We would like to introduce a new series on Beta Pleated Chic, dedicated to recommendations on what to read, watch, listen to, visit, or experience. These are things we love, find interesting, and think our readers would enjoy as well!
Yesterday I finished reading Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women Scientists by Ellen Daniell. Published in 2006, it likely would not have made it to top of my stack of 'books to read' had it not been for a book club at Penn in which I participate. My current pile includes Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham's books— it is somewhat difficult to compete with those two! On top of that, the cover features the author and other female scientists sitting in the arms of an Albert Einstein statue. It's a little silly.
In spite of the publishing date, cover photo, and 'self-help' feeling to the book, I was completely drawn in by Daniell's story. The book centers around a group of female scientists who finished their PhDs in the early 1970s and started their first faculty positions in the mid to late 1970s in the San Francisco Bay area. At this time, the Radical Psychiatry movement was gaining momentum as people were beginning to look for alternatives to conventional psychological therapy. This was particularly true for groups that felt isolated at the time, including women, homosexuals, and Vietnam veterans. (If you are interested to read more, check it out here.)
Borrowing from the pillars of radical psychiatry, Daniell and several colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California San Francisco started a support group (Daniell simply calls it 'Group'). Although Group was, at its founding, comprised of men and women, the core Group came to be seven women, including one of the founding members, Christine Guthrie, a leader in the field of RNA biochemistry.
The overlying purpose of Group is as a space to discuss problems, issues, or decisions— professional or personal. Throughout the book, Daniell gives the reader a peek into the dynamics of Group through recollections of certain situations presented by various members. Over the 30+ years they have held bi-monthly Group meetings, Daniell kept journals and was able to reference these in writing her book.
One of the most striking stories Daniell tells is her own struggle for which she depended on Group's support. Daniell was offered an assistant professor position at UC Berkeley only months after completing her PhD at UC San Diego. Six years later, she faced a professional disaster: her department chose to deny her tenure. I've never read a first hand account from someone who was denied tenure and the way Daniell talks about her experience is quite powerful. In particular, she describes her complete loss of confidence in any of the science with which she had been consumed for the previous decade.
One excerpt that really hit me was this one. (I was reading this book on a quick fight from Philadelphia to Boston and almost broke into tears about something that happened 30 years ago...)
“My initial reactions centered on the written committee report, which I read over and over as the afternoon dragged on. Each time I read it I felt insulted in some new way. There was a simple conclusion: 'Having given due consideration to all the available evidence, we recommend against the promotion of Assistant Professor Ellen Daniell to tenure, since her lack of standing as a productive research scientist is not sufficiently compensated by what we judge to be her adequate performance in teaching and her excellent to outstanding University service.' This formal, civilized statement summarized a discount of six years' hard work and accomplishment. I felt that the committee neither understood nor valued what I had done...They said my research was 'sound,' that I chose to 'work on challenging and interesting problems,' but that I was 'not well focused on the goal'. I felt like a little kid reading the critical demeanor report that counselors at summer camp had sent to my parents, wanting to protest, 'But it wasn't like that!'”
Daniell went on to describe the impact of Group on her decisions after this point and helping her to figure out the answer to the question of what next?
In addition to interesting and informative stories, Daniell's book offers historical insight into research and, more specifically, female scientists in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. So much is the same and so much is incredibly different. When Daniell was hired at Berkeley in 1975, she was the first women to be hired on to the faculty of the Department of Molecular Biology, as were several of the women in the Group. Though this would certainly not be the case today, I identified with many of the challenges of research that Daniell touches upon in her accounts of Group meetings. I really enjoyed her description of science as a creative endeavor, juxtaposed against the need to show productivity or get a grant funded. “...those pursuits may lead away from the most creative science.”
In addition to thinking of science as a creative process, I also connected with the idea of taking pleasure and joy in the process of things that we don't often think of as enjoyable, such as making huge career decisions or meeting rapid, stressful deadlines. Typically, we are so focused on the end-goal: I have to finish this project. It is a push to finish in a set amount of time and the experience is often not the most enjoyable. One solution that Group devised was simply allowing oneself more time to complete a project, if possible. “Let the project define the time, once you've decided to do it. Make peace with how long it takes, and with the result, whatever it is. When there's not a choice [e.g. because of an inescapable deadline], commit to doing it, then enjoy what there is enjoyable in it. One of the rewards is that we are generally most creative working at whatever rate feels comfortable.”
Before I give away all the best quotes, I better let you pick up a copy of the book! It is available as paperback and on Kindle. Happy reading!