#ScienceMamas podcast: Rebecca Johnson

There’s no perfect time to start a family, says Rebecca Johnson, but do make sure you think about it in terms of your biology and health, as well as your career plans.

“It’s not going to be easy, whatever road you go down. I’m exhausted all the time!”

Rebecca Johnson was in her forties when she had her daughter in 2017. She is the dean of academics at the Marine Corps War College, and had been in this position for about a year and a half before she had her daughter last year.

I wanted to know whether it was a conscious decision to wait until this stage of her career/life to start a family. She had always known she’d wanted to be married before starting a family, and it just happened that she didn’t meet her husband until later in life. But, there are many young women who can’t decide when is the right time to have a family. Rebecca’s advice falls into two clear categories: biology and what’s right for you and your career.

  1. Biology: Know yourself in terms of your medical history. “I was almost 42 when my daughter was born… If your mum went through early menopause, waiting until your early forties might not be a responsible option for you.”
  2. Career stage: “I’ve known friends of mine who had their children when they were completing a PhD programme. I don’t think women necessarily have to wait to have their children, to develop themselves professionally. But was I would say though, is that I absolutely feel like since I’m more senior in my field I’ve got more credibility, I’ve got a reputation already.”

As a dean, Rebecca has to attend conferences to represent her school and her discipline. It’s not often that you see a senior academic with a tiny one in tow. For some, this is a big deal. For Rebecca, it’s not.

“She’s a baby… you see babies all the time. Like, what’s the drama? She’s not screaming in the room. She’s not disrupting the panel… The fact that the baby’s sitting here, breathing oxygen and not being in anyway disruptive, who cares?”

Having children doesn’t make working easy, but it can have a positive impact on your working career.

“She certainly makes me more efficient time manager. So this bias that working mums are somehow less capable I find laughable. Because I feel like I get so much more done now. It’s survival.”

Guilty feelings are something that every working mother has to deal with, no exceptions. But the placement of guilt is different for every woman, depending on which parts of your life take the hit. For Rebecca, it’s the home (“our house is a disaster”), but she also needs to make sure her relationship with her husband doesn’t take a hit.

“There’s a lot of me-and-her time, and him-and-her time. And a lot of the me-and-him time, is household management. And keeping the marriage relationship, when you’re exhausted. And I’m not just talking about sex… but just the general relationship: having a connection, a friendship and a bond, and emotional bond with your partner. It’s easy to let that slide because you know it’s good and there are all these other fires you’ve got to put out…. you need to stay invested in it.”

Based on her experiences, Rebecca pulled together some lovely bits of advice:

  1. “If you want to start a family, and you feel like you’re ready enough… you don’t have to wait until you’re in your forties. Go for it.”
  2. Be prepared to make some adjustments.
  3. Don’t worry about what other people think. “You don’t have to make it your responsibility to change other peoples minds. You live your life.”
  4. Your career doesn’t have to suffer. “Don’t pull back from your professional responsibilities, stay involved in your career and continue to try for those promotions and professional opportunities, but be thinking about how you can incorporate family, in terms of a child, into your career. And certainly, as soon as you know you’re pregnant, be thinking about:
    1. Who can cover your responsibilities when you’re on maternity leave?
    2. What does maternity leave look like at your organisation?
    3. What do childcare options available to you?
    4. How are you going to accommodate work and this new family that you’re building?
    5. Plan, plan and plan some more (but be aware of bumps in the road) “The more you can plan for it, and find ways within that plan to really invest in your own professional development (not silly committee work that doesn’t have anything to do with your professional growth)… the better position you’re in to continue to develop through the pregnancy and through childhood.””

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

#ScienceMamasAtWork: Julie Gould

This #Sciencemama are made to feel very welcome at the 2018 ORPHEUS meeting at the University of Iceland, Reykjavik.

Here I am, with Tiny Human, interviewing Bob Harris from the Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, whilst at ORPHEUS 2018 [Image credit Joeri Wielandts, KU Leuven]

Having a baby is awesome! But working with a tiny one can be difficult, especially if you need to travel.

But in this day-and-age, it shouldn’t be an issue. As Rebecca Johnson says in the May 2018 #ScienceMamas podcast:

“She’s a baby… you see babies all the time. Like, what’s the drama? She’s not screaming in the room. She’s not disrupting the panel… The fact that the baby’s sitting here, breathing oxygen and not being in anyway disruptive, who cares?”

So, it was to my great delight that the team at the 2018 ORPHEUS conference were very supportive. When I told them about my pregnancy, and that I could only come if the baby, and some help(!), could come too. They didn’t hesitate: they said they would be able to pay for another adult to come to the meeting to help take care of baby. They also arranged for us to stay in an apartment on campus at the University of Iceland, rather than in a hotel in the city, to make our lives easier when we were there.

So thank you ORPHEUS!

Another #ScienceMama that went to a conference is Rebecca Johnson, who shared her story on the #ScienceMamas podcast 

#ScienceMamas podcast: Eileen Parkes

Keeping in touch with the research whilst on maternity leave can put you in a better position for negotiating project ownership, says Eileen Parkes.

Image credit: Eileen Parkes

Eileen Parkes decided that instead of being a doctor of medicine, she wanted to go into cancer research. So, she started a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in August 2012. And to everyone’s  surprise she turned up to her PhD pregnant!

“I think when I spoke to my supervisor he was a bit taken aback… but he said I was right not to wait.”

It was her first pregnancy and keeping up with the workload proved a challenge, especially as it happened at the same time as a career shift.

“I tried to keep up and do everything as ell as I could. But I guess, you are pregnant, you are tired. You can’t keep on top of things. I was starting a PhD, so I was learning all these new techniques that I had never done before. It was very different to how I worked as a doctor in medicine. So I did find that a bit of a struggle.”

For Eileen one of the bigger struggles was when she came back from maternity leave, and felt slightly removed from others in her lab who didn’t have children.

“I felt they didn’t really understand what was involved… if the creche phoned and I said: I’m midway through this experiment, can you finish it for me? I have to go right now and pick up my child.”

When Eileen started her first postdoc in August 2016, she also turned up pregnant! With both pregnancies, she struggled with ownership of the project.

“And trying to take ownership of the project again I struggled with both times when I’ve come back from maternity leave. Trying to go: Right. I’ve working on this and I’ve built it up and I want to keep working on it. And yet someone else has maybe done some of it when I’ve been off, but I still want to have ownership of it overall…”

But the second time, she made sure to put some rules in place for when she returned.

“I have…tried to put clear “this is my project, this is what I expect to come back to after maternity leave” and kind of discuss with my supervisor better the second time round, how things will work, who will work on it while I’m off and what my role will be when I come back.”

The difficult thing, as Eileen says, is that as a postdoc you never really “own” your work.

“I suppose I am a postdoc as well, you never really have complete ownership of your work. It always belongs to the PI. But what I’ve always done is try to come back with fresh ideas and new ways of moving the projects forward. I’ve tried to stay in touch with the literature and kind of understand where the field is generally.”

Yet despite her contingency plans for returning to work, Eileen’s priority is her children.

“Your priorities should be your child, and no one should feel under pressure to keep on top of the literature and everyone should do what is right for them. For me, it felt right this time that I kept in touch with things. I was excited to see what was happening in the field and to see what shifts there were coming up.”

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

#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!

#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.