Earning a PhD: A Family Affair

by Jennifer Cochran Biederman, guest author

As a little girl, my dad (a fish biologist and college professor) never read me the classic storybooks – you know, those ones bursting with bright, colorful illustrations and creative story-lines about cute hungry caterpillars or precocious talking cats. Instead, each night, I would curl up at the end of the bed, close my eyes, and listen as he read me the tales of famous scientists. The ones I remember most were those written by and about female field biologists like Rachel Carson, Eugenie Clark, and Sylvia Earle – to name a few.

Carson Clark Earle
Carson, Clark, and Earle…leaders in the field.

At times I wondered why my father didn’t read with sing-songy inflections like my mom or with entertaining animation like my favorite children’s librarian. Instead, his voice (which I later recognized when sitting as a student in one of his lectures) was always soft and his tone was deliberate as he narrated their tales of scientific inquiry and adventure. His words sang with the tenor of curiosity that is science at its core – and left a lasting imprint on my mind. Long before I could understand the scientific nuances of their research – much less read – I ached to follow in the footsteps of these famous female scientists.

Baby Flow Meter

Fast-forward a couple dozen years. As I write this, I hold my beautiful baby girl in my arms. She’s sleeping soundly after a busy day out in the field. Along with my husband/doting daddy/most trusted field assistant and our much-loved lab named Lu, our afternoon was spent catching brown trout and collecting aquatic invertebrates.


This family day of research, the final stretch of field sampling for my PhD project, was a day I feared might never happen. The timing of our baby girl was unexpected. It was exactly a year ago that we learned of her pending arrival. Amidst the flurry of teaching full time at a small university, finishing my PhD, a brand new puppy and a stressful home renovation in its fifth (and unlikely final) year, the word baby wasn’t planned to enter our vocabulary for at least a few years.


After the news settled in, my sleepless prenatal nights were full of worry and wonder. How could I finish my last year of field research – much less the endless hours of teaching, lab work, analysis and dissertation writing ahead – with a little bambino by my side? Then, one night my mind wandered back to those nights spent curled up on my parents’ bed listening to my father read. Although the books were mostly about the research and careers of those famous women, their stories revealed a great deal about the obstacles females faced when attempting to carve out a career in science. Social and cultural barriers to education and inclusion within the scientific community were significant – and far more challenging than any obstacles I face. When I ponder how these bold pioneers paved the pathway – my pathway – for women as practitioners of science – I feel humbled…and reassured.


Since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a fisheries biologist… a female fisheries biologist… a female fisheries biologist who is also a mom…and a wife…and a student…and a teacher… I identify with all of these things, but being all of these things at once is another story.


Thankfully, my world is different than that of the first few waves of female scientists in the last century. Throughout my life I have received mentorship, guidance, and encouragement of both men and women in my field. Today, gender roles aren’t so strictly defined, and technology (especially the Internet) fosters flexibility when it comes to balancing work and life. With a husband who works nights – and who is equally as eager to help with domestic duties as he is with catching fish in the field – I can squeeze a little more out of each day. (Having a makeshift lab set up in the kitchen helps, too). And, with my future field technician-in-training at my side (drool, giggles, and all), I can’t imagine life any other way.

Tonight, before I tuck my little lady into bed, I’ll read her a story or two as she falls asleep. But, instead of an age-appropriate picture book, I think I’ll reach for one of the classics….


Jennifer is a PhD student in the Conservation Biology program at the University of Minnesota where she was awarded the Cargill Fellowship to study coldwater streams. Her research is investigating relationships between trout diet and growth across seasons in coldwater streams of Southeast MN.

Jennifer Cochan Biederman

As a quick note, Patrick Cooney with The Fisheries Blog met Jennifer and her husband, Trevor, a year and a half ago in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Their enthusiasm for fisheries science, each other, and life was immediately apparent.  I have a feeling you will hear more from them (and the bambino) in the future.

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