Rip Van Winkle's 11-Year Slumber


Twelve and a half years ago, I had a newly minted Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences and had lined up a postdoctoral fellowship in virology. But I chose to leave the world of laboratory science at that time, after the birth of my first child. A number of factors influenced my decision: my daughter's traumatic birth, a move 2 weeks later to Washington, D.C., and my own experiences in daycare (my mother returned to the workforce when I was 3 years old). The decision was not an easy one. It meant withdrawing a grant proposal; explaining my change of heart to my prospective employer ("This is the problem with hiring women of child-bearing age," she said, "they tend to be very erratic in their decisions!"); and starting down an uncharted path.

Returning to science as a full-time occupation was always part of the plan. I wanted to "have it all" by living a long life and fitting in--incrementally--a family, a career, and eventually retirement. But because it is not easy to find women who have taken extended family leave, there is little information "out there," and very few programs address the needs of individuals who wish to reenter the scientific workforce. Through the years, though, several programs for reentry came to my attention, including some offered through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where my husband was a fellow. When they were first offered, these NIH programs were for scientists reentering at the postdoctoral level; however, the eligibility requirements have changed considerably, and I am no longer eligible.

In September 1999, my youngest child started kindergarten and it was time for this Rip Van Winkle to arise from her 11-year slumber. While I was in scientific stasis, there were some dramatic changes in the world of biology. In the past, most changes in biology were related in some way to benchwork. But this new paradigm relied on the computer as a research tool. To successfully reenter the workforce, I recognized that I would need to develop a new skill set in computational biology.

Bioinformatics was in its infancy when I left the lab in 1988 (the National Center for Biotechnology Information, for example, was established in November of that year, some months after I started on my family odyssey), and what little I picked up about the field along the way I had gleaned from the popular press. But once I started thinking about pursuing training in computational biology, surfing the Web and checking a few key Web sites (including this one...) quickly gave me a wealth of information to peruse. The power of computational tools to answer biological questions was immediately evident. More practically, there were definitely jobs available, and it appeared that there were not enough qualified people to fill them. And because bioinformatics as a field is so new, I was not as far behind the curve as I might have been in other areas. Also helpful was the fact that Johns Hopkins University (JHU) offered a concentration in bioinformatics in their part-time graduate program in biotechnology at the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at the Montgomery County campus, which is just down the road from my home. The Hopkins program was described in Next Wave's recent feature on bioinformatics.

To prepare for graduate courses in computer biology, I spent last fall taking classes at the local CompUSA computer store to catch up on my basic computer skills. With the support of my family, I started my first bioinformatics class at JHU this past January. Returning to school after 12 years was intimidating, but fun. Most of the class was made up of Master's students who had grown up using computers, but there were two other Ph.D.s in the class who could remember what a slide-rule looks like. Unlike me, however, these two women were looking to change fields after pursuing successful careers in laboratory biology.

I found I liked the UNIX and Perl programming class, and after all this time, I was pleased to find that I could still take an in-class mid-term exam. I also took the protein bioinformatics course, and I'm currently enrolled in the gene identification course. These three courses have provided an overview of the various aspects of bioinformatics and a starting point for my future endeavors in the field.

I find bioinfomatics to be as "hands-on''as the lab, and the speed and ease of obtaining results is very satisfying. You do an experiment, and within minutes you have a result. There is no question in my mind that these tools have an essential role in elucidating questions about biological function.

The next increment in my personal grand plan is to find myself employment in my new scientific discipline. But trying to decide which aspects of bioinformatics most interest me and what type of employment I want have been challenging. I've already learned one thing, though. Before beginning this endeavor, my biggest concern was how my time away from the workforce would be viewed. In discussions with several prospective employers, however, this is less of an issue than I had expected, presumably because other women are choosing the same path.

At times it hasn't been easy. I've wondered if my struggles with the bioinformatics coursework derive from the amount of time I've spent away from science. And sometimes I start thinking that all this effort is futile because I haven't mastered anything and I have forgotten so much. Moreover, I am still trying to work through many of the questions related to the issue of balancing family and work. Can I compete at a high level? Can I find employment?

What keeps me going despite all these doubts is the message I want to send my children, and particularly my daughters (who are always looking over my shoulder at my grades): Taking time off for your family shouldn't keep you from attaining your goals.

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