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One Woman’s Career Path

Annamma Spudich, NCBS/TIFR

The March 7th volume of Nature highlighted the important topic of women and careers in science. Many high profile women scientists and upcoming stars were highlighted in the issue, and it is heartening to see that women’s educational and career opportunities are being scrutinized and old prejudices are being exposed. This Nature volume, along with the book by Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, has focused attention on this very important societal issue.

However the Nature articles left me, and younger women I talked to, with a sense of detachment. The discussion seemed repetitive and the stories did not relate to the concerns of our individual lives. The discussion skirted around the most significant issue, our role as parents. Most of us would have liked to hear more about how parenting and their professional lives merged for the women profiled.

I for one never doubted that I should have both an intellectual life and a life as a mother and spouse. I cringe even today when women and men in positions of authority declare that becoming a parent is inconsistent with an intellectual life, “she can not be serious about her career if she is having a child,” or “do you know what it takes to have a child” were heard by younger women of my family not too long ago,even in high-end academic circles. Paths to achieving botha family and a career vary of course depending on the woman, her particular style and her particular environment and support group. There are many ways to success, but there has to be flexibility in the system.

My own career has taken a circuitous and unconventional path leading to unexpected intellectual horizons,and the beginnings of this developed during the time I took off from working in a scientific laboratory to be a parent. My education was in the basic biological sciences, with an M.S. degree in biochemistry from Marquette University and a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Stanford, but I have had a long-standing interest in the history and practices of Indian traditional knowledge in the botanical-medical sciences. A prescribed career path would not have taken me to where I am now. I was very fortunate to have had support of an enlightened family as a child in India, and later an encouraging husband and supportive mentors along the way. For me being flexible about my options and always being on the lookout for intellectual stimulation was probably key.

While my husband was a postdoctoral fellow at the MRC labs in Cambridge in the early 1970s, I took time to be a full-time parent to two small children. My husband and I had decided that staggering our careers made sense, and I felt culturally and emotionally inclined to be a full-time parent at that stage of my life. While taking time off may be considered by some to be the end of one’s intellectual life and career, this time allowed me to explore and discover the route to the work I am doing now.

I never gave up my intellectual interests and aspirations. After a brief time it took to settle into parenting, I decided to make time to spend in the Cambridge University libraries to look at what had fascinated me for some time – European records of Indian botanical medical knowledge, published in the 16th and 17th centuries. My fondest memories of the time our young family spent in Cambridge are walking with my 2-year old daughter across the Cambridge commons to drop her at pre-school on my way to the library. There I discovered the 16th c. English Herbal by John Gerard with descriptions and images of Indian medicinal plants, and later, even after I went back to laboratory science, I kept my interest in what I had discovered at that time. Then almost 25 years later,when the time was ripe for me to make that my full time career, I left the laboratory to work on what I had discovered during my “time off” in Cambridge. I continue to uncover work that has led me to curate two exhibits on the subject, one at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University and the second at the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. All that I have been exposed to, including my training in basic science, has contributed to my new passion, and people tell me that the new career I have created is unique and timely in the contemporary world.

I am grateful that I made the choice to focus on my young children during the period in Cambridge. Time off is not an essential ingredient in being successful both as a parent and in a career, but for me it was the right choice. It was important for the way I defined myself and I believed it was important for our family. After those Cambridge years, I came back to work with determination and without being totally conflicted, and I have gone on to do work that is important to me and that may not have been done otherwise. I have been lucky to do it all, but in my case not at the same time. Being flexible, being intellectually active at all times and being open to opportunity was key for me.

My daughters, both trained as physicians and scientists have faced all the same issues as I did. One has followed a linear trajectory to academic medicine and an active research career and is mother to three children. The other has had a more non-traditional career with periods of clinical practice interspersed with periods of time entirely focused on her family. Both are devoted mothers and very happy with their choices, albeit they agree there are pluses and minuses to each choice.

One key factor to my path was the liberated men in my life, my Indian grandfather and father who believed in my education enough to send me abroad to study at a young age, my husband who believed in me even when I had doubts, and the generous and supportive mentors (men) at Stanford who encouraged and promoted me when I wanted to re-enter academic life. No one can do it, women or men, without help and support from those around them, and should some decide to make parenting a primary concern during some periods of their lives, gender should not stand in the way of re-entry to further professional opportunity.

Anna Spudich

Anna Spudich graduated with a Masters in Biology in 1962 from Marquette University, USA and entered graduate school at Stanford University for her Ph. D. in 1964. Following marriage and birth of her daughter, she took time off to care for her family and later returned to the experimental science laboratory.  In 1984, she returned to grad school at Stanford University and in 1988 finished her Ph.D. with distinction, in molecular cell biology. She worked as a cell biology researcher at Stanford for 25 years. During career as an experimental scientist she was a visiting faculty in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco, and a visiting scientist at Genentech. A decade ago, she left basic science research at Stanford University to devote her intellectual energies to her lifelong interest in the history of Indian scientific traditions in the natural sciences. She is currently a Scholar in residence and visiting professor at NCBS, Bangalore.

One thing I would like to change, given a wish, would be to

One thing I would like to change, given a wish, would be to change the generous and supportive mentors in the past to realize my potentials and contribute intellectually. Another reading point in your blog that my mind tickles to think is Being flexible, being intellectually active at all times and being open to opportunity... Only thing I wonder is on scenario in India..

Are some jobs like these, outsourced in India... !!

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