What do we prune to stay aligned with our values, families, and careers? Today, Ashley Shade, Michigan State University Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist, shares how balancing a career and motherhood requires daily pruning and sacrifice. Shade explains the myth of “having it all” as a woman in work, citing a lack of institutional support and her own experience as a mother in STEM.
She discusses how mentorship has helped her stay in academia as a new mother and early career scientist and the institutional changes that would support researchers who are also full-time caregivers. Finally, she shares the lessons she learned about prioritizing values on her path to unlocking the potential of microbial communities.
Michelle Chung: When you think about it, we all have an ecosystem of a ton of little things working together to keep us alive and thriving. For a plant that might be all the intricate relationships with the microbial communities that live on its surface. For a woman scientists, it could be support for mentors, child care, all those institutional structures that make it easier to live life as a top researcher and as an independent person.
It's this concept of a system of support that is central to the life and research of today's guest, Ashley Shade.
Michelle Chung: Welcome to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in 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.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle Chung, former intern and current communications specialist at the Wisconsin Energy Institute.
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?"
Ashley Shade is an associate professor in Michigan State University's Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. She investigates the dynamics of different microbiomes from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
She talked about all the things that support her as a scientist, as a mom, and as an all around awesome person. And she also talked about those gaps in her ecosystem that make it hard for her to do her work. This was an eye opening conversation, and I'm excited for all of us to listen in.
Ashley Shade: So my name is Ashley Shade. I'm an associate professor at Michigan State University, and I have two departments. I'm in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, and I'm also in the Department of Plant Soil and Microbial Sciences. And I'm a microbiome ecologist. And so with the GLBRC, I lead a project and I manage a team of students and postdocs, and I also collaborate with other researchers on GLBRC projects and most of our projects are about how we can leverage the microbiome of biofuel feedstocks to support crop productivity and resilience to stress.
Michelle Chung: Is there an aspect of your research that you're most excited about?
Ashley Shade: I think my research is all exciting. It's my field is really fast paced, really technology driven, and it's very interdisciplinary and that we're taking tools and ideas from lots of different subject matters and bringing them to bear on this question of understanding the microbiome. And so, you know, we know microbes and plants form these essential relationships. And what we want to do is understand those relationships so that we can start to manage the microbiome, just like farmers might manage other aspects of crop agriculture.
And so one important aspect of our research, though, is to not only understand how we can leverage a plant microbiome to support the crop and make it more productive and resist stress. But we also want to do that sustainably so that we can reduce reliance on fertilizers or on other management practices that aren't quite ideal for maintaining a healthy environment. So there's kind of like two goals for the microbiome research within the BRC.
Michelle Chung: If you could start at the very beginning, where did you find your interest in studying microbial ecology?
Ashley Shade: Yeah, I when I looked at your questions in advance, Michelle, I was trying to rack my brain like, when did I when did I know? And I came to that conclusion that I'm a biologist since I was a child, as many of us have. Right. Asking questions about the natural world and engaging with it outside usually. But I didn't realize that I had the potential and smarts to achieve a Ph.D. until until I was an undergraduate.
So I was studying biology at a small liberal arts college and I grew up in a rural community in the middle of Pennsylvania. And so growing up, I didn't know anyone who was a scientist. I didn't know anyone who had a Ph.D. and I still didn't know anyone like that until I went to college. And then, of course, I interacted with my professors who mostly had PhDs.
I was the first person in my family to go to a four year college and I always just assumed that I couldn't afford to pursue graduate level education. And then my professor in undergrad, Dr. Tammy Tobin, kindly let me know that in science, graduate students get paid. They get paid a stipend while they pursue their research and training and degree, and they typically don't pay a tuition. And so as soon as I learned that graduate school would be probably free for me, I knew I would just continue in my scientific training in graduate school.
Michelle Chung: There is the professor that you mentioned that you that could pursue it. Did you see her as a mentor?
Ashley Shade: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I've had many mentors, but I would say I had an excellent mentor in high school who filled my passion for biology, and he encouraged me to go to college and become a biologist. But it was Professor Tobin at Susquehanna University where I did my undergrad, which is just a four year small liberal arts college still in the middle of Pennsylvania.
She took me into the lab and she provided me with my very first undergraduate research experience, which was actually in microbial ecology and environmental microbiology. So this was like the hook that kind of got me caught like a little fish on the end of the line. And then what she did for me and I, I mean, I didn't realize everything she was doing for me at the time, but she saw some potential in me that I didn't see in myself.
And she really encouraged me to apply for this American Society for Microbiology Undergraduate Research Fellowship and what it was, was a stipend to support a summer research opportunity. And so she encouraged me to apply for that, wrote a letter of support, and I ended up getting one. And that fellowship from the ASM, my meal ticket to an excellent Ph.D. program, which was the microbiology doctoral training program at University of Wisconsin–Madison.
And so, you know, if I hadn't had that fellowship, if she hadn't told me and made me aware even that it existed, I wouldn't I wouldn't have gone for it right. And so I owe her a lot. I have a lot of gratitude and I owe a lot of debt for encouraging my my career so early and for seeing seeing something, you know, seeing that I had the potential to move forward.
And so then when I got to UW, I joined Professor Trina McMahon's lab and she at the time was a new assistant professor, newly minted, and she was in a male dominated department in engineering and environmental engineering, and she was also a great mentor to me. So one of Trina's most inspiring qualities is that she is so open with her trainees and everyone like post-docs, students, even undergrads in the lab.
She was so open about her experiences as a tenured professor and she included us all in the skills that she was learning and developing and honing, and that led to her academic success. And so we got to support Trina's efforts with with all aspects of academic science. And I got a taste of all of that really early on as a young graduate student.
You know, just in my first and second year, we we wrote papers, we helped write grants. She networked us really well at meetings, took us everywhere. And she shared with us, very frankly, both the positive and negative aspects of her experiences as a new professor. And I really appreciate that because I felt like I was going into the job with my eyes as wide open as possible.
When I finally got a job. And then I had another really important mentor when I was a postdoc who was Jo Handelsman, and she was at Yale University at the time, and she recruited to me, me to her lab as a postdoc. And so Jo was really awesome because of course she has a reputation of being awesome, mentor and also awesome champion of women in science.
And so it shouldn't be surprising to anyone that she was awesome. But what Jo gave me really was the freedom and space to pursue my intellectual interests. Like she didn't try to tell me what to do, she just let my intellectual interests guide me. And she also helped me get a fellowship, like made me aware of the fellowship opportunity that allowed me that intellectual freedom as a postdoc.
But the bigger thing that Jo did for me was supporting my needs as a first time parent. I had my first baby when I was a postdoc and Jo anticipated what I would need to continue in my academic career path and not leave in that so-called leaky pipeline. She anticipated what I was going to need after I gave birth, and I confess that I wasn't aware of what I needed myself and I also confessed.
I don't think that at the time I understood that the the risks that I faced in potentially leaving my career at that point in my in my life. And so with Jo's foresight and support, I was able to maintain pretty directly my career path. And I'm really grateful for that.
Michelle Chung: That sounds like such a difficult time to navigate being a first time parent while you're going through your postdoc. What exactly were the things that she, Jo Handelsman, did to support you during that time?
Ashley Shade: I mean, a million small things. But one thing that I learned from Jo that I've also tried to apply in my own group is like, let the parent decide what's best for them and what they need as far as, you know, work life balance. And like I like for me, questions about microbial ecology keep me up at night.
Like I literally cannot sleep at night many nights because I am just thinking about my research. And, you know, I had to have still a foot in the door with my research program while I had my baby. I was still working because she didn't make me work, you know, she wasn't like, Oh, you have to come to the lab or you have to do that.
She gave me autonomy to decide what was best and supported those decisions that I made for myself, and also in anticipating what I needed before I knew what I needed. I remember being a little nervous to tell Jo I was pregnant, like setting up the meeting, going into her office. And, I mean, I knew she was going to be cool about it, but it's still a little bit nerve wracking when you're telling your boss that you're about to have a baby in a couple of months.
And so I remember telling her and the first thing she said was, Congratulations, that's great. And the second thing she said was, you're going to need a lactation room because there's not one in this building. And we can't have you like wasting time going all over campus trying to find some lactation room. She's like, If you choose to breastfeed your baby, you're going to need that infrastructure here in this building.
And I'm going to get you one. And she did like she talked to the building managers, she talked to the department. She got one set up. And then a couple of months later, by the time it was ready to come back to to work and needed that space, it was available for me. And that was something like, you know, she said that.
And I didn't even I hadn't even thought about breastfeeding. I hadn't even decided if I was going to do it yet. Like I had no opinion about it whatsoever. I was uneducated. And so the fact that she knew that that was probably something that would facilitate my transition back to work was, was excellent. It was just blew my mind.
And then that resource was there for everyone else too, right? So it helped me, but it helped all the other graduate students and postdocs and faculty in the department and in that building that had a need for that resource as well. And so it's like a legacy decision that she made to to make that positive change for the department.
Michelle Chung: With all of your mentors, it really seems like they created a space for like encouragement. They're really transparent with their own career paths, decisions that they had to make. They really advocated for you.
Ashley Shade: Yeah. And I think that's an important role of a mentor, especially if you're mentoring, know, female students or postdocs or even junior faculty. You like helping them identify opportunities, letting them decide if they want to pursue them, but helping to identify opportunities that can support their career path is something that because I've had good examples of that in my own career, that's something I really try to do for my own students and postdocs.
As part of my graduate training. I got to travel a lot because I studied bacteria that lived in lakes, and so we were part of this global lake network of researchers, and we would have meetings literally all over the world. And so I got to travel so much as a graduate student and meet so many scientists from different places.
And I remember my my grandfather, I was home for a visit one time and he was like, I never thought that my granddaughter would be going so many different places. This is just amazing to me that that you have these opportunities of someone that came from such a modest background. So it's really a different situation when you don't have academics in your family, you don't know where to go exactly. And so those mentors play even a more crucial role in helping find the path that you want.
Michelle Chung: One turning point was obviously when you became a parent, that was something that you had to navigate in your career. Were there any other points in your career where you thought about maybe changing paths or you were going to do something completely different?
Ashley Shade: It seems funny, but I once I decided that I was going to go to graduate school, once I knew that I could go to graduate school because I could afford it, I kind of didn't look back. I've been very, very ambitious and very directed. And that, you know, there's always these jokes like in your fourth your fifth year of graduate school where you're really, really into the research.
Maybe you're hitting some walls, you're starting to write your dissertation where you feel like, man, I just need I just need out of this or I just need a break. And maybe you make some jokes about, you know, opening up a bakery or something. But for me, they were almost always jokes, you know, like I, I never had a serious intention of changing, changing my career path.
And I feel that I have a good skillset and a lot to offer. And so I am trying to do the best I can at offering what I, what I have to society like. For me, being a scientist. Yes, it's about, you know, you're curious about things and your questions and you're motivated by those questions kind of internally.
But it's it's also about like being a scientist is a way that I can contribute to society. I can contribute to like building knowledge and helping society solve some of these big problems that we're facing, like with global climate change and with food security and energy security. And so this is my way of having a career that that supports societal outcomes, and I feel very motivated by that, too.
Michelle Chung: Do you think that it was that motivation that really drove you through that bump that people usually find in grad school? Or was it like a mixture of that motivation and support? What what do you think differentiates your experience?
Ashley Shade: I mean, maybe it was just naivete and stupidity actually, because okay, so I was listening to a podcast once I forget which one it was, but it was about like people that are achievers and really ambitious. Sometimes they just don't let themselves see failure. And I listen to that podcast and I definitely feel like I fit into that category.
Like I'm just too bullheaded to like consider potential other outcomes after I've identified my goal. So maybe, yeah, maybe it's just like sticking your head in the sand and driving forward. But, but I do think that like there are, it's not easy, it's not a cakewalk. And there are a lot of obstacles like you had a question here about obstacles and I'm like, Then she doesn't want a Debbie Downer.
Should I like, do you really want to hear about them? Because a lot of them are are like related to being a parent and being a scientist at the same time. And it's hard and I'm not going to lie about it like it's really, really hard. Sometimes I think like, Oh, if I make a choice one day to change my career or to do something different, it's going to be because it's really hard to do both things at the same time.
And, you know, everyone says, Oh, you can have it all. It's the 2020s, whatever. You can be a scientist and have a family and everything's fine, but it's not planned. It's like there are systemic failures in our system that make it really hard for people to succeed. And I, I have a lot of privilege and I have a lot of luck, and I have a lot of, like, momentum pushing my career forward.
But even with all of those things kind of on my side, it is still super freaking hard.
Michelle Chung: If you're okay with diving into an obstacle or like some barrier in the road in your career path, what would one of those instances be?
Ashley Shade: Yeah, I mean, they're all related to parenting and kind of the burden of finding the support on the woman scientist to like, just figure it out, like kind of like, oh, we'll let you alone and you can figure it out. Instead of having institutional or systemic like supports that are in place for everyone. I don't think anyone should have to figure this out by themselves.
There should be common support structures in place that are supported by the institution because they want to support the initiatives and have gender equity in the workplace. Right. So like one of my kids, I have two children. So I had the first one, I was a postdoc and I had the second when I was on that and the tenure track and my first appointment period at Michigan State and my older child is differently abled.
And so she needs a lot of medical supports and therapies and managing this is a full time job like I do my full time job that I love and research, and then I do my full time job for my child that I love. And it I have no time. I have no time for self-care. I have barely any time to just, you know, breathe.
At the end of the day, the fragmented health care system makes it really hard for me to coordinate the care for my child, and I don't have a solution for that. But it's also hard for other folks to understand it. Like when I have to, I don't know, coordinate something and it's in the middle of the day because it's the only time the doctor can see us.
And we have to drive in an hour and a half to get the care, you know, in an hour and a half back. That's like basically a workday that I miss, a day that could be devoted to my research that I'm missing because I have to work extra hard to find the medical resources for my kid so that that takes a lot.
I think also maybe some other folks that you've talked to have said this, but the pandemic has just made me realize how like before we were doing okay, it was stressful, but we were doing okay. And then the pandemic happened and all of a sudden I'm like home with my two kids. I have no care. My spouse also is full time working, you know, also has career goals and career ambitions.
And, you know, we were we were just breaking I was getting up so early in the morning to get my work done. Like I would get up at three in the morning and work from 3 to 7 before my kids got up. And then, you know, my spouse and I would switch off halfway through the day and watching them and everything just kept going, like all the virtual meetings, all the conferences, you know.
And I just felt like I had to keep going with them, but I couldn't. And one day I was just like, I can't, I can't. Like, I have to sleep, you know, I can't, I can't keep going. And so actually it's a deal because this story, because when I had my like moment of one of my moments of breaking, if I'm going to be honest, during the GLBRC, like they have an all scientists meeting every year and early in the pandemic, it happens in May and it was like a virtual meeting because of the pandemic.
And my kids were home and I was like on parent duty, but I was trying to participate in this meeting virtually, right? So I had my laptop and it was like in the kitchen kids were playing. And then all of a sudden my youngest, who's a toddler at the time, had this major bathroom accident. Right. And so I have to help him and take care of it.
And so I'm like, got a kid under my arm and I've got my laptop and then run into the bathroom and I'm like balancing my laptop on the back of the toilet and trying, trying to help my kid. And and then I'm just like, why am I doing this? Like, this is literally.
Michelle Chung: Literally work-life balance.
Ashley Shade: Yeah, this is insane. But I think that I have to like do both of these, like very hard things at the same time. And why so? So that moment I just like, I'm like, okay, I'm done. I like logged out of the meeting. I took care of my kid. I cried a little bit. If I'm going to be honest, I just took a moment.
I'm like, okay, actually, you need to reevaluate and reprioritize your career elements so that you can do this because otherwise you're just going to burn out right? And that that's like that was hard. That was a hard reality because I'm, I'm really passionate about what I do and I'm very ambitious. And so to for me to like for it to get that bad that I stop.
And, I mean, I just told you that I'm like, put my head in the sand and just keep moving forward because then I don't accept that there's an alternative path. I've chosen my path and this is what I want and I'm going to get it right. But that point, I was like, No, this is not good. Nobody is good.
I'm not good. The kids aren't good. My my spouse is not good. This is not good. We can't we can't keep moving forward. And so it was a really hard, hard moment to face. But then, you know, I faced it and I have I have made some reevaluations and reprioritization and it's it's, you know, something that has to be continually curated.
And like every day I have to make decisions which are like, is this something that I need to be doing for my career? I want to be doing it for my career. Is this something that I need or want to be doing for my family? And I have to like just keep pruning basically perimeter and prune until you're left with the elements that are valuable for you, aligned with your values, aligned with what you want for your family and your career. And that requires some sacrifice.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, you obviously had to make so many decisions there yourself, like reevaluating what was important to you. But have the systems around you changed at all to make making those decisions easier?
Ashley Shade: I mean, I was reflecting on this the other day because I was reading this article about like not about women in science, but about women and work. The article is written by an author who has a book coming out. So she was kind of promoting her book. She was basically saying like, it's a big myth to tell women that they can have a career and they can have a family and both can be great because there are these issues that the pandemic has shown us that actually make it very hard to do those things and we need institutional changes.
And so she discusses some of those like consistent, reliable childcare is one of them and schooling for children so that moms are and also being teachers and moms and moms can do their work when they're supposed to be doing their work instead of like, you know, taking care of their kids at the same time. It sounds so simple, right?
But it's actually really hard. I see a great opportunity for some institutional changes right now, and this is exactly the time to have these conversations about what is needed and what would support the most women and caregivers as they advance their careers in science. We want these folks to be contributing, right? Because it's 50% of the workforce and because they are smart, they're bringing something to the table.
And so feel like the way we have it set up now is just like disqualifying all of this potential. And so the conversation is really important. But institutional supports, child care remains an issue. Health care, access to health care remains an issue. Having women overcommitted to service, overcommitted to I mean, of course, we love service and we love mentoring and I love service and I love mentoring.
But there is a point where it's like overflowing and that's because the demands are greater for women. I think in a lot of situations they're like, Oh, we need a woman on this committee and we only have two women in the department. So which one of you wants it right? And you're like, But I'm already serving on five committees.
Like my spouse is also on the tenure track and he has like two committees and I had like ten and I'm like, what is going on here? You know? So, and I don't think it was like that. They were purposefully elevating me and like not elevating him. I think that people are like, Oh, we need to balance the gender.
And so and Ashley's new and let's, let's put her on these committees. And so it's not that anyone's sitting in a corner making all these plans about stuff. It just happens that way because of our biases. And so the institution during the pandemic is basically like caregivers. You have flextime, work from home, do what you need, but at the same time, science still moves forward, right?
The research is moving forward. The meetings are happening virtually, the conferences are happening virtually. And then all of a sudden there are all these virtual talks and you still have to manage your lab program. And then on top of it, you have to manage your safety guidelines for the pandemic. And at the same time, you have to homeschool your kid that has special needs.
Right. And I'm just like letting letting me alone to deal with that by myself was super hard. It's just because there's no structure in place to support that. So I think that's what is needed. We need to talk about what are the structures in place to make scientists in universities and research institutions have the same opportunities like have the same equity and I mean childcare and health care, two big things, but also like making sure there's a balance of workload and proportional balance of workload.
That's something that we talk about a lot, but I don't see a lot of active initiatives to provide checks and balances on that. You know, being in all these meetings with folks that are having caregiving responsibilities and seeing, Oh, we need these deliverables by this day, we need this, we need this with it. And me saying like, Well, I have to schedule this out three weeks or it's not going to happen because of this situation.
You know, people don't want to hear that. They don't want to hear that you're slowing them down. They want to hear that you've got the pedal to the metal. And so I don't know how to change the expectations around how we are expected to be very responsive to the tasks and expected to overcommit to services and things like that.
I mean, even saying no, sometimes someone asks me to do something and I really wish I could, but I know I'm overloaded and I, I decline politely. I might suggest other people. And then a lot of times what happens is the requester will come back to me and they'll say, Are you sure? Can't you please just for us give it a try?
And that really like because I have a hard time saying no, which is something, you know, got to work on. But like it takes me a lot to say no, it takes me a lot every day. Like I said, prioritize, evaluate, prune, focus. Your efforts on what's aligned with your values, on what's aligned with your research program. And so when I say notice something, I've really considered it like I've considered it thoughtfully and I've provided an answer.
And then to have the other person that's requested to come back to me and tell me that they don't accept my answer, that is more work for me to do. That's more burden on me to convince that person that really I mean it. I mean it when I say no. And so I think that's something that like folks in leadership opportunities can be more aware of is like you want to give folks the opportunity to say no if they have to say no or say yes if they want to take the opportunity.
But when they say no, just respected, no, just just be like, okay, thanks for considering things, for the alternatives. Is there anything else they can do to help? Just something like that. Even now I have a lot of folks saying, oh, the pandemic is kind of over. Right? We're not wearing masks anymore. Don't you have school now? Like, isn't it better?
And it's like marginally better and that's because of daycare closures. Like, my daycare was closed almost three weeks in January and February this year. Like, what am I supposed to do without childcare for three weeks? There should be some big conversations about big changes that we can make to support folks in these these careers. Women are leaving. That's what's happening.
The data shows that, you know, once you're professional, you're expected to be really responsive on your emails, on Slack or teams or whatever it is, and managing things and making things happen fast and collaboratively. And that pace, I think, excludes a lot of of women because we are juggling more, especially if we have caregiver responsibilities. Right. And it also can make folks anxious like it can make students and postdocs anxious.
If your PI is slacking you on a Sunday to do something, you might feel obligated to do it because of that power dynamic. Instead of respecting time for breaks. And that's something that I'm trying to be more conscious about. Like I try to tell my whole team, if I email you at a weird hour, it's because that's when I have to work and that that's that's when I want to work.
And I do not expect the response outside of working time. And if I send you a message on the weekend, it's just because that's when I had time to send the message. And that's not because I expect a response any time before Monday morning. Setting norms and expecting oceans for when it's appropriate to engage folks. And under what under what methods of communication is is appropriate, at what times of day, and to just set some boundaries around that and expectations.
And I can do that in my own research group. I mean, I can't do it for the whole university, but that's something that I think is is helpful, is that if Ashley isn't responsive within 30 minutes of every email, then people will stop expecting that I will be. If I don't expect my team to be responsive within 30 minutes.
They know that they also have room to, instead of being reactive, to be thoughtful and and respond at appropriate times. I also think that this kind of hustle based mentality and constant contact with the work environment is hard for for intellectual work. I find it to be very distracting. I feel that the thing that I can uniquely contribute as a Ph.D. holding microbiome ecologist is my intellectual contribution, my ability to think about problems deeply and come up with solutions and design experiments to test those hypotheses, etc. That kind of work I can't do in 15 minutes between meetings or between slack messages.
I need 90 minutes. No, at least I need uninterrupted 90 minutes. And so being connected to this constant hustle of messages and emails and, you know, text messages sometimes and, you know, going from one meeting to the next to the next without giving your brain a break, that I think decreases the quality of the work that scientists, but especially women, because they are, again, balancing a lot of stuff can provide.
And then that makes them less valuable to the institutions and to the research community. If they don't have time for what they can uniquely provide, that's a loss. That's a loss for science. So I think having a conversation about that hustle and how we can quiet, quiet, and it should feel a little bit would also be a useful conversation that I think would support a lot of folks.
Michelle Chung: What would the ideal working situation look like for the support that women need? What would that look like for you?
Ashley Shade: Time is my most important thing that I have right now, and I have very little of it. And in the summer it gets worse because there is no school, right? So I think that that if there is one ask that I would one like low hanging fruit ask that I could suggest to universities it would be providing full time childcare here for elementary aged students in the summertime because faculty in the sciences don't shut down their labs in the summer, even if they're not getting paid in the summer, they're still working in the summer because they're managing their teams and advancing their science.
And so having a reliable, affordable, high quality place on campus where children can go and be enriched and be taken care of or cared for, while scientists have the space and the time to pursue their research program and support their labs like summer childcare. Get it for everyone, right? Because right now what faculty do that have kids is they figure out a summer long relay of camps to send them to.
Oh, for two weeks. They will go here for two weeks. You'll go here for two weeks. All the camps have different requirements. Some of them need lunch, some of them doing some of them. And the three, some of them and some of them started at ten, some. So like every two weeks you're basically disrupted in the routine and it's expensive and you have to figure it out and coordinate all of that.
And that takes a lot of time. And so like providing summer elementary age child care on campus, that's high quality is something that's going to be a really big asset and really big productivity booster for a lot of scientists and especially women in science.
Michelle Chung: Have you experience being the only woman in the room? Has it changed over the course of your career?
Ashley Shade: Yeah, that's an interesting question. And I would say, yes, it has changed over the course of my career. We had, I would say, equal PhD students in my training program, balanced men and women, and as a postdoc were more male postdocs, slightly more, but maybe barely noticeable more. And then as a as an assistant professor, then the gender gap becomes more noticeable.
I mean, it's perfectly aligned with what the research shows that women are leaving the sleep with leaky pipeline at every stage. And what can we do to retain them or convince them that this job is wonderful and that you can have it and also have your your family goals and your other life goals? Right. Sometimes I'm the only woman in the room, and I'm always surprised when that happens because I'm like, Come on, aren't we aware by now?
Like, don't we all know that this isn't how committees should be set up? Why aren't there more of us? I guess because I'm at this stage in my life right now, where my children are young, the the difference that I usually notice, like if I look around the room at colleagues, I'm like and I see a direction that a committee is going as far as like deliverable are we need deliverables on a Sunday or we need this or we need we need we we need us to meet on a Thursday night.
I'm looking around the room and I'm usually the only one with little kids. That is also a factor because I can't very often do things. I can't do a departmental retreat on a Saturday. I'm sorry, I don't. I like, do you want me to bring my kids along? That would be a lot of fun. So. So when we're making decisions even about how we're organizing our time as professionals, there's yes, there's like a gender gap, but there's also a caregiver gap, I would say. And how those decisions might be made differently. If we had more voices of caregivers at the table.
Michelle Chung: What advice would you give to young women trying to enter their field?
Ashley Shade: You know, everyone is different and requires different things. And I think something that is is probably helpful is in the beginning making a list and really being thoughtful about what your values and priorities are for your life and for your career and kind of rank them. And as you're presented with opportunities on your career path to just check in and ask yourself, does this opportunity align with these values and these goals that I have for myself?
And if the answer is not, obviously yes, don't feel obligated to take that opportunity because others will come. I think in the beginning I didn't realize that opportunities are flooded upon you once you get in your Ph.D. training and your post-doc training, there are opportunities all over the place and they don't all serve your values and your goals.
And so, first of all, clarifying what those values and goals are is, is important. But then making sure that you're very focused on achieving them and honoring them is is really important. And making sure that you surround yourself with people who know your goals and values and you can be honest with your goals and values about mentors and can support you in achieving those is also important, but you have to define them first.
Then you have to be willing to say no to opportunities that. Don't support them. And then every once in a while you'll revisit those values and priorities and they'll change over time to right. Like my values changed a lot after I decided to become a parent and so know things are different to Ashley from grad school from Ashley now the surrounding of yourself with people that you can be candid and honest with about your values and goals and who are okay with supporting you and offering you opportunities aligned with that is really important and I think maybe the other piece of advice is to not expect one person or one mentor to be your be all everything. No one will be able to provide you all the different aspects of mentoring and opportunity that you need. And it's really important to have many mentors and to have a network among different mentors that can support you because your needs will change as you move and your career.
Michelle Chung: So, Meg, what did you think of our conversation?
Mary Riker: I thought it was great. First of all, I really liked that. She talked about the influence of her mentors here, then during her postdoc, and how both of these mentors really gave her an eyes wide open kind of perspective on being a woman in science. And, you know, that's part of why I think we need to have these discussions and be so open about the vulnerabilities and the things that we experience as women.
So other women can have that knowledge and move forward with it. Primarily, I really thought that her focus on being a mother in the first part was really interesting because she didn't know what she needed at that time. She was able to utilize her mentors, previous knowledge of being a mother. But it shows the importance of having women in leadership and women role models in science so that others can also succeed and they understand the struggles that they might face.
Michelle Chung: Her big piece of advice to really anyone was prioritizing your values and really knowing what your values are. And she gave this story about being so many things having to be so many things in the pandemic. And like everything that was stressful, like compounding on each other, she just had to step back. She had to reevaluate what was important to her.
I think that was really valuable of her to share. Throughout your life, you're going to have these reckonings where you have to think about what's important to you and then you have to make decisions based on that.
Mary Riker: The burnout that probably occurred for many women during the pandemic specifically, especially probably mothers who are trying to balance being at home with young children and being young researchers. And I could not imagine doing that first of all, but the recognition of the burnout and the ability to walk away to know what's important to yourself that's so powerful and that's so cool to see and hear about her experience there.
Michelle Chung: And that's our show. Thank you to everyone listening in where your hosts, Michelle Chung.
Mary Riker: And Meg Riker.
Michelle Chung: The show is edited and produced by us and Mark Griffin, thanks again to our guests. Ashley Shade, an associate professor at Michigan State University's Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and researcher at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Mary Riker: And see you next time on Propelling Women In Power
Michelle Chung: What is your superpower?
Ashley Shade: My superpower. I think that I have a superpower of optimism and also this like keep moving forward, just put the blinders on and and work hard and go for it. You know, I have a go for it superpower.