he might be doing to Jennifer, her tirade will likely backfire.  Should she go to her boss and complain?  No, that will just send the message that she can't take care of the problem by herself. 

Jennifer takes some time to think about her options and comes up with a three-pronged approach for dealing with Bob and his interference in her project:

1.  First, she stops responding to or acting upon any emails or other messages from the refuge forwarded to her by Bob.  She does not thank Bob or contact the refuge manager about whatever the email was about.  By no longer acknowledging Bob or acting on these forwarded messages, Jennifer takes the first step in removing Bob as Gatekeeper of the information flow between her and the refuge. Bob no longer gets any feedback that his interference is working.  The refuge manager, no longer getting responses to messages sent via Bob, begins to have second thoughts about communicating with Bob instead of Jennifer.     

2.  Second, Jennifer sends email progress reports to the refuge manager each month, enthusiastically highlighting significant findings.  And, most importantly, she copies her boss at the consulting company on these emails (not Bob).  This action accomplishes several things. She shows her boss that she's keeping the client updated about the project (which will counter any hints by Bob that she's having communication problems). Her boss responds to these messages with, "Great work, Jennifer! Thanks for keeping us all informed."  Her emails regularly remind the refuge manager of who is in charge of this project and that the consulting company is supportive of her in this role.  In addition, she creates written documentation of her communications with the refuge (in case the refuge manager later complains). Finally, her regular email correspondence prompts the refuge manager to begin responding directly to her once it's obvious that she is the one with knowledge about the project, not Bob.

3. Finally, Jennifer develops another line of communication with the refuge. She befriends the refuge manager's administrative assistant who readily agrees to provide Jennifer with a heads-up about any goings-on that relate to her project. The assistant sees and hears everything and, having had her own run-ins with the "good ole boys", is more than happy to help Jennifer out.  This action might be useful if the manager continues to be obstinate about keeping Jennifer informed about refuge activities involving her project.

In the end, Jennifer successfully completes her project.  Her boss is very pleased with how she kept the client (and him) informed about the project.  He is confident that he can put her in charge of larger projects in the future.

And what about Bob?  Well, he tried to tell Jennifer's boss about her communication difficulties with the refuge.  However, things didn't turn out quite as he imagined. The boss, instead of asking questions about Jennifer, began quizzing Bob about his role in the situation and why he was wasting time monitoring Jennifer's activities.  Bob ended up being reprimanded for interfering with Jennifer's project and was put on probation.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Comfort Level

In the last post, I described a hypothetical situation in which a female project leader (Jennifer) is having difficulty with some of her male colleagues.  Instead of contacting her directly with some important information affecting her project, the manager of a refuge where she is conducting a study has contacted someone else in Jennifer's organization who has no involvement in the project (Bob). To make matters worse, Bob is attempting to "help" her by answering these emails (instead of simply forwarding the messages to her and informing the sender of his error).

Over the years, I've experienced variations of this annoying situation.  Female colleagues have also mentioned this problem.  The details change, but the underlying theme is the same. Instead of contacting the woman who should be receiving the message directly, the message sender instead talks or writes to another man who may be the woman's supervisor, employee, student, collaborator, husband, or the guy in the next office. The man who receives the message typically forwards the message, sometimes immediately, sometimes not. He may inform the sender of his error, or not.    

So what's going on here?

First, I think that people want to deal with people with whom they feel most comfortable.  They prefer communicating with someone who is similar to themselves. This is the reason the refuge manager in the hypothetical scenario persists in contacting someone he knows and feels at ease with.  Similarly, the instances I've personally encountered involved men who seemed to be more comfortable communicating with other men and who were uncomfortable interacting with a woman (of equal status).  In these cases, it's male workers who feel more at ease interacting with other males, especially concerning more "masculine" endeavors.  We can imagine other situations in which the gender roles are reversed or which involve other contrasting types of people. 

I imagine that there are also those men who, because of their stereotypical thinking, feel that their message cannot be understood by a woman and needs to be communicated to a man (who will understand and might have more experience communicating with the woman in question).  There are fewer of these dinosaurs nowadays, but they still exist.

Second, this situation is exacerbated by an intermediary who tries to help out by responding to the message. This man may be trying to be helpful or he may be doing something else entirely.  In our hypothetical scenario, Jennifer's colleague, Bob, is receiving messages about Jennifer's project and instead of simply forwarding them to her, is responding on her behalf.  We don't have enough information to know whether Bob is trying to be helpful or has an ulterior motive for his actions. Regardless of his motives, however, by responding to the message (instead of informing the sender of his error), Bob has set himself up as Gatekeeper of communications between Jennifer and the refuge manager.

This type of situation may be a minor annoyance or it might be a Problem.  If Bob is trying to help, it's just a brief irritation.  On the other hand, Bob may be taking advantage of the situation to undermine her.  Jennifer is a new employee in a consulting company, where competition among employees may be intense.  Bob may be trying to insert himself into a project that he wanted to lead, but instead was given to Jennifer.  She is new, so may not be fully aware of office politics or have had time to identify the sharks.

Jennifer responded initially by contacting the refuge manager directly to say that she had received the information (but did not point out his error in contacting Bob).  I think this action was appropriate, given the circumstances.  She sent a clear message to the refuge manager that she was the rightful recipient of the information (which hints that they should contact her directly in the future).  This was the minimum action that someone in Jennifer's situation should have taken. 

However, Jennifer did not address Bob's actions. She should have asked him not to respond to any future messages from the refuge on her behalf and to simply forward the messages to her.  Actually, this step was critical not only to insuring that Bob could not interfere, but so that the refuge manager would have no other option except to contact her directly. As long as Bob was available, the refuge manager could ignore Jennifer's request for direct communication.  Also, by dealing with Bob in such a direct way, she would also gain some insight into his motives for interfering in the first place (critical information for Jennifer to survive in her new workplace).  If Bob persists in his role as Gatekeeper, then Jennifer will know that he is not simply trying to "help" her. 

If Bob continues to intercept messages meant for Jennifer, then she has a much bigger problem on her that will take some creative thinking to resolve.  In the next post, I'll consider how Jennifer might handle Bob's persistent interference.

Image Credit: Still image from "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), Jalem Productions

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tell Me

Consider the following hypothetical encounter:

Jennifer is a newly-hired scientist at a consulting company.  Because she has extensive experience in her field, she is immediately put in charge of a project to assess long-term impacts of the BP oil spill on bird populations within a wildlife refuge.  The work entails interactions with refuge personnel, who are all male and might be best characterized as "good ole boys".  She initially meets with the refuge managers to finalize details of the project and her team's schedule.  Time passes, and the project is going well and staying on schedule. 

Then Jennifer receives a puzzling message from a coworker, Bob.  One of the refuge managers has sent him an email concerning activities that might interfere with Jennifer's fieldwork.  Bob is not part of this project, but has worked with this refuge in the past on other projects.  Instead of just forwarding the message to Jennifer and telling the refuge manager that he's contacted the wrong person, Bob replies for Jennifer saying that he'll make sure her team is informed.  Jennifer feels unsettled, but can't quite put her finger on what's bothering her about this. 

She decides that it was just a simple mistake, and sends a brief email to the refuge manager that she appreciates the heads-up and will modify her sampling schedule accordingly (and does not mention his faux pas).  A couple of weeks later, however, her field technician mentions that Bob has been getting and responding to additional emails from the refuge manager about her project. 

What is going on here?  Should Jennifer be concerned?  Should she take some action?  If so, what should she do? In the next post, I'll analyze this situation and offer some possible responses.

Image Source: modified photo from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs