Science, Gender, and the Balanced Life

By Marcus, Emilie | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Science, Gender, and the Balanced Life


Marcus, Emilie, Issues in Science and Technology


People often ask how I "broke through the glass ceiling" to succeed in a field that is predominantly male and overcame the barriers women face in science. They don't always like my answer, because it's not about gender. It's about learning how to be effective as a member of a minority in different contexts, understanding the peculiar structure of academic research, and accepting the choices and tradeoffs facing both women and men in balancing work and life in this field.

From my initial interest in science in high school, I never felt held back, overlooked, or underappreciated because I'm female. Quite the opposite: Perhaps because people in science often are so passionate about their work, they may be gender-blinded by the thrill of sharing their fascination and wish to encourage anyone who is interested. And I was.

My enthrallment with science began with thoughts of becoming a physician. That goal changed after a year off after college, when I worked in the Columbia University lab of the eminent neurobiologist Eric Kandel, who went on to share the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons.

Kandel and his colleagues were so encouraging that they inspired me to pursue a career in scientific research rather than medicine. That led to successful graduate and postdoctoral research work, including a Ph.D. at Yale in biology/neuroscience and research positions at the Salk Institute and the University of California at San Diego.

My path was set. And I had a lot of support from both men and women in science--and owe them a lot.

But a funny thing happened along the way: Despite loving research in all its aspects, I became unsettled by the choices necessary to pursue a career in academic science. First and foremost, one must select a specific area of focus. That requires a measure of healthy monomania, a conviction that one's chosen question and approach are more interesting, valuable, compelling, and likely to succeed than others'.

But as much as the scientific problems I was working on were enjoyable and inspiring, equally (and sometimes more) engaging and exciting were the projects and results of other scientists. The need to choose a single focus area, in fact, panicked me. This culminated in a pivotal, life-changing experience when, as a postdoc, I received a phone call with good news about funding of my grant application and realized I was more depressed than elated.

If a research scientist is not ecstatic about rare positive news about funding, it is most definitely a sign not to ignore.

After much soul-searching, I decided to leave research and began looking for career opportunities where my breadth of interest would be an asset. An ad for an editorial position at the scientific journal Neuron led me to publishing and eventually the position of editor-in-chief. The pursuit of an editorial career satisfied every need to remain deeply engaged with science and scientists while indulging in broader scientific issues. And although the demanding schedule of academic research was not an issue for me personally when considering this change in career direction, the structure and teamwork nature of editorial work do provide a framework of shared goals, expectations, and flexibility necessary to support a more healthy work/life balance.

My new path led to my leadership today of Cell and Cell Press. Again, all the while I was encouraged, or at least never discouraged, by male and female managers, mentors, and colleagues.

A minority of one

All that said, throughout my professional experiences, from the lab to Cell Press, I have often found myself in the minority; sometimes a minority of one. The only woman. The only junior scientist or editor in a room of distinguished leaders. The only American in a room of Europeans. The only academic in a room of businesspeople.

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