The Chemist: Say Hi to Dr. Michelle Ward

Hey everyone! Happy Mother’s Day to all moms and those that play the mom role! In honor of your special day, we decided to highlight moms in our field that are killing the game! I decided to talk to Dr. Michelle Ward. She’s one of my absolute favorite people I met at Pitt. I was an undergrad TA for a lab course she taught and the rest is really history. She’s one of the most supportive women I’ve ever met and she’s near and dear to my heart. Here’s a little bit about her. She’s a Pittsburgh native who got her B.S. and B.S.Ed. from the university of North Dakota. She then came to Pitt and received her M.S. and Ph.D. Currently, she wears many hats, as most moms do, and she’s a Lecturer and Analytical Laboratory Director, she instructs Introductory Analytical Chemistry, Instrumental Analysis, and General Chemistry II lectures and coordinates the analytical laboratory course.

Okay! Now to the questions!

How was your Mother’s Day? What’d you do?

I sort of cheated and had more of a Mother’s Day weekend.  I relaxed by playing in the dirt.  I finished the perennial flowerbed in front of our house and the vegetables in the back. I love playing in the dirt – it’s one of those things that you can get both immediate and long-term satisfaction in.  Often in our profession, I feel like nothing is ever “done”, so it is very relaxing to transform something and be done – well aside from the weeding that is.  The weekend was capped off with one of my favorite meals with my family.

What’s your favorite thing about motherhood?

This might be the hardest question I have ever been asked.  There are so many things that I love and they change as the seasons of motherhood changes.  My baby boy is now 24 and I have a 17-year-old bonus son (my partner’s son).  I love that both of them have a sense of who they are, nowhere near what I did at either of those ages.  I love to watch them do things I never had the chance and/or courage to. There is nothing better in the world than when your kids are happy.

Favorite memory of your son growing up?

Again, this is a hard one … I could list a bunch.  I will try to keep it related to my experiences in graduate school.  I started my Ph.D. program as a single mother when my son started kindergarten.  I have fond memories of him doing his homework at the kitchen table, while I was doing my version of the same. I loved being a homeroom mom and going to every soccer game he every played.  One of my favorites is when he came to my dissertation defense dressed in his suite and sat in the front row; when it was over he said “I don’t know what all that meant but you sounded really smart Mom.” My other favorite was when my family went out after my hooding ceremony to celebrate at a restaurant – he offered to put our name on the waitlist.  When I heard “party for Dr. Mom” I melted.  He has been so supportive of me over all my seasons!

What’s your favorite thing(s) about your job?

Devin could have answered this one for me … my kiddos.  I don’t use that term in any way but purely out of affection. I have proudly worn the title of “science mom” for some over the years. I strive to do all I can to help them achieve success, recognizing that that term holds different definitions for different students.  Sometimes I will hear people my age complain about the youth and the future of our country … I always tell them that if they met the young people I have been fortunate enough to work with, they would know the future is in great hands. I am the professor that takes Kleenex to the departmental graduation ceremony every year … I am crying selfishly because I will miss seeing them regularly, but also in such pride for them and what they have and will accomplish in their lives. There isn’t a dollar sign you could ever put on a job for getting to feel that over and over.  I have a job that seldom feels like a job because of the young adults I get to work with.

I definitely could’ve answered that! I vividly remember how she was at my graduation when she met my family for the first time. I promise you, she’s a pure gem!

How do you balance motherhood and your job?

I am listening to a book right now where the author mentioned there is no true work/life balance as long as both sides are taken care of to the same amount at the same time.  I liked the extended explanation she gave, as it resonated with why I got an equilibrium sign tattoo.  Sometimes things stress our balance in life and we have respond in a way to relieve that stress.  It took me 8 years to get my Ph.D., for example, but I never missed my son’s school and athletic events during that time.  To me, it was worth going slower on one front to prioritize another that I wouldn’t get a second chance to attend to.  As he got older I was able to put more time into the progression of my career, as he didn’t need me nearly as much.  And it probably goes without saying, having people in my life to rely on was everything.  (If you have the chance, you should look up the book Mom the Chemistry Professor.   It is a compilation of many stories of how moms have found a way to be successful on both fronts.)

Biggest challenge you’ve faced on your journey? How did you overcome it?

Honestly, this is on the personal front.  The loss of my father rocked my world.  I was a true daddy’s girl. I try to make him proud of my decisions and accomplishments, personally and professionally.  I have an amazing family and friends that are like family that keep me grounded. My coworkers and students at Pitt were extremely instrumental in the beginning stages of trying to work through grief. Starting a new kind of family with my partner Kevin has really helped me move through the real depths of my grief – my dad would have loved the fact that I found a real partner in life. I realized that I needed to accept that although he is missed every day, that’s because I was so fortunate to have had his love and support. I needed to look around and enjoy all the love I still have around me.

What’s a piece of advice you always give your son and your students?

It’s not when you finish, it’s how you finish. You need to live your life and complete your academic training on a timescale that is yours not anyone else’s. You need to finish in a way that shows your true abilities.

Since we love showcasing our non-STEM sides, what are your favorite non-STEM hobbies? Why?

I think I already answered this one. Haha.  I love gardening and painting around the house.  I love the ability to transform something plain into something beautiful or homey. On a much more practical level from a day-to-day standpoint – I LOVE food.  I love trying out new recipes or a new restaurant/cuisine.

What advice would you give women trying to pursue STEM?

There is a lot of advice I would give.  I will try to keep it short. Believe in yourself and your abilities.  Put in the hard work.  Advocate for yourself. Find a mentor (at least one). Find your people that will help and don’t be afraid to ask for the help when it is needed. Challenge yourself – if you aren’t at least a little nervous, you probably aren’t pushing yourself as far as you can.

As always, thank you soooo much Dr. Ward for taking the time out to be featured. You have been instrumental in my growth as a person and as a chemist. I truly love and appreciate you!

See you all next week!

-The Chemist