With a lot of help
from my friends
I originally had no intention of ever becoming a principal investigator. I just wanted to do my science and be left alone. Besides, I had no idea how one could as a woman; certainly there were few role models. But my boyfriend had different ideas: The way he saw it, I should get a job and support us, preferably somewhere on the West Coast.
As things turned out, I received an offer to become an assistant professor in the biochemistry and biophysics department at the University of California at San Francisco. At the time, UCSF was a little-known school, commonly referred to as the Medical Center. (Indeed, until her death, my mother maintained that I was a professor at UC-Berkeley.)
I arrived in San Francisco in the late summer of 1973 a nervous wreck. The department consisted of six other faculty, all male. They were very friendly and supportive (if a bit bemused to have a female in their midst). It was the postdocs who scared me: The women were desperate to have a Role Model and made clear their high expectations of me to give them advice, yet all I could serve up was my own insecurity.
It was slow-going setting up my lab, I received a negative midcareer review, and tragedy struck when my trusted mentor, Gordon Tomkins, died prematurely. I fell into a deep, clinical depression and was hospitalized for six long weeks. Remarkably, when my colleagues came to visit me, they each said, “I know exactly how you feel; this is a really hard job.” This was the first I had heard — or ever imagined — that anyone else was also feeling challenged, and the validation had an enormous impact.
Through a lucky series of connections, I became involved with a group therapy program whose belief was that emotional support and problem-solving skills were key ingredients to survival in a competitive environment. With the encouragement of the professionals leading this program, a group of friends and colleagues from various walks of academia initiated a leaderless group, in which we met to exchange experiences and offer advice in dealing with our usually shared problems. Thanks to this group, I ultimately was able to be granted tenure and to build a strong and nurturing lab environment. Now, some 35 years later, we still meet regularly every other Thursday (as Ellen Daniell suggests in her book of that name), and I am happy to take this opportunity to spread the word about this empowering strategy and encourage you to consider it to enrich your own lives.
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