I met Michelle Rafacz when she gave a presentation on global warming to my Environmentalism in the US Culture. I was fascinated with her experience and the vast amount of knowledge she had on the environment, she made learning exciting by connecting large topics to simple meanings. I was inspired by her confidence and passion for her career path. Michelle is a women who has worked hard to manifest her position as a biologist, a professor, and a mother. She is an old soul with infinite thirst for knowledge and positive change. Enjoy this interview, reading this piece is a empowering experience and a reminder to do what you love.
- What is your personal mantra?
Never stop questioning and learning! All too often these days, people tend to blindly accept information that they are given or that they can access too easily. This may just stem from my passionate curiosity about the world, but I believe this is so important for one to grow as a human being. Humility and gratitude are also paramount to the way I live my life. Don’t pretend to have all of the answers, don’t be afraid to be wrong, and openly admit to your mistakes—you might just help someone else or even learn something about yourself that can change your life in a positive way!
- What got you interested in science?
I’m mostly interested in big-picture or macro-science—animal behavior, evolution, and environmental science. As far back as I can remember, I loved being outside and connecting with nature, and I benefited so much from my parents being fervent nature-lovers! I remember always wondering what different animals were thinking and what drove their behavior. In high school, I discovered the field of animal behavior, and once I realized I could study animals as a career, there was no looking back!
Since then, I’ve studied the social learning behavior of birds, social and parental behavior of primates in the Costa Rican rainforest and in zoos, and the effect of hormones on reproduction and conservation of endangered species, including African painted dogs and the black-footed ferret, a species native to the U.S. that we’re now successfully bringing back from the brink of extinction!
- What is your educational experience?
I received a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Environmental Science from Knox College, M.S. in Biology from Loyola University Chicago, and M.S. and Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Chicago. I also received a post-doctoral position in Behavioral Endocrinology and Conservation Biology at the Lincoln Park Zoo. I still hold the position of Adjunct Scientist at Lincoln Park Zoo. I’m so lucky because the zoo has become my research laboratory and a fantastic place to bring my college students to learn about conservation and animal behavior. I also get to work with CPS students to teach them about science, and I’ve learned so much from those experiences, too!
- Did you have any difficulty starting a career right after college?
Yes! Some of it was self-induced because I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do for a career—it’s a hugely overwhelming decision! I also wasn’t sure how far I wanted to take my graduate education, which is how I ended up with two master’s degrees before I completed my Ph.D. After completing my post-doctoral work, I realized that there weren’t enough job opportunities in conservation research departments at zoos, and so I decided to apply for a tenure-track biology faculty position in the Science & Mathematics Department at Columbia College. I wanted to experience a more immediate impact of my work, and teaching was the answer. My first year teaching in September 2011 was one of the most challenging in my entire life, but I soon realized that being a professor at Columbia truly is my dream career—interacting with students is the absolute best part of my job. I’m grateful every single day that I get to be inspired by my students! They make me a better professor and a better scientist. Thankfully, I’m up for tenure at the end of this year!
- Science is such a male-dominated field, have you come across any difficulties being a women working in that industry?
I have, but most of the discrimination I’ve dealt with was while I was in graduate school. Typically, it came from male students and male professors. I can remember feeling like I was always working much harder than my male counterparts to prove my worth as a student and as a scientist. Thankfully, all throughout college, grad school, and at the zoo I had strong, supportive female mentors who instilled in me a self-confidence that I carried with me to Columbia. I’m also fortunate to have very supportive male and female colleagues in my department.
- How has being a working mother affected your life?
Wow, that’s a tough question because it’s affected every aspect of my life! I was lucky that I gave birth to my daughter last summer, because I got to spend almost 3 full months with her without having to take any maternity leave. Thinking back, however, I do wish that I could’ve taken more time off to be with her during the first year of her life. The problem was that it would have been unpaid leave, which is an entirely different national problem altogether!
My daughter is my number one priority now—even if I’m having a terrible day or if something doesn’t go right at work, she’s still what matters the most. Even receiving accolades at work (I just won a teaching award) is less exciting than my daughter learning to say “dog.” I’ve learned that you HAVE to be flexible when you’re a mom, which has really relaxed my type-A personality. I’ve also learned to REALLY multi-task—like work on 10 things at once! It can be very mentally exhausting!
Of course, I also experience intense mommy guilt—I leave before 6 AM for work, so I don’t get to see my daughter in the morning. But, I know that it’s all about the quality of the time you spend with your children that shapes who they will become. Plus, I want to be a good role model for my daughter and show her that you can be a mom and still have a fulfilling career. My own mom did that for me. Maybe I can’t do everything to the absolute best of my ability anymore, but I’ve learned to be okay with just doing it all pretty well and being happy.
- What advice do you have for women who want to balance work and motherhood?
If you aren’t mother yet, my advice would be to have some kind of plan for the future, and make sure you know yourself very well before you have children. This took me until I was 34 or 35! Being a mother is all about being self-less, and this can be a jolting reality for some. For those already trying to balance work and motherhood, I would say that as long as you’re trying your best, you’re doing a great job! If you show your children love and support and teach them about the world and what’s right and wrong, don’t feel guilty because your children will turn out just fine. Something that I’m currently struggling to do is to find time—even if it’s just a few minutes a day!—to spend with myself, alone, to reconnect with my own identity and decompress. I feel like you need to make sure you are your best self in order to serve as a good role model for your children. I’m working on it!
- What environmentally conscious practices do you implement into your life?
In general, I try to live as sustainably as I can in whatever way I can. I recycle almost everything and never, ever waste food or clothing or other goods. I also try to be very mindful about conserving water by limiting showers and reducing my use of electricity by always turning off lights, unplugging appliances when not in use, and keeping the heat and air conditioning off as much as possible. I also make sure I know where all of my food comes from (I grow much of my own produce in a community garden), and I try to buy food that is sustainably grown or raised. I also tend to eat a mostly vegetarian diet.
I think the most important practice, however, is that of teaching my daughter to be conscious of her own impact on the environment through my own actions. Although I can’t know for sure what the world will look like once my daughter is grown, I do know that showing her how to live sustainably now certainly can’t hurt. Education and action are the best tools we can provide to young people if we want them to change the world, even if they aren’t even a year old yet!