Contributed by Monika Satkauskas
This year’s round table discussions began with Dr. Mita Dasog from Dalhousie University. After brief introductions, our conversation started with technical questions inspired from her research talk, “From Shake and Bake Chemistry to Water-Splitting Materials.” From there, we touched on a variety of topics ranging from life in academia to advancing mental health awareness.
Women are advised to have mentors to succeed in their careers. How have mentors helped you and what advice do you have when one is searching for or just found a mentor?
As a graduate student, Dasog did not focus on finding mentors. The first time she connected to others as mentors was participating in talks and get-togethers at Caltech Women in Science groups as a postdoc. She recommended connecting with upper-year grad students as a great first step. These students are approachable and can help share resources and give advice. Additionally, if a grad student wants access to a professor, students should put them on their dissertation committee. This way, it isn’t awkward when the student goes to them for random questions that pertain to the project.
Currently Dasog considers 5 people as her mentors, consisting of both peers and senior colleagues. Variety in her mentors helps solve the different situations Dasog faces. Dasog’s undergrad supervisor has been a longstanding mentor who wrote recommendations for grad school applications, suggested postdoc positions, proofs grants that she has written, and much more. Another tip Dasog has learned about mentors: consider if the mentor is willing to put in the time and effort into the relationship. However, having a busy mentor is not a hindrance. Dasog meets with some of her mentors monthly and some twice a year. The quality of the advice and mentorship should not be linked to the frequency of interactions.
Why did you choose to go into a field where you had little direct experience?
The short answer: the funding and room to play and contribute in a given field.
The long answer: She was introduced to the field of catalysis as a postdoc and found it intriguing because it’s possible to control the activity of a catalyst via morphology of materials, composition, size, etc. Since Dasog’s niche is material synthesis and investigating their properties, she is focusing on the questions that most other researchers disregard, such as how the synthesis can be scaled up, how does electrode fabrication affect the bubble formation, adhesion, and desorption. While it’s a major hurdle in the field, not many researchers are looking into it. Dasog is excited to fill this gap in the research community.
When challenging the status quo, how do you deal with pushback?
Dasog was very honest with our group with her response: “It’s okay to feel defeated.” It is extremely difficult to change the mindset of people who have followed certain practices for years, possibly even decades. She has found certain avenues in the university useful to her; by being granted certain awards, Dasog has been introduced to people in higher ranking positions and she has voiced her opinions and concerns with this opportunity. She is mindful to keep the door open so that others may also fight for the issues they deem important. She championed instrument access for new professors through this line of communication. In addition to broadening your network, Dasog recommends keeping up with your mentors. They may give advice or, better yet, go to battle for you. This is especially important for issues your mentors are not aware of or issues of a large enough scale. Your mentor can seek out allies.
How do you suggest institutions become better workplaces for grad students?
Students should have a life outside of their graduate work for both job success and mental health reasons. Change needs to start somewhere. Many Principal Investigators (PIs) have a narrow focus for their research and aren’t mindful of the sacrifices incurred behind projects. PIs should be trained on recognizing mistreatment of grad students and signs of declining mental health and this should be a proactive initiative. Working in the evenings, late nights, and on the weekends shouldn’t be encouraged as being crucial to success.
When it comes to graduate student progression in the program, Dasog believes the focus should be on individual growth. She looks for how the student has improved since their last committee meeting. Dasog believes this is more representative because papers are not an accurate measurement of success as a grad student. Each field and even subdiscipline has a different publishing rate. Additionally, scholarships are also not a valid way of judging students as they have a snowball effect. If a student missed a scholarship opportunity, then they are out of luck for future scholarships. PIs should model this growth mindset to their students as most grad students collect the majority of useful data within the last couple of years.
How are you changing the stigma around mental health?
For some background, grad students are constantly surrounded by failure and are expected to find success. Because of this pressure, it is very easy to have poor mental health in this environment. Having an imbalanced mental health is not a sign of weakness, but possibly a consequence of the weather, predisposition, or constant stress. When the initiative to combat issues comes from higher up in the department, it makes it easier to address concerns about mental health. The ideal solution would have the department leading by example, but not everyone is supportive of this view.
Although combating the current culture is difficult, having a few professors invested in addressing mental health can help begin the conversation. Dasog introduces the concept of mental health to new graduate students during their first group meeting and explicitly acknowledges the university’s policies for taking a leave of absence. She keeps a list of resources in her office so she can refer students to the appropriate services. Peers are some of the best sources of supports for graduate students, according to Dasog.
How do you advocate for your self-care practices when other coworkers (grad students, advisors) look down on these habits?
According to Dasog, one of the best responses to “I didn’t see you in lab this weekend” is “I didn’t need to come in because I did all the work during the week.” Being a grad student is extremely stressful because grad students have classes to finish, undergrad students to teach, scholarship proposals to write, in addition to meeting the expectations of your advisor as you progress your research. Because of all of these varied responsibilities, maintaining activities for your positive mental health is extremely important not only for your general happiness, but also for your productivity. Additionally, the number of hours someone works per day does not directly correlate to passion about the research subject or desire for publications. We should stop judging people on the amount of time we see them in the lab. For example, writing is part of being a good grad student and scholar, but not everyone can write productively at their desk in the lab. It may be easier to write in a coffee shop with a nice vibe close to home or the busy library amongst undergrads.
How does one cope in a highly demanding environment, like graduate programs?
Like a successful investment portfolio, Dasog prefers to put different types of eggs in her basket. For positive mental health, students and faculty need to care about more than just their research. Since there has always been someone “better”, less comparison and focusing on personal goals has really helped Dasog find value in her work. She recommends individuals ask themselves “What do I want with my life?” as a way to reflect on the goals they want to pursue. One should set realistic goals as they will help reach the long-term lofty goals, such as writing a thesis or publishing a paper. One of Dasog’s favourite routines is to schedule a walk in the middle of the day. She books this time as though it were an important meeting because she finds it clears her mind and motivates her during the afternoon slump. Additionally, Dasog has committed herself to returning home early in the evening to cook dinner with her husband and spend quality time with him. This has led to better allocation of her time on campus and gives her something to look forward to at the end of each day.
In addition to restructuring the work mentality, Dasog suggests participating in activities outside of the work environment. As a new homeowner, she’s been very excited to tackle all of the little projects in her house and it has kept her busy on weekends. She also has coffee with her friends and talks to her family. Dasog recommends unplugging from the Internet in the evenings to prevent email distractions. Physical activities have also been linked to increasing mental health, and Dasog is still in the process of incorporating fitness into her routine.
How do you balance teaching with research?
Dasog’s university sets a guideline on how time should be spent by professors. This ideal schedule should be fill with 50% research, 30% teaching, and 20% sitting on university committees. Due to a variety of factors, her weekly schedules vary and will not have this balance. With experience, she has learned some activities have very little reward, so she inputs less time and energy into them. On the same hand, she then puts more effort into the items that may require more attention. For example, it takes a lot of work to compile and create the material for a course she has never taught before. Once she has this material, Dasog usually asks to teach the course again for a few years so she needs to prepare less to teach well. However, she likes to switch her classes eventually because she doesn’t want to get into a rut that can lead to teaching poorly. When it comes to research she is a little envious of established labs as grad students are able to pass on the techniques in the lab to new students. As a new professor, it takes a lot of effort to train each new student individually on the skills and techniques.
What are your thoughts on the Gender Gap?
“It exists.” Dasog recognizes there are many complex levels when addressing the gender gap. It needs to be addressed at the elementary, high school, undergraduate, graduate levels and beyond. On an institutional level, departments should reform the criteria of becoming a faculty member, taking account for the biological timeline that women face, in addition to changing the culture to be compatible with raising a family. Male professors were not criticized or judged for starting families in the 1950’s, but why does a female professor with a child signify she doesn’t highly value her career in the 2010’s? Unfortunately, completing graduate school, fulfilling a postdoc position, acquiring a faculty position and achieving tenure all fall in the key years of starting a family.
How should one tactfully address family matters in an interview?
As a rule, it is completely appropriate to decline answering questions regarding marriage and family status during interviews as those questions are illegal in Canada. However, it may be uncomfortable to completely shut down questions. If interviewers seem focused on homelife, the personal question period at the end of the interview can be your chance to probe about the company culture. The answers can inform you on whether the company is interested in supporting you and your work life or whether they are hiring you to meet certain criteria.
Mita had a few suggestions for women in STEM groups like WICTO.
One of the best ways to fight the issues that persist in academia (and society), is to bring awareness and involve as many people as possible. However, lack of involvement from the general population is a major hurdle. Dasog recommends gaining visibility by talking to faculty in administrative roles, such as the Dean of Science. Institutions actively search for ways to highlight underrepresented groups in STEM and groups like WICTO should put this to their advantage by learning what is on the university’s radar. Administrators are great resources and can connect you to other groups with similar interests, not to mention they may come to your group for advice if certain policies coincide within the scope of the group. She advised WICTO to search for a faculty advisor who shares the same goals as the group, and is willing to invest time and energy.