Often, people do not think of highly-motivated, professional women in STEM as the type to also embrace motherhood, but Katherine Mirica finds the time to be the mother of two sons while also being a professor of Chemistry at Dartmouth College. She had her first son while completing her PhD in Chemistry from Harvard, and the second during her postdoc at MIT. This is her story…
MS: Let’s just start by having you introduce yourself and share with us what you do.
My work focuses on Materials Chemistry, and my research group uses materials chemistry to address global challenges, healthcare, and environmental stewardship. My job consists of teaching, running a research lab, and also working on getting funding from various agencies to support our research mission.
I’ve been in this position for one year, so I’m still learning a lot. It’s a big step from my graduate work or postdoctoral work. Now I’m on my own, so I get to pursue some of my own ideas and also let students contribute to those ideas with their own creativity, and shape the kind of research that we’re doing in the direction that I find most interesting and important.
MS: I’d love it if you could expand on what type of projects/products you’re actually developing…
In my research lab, we’re trying to develop some portable sensors that ultimately could change the way we monitor chronic disease by enabling us to capture information from exhaled air in a very portable and inexpensive way. It’s known that dogs can actually smell cancer, and distinguish between different types. So what if we had a device that someone could breathe into that could diagnose them or enable them to monitor a chronic disease in a non-invasive way. That’s where we want to be much further down the road, but what we do on a daily basis is develop materials and devices that will be useful in that type of setting. We develop the fundamental science that could go into a product if this venture were to be taken out of academia and into a startup.
MS: Do you feel that there were any difficulties for you to get to where you are now?
There were definitely difficulties, it’s a difficult and long path to go through four years of undergraduate education, then five plus years of graduate school and then about three and a half years of postdoctoral work. So that was a long commitment to this trajectory that I wanted to achieve. And at many points down that road, I wondered if this is the right path for me. I think probably the biggest difficulty that I experienced was in graduate school, figuring out if this trajectory, going after a faculty position, if this is something I really wanted to do. And once I was able to make that decision for myself, a lot of the mental barriers I was experiencing just went away.
MS: From my understanding it’s really tough to become a professor, did you feel that that was challenging for you or did things go smoothly for you to get this role?
It was definitely a challenge, and I tried a couple of times. The first time, I realized I wasn’t fully ready in terms of the level of development of my independent ideas. I was lucky enough that there was still funding for my postdoc position and I was able to go back and rethink my ideas. Once I was able to build a story of a compelling big picture and fundamental science that connects to it, things went much better the second time around.
MS: Did you have a mentor that helped you make a decision?
I spend a lot of time reading various things about paths of other people, and in different disciplines. But also definitely my PhD advisor was very helpful in helping me cross that bridge and have a conversation about what I wanted to do down the road. I knew that I really liked research, but I also realized I really do enjoy teaching, and that intersection of the two was something that I was really excited about.
MS: On your path to getting to where you are now, was it dominated by men?
Yes. All my mentors were men, my undergraduate advisor, my PhD advisor, my postdoc advisor. So I guess in terms of professional development, I was very much shaped by male mentors.
MS: Did you ever encounter situations where you felt you were the underdog because you were a woman?
I would say no, I felt like I was actually really supported. The difference came when I became a mother, and that’s when I indirectly started to perceive a lot of differences, not necessarily coming from my mentors, but just awareness of motherhood more so than womanhood.
MS: Especially now that you’re a mother, do you feel that being feminine and also working in STEM is difficult to balance?
I think there are many different people who have different types of experiences. But I think being a woman in my field, to me, has not been more difficult than if I were not a woman. If anything, I think there may be some extra visibility that comes from being a woman. I do think that becoming a mother, or realizing this extra dimensionality to my female physiology with the pregnancy, did introduce certain challenges. How do I work in the lab when I’m pregnant? How do I take a maternity leave because at the time Harvard did not have a policy for graduate students.
MS: I’ve heard that many women, when they publish research, avoid using their female name. Do you have personal experience or know of other people not using their female name, or they did use their name but the review process didn’t go as smoothly as they expected?
There are studies that show that given a resume of the same level of achievement, some people will preferentially choose the male candidate or describe him as being more qualified. I can’t really specifically comment on that in my case because there are so many components. The prominence of the investigator in the sciences is based on many factors, prior track record being one of them. Anyone emerging as a young investigator, male or female, is going to have some difficulty establishing themselves as an independent investigator. There is an effort to evaluate the work through peer review in a non-biased way, but I think that track history stays. If someone’s working for the first time as an independent investigator, there’s going to be more scrutiny from the community, and that can sometimes be perceived as a disadvantage, but I think it can also be perceived as the community working to make you better. People are people, they’re not perfect, so there may be biases, but I can’t personally say that I’ve been held back because of something like that.
MS: Do you feel that teaching is easier as a woman?
I do think that there are some benefits from being a woman, and in my case being a mother, that I can bring with me to my teaching. Maybe an understanding of how different people can be when they’re trying to learn, just based on human experience. I do think that can help human interactions, but I guess anyone can do that too
MS: What has been the biggest change for you when you became a mother?
The experience was transformative, and probably the biggest change that occurred in me personally is a much clearer sense of priorities. It became clear what I want to spend my time caring about and what I’m just going to let go because I just don’t have time for it.
MS: Do you feel that you had trouble balancing work and life when you started having kids?
Yes, there was definitely a lot more balancing that occurred, but it came with that clearer sense of priority. That there’s a limited time in the day and I need to prioritize what I’m going to get to do. Before I had children, I was doing a lot in addition to my studies, I did a lot of triathlons, and I haven’t figured out how to fit that back into my life. I had to put some things on hold and just focus on what I thought was most important to me at that time. Just realizing that it’s a dynamic equilibrium, it’s like a juggling act, there’s always something that’s moving.
MS: Did you feel that you had a strong support network, from your family or your colleagues?
I felt like I really had a strong support network at home, and that was really important in terms of me continuing my path towards becoming a professor. I have an amazing husband who has a very flexible work schedule and loves children, so I had a true partner in child-rearing. Also my mother was very engaged and actually lived with us for a certain amount of time, and I felt so comfortable leaving my first son in her care. Both, my father-in-law and mother-in-law have also been extremely engaged, and incredibly helpful.
MS: You mentioned you were at Harvard when you were pregnant and they didn’t really have a leave program. Is that the case in general, or was that just case for that university, from your understanding?
Things have been changing, and things have changed at Harvard since I’ve moved on. At that time there was no specific parental leave policy in place so each student had to figure out what the situation was going to be for themselves as a conversation with their advisor. In my case, it worked out, and I was able to take the time off that I needed. In my postdoctoral work at MIT, there was a specific policy, a very clear set of guidelines. I think that really varies place to place.
MS: My last question is if you were to give your younger self advice, what would that advice be?
One, when I was a third year grad student, not knowing what I’m going to do with my life, the only thing I would say to that would be don’t worry about it, pick a path, work towards it, and if it’s not the right path, you can always change paths. To the point after having a child, I think I would say to start thinking about faculty proposals a little bit earlier. I definitely took the time to enjoy motherhood, and I’m really grateful, but I think I would have incorporated a little time each day to think about my research ideas to maintain that dynamic equilibrium.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
A FEMINIST, who wants to eventually be an amazing soccer mom with flexible work hours. A CONSULTANT, who is thirsty for flight status and hangry for hotel cookies. A DOG LOVER, who plans to own a German Sheppard, Oreo, and a Golden Retriever, Cheerio. A PROUD TECHIE, who doesn’t enjoy coding. A SELF PROCLAIMED PRACTICAL OPTIMIST, who struggles with the difficult act of staying positive while battling with depression. #PositiveAttitudes