My Name is Karen

“I regret nothing and I am proud of my conduct while working under that man. I am also simultaneously very angry that I had this experience and that who knows how many other women did too but we’re silent.” Stock photo: pexels.com

MY WORST MOMENT

So many.

The last conversation I had with him was the day after I passed my qualifying exam and was officially a PhD Candidate. When he told me after I passed my exam that “I don’t know what to do with you now, I was hoping ‘the system’ would ‘take care of’ you.” He then told me he would let me stay in the lab to finish my PhD only if I pursued a teaching certificate in elementary school education – it was a regular thing to hear from him that I belonged in a classroom teaching children, not in a research lab doing original research. My skill in teaching and my XX chromosomes do not mean that is my path.

He said crazy sexist shit during lab meeting, implying that a female graduate student’s boyfriend ‘must have helped’ her with her recent, excellent work – with no basis in reality as the female student was a materials scientist working on carbon-based batteries and the male student ‘the boyfriend’ was a biologist and knew nothing about his girlfriend’s subject area. I would (politely but firmly) call him out for saying shit like this and he would pretend like he did not mean it – but that shit is so damaging! I was wary of ‘wasting time’ at lab meeting to discuss this as I am a scientist above all other things, but I could not allow him to say things like that without anyone objecting – it is so fucking damaging to be told shit like that! As one of the few Americans in the lab, and the only one with independent NSF-GRFP funding, I had a unique power to stand up to him in a context like this. I am certain he hated that.

He was known for terminating visas of students he disagreed with and it was a common weapon he used. I saw multiple Chinese men in their 30s crying due to Visa revocation prior to completion of PhD – the revocation and deportation were assumed to be due to their ‘weak’ tier publishing record in the lab. You can imagine the culture of fear this created. I was privately thanked by the other female (and male!) members of the lab multiple times for standing up to him in instances like this when his behavior was so clearly inappropriate.

After working for him for about a year, He would have meetings with me in private and tell me about sexual things with his wife. He found out I was dating a woman from one of my labmates, and he also started sending me unwanted Bible study recordings about homosexuality. He asked me why I was dating a woman when I was ‘not bad looking’ and ‘could get a man if I wanted, unlike fat, desperate lesbians who hang out at bars’.

I regret nothing and I am proud of my conduct while working under that man. I am also simultaneously very angry that I had this experience and that who knows how many other women did too but we’re silent.

I HAVE GIVEN UP ON

Automatically trusting someone’s judgment due to their expertise or degree. I trust myself, only. I choose my battles cautiously and often I do agree with others, but I consider my own scientific opinions carefully and independently of other’s opinions.

I’M AFRAID

He’ll fuck up my career again and that this experience is not just in my past (it has been over 5 years now since this happened).

THIS HAS COST ME

I don’t like to think about this. It took me 3 years to be able to talk about it or even to think about chemistry without crying.

I forfieted the last year of funding that was a part of my NSF-GRFP fellowship because the university would not grant me a leave of absence to recover from mistreatment under my first advisor.

SOMETHING YOU SHOULD KNOW

I am good at research and regularly have my ability validated by others. My advisor was wrong about me.

For example, I have been invited to enroll in PhD programs at both the jobs I have had since I left that PhD program. I declined the offer at the first but may accept at my current job… I am figuring out logistics but am excited for the chance to claim my own PhD finally. I am confident I can handle anything – outsider of my own advisor not wanting me to succeed, that is…

I also published 3 peer-reviewed scientific papers within the first 2 years I left that lab.

IS THERE A BRIGHT SIDE?

I learned so much from the experience. I trust myself now and have little respect for people just because they have a degree – to me a PhD means little without any personal context.

I deliberately lift up other women I work with for their good ideas, especially if they are being ignored by (usually old men) in management. I am skilled at making my voice heard and my ideas are usually met with respect now, because my ideas are valuable. I try to help other women who are quieter than me to also have their ideas heard. I enjoy empowering others.

MY FIGHT SONGS

Angel Haze – Echelon
Bikini Kill – Double Dare

MY SECRET WEAPON

I am genuinely and objectively smart, empathetic, and creative – no matter my former advisor’s opinion. I have confidence, curiosity, and ability to listen to and work with others very different from me and this makes me a great scientist.