In this episode we wrap up our interview with Biologist and Scientist Emeritus Judy McDowell. We talk about her thoughts on research as well as women in science, how she and her family have balanced work and life, and her advice to up and coming scientists.Support the show
Hi, I'm Rene.
Hi, I'm Sam
Rene and Sam: 0:02
And this is LabOratory Podcast.
Judy McDowell: 0:09
I always tell students that its research because you do it again and again and again. And research does not go as planned.
Welcome to LabOratory Podcast.
Exploring the human side of science.
with recorded interviews of emeritus and retired scientists on the evolution
and history of scientific research throughout their careers.
Hey all, welcome back to laboratory podcast. Today we're wrapping up our interview with Judy McDowell.
As you may remember, we left off with Judy as she was pursuing her postdoc project on crustaceans and with her discussing how her observation skills played a large part in her success. But what also contributed to her success is her understanding that every project requires persistence, and it her words, a "leap of faith."
Judy McDowell: 1:09
Well, I think every scientist takes a leap of faith that when they're posing a hypothesis, or designing a set of experiments, you know, that are going to go into a new proposal. You know, you do all your background information. What, you're proposing some new idea and you're taking a look leap of faith that this idea is not gonna lead to complete failure. That it is going to move the field forward. So I think that's very common. And, you know, not every idea you propose is successful. But I think you learn a lot from failures. Um, and you just learn that they're part of finding, you know, the true answers, it's just part of the process. So, you know, again with it that metamorphosis question. I mean, why would I, you know, I knew I had hundreds of replicates and stuff and knew that it wasn't just a mistake. I knew there was something more there. I mean, your hypothesis is constantly reevaluated and you know, when you test hypotheses and you don't get expected results, you reform, you formulate new hypotheses. And that's just the nature of research. If someone feels that everything is going to work out perfectly every single time, then couldn't have been a very interesting question because that's why you ask questions, to end up asking more questions and stuff. So I think it's it's very common, research does not go as planned. Because the nature of my work, it's fairly broad in terms of, you know, understanding, you know how an organism balances its energy requirements. You know something doesn't look right. There is a reason for that and stuff, so that reasoning could lead to a total new discovery.
One such discovery occurred when Judy posed a question while teaching that encouraged one particular student to think outside of the box with their research.
Judy McDowell: 3:17
Well I gave a lecture in one my physiology classes. One year on it was right after, you know, we learned more about hydrothermal vents and these large bivalves that lived without a phytoplankton based food chain. And so I posed the question, how do you think you know these organisms, we knew that they had sulfur oxidizing bacteria and symbiont in their systems and say, How are, where are they getting their essential fatty acids? If they're not on a plant based food chain, what are their membranes look like? Because where would they get the Omega three and Omega six fatty acids? Because it's not in their food chain. And I had a student, you know, she's just taking the class, she said. That's a great idea. I'm gonna work on that. And so she wrote her thesis proposal to examine that, and you could, you there are coastal models of those symbiont relationships, and bivalves, you can get them at Hadley's harbor and get them, you know, because it live in really deep anoxic coastal settlements. And so she started experiment there. She had geochemists, on her committee. And so what she found was that their membranes were just fine. They just replaced these bacterial fatty acids in their membranes and they didn't need them. You know, the fatty acids that we considered were essential to multi cellular organisms. And so she found that was a group in Russia who was asking the same questions at the same time. And there was a group in in Europe who was doing so. So you know, her PhD dissertation was phenomenal for the international connections that she made. And so it was just a question I posed and she ran with it and her interest, you know, "I'm gonna answer that question." So it was something you know, that was pretty much outside the box.
Every good scientist should certainly think outside of the box. But for some members of the scientific community, it may take them going above and beyond in order to be recognized for their hard work and to move ahead with their career.
Judy McDowell: 5:41
Well, when I joined the staff at WHOI, after spending a year as a post doc, there was only one of the woman in the department, out of like, I think there were 32 staff members at the time. I think I was number 32 when they hired me. Um, and there was only one other woman and she was leaving. And so but there were two other colleagues I could look to, Mary Sears and Betty Bunz, who had been on the staff, and Mary Sears, worked for WHOI in 1930 when she came down from Harvard. And Betty Bunce was a long established geologist. So they were decades older than I was. There was two of them. And then there was me. I was the 1st one to come through the tenure system. They were granted tenure before they actually had it in the system, because they had such a long term career here. So it was very different. And, um, you know, when I go back and to my graduate program it UNH, I was the only doctoral student among 70 graduate students in my department. And, you know, one of you say, you know, what challenges did you face? Um, I wrote a paper for class and the faculty member in graduate school, you know who I submitted the paper to, said he did not expect such a well written paper from a woman. Well I was thinking, well, okay, there 70 of us in the department, and you get one paper and you pick it out and say, I didn't expect this from a woman. If people said, you know, what did you do? Did you slug him or? No, I said no. I just said well, why not? I mean, women tend to be better, you know, writers often time the more logical, and stuff, and I didnt give him that questions, but... So, um, I had an interview with AAAS in the spring when they were like, they were doing, it was their women's history issue. And so they, you know, they wrote an article on my 50 years in the field or something. And so I told the writer this question, this you know, it's a scenario. And she goes, you didn't get mad? I said, Well, you know, it's his problem, not my problem. So, um, you know, it was thinking This is why we don't have more women in this department. If this is his attitude and within a few years, the opportunities for women and environmental science, ocean science totally changed. So when I was graduating, the department had become 40% women. And I think that's really what's happened here, too. You know, I went into a department meeting a few weeks ago because I'm retired. I don't got all department meetings, and, you know, there are five new women I didn't know that were all new Assistant Scientists. And so, you know, the expectations certainly of not saying, well, it's not a gender, you know. A good piece of research is a good piece of research. You don't, It's gender, it should be gender blind. It should be diversity blind, too. And I think we still have a lot of strides to make. Um, in terms of diversity, sometimes I think when I look at all the you know, I was Associate Dean for 10 years, and so I looked at all the admissions, all the postdocs over that time, period. And, you know, for many of the graduate students, you know, the men were going on, to the typical careers that you would expect them to coming from MIT-WHOI Joint program. The women chose different career paths. They felt that they had the flexibility to choose different career paths. But they also felt that they looked at the traditional career path and think this is too much pressure or this is not what I want to spend my time doing. So I don't think that they were, if they had applied for the top jobs, they would have gotten the top jobs. But I think that there was a feeling, "this is not what I want" and you know, that's really too simplistic a way of putting it. Um, but, you know, I would salute them for whatever they chose. My student, who, you know, did the lipid work and had this great discovery, um, she finished in four and 1/2 years, you know, from bachelors. Degree to PhD, i mean, its amazing. She had seven papers, published papers out of her PhD dissertation. Her husband was finishing a robotics program and, you know, they were looking for jobs, and she was offered a faculty position at one university while he was looking at post-docs and she said, you know, that's not what I want. I don't want us to be in two different cities. You know, we're married because we want to be together and we want to raise a family. So she took a post doc in the city where he had one, and then he, you know, from the staff. And he started a small robotics company. And she said, you know, I'm really good at a lot of things. I can run his company and that's what she did. And they retired at 55 and they have three, you know, grown children now. And but, you know, everybody said, "Oh, what a waste." I said, it's not a waste. And I think it takes the, you know, I think women, some houses, you know, I will do what I want, where some of men I'm expected to do this. Um, it's nice if everyone can do what they want. You know that the traditional path is open to everyone, but the alternative paths are also opened to everyone.
Personally, I think that we, as a society are fascinated with how women are able to juggle the career they choose and having a family. We tend to place the responsibility of taking care of the family primarily on women.
But here, Judy talks about how everyone in her scientific community aided one another with this responsibility in good times and in bad.
Judy McDowell: 12:09
Yes, I do have a family. Ah, but I had a lot of medical issues which prevented me from giving birth. So I have two adopted children, one from Romania and one from Paraguay. And so I was a Senior Scientist just before I had my two children. Uh, which was the unusual path, but, um, you know, but so be it, and they're great kids. They're in their late twenties and, um, ones at Northeastern one works Dartmouth Medical School. Um, so ones in public health in New Hampshire and Katie's a communicator in Northeastern. So how do we balance? Well, my husband and I would split our day so that he would leave early in the morning so I would bring the kids to school or bring them to the school bus. He'd be home by the time they got off the school bus. Or, you know, by the time he went to pick them up a daycare and I come home a little bit later and, you know, juggling that is something that we did all through high school. Um, and working with other families. I mean, you know, when someone goes to sea you know, whoever has left at home has now got twice as much work. So as a group of families, we would always cooperate. If we knew that one person was going to sea then, you know, I'd make a couple of extra meals to drop off. Or, you know, I would pick up that child, um, you know when they would do the same for me. And so So because everybody's traveling all the time, you know, you want to make sure that there's a stable network at home as well.
Within your project?
Judy McDowell: 14:02
No, within just friends from daycare or friends from school. Um, certainly friends within the department. I mean, so wasn't just, you know, my technician moves, you know, Lauren Mullineaux's oldest son and my daughter were best friends when they were, like, three. And and you know, so it was easy to take one home, um, for supper and you know, and then bring an extra meal for the family and stuff. So, um, you know, just family situations and that you'd just be very supportive. And that's what's really nice about the, you know, the scientific community in Woods Hole is that people were very generous with their time and very supportive of one another. It was key to have that social network of you know "I'm here if you need me" and that just spilled over. You know, like whatever you need, don't hesitate to ask. I mean, you know, certainly our workday can be flexible. Um, you're working way more than 40 hours anyway, so you know it can be flexible to to pitch in when when someone needs extra assistance.
The family support didn't just exist when they went to sea or had long workdays, but extended beyond that, supporting Judy, even when she was battling cancer and holding a high position job at the same time.
Judy McDowell: 15:30
Yeah I'm a 10 year cancer survivor diagnosed when I was department chair, and I didn't miss much during that whole time. I would say, okay, I'm gonna have to meet on these days because Tuesday's are chemo days and stuff like and um, but you know, the support that you know I experienced during that process and, um and that's something I give back to other people. I mean, if someone you know has encounters a serious illness, it's just a part of me that, you know, said people, people helped us out, and, you know, we're we're here to help others out. Um, it did leave me with a chemical sensitivity that I can no longer be in laboratories. So I work up all my old data. I have a hard time going in beyond Redfield 204, I have a hard time going to the upstairs because theres too many solvents and things like that. But I'm still here on this planet, so don't be afraid to go to Boston, seek out the best. Um, don't be afraid to keep asking questions. And one of my chemo drugs, I was severely, um it was severely toxic to me. I mean, the first dose I passed out in 60 seconds and such. So, um but keep asking questions and keep pushing, you know? And it's a shame how I had ovarian cancer, which is rarely diagnosed early, and I don't know why mine was, But, um, I was only stage two, and, you know, most people don't get diagnosed until it's stage four, and there's not a very good prognosis and stuff, but, um, yeah, I mean, my advice is you people say just stay local, it will be more convenient. No. You know, I'm not saying that local isn't good as long as people know what they're doing. But we didn't have a cancer center at Falmouth Hospital at the time, so I went to Dana Farber and the guy who, you know, diagnosed me and did surgeries said we do this all the time. You know? I mean he was a wonderful guy and he'd say, you know, um, yeah, you got a big tumor there. My tumor was the size of a basketball, it had compressed all my internal organs, and I wasn't eating. And I thought I had a gall stone or something, but no it was the size of a basketball. And, um, but that, you know, he says, you know, I've seen worse I've seen bigger, I've seen smaller, we'll manage this. I mean it was always that confidence, "I'm not worried about this", you know, we'll get you through it. And you know, when I hear people refuse chemotherapy and are like, chemotherapy is horrible. It really is, especially when you're allergic to one of the drugs. But I can't imagine refusing it if you think... I know I can appreciate people who don't want to go through the process and if they just want to say no, you know, I've accepted it, but, um, you know, it takes it takes fighting to, overcome it. And so, you know, I've, you know, talked with lots of people who have had cancer diagnosis and helped them through, you know, driving them to treatment and things like that. You know, be that moral support for someone. And again, that's another thing where you know, it's, your family is so totally disrupted. I was, our son was going off to college, didn't want to go, and I mean, he still has - all I have to say is, I have a headache, and he's just beside himself. My daughter just takes charge, You know, she would come to chemo appointments and stuff. "Okay, let me see. What are you doing to her now?" And stuff, and "let me take that down," you know, and stuff. But it's just what, you know, families need. And I think that's one thing that you know, there's such a close group of colleagues here that you're there for people, not just because of they have some interesting scientific data, you're there for people because you know, you're all in similar situations. Yeah, it's Yeah, it's a real community.
Woods Hole has certainly been a welcoming community for me as a newcomer. I've especially enjoyed how the scientists go out of their way to try and explain their research to the public by hosting talks and holding other such events. When asked about how to best communicate science with the public, Judy said this.
Judy McDowell: 20:16
I've always been a proponent of communicating science. I mean, whether it's going to science fairs, talking to students, um, you know, sitting on committees that are developing policy, advisory boards, so I'm always that's always been. Because I think if you're working on environmental issues, you don't keep the information hidden. You know you want people to develop sound solutions and sound policies. I was also director of the Woods Hole Sea Grant program for 25 years, and so that is one of the mission of Sea Grant is not only to support, you know, scientific research but to communicate that research to the stakeholders, the public, influence, um, different management approaches, influence legislators. And so just that very nature of that. Um, you know is something I was very supportive of. I think working with advisory groups to solve problems, um, increasing environmental literacy, are all really important. Public need to know they need to be informed on what environmental issues. And now I hate that now when we say oh this is not relevant anymore. This policy isn't followed anymore. You see, we need a careful analysis of why you think it isn't relevant anymore. Because we do have many environmental problems even within our own community, that need careful decisions. And, yes, that may increase taxes in order to get a solution. Um, but you're better for it in the long run. So I've always been a proponent, and I I think now when National Science Foundation asked people, you know, it's a requirement of their proposals to have a broader outreach, you know, broader impact component. All the sudden people who would never go to a classroom are going classrooms or never thinking of doing a podcast or, you know, a film or some other aspect to reach the public. Now it's become second nature. Many people, um so, you know, I think social media has certainly made it easier to get messages delivered to the general public. But you want to ensure that the messaging is accurate and balanced. So just a casual tweet at three o'clock morning doesn't cover it. But, you know, but it is a powerful way to reach a lot of people. We work with our, like our major focus is on seafood and aquaculture, coastal processes of shoreline erosion, Um, marine policy, environmental literacy, those are the major ones now. And so, you know, scientific research on erosion of the National Seashore. Take that one step further and come up with a policy recommendation or a management approach to protect the trawling. Um, bacterial... I remember Seth Meyers, you know, on the Late Night. So, yeah, uh, he families from the Vinyard, but I think he's from Boston, but they have a house on the vineyard, and he said on his show one night that everybody got sick at this from from eating contaminated oysters. Everybody got sick, you know, at his wedding. And then So he was mortified. But you know that. Ah, vibrio contamination of shellfish is a huge problem, and it's, you know, and shellfish harvesting, shellfish culture is an important industry for the region, so we supported search of better understanding this, better management practices, better handling practices. That was a huge embarrassment for the Vineyard. So anything that you know would help the fishing industry. You know, the recreational and commercial harvest of shellfish, aquaculture, water quality issues, coastal erosion issues, you know, now shark issues inform the public of what is possible and, you know, try to control the messaging with, you know, sound, rational work in policies, rather, than leaving to hysteria. You have to really make it entertaining and accessible and comfortable about learning. I mean, like, some things we've done is, like, used the Wellfleet Oyster Festival to introduce... I gave electric there one time on oil spills. And you know why we have a lot of oil spills on Cape Cod and so forth and what you can do about it, um, that people have, you know, done. You know, pairings of oyster and wine. It's, you know, different restaurants. And take that opportunity to talk about some of the environmental issues on Cape Cod and what needs to be done to keep shellfish, you know, being clean, safe and harvestable. Um or, you know, after a hurricane, they do like a video of like, okay, this is what the shoreline before this is what's happened. You know, what kinds of measures do we need to take to protect that shoreline? So, you know, almost bring it in as entertainment. Um, so they feel comfortable accessing it, but, you know, have a powerful messages delivered at the same time,
Judy believes part of good communication must involve breaking down barriers between scientists and those outside of the lab. She hopes that through improved dialogue, society can, 1, better understand the part that scientists play in the world and, 2, how it can benefit from scientific discoveries.
Judy McDowell: 26:31
I think you know, science benefits all aspects of society, you know, protection of our food, you know, our clothes, our jobs, our education, the environment around us. Um, and it's just linking making society realize that science is just not conducted in an ivory tower somewhere, that it's significant, and it makes their lives better in the long run. So, you know, I think if I could change anything I would I would change how society views scientists, you know, take away the mystique. I mean, you know, it's people come to you really have a cushy job, you just work on what you want work on?, Yeah! But I work hard on what I want to work on. You know, so I mean, I think that there's they don't necessarily see that as work - me not punching a time clock. Or you know, not making a widget. But, What you're doing is intellectually very challenging and sometimes can be very, very difficult. But I don't think society sees that. I think they see that we're just kind of playing around here. Like, you know, we're not building a new car or not designing a new house, or, you know, we're not making billions of dollars, and and yet, if you know everything that science contributes, you know, leads to some of those other successes. Yeah, they think that we just live in, like, this crazy world like, but I mean, I think over the past half century, I think this this idea of you know, science for society has really evolved. And I think like in the Obama administration it was very much appreciated and very soundly recognised. And in this administration they don't think it is at all. It's just like - go away. And I think you know, the way that, especially young people are speaking out about climate policy and climate strikes in this climate action and is really a statement that we need to better understand the world around us. And where are you going to do that?
To conclude Judy has this final piece of advice for up and coming scientists
Judy McDowell: 29:07
Be persistent. Research is not easy, but it can be very rewarding. I mean, a new discovery is a very exciting, um, And if a research career, you know I came here and I thought well I can have enough ideas would find the last me a year. And, you know, new idea is just lead to new ideas. Um, so discovery is very rewarding, but you have to, accept that the process is difficult. But there's that outcome at the end, So persistence is key.
So now that we've concluded Judy's interview, what did you think of what she had to say, Sam?
I thought a lot of things. I thought that she was a very strong woman. I loved her anecdotes about Woods Hole, how she came up in her career. I always love hearing about the history of things. One ah item that's sticking out is the candle house. For some reason, I love thinking about that and how Woods Hole was used back in the early days, I guess, but also how encouraging she was to the people around her. And she seems like a consummate teacher and just generally positive. What did you think?
What I took away from this for the most part was that she was so tenacious and determined throughout her entire career. When she was a younger student and she faced the hurdles of being one of the few females in her class and having to prove to the professor that she is just a smart as any other guy in the room. And then she's tenacious, and she persevered when she was battling cancer and holding a high position job in a research institution where she was one of one of the few females in that high of a position and she brings home that idea that you need to carry that determination through to your science and you need to repeat it and you need to continually research. And it's not, try one time and be done, it's try and then keep trying. And then when that fails again, you try again. And it was really nice to see that determination carry her through from when she was a child until now.
Yeah, it was really heartening to hear her stories about her parents. As you were just saying that though it reminded me of Ah, the theater process or the art making process. It's not just you go through and you make a fantastic work of art. You keep on going, you keep on making you try and try again. You may fail many times, but it could yield such good results if you keep on being persistent. I'm finding more and more that science and theater and art making are really,
Rene and Sam: 32:04
one of the same.
It's beautiful. Its creation.
Well, thank you, Judy. So much for taking the time to be interviewed by us. You were phenomenal. And I really appreciate you taking the time to be with us.
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Thanks for listening and stay tuned for more super scientific interviews. I'm Sam,
I'm Rene. This has been laboratory podcast, and this has been our latest lab notebook entry.
Until next time.
Judy McDowell: 33:12
That's why it's research. It doesn't it's not search. It's re- over and over again.