Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New post at The Alternative Scientist!

I have a new post over at The Alternative Scientist! The lovely Emily Monosson has generously agreed to let me post the responses from her survey of a number of different science writers (including yours truly). And if you don't know who Dr. Monosson is, check out her book and blog here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Growing pains---redshirting is in and we're the outsiders who didn't do it

It doesn’t get easier, more experienced mothers have warned me darkly. As the kids get older, school activities start piling up and it just gets crazier and crazier. The kids still need you—in some ways, they need you even more.

I want to close my ears when these battle-hardened mothers speak, and I want to shout LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!

But I’m beginning to understand what they mean.

Bean-girl has only just started kindergarten and our family calendar is booked with school meetings and events to remember; there are still endless forms to fill and a parade fund-raisers to remember. Wow, my husband said, standing in front of the calendar. Yeah, I said grimly. Think of what it will be like when both of them are in school.

And it’s not just the new notes and folders and projects to keep track of… Bean-girl has hit a bit of a rough patch this week. And bean-mom’s confidence has been shaken a bit as well.

The rose is off the bloom, as my husband would say. The first week of kindergarten was filled with the excitement of novelty—there was kindergarten itself, and the “Kinder-care” pre-kindergarten daycare program in the morning (which she says is more fun than actual kindergarten), and then a separate after-care program after 3:30 pm. Bean-girl was shuttled from one room and environment to another and seemed to find it all thrilling. Her very first full day she did something astonishing—she went down the playground’s tall, twisty slide, encouraged by some older school girls in the after-care program who have taken her under their wing. This is the same girl who for years refused to go down even the meekest toddler slide—and suddenly she was happily going down the biggest slide on the playground! Bean-girl seemed to be making new friends easily, and everything was sunlight and roses.

Then the second week rolled around, and it seemed to sink in that she wasn’t going to be seeing her old friends from her old daycare anymore. The novelty began to seem confusing and intimidating. “I miss my old friends,” she said, tearing up in the backseat on the way to her new school. “You’ll see L (her best friend) at ballet this week!” I replied heartily. “But I miss my other friends, too!” Bean-girl replied. Then she began to talk about how she wished she were back at her old preschool/daycare. She said the teachers were nicer there, the kids were more fun, and that she missed the physical look of the room itself.

She was in that daycare/preschool for two solid years. From the ages of 2 to 4. She met her first and best friend in that room, and they grew up there together like sisters.

Bean-girl has already bonded closely with a new girl in her Kinder-care program and already been invited to the birthday party of her new friend. But understandably, she still misses her old school. Last week she had, in her kindergarten teacher’s parlance, a Tough Day, and started crying in frustration about something. And today, when I dropped her off for the afternoon kindergarten session, I asked her to walk down to the classroom herself, following all the other children who were walking by themselves and leaving their mothers in the school lobby. Bean-girl got upset, and before I could even change my mind, the school chaperone took her hand and led her away, saying that she was a big girl who should leave mommy behind (all the other kids have been walking in on their own for days now).

Bean-girl was led away crying.

The school counselor called me at home later that afternoon to let know how Bean-girl was doing. Apparently, the counselor saw Bean-girl crying in the hallway and followed her into the classroom to talk to her and help her calm down. She had a difficult time. She calmed down, but then a stray word set her off again, and she had to spend a little quiet time with the counselor in a separate classroom. It’s perfectly normal, the counselor assured me. I just wanted to let you know how she’s doing. We’re trying to teach her techniques—like taking deep breaths—to bring herself under control. By the way, is she a perfectionist? (She is, I admitted). I thought so, the counselor said. We’ve noticed the way she gets frustrated at some tasks.

All this is feeding into new insecurities raised by a new acquaintance of mine. There is a phenomenon known as “redshirting” where parents deliberately hold their children back from kindergarten an extra year to give them more time to mature. Bean-girl is on the cusp of the cut-off age for kindergarten in our state—she turns five in November, and in our state children who turn five after December are not allowed to enroll in kindergarten. We had the option to put her in the school’s “Young-5s” program instead of regular kindergarten, but we figured she was ready for the real thing. Some people expressed surprise at this, and suggested that we should hold her back, but we shrugged them off.

But most of the kids in the Young-5s program are OLDER than she is. It seems every single kid in the district who has a September birthday or later is enrolled in Young-5s as opposed to kindergarten.

And these are kids who are bright. These are kids who are mature. These are kids who can read and write and are clearly ready for kindergarten. But they are being deliberately held back by their parents for a social advantage.

“Did you know that Bean-girl is the youngest kindergartener in the entire school?” a new acquaintance called to tell me, worried. Worried Acquaintance (let’s call her “A”) helps to put the school directory together, and decided to look up all the children’s birthdays. “I know this is bold of me, but did you think of enrolling her in Young 5s?”

I’ve only just met “A.” She’s the mother of Bean-girl’s new best friend from the school’s daycare program—a very smart girl who is already 5 years old, who stands a full head taller than the Bean-girl, and who is in Young5s instead of kindergarten.

“I know it seems brazen, but I just want to talk to you as one mother to another,” A told me on the phone. “I have older children—my oldest is in high school now. I just want to tell you that this is a VERY competitive school district. We struggled with the decision to put our youngest in kindergarten, because we know she is so bright, but we’re looking ahead to the years down the line. We want her to fit in socially and be able to handle the pressures to come.”

I was taken aback, but I could tell that A was sincerely concerned for her daughter’s new best friend. I thanked her for her concern, and said that while I understood these reasons, I was philosophically opposed to holding a child back just for these social advantages.

“Oh, I hate it too,” the mother responded. “I HATE it. But you have to understand that everyone in this district does it. 99.9%. Everyone.”

And she’s right. It appears that everyone really does do it here.

Have I doomed my Bean-girl by putting her in kindergarten according to the supposedly regular schedule? I don’t think so. I think in the long run she’ll be fine either way—although perhaps I should have thought more about Young5s, and perhaps she would benefit from it. Apparently, Young5s, is the new kindergarten, which makes kindergarten the new first grade and first grade the new second grade… Bean-girl’s kindergarten teacher said she would check to see if a transfer to Young5s is even possible at this stage, just to see. I have a late December birthday myself and was always the youngest student in school. I was shy and socially awkward, but I attribute that more to innate temperament than to the accident of my date of birth.

But it just keeps getting clearer and clearer: school is not what it was when my husband and I went through the system. For both better and worse. And it does not get easier as they get older. The tug of the heart is as painful as ever.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lab trajectories

Labs go through boom-and-bust cycles. I've been on the downhill side, seeing a formerly high-flying lab lose major funding, half the trainees kicked out or running for the hills. In the last few years, I saw and heard of more and more labs losing funding, downsizing or shuttering altogether.

During graduate school, I did my Ph.D. in a stable, middle-of-the road lab. That lab had gone apparently gone through a hairy period before I entered it, but it was pretty stable when I entered. Years after I graduated, that particular lab is still doing well, and still pretty much at the same level. It is neither expanding or contracting--it seems to have achieved a nice steady state.

Then there are the labs on an explosive trajectory. I think I may be soon entering one of these.

Several months ago, our research institute made available a large sum of internal funding in support of high-priority institute goals. PIs were invited to submit applications. It was a mad scramble, very similar to the craziness that occurred for the NIH Challenge Grants. And like the insanity that was the Challenge Grants, it seemed that everyone here submitted multiple applications for the Internal Pseudo-Challenge Grants.

Last night, the word came down on the internal grants. My current boss, sadly, did not get any of his applications funded.

But Hot Young PI, with whom I plan to work next year, did very well.

Today I had a meeting with Hot Young PI to discuss my career grant application with his lab. He'd e-mailed me to say that he had some exciting updates to share. I wrote back that I'd already heard of some of them.

Me, walking into his office: Congratulations! I heard you got 6 out of 7 internal grants funded!

PI: Oh, not really. (Slight pause) It was 7 out of 8.

Me: agog and speechless.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Still working (but enjoying this weekend)

Yesterday was supposed to be my last day of work at the Institute.

But in an almost literal last moment reprieve... my boss made the decision to extend my contract through the end of the year. Because I had already altered my daycare arrangements, I told them that I would only be able to work full three days a week. So as of next week, I'm officially on a 24-hour work schedule (and going to try my darndest to be disciplined enough to to keep it that way. I will NOT work on official days off!)

In a way, I'm actually a little sad about the loss of the freedom I'd envisioned working as a freelancer. Working part-time is better, of course--not just monetarily, but for other reasons as well. This way I still have continous access to the resources of the Institute, including access to cool seminars (yeah, I'm a geek about that) as well as the structure, camraderie, and steady income of a salaried position. And now it will be much easier to keep in contact with Hot Young PI as we work together on a re-entry grant for this winter.

(Yup, I'm still planning to submit a grant with Hot Young PI. And to hopefully transition to his laboratory at some point in the new year. So the timing and length of my current contract extension actually works out just perfectly.)

So things took an unexpected but happy turn... I took two days off this week to use up my last official vacation time and see the Bean-girl off to kindergarten. She is doing amazingly well, and is so excited and happy for the new adventures each day at her new school! Everything is thrilling for her--the kindergarten class, the pre-kindergarten daycare, using a locker, going down the twisty slide, making friends with older kids on the playground... In fact, she told me she'd rather go to school all day than spend some mornings at home with her mommy!

Bean-girl. At. Kindergarten! Legume kept saying after we'd dropped Bean-girl off. Bean-girl. At. Kindergarten! She said it over and over as she drifted off at naptime that first day. Then woke, bleary-eyed, but game to put on her shoes and go pick up her sister at school. Bean-girl. At. Kindergarten!

And when we picked her up, Bean-girl pouted tha we hadn't let her ride the bus home.

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In mid-September, summer finally makes her late appearance. The weather is gorgeous. Our city throws an end-of-summer bash at this time each year. My husband and I took the kids downtown last night to see the festivities. We sat eating strawberry ice-cream on an open deck, watching fireworks explode over the river. Baby Legume quietly chattered her wonder. Green! Pur-ple! Pop, pop, pop! Wow-wow-wow!