Monday, June 12, 2017

My #DDIGstory

posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Recently the National Science Foundation announced that the Division of Environmental Biology will no longer accept Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) proposals, citing “increasing workload” and “changes in priorities.” DDIGs are relatively small grants (up to $13,000 in direct costs when I applied in 2014) with outsized impacts on the graduate student community: just read through the swell of #DDIGstory tweets that followed NSF’s announcement. 

My dissertation research was shaped and improved by a DDIG. The process of writing a DDIG proposal — developing the story around my hypotheses and research methods, creating a budget, working with the Research and Outreach office at Boston University —was a transformative experience. Applying for a DDIG introduced me to the inner workings of NSF proposals, revealing the process of navigating overhead and fringe benefits and planning a multi-year project. Just submitting my DDIG application felt like a major accomplishment, on par with passing qualifying exams. When I celebrated that fall, I did not realize that another notable life milestone would intersect with my DDIG.

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie in the field at Acadia National Park

My DDIG memories are intertwined with my experience as a new parent. At my March 2015 committee meeting I announced two items of good news: I’m pregnant and my DDIG is funded! The DDIG provided my own source of support for two field seasons in Acadia National Park and allowed me to hire two wonderful undergraduate field assistants that April. Mentoring these students and teaching field methods was an invaluable experience, and though I was healthy and hiking all the way through the field season/second trimester, it was reassuring to know that my assistants were ready to pick up the slack if I needed a break. With DDIG funds, I traveled to the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting that August to present a research talk. I was 34 weeks pregnant and my DDIG-supported conference-adjacent, air-conditioned hotel room was a perfect home base. 

The DDIG provided a kind of force field for me against the misogynist baggage that invariably strikes a pregnant grad student; it deflected questions about my commitment to a career in science or my ability to complete my dissertation. On a practical level, I had financial independence to do the fieldwork and present my research. But it was also a symbolic win, a sign that I was a serious scientist, regardless of the elastic waistband in my maternity field pants. Later, as I struggled through the haze of diapers, pediatrician appointments, sitz baths, and 3 am feedings, I could look forward to the second half of my DDIG fieldwork. The concrete plans built around my DDIG smoothed my transition from maternity leave: I returned to the field and accelerated through my last year of grad school. 

My DIGG is directly responsible for two chapters of my dissertation, two manuscripts currently ready for submission, and an unshakable confidence in my research and my ability to balance work and life, science and parenthood. I don’t think there is another fellowship or grant opportunity for ecology graduate students with the gravitas, the opportunity to engage in the full process of grant-writing, or the prestige of a DDIG. My career and my life would certainly not be the same without it. Eliminating this program is a serious error that the NSF should reconsider.

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