Monday, March 16, 2009

Women in Science: Wendy Hanna-Rose

I was a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Wendy Hanna-Rose's lab. I was drawn to her lab because we share an interest in understanding basic developmental biology. I had done my graduate work in a fly lab and wanted to explore working with a different model organism.Wendy uses a small, transparent nematode worm called C. elegans to understand basic questions about how animals develop. My tenure in her lab was short (less than 2 years) and I got to do some really exciting science. I wish I could have stayed longer but, more importantly; I was lucky to find an inspirational role-model who combines an amazing work-ethic with common sense, grace, humor and intelligence.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Wendy about her life as a woman in science.

"All kids should be involved with science".

Wendy has always (as far as I know) been involved with outreach. She was one of the few scientists in our graduate program to participate in a program called Expanding Your Horizons.
The program allowed young girls to spend a day in the lab watching scientists at work. I think (and so does Wendy) that it is important for girls to see that there are women scientists heading up labs, allowing them to see real-life role models. Wendy says she has always found science to be fun and mostly, she loves sharing her love for science with others- especially kids , be they girls or boys.

"We use scientific language at home".

I asked her if science ever came up at home and she said " Of course." As a scientist, she says, she would like to impart at least some of her love for science to her kids. She says that like most working women she tries to compartmentalize her life into teacher, scientist, mom and wife but admits that she has failed in keeping work from invading her time at home.

"I can't imagine what else I would do."

We talked about the most challenging aspect about being a woman in science and she felt that the responsibility of securing funding for the lab was what kept her awake most nights. "When things are going well, you have money, it is the best job in the world. It is so much fun that it makes it easier to balance everything else in your life - like family."But, she says, she has come to realize that funding is a roller-coaster and that you have to hope that you can make it through the lean years. The recent statistics about the alarming increase in the average age of a first time RO1 grantee came up and she exclaimed that she was one of those contributing to the statistic - she got her first RO1 grant at 42*.

I asked her what she feels about some of her graduate students choosing to not follow her example and forge a career in academia. She responded by saying that she realizes that each individual has to find their own path. It matters to her that she trains people to be good scientists and to think like a scientist, not what career-path they ultimately end up in.

Finally, I asked her, "Have you ever felt like quitting ?"

"Yes" she responded, "Yes, I have thought about quitting, but what has helped me is building networks within the community, and having a truly collegial atmosphere at work - that helps."

* The recent ARISE report compiles excellent data on young investigators in science and the challenges they face.

This is Part 3 in the New Voices celebration of International Women's Day and Women's History month.
Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Connie Chow, PhD


  1. Good to know there are real women doing science and raising a family and being successful at it! We need more stories like this!

  2. Wendy has always done outreach activities voluntarily, but I just realized it was all about setting a model for kids (more so girls) to make them realize that science is an option for them to consider.