Developing a Thick Skin

This week on #MeetAScientist get to know Dr. Liz McCullagh, a neuroscientist and leadership team member of 500 Women Scientists. She has co-led some of our major initiatives like the Request a Woman Scientist resource and our newly launched #SciMomJourney campaign to raise awareness around challenges facing science moms in STEM fields and connecting them to resources and support. In this interview, she chats about these initiatives and what has propelled her through her career in science.

When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your work center on today? 

My mom gave me a book about being a Naturalist when I was little and I would write down every animal and plant that I saw and try and identify them. That was my early start as a Biologist. My real interests, as I discovered later, were really in why the animals were behaving in certain ways. This lead me to the field of Neuroscience, which is what my work centers on today. Specifically, I study how we process sound information from our environments in the brain.

You've co-led our Request a Woman Scientist resource, which launched over a year ago. What served as the inspiration for that initiative and what's been the most rewarding outcome? 

I was inspired to start the Request a Woman Scientist resource because I wanted to be able to connect with other women scientists working on similar projects and find support. My original goal was to create a network where we could reach out to each other to write grant proposals or have support when traveling, etc. I must say that my vision was much smaller than what the resource has become. A huge bonus has been to see the increased representation of women in media coverage and at conferences as a result of the resource. We get feedback from many journalists about how they are using the resource.

Liz and her daughter presenting a poster on the Request a Woman Scientist resource.

Liz and her daughter presenting a poster on the Request a Woman Scientist resource.

You're also currently co-leading our #SciMomJourney campaign. As a science mom yourself, what challenges have you faced and how were you able to find a solution? 

I feel like I had the perfect storm Sci-Mom journey. I had infertility issues leading to lots of medication and finally a successful infertility treatment called IUI (interuterine insemination). I then had a complication during pregnancy called placenta previa, meaning that I was on bedrest from 30 weeks because of bleeding. I finally had a c-section at 31 weeks, with a 9 week premature baby. We then had 7 weeks in the NICU, when I only had 8 weeks disability leave, meaning I returned to work one week after the baby came back from the NICU. On top of that, because she was premature, I exclusively pumped every three hours to provide milk for her in a laboratory environment that had insufficient spaces and flexibility for a mom who had to pump so frequently. Lastly, childcare in Colorado is outrageously expensive and we were paying close to our mortgage per month for infant care. But despite all of this, I have learned a lot becoming a mom, especially around work-life balance and how to best support other women in their Sci-Mom journeys.

Liz playing ultimate frisbee.

Liz playing ultimate frisbee.

What is the best advice you've received over the course of your career? 

My PhD adviser David Featherstone (now deceased far too early) always had the best advice. He once told me after I'd received yet another rejection: "This job is 90% about developing a thick skin. Eventually rejections will just roll off, because they’re totally normal. If you believe what you’re doing is the best, you’ll eventually prove it. If you don’t believe what you’re doing is the best, then change to make it the best." I wish he were still here to give me support, but I have lots of good emails like that one to keep me going!

When you're not co-leading 500 Women Scientists initiatives, how do you relax and unwind? 

I love playing ultimate frisbee. I have much less time now as a mom and busy postdoc, but it's the best form of stress relief for me. Plus I have made some of my best friends on and off the ultimate field. I also love gardening, traveling, and making homemade cheese. 

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Elizabeth (Liz) McCullagh is a neuroscientist who specializes in the how we process sound location information. Her education is in Biology with her B.S. and M.S. from Virginia Tech and Ph.D. from University of Illinois Chicago. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz where she is studying hypersensitivity to sound in autism. Liz is an advocate for parental issues in the workplace, and co-founder of Milk and Cookies, a lactation support group on her campus. She is also on twitter @ZaarlyLiz and you can learn more about her on her website.