Mixing science and a family

When is the best time to fit pregnancy into a busy lab schedule?
08 July 2019

Interview with 

Kathleen Flint Ehm, Stoney Brook University


Ultrasound on pregnant lady


Each month on the eLife Podcast we also try to consider some of the social aspects of science and life as a scientist. This time, we’re looking at the scientific workforce, which has changed dramatically in recent decades. For a start there are far more women progressing through the discipline. But the scientific career structure itself has not kept pace with these changes, particularly when it comes to the question of fitting in a family. Kathleen Flint Ehm is the Director for Graduate and Postdoctoral Development at Stoney Brook University. Talking to Chris Smith, she explains how she's spent a lot of time looking at this issue across her career…

Kathleen - I hear stories from postdocs who are doing job interviews from the delivery room. I hear about researchers who are coming back from maternity leave and doing work far before their doctors would recommend. And so I think somewhere in between the fear that someone is going to take a year off of research because of pregnancy, and the reality of these early career moms who are barely taking time for themselves to recover before they turn back again to their research and their career; somewhere in between there something has to give. I think part of that is that we need to change the culture around childbearing and family-friendly environment.

Chris - So what do you think it is that's got to give? Do you think the funders should exert influence and say, well rather than have this time-bound funding, that means automatically the project's going to suffer because you're going to run out of road if that person takes a year off; or do you think the institutions have to say, well we'll make the institution more friendly; or actually is it both?

Kathleen - You know that's a really good question, and I think the simple answer is that it's both at some level. Now funding agencies work differently in different countries and have different types of constraints. Here in the US our federal agencies that fund most of science have actually gone on the record as being quite family-friendly, and have put a number of policies into place that have been trying to make research more amenable to taking a short break. For example, providing funding for temporary technicians to come into the lab to do work while a key team member might be out on leave for whatever reason. And I think that these are a great start, but I think the environment and frankly personnel policy is really set by the institution. And so in practice you need to change the local environment and the local personnel policies at the individual institutions.

Chris - The other issue is of course science is an international pursuit, and many people bolster their CV by working all over the place. And that's great but it's not family-friendly either.

Kathleen - No it's not, and this was actually something that we found in some of the focus groups that we conducted when I was at the National Postdoctoral Association. One of the big issues that comes up of course is: for every woman who's going to start a family, start having kids, adopting children, having that broader family support network is very important. For academics who are rolling wherever the next job may be, it's harder to have those local networks. For international women it's even harder. And so that was a concern that I heard over and over again of, do I want to stay here in this country? Do I want to move back to my country and be nearer to my family? And I think once upon a time... we really think about who the typical researcher was, and the way that for example the postdoctoral phase of research was designed, it was really designed around the people who were doing science a couple of decades ago. They tended to be single men who could easily move around at the drop of a hat for any new position. And scientifically I still hear a lot of people talk about the importance of moving from institution to institution in order to broaden the reach of your science, to have more diverse ideas, and overall to be able to increase innovation.

Chris - Do you think the situation will solve itself in a way? Because the generation of people coming through tend to be of a different mindset than people of yesteryear. But also we have new technology coming to bear, and it's becoming a lot easier for instance to work from home productively. You don't necessarily hold yourself back through spending a bit more time not in the lab.

Kathleen - The danger is that if you're constantly in touch you also never have that distance from your science. But I I think that in this day and age we have some cultural shifts just naturally in the way that we do work. But I think that at the same time science is also becoming inherently more collaborative, and you're having these larger and larger teams. If it's science that requires big instruments or big labs or things like that, some of it still needs to be done in person. So I think that we still need to be mindful of these issues even as the models for doing science are also evolving.

Chris - So if you had a young woman who's an early career scientist sitting in front of you now, what would be your number one, number two, and number three most important pieces of advice you would give her, for both a successful but a family-fulfilling career?

Kathleen - I think my very first piece of advice would be to sit back and take stock of the things that you find most satisfying and successful for success, and to define what success means for you. I think my next step would be: really think about what success or satisfaction also means for you in your personal life, whatever that may be. That may include family, that may not, but understanding your own personal values is just as important as understanding your technical skills and where you want to go with your job. My third piece of advice in particular for those early career researchers who are thinking about starting families is: make sure that you have a supportive partner. Half of, I think, the great advice that we hear from people is that for all the good planning that you do, no plan is perfect; and so being able to have a team on your side that can help you get where you want to go and balance all your priorities is going to be really key.


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