Podcast: The Fig Tree with Stephanie McFarlane

How do we choose our path when the tree of life bears more fruit than we can feast on? How can we live without fear that our unchosen, yet still desired, fruits will not wither as we can only harvest a few? Today, Stephanie McFarlane, a graduate student in Ellen Damschen's lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Department of Integrative Biology, mother of three, and mentor to multiple undergraduate students, shares how her perspective on choosing the fruits on her own personal tree of life has changed with each choice and subsequent branch. As a first-generation college student fueled by a passion for plants, she shares her journey of restarting her PhD and finding balance as a research, mentor, and mother.

She gives us her insights on the changes that can be made to build a more diverse community of scientists and how in doing so we can make our science stronger and better. McFarlane speaks to us from an extra special perspective as the research mentor of co-host Michelle Chung.

Listen right now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or anywhere podcasts are found. Or you can listen below! 


Michelle Chung: Hey, Meg, have you ever read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath?

Mary Riker: No, I haven’t. What's it about?

Michelle Chung: Well, I was thinking of it after listening back on to my talk with Stephanie McFarlane, who is a Ph.D. candidate in the Damschen Lab in the Department of Integrative Biology and also my research mentor. So there's this part in The Bell Jar about a fig tree, and the main character is imagining her life, the possibilities of her life as a fig tree that's branching in multiple ways.

And she's looking at the different opportunities of her life as different branches of the fig tree. And at the end of each branch, there's this fig fruit. And as she keeps scanning over the tree, she worries that if she chooses another fruit, all of the rest of the fruits will die, which is metaphorical of like a fear of choosing a path and regretting all the paths that you didn't take.

I was thinking about this, tying back to my talk with Stephanie, because in her her path to where she is now, she had so many opportunities and like she she grew the branches based on what she thought she wanted, what other people thought she wanted, and what society thought of her as a woman.


Michelle Chung: Welcome to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women and energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Mary Riker: I am Meg Riker and I am a junior undergraduate student studying civil engineering. I am a science writer intern with a passion for meeting people from different scientific disciplines and sharing their stories.

Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle Chung, a senior undergraduate student studying biology and environmental studies. I love finding fun ways to highlight the research and people here at WEI and GLBRC.

Mary Riker: Here we talk about women, scientists and engineers, career paths, the obstacles they have faced, and most importantly, their advice for young women, scientists and engineers.

Michelle Chung: It is our goal to highlight their individual experiences, mentors and work life balance while seeking advice for young women in science and asking the question Who and what facilitated your success? Today we talk to Stephanie Mcfarlane. We talk a lot about how she found the right branch or maybe like how she redefined her tree of possibilities. So we talked about a lot of great things about motherhood, what it's like being a student, juggling so many different things, just like you and me, and I'm really excited for us to give this a listen.

Mary Riker: I'm looking forward to it, too. Awesome. Let's get into it.


Stephanie McFarlane: I'm a fifth year Ph.D. student in the botany department, and I am an Ellen Damschen's lab, and I am a research assistant right now. So most of my time is spent doing my research. And I have about six students, undergrad students that I mentor. And in addition to my university hat, I'm also a mother of three.

Michelle Chung: To tie it back to like the building that we're in now, WEI, do you want to tell me a little bit about how you're connected to this place?

Stephanie McFarlane: Sure. Ellen Damschen, my P.I., is, has a collaboration with Claudio Gratton’s lab and one of his graduate students. And I started our research together four years ago, and we designed our research study together working with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the NRCS. And so I've been working in and out of this building for a few years.

Michelle Chung: Can you tell me a little bit more about your research?

Stephanie McFarlane: Sure. Well, I guess first off, I'll say that I'm a plant community ecologist and restoration ecology and plant community. Community ecologists are really interested in looking at how plants assemble in different ecosystems and why they get there and how they got there and why they continue to be there in a restoration. Ecologist is really looking at how we can best restore ecosystems, what are the best methods, and then looking at why sometimes those restored ecosystems aren't working and what's going wrong.

Historically, a lot of our land was converted to farmland, even if it wasn't great farmland. So they would put in ditches and drain our wetlands in order to grow crops. But that isn't those. Those fields typically aren't sustainable. They're not very productive. And so and they're hard to work. And so NRCS has a program called the Wetlands Reserve Program where they take this these former ag fields and they restore them into the original wetlands and then the adjacent uplands, they restore to prairie.

Then I'm looking at how these communities are doing after they've been restored, their outcomes in terms of the plant community, but also pollinators and other insects.

Michelle Chung: One thing that I actually have never learned about you is how you got into your field.

Stephanie McFarlane: Well, it's kind of roundabout. I am a first generation college student, and so I grew up in northern Wisconsin and my parents owned a sawmill. And all they cared about is that I had the opportunities they didn't. So they said I had to go to college. So that was on my radar, something I had to do. But I didn't have a lot of prep before I came to college.

And then when I, I actually started at a community college and then transferred to UW. And when I as an undergrad I arrived here and there were so many options and I was all over the board. I was a French major and I thought about psychology and I really liked math, but I took a botany course for a prerequisite and I fell in love.

And it was the instructor was really passionate and I learned about how cool plants were because plants have all these cool adaptations and they can't move. So animals are great, but they can move around and plants are stuck in one place. And so I think thinking about how a plant has to evolve to live in one place got me really excited about science, and that's how I got here.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. I was wondering if there is, like, maybe a mentor in that early time of you being in college that led you towards botany and science?

Stephanie McFarlane: I did. I did have once I got into botany and plant ecology, I took a class with Dr. Givnish in the botany department, and it was a research based class. And I really liked learning about the research methods and we had to design our own research project, and I really liked that. And then I just continued on that vein of taking courses that were more research based, and he helped give me the confidence I needed to continue in the field.

Michelle Chung: And I know you took a break after your undergrad to like travel and things like that. What drew you to do that? But then also what drew you to come back to school afterwards?

Stephanie McFarlane: So I've always been really interested in the world and different cultures and along with that ecosystems, like as as an ecologist, I really like diversity, but it's not just natural diversity, it's also human diversity. And the differences in culture. So I always knew I wanted to travel and it was my goal to go into the Peace Corps. So I got the skills I needed to continue to build my scientific CV, doing lots of work with different government organizations and going out and doing fieldwork in the summer.

And then I was also able to do the Peace Corps, but once that was complete, then I, I always knew I wanted to come back to grad school once I, once I had got a taste for research and realized how much I loved it, I always knew I'd come back. I just had other things I wanted to do first, right?

Michelle Chung: Yeah. Going into grad school, did you know what you would expect? Like the research aspect? Was that what you had planned on?

Stephanie McFarlane: No. Yeah, I think it's hard to know before you start what a commitment it is and how much you have to invest in the research in order to achieve your goals of like making a hypothesis and then having a good, good idea of how, what questions to ask and the to design your research and all of the steps that go into that.

I had just done many projects, nothing at this scale and so I didn't quite understand what that took. And I think in particular I didn't understand what it would take as a woman. Mm. And so I, I actually started my Ph.D. a really long time ago in 2005, and I was really excited about it. And I had a really great research idea and I was loving doing it.

And I then became pregnant with my first child.

Michelle Chung: Oh, wow. I did not know that.

Stephanie McFarlane: Yes. And so I was in my program for a year after I had my first child. And I found the balance to be really difficult and didn't quite have the support structure I needed at the time to be able to finish my degree. So I actually I stopped my Ph.D. at that time after a couple of years.

Michelle Chung: So you continued for a couple of years, like while you were raising your first child?

Stephanie McFarlane: I did for about a year and a half after he was born, I tried to make it work. But all of my my research, like the ideas and the questions, they were based in Madagascar, which is where I had completed my my Peace Corps stint. And so my plan was as a plant ecologist, interested in evolution and community assembly, to think about how all of that diversity in Madagascar and the adaptive radiation, how those plants evolved and spread across the country.

And so I was really excited to go back and do that work. But then I had a baby and I guess what I wasn't prepared for in particular was how you navigate being a mom and a student at the same time. And my research was so it was going to Madagascar for six months and wow, that's not really a safe place to travel with a baby.

And so I and he had some medical complications when he was younger. And so that that that combination of my planned research no longer being viable and having a baby who had some medical complications left me with a difficult choice. And I tried to make it work for a while because I'm stubborn and I didn't want to give up.

But then I, I ultimately decided to stop.

Michelle Chung: Was there anyone like in in your field that you knew of that was like maybe further along in their career that like was was a mom and was able to do anything like that or did you not really have a role model there?

Stephanie McFarlane: Most of the women in my department at the time I didn't know well, they weren't close mentors. My mentors were men. And I saw them do it, but I didn't know how they accomplished it because it didn't it didn't seem viable to me. And so, yeah, I, I had at the time my husband was also a graduate student.

We went back to grad school together and his advisor, Monica Turner, is an amazing female and female educator, scientist, researcher, woman, all of those things. And I remember when I had decided to start my Ph.D., I told her, because I you know, was friendly with her because Tim was in her lab. And she really encouraged me to rethink the decision.

I could see at the time she was very she she it saddened her to see a woman leaving the sciences because the balance of being a mom and a researcher is difficult. And she encouraged me to figure out how how to make it work. And she didn't want to see me give up my dreams. And so that was really important to me because she supported me in a way that I hadn't been supported.

And she also supported my decision to to pause my PhD, though at the time I didn't know it was a pause. I felt like if you choose motherhood, you're kind of... that's it, that's the end, that there isn't a way to get back and so that was a really difficult, hard decision for me and I struggled with it for years after I stopped feeling like I had made the wrong decision because I really love research and I love science and I didn't want to not do that.

Michelle Chung: Right. Yeah. And so you said like Monica, she was the first person to really be be that validating source for you. Did you not find the same validation in like your your male mentors?

Stephanie McFarlane: They were great mentors, but it was just I don't think that they could speak to it from the at the same, from the same lens. Right. You know, they just had a different lens. And so my advisor at the time was awesome. He was totally supportive. He was supportive of me being a Ph.D. student for half time so I could stay at home with my baby and be a grad student.

But I think most grad students out there realize you can't be a grad student half time like you, like you don't get very far. And and I had to then, like, redo Mike. I had to come up with a whole new research project and redo like my prelims and all of that sort of thing. And that was just too much for me at a time where I was going through a huge life transition of being a mom and wasn't planning any of it and didn't I?

I've always been one of those people. I'm a go getter. And so I didn't think that being a mom or a woman would stop me or slow me down. So I didn't prepare myself for the challenges. Like I wasn't mentally prepared that, oh, this could be difficult, that having being a mom and this might pose challenges. I was more naive and I just said I could do it without thinking about how I was going to do it, if that makes sense.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. What like in terms of support was like missing in those early days?

Stephanie McFarlane: It's hard to pinpoint one thing. I think that for one, in academia we don't talk enough about a work life balance, that there's a lot of pressure to achieve our goals. And and often you do that by working as hard as you can, put in as many hours as you can in a week or feeling like you aren't up to the standards you should be at, that you're not that you don't belong here.

You feel like an imposter because you don't know as much as the people around you. Because if you're only working 20 to 30 hours a week and your peers are working 40 to 70 hours a week, they're making a lot more ground and they're moving along further than you are. And that was really a challenge for me. I really struggled with imposter syndrome.

I just don't think I have thought about it enough. And I didn't go through the mental preparations of doing the work to understand that I'm not an imposter, that that we're all on our different paths and each path is as important and and has a different perspective that makes our science better. Now, I'm in a lab with a a woman P.I. who is also a mother.

And in our lab we talk a lot about the work life balance and how to say no to things and and make sure that you are a whole person and not just working on your academics, that it's also for me, I have to work on my research and be excited about it, which I am, and make progress. I also have a family that I need to take care of because three kids is a lot.

But then there's also me as a person that needs to make sure that I'm exercising and mentally in a good state that I can tackle both of those things which are both big. And so I think my current mentor is really good at that. She talks a lot about work life balance and saying no when you need to and just being honest that you know, some months you're going to have more.

There's going to be more doctors appointments or more home life things going on, and you're not going to be able to maybe do as much and to just be open about that. And then when you can be productive and focus on it, and I think having that permission makes you one, it helps reduce the imposter syndrome and it helps and– it helps reduce anxiety as a whole because if you're worrying about what you're not doing, then when you do it, you're just worried that you're not doing enough or that you're behind, and that makes your time less efficient.

And so to let kind of let go of those worries and just do what you love because you love it is a really great way to do science, right?

Michelle Chung: Yeah. You brought up the fact that in like grad school, there's an expectation for you to, like, always be doing your best, always be doing your most. Do you think there's like that extra expectation because you're a woman and you're also a mother, that there's even more of an expectation for you to be on top of things?

Stephanie McFarlane: I think that there's certainly an expectation to when you are working, that you have to be super efficient. But I think for the most part and in my my path, I have been able to ignore those expectations for the most part, because you can't if you don't ignore them, it's hard to move forward because they're all around you.

And so I see it more in other people than I do in my own life, because I just try to put on my blinders and just go forward and and just be okay with who I am and not worry about what other people are expecting of me. Because when I do that, I, I don't I'm not as good.

I frankly, it's it's very stressful to worry about what other people are thinking and what their expectations are. And I found that if I don't worry about it, I'm, I'm meeting the expectations anyways.

Michelle Chung: Was that a mindset that came from just like living life or was it like instilled in you at a young age?

Stephanie McFarlane: No, it has. I think being a mother actually really helped with that because I guess it's not just about me, is it's about my family. And it gave me the confidence to just let go of the me things a little bit. That makes sense. And I, I also think, again, my advisor Ellen is really great at, you know, talking about how in academia we all feel imposter syndrome at times and how we have to let that go and just just do our work and recognize that we're if we're here, we belong here.

They, the university, doesn't just take anyone. And so if you're here, you belong here. And to do your best and sometimes your best is your B work. And that's okay because you are balancing lots of things. And, and, and so that really helps to that. Okay. I don't always have to be doing my work to have a mentor say sometimes your B work is is good enough and because that's really good work still it's not like you're B work is bad work.

It's still really good and it's better than probably lots of people's A work.

Michelle Chung: Yeah.

Stephanie McFarlane: But to just not hold yourself up to this perfection all the time because it can, it, it can slow you down and bog you down and kind of suffocate you.

Michelle Chung: So you left you left your initial PhD and went into being a full time mother. Was that it?

Stephanie McFarlane: For nine years.

Michelle Chung: For nine years? Yeah. That's–that's a break. I'm wondering what spurred the decision to come back?

Stephanie McFarlane: I knew I didn't want to be a stay at home mom permanently. I wanted, like, it was nice when my kids were young. And ideally I would have found something part time because it was really hard to be a stay at home mom. I felt like a big part of me was missing, but I think it was just it was hard to find that balance.

And and for women, there aren't a lot of part time positions when your children are young that you can maintain a professional career part time, that they don't let you do that. In most places, it's like you're either you're all or you're nothing. I knew I wanted to have a career, and I thought that the doors were closed for academia because I thought I had made my decision and that was it.

And so I thought about going into nursing because I'm like, Oh, I really like teaching and I like science and nurses do that. And, and I took a couple classes. I like just like prerequisites that you need for nursing school. And I started thinking about it. I'm like, I do not want to be a nurse. It's like I it's a really respectable field and so important for society, but it wasn't where my passion was.

And then I was just thinking about research and science and the actually there was a position opening and the botany department for a lab manager and I had basically the equivalent of a master's degree. I'd had a couple of years of my Ph.D. and I had my research, I had started my research, and I just stopped and I didn't complete it.

I didn't get a master's first. I was on a PhD track, but I just stopped. I’m like, Well, I should maybe I can still apply for this lab manager. I like to aid the course when I was a graduate student, I know it well. I think I do a great job. And I applied and I wasn't considered because I didn't have a master's or a Ph.D. and I'm really thankful for Tom Givnish and Suzy Will-Wolf in the botany department because at the time I had asked them to write me letters of recommendation because they were the professor in the lab coordinator at the time when I was a teacher for the course.

So I knew that they could write me a good letter of recommendation. And when it came back that the university wouldn't consider my application because I didn't have the degree I let them know, and I thank them for writing me a letter of recommendation. And they both said to me, they're like, Just finish your degree. And they're like, If that's what you want to do, just finish your degree.

I'm like, Well, I can't. They're like, Why not? I said, Because I quit and they're like, Yes, you can. And I just needed to hear that. I just needed someone to tell me that I could.

Michelle Chung: Like you can do it.

Stephanie McFarlane: Because I didn't think you could like that was it? It's like an untraditional path, right? Like people don't stop and then start again. And so I didn't think I could, but then when they told me I could, and that sounds so silly. Of course I could, but I didn't. It wasn't a model I had seen. And when you don't see it, you don't realize it is possible.

But I applied to my program again and I got back in and here I am in my fifth year and I'll be finishing up hopefully by the end of this year.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. Wow. A crazy story I had no idea about–you had started and then stopped and then started again. How was that process of, like, starting again?

Stephanie McFarlane: It was amazing. Yeah, I was so excited to be back. I missed it so much and I loved being at home with my kids. And like I said, in an ideal world, I could have done both. I could. Like the 50/50 would have been enough to make me feel like I was meeting like that. I was an acceptable example of a graduate student and that that was okay.

I just didn't feel that way. And some of that is probably self-imposed by societal pressures. It wasn't like my advisor at the time was telling me or like was making, you know, he was supportive, but it was just the models around me. It was what is expected of graduate students in general. And so when I came back, I was so excited to be on campus again.

I was so excited to be teaching and I had a new lens for all of it to where when I my first couple of years as a graduate student before kids, I felt that imposter syndrome weigh on me a lot, especially as a first generation college students. And then I was working on my Ph.D. and everyone else around me had had so much more experience and had done all the right things to prepare themselves for their their their journey.

And I didn't feel like I had so I had serious imposter syndrome and a lot of anxiety. But when I came back, I just didn't care because I was back and I was a mom and I was doing it and I was going to finish it and no one was going to stop me. And I was able to shed a lot of what the younger version of me wasn't able to.

Michelle Chung: And so the societal expectation is no longer laying weight on you as much.

Stephanie McFarlane: Yeah. And so I was really excited to be doing research and teaching and all of that and had a lot, yeah.

Michelle Chung: Mm mm.

Stephanie McFarlane: Yeah. And I think if anything I probably went back into it a little bit too strong and then and then like neglected home a little bit more than I would have. It was like a pendulum, like, like all and then too much. And now I feel like I'm at a really nice balance where I can take you know, I just took three weeks off.

My kids were didn't go to school for three weeks and I worked at home and I worked I did do some work on my research, but most of the time I was being a mom.

Michelle Chung: That's something so amazing to me about the Damschen Lab. And like everyone that's part of the lab is that the the emphasis on such a good work life balance is like that's like at the forefront of everything that we do. And I really appreciate that. But obviously it sounds like it took you a little bit to figure that out. What was that process like? Figuring out how you balance both?

Stephanie McFarlane: I think it's it's just experimentation, you know, like and I think it's also knowing that sometimes you're going to have a busy semester and you're going to have to work more than you want to like. For example, in the fall, I was working on a couple different papers. I still am working on them, but I was also giving a presentation at an international conference and I had a lot of data cleaning and analyzes to do to prep for both the papers I was working on and the presentation.

And so I was working 60 hours a week for pretty much the whole semester. And so that was is not my typical work amount, but it's also okay because I knew it was short term and that I was going to then be able to take time with my kids and just chill out over the holidays and play lots of board games and cook together and do all those sorts of things.

So I think that part of it is knowing that sometimes you're going to have a deadline and you're going to have to work really hard for that, and then the balance might come a little bit later, where then you take time to just recover and and reconnect with your family. And I and sometimes I, you know, I think that you always feel guilty about your choices to a degree when you're working that long.

But I also think it's a really good lesson as a wom– for a woman to give her family. And so I'm really happy that my kids can see that I prioritize two things that they that when they need me, I'm there and I can take two weeks, three weeks off and like hang out with them and build snowmen.

But that sometimes my attention has to be on working on my my degree for me, because that's important for me as a person, as a woman, to fulfill my dreams and that and that if they want to fulfill their dreams, they have to work hard and this is what it looks like.

Michelle Chung: What you were saying about like what you show your family, your dedication to your work and your dedication also to them. I see that as like someone that you mentor to you, like you lead by example, I guess you could say. And I definitely see the merit of like valuing that balance. I have a unique position as someone that you're mentoring, given all of your experiences, the winding journey that you've had to where you are now, what are the like most important things that you want someone to know that you are mentoring?

Stephanie McFarlane: When I'm mentoring, I first and foremost, I try to help my students see what they're capable of because I think we're all capable of a lot and we need someone to believe in us sometimes before we know how to believe in ourselves. And when you're learning, it's just like you don't know what you're doing. That's true for everyone.

Like it's the process. And so I like to remind my students that they are still learning, even as an undergrad or a Ph.D. or a post-doc or a faculty member. We're all still learning and we we can't know everything and and that that's okay. And so for my students that I mentor, I want them to know it's okay that they don't know everything and I don't expect them to, and that I trust them to try to learn it and share it with me.

And then I get to learn too, because they're learning new things and to believe in themselves and and to not be held up to knowing everything and those expectations. And, and I guess in my mind, it's helping them have the tools to break the imposter syndrome early on to just know that they're doing great, that they belong there, and that we're learning.

And part of learning is making mistakes and failing and learning from those to make our science better.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. With you mentoring me, I feel like it's just the safest space to be like. I don't know what's happening right now, and you're always so reassuring and so like, yeah, you're doing it well.

Stephanie McFarlane: Thank you.

Michelle Chung: Yeah. I'm wondering where you get that, like, driven attitude from.

Stephanie McFarlane: I don't know. Yeah, I guess, you know, probably, you know, a lot of who we are probably comes from our family and my mom, her parents were immigrants and my dad's parents were farmers and they were poor and they started their own business and they made a lot happen for themselves, even though they didn't necessarily have all the opportunities that I have.

And so I think just seeing a determination in them and knowing that if you set a goal, if you work hard, you can do it. And, and, and my family was always like that, whether it be fixing an appliance that was broken or building a table or whatever it was, it was just like the random things in life.

They just tried to figure it out themselves. And so I think I saw that if you have a goal and you work towards it, you can eventually get there. If it's important enough.

Michelle Chung: Yeah, everything is. Figure out a ball. Yeah, I was just saying yesterday about how, like, almost everyone in our lab is a woman has always been that way. What have you seen that's changed? What do you want to change?

Stephanie McFarlane: And so that's that's a really interesting question. And I and something I've actually thought a lot about in science in general, I'm actually working on a paper with the lab group with Ellen, with Ellen and a former Ph.D. student is leading the project, Jeanine Richards, looking at women and race and and in ecology in particular. And we're just starting that paper but it's based on Ellen Damson wrote a paper in 2005 about visibility.

It's called Visibility Matters, and it's looking at women in–in, in ecology. And that paper found that at the undergrad and grad student level, there's equal representation of men and women in ecology. And that, as you move up to postdoc, there's still pretty equal representation, but maybe not not quite as good as at the lower levels, but by the time you get to assistant professor and full professor, women are not represented as well.

And looking around me on campus, you can see that that women aren't as well represented in the higher positions in departments as men are. And I'm really excited to be working on this paper to see what we find out for what's happening. Happening now for the 2005 paper that Ellen wrote with her coauthors, it was looking at textbooks and seeing who's represented in the textbooks.

And at that time, the scientists represented were mostly male. And so, again, what you see trickles in. It's like what is possible is based on what we see around us. And then thinking again about what are professors choosing to put in their lectures. And I know I taught general ecology with Ellen for a number of years and she really made an effort to make sure that she had not just women, but minoritized people and as many examples as she can to, because she knows that it's important to that.

What you see as your mentors and the leaders in the field, and that that impacts accessibility to everyone else.


Michelle Chung: Let's let Mark, one of our producers jump in.

Mark Griffin: So one of the things you said you weren't sure about was how things were changing in your field. What are some of the steps that you would take to increase women and underrepresented groups in ecology?

Stephanie McFarlane: That's a great question. I think one of the first things that could be done, at least based on my own challenges, is at least when children are younger and they need you more to have it be more acceptable to have a part time position and have it clear that when you're doing that, what the expectations are that you're not expected to achieve the same amount as someone who's doing it full time.

If you're doing it part time and have that be really clear and supported and I can speak to that from my path. And I think that as far as getting diverse groups in general is I think it has to start early on and hiring people that are from diverse groups so that that visibility is there so that students, whether it be high school students or undergrads, can see that that is an option for them and and making it a safe space for them when they get there.

And we have a lot of work to do on both of those areas. And I know that the campus is really working to hire more and more diverse people because that visibility is so important. But I think continuing that as a first generation college student, I know that is hard, you know, because you don't have all of the same experiences.

And I think just having open conversations and being like, you know, we don't all have the same experiences, but that doesn't mean you can't do it. And having that can help people who have different backgrounds and have different experiences that are bright and talented and can make our science better.

Mark Griffin: You were about to stop for the first time and you got a pep talk. Monica Turner. Right. What did she say?

Stephanie McFarlane: She just encouraged me to push through, even though it was hard because she didn't want to see me not continue. And so this was a long time ago. So the exact thing she said, I don't remember. I left feeling encourage, like encouraged to stay and kind of pushed to stay because she saw my talent and she saw my potential and she believed in me.

And that felt really amazing. And I saw that. And at the same time, I felt the importance for her to see women stay in science. But then I also felt support in my decision. And so it was like kind of three fold of like all the things that someone could give you, which is making you feel good about who you are and believing in you, wanting to help you make the field better for future women, and knowing that it's possible, while also supporting me as an individual and allowing me to feel good about my decision if that's what was best for me at the time.

Mark Griffin: You said it was different when you came back, you like didn't have the the fear and the anxiety. What was different?

Stephanie McFarlane: I think that it's life. I think living a little bit more of life and and having had some challenges as a mother, for example, my daughter was really sick when she was a baby and she almost died. And she has a genetic disorder that– sorry.

Mark Griffin: That's scary.

Stephanie McFarlane: But I feel like.

Mark Griffin: You got through that.

Stephanie McFarlane: It's like you just. You like it, right? You get through. You like.

Mark Griffin: So.

Stephanie McFarlane: Get through things.

Mark Griffin: How hard could grad school be?

Stephanie McFarlane: It's yeah, it was just a different life perspective, right? It's like you have three kids. They're full of challenges, whether it be some medical issues or just being at home with them all day, every day. I, I just gained confidence in who I was for me when I was younger, I didn't have a longer as much of a long term perspective was like, I want my degree and I want to be a faculty member and I want to do research.

But it wasn't it wasn't a wide detailed lens. It was just like a straight and it was a straight path. And I, I think that with a little bit of time, I just could see myself as a whole more.

Mark Griffin: Something you said I related to tremendously, which was having a kid is relieving in this weird way that it's your life is no longer about you and you don't have to like shoulder the burden of your own expectations anymore. And somehow it like opens things up and makes it relieves the tension of what you have to do for yourself.

It's not about you anymore.

Stephanie McFarlane: Yeah, well, and I think just before it was like the grad school was what you did to get the job you wanted. And so now I see grad school as my job. I'm here. This is my job. I'm here because I want to be. It's an incredibly privileged position to be a student in science, being able to ask the questions I'm interested in and do my research.

I, I have a lot of control over that. And how privileged, how lucky am I, how much privilege do I have that I can do that? And it's not a great salary, but it's still a salary. And I just feel like that is I feel very fortunate to be in this position. And so I just look at it as a job and I do that job.

And I think also and this is an advice I would give to other people as well, is that instead of worrying about the job or being everything you can or like being what people expect you to be, be who you want to be, do the amount of work that you want to do that sustainable for you and do it in the best you can.

And if it doesn't work out, or if it's not enough, then that's not the right job for you. But I think that by just having that attitude, it is often it can be enough that you don't you don't necessarily see that drawing your your boundaries of where it's like, okay, I can't work any more on this. It doesn't feel like it feels like if you don't work more on that, it's not going to be enough and you're not going to succeed.

But instead of worrying about success, worrying about you and making sure you have that balance and doing what feels good to you, working hard, doing the best you can, and then when you're done being like, okay, I'm done now. And if this isn't enough, then this isn't the career choice for me. And so far I've found that that's been enough for my Ph.D. It's been enough, and I'm lucky to have the lab.

I do because they support that decision. But I'm also getting my research done. So it is working without the additional pressures.

Michelle Chung: So if there's like any one thing that you want me to take away as someone that you mentor, what would it be?

Stephanie McFarlane: Any one thing for you to take away? You in particular? Well, that might make me emotional, I guess, for you, Michelle. I would want you to take away that you are.

Michelle Chung: I'm going to get emotional.

Stephanie McFarlane: You are brilliant and fun and unique and creative. And I've been so impressed with your ability to be your independence and your your determination have all been really admirable. And you can do whatever you want because you have the skills and the personality and just the awesomeness to do it. And so I feel very, very privileged and lucky that I was able to mentor you because you are an outstanding person, both as a scientist and just individual.

And so I would hope that you would always know that about yourself. Thank you.

Michelle Chung: And I'm so blessed to have someone to mentor me that always reminds me of that.

Stephanie McFarlane: Thank you, Michelle. And thank you so much.

Michelle Chung: I really appreciate that.

Stephanie McFarlane: You really are amazing.

Michelle Chung: Oh, we were talking earlier. Another way that you lead by how you live is how open you are to wearing your heart on your sleeve. And I think that's just like the strongest thing ever that you're not afraid to show how you feel. I'm very grateful for that.

Stephanie McFarlane: Thank you. And this is it's related, but something I was hoping that would come up is like thinking about different stereotypes of what sciences and science is supposed to be objective and clear and efficient. And then when we think about stereotypes of women, women are subjective, irrational and distracted. And so I think that there is a message that women don't belong in science just based on these stereotypes of what sciences and what women are.

But we forget that science is a social construct. It is subjective because all of society is subjective. And yes, it is important to be as objective as we can, but we can't be objective without acknowledging our biases because we all have them, every single person. And so I, I just think that that's something that is important to me and why I want to be true to that.

Being honest about a given day or a given feeling doesn't make me a bad scientist. I would argue my ability to see that it's all subjective and that there are these differences. And again, like try to find it's like, oh gosh, I am subjective, how am I subjective? And trying to find the ways I'm subjective and then collaborate with people who are different than me, who have a different perspective that can help me see where my biases might be and how they're different than theirs.

And like then forming a collaboration of people that can make science stronger and better. And I think that that is important to be who we are. And so I really appreciate that you said that. And and sometimes it does take strength. So I appreciate that you saying that as well.


Mary Riker: So what in this conversation made you think about things in your own personal fig tree especially since you're graduating and maybe moving on to a different chapter in your life?

Michelle Chung: I think every once in a while I get caught seeing all my figs dying. But from that conversation with Stephanie, she really reshaped, like how she saw her tree of possibilities. And I think the big factor there was perspective. Shifting your perspective of to a more long term viewpoint, because in the tree where your figs die from opportunities that you don't take, you're very tunnel minded if that's how you see this like bounty of opportunities in your life.

And for me right now, it's like a constant balance between what in Stephanie's experience, like what she thought she was able to do and like what what you can actually do. And so I'm always caught between seeing all my figs dying. But then to go back to the metaphor, it's like this tree is growing the fig that I reach will have just ripened as I get there.

Mary Riker: And new ones will grow, you know, as you move forward through life. So I also wanted to hit upon the very personal relationship you have with your mentor. And when I was listening back to this interview, I noticed just how comfortable you were with her and how honest and how direct she was and you were with her. And that relationship really, really struck me.

And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about your relationship with her as a mentor and a person.

Michelle Chung: So I first met Stephanie when I was when I was a sophomore, and my relationship with her is really just like grown through these years. We navigated doing research in the pandemic together. I have learned so much about life from her, especially like when talking to other students my age and like their experiences and research. And I think it's a lot different.

She's very hands on and personal with how she she mentors. I've said this before, how I really want to talk to her because she's someone that wears her heart on her sleeve and like isn't afraid to be vulnerable. That's so powerful. And a mentor. Yes. To show that you can really show when you're feeling weak. And that's it's even better for everyone in the long run because you're showing all the parts of yourself.

So people can relate to that and know that they they can show all the parts of themselves, too. And I'm so glad that I got to talk to her. I got to hear the the inner workings of how she came to be such an awesome mentor and from the our talk today it's it's clear that she really she she cultivated that.

Mary Riker: It's not an instantaneous development.

Michelle Chung: Right yeah and it was just so awesome to talk to her.

Mary Riker: It was great to listen to. Thank you for sharing that with us.


Michelle Chung: And that's our show. Thank you to everyone listening where your hosts, Michelle Chung.

Mary Riker: and Meg Riker.

Michelle Chung: The show is produced by us and Mark Griffin and edited by myself and Mark Griffin. Thanks again to our guest, Stephanie Mcfarlane, graduate student in the Damschen lab.

Mary Riker: And see you next time on Propelling Women in Power.

Michelle Chung: What is your superpower?

Stephanie McFarlane: My superpower. Oh, gosh. I don't know that I have a superpower. I guess if I had to pick one. I think it's being in tune with my emotions and acknowledging them and accepting them, and that when they're emotions that are unnecessary, seeing them and letting them go, and that when they are necessary talking about them, because often they're there for a reason.