A Turn Toward the Classroom and Home

Tamily Weissman-Unni feels like a failure. Every day. And in each of her life’s most important roles: teacher, researcher, mom, and wife.

This is refreshing honesty, particularly at a moment when women are brightly being urged to stop compromising and just “lean in” to their careers. That is the view advocated by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in a book with that title, released in March.

“One of my vivid memories is sitting on the couch with my baby one afternoon during my maternity leave, looking down at her sleeping in my arms, and thinking to myself, ‘What the hell have I been doing wasting the last 14 years on my training? This is what I am supposed to be doing.’ ” —Tamily Weissman-Unni

On the other hand, the lament of Weissman-Unni, an assistant professor of biology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, is startling, and for at least two reasons. First, her professional success is obvious. Second, despite all the prominent public urgings about the importance of expressing vulnerability and uncertainty—see, as one example, the viral sensation 2010 TEDx talk of University of Houston professor Brené Brown—such expressions remain uncommon, especially by women at the early stages of their academic careers.

To Harvard, twice

During the mid-1990s—about the time Sandberg was earning her MBA at Harvard Business School—Weissman-Unni was taking post baccalaureate premed classes at Harvard University Extension School in Cambridge and Boston University. She wanted to study the brain, probably by way of a medical degree, and was playing catch-up. While earning a B.A. in psychology at Pomona College, she’d mostly avoided core science courses such as biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics.

Instead of medical school, she decided to enter a Ph.D. program, which she hoped would point the way to college-level teaching jobs. Columbia University accepted her, and she moved to Manhattan in the summer of 1998. Six years later, she had a Ph.D., a handful of publications, and a fiancé: Vivek Unni, an M.D./Ph.D. student at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons.  

The two moved to Boston in 2004 and were married a year later. Unni worked in a neurology residency at Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals while Weissman-Unni did a postdoc in the lab of Jeff Lichtman, a Harvard professor of molecular and cellular biology. She was still hoping for a career focused on teaching, but a research result soon complicated things.

Lights, camera, attention

The team was using a well-known Cre-lox genetic recombination system to get mouse neurons to express green, yellow, orange, and red fluorescent proteins. Weissman-Unni, who enjoyed painting and drawing as hobbies, mostly helped on the complex microscopy involved in capturing the images.

Those images wound up as part of a paper featured on the cover of the 1 November 2007 issue of Nature.

Stories about the work have appeared in , , , and elsewhere. But the images have emerged as the real stars. The Web site io9 declared the Brainbow one of 10 images that changed the course of science. That list also included Leonardo Da Vinci’s human drawings from the 1500s and Rosalind Franklin’s 1952 photograph of the double helix structure of DNA. Weissman-Unni’s images took first place in a 2006 contest sponsored by the Barcelona Science Museum and have been featured everywhere from an online photo gallery for the journal Cell to the Web site of the Museum of Modern Art. Her images are also included in the infographic for President Barack Obama’s brain-mapping initiative.

Surely the stage was set for Weissman-Unni to launch a career as researcher at an R1 university. The problem was that she didn’t want to. She was still drawn to teaching—and soon there was another consideration: Her first daughter, who was born in 2007.

“One of my vivid memories is sitting on the couch with my baby one afternoon during my maternity leave, looking down at her sleeping in my arms, and thinking to myself, ‘What the hell have I been doing wasting the last 14 years on my training? This is what I am supposed to be doing,’ ” she says. “I went back to my postdoc a changed woman.”

Wondering if it’s all worth it

Back in the lab, she began to question everything. She eventually resolved to spend time away from her daughter only if she could find a job that she truly loved. It took some time, but by 2009 she’d found her way to the position of undergraduate adviser to Harvard biology students in the neuroscience concentration. Lichtman and other senior researchers in the lab were supportive as she moved into working with students full-time, she says. Still, after her years at Columbia and Harvard, she recalls many of her colleagues making a tacit assumption, one that caused her to feel unwanted pressure. “Everyone around me just assumed I’d find a faculty position focusing on research at a big school,” she says. “It’s like you have to apologize all the time if you want to do something different.”

Something different meant teaching, a bit of research, and time with her children. At the end of 2010, her second daughter was born. Weissman-Unni flew to Portland to interview at Lewis & Clark when the new baby was 7 weeks old. She got the job and moved across the country in the summer of 2011.

Life in Portlandia

It took a year for her to completely unpack her moving boxes, but so far life seems good in Portland, which is more famous for its quirky progressive culture than for its universities. Unni has a job at Oregon Health & Science University and occasionally collaborates with Weissman-Unni on grants and teaching. Now in her third year at Lewis & Clark, Weissman-Unni has a lab up and running. Instead of mice, it produces fluorescent zebrafish, which are easier for the undergraduate-staffed lab to handle, in part because they go from fertilization to free-swimming fish in a matter of days.

Of tenure requirements, she says that, “while not as different as you think” from a big R1, they are at least a bit more manageable. Still, she feels stretched and tugged in too many directions—especially toward home—and is wary of the attention she has received since arriving in Portland. The most prominent recent example: an extensive profile (which I wrote) that was featured on the cover of Lewis & Clark’s alumni magazine this winter. Answering an e-mail about this follow-up profile for Science Careers, Weissman-Unni wrote, “I realized that the (magazine) article sort of made me look like a superstar without noting how much I don’t feel like a superstar, how hard it is to balance work and family.”

Indeed, with her daughters still quite young (2 and 5 years old), her balancing act is a work in progress. And, unlike Sandberg, Weissman-Unni doesn’t flinch when talking about the downside of ambition, or even just survival.

In Lean In Sandberg writes: “[D]on’t be afraid to be fully engaged in your career, even as you plan to have a family. By fighting these fears, women can pursue professional success and personal fulfillment—and freely choose one or the other … or both.”

Here’s Weissman-Unni on the same point: “I don’t want women to read this article and feel bad about themselves because someone else out there is doing it all. It’s actually exactly the opposite of what I would like to get across. I’d like to somehow tell them that I feel like a failure every day, that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I constantly ask myself if this is all worth it to be away from my little baby girls every day. I don’t have enough time to be a good researcher, or professor, or mom, or wife. So I stumble along in all four categories, trying to find ways to somehow not be too critical of myself.”

What about a fifth category, where you’re measured by your willingness to be honest and go on the record before your scientific peers about the struggle to define a life at work and home on your own terms? That’s a category where she isn’t failing, and there’s something to be said for that as well.

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