Tag: research lab

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?

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On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Research Budgeting for Scientists

Prior to starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I had never managed a professional budget before. I’d certainly managed my personal finances previously, but I’d never before had total oversight of a research budget and been responsible for figuring out how to spend it effectively and ensure that I wasn’t going over budget. This is one of those myriad of skills that you aren’t always exposed to as a graduate student or post-doc, although I do know some colleagues who managed research budgets before starting their faculty positions.

I’m pretty conservative with money and how I manage my funds is informed primarily by two things: I think that shopping around for the best price is a good idea and I like to know what the current balances of my accounts are so that I don’t ever run a deficit. These two approaches have served me well in the first five years of my position.

In my personal life I do not particularly enjoy shopping as an activity. The most frequent type of shopping that I do is grocery shopping and we have recently started to use the app Flipp in order to compare prices any given week and to price match items across different stores. I have transferred this idea to how I do the shopping of consumables and supplies for my lab. Usually several suppliers will offer the same or a comparable product; let’s use the example of 1.5 mL centrifuge tubes. In my lab I prefer the tubes to be clear, to seal well, and to withstand high centrifugation speeds. Taking these specifications into account, there are many suppliers and manufacturers who can provide me with a tube that will do the job. My next step is to figure out the price per unit and see who offers a good product at a reasonable price. For most items I’m willing to shop around and to try a new product, especially if the price point is cheaper than what I have previously been using. One thing to keep an eye on is whether there are shipping and handling charges in play. Often an item will seem less costly, but when you factor in the shipping costs that is no longer the case. I also have to make sure what customs charges apply if I’m importing an item from Europe or the U.S. since I’m in Canada as those charges can add a lot to the cost of an item.

In order to avoid running a deficit it’s important to plan ahead and estimate your future costs and also to have a really good idea of the current funds that you have available. Some costs are easier to project (e.g. student stipends, larger pieces of equipment) while some are more challenging to estimate (e.g. the price of agarose 3 months in the future). I’ve found that it’s been useful to go with higher than expected estimates in order to build a buffer into budgets.

I choose to run my research budget in this way because the vast majority if my research funding comes from Canadian taxpayers and they have a right to expect me to be responsible when it comes to spending those funds. I also refuse to put myself and my students in the position of running out of funds for their stipends as I feel that it is morally wrong and irresponsible. I won’t take on a student if I can’t pay for my portion of their financial support package.

I’d be interested to hear how other faculty do their financial budgeting for their research grants. Please leave your thoughts or advice in the comments!

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

What it’s really like to be a pregnant grad student

Meg over at Dynamic Ecology has a great post up about “Sciencing during the first trimester”. First of all let me say that I love the term “sciencing”; it’s awesome! It’s a pretty hot topic as seen from the comments and I think it’s because there isn’t an obvious forum in which to discuss these topics and based on my experiences pregnant graduate students are a rare breed. I wanted to share my story in light of Meg’s post and the comments that it has generated.

I have two children; my son is 12 and my daughter is almost 8. I became pregnant with my son a year and a half into my Ph.D. program on purpose. I say on purpose because one of the more shocking things that happened to me during my first pregnancy as a graduate student was the number of people who seemed to think that it was an accidental pregnancy. The idea that a graduate student would choose to become pregnant during graduate school was pretty racy back then I guess; hopefully this is starting to change. I found out in February 2012 that I was pregnant and it is easily one of the most amazing and terrifying moments of my life. My first trimester was not very fun. Every morning like clockwork I was dry heaving at 7:30 a.m. and I had fairly constant nausea during the day. Eating small meals very frequently is excellent advice. During this time I was performing tissue dissections on oysters for my research project. The combination of the smell of oyster guts and pregnancy nausea was epic!

My husband and I decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester due to concerns about miscarriage. After I passed the three month mark I needed to decide who else needed to know and when I needed to disclose that I was pregnant. I decided to tell my supervisor just after the first trimester as a courtesy so that we could plan for my parental leave to minimize my absence from the lab. I worried and stressed about having that conversation for weeks. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your supervisor and how you think that they’ll react to your news. All of us have heard stories about horrible PIs who eject pregnant graduate students and post-docs from their labs or who write them off once they become pregnant. Fortunately, although my supervisor was very surprised by my announcement, he was very supportive throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. I was very fortunate to have in my department a graduate student who had recently had a child and a faculty member who was pregnant at the same time that I was. These women offered great advice and support during a time that was pretty alienating. At that time, nothing screamed “other” in academic science like a huge, swollen, pregnancy belly. I heard through the grapevine that other faculty members felt sorry for my PI as they viewed my pregnancy as evidence that I wasn’t serious about science. I expect that many members of the academy still think that way, even if they don’t verbalize it. Being pregnant as a graduate student was good from the perspective that I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule and that youth was on my side. I look at my fellow female faculty members who are pregnant or new mothers in awe as I cannot imagine doing this at my current age while just starting out on the tenure track. I worked in the lab throughout my pregnancy and continued to work with biohazards, chemicals, and radiation during this time. I took the usual safety precautions and wore a radiation counter ring on my hand during this period of time. Once the nausea went away during the second trimester, the biggest challenges were feeling tired, heartburn, carrying around an extra 40 pounds, and the swelling of various body parts. I went into labour 2 hours after TAing a lab and it took my son a few days to make an appearance. Having him is by far the most mentally and physically challenging thing that I have ever done. This helps to put grant writing, manuscript writing, and conference presentations into perspective.

The first trimester of my second pregnancy was rougher than the first. I came home from the lab early one afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well and the nausea hit like a tidal wave. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening throwing up very violently. By the time it was done the force of my puking had ruptured several blood vessels in one eye. It was not a good look and there was no way that I could hide it. When I went back into work the next day I told all of my lab mates and my supervisor that I was pregnant. My second pregnancy forced me to disclose my condition much earlier than I wanted to and I ended up taking Diclectin until part way through my second trimester in an attempt to control the vomiting and nausea. The rest of my symptoms were similar to my first pregnancy and there was some comfort in knowing what to expect the second time around. I went into labour 2 weeks after defending my Ph.D. thesis and my daughter arrived in 4 hours start to finish.

Being pregnant as a graduate student taught me many things. Below I’ve listed the ones that are most important.

  • Know and accept your limitations. You can’t do it all and that’s o.k. Do your best. Great days, good days, bad days, and awful days will all average out. Work, sleep, and eat. You are growing a whole new person inside of you; that SDS-PAGE gel will wait.
  • Know your rights and the social supports and programs available to you. Be your own advocate and find allies. Ask for help when you need it; this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Being organized is great and it’s excellent to plan ahead, but you have to roll with the punches. Expect the unexpected. Your best laid plans will go up in flames, so it’s useful to have a Plan B, Plan C, and…you get the idea.
  • Mind the gap. Pregnancy will impact your productivity and so will raising small children. I managed to publish while pregnant and again soon after returning from maternity leave, so there is no gap in my CV.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and your baby. You will feel guilty. Lock your guilt in a closet and throw away the key.

Thinking about graduate school: How to narrow down your choices

This time of year many undergrads are starting to think about their plans for next year. For some of them this includes exploring the option of pursuing graduate school in a program that requires the production of a thesis based on research done in a laboratory. Based on my past experiences as a graduate student and my current experiences as a faculty member with a lab, I’d like to offer some advice to undergraduate students on how to identify potential graduate school programs and supervisors. This advice is aimed at students who need to find a supervisor before they apply to a graduate program and is not targeted at students who will be entering a grad program where lab rotations are the norm.

 1) Why do you want to go to graduate school? What goals do you want to accomplish in graduate school? What is the value in a graduate degree? Think long and hard on these questions. You should not go to graduate school as a default option or a back-up plan.

 2) Form a realistic view of what graduate school entails and whether the experience is right for you. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer or do a fourth year undergraduate research thesis or project in a laboratory. It’s also very helpful to talk to graduate students who are in the graduate program in your home department to get their bounce on what it’s like to be a graduate student. You can also get great advice from faculty members who run labs in your home department.

 3) Think about personal and professional constraints that may limit where you can go to graduate school. Can you handle cold winters in Edmonton, or would you rather live in warm, sunny Florida? Are you looking to gain international experience? Do you need to consider the needs of other family members, your partner, or your children? Can you afford to live on a graduate student stipend in a city with a high cost of living? Do you need to live in a culturally vibrant city, or are you a homebody? Some of these questions will serve to narrow your search for graduate school programs in terms of location and characteristics.

4) What discipline or subject area are you most interested in studying? Is there a particular research question that you are interested in answering? For example, if you want to study sharks there will be many departments that will not have that as an option. What kind of department name sounds like a good fit to you? Sometimes department names are not particularly descriptive or representative of the research being pursued within a department. For example, you can do cancer research in a Department of Medicine, a Department of Health Sciences, or a Department of Life Sciences. Ecology can be studied in Ecology and Evolution departments or Biology departments. How narrow or broad do you want your research experience to be?

 After you’ve answered some of these big picture questions you can start the process of identifying particular degree programs, departments and potential supervisors. I’ll provide some tips on how to do that in my next blog post.

 

Aphids, ants, ladybugs, and wasps! Oh my!

We have a strange phenomenon occurring in our backyard. It started a few weeks ago when I noticed a pair of wasps engaged in a death match on our deck in the back yard. This event happened with regularity over the next few mornings, but I didn’t think much of it at the time.

Later that week we ate outside on the deck and were impressed by the huge numbers of wasps visiting our maple tree. I should say that my husband and I were impressed; our kids were very uncomfortable.

Fast forward to last weekend when I went outside to do some internet surfing on my tablet. The first thing that I noticed was the huge number of black ants running around our deck and all over the patio chairs and table. Being a biologist I also noticed that the table was covered with aphids and that the tree was infested with them. As I sat there for several minutes, it felt like a very mild rain shower was taking place. I realized that the aphids were excreting excess sugar in the form of honeydew and that there were so many of them that the screen of my tablet was covered in aphid poo in a matter of a few minutes! I’m guessing that the ants were going wild for the honeydew and that explains why they were running frantically all over the deck and furniture. Once I figured this part of the mystery out, I was also able to see a large number of ladybugs and their eggs in the maple tree. Ladybugs love to eat aphids and were taking advantage of this buffet opportunity.

But what’s the deal with the wasps? I’m not an entomologist, but there appear to be two species visiting the tree: the common yellow jacket wasp and something that might be a bald-faced hornet. Be doing some quick reading I discovered that the adults of both of these species eat nectar, tree sap, and fruit pulp. Perhaps the aphids have made tree sap readily available by feeding on the maple tree, or perhaps the wasps are eating the honeydew waste of the aphids deposited on the leaves. The other possibility is that the wasps are preying on the aphids and chewing them up to feed to larvae back at the nest. The wasps don’t appear to be a parasitoid species preying on the aphids.

It’s very cool as a biologist to see a food web occurring in your own backyard. This phenomenon has also served to remind me of the importance of observations in solving biological mysteries and testing hypotheses.

 

Transferrable Skills

I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.

I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.

It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.

Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.

Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.

Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:

i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project

ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff

iii) Scientific writing skills

iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format

v) Networking skills

vi) classroom management

v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others

vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor

 

Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:

i) Teaching skills

ii) Ability to manage a research budget

iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism

iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team

v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills

vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly

You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.

The Power of the Label maker

One characteristic that is very valuable to have as a tenure-track academic is excellent organizational skills. This job makes multiple demands on your time and is a real juggling act; keeping all of those balls up in the air at the same time is tricky business. I have found that it is very worth my while to discover and invest in tools that help me to maintain order in the face of chaos.

One tool that I have found to be indispensable is the label maker. I kid you not! Label makers have come a long way since the models of my youth. I remember vividly using archaic models with the alphabet dial on the top that worked by punching letter imprints into hard plastic. Very clunky- but strangely satisfying.

The current brand that I use is by Dymo and is their middle of the range model. I like it because you can purchase a wide variety of tape types (e.g. paper, plastic, etc.), and colours. I find the base model to be a bit clunky and the top of the line model has bells and whistles that I don’t need. Refill tapes are widely available and reasonably priced.

My colleagues seem puzzled by my love for the label maker and I’ve been the subject of gentle mocking for this proclivity. However, if you read any good productivity book or guide you will see that the label maker features prominently as a must have tool. On a day to day basis I use my label maker to label file folders. Although the bulk of my work occurs electronically, I still require paper file folders to keep track of invoices, budgets, project plans, notes from student meetings, teaching materials, grant applications, etc. A label maker allows me to label these files cleanly and professionally and makes them easy to find and identify in my filing cabinets. The label maker has also come in handy in the lab. When I first moved into the lab and organized it I labelled all the drawers with content labels. This helps me to remember where all of the gel electrophoresis equipment is stored, but has also helped to familiarize my students to the lab and has trained them to properly put away equipment. This saves time and money. If you don’t already have one, invest in a label maker; you’ll be glad that you did.

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.