Happy Homemaker, Ph.D.

A novice homemaker's attempts to use her engineering Ph.D. to serve her family

What’s a STEM Woman (at Home) to Do? Part 2

Women can – even at home.

(This was really the post I meant to write last time, but I guess the 2 a.m. hunger call and late-pregnancy insomnia inspired my last post to go a different direction.  This post is more about how I’m using my STEM inclinations at home now.)

I’ll be honest.  I thought staying at home might would probably be boring.  In the months between turning in my resignation and leaving my job, I thought frantically of how I could best remain connected to my profession in some way.  Could I continue to research and publish?  Could I consult companies in the geographic area I’m in?  Could I teach community college or online courses as an adjunct faculty member?  Surely, I must need something, I thought.

I don’t recall ever being exposed to feminist rhetoric directly, but I somehow got the message as I was growing up that domestic duties were, well, boring and unchallenging.  This baffles me now, not because I currently find delight in washing dishes, but because my grandmother was a professional house keeper for others and found joy in that and because my mother stayed home, never complaining, patiently and diligently taking care of our home, meals, clothes, and well-beings.  My other grandmother delighted in cooking (and was EXCELLENT at this).  With such family examples, how was I misled?  I’m not sure.  I even remember, as a child, taking great pride in my work to make the bathroom sink shine and to pull all the crab grass from around Grandma’s iris plants.  But, by the time I reached junior high, my mind was firmly set that home economics classes in cooking and sewing were a waste of my time.  Anyone could cook, right?  And, when someone could choose a class like advanced biology, really, was there any contest?  Did people really major in that (home ec.) in college?  (I mean no disrespect now!  These are my thoughts as a teenager – pretty immature.)  A semester of wood shop and a semester of home economics were required our eighth grade year, though.  My pathetic pair of sweat pants I attempted to construct and the bad taste of our team’s Spanish rice should have told me that there was more to these pursuits than simply following directions.  Perhaps my failures in these areas discouraged me, too.  Besides, I got more attention for excelling in math and science.

Anyway, so it was with very little training and likely less skill (and probably not the best attitude other than a deep love for my children) that I chose full-time domestic life about 18 months ago.  But, God provides.  Without me wearing myself out trying to find ways outside of the home to use my training and interests in the sciences, He’s giving me opportunities.  I want to share these with you.  I believe that, whatever your field or background, there are applications of your skills at home that can keep you interested and occupied.

Science

  • I recently sent an inquiry to a home-school group in my town to see if my background could be useful to homeschooling parents and students as a tutor in STEM fields.  I connected with a woman who teaches high school biology and chemistry to 10-15 students a year.   She needed some help with grading biology lab reports next year, and it even pays a little bit!  This will allow her to take on a few more students without sacrificing as much of her family time, and it gives me a way to help without worrying about the preparation and testing that I know I won’t be up for with the new baby coming this summer.  I get to study biology again!  This is a subject that I loved my two years of study in high school but haven’t been able to return to studying or reviewing it since then due to other priorities (and a very rigid chemical engineering curriculum).
  • I get to see nature in a new, slower way as my almost-three-year-old daughter asks questions and notices things I don’t.  We talk about them.  We talk about how we could find the answers to her questions.  We read books.  I’m learning with her while getting to teach!

Technology

  • This is, admittedly, the area I struggle with the most, I think.  I miss working on the computer.  I am on my computer some, writing, checking Facebook, and checking e-mail, so I don’t mean just opening up the laptop.  I miss analyzing data in Minitab or creating a complex spreadsheet template to solve a problem for someone.  I do have an interesting dataset from my dissertation that I could play around with some more, but I haven’t made time for that.   As statistical software (even MS Office) products go through revisions over time, this is one area I fear losing my “edge” in, but that was happening a bit with my teaching job, too (being out of industry and not getting to use/apply those tools frequently).  
  • This is also an area where I see the most potential for learning as new online resources and tools are developed.  Any time I can learn something new, I’m happy.  🙂   Hey, if I can program in FORTRAN and use SLAM to create a simulation, surely I can learn some of these new tools and use them, as applicable, for my work at home. 

Engineering

  • “Engineers make things.  Industrial Engineers make things better,” is a slogan that I think was chosen by the Institute of Industrial Engineers.  (Now, for any hard-core electrical engineers out there, this might seem a little simplistic.  As a chemical engineering student, I joined the crowd that called IEs “imaginary engineers.”  Give me a chance, though.)  Every day at home, I get to work on continuous improvement in quality of both goods and services.  I am faced with the challenges of optimizing production processes.  Lots of processes.  
  • Optimization goes beyond finding “what works for me” in these processes.  There are actually mathematical formulas that can be created to help determine how many sets of clothes you may need (really need) for each child, how often you should do a load of laundry, and more.  (I plan to write more about these as I explore them myself.)  Perhaps I’ll even come up with some new formulas of my own.  (One of my favorite chemical engineering professors told us, “Never use a formula you can’t derive.”  That advice doesn’t seem so ridiculous to me now.)

Mathematics

  • Think beyond simple price comparisons at the grocery store.  At home, I get to consider the time value of money and think of how we can best try to optimize our savings and spending, balancing investments and debt.  This is an area I need to spend some time on, as it is available, because I think we can do better.
  • One of the greatest blessings of the last year was being able to tutor my friend, Staci, though the quantitative methods courses her Ph.D. in education requires.  These statistics discussions let me use my stats vocabulary (fun!), learn about different applications of various tools (hard sciences are different from behavioral or social sciences), and get some new research ideas.  
  • And, my dear mentor, Linda, suggested I could always practice my calculus during nap times.  🙂  (It’s been a while, so I could use the practice!)

Research

  • You may think being out of academia leaves a person without academic research possibilities.  I’m finding otherwise.  There are still a couple of papers from my dissertation I’m working on revising for submission to journals.  I get new ideas for research possibilities in applied statistics each time I attend the Fall Technical Conference.  
  • There are also classes in research methods being taught in the area, and I was able to help one of my husband’s friends through an accelerated class last fall.  This involvement was encouraging as it showed me some of the “holes” in what was being taught (at least at this particular college), helped me consider new teaching or tutoring possibilities, and affirmed that I know my stuff when it comes to researching and writing research papers.  I wonder if there will be opportunities to help other undergrads at my local university.
  • Also, being immersed in this new life at home, I’m developing other research interests, probably more qualitative in nature, that would explore the longitudinal effects of homeschooling, for example, so my research “pipeline” won’t be completely empty, should I decide to return to an academic position some day.    The only problem is funding.  I wonder if there are grants out there for independent researchers who need new software to explore their ideas…  

So, I encourage you, if you think staying at home with your family looks like career suicide or complete boredom, consider my story.  I was getting bored enough at my first engineering job within the first year or so,  that I applied to grad school to start taking classes again.  I haven’t felt that boredom at all yet.  Not even close.  I do wonder if my gap of outside-the-home work history, lack of continuous publications, or step away from computing software will impact my ability to get a job later in life, but I’m trusting God with that.  He’s building my resume in new ways, helping me develop skills that are oh-so-necessary, while being able to focus on the little lives He’s entrusted me with to care for and teach.

And I’ve never had work that is so rewarding!   

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Being on the Flip Side of the Research – A Ph.D.’s Perspective as a Study Participant

Last month, instead of wheeling the stroller through my favorite engineering building to see this year’s Engineering Open House displays, we went as a family to some other parts of our local university for All-University Open House.  (This event is something I’ve delighted in since I was in high school and first came to explore the campus and programs with my family.  I usually make it a priority to at least see some of the engineering displays each April.)  Instead of my two-year-old being able to create a test tube of layered, colored liquids and be involved in the manufacture of a customized brownie (from the Chemical Engineering and Industrial Engineering departments last year, respectively), we began our adventure in the building that houses Human Ecology programs.  Little Clara seemed more intrigued by the playroom set up for Early Childhood Education, the inflatable vessel that whirled money around her (being used for some kind of time-value of money presentation), the balloons and train outside as we walked nearer to the College of Education, the sidewalk chalk near the Art department, the gardens and insect zoo, and the snacks she got as we learned how cattle feed is mixed in the College of Agriculture.  It was fun to take in the event as more of a family activity rather than me just getting a bit of an engineering fix.

While we were in the Human Ecology building, though, a woman, seeing my husband and I with our little ones, handed me a slip of paper calling for research participants in a study.  I fit the criteria.  With an incentive of a $50 gift card for attending an hour-long class and cooking two kid-friendly meals, I was interested.  I signed up.

I attended the class this week, and, as a researcher myself, I left with more questions than I came with.  Granted, this is a field (dietetics) that I’m not overly familiar with in terms of what kind of research is funded and published.  The hour-long class probably took 30 minutes, involved a last-minute location change, and included two handouts for recipe resources.  Copies of the slide presentation were not supplied.  The facilitator read from her notes, adding personal stories from time to time.  I wasn’t impressed by this, but it wasn’t too surprising either, as I figured the methodology of the study must require a certain text/presentation be given to all participants.  Our class was around 12 people, while they are hoping to find 120 participants.  The content focused on the benefits of eating vegetables, with information about different types of vegetables and ideas on how to make them more appealing to children.

A calendar was being passed around as I arrived (a couple of minutes late), and I learned that we were to cook the two meals alone in a condo near campus, rather than in our own homes.  I had pictured cooking at home and answering a survey about the cooking experience as well as how well it was received by my little ones.  Cooking off-site was not mentioned in the previous communications I’d had (info sheet, phone call, e-mail reminder).  Other moms asked if we got to taste the food we’d be preparing.  The answer was no.  Another surprise.  “So, is this just to see how easy the recipes are to prepare?” another participant asked.  “Yes.”  Very vague.  I asked about the funding source.  The FDA is funding this study that only includes our university.

I fully expect there to be hidden cameras set up in the condo, similar to the rooms set up to record how teams worked or how sales presentations were given in some of my previous universities.  I’m not sure if the lack of information is intentional (some studies need participants to be a little “in the dark” to avoid bias) or if it is just poor implementation.  Hearing the experiences and questions from the other participants, I think they may already have a biased sample of sorts.  (These moms sounded MUCH more conscientious about buying and preparing vegetables than I ever have been!)  Also, the connection between the class (focused on vegetables) and the recipes (something with fruit and a meatball recipe) seem unrelated.

So now, instead of just being interested in learning something new and acquiring a gift card, I’m a little more interested in reading the grant proposal, checking what kind of Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was needed, knowing what kind of methodology will be used in the analysis, and reading the final results.    I don’t have time to investigate that on my own, but I think I’ll be asking more questions when I go to cook next week.

And, I’ll be looking for those hidden cameras.

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Domestic Engineering – Part I – R&D in the Kitchen

Perhaps you’ve had someone tell you that she’s a domestic engineer as she cares for her home and family.  I imagine few know how appropriate that term really is.  I plan for this series to share my thoughts as I reflect on the role I am about to take on full-time at home.  Yes, I’ll be a domestic engineer, but (and I hope I don’t lose readers over this!) I’m much more the engineer than the domestic artist, so my perspective is perhaps more technical and much less experienced.  Those of you with more common sense than I have (I’m guessing that’s all of you!) will understand what I’m talking about though, I think, and I hope will laugh with me at the time it takes me to learn homemaking basics.

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Perhaps it was my mom’s insistence that I didn’t have to do a lot of cooking for their visit.  Perhaps it was realizing that my planned meal wouldn’t be ready in time for my sister to eat before she had to leave to pick up a student.  Whatever it was, the last few weeks helped me learn something about myself.

I like Research and Development (R&D) – perhaps to a fault.  When company comes or when I have the time, I am more interested in trying new recipes than in fixing a simple meal.  I spend time searching my recipe books for the perfect combination of foods, make an extensive shopping list, litter the kitchen with dishes, and end up rather worn out from my efforts.  My motivation is in trying to bless my guests or family and in revelling the excitement of trying something new.   (Oh, I like to eat good food, too!)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  My first job out of college was in research and development.  I’ve studied designed experiments in depth at graduate school.  I have always liked starting new projects much more than applying the discipline to finish them.  I like being creative and learning something new, and I do get a little bored without a challenge. 

With my experimental cooking efforts, the time and trouble are worth it, but I will not have the luxury of avoiding the “production” aspect of my homemaking in the months to come with Baby #2 arriving this spring.   My “system” of evaluation to this point has been to make brief notes in the recipe books, which are then too often closed and forgotten about until the next time I begin searching for something delicious and new to try.

Can you see the inefficiencies?  To complicate matters, instead of working to design a system that will work better for us, I’ve been pondering the design and use of mixture experiments to develop a new chocolate chip cookie or pecan pie recipe.  (Sigh.)  I’m definitely a work in progress!  Praise God that

“…He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6, RSV).

I look forward to seeing what He has planned in this new challenge and to the refinement that will undoubtably come through the process as Christ continues to work on my heart!

~Dana

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