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Ask Dr Bridget for Advice

Editor's note: We hear a lot these days about how important it is to promote women in science. A multitude of schemes, grants, and opportunities have sprung up to support the Ladies of the Labs. But where can women turn for answers to the more embarrassing and difficult questions that arise in the course of scientific life? Well, Dr. Bridget has been thinking about this too and has decided to be your agony aunt herself.

Ladies of the Labs problem number 1

Dear Dr. Bridget,

I started my Ph.D. a few months ago and I have fallen completely in love with my supervisor! He's so smart, incisive, and considerate as well as being a fount of ideas. All his new suggestions seem so exciting! Every day he makes sure I'm OK, and he always comes to the pub with us after work on Fridays. I really want to tell him how I feel--what should I do?


Lovesick in the Lab

Dear Lovesick,

Although you may be head over heels now, rest assured that your crush will wear off faster than a braking centrifuge as you realise your supervisor may not be the Einstein/Pierce Brosnan hybrid he currently represents. As you progress with your Ph.D., those smart and incisive comments will become little daggers, pulling apart your work and theories. You will come to realise that his fount of ideas spews a fair amount of rubbish, and that you need to sift the gold from the grot rather than dashing off to the bench to try every new madcap experiment. You will start to avoid his daily check-ups, as these are merely thinly veiled excuses to pressure you for results. And although it is great that he comes to the pub, the day will come when you are desperate to whine about the boss with the disaffected postdocs over a private pint. Enjoy the "honeymoon" while it lasts!

Hope you feel better,

Dr. Bridget

Ladies of the Labs problem number 2

Dear Dr. Bridget,

I am a female 30-something postdoc whose biological clock is ticking like a time bomb, but I'd also like to become a group leader in the next few years. My husband is keen to have kids too but is also at a crucial time in his so-far-very-successful career. Do you have any advice on how I can fit in having a family with the demands of an academic career?


Babies or My Blots?

Dear BOMB,

The answer is, you probably can't without the support of your partner, and it is a sad truth that often it is the woman who must sacrifice her career aspirations for the sake of children. So the solution to your problem is simple: You need a wife. I am reliably informed that these can be purchased quite cheaply over the Internet. Failing that, I suggest you embark on a program of secret brainwashing. At night while your husband is asleep, quietly whisper phrases such as "I love children's television" and "Nappies can be fun!" in his ear. He'll soon develop a yen for the domestic life, leaving you free to pursue scientific glory.

Hope that helps,

Dr. Bridget

Ladies of the Labs problem number 3

Dear Dr. Bridget,

I am getting to the end of my postdoc contract without having published any papers and have realised that academic science isn't the right job for me. As someone whose life has revolved around science, I am at a loss for ideas for an alternative career. Do you have any suggestions?


Looking Outside Science is Terrifying

Dear LOST,

Do not fear! Research is an excellent training ground for many alternative careers. Hours of meaningless pipetting have prepared you for a job stacking supermarket shelves or working on a factory production line. Alternatively, giving seminars at which nobody ever pays attention is great practise for being a university lecturer or schoolteacher. If you're used to dealing with petulant colleagues who hide important reagents and make a mess everywhere, then consider becoming a nanny. Finally, consider becoming a professional magician if you enjoy the feeling of attempting the impossible on a daily basis but actually want to get it to work.

Hope that's given you some ideas,

Dr. Bridget

Ladies of the Labs problem number 4

Dear Dr. Bridget,

I am a final-year Ph.D. student who has been selected to speak at a big international conference. The largest crowd I've ever spoken in front of was the four members of my lab and I'm petrified! Do you have any helpful advice for me?


Bag of Nerves

Dear Bag,

It is an honour and a privilege to present your work to the scientific community, so you should be thrilled rather than scared. Drawing on my experiences, and those of my friends, there are a few things you can do to ease your nerves:


  • Wear something you feel comfortable in, and make sure you have a pocket or waistband for a clip-on microphone. That slinky black dress may make you feel like a million dollars but you'll feel pretty silly with a radio transmitter wedged in your bra.

  • Persuade a colleague at the conference to pay attention to the other talks in the session in which you are speaking so that he can give you a full report once your own is over. It's an irony that the session which should be most relevant to your work will be rendered completely incomprehensible by stress.

  • Practise your talk in front of friends and colleagues. Bribe them with cookies first to ensure rave reviews.

But definitely avoid under all circumstances:

  • Getting your belly button pierced 2 days before the conference. Pain-induced sleep deprivation and a spreading pool of pus across your abdomen are not the best preparation for your big moment. Trust me, I really know what I'm talking about here.

  • Getting blind drunk the night before your talk and spending the entire time on the podium looking for surreptitious places to vomit.

  • Practising your talk out loud alone. It's the first step on the road to the lunatic asylum.

Hope this helps!

Dr. Bridget

Ladies of the Labs problem number 5

Dear Dr. Bridget,

I am deeply frustrated with my group head. He is a tweedy old professor who has rather fixed views about the role of women in the lab. He selects the men to speak at conferences, doesn't take my research seriously, and is always going on about how I should wear a skirt to work. Needless to say, I am also the one who does all the lab cleaning as well as being expected to make coffee--an attitude that persists among the male postdocs and students. Yet I love what I do and am getting some exciting results so I don't want to leave. What should I do?

Male chauvinism Is Spoiling Science

Dear MISS,

The practical and sensible solution to your problem would be to seek professional legal advice about the sexual discrimination you are experiencing. A more fun solution might be to beat the boys at their own game and bring some femininity to your lab. Because they are exhibiting an unacceptable streak of maleness, try the following intolerable female behaviour:

  • Swap the lab coffee with a selection of vile herbal teas.

  • Park bowls of potpourri and scented candles on every available shelf. Make sure you use as many clashing fragrances as possible.

  • Pin up pictures of puppies, kittens, and shirtless firemen on every wall.

  • Totter round the lab in high heels and false nails, feigning inability at simple tasks such as lifting or taking the lids off bottles.

  • Knit during lab meetings.

  • If you work with Drosophila, mice, or frogs, shriek and flap your arms about whenever one comes near you.

After a few weeks of this, I'm sure they'll see the error of their ways and be begging for equality!

Hope this is fair,

Dr. Bridget

For sensible ideas about the issues raised in this article, check out: