For many female scientists, serious career dilemmas begin with thoughts of bringing up baby. Should you have a child before or after tenure? How will you find the timenot to mention the energyto do it all?
In past decades, female scientists often gave up hope of having a family. But fewer are willing to do so today. "My life would have been empty without children," says Whitehead Institute Director Susan L. Lindquist, a mother of two teenage daughters. In fact, Lindquist says she would have opted for children over an academic career, if forced to choose. "I'm very happy I didn't have to make that decision."
Instead, she and other scientist-moms have perfected the art of time management. Take Erin M. Schuman, a neurobiologist and HHMI investigator at the California Institute of Technology. Since her daughter's birth in 1999, Schuman has become a master juggler. In the first two weeks of her daughter's life, she wrote a review for the journal Neuron. A few weeks later, she co-chaired a scientific conference with her child held close. Routinely, Schuman works at home two mornings a week. "It really is possible to be a good mom and keep your lab running," she says.
Of course, there are always a few obstacles, obliging the woman to be a resourceful master juggler. Schuman recalls her own frustrations, from unhelpful meeting coordinators to a lack of childcare. She put her name on the waiting list for on-site day care at Caltech when she was just 5 months pregnant. More than two years later, when baby Charlotte had grown into a toddler, she finally got a spot.
"You have to be creative about problem-solvingflexible and yet organized," says Judith Kimble, a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Kimble was 38 and well on her way to tenure when she had a childand only one. "I saw other women struggling with two or three kids, and I wasn't sure I was up for that," Kimble says. She also counts herself lucky to have a supportive spouse and community.
"I think we need a change in attitude," Schuman says. "A child needs the most focused attention for the first four years of life, so it's really not that much [of a professional setback] to spend a little less time in the lab and more time with a child. If we encouraged people to have families, women wouldn't drop out of science so much."
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Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
June 2002, pages 20-25.
©2002 Howard Hughes Medical Institute