#Sciencemamas podcast: Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner


In 2012, at the age of 37, Bethany Kolbaba Kartchner, a stay-at-home mother of six children ages 2-12, decided that she wanted to become a PhD-level biochemist. This career change required her to return to academia to take the necessary classes to apply to a doctorate program. To reduce any disruptions to her family’s schedule, she took one online class a semester at a community college. For 4 years, she studied from 4-6 AM before her children started their day. Eventually, to complete the required upper division classes, she enrolled at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. As her children matured, she got involved in protein design in the lab of Jeremy Mills where she fell in love with research. In 2018, she started the PhD program in Biochemistry at ASU. She will defend her thesis in 2023. 

Bethany believes that her strong support network is the key to successfully navigating her career change. She sees her support network as two parts. The first is a local network consisting of friends and family. Her husband, children, and parents are a tremendous source of emotional and physical support. The second part is less tangible and consists of the examples and stories of other female role models. One story that Bethany found especially inspirational was of a woman scientist with 6 children who received an award for excellence in research. “I thought, that’s me! And if she can do it, I can do it.”

As Bethany’s career change trajectory gathered speed, she made it a point to prepare both herself and her family for her increasing time away from home to work in the lab. Her husband was able to establish a more flexible work schedule so he could take over meal preparation and grocery shopping and she taught her children to be more self-sufficient. For herself, she got very serious about her time management skills.She also became very creative in her work schedule. She is fortunate that she has the support of her colleagues, PI, and other faculty members as she navigates a flexible schedule. “I feel like everyone is rooting for me and cheering me on,” she says.

Mom guilt was a challenge that Bethany wrestled with throughout her life until she met Jane Clarke, a renowned scientist-mother, and now president of Wolfson College in Cambridge, UK. When Bethany learned that Jane also returned to academia later in life to obtain her doctorate, she asked her what advice she would give her younger self starting on that path. Jane’s answer really struck a nerve. She said, “I would tell myself that the children are just fine. They’re doing fine.” This statement pushed Bethany to rethink the mom guilt that often manifested itself as worry. She realized that worrying about her children all the time “isn’t helping them in any way and it isn’t helping me in any way. If there is a problem that I need to address as a mother in raising my children, worrying about it isn’t going to address it. It is just wasted energy. I think that it is better if there is a problem, to face it head on as opposed to wasting that energy on that worry…So when I did start to worry, I would ask myself is there really a basis for this? Do I really need to be concerned about this? Or is this just me being silly? Whenever I decided it was me being silly, I would redirect my thoughts to something more productive because that mother guilt isn’t productive for anyone.” 

#Sciencemamas podcast: Alexandra Olaya-Castro


Alexandra Olaya-Castro is a Colombian-born theoretical physicist, mother of two, and professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London. She is also the Vice-Dean over Equality, Diversity and Inclusion of the Mathematical and Physical Science Faculty.

As a successful scientist-mother in the male-dominated field of physics, she is frequently asked how she is able to balance her work as a mother while making progress as a scientist. She responds with four pieces of advice. The first is to build a strong support network, whether that network is composed of a group of people or just one good person. “Having a strong support network gives you the tranquility to be able to tackle work issues without having to worry about many of those family issues.” 

The second piece of advice is to be aware that “sometimes you will need to accept that you will have to put a lot of your focus on your work and sometimes you will need to accept that you will need to put your whole focus on your family.  You will need to decide which frequency is the best for you.” Like most science mamas, Alexandra has struggled with mother guilt. However, she also realized early on that it was a horrible cycle that she needed to break. She did this by learning to trust herself. From experience, she knows that she won’t forget what is most important.

The third piece of advice is that multitasking is a fallacy. “You can try to do it, but it is unsustainable. You will feel overworked. You will feel overloaded. You will feel too tired. And in the end you will feel that you will feel like you are inadequate on all fronts.” Alexandra knows that science mamas have a limited amount of time so prioritizing one’s focus is the only way to make progress. Before she was a mother, she would work at all hours and attend as many seminars as she could even if they weren’t in her field. Once she became a mother, she got choosier about how she spends her time at work. If publishing a paper or attending a conference will further her progress more than another activity, she will make sure that is her priority. “The only way to make it is to optimize the time to do the things that are the most important and accept that you won’t be able to do it all.  You have to learn that some things have to give and you need to identify which things are the most important and put your energy on those.”

Her fourth piece of advice is to take the time to exercise even when it is difficult to fit in. She says, “without it my mind wouldn’t work.”

#ScienceMamas podcast: Cara Tannenbaum


As a young researcher-in-training, Cara Tannenbaum was so in love with science that she was not sure she wanted to have children. However, life had other plans.  Now, in addition to being a mother of four, she is a professor in the Faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy at the Université de Montréal, Canada, the scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Departmental Science Advisor for Health Canada. 

Mid-career, she was a single mother of two, wrangling the challenges of childcare and work responsibilities with the often associated mother-guilt. Advice from other mothers flipped the way she viewed mother-guilt. She was advised to refrain from telling her children that she felt guilty about working, but instead to tell them how excited she was about her science and her job.

“I had to change my narrative to be more positive….The words that you use, what you communicate is important.” -Cara Tannenbaum

For example, instead of apologizing to her children for attending an international conference, she told them how much she looked forward to communicating her science and seeing her friends. She also made a date with them once she returned to discuss their experiences. Later on, one of her children mentioned how much her enthusiasm for her job meant to him.

When it comes to work-life balance, what she has learned is that a perfect balance is not possible and that quality time and finding fulfillment is a better metric. “I’ve given up the term balance. How you seek balance. That is just not a realistic aim in my opinion if you’re going into academia. But, what you can seek is fulfillment.” She goes on to state, “You can’t have it all. In the pizza pie of life, there’s going to be one slice that just is always going to be missing….There’s going to be different moments where you’re going to have to prioritize and for me that’s about quality and fulfillment not necessarily a perfect balance.” -Cara Tannenbaum

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