Mar 10th 2014 by vfmcneill • 51 Questions • 585 Points
Hi reddit, I’m Faye McNeill. I’m a professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, where I lead an environmental research group. I also am a wife and mom.
I recently became the first female professor to be tenured in my department, which was founded more than 100 years ago!
I’m also currently running a crowdfunding campaign on Experiment.com for a student-lead project on a natural alternative to the toxic chemicals currently used for oil spill cleanup: https://experiment.com/projects/can-naturally-occurring-soap-like-materials-be-used-for-oil-spill-response
Today I’m here so that you can Ask Me Anything!
EDIT: OK folks, I have to get back to my day job for a bit, but it's been great! I'll try to get back and answer a few more questions later tonight!
EDIT: Thanks everyone for taking the time to come ask questions!
What was your upbringing like and what professions did your parents have? Were they supportive of your choice in study?
I grew up middle class and went to public schools. I was the first person in my family to get a PhD. My parents value education really highly, especially my mother. She always said education is the one thing that no matter what happens in life, no one can take that from you. Smart lady.
Not everyone in the extended family was supportive. I got a lot of questions along the lines of why was I working so hard and not making money? When was I going to join the 'real world'? I think they all get it now.
What level of teaching are you referring to? At the University level that Dr. McNeill is teaching at, you will be hard pressed to find a professor that isn't also conducting research. Gaining tenure in this system is generally based on both research and teaching, with a heavy lean toward research from what I understand.
Well, this is a complex issue. But I do believe in the academic freedom that tenure is meant to offer professors in their research. I have always felt confident in trying a splashy/novel idea, but you can work on projects with a longer time horizon or higher risk projects if you're secure in your position. I also feel more comfortable speaking to the public about my research now that I have tenure. This is really important in environmental research.
We are your students here at Columbia and we are really happy and proud of you! Also really glad someone brought up the sippy cup:)
Aww thanks guys.
I am actually a female PhD candidate in chemical engineering. When I first started thinking of graduate school, I was pretty convinced that I wanted to be a professor. That desire rapidly faded as I started watching some professors go through the tenure process and put up with, frankly, a lot of BS. Since then, I've lined myself up for an R&D job in big oil or some related company, but would like to perhaps end up getting back into teaching (probably without the research group) down the line.
Actual question: Do you feel being in a very competitive academic environment made/makes life hard to balance? Do you feel your gender makes that balance easier or harder than normal?
I also saw many junior professors acting crazy stressed up until tenure time when I was a grad student. This is why I didn't decide for sure that I wanted to go the faculty route until I was a postdoc and had some more relatable young faculty role models with families.
I feel that the huge amount of autonomy and flexibility I have had as a professor has made work-life balance a little easier for me than for some of my peers in industry. The first several years it can be stressful and you have to be concious about making boundaries for yourself, but on a day to day timescale you're your own boss. Many universities also have awesome maternity/family leave policies.
Hi Professor McNeill - thanks for doing the AMA.
Not a question but a story. In the 80's, I met a woman who had been one of the first female engineering grads from Cornell - I think this was in the 1940s.
Unfortunately, after graduation, no one would hire her, so she ended up as a realtor (and quite a good one) but what a shame.
I'm just glad to see things are improving - not as quickly as it should be, but at least better.
I have so much admiration for women in that generation. It's unreal how much things have changed.
Do you ever feel out of place as a women in a predominantly male driven field? I know my friend who's an ME student says she pushes herself to be better than everyone else because she doesn't want people to think she was handed things due to her gender.
Yeah. I don't feel that way anymore, but I had that feeling a lot as a student. When I was an undergrad at Caltech my incoming class was only 20% female. Although we all knew at the time that they didn't lower the bar for females in their admissions I did have a feeling like I wasn't a real techer, both because of gender and other things in my background, for the first couple of years. That feeling, which someone from any group can have for different reasons, can do a lot of negative things like make you lose confidence, cause you to set lower expectations for yourself, and generally hold you back from doing your best and being happy. I let go of it sometime around my junior year, thanks in part to some positive interactions with a faculty mentor at around that time. I threw myself into my classes and undergrad research, started kicking ass, and never looked back.
Professors usually have two primary roles at the university: research and teaching. In my experience Engineering profs are generally focused and evaluated on research, often to the determent quality instruction. Is this the best way to provide quality instruction to engineering students?
When I first came to Columbia I was happy to see that there was a culture where many senior professors around me were proud of their excellence in teaching, and that my raises were based in part on teaching evaluations. Research is always #1 at institutions like this one, but most of us do have a love for teaching and being rewarded, at least a little bit, for doing it well can help.
I'm 35. It's not that young but it's on the young side for a tenured professor. It's relevant from the perspective of me giving career advice since my experience is different from someone who got tenure 20 years ago.
Thank you for doing this AMA! I am a female ChemE PhD student in my second year. When I applied to grad school, I was strongly considering a career in academia, but have since become very disillusioned about the whole process (I'm very much a product of the "leaky pipeline").
I haven't completely ruled out the possibility of becoming a professor, so I have personal questions for you. My significant other and I have had discussions about getting married, settling down, and starting a family. Between graduate school, several postdocs, and maybe multiple junior faculty positions, how did you find the right timing? What does your husband do and how did he feel about constantly relocating? Lastly, how important is the name game? I have a couple publications with my last name (one in a high-impact journal), and I feel like there is strong pressure to keep that name recognition. Did you keep your maiden name? Did you take your husband's family name? Do you use one professionally and one privately?
Everyone finds a way to solve this problem that works for them, based on their circumstances. I got married at the end of my postdoc, before beginning my faculty position. My husband is also in research. We chose to come to NYC in part because it offers more options than, say, a tiny college town for him to fulfill his career path. Re: the name - by the time I got married I had already published and was trying to "make a name for myself" so I did not change it. If I had gotten married younger I think that I would have. I have seen women do all sorts of things and it's a very personal decision. These days there are things like ResearcherID and scopus that allow you to curate your publication list and make it searchable even if you used different names in the past so maybe it's not as big of a deal now.
I am really glad to see your lab does science outreach. My wife is a postdoc in physics looking for a tenure track job very soon. When she was in grad school her and an organic geo-chemist both did K-12 outreach. Especially with the young girls, I think seeing women working in high level science is wonderful.
My only question is whether you had paid maternity leave available to you when you had your kid(s) (I saw you had a son in another comment)? My wife and I expecting quite soon and she doesn't really have maternity leave but is working it out ad hoc with her boss and with other paid time off. Both grad students and professors have maternity leave so there is only a gap for postdocs which seems like a pretty common time for women in sciences to need the leave.
Good luck with research and be glad tenure review is over!
The maternity leave/family leave policies are very often good for tenure track faculty. I had the usual maternity paid leave but I also had a semester off from teaching and committee responsibilities. I used that time to work from home (a babysitter came to the house) so that I could be close to my son. I feel really, really, lucky that I was able to do that. I also could have pushed my tenure evaluation back by one year but I didn't do that. Good luck to you and your wife!
I'm a ChE undergrad at Georgia tech. What was the most challenging concept as a chem e in undergrad
I always tell my students that there are thermo people and there are transport people - one of these topics usually clicks much better than the other one for people. I was a transport person. Thermo was tough for me as an undergrad. It was easier in grad school. A lot of it depends on the instructor you have.
Hi Professor Mcneill, I'm a 2nd year biochem undergraduate at Columbia and an avid redditor. As you can probably tell, due to the incredible amount of time I have invested into expanding my mind on reddit (this is a new account to maintain my anonymity), I do not have much lab experience. From one redditor to another, can I get some lab experience? Thanx. Mucho appreciado.
sure, come talk to me IRL and maybe you can do some work in the lab!
What do you make of the controversies over WHY there are so many fewer women in the hard sciences, math, and engineering majors in college? Do you see institutional sexism within those majors? Is it more attributable to social pressures? Or is it (as Lawrence Summers advocated, much to his chagrin) possibly rooted in sex-based neurological differences?
Actually in many STEM areas, including chemical engineering, the gender balance is pretty even at the undergrad level (computer science is a big exception to this). Then the balance starts to become more and more uneven as you move to graduate school, and on to the faculty level. This phenomenon, known as the "leaky pipeline," is something that many are trying to understand. It is probably related in many cases to the timing of the demands of the tenure track and how they coincide with the period of life where a woman is likely to want to have/raise children. In other cases it's probably related to women feeling less encouraged, in subtle ways, to go on to advanced studies. It doesn't have anything to do with innate ability. Many of the smartest people I know are women, and I know a lot of smart people!
Your experiment.com project looks great and promising! How soon could you see your project start being used to clean up oil spills?
Thanks! If our campaign is successful it'll happen a lot sooner! (experiment.com has an all-or-nothing funding model, so if we don't meet the target, we're back to sqare one!)
Hi, I'm a phd student, and so is my girlfriend. My question has more to do with personal life than with science itself. I am personally already finding it hard to balance work and a personal relationship. Between collaborations around the world and all the exciting science going on there's simply too many good reasons for me to be away from home. I can only imagine that this issue is going to become worse and worse. It seems to me that the whole system of academia is set up in such a way that it basically dooms personal relationships of many types. Getting closer to graduation, I see that finding a postdoc/job will be another huge hurdle for the relationship.
In short, do you have any tips for how to maneuver a personal life around a successful career in science?
Make spending time together a priority. No matter how busy you are, no one can work all the time. At the very least try to spend meals together during the busy times and try to keep in touch when you're traveling through phone, gchat, etc. Do your best to unplug and actually be "present" during the times when you are together.
As someone who is just beginning their journey to become an engineer, I am curious if you have any useful tips that I might be able to use along the way. Completing an engineering program seems like a fairly daunting task, and any advice would be appreciated.
Always try to find something to love about what you're doing. When I was a student, even during the long nights working on problem sets etc. at least a small part of me was always kind of in awe of how cool the material I was learning was, and I liked the feeling that I was gradually transforming into a highly trained expert, like a kung fu master or something. It keeps you going.
Also, find a good mentor you can talk to. Most professors are more approachable than you think. You're not wasting their time. Talking to you is what they get paid to do.
In an age of open source education and new ways of accessing/archiving knowledge, how do you foresee research institutions change?
I think it's really difficult to predict where things are going with open source education. I really like that the playing field is being leveled a bit and people from all over the world who might not have access to a world class university can supplement their education with, say, MIT Open Courseware. One problem is, how do we give credentials for these kinds of activities? Also, as much as I love the internet, there's simply no substitute for hands on experiments and in person conversations.
How is the crowdfunding campaign going? It's not the traditional method of funding projects.
It has been a really interesting experience! I didn't quite know what to expect when we started. The way traditional funding programs work, the work stops when you hit "submit." In crowdfunding, that's just the beginning - it's all about getting the word out! So I have learned a lot in the process. Hopefully it'll be a success too and we can keep the project going!
I'm a junior female engineer-my sister is actually in engineering at Columbia right now.
I'm dealing with some unfortunate sexism in the work place where relationships about myself and others are being insinuated?
How do you deal with stuff like that where you're like seriously!? Why is this still happening!?
I am really sorry to hear about your experiences at work. Take pride in your work and be professional, but maybe look for other opportunities since this sounds like a pretty toxic work environment. It'll get better!
Since we're on the topic of gender in higher ed... In the humanities [for example] women, people of color and LGBTQI have been historically underrepresented, and only now are more accepted into FT faculty ranks. In fact, most faculty searches explicitly recruit for these non- SWM hegemonic perspectives.
So, in the sciences, where things are still much more disproportionate, and lets say there are ... 5% are Female faculty, and 95% Male Faculty across institutions [?], and where women are graduating with advanced degrees in the sciences at say 20+% [real number unknown], and while FTF hiring will increasingly be female, are you optimistic about these big institutions "allowing" for a more balanced gender split? why or why not?
I like to think that things are changing. People who are early in the pipeline now are getting more role models to look up to, and institutions are becoming more aware of the issue. I look even at faculty I know who have been hired in the last 7 years and I see a lot more female faces. We're slowly becoming part of the new normal.
Do you find that your peers or students are either intimidated by you, or don't take you particularly seriously as a women in your field? Or are you treated like your male peers and judged primarily (or exclusively) on the merit of your work?
I don't think I have a problem being taken seriously now, but I can think of a few incidents when I was a student where that was probably the case. I did my best to make myself into an expert in my field, and to carry myself professionally, to not give anyone a reason not to take me seriously. Now, I don't worry about other's judgements too much at this point and just try to do great science that I can be proud of.
I first got interested in the technical side of environmental issues thanks to example problems my professor used in various undergraduate classes. Then one summer I was looking for an internship and my academic advisor suggested that I do some research with him characterizing nanoscale particles in the atmosphere. I was skeptical at first but quickly fell in love with the topic. It was easy to be motivated to study atmospheric particles because a) I was in school in LA and the air pollution was terrible there at the time b) I have asthma, so I had a daily reminder of reason (a) when I used my inhaler and c) the science behind it was really elegant and interesting.
As a tenured professor, at the epicenter of this concept, do you feel that there's a "smart culture" that involves constantly having to prove one's intelligence, and if so, is it annoying or dogmatic?
I, for one, feel cromulently that this is the case.
Really smart people don't have to prove that they're smart.
How did you pay for your undergraduate and graduate schooling?
undergraduate was loans taken out by me and my parents. My graduate schooling was paid for by MIT (and also, in part, a fellowship from NASA). It is very typical in STEM fields that PhD students get their tuition waived and get a small stipend, in exchange for their service as teaching or research assistants.
Do you have an opinion on how I can counteract the middle and high school system that is already steering my daughters away from STEM? My field is accounting/finance so I can't exactly lead by example but I want them to consider STEM fields just as attainable (with hard work) as any other.
It might help if you find some STEM-related activity outside of the school for them to engage in, like a class at a local museum or university. Even a good book or documentary might help keep them interested.
P.S. I consider accounting to be part of STEM, in the sense that it involves a lot of math!
It's never really crazy. Cheating is boring and tedious because it's so predictable. We usually catch people copying a wrong answer from a solution manual or another student. Don't cheat, kids!
...you had me at engineering!!!
well crap, never mind, I started replying before I read your post...
Is experiment.com only for students or can lay-persons participate in some way?
No, you don't have to be at a university to do a project on experiment.com. And you definitely don't have to be at a university to help support a project! Many projects have opportunities for donors to get involved in some way. For more information you can see their FAQ: https://experiment.com/faq
Oh, there are so many... I'm partial to water though, as it appears in so many different forms in the environment and it's essential for life.
what do you think about open science in science/engineering research? Open science is clearly easier where code and stuff is involved, but in my experience, people don't want to share experimental methods for science/engineering research.
Actually in order to get your work published in a peer-reviewed journal, you need to describe your methods well enough that another scientist could reproduce them. So I don't see many instances in academics of people withholding information about their methods. This is probably different in industrial research.
I was at a IEEE Conference and a speaker said there isn't enough female engineers in the workforce and that we need to change that. How would this be possible if choosing your degree is a personal choice?
The key is understanding the reasons why people make their choices. Sometimes the reasons women choose whether or not to go into engineering go beyond personal taste and have more to do with how welcoming the profession is towards them, whether they feel like they fit in, whether it's compatible with the life they want, whether they experience harassment, etc. Those are the sorts of things we can work on.