A Twitter storm reminded her.
Zoe Donaldson, a jointly appointed assistant professor in the departments of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology and Psychology & Neuroscience, isn’t quite the same person she was when she was looking for a job.
Two years—one ‘golden year’ of funded, independent research and a second spent establishing her lab in Boulder— separate those versions of herself.
“I’m much more optimistic now that I have the job than I was when I was actually trying to get the job, or when it was merely a theoretical future,” says Donaldson.
She was reminded of her former self after tweeting about an open faculty position at CU. In return, she received sarcastic comments from post-docs down on their luck and overwhelmed by the application process. Since she was in their shoes recently, she understands how people approaching the job market feel. But, the backlash forced her to reflect on exactly how much can change in a few years.
Now past the stress of the job search, Donaldson acknowledges the most appealing aspect of academia, the thing that allows for her optimism, is its freedom—the freedom to pursue what she’s interested in and freedom of how she spends her time.
“Those two things make it unlike any other career,” she says.
But, she wasn’t always so convinced science was for her.
Growing up, Donaldson thought science was the most boring occupation anyone could have. Her mom was a scientist. As a kid hanging out in the lab, she couldn’t touch anything, much less do anything fun. So, science was off the table as a career.
She dabbled in engineering for a while before finally admitting her true love is biology.
“When you get older, and they let you start doing things in the lab, you realize there’s a lot there,” says Donaldson.
She also realized science, specifically biology, could give her the freedom to study topics most people don’t often think about, like the sex lives of rodents.
Donaldson’s research probes the neurological basis of long-term and monogamous relationships. Her lab uses prairie voles as a model system because they mate for life, whereas more typical lab animals like mice and rats don’t. She uses these animals’ bonds to get a better idea of why we form similar, complex relationships and how those relationships affect us when we lose a partner or loved one.
As her research career grows, her time, even with academia’s flexibility, becomes more precious. Although she used to subscribe to ‘the woman can have and be it all’ movement, she doesn’t anymore.
“I would much rather focus my time and energy on getting a lot accomplished in my scientific life and enjoying the rest of it,” she says.
“I am a huge advocate of not needing to be the perfect woman, whatever society thinks that is, and [to] outsource as much as possible.”
Instead of worrying about how clean her house is, for example, she hires help, or just deals with it as a disaster.
Although Donaldson’s moved on from feeling like she needs to fulfill society’s expectations of a perfect woman, the reality of how different men and women are influences her leadership.
“It’s a misnomer to say that men and women are the same. We’re not,” Donaldson says. “The ideal strategy for a lab is not necessarily going to be the same thing for a man versus a woman.”
Though she’s unsure whether this sentiment is because she’s a woman, or just because of who she is, Donaldson believes in team mentality.
“I’d much rather create a collaborative environment in which everyone feels like they’re part of the team advancing our science together, where a win for one member is a win for the whole team,” she says.
In her lab, she takes the approach of easing students into research and publishing, advising that one must learn to walk before running, and learn to run before completing a marathon.
So far, her method seems to be working. Plus, guiding students toward achieving their own goals is gratifying for her.
“I genuinely enjoy the educational process. I love working with undergraduate and graduate students and just seeing the excitement as they begin to master new skillsets and they begin to formulate their own questions. I find that really fulfilling,” she says.
Though she laments gender disparities in the sciences, she sees them improving. There’s been a groundswell for women in science that’s making slow, but observable progress. Donaldson acknowledges that this hasn’t happened for minorities yet.
“I think it’s actually harder for minorities in science than it is for women in science at this point,” she says.
Part of the issue is the lack of both women and minorities in the sciences. Even if she didn’t think it was what she wanted, growing up Donaldson had a built-in female scientist role model, her mom.
“You need to see people [succeeding] who are like you, and you also need to know that people who have faced the same challenges as you have made it,” she says.
Donaldson’s research career has now taken off and she’s found the freedom she loves. Although her tweet about the job opening at CU provoked criticism from job seekers, she once faced the same challenges they are. The difference between them is a few years time.
Connect with her @DrZoePhD.
By Roni Dengler