Scientist, Museum Director, Mother of Two

A new leader at the American Museum of Natural History talks about motherhood, goals, and having fun in your career.

American Museum of Natural History  (Paul Hudson/Flickr )

Recently, educators and policymakers have shifted more attention and funding to students’ education in science, technology, engineering, and math, known as STEM. Last month, for example, President Obama announced that his Educate to Innovate initiative raised $28 million to train 100,000 STEM teachers by 2021, augmenting the budget of $53 million already awarded for teacher recruitment.

Even people who have haven’t had STEM on their radar have probably seen headlines that reflect the challenges and discrimination faced by some people interested in pursuing these fields. Women in science have gotten a fair amount of attention, and it’s warranted; even though women made up about 45 percent of the overall workforce in 2010, they only accounted for 28 percent of scientists, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Although there are more women in the workforce now than ever before, women who aim high professionally know that they will likely encounter a tough road. Many encounter discrimination or dissuasion (in STEM and otherwise) and almost all are forced to make hard choices between their jobs and other aspects of life. Since women entered the workforce, they have been subjected to an impossibly high standard of of “having it all”—professional success, well-behaved children, sated spouse, spotless oven. And living up to that expectation can be daunting. Trailblazers like Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, have offered tips for how women can better navigate a male-dominated professional world, yet somehow true equality in the workplace seems to seem only incremental.

This past June, 41-year-old Ana Luz Porzecanski became the director for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Originally from Uruguay, she has been working at the center for over a decade, having earned her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Columbia University in 2003. In late October, she gave a presentation at a conference called STEMinism: Inspiring Women Scientists for current and future women in STEM. I caught up with her shortly after in her corner office to learn about her career and get a few tips on finding balance as a woman in science. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited.

Alexandra Ossola: When did you know that you wanted to go into science?

Ana Luz Porzecanski: It wasn’t an easy decision for me because I had a lot of interests. My father is a scientist—he’s an agronomist—and my mother is an architect, but also an amateur paleontologist. So we spent a lot of time outside in nature; my parents were very curious and eager to show me the natural world. I had a lot of concerns about society and societal issues so for a while I thought I might go into sociology rather than biology. But I decided to try biology. And it was very rewarding so I stuck with it. I would say there was a tipping point and a tipping person, as happens many times. I started college in Uruguay and took an evolution course with a researcher professor there named Enrique Lessa. He led the evolution lab at the school of sciences and he was incredibly inspiring and dynamic and fun.  He invited me to a field trip with his lab and—I’ll never forget this—I arrived late on a freezing night and all they had available to eat was cold rice. The field conditions were tough, but the next day the work was so interesting, the team was so much fun to work with, and they had so many interesting thoughts and questions that I got hooked.

Ossola: So you’ve been working in this field for 23 years. If you could go back in time and tell your early career self one thing, what would you tell yourself?

Porzecanski: I would have wanted to be more aware early on that there are a broad diversity of career paths related to science. In the beginning I thought that there was really just research, but now I know that there are a lot of different paths, and I think it’s important for people to know that. Not that I would have done anything different; I think a Ph.D. served me well on many levels.

Ossola: What has been the hardest part of getting here to this point?

Porzecanski: I always say the two hardest things I’ve done in life are: getting my Ph.D. and giving birth to my first daughter—in that order, because the latter was shorter. I think getting a Ph.D. is challenging because you’re really trying to figure out who you are intellectually, what you can do, where your limits are, how not to be too ambitious with what you’re trying to do. And you also have to negotiate a lot of relationships—with your committee members and their expectations, and with your advisors.  It’s just a challenging time for everybody who’s in that process because you are consumed by your project, you think about it all the time. It’s not a job—it’s your mission. It’s all consuming.

Ossola: Is there a point at which you were almost dissuaded from completing your Ph.D.?

Porzecanski: Yes, I think that happens for many people. The Ph.D. is a journey and almost all of it rests on you, so it’s a lot of responsibility. Halfway through my Ph.D. I spent a month and a half in the field with a team of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History in the Central African Republic. We were doing demanding fieldwork, and even though it wasn’t completely related to my Ph.D., it was a great opportunity. I remember one day riding in the back of a van with the wind in my face, thinking, ‘Here I am, halfway through it; this is really challenging for a number of reasons. I’m either going to stick with it or maybe I should stop.’ And I remember thinking I will stick with it. That’s how you do it. I also had a very supportive partner; we got married while I was doing my Ph.D.. They say that’s very helpful and I really do think it is, to have someone there who can support you. And my family was supportive—it makes a big difference when you have a supportive network.

Ossola: Let’s talk about a recent presentation you gave on “STEMinism” in which you spoke about women building successful and enjoyable careers in the sciences. Where did your inspiration for the presentation come from?

Porzecanski: It came from me seeing all this negative press out there [about women in STEM] and saying, gosh, this is really an important conversation but I wonder if it’s going to dissuade women from going into science. If they see all this literature out there about bias, about sexual harassment, about discrimination, they’re going to say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t even try,’ or, ‘This isn’t going to be pleasant.’ And yet I’ve had such a pleasant career so far. I’m surrounded by many people, especially women, who love what they do and are having a great time. At the American Museum of Natural History, I am surrounded by very successful women in science, in all kinds of roles from administration to research. People aren’t writing articles about that fun part, so let’s talk about that. That was the impetus for the presentation. And basically the whole point was to highlight that your career can be successful and enjoyable. You don’t have to be this martyr to be successful, you can have a great life and enjoy it, too. Not that it’s not highly demanding and not that there won’t be sacrifices, but here’s what I’ve learned and here’s how information can help. So I wanted to give the participants some practical tips.

Ossola: Do you think there has to be a tradeoff in order to have a successful career?

Porzecanski: You have to make choices in life. This is how I see it: You can have it all, just not in the same day—you can have it all over time. You’re not going to leave work every day and say, ‘Today was a perfectly balanced day.’ Sometimes that does happen. But when you look back at your life, the past month, the past three months, the past year, if you feel like you have a good balance of things going, then that’s balance. That’s what it looks like. It’s not at every given moment of your life.

Ossola: So how do you maintain this balance?

Porzecanski: I think you have to make some hard choices sometimes. You have to make some decisions about when you need to miss dinner with the family because you need to spend more time working, and when you need to decide ‘I’m not going to make this deadline because I want to go trick-or-treating with my kids.’ But you get better at making those choices. And I do have to say that like any other experience in life, parenting and motherhood teach you how to make those choices because you have to make choices all the time about other people’s needs, your own needs and priorities. And you get better all the time.

Ossola: At the presentation, there were 33 young girls in the audience. You first told them the bad news, about discrimination and bias, but spent most of your time on the good news, that they are good enough to make it. But of course, not everyone is good enough. When do you know it’s time to quit?

Porzecanski: You have to listen to yourself as you go through life and see where are you humming. When are you buzzing when you’re working, when are you happiest, what are you really good at. And follow that. And then you’ll be great at that; everybody has that thing. It’s not a question of saying you’re not good enough at this. I know I probably wouldn’t be good enough for research on theoretical physics, but I’m not going to try it because I don’t think I would be happy doing that. So learn from your experiences and let them tell you about your strengths. And then you will find the area where you are really good at it.

Ossola: What makes the difference between a woman who goes into STEM and a woman who is dissuaded from pursuing a career in a STEM field?

Porzecanski: One big piece is finding those really inspiring, positive mentors. If you have bad luck at the beginning that may dissuade you, and I think that happens for both men and women. The more aware you are of the challenges you may encounter and the more prepared you are to deal with them, the better.

Ossola: What is the biggest hurdle for women in STEM right now?

Porzecanski: I really think there’s no simple answer to that. Any of these things can happen: an unhelpful (in the best case scenario) mentor, a traumatic experience with a mentor or a colleague, an unsupportive environment, the wrong kind of fit in an endeavor you’ve tried to tackle that then becomes really discouraging because you didn’t do well, discrimination and bias. And then there’s family; if you don’t have a supportive partner, it can become a real issue. Any of those things can add up. But you also have other options. Some women leave STEM finding something they like more, and that’s legitimate. Surround yourself with good supporters, both personally and professionally, and have frank discussions with your life partners about the life you want.

Ossola: How can teachers and parents help prepare girls to make these decisions and preparing themselves?

Porzecanski: Try to make it the expectation that women belong in science. One little thing I’ve done with my two daughters is I picked all female physicians, from the orthodontist to the dentist to the pediatrician. And we don’t talk about it, they just are. So I have a feeling that in the future they might be less prone to assuming a doctor is a male than other people. They also have a scientist mother, so there’s that. But we all have that schema in our head; it happens to everybody. An important piece of information that came up recently is this idea that smarts is something you do and not something you are. Not promoting intelligence as a fixed thing but promoting resourcefulness and love of intellectual challenges as the manifestation of intelligence. Put the emphasis on trying hard; if someone is struggling with a particular math unit it doesn’t mean they’re not cut for math.

Above all, don’t let the bad news dissuade you or others; in my experience, for every bad news case, there’s many more women out there having a blast in science.