Tag: funding

Self-Promotion as a Female Scientist

Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog there’s an interesting poll and commentary on the topic of self-promotion in science. Many of us in science are introverts. Self-promotion is therefore unnatural and uncomfortable. In conversations that I’ve had with scientists over the years it seems that biologists are quite divided on whether self-promotion is a good or bad thing. Regardless of how you feel about it from a personal or ethical standpoint, I would make the argument that self-promotion in science is necessary in today’s funding climate. Some trainees and early researchers that I’ve talked to recently still seem to harbour the mistaken belief that if you publish well and do good science, your science will speak for itself, and the meritocracy of science will see fit to reward you. I think that this is a dangerous fallacy that has hurt many a career. Similar to networking, it seems that many scientists see self-promotion as dirty or unseemly behaviour. As universities continue to realize the importance of community engagement and knowledge mobilization in recruitment and advancement the pressure on scientists to self-promote will only increase. Whether you agree with this or not, in order to survive and thrive, you’ll need to learn how to promote yourself, your trainees, and your work.


I can reveal the importance of self-promotion in science by sharing a personal anecdote. When I was a Ph.D. student I made a discovery that was a big deal in my field of research; I discovered a new bio-energetic pathway in animals. I wanted to share my results with animal biologists and I felt that the best way to do this was to present my results as a talk at the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Zoologists (CSZ). I put together the best talk that I could, wrote an effective abstract, and went to register for the conference. Going to this conference was a big deal for me because most of the work that I had been doing was in plant biology; I had only recently started working in an animal system. I therefore had a gigantic case of imposter syndrome. Each year the CSZ holds a competition for the best student presentation delivered at the annual meeting, but in order to compete you need to self-nominate by ticking a box during registration. I did not tick the box. After all, who was I but a plant biologist invading the domain of animal biologists? Long story short- I gave an amazing talk that likely would have won me the award, but I had taken myself out of the running. It was an epic fail in self-promotion. The next year I put my hat in the ring and won the honourable mention for the award. It was an important lesson to learn early in my career.


I am also conscious of the fact that some of my hang-ups about self-promotion are due to the fact that I’m a woman. I’ve been socialized to keep my head down, do my best, and hope that I’ll be duly rewarded. It’s taken a lot of work to get to the point of realizing that I need to toot my own horn and be proactive about telling others about my research. I can’t afford not to.


Leaky Pipeline: How Having a Uterus Almost Forced Me Out of Academic Science

We are fortunate in Canada to live in a country with an abundance of natural resources. The natural resource that will be most valuable in the future is fresh water. In many ways water is the essence of this country. Water is life. Water is transportation. Water is industrial processing. Water is power. Water is precious and should not be wasted. Water should be respected. Often in Canada we take water for granted because there is so much of it. Water leaks are a big deal. Whether they are a dripping sink tap, a water main break, or a flash flood they need to be repaired as quickly as possible. Sometimes you fix the drip by caulking or taping it up, sometimes you need to replace piping infrastructure, and sometimes you need to use sandbags.

Often when issues facing women in science are discussed we invoke the metaphor of a “leaky pipeline” . This leaky pipeline hemorrhages women at each level of academia at every step of the way. I am tired of the leaks and I want them repaired. I do what I can by wielding my plumber’s tape and caulk gun to plug some holes; I mentor and advocate for women in science. I fully recognize that I will not be able to patch the pipeline by myself; but I can call attention to the holes when I see them and demand that others help me to stem the flood of women out of science.

Today I read a blog post at University Affairs  that made me angry. It made me angry because the stories presented there are depressing examples of the reality of the “leaky pipeline” for women in science in Canada. It made me angry because I had extremely similar experiences with the incompatible and archaic policies of NSERC scholarships and fellowships and the federal employment insurance program in 2002 during the pregnancy and birth of my first child. It made me angry because I had hoped that a decade later these discriminatory practices would have been abolished.

I want to tell you my story as a cautionary tale. I can tell you my story because it is a success story and because I did not leak out of the pipeline. I need to tell you my story as a call to arms because I am tired of remaining silent.

A year and a half into my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto (Scarborough) I made the conscious decision to start a family. I did not make this decision lightly. I thought that I fully understood the challenges that lay ahead and was resolved that my career choice was not going to dictate my reproductive choices. I was fortunate to conceive very quickly. Seeing the positive pregnancy test was wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I waited until I was through my first trimester of the pregnancy before disclosing my pregnancy to my research supervisor. I will be forever grateful to him for being completely supportive at that time in my career. I dreaded having that conversation for weeks and was so relieved to know that I had his support. Had he not been supportive I would have leaked out of the pipeline.

At that time U of T had a great deal of information available on parental leave policies for staff and faculty, but no information was available for graduate students. I was holding an NSERC PGS-B scholarship and working as a teaching assistant. I started making plans for parental leave very early on in my pregnancy and was horrified by the incompatible policies that I discovered existed between NSERC and the employment insurance program. There was, and still is, the expectation that NSERC award holders “limit the number of hours of employment per 12-month period to 450 hours” and that award holders “not hold full-time employment during any period of time in which you hold the NSERC award” . This makes it impossible for pregnant female students and post-docs to work the 600 hours required to qualify for parental leave through the employment insurance program . It is worth noting that I had been paying into the employment insurance program for 12 years ever since I first started working at the age of 16. I ended up working three teaching assistant positions in the fall of 2012 while 7-9 months pregnant in order to squirrel as much money away in an attempt to support myself while on maternity leave. I also found out by accident from another graduate student that NSERC does provide financial support to graduate students taking parental leave , but would have been completely ignorant of that policy had she not told me about it. Another frustration was that taking leave from my program had to be done on a semester time scale. Despite the fact that my baby was due in November, I had to start my leave from my graduate program in September. To add insult to injury, when I went on parental leave I lost my student status and then got a call from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and was notified that I had to start paying back my undergraduate student loans. So there I was with no financial support from the federal government from EI for paid maternity leave on the one hand, and the demand from the provincial government from OSAP that I start paying them back! What should have been a time of great personal happiness turned into a living nightmare and almost destroyed my academic career. The only way I was able to stay in the pipeline was because I had a partner who generated enough income to support us during the 9 months of parental leave; otherwise I would have leaked out.

It is my belief that these policies actively discriminate against female and male graduate students and post-docs wanting to start a family. Despite the policy horror story that was my first pregnancy, my partner and I decided to have a second child. This time around I was smart and worked part-time in a call centre while wrapping up my Ph.D. in order to bank the 600 hours needed to qualify for employment insurance for parental leave. Had my supervisor not been supportive of me taking on external work I would have leaked out.

Until today, I had thought that my experience was unique; that I was the only one who had experienced it. Judging from the stories in the blog post , this is not so. In contrast to other factors that contribute to the leaky pipeline, I believe that this is an easy part of the “leaky pipeline” to fix. This fix requires changes in policies.

I challenge NSERC to:

1) Either change your financial support policy  to provide support for students and post-docs that is equal to EI benefits available to working Canadians taking parental leave OR change your policies to allow students and post-docs to work 600 hours per year in order to qualify for EI in the first place. If the training of a diverse population of highly qualified personnel is a priority for research in Canada, then make the policy changes needed to end discrimination against scholars choosing to have families.

2) Better publicize your parental leave policies to institutions, supervisors, students, and post-docs.

I challenge the EI program to:

1) Take into account how long students have been paying into your program prior to becoming post-secondary students or trainees and allow them to access those funds retroactively when they need to go on parental leave OR

2) Reduce the number of work hours that are required by students to qualify for parental leave through EI OR

3) Keep the 600 hour threshold as a requirement of qualifying for parental leave, but allow students to earn these hours within a time window longer than 1 year prior to the leave.

I challenge OSAP to:

1) Accept a leave from an academic program due to parental leave as a valid reason to maintain interest free loan status and not require the repayment of student loans during this time.

I challenge academic institutions to:

1) Update your websites and program materials to make supervisors, students, and post-docs aware of parental leave policies, requirements, and supports.

2) Allow students to take leaves that are not limited to the semester time clock.

3) Advocate for your students and trainees in conversations with government partners and funding bodies.

The “leaky pipeline” is a very real problem for women in science in Canada. We do not need national, provincial, and institutional policies to continue to contribute to the problem; we need them to be part of the solution.

Purchasing Major Pieces of Scientific Equipment for Your Lab

Several times since starting my tenure-track faculty position, I’ve had to purchase major pieces of scientific equipment. I define this as scientific equipment that costs greater than $5,000. For many of my colleagues in the U.S. this would not be a large amount of money, but it represents a significant portion of my yearly research grant, which means that I need to make a good decision about what I’m purchasing.


My first step in this process is to brainstorm a list of what I need the equipment to do (e.g. features, attachments, flexibility, etc.) and any physical limitations that have to be taken into account (e.g. Will it fit somewhere in the lab? Does it have particular power requirements?). Taking a few minutes up front to clearly define the minimum requirements that you have for the equipment saves a lot of time later, so don’t skip this step.


The next step is to gather information about the type of equipment that you are looking for. I do this by talking to colleagues and getting recommendations, thinking about any previous experiences that I have had with this kind of equipment, and browsing websites and catalogues. Once I’ve collected these data, I put them into a table so that I can compare the different models of equipment offered by different suppliers. Often one model will emerge as the front runner, and sometimes I can effectively rule out a particular piece of equipment by doing this comparison.


Only after I’ve identified the models that I’m interested in, do I contact scientific companies to ask for quotations. When I make a quotation request I include: i) the specific model that I’m interested in, ii) any accessories that are necessary for my research, and iii) information on the regular warranty that is offered and the pricing of an extended warranty. I send the requests for quotations out on the same day and time as a way to gage the responsiveness of the sales representatives as this information sometimes factors into my decision making process.


Many of my purchasing decisions come down to price, so it’s helpful to be comparing apples to apples instead of apples to oranges. I comparison shop when I buy my weekly groceries; why wouldn’t I do the same thing when it comes to buying scientific equipment?

The Academic Curriculum Vitae (CV): Scholarship and research section: Funding

The next section that appears on my CV is funding. If you are a faculty member you may have one or more grants that can be entered into this section. If you are a graduate student this is the place to put scholarships or fellowships. On my CV I present this information in tables because I think it is a clean and efficient way to convey this information. In my tables I have columns labelled: award and source, term, title, total value, and notes. In the award and source column I state the name of the grant and the agency providing the funding (e.g. NSERC Research Tools and Instruments). The term of the award either describes when it was awarded (e.g. December 2012) or the duration of the award (e.g. April 2010-March 2015). In the title column I list the name of the project funded (e.g. Laminar flow hood for laboratory). The total value is given in the next column (e.g. $50,000). I use the notes column for additional information that I think is important to include. As an example I hold several grants as part of a group or on which I was a co-applicant; I include this information in the notes column.

Within the funding section of my CV I have various subheadings. I have one entitled “Grants in Support of Research at Wilfrid Laurier University” where I list my current and past grants that support my scientific research. I have a category called “Grants in support of research at Wilfrid Laurier University currently applied for” where I list all of the grant applications that I have out for review. My “Grants in support of research personnel” subsection describes awards that have supported my undergraduate and graduate students. I have a table called “Grants in support of travel to scientific meetings” where I describe my travel awards. My final table covers scholarships, fellowships, and bursaries that I held before starting my job as a faculty member. When you are first starting out in science you will not have a lot of grants and it will make more sense to pool these together in one table. As you progress in your career you will likely have more funding sources and can expand to the use of categories that make sense to you.