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Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your question to Alice’s attention at

Dear Alice,

Only when you are tenured and at the top of your profession do you have the luxury of extra service to your school and advocacy for women.

Q: I have been an assistant professor at a top university for almost 2 years. It has been a hard slog to get my lab going and get everything done. I miss being a postdoc.

My problem is that I am one of only two female faculty members in my large department. My department chair has put me on three committees because he needs the diversity. Now, the dean has asked me to do a study on research associates at this university, the majority of whom are female, and determine their status: years post-Ph.D., productivity, and other important parameters that might help them be promoted. I would really like to do the study because I think I have some good ideas. Besides, turning the dean down could jeopardize my future. I wish I could do it all, but my lab work would definitely suffer.

On the other hand, if I resign from some or all of my committee work, it might disappoint my department chair; that, too, could jeopardize my future. What should I do?


Dear Inundated,

A: Many female professors have faced the problem you face. Department chairs should watch out for young professors without tenure and not overload them with administrative duties, but the need for (and lack of) diversity on committees puts them in a bind.

Be very focused on your career, which largely depends on your research productivity. Only when you are tenured and at the top of your profession do you have the luxury of extra service to your school and advocacy for women. However, in addition to teaching, your academic promotions will also depend on “citizenship,” which includes service on committees and participation in departmental activities and seminars. So determine what the average committee assignment is for all—especially male—assistant professors; to me, being on three committees sounds like an unusually heavy load, especially for an assistant professor. Choose committees that will enhance your career, such as running departmental seminars where you can invite friends and colleagues, and become more widely known in your field. Avoid thankless and time-consuming committees and tasks, like graduate student advising or increasing child care availability. Graciously decline the dean’s invitation to participate in the study on research associates until your lab is productive. If you do eventually sign on to do the survey, ask for help in gathering and analyzing the data, and utilize your time on designing a survey that will get at the important issues that concern you.

You should be commended for wanting to help other women at your university, especially those not on the tenure track. But once you’re tenured, you will be in a much better position to help them.

And remember, when you get to the top, don’t forget the women.



Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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