#ScienceMamas podcast: Dame Athene Donald

If planning a career in academia, taking time to recover on maternity leave is no bad thing. “If you put things at work on a back-burner for a little while, you can step-up again later. That is totally fine.”

Dame Athene Donald
[Image credit: Gavin Bateman]

Happy International Women’s Day 2018! To celebrate, Dame Athene Donald, professor of physics, fellow of the Royal Society and master of Churchill College at the University of Cambridge, shares her #ScienceMama story on our podcast.

Athene started her first full-time position at the Cavendish (the physics department at the university) in the 1980s. She was unknowingly pregnant at the time, and  was the ONLY female full-time professor in the department.

“When the lectureship came up at the Cavendish… I went and talked to the guy who I guess was then head of department, but he was also, if you like, head of the area in which I was working. And I said: Look, I want to have a family. And he said to me: “Intelligent women should have children” which was incredibly encouraging.”

Thankfully, when Athene announced her pregnancy, no-one batted an eye.

“No one said “Look what happens when you appoint a woman!” No one said that to my face, and I never got any sense that they felt like that behind my back.”

The reason for this, Athene says, is that the system was naive. There had never been a woman, let alone a pregnant one, on the permanent academic staff at the Cavendish, so no one really knew how to support them or what to do. This gave Athene a lot of freedom to structure her academic and family lives as she wished.

“No one talked about it at all. Looking back, one of the things I remember very clearly about my maternity leave, was writing a lecture course whilst I was on mat leave, an coming back probably lecturing it that first term I was back… and now, people wouldn’t do that.”

This wasn’t the only “first” Athene experienced. Now more than ever, fathers are taking on the role as the primary carer for children. But when Athene’s children were young, this was rarely the case. Because of the job situation that Athene and her husband found themselves in, the made the joint decision that her husband would stay at home and care for the children whilst Athene continued in her role at the Cavendish.

“I think, as many a woman has done, he thought he might drop out for a little while, but not permanently…I think he found it hard to cope with if you like. It’s not easy.”

Athene has been working in academic science for three decades, and has seen many things change, including the attitudes that universities and their staff have to female scientists working and having children. But Athene doesn’t believe all the changes have been for the better.

“Now, it’s much more cold-blooded, if you like, that you have formally to declare what you’re doing. If I go back to when my children were small, I actually worked, what you might call, incredibly flexibly…and no one questioned where I was if I wasn’t in the department. And I think it’s much harder, the requirement that you sort of officially declare I am going to work the following hours.”

Athene has had a very successful career as an academic scientist, and so I asked her to share some advice on how to be a #ScienceMama:

  • discuss plans in advance with your partner;
  • work out how you might do it;
  • if you are staying in academic science for your entire life, the period when you are on maternity leave is really quite a small part. You can put things on a back-burner for a little while and you can step-up again later;
  • use the flexibility that academic careers offer;
  • don’t be frightened to try to combine being an academic and a mama;
  • don’t beat yourself up that you are not doing everything perfectly;
  • recognise that the time will come when your children will be less demanding and you can get back into it.

Don’t forget you can also listen (and subscribe!) to the ScienceMamas podcast on iTunes and on SoundCloud!

What questions do #ScienceMamas & #SciencePapas have?

Is there a good time to have children when you’re a research scientist?

  • Have you ever wondered how becoming a parent might affect your career trajectory and that of your spouse or partner?
  • What’s the best time to get pregnant?;
  • Is there a way to time my maternatiy leave perfectly with my teaching schedule?;
  • How do I negotiate maternity leave?;
  • How do I negotiate my working hours when coming back to work after maternity leave?;
  • How do I negotiate project ownership when I’m on maternity leave during my PhD/postdoc?
  • Child care?;
  • Where can I breastfeed/express on campus?;
  • Can I bring my child to the classroom/meeting/conference/dinner?;
  • How can I balance my fieldwork with my family commitments?;
  • Does having a family mean that people think I’m not serious about my career as a scientist?;
  • How much paternity leave do I get?

Have you got any other questions? If so, get in touch! I’d like to try and find some answers for you. OR, do you have the answer to any of the above questions. If so, get in touch too! I’d like to share your answers. You can contact me via the comments below, or send an email to thesciencemamas [at] gmail [dot] com

#ScienceMamas podcast: Becca Calisi

Having a family and becoming a parent shouldn’t affect your career in science, says #ScienceMama Becca Calisi.

Image credit: Becca Calisi

Becca Calisi is an assistant professor at UC Davis, California, where she runs a lab studies how the environment affects the brain, behaviour and health.

She has one 6 year old daughter, who arrived whilst she was a postdoc at UC San Diego, and a 1 year old son who arrived whilst she had her permanent position at UC Davis. In between that she spent time doing research in New York.

We talk about how important it is to think about where you work when it comes to having children – to find places that are supportive of families and working parents; about the importance of taking the time you need to recover from childbirth without having the stresses of work hanging over you…

“Here I am, one and a half weeks… post-partum, in my lab, giving an interview in a lab coat, and showing the TV crew everything. So, I think all of that, and the pressure as a new faculty member to prove myself, really took a toll. And I didn’t take care of me; I took care of everyone around me. But not me.” – Becca Calisi

But also about the importance of relaxing, delegating and letting go, when it comes to spending time away from a lab…

“I didn’t want my career to suffer in terms of being in my field. I didn’t want to appear as though I was slowing down. I had a big grant at the time, it was my first big grant at as a faculty member and I wanted to do good by it! And make sure I was keeping on a certain time-table… And it’s hard to relax. It’s hard to not be ambitious. It’s hard to not give it our all. I also didn’t see how I could not take these opportunities…” – Becca Calisi

If you want to find out more about post-partum depression, the US National Institute of Mental Health has some information about it, as done the National Health Service in the UK.

Don’t forget you can also listen (and subscribe!) to the ScienceMamas podcast on iTunes and on SoundCloud!

#ScienceMamas podcast: Karen McGregor

#ScienceMama Karen McGregor from the Daphne Jackson Trust talks about why it’s important to support parents who wish to return to a career in academic science.


#ScienceMama KAren McGregor
Printed with permission

Karen McGregor is a #ScienceMama turned #ScienceMama, #SciencePapa & #Scientist advocate, supporting people who wish to return to work in an academic research position after taking a career break.

In this podcast we talk about who, out of this group, most of takes a career break; why they do so; why it’s important to support them to return; and what that support can look like.

“The reality is that the majority of the fellowships that we offer are for people who have taken their break to raise a family. And the majority of those are for women, because women do still primarily take on the lead in childcare. So, it’s usually running at about 90% – 95% of the fellowships we give out go to women.” – Karen McGregor, Daphne Jackson Trust, UK.

You can also listen to this podcast on SoundCloud.

Why are you a #ScienceMama?

We wanted to know why it’s so worth being a #ScienceMama. So, we asked the #ScienceMamas on twitter! Let us know why YOU are a #ScienceMama and we will add your thoughts to the blog!