Science plus parenthood

31 May 2018

Interview with

Susanne Franssen, Sanger Institute, and Daniel Fabian, University of Cambridge

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What it’s like to be a scientific parent? In April 2018, eLife published a series of insights into the lives of researchers juggling the demands of lab work and a young family. Chris Smith went to meet Dan, Susanne and Clara...

Chris - Hello it's Chris here. <sounds of door opening...>

Susanne - My name is Susanne Franssen and I work as a postdoc at the Sanger Institute.

Dan - And my name is Daniel Fabian and I also work as a postdoc, at the University of Cambridge.

Susanne - - And we are at our flat where all three of us live. This is me. I'm the mum. And then we have the dad and our little daughter, Clara, who is almost one and half years old.

Chris - And dad, Daniel, what do you do?

Dan - So I'm studying evolutionary biology. And specifically how which genes are involved in determining the immune response to viruses and other parasites.

Susanne - I'm also doing evolutionary biology and in particular I'm looking at the genomes of parasites that are in the tropics.

Chris - So the pair of you are quite interested in infectious diseases and immunity and stuff? Because most people only discover what their immune systems are really for when they have kids.

Dan - Yes I can totally confirm this, in particular because kids don't have very good immunity. They get ill all the time and particularly when they start going in to the nursery.

Chris - So she's sort of nursery age. How are you sort of feathering in maintaining an active research life while also trying to fit around your first child?

Susanne - In the morning, we get ready, we have to get her ready. She's going to the nursery that is on site of the genome campus where I work. We go there, I leave her there, then I have some hours of research until the nursery closes. And then I pick her up and then we have to make her happy first.

Chris - Is it compatible with the way that you were working as an early career scientist before Clara came along?

Dan - I think it is quite different now, as you can imagine. We don't have as much time as before. For instance, I used to work almost every weekend. If I would be doing this, I would not have any chance to play with my daughter, or raise her, or help at home.

Chris - Have you changed how you work though? Do you find that you do less, but what you do do, you do better because you're more focused on what you do? Or do you think there has been a cost?

Dan - Yes. So I'm I think I've become more efficient since Clara was born, particularly, I know I have now much more limited time so I'm trying to really focus and try to get as much done as possible in the time that I have.

Susanne - For me, certainly. Especially because I have to bring her there and I have to pick her up because she works next to me, which is good. But of course it also means that really my time is limited to the time that she's there. For me, generally it also helps that my work is computer based so I can also do things from home. But especially in the beginning when she is small that is not so easy, because also in the evenings she's demanding and she doesn't want to go to bed as early. That can be different for different kids but you have to fit it into the time that you have.

Chris - Do you think that science is particularly unforgiving for parenthood? Or do you think it wouldn't matter what career both of you were in, you'd still face all these challenges, it wouldn't matter?

Susanne - For science, generally I think you have more flexible time when you start and when you end. And you yourself have to be more the one who's looking after that you're doing enough work, and that you progress in your project. But of course you also need to have a good career track, because usually especially when you're at an early career stage, you have to have a good track record to be able to get the next job in the next ladder where it becomes more and more challenging, basically. Also to some extent, it depends quite a lot on the working environment, which can differ between groups. And at my current work environment, that is quite good because my boss also has kids and he understands that sometimes it doesn't go exactly as planned, and that also helps.

Chris - Does your experience give you any insight into why we have this big problem, which is that we're really good at recruiting women into science at the PhD level; there are loads of people who do PhD's who are female, and then you look a bit further down the track and they're all gone. And many people say it's once you get to the time when you think about having kids that's when they all evaporate and vanish. Do you have any insights into why that happens?

Susanne - For us, for example it was initially that she was being breast fed so of course it was me. It's still the women to a larger extent that are looking for the children and have some of the disadvantages. But yeah I can clearly see that this is hard. And also there's an issue when it's hard in the beginning to bring really young children to the nursery and then you also often have the feeling "is it good for my kid?" especially when they're staying full days and are still quite small. 

Chris - So you feel there's a sort of tension there? You know that you should be in the lab working but at the same time you don't want her in the nursery all day.

Dan - Well yeah it's it's a tradeoff between your career and how well you raise your kid. I think of course if you're not doing enough work then it's going to be bad for your kid, also in the long run they might need a bit more attention than when they are a bit older.

Chris - Well she looks pretty happy at the moment, do you think you're succeeding?

Susanne - Yeah. I think recently it's been going quite well, and also when they grow up you start to notice that they're having fun there. And you kind of at some point get the feeling staying all day at home with you would be maybe boring.

Chris - So what would be your advice or guidance to other people who find themselves in the same sort of position as you? Are there any "gotchas" or pitfalls or any things that you say "no don't be scared of that. That's something we were worried about but actually you don't need to be."

Dan - it's difficult, it always depends on the situation that you're in. For us we tried to plan having a kid, but then Clara came as a surprise. So I think one advice is that first of all if you can plan it, then you probably should plan it. But if you fail to plan it then you have no choice but to make the best out of everything, right?

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