Wow. I just don’t know if I would ever want to go into research now…

I can’t believe how many stories I read about women in research and the crappy treatment they get. You can read a lot about it in April’s Scientiae Carnival hosted by the Women In Science blog.

I was treated very differently as a woman in the clinical laboratories I’ve worked at. I’ve always felt I’d been respected and have never been slighted because I was a woman. I haven’t realized how lucky I’d been until I have heard some other scientific women’s stories.

My first laboratory job was at a food testing lab doing microbiological testing. I worked there for 2 years and made my way up from a bench analyst to a Quality Assurance Lead Technician for the microbiology laboratory. That was a relatively new position, because the laboratory didn’t really have a QA department. It consisted of 1 person who at the time also did benchwork. Needless to say, I didn’t get much training. Most of what I learned I had to figure out on my own and I had to create new systems myself. The funny thing was that I had to teach myself how to use wordperfect and LOTUS 1-2-3 spreadsheets so I could work better at my job and because I had to make charts of our labs progress. That was fun! I barely knew how to use a computer (yes, I’m dating myself, this was 1992 and I just bought a computer for the first time when I was 24 – and the only computer class I had prior to then was in PASCAL programming).

But apparently I made such a good impression in 6 months, that when our corporate HQ was looking for a QA assistant, the woman at corporate who I had worked with asked me if I was going to be applying for the position. I truly wasn’t planning on it until she said something. And in fact, I felt guilty for wanting to apply because I felt loyalty to the assistant laboratory director- I just got the job only 6 months before. She told me not to worry and apply. I did, and they hired me. But I think some of that had to do with the fact that I was taking graduate level classes in Analytical Chemistry at the time and they also needed a QA assistant to help with the Chemistry side of things. With me, they realized they didn’t need to hire two people, but that I could do both (and save them the money). I really didn’t care about the fact that it was a very small raise in pay (very pathetic), I was looking at the stuff I could put on my resume. And it really paid off.

I was compiling data for 10 of our 11 laboratories (the 11th was a European laboratory that really didn’t fall under my scope). And in addition, I got a little bit of training in the chemistry side of our laboratory when they had me learn some wet chemistry laboratory techniques for nutritional labeling for a month in the laboratory before I started my QA assistant position. It was kinda fun.

A few months after I graduated college, and while I was at the food microbiology laboratory, I had applied for a position at a state forensic laboratory – mostly with a half-hearted attempt. I knew the process to get hired was long. I came to find out that there were 85 positions in 7 different areas of expertise (biology, DNA, firearms, latent fingerprints, documents, drug chemistry, and trace chemistry).
I came to find out over time that I was one of about 800 applicants. I knew there was a pretty slim chance I’d get hired, especially since of those 85 positions, there was going to be only 5 DNA analysts). I really didn’t sweat it. After all, I HAD a job. It was barely enough money to pay my rent, but I had a job.

Much to my surprise, after 15 months of going through the hoops of the application process (paperwork, interview, lie-detector test, background check, drug testing), I actually was offered a training position in DNA analysis. There I spent in a rigorous 17 month training program learning about RFLP and PCR techniques (and this was in the quasi old days of reverse dot blots and silver stained vertical electrophoresis gels for mini-satellites). This was just like college with one major exception: I got paid to learn and take tests.

Since I was with 5 other “newbies”, we were all in the same boat, so there really was very little awkwardness. And after our training, even though some of us was transferred to different laboratories, we all remained close. I mean so close. I still go to Halloween parties for my training partner.

As time wore on, we were no longer the newbies. When STR technology came on board, we were the first to get training. As fresh recruits were always being hired and trained (there was a bit of turnover to begin with, and let’s face it, growth was needed as crime never ends), we were becoming the resident experts. Within 5 years of being hired, I was mentoring other trainees, I was the go to person when troubleshooting was needed and giving laboratory tours of our section to groups visiting our laboratory. And I was fortunately paired with a great group of analysts (there were a lot in our section as a whole, but we were in 3 groups of 6 people). My group was one of the closest knit ones there. If it wasn’t for the stress induced by having to go to court all the time, I would have loved staying on there. I always struggled with the job on a personal level, and the stress really kept me from really being as productive as I could have been. I had an understanding supervisor though, and we worked out as many of the issues as possible, but in the end, I just didn’t have it in me to survive the stress of casework. She tried to help by cutting me back to part time casework, and giving me QA duties, but that really never worked, because the cases always took precedence and there was a huge QA project that they wanted done, but it was too much for 1 person who could only work on it part time (and after I left, they ended up assigning the task to at least 2 people). On a good note, I became really adept at using the software for the ABI prism 310.

I quit the forensics job when I applied for a position in a medical genetics clinical laboratory. And even there, I was met with a measure of respect. I was wondering why they didn’t require at least a master’s degree for the position when I interviewed. And the answer I got was because, as far as the clinical laboratory went, 9 years of the type of laboratory experience I held the same “weight” as a master’s degree. I really did enjoy this job immensely too. It was all the labwork and responsibility I wanted (basically I was a senior analyst in a very small laboratory, but when my laboratory director moved her office upstairs, I managed all the lab’s daily activities and monitored all the QA aspects needed to maintain our certification). I really liked my boss (for the most part), and I had 2 people who were my subordinates and liked them as well (even though if I had the authority to, I would have fired one of them for his work efforts). I also liked where I worked in a hospital lab affiliated with a major private university. I became friends with the research techs in my laboratory director’s research lab. And my training with the ABI 310 Genetic Analyzer came in handy because I was able to learn the ABI 377 software. Though I admit, I had a few hiccups when it came time to using the ABI 3100’s GeneMapper software. I was the only one who got some very basic training on it, and had to again teach myself how to tailor it to our laboratories needs. It took me a bit of time, but when I finally got it to work it was so cool!

I probably could have done that job indefinitely, except for one major problem. I had two babies in 2.5 years. I’ve got plenty of posts on how that all worked out for me.

All in all though, I’m really grateful I ended up in the clinical laboratory setting and didn’t go into research now. And quite honestly, if I ever thought I’d want to get an advanced degree, I’m not so sure I would really want to, after all the stories I keep hearing about the crap women have to put up with in the scientific research arena.

My gut feeling about the matter is this: I think there is something else out there I’m supposed to be doing besides biotech work. I’m not sure what it is, but as I’m not in the habit of going backwards, but forwards, and I’ve kind of already did a 12 year stint in the laboratory, I’m not altogether sure I want to be going back there, even if no other reason than to avoid having to work with blood samples again (not to mention I’m such a relic now that I’ve missed out on 4 years in the lab).

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