Forced Out of the Academic Pipeline

Sandra Koch
3 min readMay 22, 2019

As all researchers in the UC system know, securing funding to support your work can be an arduous process. Grants are extremely competitive. As a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of Molecular Cell & Developmental Biology (MCDB) at UCLA, I fought hard for funds to study neurobiological brain development in fruit flies, with the goal of gaining insight that may aid in developing therapies for human neurological disorders.

Before now, walking away from a funded, possibly groundbreaking project was all but unthinkable. And yet, at the end of next month, I will mostly likely be packing up and leaving my work on a dusty shelf.

My dream of becoming a scientist began when I was a young girl in Germany. And at UCLA, performing cutting-edge research in a lab on campus, I felt like my dream had come true. I worked next to brilliant people on important studies that moved our field forward. I also built a life, made friends and had a child, a baby boy who is almost 2.

In early 2017, however, my dream began to darken. After a successful year in my lab, I had secured another two-year appointment and the funding to support it. After celebrating, I shared with my boss that I was pregnant. I could feel the air in the room change immediately. I would like to say that I was confused, but the truth is that I had a premonition of what was coming next.

Shortly after, I was asked to leave. Pregnant and stressed, I looked to the work of another UC researcher. Mary Ann Mason, a legal scholar at UC Berkeley, published a 2009 study entitled Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline. Her conclusion is that a lack of family-friendly policies has built an academy where women are discouraged from holding senior roles (and thus ‘leak out’ of the pipeline). Indeed, at UC, women hold just 33% of tenured faculty positions, although we earn 53% of the PhDs nationally.

Feeling that I was about to become a statistic, I raised pregnancy discrimination issues with UCLA’s Title IX office — and learned shortly after that I was not the only postdoc in my lab to do so. I also filed a grievance through my union, UAW 5810. The result was a settlement that enabled me to move into a new lab. I was thrilled to continue my work in a positive environment with wonderful colleagues — and we are making real progress. Others have also recognized the value of our work: after completing another grant gauntlet, I have new funding that will enable us to deliver a positive research outcome for the University.

I thought, for a brief moment, that I would be able to stay in the pipeline — that the academy had figured out a way to police its worst instincts and protect women like me from discrimination.

But I was wrong. Despite my having secured the funding to continue my work, and despite my supervisor’s wish for me to continue performing research in his lab, UCLA’s Human Resources department has said they will not allow me to work at UCLA past June. This is an incredibly unusual decision — neither myself, any of my colleagues nor my union can think of an instance in which this has happened before. I cannot help but believe that had I not spoken up about the discrimination I experienced, this would not be happening.

When I signed the settlement with UCLA, I believed that we were closing the book on how I was treated — and that I would be able to move forward with my career. I did not imagine, and would not have signed it, had I known that the retaliation for reporting discrimination was merely being delayed.

As a mother, losing my job means losing my health care. As an international worker, it means I will have to leave the country and my partner behind — we cannot afford to lose both of our jobs at the same time. It means that I will end up fitting neatly into one of Mason’s columns after all, and will leave the funding I worked so hard for, and my dream of being a scientist, on that dusty shelf. And it means, in a broader sense, that retaliation against women who speak up is alive and well, and even accepted, at the University of California.