Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Lois Abbott's Experiences


I belong to the generation that stayed home and mothered the baby boomers in the 1950s and '60s. In vogue at that time was the "retread" model, in which women returned to school and to work when their children no longer needed their full attention. I had always been interested in science and math. After majoring in zoology as an undergraduate at Cornell University, I had attended Harvard where I earned a Master's in Teaching. So when my five children showed serious signs of growing up--one in college, three in junior high, and the youngest starting elementary school--going to graduate school seemed like a natural thing to do. In fact, my own mother had gone back to school after 40 and was teaching accounting at a university near her home.

In the fall of 1971, I enrolled at the University of Colorado, Denver, near my home. I later transferred to the main campus in Boulder, where I completed my Ph.D. at age 49 in 1977. I never found it difficult to enter grad school as an older student. Because my husband's career was in academic administration, I knew campus life and was not intimidated by professors.

Unlike many other women in their 40's, I had no domestic or financial crisis in my life. Indeed, my husband, although not a scientist, was very generous in his support of my starting a new career aimed toward college teaching and research in biology. For these reasons, I had the luxury of "following my bliss." What I wanted to do was to apply mathematics to biological problems. I began with population genetics, but in the early '70s computers were new and over time my focus turned to ways computers could be used to model biological problems, first in taxonomy and then in developmental biology.

Because my interests were broad and encompassed a number of disciplines--computer science and mathematics as well as two areas of biology--I had to develop my own program and find the right people to work with. This led to an extremely interesting and stimulating graduate school experience. I went to the Boulder campus to work with David Rogers, an economic botanist who had developed some of the very early methods for doing taxonomic analysis and storing taxonomic data. He became chair of my Ph.D. committee at CU-Boulder and arranged for my appointment as an instructor to teach a course in computerized taxonomy. Later, I was first author on a textbook in the field with Rogers and a taxonomic database expert from England. I feel quite certain that these opportunities were opened to me because I was a mature adult with enough flexibility and self-confidence to take advantage of them.

Later, because Rogers left the computer taxonomy group, I decided to pursue a different topic for my thesis project. I chose computer modeling of a growth problem in Drosophila wing development. Although Rogers remained a primary mentor, he had no expertise in the "garbage pail flies" as he called them. So, again, I had to develop my own program and find others to work with. These people included a CU-Boulder math professor, a geneticist from CU-Denver, a fly developmental biologist from the University of California, Irvine, and a mathematical botanist at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. I have thought often that I was among the last of the "independent graduate students." In these days of structured research labs, pursuing a self-defined problem might be even more difficult.

In my case, not belonging to an established lab helped me in dealing with a large family and graduate school. I was able to plan my own time more than most graduate students can do now. Except for class and TA-teaching times, I did a lot of my work at home at a time when the children needed someone around, but not constant attention. They claimed that their mother had fruit fly bottles clanking around in her purse and they thought that was pretty funny. Otherwise they didn't pay much attention to my work.

After completing my Ph.D. in Colorado in 1977, my life was complicated by our move to Albany, New York, for my husband's new job with the New York State Department of Higher Education. After considerable networking, I found Helen Ghiradella, an electron microscopist, who works on fireflies and butterfly scales at the State University of New York (SUNY), Albany. With her generous support, I continued my work in Drosophila development as a postdoc. Meanwhile, I was making trips to Europe to work with the English author of the taxonomy textbook and to the Netherlands to complete a paper from my thesis with the mathematical botanist at Utrecht. While there, I became acquainted with a Drosophila developmental biologist at the nearby University of Leiden. This led to another fruitful collaboration, on the Lyra gene, which I had first studied as part of my thesis research.

Whereas the research and publication work was going quite well during my postdoc years, the job search was a different matter. I had part-time teaching jobs ranging from developmental biology at SUNY-Albany to statistics at nearby Russell Sage College, but my 50 or so applications for tenure-track jobs in academia produced only one or two interviews. I began to realize that being an independent graduate student had its down side. I had many friends and colleagues within science, but no mentor in the usual sense. This further compounded the problem of being older in an already competitive academic job market.

In 1985 at the age of 56, I found my first full-time job teaching developmental biology and doing research at the University of California, Davis. Five years later, I began my current association with the University of Colorado, Boulder, where I now have a faculty appointment as a senior instructor specializing in laboratory teaching and research for undergraduates. A recent collaboration of mine with a Howard Hughes lab in Houston has succeeded in elucidating the mechanism for the dominant fly wing mutant Lyra, which I've been working on ever since graduate school. The resulting publications were gratifying events in my self-made, nonstandard, but still satisfying career.

So starting late on an academic career can be a gratifying experience. I feel that being a mature graduate student can have real advantages. To make it work you need to know what you care passionately about, what you really want to know. Further, you have to have learned enough about the way the world works to achieve your goals--to be flexible, to create your own opportunities, to be efficient, to work on several things at once, and when necessary to compromise. All of these skills can lead to exciting experiences in graduate school and later to a new career.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers