A Balancing Act

This week on #meetascientist, we get to know Emily Lescak, a member of the 500 Women Scientists leadership and coordinator for our Alaska pod. True to the 500WS mission, Emily has centered outreach and mentorship over the course of her career development. We're thrilled to share her research, outreach activities, and insights into the (surmountable) challenges facing women in STEM.

When did you first identify as a scientist? Tell us about your work in research and any outreach efforts you are part of. 

I first started to identify as a scientist after completing my Masters because I felt like I had finally proven that I could ‘do science.’ My graduate research focused on evolution of wild threespine stickleback fish populations from Alaska. I worked with colleagues at the University of Oregon to study evolution in freshwater and oceanic populations from earthquake-uplifted islands in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska. Using population genomics, we were able to demonstrate that much of the phenotypic and genomic divergence that occurs between resident freshwater and oceanic fish takes place on a decadal timescale rather than over thousands of years.

 Emily in the field.

Emily in the field.

I am currently a NSF broadening participation postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alaska Anchorage using threespine stickleback to understand how disruption to the gut microbiome influences physiological and behavioral development. I am one of the founders of my university’s postdoc association, through which we organize career and professional development events on campus such as writing groups, workshops, and career panels. I was one of the organizers of our campus’s first STEM Day, in which nearly 500 people from the Anchorage community engaged in STEM talks, demos, and activities. I teach periodically for the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program, bring high school groups to campus each year, and am mentoring an undergraduate through the New York Academy of Science’s Next Scholars Program. I am also on the Genetics Society of America’s early career researcher policy committee.

You are leading your Alaska pod towards mentorship and science outreach. Tell us about the steps you have taken and why this is an important topic to you and the women in your pod?  

Our pod has been talking with the organizers of STEM Power, a mentoring program founded at Georgia Tech, about how to engage local girls in science and technology-related activities. We will have an opportunity for teachers from around the state to sign up to have a scientist visit their classrooms either in person or remotely. There is also interest among pod members to build an in-state mentoring network for scientists at a variety of career stages. We’re fortunate that there are a lot of talented, passionate female scientists here. It can just be a challenge to connect with each other because Alaska is such a big state.

You are at the same time an awesome scientist, mom, and leader. What about these activities complement each other? And what about these things do not complement each other? 

I think the balancing act of being a working mom was described well in this NPR piece. Before I had kids, I had a lot more time and mental energy to focus on my work, but now I need to balance that with the time required to take care of kids. I’m really fortunate to have a supportive partner who is an amazing cook and handyman and is happy to spend quality time with the kids.

 Out on the ice, skating, stroller in hand.

Out on the ice, skating, stroller in hand.

Becoming a mom has made me a better scientist and leader because I have learned to re-evaluate my priorities and not sweat the small stuff. I’ve also become more aware of how I spend my time and make sure that my time at work is spent being productive. Most recently, I’ve gotten better about asking for help and giving myself a break. I have also gotten better about unplugging while I’m not at work, which is helping with my work/life balance. All that being said, there are unfortunately instances in which being a parent is challenging. I have had to miss out on conferences and workshops that have not made allowances for attendees with young children.

Before having kids, I had an intense travel schedule because of fieldwork, conferences, workshops, and regular trips to visit with collaborators. Now I need to be much more prudent about scheduling trips and think about how to make them family-friendly. It is frustrating to me that I don’t see a lot of women at my career stage or as faculty who have children. I typically don’t have the luxury of being able to stay late at work to finish an analysis or wrap up an experiment because I have to pick up my kids at daycare, but again, this forces me to do a better job of separating my work and family lives. Early career scientists in particular also struggle with issues surrounding maternity leave because paid leave is not guaranteed. In addition, low wages, lack of job security, and poor pay/benefits also cause many early career scientists to delay starting families.

For you, why is having an organization focused on empowering women important?

There are huge problems with attrition of women in STEM and an underrepresentation of women in STEM careers. The number of highly ranked women is not reflective of the number earning doctoral degrees. Studies have shown that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to funding, tenure decisions, nominations for awards, and service obligations. They also face profound discrimination in the workplace, evidenced most recently in a discussion on Twitter. We need to advocate for closing the pay gap and improved benefits and family leave policies. It’s important for us to highlight these issues, have open discussions about them, and, most importantly, work with our allies to implement solutions.

We also have the opportunity to connect senior scientists with trainees – young people need to have access to role models that they can relate to. We can inspire the next generation of STEM leaders and guide them in their career trajectories.

Outside of science, how do you spend your time?

I spend a lot of time walking my dog. She forces me to take breaks on days that I work from home. My family enjoys traveling – we had the opportunity to explore Iceland last fall. I like to run, hike, ski, and explore our beautiful state.

Emily Lescak is an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alaska Anchorage and co-chair of the Genetics Society of America's early career researcher policy committee. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. You can follow her on twitter @elescak.