Face your Fear

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face… You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962).

Three years ago, I moved cross county and internationally with my family in tow.  We moved from Orono, Maine, USA to Burnaby, BC, Canada so that I could begin a PhD position at Simon Fraser University.  Yes, that’s right; I made my entire family move here so I could pursue my passion.


Map of Route Viorel took from Orono, ME, USA to Burnaby, BC, Canada

I had always wanted to continue my education.  I have always been intrigued by entomology and I knew I wanted to work in the field.  Once Viorel was nearing the end of his PhD at the University of Maine, it was my turn.  To be honest, making the decision to go back to school was easy; following through with it however, was incredibly difficult because of  the lack of support I faced at home and academia.  At home, I thought my friends and family would support our decision to move and encourage my choice to go back to school, but I was wrong.  My colleagues and acquaintances thought we were nuts.  One of my colleagues said, “well, if you’re going to do it, now’s the time… Tavi won’t remember.”  The majority of my family didn’t say anything and, at best, politely gave me a half smile.  On many occasions my grandfather told me I was “too educated”.  (I honestly don’t think he meant any harm… but I really don’t know what he meant.) Worse, however, was being told I was selfish.  I was told that, “you’re selfish to go back to school when you have a baby and a family to take care of” and “selfish to take your family so far away from home.”  It was as if I had to choose between my career and my family and, clearly, I was making the wrong choice.  I felt incredibly guilty.

If that wasn’t hard enough, there appeared to be (and continues to be) little to no support for parents, especially mothers, in academia.  Women in academia suffer a “baby penalty” over the course of their academic careers. Family formation can negatively affect women’s, but not men’s- academic careers (Mary Ann Mason, N. H. Wolfinger & M. Goulden, 2013).  For men, having children can be an academic advantage and, for women, it is a career killer.  To learn more about the topic I joined a book club at the University of Maine.  We read, “Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out” followed by a panel discussion on the topic.  After which I was terrified of stepping foot back into Academia as a student again.  The majority of the opinions, experiences, and stories shared were mainly negative with few “traditionally” successful mother scientists sharing their stories.  Almost none of the stories were of women who maintained full-time academic work after having a child.  And here I was, planning on entering academia as a student again, full-steam-ahead… with an infant in tow!  After this experience, I left with the mindset that I would keep my family life to myself.  I planned to keep a strict divide between my family life and academic life.  I was determined to measure my success by academic achievement and not by my reproductive status.

I was lucky though, I had unwavering support from my husband and BEST friend, Bess Koffman, to continue my education. With them at my side, I convinced myself that the satisfaction of investing in my education and future would make me a happier and more contented person; thereby increasing the quality of care and love I provided my son and family.  So, regardless of the pressures from social conventions, peer pressure, and familial expectations, we followed through with our decision.  I faced my fear and went back to graduate school.

Before leaving Maine, we gave away or sold most of our possessions (don’t worry, we didn’t have much anyway) and packed our car with what items “made the cut”.  This mostly consisted of Tavi’s baby gear. (He wasn’t even a year old yet!)  Viorel and Rex drove across the continent together in the dead of winter in our trusted Outback.  Tavi and I flew and met them in our new home about a week later… I’m still not sure which one of us got the better deal!

Viorel and Rex made a little detour to pick up Bess who was visiting her Mom for the holidays in Washington State.  We had very little money (obviously because we just moved cross country and were on a student and postdoc salary.)  Bess and Viorel spent the entire week scouring Craig’s List and thrift stores to set up our apartment.  By the time Tavi and I arrived, we had kitchen ware, towels, a bed, a crib, and other miscellaneous necessities.  If anyone has ever tried to set up a home with a limited time-line and budget, than they would understand that this was no small feat!  This meant a great deal to us, to me, and I hope that I can someday return the favor to Bess.  I could never ask for a better friend!  I am so so so lucky!

Bess and Bekka

Bess and I on SFU Campus (January 2011)

Presently, I’m right in the thick of my PhD and going strong!  I have 2 publications, 4 in queue (which I will undoubtedly and unabashedly self-promote on my blog once published), nomination for a teaching award at Simon Fraser University (2012), Insect Ecology (BISC 317), and I’ve presented in multiple scientific conferences throughout Canada.

At the start of my PhD, I was determined to keep a strict separation between work and family.  Now I bring my whole self to the lab.  The separation never really worked for me and, as it turned out, was un-necessary.  In fact, it`s my belief that sharing my personal life and feelings has built deeper working relationships with my lab-mates and colleagues.  My lab-mates have become our extended family away from home.  Tavi has acquired at least 15 “Aunts” and “Uncles” and LOVES going to the lab and insectary.  When Tavi is visiting the lab, everyone is welcoming and never seems to tire of his exhaustive questions.  My advisor has been supportive of me, my academic pursuits, and my family.  (This says a lot about his personality because I can be opinionated and demanding at times.)

Tavi's Lab Award

Lab Christmas party, Tavi receiving his “Award” (2013)

…and, as far as I can tell, the quantity of family time and quality of parenting and has not diminished nor has it been affected… but rather, it’s been enriched.  Turns out, being in school has offered me a great deal of flexibility because, for the most part, I make my own hours. So, I can be there for Tavi when he needs me.  Additionally, Tavi is intrigued and challenged by being surrounded by vibrant and intelligent people and the academic activities in the lab.

I faced my fear and I have no regrets.  So, when was the last time YOU looked fear in the face?


Mason, M. A., N. H. Wolfinger, M Goulden. 2013. Do Babies Matter?  Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. Rutgers University Press

E. Monosson. 2008.  Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out. Cornell University Press.

3 thoughts on “Face your Fear

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