Sure, I considered myself ‘pre-med’ from the time in second grade when I told my best friend that I wanted to be a heart surgeon, until the last day to sign up for the MCAT my junior year in college. If I’m being honest, I flirted with the idea of transferring into the MD/PhD program after my first year in graduate school. In any case, after falling in love with my SLAC (small liberal arts college), I knew what I was going to do:
- go to a medical school and earn a PhD,
- do a post-doc, and
- set up my own little corner in the best of both worlds – teaching at a SLAC, with a small, but productive lab, comprised of talented and driven undergraduates.
In fact, when I arrived at the Physiology department (at what is now known as the Lewis Katz School of Medicine) at Temple University for my PhD program, I emphatically announced my intent. While I loved my time in the lab, and particularly my work in cardiovascular physiology and the heart transplant research program, I was meant first and foremost to be a teacher. I took advantage of the few teaching opportunities in the medical school to hone my craft, I took adjunct work when available, and appropriate, at a local college, and I looked for a post-doc which presented me with the opportunity to study a model system which could be done relatively inexpensively at a small school.
Then “life” happened; in 2008 I got married, entered the job market, and found out I was pregnant. If you recall, 2008 was not a good year for tenure-track candidates. The words “hiring freeze” were pervasive and debilitating for those of us on the market. As a result, I continued to hold an adjunct position, working part-time to try to stay relevant as an educator, while also being a part-time stay at home mother. I questioned everything that led up to this moment – I had the blinders on from the time I was seven with regards to my career progression. Now, in my new role as a mother and only partially employed, I wondered if the years of higher education and the student loans were worth it. I was also keenly aware of the problem of watching my employability dwindle away with each passing month, and the competitiveness of the field.
The silver lining of this situation was that it forced me to do what I had refused to do pretty much my entire life – slow down, reflect, and figure out where I was headed. I ended up applying for, and getting, a job as an Assistant Professor at a small liberal arts school, teaching pretty much whatever biology course I wanted, and coordinating the Anatomy and Physiology courses for the health professions. The down side was that this position was teaching-heavy and while scholarship was not only strongly encouraged, but pretty much required for promotion, there were limited resources and very little time or space to set up a lab. This meant opportunities had to be made elsewhere and on my own time.
Then, about three years ago on a whim, I checked the job ads. The first position that appeared was for a Physiology Educator at my graduate school alma mater. The questions started. Did I want to leave my job? Was I qualified? Did I really want to go back “home”? Long story short, the answers were “for the right opportunity”, “apparently yes”, and “absolutely”.
This is where I come back to my title – Home is Where the Heart(h) Is.
As I came back to Temple, I noticed that some things had changed while others had stayed the same. It is an incredible privilege to teach beside my own professors and mentors, and I truly feel like I came back home. One of the changes, as seen both in the curriculum, as well as in the hallways, was the infusion of more humanities. Student artwork is now found along the wall near the Medical Education offices. I started thinking about what I, as an alumna, could contribute.
My interest and passion for art far exceeds my natural ability, although I have taught myself to quilt over the years. My interest blends modern with traditional – couldn’t you just see an art quilt of the anatomical heart mounted on that wall with the photographs, oil paintings, and charcoal sketches? – but I am also interested in the history of quilting and the more traditional patterns.
One of my favorite patterns, and one of the most versatile yet symbolic, is the Log Cabin quilt. The American version dates back to at least the 1800s, although there is evidence that a similar pattern has been traced back to Ancient Egypt1,2. This pattern gained popularity in the United States around the time of the Civil War. While the components are the same, the colors can vary and the blocks can be arranged in many different ways, conveying different feelings and even meanings.
The basic pattern is as follows: Rectangles of fabric (“logs”) are arranged around a center square (“heart” or “hearth”). The color of the center square is thought to provide symbolism; for example, red means “hearth”, yellow means “letting light in”, and, anecdotally and through oral history, black is thought to have been used to discreetly identify stops on the Underground Railroad1,2.
I have made several Log Cabin quilts over the past decade, but I find myself using red for my center. Home is where the heart is. A metaphor for my career progression thus far, as I started at LKSOM as a physiology student in the cardiovascular group almost 20 years ago, which makes Temple the heart. Each subsequent stop on my journey – the colleges for which I taught as an adjunct, my role as a mother, my previous Visiting Assistant Professor and Assistant Professor positions, my mentors and role models – all serve as logs that make up my cabin. My cabin looks different than those of my colleagues and my former classmates, who may have taken other paths, like careers in industry, scientific writing, or a traditional academic position, or as a physician.
Our cabins might all look different, but in the center is the fire that burns in the hearth, or the light; it is that which centers us and from where our passion comes. For me, my passion is as an educator.
I am forever grateful for those who mentored me along the way, and who continue to serve as mentors and as inspiration. What I learned (so far) on my journey:
- Apply for the job
Although it might be human nature that we are apprehensive to take a chance, surveys have shown that more women have the tendency to not apply for a position unless they feel 100% qualified, and more women cite the fear of failure and therefore wasting time as a reason why3. However, you don’t get 100% of the jobs you don’t apply for.
- Keep an open mind
The career you think you want might not be the career you end up in for a number of reasons. Don’t get so hyper-focused that you miss other interesting opportunities.
- Don’t be afraid to listen to your heart and follow your own path
I spent my undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral career preparing for a job I didn’t know if I would get, and as it turns out didn’t really exist at the time. I took every biology course I could in undergrad, assuming I would need to be well rounded to teach in an undergraduate program. I took time to work on my teaching skills during my graduate and post- doctoral studies, so that by the time I finished, I already had several semesters-worth of teaching and evaluations that made me more marketable for an undergraduate teaching position.
- Make your own opportunities
I attended an in-house conference a few years ago. One of the panelists suggested that we take care to be more proactive in letting supervisors know if we are interested in a particular opportunity that becomes available. He relayed a story in which he needed to fill a position, and his mind immediately went to colleagues who had expressed an interest, even if there were several people who were qualified. I took this advice a few months later and subsequently found myself not only assigned to a new opportunity, but was also invited to participate in related working groups and committees.
- Don’t discount your previous experience
I was concerned when I left an undergraduate institution to go back to the graduate and professional level. Would I remember the level of depth and nuance that wasn’t appropriate in the courses I had gotten used to teaching? Not only did I find it easier in some ways (it’s easier to teach physiology when students have already had physics and chemistry!), I found that my experience working with undergraduates provided me with insight that is unique in that I had a better as to where the students were coming from.
- Keep in mind work-life balance
This is something I am continuously working on. Does this even exist? If anyone has any advice, I’m all ears.
Maybe it’s time I dust off my sewing machine.
- Log Cabin Quilts – A Short History. (AQSblog, May 15, 2012, http://www.aqsblog.com/log-cabin-quilts-a-short-history)
- Quilt Patterns Through Time: Log Cabin Quilts – Inspirations from the Past. (http://www.womenfolk.com/quilt_pattern_history/logcabin.htm)
- Are Women Too Timid When They Job Search? (Forbes, September 11, 2014, https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2014/09/11/are-women-too-timid-when-they-job-search/#7fe6961a411d)