“Hot Oven” Experiences

Dr. Susan Alberts can trace her love for science back to one life-changing moment: learning about the fig wasp in freshman year introductory biology at Reed College. Dr. Alberts remembers being “mystified” by the relationship between the fig wasp and the fig and immediately wanting to learn more. While becoming a scientist was not the expected path for a once philosophy major, Dr. Alberts describes the job she has now as “the best job for me. Ever.”

Getting to her dream job, however, had ups and downs. First, the ups: Dr. Alberts received the Watson Foundation Fellowship, giving her funding to design a project and travel for a year. Dr. Alberts sent out letters to different potential projects and mentors, and received a call back from Jeanne Altmann, a behavioral ecologist who had set up a field research center in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Dr. Altmann offered Dr. Alberts the opportunity to work in Amboseli for the year, and Dr. Alberts accepted. Now, the (slight) downs: Dr. Alberts calls this first field experience a “tempering in a hot oven” experience, which I took to mean as a difficult experience which ultimately made Dr. Alberts stronger and more able to deal with challenges. Lack of easy international communication meant that Dr. Alberts was mostly on her own, figuring out how to run the project, from logistics such as vehicle repairs, to sometimes trying interpersonal relationships. After working in Amboseli for 15 months, Dr. Alberts came back to the states, received her master’s from UCLA, and began the first of two post-doc positions, one at University of Chicago and one at Harvard University. Dr. Alberts then joined the faculty at Duke.

During our interview, I also had the opportunity to hear Dr. Albert’s thoughts on being a woman in science. She, again, calls some experiences of being a woman in science “tempering in a hot oven”. While in training, Dr. Alberts saw some women not able to succeed because of familial expectations, sexual harassment, and unwelcoming environments. Dr. Alberts speaks to her first post-doc experience under a female mentor as a source of her strength in a male-dominated scientific community. Seeing herself reflected in a female-led environment allowed her to gain more confidence to stand up for herself when questioned, and to become a mentor to others. In 1998, Dr. Alberts found herself in a different mentorship role when her first child was born. The female graduate students at the time didn’t have many role models to look up to who were also mothers, and looked up to Dr. Alberts for advice on being a mother and working in the sciences.

Walking out of my interview with Dr. Alberts, I felt a renewed sense of determination to work hard to achieve my goals, especially those of working in the field. While I still have a lot of tempering to go through, I am enjoying being mystified by the work in the lab and the stories from those around me.

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