An Interview with Dr. Isis from On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess


When Dr. Isis first joined ScienceBlogs, she attracted attention with her bombastic commentary, gravity-defying shoes and a persona that steamrolled the stereotypical image of the safety goggle-wearing white male scientist. Those who oppose her are immediately forced to face their preconceived notions of what it means to be a scientist and acknowledge the gender barriers that exist in the field when she innocently asks, "What's wrong with being an incredibly hot woman and someone who does good science?"

But who is the real Dr. Isis, and what makes her tick? To find out, I ventured to a realm outside the blogosphere--a place where emotion is not limited to one of 12 emoticons and there is no delete key...

Before I spoke with Dr. Isis on the phone, she was skeptical. "You'd better not be the Katic Couric to my Sarah Palin," she warned me in a pre-interview email. But after reassurance that I wasn't interested in "gotcha" journalism, she was ready for her close-up. I caught her just after her family had been tucked into bed and she was about to consume her dinner for the day: One cookie's worth of raw cookie dough. "It's a total domestic goddess food. Plus, it's been a hectic day," she explained, munching away on the other end of the line.

So, Dr, Isis, how did you come up with your goddess pseudonym?

"The Goddess Isis" is the goddess of motherhood and nature in Egyptian mythology. I first learned of Isis when I traveled to Egypt after getting one of my many degrees. I was in school when Mr. Isis and I got married, so we decided to make up for it. It was there that I first saw the statue of the goddess Isis nursing her newborn son Horus and learned of the myth.

How long have you been blogging for?

Well, I've been blogging as Isis since July, but I'd been blogging under my real name for about 6 years.

What inspired you to start blogging?
It became evident to me that there were things that I had to say that I felt were things I wanted other people to hear. A lot of what I wanted to talk about is what it's like to be a woman in academia. Both of my mentors were men, and the women that I interacted with had chosen to not have families. As a grad student, I didn't really have any female role models that were managing work and a family.

But why did you switch from your real identity to Isis?

One of the things that made me become Dr. Isis is that when I was a first year grad student, I had lunch with a visiting scientist and she disclosed that she had four children. I was interested in that. I wanted to know how she managed her life, and do you know what her response was?

No... what?

She said, "I don't. I don't have pictures of my children at work. I don't have their drawings at work. I don't want the first thing my coworkers think of me to be that I am a working mother."

Wow. That seems a bit drastic. What did you think of that?

I bought into it at first. But then when I became pregnant with Little Isis, I felt like it was a load of crap. I realized that being a woman and being a scientist were both parts of my identity, and part of being Dr. Isis and writing as Dr. Isis is about showing other women that it's important to not distance yourself from either thing. Sometimes as a working scientist and mother, you're a pariah in two groups. But I don't think, as women female scientists, we ever have to be ashamed if we choose to be mothers. And I don't think as mothers, we have to be ashamed of the fact that we go to work.

So what kind of work is it that you do when you're not blogging? Are you a working scientist?

I work from 6am-6pm during the work week, but I'm always a scientist. I'm a physiologist at a large research university. But my work is also at home. I try to keep my children from killing themselves or each other. I try to be a good wife and, generally hot, so I buy a lot of shoes. I go to Sephora a lot because I need good waterproof mascara that will last through swim lessons.

Do you think that you --

--And I am, actually, by the way, amazingly hot. You would quake in your shoes if you saw how hot I am.

Haha, I'll have to take your word for that. But what kind of effect does being "incredibly hot" have on the perception others may have of you on the web?

There are people who think that because I talk about shoes, how hot I am, and being a mother, I shouldn't talk about science. But I don't think who you are, either in terms of your, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, determines your ability to do brilliant science. I can wear Naughty Monkey shoes and get on the cover of Cell at the same time.

Your first week on ScienceBlogs, you were called a "bimbo" by another blogger. What was your reaction to that?

It's very unfortunate when people say things about other people that disparage who they are. We scientists fight all the time, and it can get pretty heated when people disagree about things. But at the end of the day, we can't attack people for who they are. You can attack the data, but as soon as you attack the person, the scientific playing field is no longer equal, and it's no longer inclusive. One of the biggest crises the field of science is facing is the lack of new talent, and if we continue to be exclusionary, we'll continue to be in crisis.

So how do you handle it when people rip on your identity in the blogosphere?

Being disliked by people in the blogosphere is not exactly a surprise to me, because who I am in real life is disliked in academia. The only difference is that in the blogosphere, people are honest. In real life, they face consequences for the things they say, so they inhibit themselves and don't say what they really think. But I don't discourage people from disagreeing with me or saying exactly what they're thinking at any moment. I think it reveals things about our culture that are important to understand.

If you think people say the things online that they are afraid to say in reality but are thinking anyway, there must be some manifestations of this in the real science world. Has your gender ever been a factor in your success in the science world?

My gender has never hindered my success. But my gender has been an issue. There was one time when I was interviewing for a job at a particular level in my career and I was nine months pregnant at the time. And I was massively pregnant. I mean I was hot, and I was still wearing 3-inch heels, but I was hugely pregnant. I mean, I could have had three or four in there.

Anyway, I met with a man and talked about research goals and what I had written, and at the end, this person looked at me, and looked at my stomach and said, "So, are you planning on having any more children, and do you think they will hurt your productivity?" It was the single most startling moment in my career. Because at the time I had never felt judged because of my gender. But at that moment I had a realization that my gender would always be an issue—that in science as a whole, gender would be an issue.

I ran out of the room, crammed my hugely pregnant self into a bathroom and cried for a while. Being pregnant was the time in my life I felt the most beautiful. But in that moment, I was so ashamed of myself and of being pregnant, because I had something to add to science and I felt like it was going to hinder me.

Then I realized that it was only going to be an issue if I let it be an issue—if I allowed someone to make me feel that way. So I went back out, and I told that person in Physioprof language where he could put his job.

I guess being sugar and spice and everything nice has made Dr. Isis one tough cookie... So let's talk about something sweet. What is your idea of the perfect day?

Oh! I know this one. OK, I would wake up, and Mr. Isis would have already made the coffee, and he would bring it in the bed. And the Isis brood would be snuggling around me in little feety pajamas, and I would be sipping my coffee and I would check my email and see that my brilliant work has been accepted to appear on the cover of Science! [The following perfect day activities were indistinguishable because Dr. Isis was talking too fast, but it somehow involved her learning via email that she had also won the Nobel Prize, would be going to a beach and would get to take four weeks off of work] And then I would finish my coffee, get up, make the single most delicious meal you've ever had in your whole life, then get back into bed and snuggle with the Isis family all day, basking in the glow of being on Science. Then I would grab my Coach purse, hop in the car, go shopping and buy 7 pairs of Naughty Monkey shoes and fall asleep with the boxes all around me.

Did you plan out your answer for this before hand?

Not even. I just know what I want.

That's very goddess-like. Now Isis, who is your hero? Do goddesses even have heroes?

You know who is totally my hero? That crazy guy, PhysioProf

What? Why?

Just leave it at that.

Ok, last question: What are your goals in writing for ScienceBlogs? What do you want the end products to be?

I think the end product, in terms of the content, is gonna be what it is. I'm gonna write about the things that I find interesting and that are part of my identity as a scientist and a mother. I'll write about journal articles one day and what kind of diapers I buy the next. But I'm also going to be available. I've been interacting with my wacky readers and I think some of them feel like they don't have access to more senior scientists or that these discussions are acceptable to have with their peers. But the blogosphere completely levels the playing field.

I'm going to engage people, probably occasionally piss them off a little bit, but I'll be transparent in who I am. And feed my own narcissism. And now, I'm not always going to be right, and people aren't always going to agree with me. However, I am always going to be hot.

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