So Much Left to Learn

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Jessica Ware, an entomologist, evolutionary biologist, and Associate Professor at Rutgers University-Newark. In 2014, she and her colleagues discovered a never-before-seen species of cockroach in New York City! In this interview, Dr. Ware chats about how she found her way to studying insects, as well as her experiences being a single queer mother to two LGBTQ children in line with our #SciMomJourney campaign. You can follow Dr. Ware’s research group on Twitter @JessicaLWareLab.

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

I don't think I really identified as a scientist until I got my PhD, or maybe it was after my first first-authored paper was published during my PhD. Up until then, I was "just" an entomology student in my mind. I had developed a love of insects from my Nana and Grandad who spent a lot of time with us outdoors in Ontario. It wasn't until I had published my 2007 paper that I felt like more than just someone with a curiosity for insects. It's hard to feel like an expert when there is so much that’s still left to find out about a group as diverse and numerous as insects!

You're currently an assistant professor at Rutgers, so I'd love to get your take on running your own lab. What was some valuable advice you got as you set up your lab? How do you view your role as a supervisor and a mentor to the people in your lab? 

I had advice to try and publish as much as I could in the first several years, which I did as best as I could. In the end, my early publication record saved me later on when there were periods of time that were less productive due to family stresses. As a supervisor and mentor, I have tried to provide a space for people to develop their skill sets, while encouraging service to the scientific community and the local community at large. We work as colleagues, developing the tools that they will need to go on to their careers of choice. I have learned a lot through professional development programs at Rutgers Newark about mentoring skills, which was really beneficial as I certainly didn't have any particular training in effective mentorship when I started my lab. Over the years, I have tried to get better at tailoring my mentoring style to be unique for each student, which varies with time, to align with their evolving needs. 


While you live in the US now, you're originally from and educated in Canada. What are some differences in support for science moms in Canada versus in the US? Is there anything you think we can learn from Canadian institutions, and vice versa?

I definitely notice a difference! My identical twin had twelve months parenting leave when he gave birth to his child during grad school. On the other hand, I had to get back to work (luckily, from home) only three weeks after my C-section when I had my first child in grad school. I wound up going back to the lab immediately after being cleared by my OBGYN during my post surgery 6 week check-up. Now that I am a faculty member, I definitely see how difficult it is to bring up discussions of parenting needs at work, despite progress being made. Because it was supported by the government, my twin could easily decline to do things during his parenting leave without fear of being seen as having a poor work ethic. I think we could work harder here in the US to make students and faculty feel comfortable having creative working styles during times of need. 


You're also a queer mother raising queer children. What sorts of institutional policies would you like to see in place—or have you enjoyed—to better support you and your children?

Both of my children are LGBTQ, but by far my trans child has faced the most need for support presently. I’ve had to advocate for change at his school, and in our community, when he socially transitioned after grade one. It was not something I was prepared for—nor did I really know how best to do what I needed to support him despite having my twin come out as trans when we were in our twenties. Luckily, we live in an area where there were great doctors and resources available to help us. We were lucky that his school was so incredibly supportive, and that they celebrated him as he deserves to be celebrated! But the process was long, and it is ongoing, which requires many meetings that are often scheduled at inconvenient times. Having a couple of very supportive faculty friends in my department has definitely been helpful when planning for coverage in the lab or for work events!

As a single parent, juggling caring for children with different needs (my daughter has a very severe case of OCD) and work has been a challenge at times, and not necessarily something I could have talked to my former Chair about. We have just started an LGBTQ and STEM group on campus, where hopefully we can all be a source of support to each other as we go on these journeys through academia! Actually, there are not many institutional policies that are in place to support my unique family, per se, although having good health care makes a huge difference for the various present and future medical needs of my kids. Having the top down message from my Deans and Chancellors that diversity and inclusion matter to them makes me feel very welcome and supported.

When you're not running a lab and raising a kid, what do you do to relax and unwind?

Ha! I think being a single mom raising two kids and running a lab is a lot of work, but in many ways it is relaxing and fun too. Playing chess or cooking with my son, singing with my daughter, going for walks with our dogs, all of that is really relaxing. I love music, and go to a lot of punk rock shows. I think being a twin is really awesome because I can talk to my twin every day and get a good laugh and put stressors in perspective! 

Dr. Jessica Ware is an evolutionary biologist. In her past and current research, she has focused on four main areas: systematics, behaviour, biodiversity and biogeography. Using molecular and morphological techniques she has used modern phylogenetic analyses to evaluate species, test family monophyly, assess biogeographical distributions in light of divergence time estimates and improve conservation efforts. She is secretary of the World Dragonfly Association, and past president of the SysEB section of the Entomological Society of America. Jessica is a member of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, the Society of Systematic Biology, the Entomological Society of America, and the World Dragonfly Association.