by Kelsey Mc Lendon
In a crowded room at the Literaturhaus in Stuttgart, members of our Democrats Abroad Women’s Caucus gathered with about 180 people to listen to Rebecca Solnit perform readings of her newest book, a collection of essays titled, The Mother of All Questions, and answer questions about literature, activism, and the future of American politics.
Solnit’s book begins by challenging the notion that a woman’s capacity is limited solely to childbearing rather than creations of the mind. Recalling a talk she gave on Virginia Woolf, Solnit described how the line of questioning quickly turned to reasons for why Woolf didn’t procreate instead of focusing on what she did create—her exceptional written work. In fact, one of the things Woolf famously wrote about was dismantling expectations for women to be the “Angel in the House.” Nearly 90 years later, women continue fighting against this ideal, and Solnit’s book argues that we must refuse questions that attempt to define what it means to be a woman. Instead, Solnit says, we must reject simple answers and embrace the unknown.
When reflecting on the literary canon, Solnit remarked that a book without a single woman in it is about humanity, but a book with a woman protagonist is a “woman’s book.” Knowing that we learn to imagine the world from the literature we read, it’s no wonder that straight, white men in particular often cannot imagine themselves as anyone else—they’ve never had to do so. In this way, diverse stories have never been more important because they provide us with different lenses through which to view the world and invite questions about whose stories are being told. Thanks to literary giants of the past like Woolf, James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and so many others, we’ve seen an explosion of diverse literature in the past few decades that asks all readers to listen and reimagine the world.
In conjunction with examining whose stories are told, Solnit’s book also prompts readers to consider silence—specifically, who has been silenced historically and currently. Perhaps the loudest breaking of that silence recently has been the #MeToo movement. While it seems like #MeToo was a sudden wave of unleashed stories, unprecedented support for those stories, and demands of accountability, Solnit reminds us that #MeToo was a culmination of previous, long-term efforts of women (often women of color) speaking out. As demonstrated in the #MeToo movement, stories grant the previously silenced the ability to be heard and grant everyone else opportunities to broaden their perspectives.
Placing these notions of silence, stories, and listening in context with the larger political climate, Solnit urged the audience to remember that elections are the bedrock of democracy but daily actions are what preserve it. If we are to recover from the Trump presidency, it is imperative that we read about the past, listen to each other’s stories, and, as Rep. John Lewis has said, make “good trouble, necessary trouble.” November is still far off, and we must work every day to defend our basic rights and democratic values. Referencing an article in The Guardian, Solnit stated that historical studies suggest it only takes 3.5% of a country’s population (about 11 million people in the U.S.) to topple an unpopular regime through sustained nonviolent opposition.
Solnit announced that an upcoming campaign to impeach Trump will be starting soon.
The Women’s Caucus international book club, Books Abroad, will discuss The Mother of All Questions at our next meeting on Sunday, October 21. Please join in!
Below is a list of readings that Solnit referenced throughout the evening:
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
The writings of Subcomandante Marcos
“Peculiar Benefits” by Roxana Gay
Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into―and Out of―Violent Extremism by Michael Kimmel
The weather was warm, the mood was celebratory as hundreds gathered in the middle of Stuttgart to stand up for Science and listen to distinguished scientists from our region’s many Universities discuss the future of research. Speakers included rectors from both of Stuttgart’s Universities, as well as representatives from Karlsruhe Tech, and Heidelberg. Dr. Radhika Puttagunta, American scientist and Democrats Abroad Stuttgart chapter member, was there to share her perspective, and even gave a shout out to our valiant DA voter registration team, pointing out how important it is to vote in defense of science! Dr Puttagunta is the group leader in experimental paraplegiology and Neuroregeneration at the University of Heidelberg Clinic.
Here are her remarks:
“Standing here in Stuttgart, the city known for the invention of the automobile, we do not need to sell you on innovation or science. Germany leads the world in recycling and renewable energy because you take climate change seriously and want to preserve the environment. Here in Germany, I have worked at the University of Tuebingen where Noble prize winning developmental biologist Prof. Dr. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard can be found alongside the location of the first isolation of DNA by Johann Friedrich Miescher in the castle laboratory. I now work at Germany’s oldest and most renowned university, the University of Heidelberg, where I believe that Germans understand the benefits of science and innovation, however we are not here only to support that claim but to also see where we can do better.
You may ask why did I myself decide to become a scientist. I can tell you for certain it was most definitely not for money or fame. I am a scientist because I am curious and want to know how the world works around me, how the human body functions, what happens when it no longer functions as intended and how I can address those problems and add to our knowledge base. Classically trained as a geneticist I now work on understanding how to get nerves to grow again after damage from a spinal cord injury. Not an easy task but incredibly fascinating. Such intense curiosity as my own is common in our young children. Think of that baby that keeps dropping things on the floor and wondering why it falls, rediscovering gravity over and over again, especially later on with their own bodies. Or at a playground, children discovering centripetal forces differ from the center of the merry-go-round to the outer edge where more force is needed to keep you from falling off. Or the enthusiasm of kids involved in planting seeds and realizing what it takes for that seed to germinate and grow. Children are just born curious, it is how they explore their world, and some cultures are better at cultivating this curiosity and turning out amazing scientists. Both my home, the United States, and my adopted home, Germany, do a wonderful job with young children, letting them be little explorers and scientists. However, as the amount of knowledge and information we have access to grows over time we seem to move away from learning how and why things work and move further toward extensive testing on this newly acquired information. By doing so the schools are pulling us away from pursuing that curiosity we are naturally born with. By the time I see students at the University the only question I get asked is usually if this is on the exam or part of their grade. We cannot raise the next generation of scientists if we do not instill in them this desire to know more, to discover, to question, to tinker, to build, to fail and to succeed. We need to let that curiosity spread through our schools, train our teachers to foster this desire and stop overloading with excessive testing. We as parents at home need to encourage our kids to dream big, be creative and imaginative, build, question and read everything they can get their hands on to answer those questions of why and how thus stimulating new ideas. At the University level, we as lecturers need to push our students to think, to question, to solve, to further our understanding, not to just recite and pass exams. Innovation comes from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, questioning our understanding or limits of knowledge and discovering the unknown. The key here is that culture and society is often driving discovery through their desires of how to educate the next generation. This means that you have a greater influence on science than you probably imagined. This also rings true for the type of science that is found to be worth funding. Your voice matters when you vote, you influence the future. For my fellow Americans out there, I urge you to go the booth we have set up here and register to vote this year. Your voice not only impacts the US, it has an impact on the world and there is no greater time than now to have your voice heard.
If we speak on a global scale, the current world population is made up of 50% women, however many scientific fields remain dominated by males. There is nothing wrong with that, but what is to say that is the best we can do? We are ignoring the input from half of our population! How do we know that together we would not do better? In fact we already know that diversity in science is essential, studies from various fields show that diverse groups are consistently more successful than groups of the “best” people who are virtually identical. There is no single test to find who is the best for problem solving but we do know that we work better in groups and science is not an independent sport, it is most definitely done best collaboratively. Published studies that have more collaborators tend to be more cited by other scientists, indicating they are of more value to the field. So if we want success in science and we want to push discovery and innovation forward than we must embrace diversity. It is not a matter of who is better but that when we put our collective heads together we are stronger than any one group alone. Here I am referring to diversity not only of gender but also ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, immigration and family status. Each person’s experiences make up not only their life story but their unique intellectual and working perspective. Be this from experiencing motherhood, being an immigrant or dealing with homophobia. Once upon a time the US understood this and took in so many scientists from all walks of life from all over the world and those scientists went on to become the Noble prize-winning immigrants such as Einstein, Werner von Braun and Günter Blobel (signal peptides). Nearly 40% of Noble prizes awarded to the US are to immigrants. Why is that? Not only does the US encourage independence and creativity but by encouraging immigration they have let different perspectives and approaches come in to solve and innovate. So they have an environment that encourages the formation of diverse groups and these groups go on to do amazing things. Germany once lead the scientific world 150 to 100 years ago, until unfortunately they limited diversity but today Germany is embracing its role as a world leader and understands a diverse nation is a better nation, economically, scientifically and socially. Today’s choices will reflect in what Germany produces scientifically in the coming decades. I can say from personal experience at work where I am surrounded by people trained in fields very different from my own and with personal backgrounds equally different from mine that I am a better scientist because of a diverse environment and those around me also benefit from my unique perspective. “ R.P.
Stuttgart marched for women’s rights!
Despite pouring rain and icy cold, a group of roughly 30 hearty DA Stuttgart members, together with our precinct members from Freiburg and Tübingen joined a crowd of 500 activists to march in Heidelberg for women’s rights.
We were welcomed by DA Heidelberg chair Nancy Schimkat who was on hand with her team to help any and all Americans with their voter registration.
I was pleased to be able to share a few remarks at the end of the march highlighting some of this year’s successes for women. It wasn’t all bad news this year!
Soaking wet, freezing cold and exhausted by the end of the day, we “nevertheless” could not help but feel a bit proud of ourselves to have been in the company of such amazing, dedicated and ”persistent” activists!
Let us all resolve to keep on marching to the ballot box!
If you haven’t done it already, now is a great time to request your absentee ballot for the mid-terms.
Remember, Americans living abroad do have to re-register every year!
But then you’ll be all set for a year’s worth of primaries, special elections and the all-important mid-terms on November 6th when 33 senate seats, all 435 seats in the house of representatives,14 Governorships and countless local offices will be UP FOR GRABS
Our own Democrats Abroad Stuttgart chapter is doing everything in our power to reach out to fellow Americans in our area, and help them claim their right to vote at home. Our primary project for this year is getting out the vote.
We work hard, but we really do have fun! And we need your help!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!
“Taking back Congress” is at the top of my own “to-do” list for 2018...how about yours?
We could see a “Blue Wave” in the 2018 midterm elections, but we will need a massive turnout in order to make it happen. What better way to start the new year than by requesting your absentee ballot for the midterms? Just go to VoteFromAbroad.org. Easy! And don’t you just love crossing things off your list?
2018 is in no way an “off-year.” And this is no time to sit on the sidelines. The November 6th mid-term elections could really be “make-or-break” for democracy in our country, and you personally, can make a difference, right here in Germany! Many races have come down to just a hand-full of votes, and the overseas ballots can tip the balance! YOU MATTER!
Our own Democrats Abroad Stuttgart chapter is gearing up right now to do everything in our power to reach out to fellow Americans in our area, and help them claim their right to vote at home. We need your help!
Here is a rundown on some of our upcoming events and projects. Take a look, and please jump in where you can:
1. Stuttgart is marching to the ballot box in Heidelberg!
Come march with our DA neighbor chapter in Heidelberg to commemorate the anniversary of the Women's March on Washington and to fire up all our people, men and women, for the crucial mid-term elections.
This year we are combining the march with a voter registration drive which will take place at the end of the march.
Just as we did last year, we will meet at the Stuttgart Main Train Station and travel as a group to Heidelberg.
The march in Heidelberg begins at 14:00.
This time, our meeting point will be the ticket machines at the south-tower end of the train station, near the seating area. Look for signs, banners and pussy hats-you can’t miss us! We will try to organize ourselves in groups of 4-5 to purchase discount BW tickets together.
We plan to take the RE19504 which leaves from track 11 at 10:19.
We will arrive in Heidelberg early enough to find a spot for coffee or a quick bite to eat with Heidelberg chapter members.
Watch our Facebook event page for last-minute updates on exactly where and when.
Some may wish to take a different train or drive, but do try to find us in Heidelberg either at the coffee shop, or at the Friedrich-Ebert Platz starting point. We will want to take a group photo or two, pass out our DA signs and flyers, and march as a group with our DA Heidelberg partners to show our numbers are strong-size matters!
For those of you who can’t make it to our “Pussy Hat and Sign-Making Workshop”: we will be making extras which will be available on the train and at our pre-march gathering!
2. Women's March Pussy Hat and Sign-making Workshop
Join us for a fun and relaxed afternoon of hat-crafting, sign-making, and voter registration at a member's home, in preparation for our trip to Heidelberg for the big women's march on the following weekend.
Don't worry if you are not a skilled sewer! We will be guided by one of our members who is a real pro! How lucky are we?
All materials for hat and sign-making will be provided for a small donation.
Space is limited so do RSVP right away to reserve your spot and to receive our member's exact address and more details.
3. Pub & Politics in Freiburg
Wednesday, January 10 at 8 pm-10 pm
The Holy Taco Shack
Barbarastrasse 18, 79106 Freiburg, Germany
Join us for a fun and casual evening at The Holy Taco Shack in Freiburg to talk about everything from Trump's first year, to the upcoming midterm elections, to the anniversary of the women's march!
This is your chance to meet other Americans in the Freiburg area, grab a drink together and talk about all things politics! We also want to share news about upcoming DA events and get your ideas of what other events Freiburg-Americans would like to participate in.
4. Political Pub Night in January
Thursday, January 18th, 2017 at 7:00 PM
Sophie`s Brauhaus Stuttgart
Marienstraße 28 , 70178 Stuttgart
Join us for the first "Third Thursday" in the new year for a fun evening of drinks and snacks and the chance to share your thoughts on strategy for this crucial election year!
Our Pub Nights are an especially good opportunity for curious prospective members to check us out, and for all of our non-American family and friends to share their unique views on the craziness in Washington that affects all of us.
Please do RSVP here to let us know you are coming!
5. Chapter Meeting and lecture/discussion on "Progressive Economics"
Friday, February 2nd at 7 p.m.
Forum 3 Café
Gymnasiumstr. 21, 70173 Stuttgart
"Thinking like an economist: Freedom, regulations and the democracy"
We are honored to welcome as our guest Matthew Bonick, Freiburg University PhD student and lecturer, and DA Konstanz precinct Captain, for this very special event! Matthew will share with us the newest ideas on progressive economics and lead us in a discussion on what this all means for us. Do join us for this special event!
6. EMEA REGIONAL MEETING
February 09, 2018 - February 11, 2018
Hotel Santo Domingo
San Bernardino 1, Madrid 28013 Spain
The EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) Region and Democrats Abroad Spain will host a meeting of leaders, volunteers, and members from all over DA’s largest region. We expect about 100 participants from countries all around the region and we will focus on strategies and projects to elect Democrats in 2018.
All Members of Democrats Abroad from every region are welcome to join us!
The three-day program in the heart of Madrid will begin with a session from the Women’s Caucus on Friday afternoon, followed by an evening reception highlighting the best of Madrid’s culture and food. Saturday presentations, training sessions, and workshops will be followed by a Global Black Caucus Cocktail Reception and a “gala” dinner with a special guest speaker. Sunday training sessions and presentations will end around 1 pm.
7. DA Germany Annual General Meeting: 23-25 February
February 23, 2018 at 1:30 pm - February 25, 2018
Stiftung Kultur Palast Hamburg
Öjendorfer Weg 30a, Hamburg 22119, Germany
Join members of Democrats Abroad Germany in Hamburg to discuss our plans for 2018!
Every year Democrats Abroad Germany gathers in person to discuss issues back home and plan our activities for the coming year. With midterm elections quickly approaching, join us in Hamburg to learn more about how you can be an active part of getting out the vote, meet other democrats living in Germany and give your input on the DAG political process.
Many from our Stuttgart Chapter are already planning to attend. If you would perhaps like to share accommodations, and/or travel with others from our region, contact Ann at DAG-Stuttgart@democratsabroad.org
8. Looking Ahead:
We are making an effort to schedule our chapter meetings for "first-Fridays" and our Pub nights for "third-Thursdays" whenever possible.
We will also be scheduling additional events each month which don't always make in into our newsletter. So do check in on our Stuttgart Chapter website and Facebook page for the latest updates on events!
Mark your calendars now for these future events:
- Pub Night, Thursday, February 22 at 7 pm. Location TBD
Chapter Meeting and Round Table Discussion with
Stuttgart Fulbright Alumni Friday, March 2nd,
Forum 3 Café, Gymnasiumstr. 21, 70173 Stuttgart, 7 pm
I look forward to seeing you at one of our events.
Happy BLUE Year,
Chair, Stuttgart Chapter
We would like to thank our DA Germany chair, Owen Jappen, who paid us a visit in Stuttgart recently and skillfully defended our liberal principles in a political discussion on Trump foreign policy.
Representatives from a number of political organizations took part in the friendly debate at the Stuttgart Rathaus, including members of the Young Transatlantic Group, the Young European Federalists and the United Nations Human Rights council.
Even a representative from Republicans overseas joined in the discussion on topics that ranged from North Korea to the Iranian Nuclear agreement.
Our next round table discussion will be in March, with members of the Stuttgart Fulbright Alumni Association. If you enjoy hearing alternative points of view, and would even like to jump into the fray yourself, you won't want to miss it.
Details will be coming soon!
Many thanks to our two Stuttgart Chapter "Tax Divas" Julia and Kristy, who lead this important discussion on US tax policy as it affects Americans living abroad.
The presentation covered many aspects of this complex topic including FACTA, FBAR, and RBT. If you don't know what any of that Alphabet soup means, you can follow this link and check out DA's comprehensive resource, Tax Reform for Americans Abroad Campaign in a Box .
Rich or poor, student or retiree, we learned that we are all in the same boat when it comes to these unfair tax policies.
But we also learned that DA is mounting an aggressive campaign in Washington to bring us some relief!
Our Democrats Abroad Global Taxation Tax Force has been knocking on doors in Washington this month to bring the particular issues of Americans living abroad to the attention of our legislators, many of whom are not even aware of our situation!
They have also presented the results of an extensive DA global taxation survey and their research report, "Can We Please Stop Paying Twice" to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
For those of you with questions about the residency-based taxation reforms DA is promoting please check out the RBT FAQs which, importantly, explains the distinction between the policy approach Democrats Abroad supports and the policy supported by Republicans Overseas. Democrats Abroad will not support a tax policy that opens up a new tax avoidance loophole.
The criteria Democrats Abroad will apply to any package of tax reforms are fully articulated in this presentation from our September Tax Advocacy Webinar and also profiled in h report.
Unfair tax policy is one of the main issues for Americans living abroad. We thank our team here in Stuttgart for all the information they shared with us, and we thank our global taxation task force for all their efforts on our behalf. Good Work!
June 15, 2017 is the automatic IRS filing extension deadline for Americans overseas. In order to draw attention to our taxation issues, as well as to underscore that Trump has yet to release his tax returns to the US public, you can join in a virtual Tax March. Take a photo of yourself holding the sign "Show me your Tax Returns" and post to social media.
Download this Template and Print, Pose and Post to Participate!
Don't forget to use the hashtag #virtualtaxmarch so that we can find your photos and share to DA social media.
As you probably know, the US is the only developed nation that taxes its citizens on their world-wide income. As such, we are subject to taxation by the US on the income that we generate in our country of residence, no matter where we live, no matter how long we live abroad and regardless of whether we are taxed on that same income by our country of residence.
Our DA Taxation Task Force is spearheading a Grassroots campaign in support of Residency Based Taxation or RBT.
They are asking that we all pick up the phone to call our Representatives and Senators on June 15th - the tax deadline for international filers - and ask for their support for Residency Based Taxation.
A Fact Sheet on Residency-based Taxation can be found here
A Sample Script for calling your legislators can be found here
Find your legislators here:
This is one of the most important issues for Americans living abroad. So make your voice heard TODAY!
Ever since her days as a high school student in Flint, Michigan, Radhika Puttagunta has known she wanted to be a geneticist. After receiving her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, Puttagunta left the American Midwest to join her husband in Germany, and she now runs the Neurogeneration Laboratory at the Spinal Cord Injury Center within the UniversityHospital in Heidelberg. We caught up with Radhika, 41, a member of the Stuttgart chapter of Democrats Abroad, as she was working on two grant applications and hoping to carve out time to participate in the April 22nd Science March in Heidelberg.
In an interview conducted via e-mail and telephone, Radhika took aim at the approach to science adopted by the new administration in Washington, D.C., described the challenges she faces as a woman in her male-dominated field in Germany, and talked about how she and her engineer husband manage two demanding careers and care for two young children.
How did you become a member of Democrats Abroad?
I was searching for groups for expatriate Americans when I first moved here about 10 years ago, and found Democrats Abroad, along with Writers in Stuttgart and the International Women’s Club, as well as a short-lived Book club. The first time I attended a meeting, however, was this year, as the group was undergoing internal changes. This was the first time I actually felt fear for my country and wanted to do something about it. I went to the February meeting because I believe that the country is headed sharply in the wrong direction. I was upset and so were several of my friends, whose anger registered with me via Facebook even from the other side of the world. I watched all this activism back home and wanted to be involved.
I had been so elated in 2008 with the election of President Obama, and thought we had turned a corner as a country. But after that election I saw that extreme factions grew stronger, with racism and anti-government sentiment coming to the forefront, and biased cable news programs dominating the media landscape. I was shocked as I watched friends back in the USA struggle to afford health care for their families and the start of teaching non-scientific topics within science education in schools. I felt things spiraling downward, and then with the 2016 election, the bottom fell out. Betsy DeVos, a person without any public education background, who pushed “school choice” in Detroit, Michigan effectively destroying that educational system, was named head of the Education Department, and Scott Pruitt, who is vehemently opposed to environmental preservation, was put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency, just to name a couple of the many disappointments in a very short period of time.
What do you think of the new president’s approach to science?
I think it will have the exact opposite effect of what he says he wants, funding on results alone is not the way to go forward. Creativity and solutions cannot be rushed. Things such as basic science research are being defunded, to give preference only to science that can be translated into human health benefits. Why is this problematic? Because where do we find answers to our current problems? Often in nature. Understanding how it works and what solutions have naturally evolved help us find new breakthroughs. When we start to lose that inherent curiosity about the world around us and are only concerned with results, we most likely will lose out on the really transformative discoveries. What has made American science amazing and had the world knocking at our door was the amount we spent on ALL kinds of science. I think the biggest innovations came from funding innovative risky out-of-the-box ideas or basic exploratory science without a specific result in mind. Those moments when you think there is no way this will work but let’s try it anyway -- those are usually the moments that go down in history. When you pull your purse strings so tight there is no margin for error, well, science just doesn’t work that way, it is a process. I am of the field of thought that we should fund more science and education, this is the way forward. Find alternatives for lacking resources, find cures for diseases we never lived through before, find new ways to conserve. Look at our history, how much has come out of funding science, we are able to achieve it, but we must fund it. We need knowledge, not war and slashing 20% of the NIH budget will not help with that. Unfortunately funding science after things are destroyed or epidemics are started does not help solve problems, we must remain ahead of the curve.
How did you get to the job you do today and what does it involve?
I have wanted to be a scientist since high school and I have wanted to be a professor since I was 16. The reason? I love science but more importantly, I want to teach others about science so that when they go off and vote, they make informed decisions on things that not only affect my work but our lives as a whole. I don’t want people to vote out of fear or ignorance.
Classically trained as a geneticist, when I moved to Germany, I wanted to put my skills to work in the field of neuroscience. I find the brain and both nervous systems absolutely fascinating. There is no computer we have ever created or any invention that is even close to the human body. All of that is controlled by our nervous systems. Living in Stuttgart meant I had the choice between two well respected universities with excellent Neuroscience programs, Tuebingen or Heidelberg. After seven years of work at the University of Tuebingen, I have been running my own group at the University of Heidelberg for the past year. Although housed in a clinic, I do basic research, focusing on how to grow neurons again after a spinal cord injury. With that kind of injury, the damage means that the brain is no longer able to make a connection to the rest of the body – I like to say, the circuits are interrupted. I am doing research into how to regrow nerves, and re-establish the circuitry. We don’t just hope to make people overcome limb paralysis but regain bladder control, sexual function and overcome injury induced pain, issues often not highlighted in the field.
I currently have three PhD students I am training, along with one post-doctoral fellow, a lab manager and several rotating masters students. I am now working toward the “habilitation” certificate necessary to become a professor in Germany. Aside from running my laboratory I teach courses for Masters and Phd students and hope to develop new courses for medical and undergraduate students. I love the creativity of what I do, that I shape young minds and I get to experiment! I get to actually think of possible solutions to problems and try them out. I can find out if I was right or wrong, how great is that?!
Do you have family members who work in science?
Not exactly scientists but my parents are both physicians, in fact most of my family on my mother’s side are physicians, but my father’s side is a bit more diverse. My late paternal aunt was a chemistry professor in India. One maternal uncle has a PhD in chemical engineering and runs the research division at the New York Blood bank after having been a professor at UC Berkley for many years. I have maternal cousins who also have become professors now after pursuing medical degrees, they are wonderful researchers at prestigious US universities. I have one paternal cousin who is pursuing his biology PhD. We also have our share of engineers, business entrepreneurs, lawyers, software programmers and such.
Are there heroes whom you look up to?
Yes, of course! First and foremost, my mother, as she was a pediatrician with her own practice (now deservedly retired). Being our primary caretaker, as my father was working quite a bit, she somehow she made it all work. She never missed an event at school, any doctor appointments or meetings. We grew up doing pretty much any activity you can think of, piano, karate, Bharatanatyam dance, Girl Scouts, guitar, basketball, tennis, horseback riding, etc. I am sure I missed some activities in there. Anyway, she was incredibly busy with us running around on top of running her own business. So when people ask me how I’m able to do something they view as extraordinary, I just don’t see it that way. I’m doing what I see as every day normal. I should also state that all four of my maternal aunts are just like my mother, doctors with families. As I said, it has always been my norm. That said I now know after haven been through it that it involves hard work and dedication; they are my heroes, especially my mother.
I was so fortunate to have an amazing undergraduate advisor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, who raised her two children while successfully building her research laboratory. She is German but now also an American citizen. She is an accomplished scientist, mother and choir member. Her talents are truly endless. Again, this showed me at a young age that you can have it all, you truly can be a mother and successful in your career.
Do you participate in any networks for women in science? Are you helping to organize any events around the Science March?
There aren’t that many for women at my level here in Germany, but I am involved in a mentorship program that is linked to a collaborative grant I am a part of. I did start a group in Tuebingen for female investigators after they finish their PhD and it has continued after my departure. Maybe one day I will get the chance to start a similar one in Heidelberg. Regarding the marches – unfortunately no organizing as I am really stretched for time right now. I must get two grants out by the end of the month, and for now everything else must wait. I hope to march in Heidelberg if I have the time. I was so disappointed to be out of the country at the time of the Women’s March and unable to participate.
Have you encountered problems at work because of your gender?
I have to say that in German culture, both men and women, are quite tough on full-time working mothers. It seems to be the belief that the mother should stay at home while the children are young. So I get shocked looks or comments to indicate such after I mention my full-time job and all the commuting I do. I have lots of female friends in the US who work and they don’t hear similar criticism for working full time with young children. You have to remember many of them grew up in daycares, after school programs or with babysitters and we didn’t find doing so to be detrimental in anyway. There are very few women here at my position or higher, so there aren’t many role models to turn to, and probably why I have inadvertently became a de facto role model to others. Do I feel women still have to work harder to prove themselves than men do in science? Yes. Does the data back me up? Yes. I still don’t see why me having two X Chromosomes would make me any less of a scientist or capable than someone with a X and Y Chromosome.
Most of my colleagues are men, and although they may be more involved at home than previous generations most of them have full support through stay-at-home spouses. They don’t need to come home and worry about running the laundry so the kids have clean clothes for school in the morning. Is there an upside to all of this? Well, I am not sure how to explain it exactly but once you become a mother you find you become hyper focused and very efficient. I guess it is due to extreme necessity that may have been lacking before. Having a family in this field and being a woman even frames the smaller decisions. For example: I actually thought twice whether to put photos of my kids up at work. If a man does that, it’s, “Oh, how sweet.” But I might hear, “Such young children – that must be difficult for you to balance?” I could make life easier for me by hiding that part of my life but I don’t see any reason to apologize for my full life. So not only do I have their pictures up but also drawings they have done recently. I don’t dwell on the kids but I also do not ignore their existence.
Biology is a field that starts out with about 50% women in PhD programs. By graduation you have already lost some of those women, in the post-doc years many more leave and very few stay after that. Those that do are typically not married, or if they are, they don’t have children. Those that do either of those two definitely don’t have multiple kids. Those of us that have opted for those three cardinal sins are considered to be a rare breed. Only time will tell if I can break through the glass ceiling, but I am not giving up. I want my kids to see that nothing can stand in your way when you want something. Not your gender, not your ethnicity and not your nationality.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Feminism means to me supporting women in their choices, careers and dreams just as much as we do men. I am not under the illusion that there will be complete equality as our biology does not for allow for it in some ways, but I do believe we can have intellectual and job equality.
To do my part I actively speak about things I have experienced that I think women do not discuss freely enough about; dealing with infertility; not loving every moment of being a mother; raising a kid your way, and that way may be a mash-up of different cultures; choosing to breastfeed or not; marriage is hard work; speaking your mind and feeling that you deserve to be heard; knowing yourself truly and your own desires before getting involved with someone else; being abundantly clear with your significant other, they are not able to read your mind; that quality is better than quantity of time with kids; making sure to look after your own health because too often we let our health slide to unhealthy depths; and that not everyone needs to marry or have kids and that is perfectly ok. As you can imagine the list goes on and I think we benefit from having more open discussions without fear of judgement but support of our sisters.
Have you had to deal with failures or major obstacles, and if so, what did you do to get past them?
Unfortunately, I had a very verbally abusive PhD advisor. He was pretty horrible. Whatever his reasons were he took out his life frustrations on me. I nearly dropped out of graduate school because I thought he was right when he told me I was stupid and lazy, because the experiments didn’t work the way he wanted. It took all I had in me to pick myself off the floor literally and crawl my way back to graduation. I asked for help and no one was willing to help, probably because he was careful to keep the abuse hidden. What it taught me was resilience, to keep asking for help, that failure is OK, and learning from it is crucial, but most importantly, to never, ever, let someone have that type of control over me again. I now feel that if I could make it through that I can make it through just about anything.
What might a friend or family member say when asked to describe a characteristic or experience that would define you?
I have never been “normal”. It may have been from being a first generation American and bridging two cultures, maybe it is from being a woman in a male dominated field, maybe it is being a minority, or just a combination of all of them. I have never felt that I fit in any box, but I am OK with that, I am uniquely me and I like that. Strangely I always felt that was what being American was about, and I am seeing nowadays that I may have been mistaken.
What do you like to do in your free time?
What is this “free time” you speak of? No, seriously I used to have many hobbies but life got busy with kids, working full time and commuting previously 1.5 hours daily to now 3 hours daily. I used to play tennis, read, choreograph bellydance and write poetry. I hope to get back there one day. I teach my students that creativity outside of the lab breeds creativity in the lab, I really do believe that.
Where do you find inspiration, or cause for hope?
In nature and medicine. Look at all that is around us, how amazing is it? I get to study that. Look at the human body, can you think of anything more complicated and intricate, yet more beautiful or functional? I can’t. Look at all the strides we have made so far in medicine. Those strides come from scientists like myself tolling away behind the scenes, rarely getting any credit. Why do we do it? Simply because we couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I may not like every aspect of my job, but for the most part I have my dream job.
How did you and your family end up in Germany?
My husband is German. We met while he was studying abroad at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The agreement was that whoever graduated first would move to the other person’s country, and then whoever moved got to make the decision on where to live next when the other one graduated. Needless to say, I graduated first and I decided we would remain in Germany. I decided raising a family the way I want to would be easier in Germany. While we may not make more money here, we have more services easily accessible to us, such as reasonably affordable healthcare and childcare, greater personal safety due to less gun violence, strong funding of science, paid parental family leave and better work-life balance, decent roads (take a trip to Michigan and you’ll see why that is on the list), and strong free public education through university level, so I can actually save for retirement. Oh, I also like that it is quite easy enough to pop over to another country to experience their culture, and that you get enough vacation time to do so. That is just so crazy to me, even though I been here for 10 years now.
How old are your children, and are they in German schools?
My son is seven and my daughter turns four soon. My son is in first grade at a German elementary school, my daughter is in a full-time pre-school. Both have gone to child-care or pre-school programs since they were nine months old, mostly full time. I worked part-time after a year off following the birth of my son, only because I couldn’t find full-time daycare. After having my daughter and taking a year off, I returned to work full time.
Have you taken them to your workplaces?
Yes, they have been to my labs. I talk about science with them. It is really important that you talk about what you do with everyone. My feeling is, if I can’t explain what I do to everyone, including children, then I’m not all that good at what I do.
How do you and he work out the balance in your careers and family life?
Lots of people have asked me how this works. My husband knows how cut-throat it is in academia, and how much I want to be in it, and have wanted it my whole adult life. Since I got the position in Heidelberg and commute so much, about 3 hours a day, he has stepped up even more and cut his hours back at work. This was his choice and I love that he supports me and our family. He is now the primary caretaker, meaning he drops them off and picks them up, he does the grocery shopping and cooking (he is quite talented in the kitchen and has always had this role in our relationship), he deals with bills and taxes, he does the doctor appointments and parent evenings. What do I do? I do the most I can in the time I have. I make time in the morning and evening for the kids and also the weekends. All of the rest of the household duties fall to me. I am lucky my husband knew himself well enough to know whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He really listened to me when I said science was a big part of who I am and having a family did not mean giving that up. My husband and I may be as different as day and night but maybe that is why we work, we complement each other well, my strengths are his weaknesses and vice-versa.
Besides my husband, our full-day pre-school and full-day school, I must give credit to my in-laws. Without them we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. I always said I would live either near my parents or his. I grew up on the other side of the world from my grandparents and I didn’t want that for my kids. Not only do the grandparents spend a lot of time with our kids, but they bail us out whenever we need help. They do it willingly, they love their grandkids and seeing that makes my heart swell. I have been blessed many times over.
Where is home for you?
When I am speaking and say home I could be referring to Germany or the US, it depends on the context. However, it is funny you ask this, it was part of my wedding vows. When you are first-generation American and you look like me many “Americans” don’t think I belong. So I am not considered really American by Americans and not really Indian by Indians. I AM American and only lived in the US until moving to Germany. We did three-and-a-half years across an ocean long-distance, including one-and-a-half years after getting married. Anyway, my wedding vows said that I never quite felt like I belonged anywhere truly until I met my husband and home is where he is. That is how I feel, where we are together is home, the place doesn’t matter, the person you spend your life with does.
I am completely a Midwest girl, born and raised – born in Park Ridge, Il. (Chicago adjacent, where Hillary Clinton grew up). My parents immigrated from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, and had lived with the fighting in Ireland before moving to Chicago. From there we went to Detroit and then on to Flint, Michigan. I know people have heard about Flint in the news recently, but it was really a great city to grow up in back in the day. People don’t realize it was very affluent – previously known as BuickCity, home to the General Motors Institute (now KetteringCollege), a very good engineering college. The old downtown was paved with cobble stones, there was the Flint Institute of Art, the opera, the ballet, MottCollege and AutoWorld. There was a lot going on in Flint, but then when Buick moved out, there wasn’t much diversification, and things went downhill.
I was shaped by growing up in southeastern Michigan, and I thought everywhere was as diverse as that. We had lots of African-Americans, Indian-Americans, the Arab population was the third largest outside of the Arab world, there was a sizable Latino population. It was like that when I went to college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, I was in for a bit of a shock. 9-11 happened while I was there, and you could start to feel the tension. When I ventured out of southern Wisconsin I realized the state was relatively homogenous and I wasn’t always welcome there.
It is hard to put into words. Somehow the US was different when I was growing up, there was racism but maybe it was more hidden and now it is more in your face. Priorities seemed to have changed. People used to be more open and helpful, now they just seem frightened and it isn’t always clear of what.
What do you hope to be able to look back on later in life?
I hope when I look back that I will see that I raised two strong independent thinking children, married the man I love and respect, I was able to add to the knowledge base out there in my field and move it forward. I hope to train some students that will continue as good academic scientists as well as others who will branch out into other fields. All in all, I hope that my existence makes a difference.
Thanks for your time, and your willingness to tell us about your life as a
"woman of science."
Setting the stage for protest at the start of our meeting, one of members, a very talented guitarist-folk singer, led us all in a sing-along of Guthrie's classic "This Land."
Properly primed for protest, we all settled down to the serious business of concentrating our many grievances into the compact space of a postcard, addressed to "Occupant," "BLOTUS," "Misogynist-in chief," and even "The Giant Orange Cheeto" in the White House.
So many issues! So many scandals! And so much righteous indignation!
Despite the somewhat light-hearted mood, we were able to work our way through a serious agenda, detailing our participation in the Annual General meeting in Berlin, discussing our plans for the April 22nd Science March in Stuttgart, and engaging in important discussions about structure and goals for our chapter as we move forward. Some of us will make our way to Berlin, and most of us will be working on the Science March. Virtually all of us identified ourselves as true progressives, and agreed on the need for voting-state-based, "Indivisible-Inspired" activism.
Our larger than usual crowd was a very encouraging sight, but due to this very good turn-out, members ended up sitting on the floor and even standing in the hallway outside the meeting space.
We are energized, and the mood is defiant. Our chapter is definitely on it's way to becoming a formidable activist group- but first, we're gonna need a bigger room!
A large crowd of DA Stuttgart members gathered on Friday evening February 10th to elect a new chair for our Stuttgart Chapter.
The evening began with each of our two candidates sharing their vision for the future of our chapter. After the candidate speeches, came a lively question and answer period with topics ranging from corporate influence on our party to DA’s relationship to German activist groups.
Under the watchful eyes of two former Chapter Chairs, the ballots were counted. With a clear majority of votes, Ann Hesse became our new Chair.
Many thanks to our outgoing Chair, Sumner Sherman, for the hard work, effort and dedication he gave to our chapter.
We would also like to thank all of our many members who participated and demonstrated how real grass-roots democracy works!
(Photo, Four Chairs: Kerin Black, Ann Hesse, Sumner Sherman, Sandra Payne)