The big dreams of a 15 year old girl
I was just 15 years old when I dreamed of becoming a scientist. I was totally fascinated by biology, especially the world of microorganisms and the cells that make up our body. My fascination soon became a burning ambition to become a cancer drug discovery researcher. I fueled my ambition by working hard and embarking on a doctoral program in cell and molecular biology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, SUNY Buffalo.
So I was totally elated when I completed my PhD program with flying colours (6 publications and Dean's award for outstanding dissertation research). I had excellent postdoctoral opportunities from academia in the US, but I chose to come back closer to home in India and work on drug discovery.
When the going gets tough..
Up until this point, everything seemed to go exactly as I wanted. Ironically, I also faced a major setback in life then!
When career seemed to be stable and on track, my husband, Ashwin, and I decided to start a family. Little did we realize then that what we had taken for granted earlier, having a child, was going to become a major challenge for us! We fell into the category of infertile couples and became very vulnerable because of failed attempts to conceive and start a family. We ended up choosing wrong doctors and clinics, just because they were nearer to my work place and we thought that I could balance work and my treatments better this way. During this time, I faced emotional and physical stress from hormonal treatments and the dissatisfaction of not being able to give my 100% at work and in personal life.
At a point when I couldn’t take it anymore, I decided to give up my dream job in drug discovery to give my full attention and energy towards having a child. This was a very tough decision to make, but I did it based on my priority in life at that point!! I also wanted to go back to my hometown where I would have the support of our families and choose the right clinic for further treatment.
Challenges lead to new opportunities
It was indeed a very challenging phase in my life. However now as I look back, this most challenging phase is what actually shaped my life in a very meaningful manner, leading me to reinvent myself as a mother, author, a science and woman in science advocate, writer and speaker. Here I share two important learnings from my life that helped me achieve what I really cared for- a balanced and happy life!
1) Change Lanes
The priority I set in my life and the 100% focus and efforts I placed on achieving motherhood became fruitful when we were blessed with a healthy baby within a couple of years. At the same time, my first book, Roomies/Foodies, a unique memoir-cook book which I co-authored with my friend from grad school, was also born. (Read more about the publishing story of Roomies/Foodies here )
However, life presented newer challenges as I struggled to get back on my career track in research after the career break. This was compounded by relocation to a new country where Ashwin got a promising job offer. The rejections and lack of responses for my job applications did leave me feeling frustrated and desperate.
However, I was soon to realize that it was important for me to learn and adapt to the changes/advances in my field. I focused on updating my skills by enrolling for courses while building my network. I prepared myself to change my career path from research to other areas in science. Most importantly, I focused on staying positive and healthy throughout the process. Finally I landed a new job in science communications and at the same time gave birth to our second child!
From this experience I learned that the entire journey of life cannot be planned, as life does like to surprise you. It is important to have an adaptable mindset to accept unexpected life situations. Then look for what best you can do in that situation. This is where I suggest 'changing lanes' if necessary in your career. The mindset to prioritize and adapt to life situations, helps keep stress minimal and opens up new exciting possibilities which we never thought of before.
2) Shift Gears
It is important to know and accept that career and life do not follow a linear path at all times. Most often it is not possible to give your 100% at both work and life. Therefore, it is totally fine to increase or reduce your pace according to your life situation. This is what I mean by 'shifting gears' and will help reduce stress that results from a need for perfection in everything.
From my experience, I would not advise anyone to completely quit their job as it takes grit and persistence to get back. However, if you do so under unavoidable circumstances, it is important that you do something, such as courses, creative or voluntary work rather than nothing at all.
One thing that greatly helped me to bounce back was to take responsibility for things and to make myself in charge of changes that I wished to see in my life or in the world. The fact is each one of us has the potential to be a 'changemaker', but we seldom realize it.
It took me a while to recognize this as I found myself down with an ‘imposter syndrome’, soon after I joined my new job. Imposter syndrome is a draining thought that 'I am not good enough to belong here'. The career break, new area of work, challenges of bringing up two young kids , all seemed to make me believe that I am no longer good enough at my job.
What helped me come out of my imposter syndrome was the women in science support group at my institute (@MBIwis). Here, I learned that the ‘leaky career pipeline’, ‘imposter syndrome’ etc are common problems that affect a woman’s career.
At that point I decided to do something about this as I wanted to reach out to my fellow women in science and help them retain their careers in science. I soon became an active proponent of female participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education and careers. I attended global symposiums and focused my efforts in bringing about a change in the Asia Pacific region where I am from. This includes proposing and co-organizing the Gender Summit Asia Pacific 2019 in Singapore, and becoming a stories in science ambassador through the STEM advocacy institute in Boston, USA. (Read my story on advancing career through volunteering here )
As I look back, life was never a smooth road. I did change lanes and shift gears multiple times. Sometimes I have felt that I am far behind. But now I am happy that I took pauses to recharge and reinvent myself. I am content because I am there for the precious children I brought to this world and for my family; I am there for my friends, and I am there for my people in science!
CREDITS: My story in science was originally published by storiesinscience.org in 2017. This was later re-published by the UNESCO Asia Pacific
To know more about my tips on changing career track in science please read this article: https://biotechin.asia/2016/04/23/mbi-women-in-science-dr-lakshmi-ramachandran/