Oprah Winfrey's speech at the Golden Globes was posted on my social media feeds so many times that I finally gave in. During a break from working 10-hour days on a major deadline, I clicked on the link with one hand while holding a bowl of plain rice (my dinner) on the other.
For the first time ever, I felt like one of these "celebrities" was speaking directly to me.
Me too, as a young girl of color, aspired for more than sitting on my mom's linoleum floor. And I too still look up to other people of color who have achieved the impossible -they have managed to be seen and heard.
Olivia was a star in my research team. Degree in epidemiology, totally competent in biostatistics, good writing skills, and wonderful at presenting seminars. All of that wrapped in a joyful personality. And even bilingual in English and Spanish. She is Puerto Rican, like me!
In short, Olivia was the perfect. Our research was going well when one day she came to me and said: "I am leaving research to become public school teacher".
After my initial shock, I don't remember (or don't want to remember) what my overt reaction was at her news. But I am quite sure that I was not supportive.
I was "training" Olivia to become a mini-me. Go on to get her doctorate degree, become a faculty member, get her own lab... Now to see her jump off that track was disconcerting. Had I been a good mentor? Did I fail in steering in the "right" direction?
What work-life balance?!
It was my first book signing event at a national conference. 'Excited' did not begin to describe how I felt. Being able to present my book to a crowd of like-minded people was such a great thrill!
But when I realized that the dates of the conference conflicted with my husband's planned business trip, I went into panic mode. Will I have to cancel my book signing event? I had no one who could take care of my daughter for the weekend while I attended the conference. So, breathing deep and hoping for the best, I paid the train ticket to take my daughter to the conference with me. Had no choice.
I was recently asked by a reporter about the mentors who helped me along my scientific career. I've been blessed with many mentors over the years, but one always stands out in my memory: Dr. Celia Brosnan. She was my main thesis mentor during the doctoral program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Dr. Brosnan's method of mentoring me was simply this: focus on your strengths.
Once she identified that I was a strong writer, she gave me more writing assignments. Getting some wins early in scientific writing gave me the confidence to stay in the program and to gain the other skills that I needed to succeed in STEM. I have found the hard way that not every mentor will do this.
With the letters 'PhD' freshly-minted after my name in 1991, I thought that I could go off and discover the cure for some disease. Multiple sclerosis or maybe Alzheimer's were on my list... But the microscopic approach that I was taking on this research as a laboratory scientist made me feel removed from the real world. It was hard for me to believe that by mixing potions in test tubes and looking at cells in a microscope would help people one day. One far, far away day, maybe.
My work was tedious (read -boring). But worse of all, it was lonely. There were days that I might spend 8 hours sitting in a darkroom looking through a microscope measuring tiny vesicles in endothelial cells extracted from rat brains. I was also the only minority faculty in the department, which made for an even lonelier work existence.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.