By Vanessa Fogg
A new book explores the challenges of balancing motherhood and a career in science
[Published 22nd August 2008 02:50 PM GMT ]
When toxicologist Rebecca Efroymson flew to Washington D.C. to defend a grant proposal before a federal agency, she lacked child care options and was forced to bring along her sick toddler. On the day of her presentation, she left her feverish, screaming son in a hotel room in the care of his grandparents, who had taken a train down from Philadelphia to babysit. Fatigued by lack of sleep, Efroymson admits that she did not give her best presentation, and her grant was not funded. "This was the first time that my split life might really have impacted my work and the viability of my job," she writes.
The "split life" between work and child rearing is one familiar to millions of working parents. For women, balancing work and family can present particularly difficult challenges in the highly competitive, often male-dominated world of research science. Efroymson's story is one of many told in a timely new book, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out .
Editor Emily Monosson has collected the voices and personal stories of 34 mother-scientists working in various fields. In eloquent and often witty essays, these women directly address the challenges of being mothers in the scientific workforce.
Contributors to this volume include biologists, physicists, geologists, and oceanographers. They are professors, writers, independent consultants, science policy experts, teachers, and government researchers. For those who fear that motherhood is incompatible with traditional scientific research careers, this book offers some stunning examples to the contrary. An atmospheric chemist writes of raising five children as she works and rises to a position of leadership at NASA. An astronomer raises four children, each born only eighteen months apart, as she first achieves tenure at the government Space Telescope Science Institute, then takes on a faculty position at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Other women seek non-traditional careers in a quest for balance, and forge new paths for themselves. The editor of the anthology, Monosson, is a prime example: trained as a toxicologist with a Ph.D from Cornell, she has established a career as an independent consultant, researcher, and writer.
The diversity of career paths described by Motherhood's essayists is impressive and eye-opening. These women demonstrate that there are number of different ways of balancing work and family life. Even for those who eventually end up in traditional careers, the road may be circuitous. Some of the women in these pages drop out of the workforce for a few years while their children are young, or work part-time. Many have setbacks, and make career compromises for a spouse's or their children's sakes. Some eventually return to the lab and tenure-track careers; testament that these traditional careers - often thought of as rigid, unyielding pathways - may have more flexibility than we have been led to believe. Indeed, the fluidity of scientific careers - the shifts between home life, academia, industry, government, and back again - becomes a major theme.
It is not all sunshine and success, of course. Many of these women also write movingly of the sacrifices they have made. Full professors admit wistfully that they wish they had been able to spend more time with their growing young children. Meanwhile, some of those who deviated from traditional research tracks report a twinge when they envision the scientific careers they might have had.
These pages also reveal that discrimination is alive and well in the twenty-first century. In one harrowing chapter, Gina Wesley-Hunt, an evolutionary biologist, tells of how she was fired in 2006 from a postdoctoral position at an unnamed institution. The reason for her dismissal? She was fired for being pregnant. As she learned to her shock: "The equal opportunity office and office overseeing interns and postdocs told me there was no policy that protected me. It was entirely up to my PI, and I was on my own."
Essays in the book are arranged chronologically, according to the date by which the writer's PhD was conferred. The book opens with scientists who received their PhDs in the 1970s, and marches onward through the 80s and 90s, ending with the voices of women who are in graduate school today. In this way, the book tracks the sweeping social changes of the past thirty years. Despite the great influx of women into science careers over the last decade, it is sobering to read that conflicts between work and family have not changed. Indeed, some of the essays in the last section read as though they could have been written decades ago.
Monosson provides social and historical context in her introduction, and to each section of the book. She notes that in the 1970s, women earned only 17% of the doctorates awarded in science and engineering. Today the figure is around 45%. However, women continue to be underrepresented in the highest tiers of scientific employment, and are more likely than men to work part-time or to leave science altogether. Monosson closely examines this phenomenon, dubbed "the leaky pipeline." She discusses the growing body of evidence which points to the demands of motherhood as a major cause of the leaky pipeline, citing the work of Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden, among others, who found that women academics who have babies at early stages of their careers are less likely than childless women to achieve tenure. As early as the 1970s, Monosson notes, there were published calls for more family-friendly and flexible career structures in the sciences. These calls have been repeated in each succeeding decade.
It is often said that motherhood is not for the faint of heart. The same could be said for a career in science. The debate over what causes the leaky pipeline, and remedies to address it, rages on. The pace of institutional and cultural change can seem glacial. In the mean-time, scientists who are also mothers can find support by sharing their stories with one another. Monosson's book provides a valuable medium for doing so. As one woman writes in the opening pages of Motherhood: "In the final analysis, every woman finds her own way. It's just good to know that none of us is alone."
Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out . Emily Monosson (Editor). Cornell University Press, Ithaca , 2008. 232 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8014-4664-1. $25.00.
Vanessa Fogg is a freelance scientific writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan . She holds a Ph.D in molecular cell biology from Washington University in St. Louis . She is also a mother.
Emily Monosson has established an accompanying website and online community to discuss issues of motherhood in science, which can be found at http://sciencemoms.wordpress.com/
Rate this article
Thanks for the review.
by anonymous poster
[Comment posted 2008-08-22 20:43:32 ]
I can't wait to read this book. I actually left research last fall, a little less than a year into my first postdoc, so that I could spend more time with my two young children, then 5 months and 3 years old. I'm now teaching part-time at a local university, and am contemplating what to do next. In my situation, life in the lab was just too demanding for me to feel that I was giving my best in both my career as a scientist and as a mother/wife.
Not an easy task, but doable.
by Taek You
[Comment posted 2008-08-22 15:55:15 ]
This is not an easy task to take as a woman scientist. In my case, we have waited a baby until my wife almost finished the degree.
When she had a real job, it was not getting any easier at all. Fortunately, I could babysit for a year or so when she started her career in the real world (I became a post-postdoc babysitter). Now, I am in academia with 9 month contract and I try to spend as much time with my teenager children with guilt feeling of the past.
Nothing is easy, especially with the higher degree. Employers have expectations. For many years, my two children were with babysitters all day. There were many instances that the babysitter could not babysit. Well, we had to make urgent arrangements under pressure.
My wife and I were lucky enough that our advisors (through both Ph.D. and postdocs) were so much understanding. Looking back, I really appreciate those mentors and they had great impacts in my wife's and my life.
I think that it is fairly important to find a lab or employer that give full understanding and respect of your family value.
It is about time that this subject is addressed!
by anonymous poster
[Comment posted 2008-08-22 15:11:00 ]
I almost was in tears reading this article. I am a 5th PhD student and have a 15 month old baby at home. I understand the frustration, quilt and exhaustion that are a part of juggling a science career along with motherhood!
Defending your proposal?
by anonymous poster
[Comment posted 2008-08-22 13:09:27 ]
Being a scientist is not easy at all. Being a woman scientist is just much harder. However, let's also acknowledge that there has been very good progress made since the 1960s in the US .
Is it true that she was given a chance to defend her proposal at NIH? If so, she was better treated than most of us (perhaps 99%+, both men or women). We have never been offered a chance to face our reviewers! Dad
by anonymous poster
[Comment posted 2008-08-22 12:43:12 ]
Word of advice to young scientists - if you are a "power couple" both with demanding careers in academia, be aware that the nanny will be raising your kids instead of you. If you are going to have kids, one of you should consider dropping back to part-time work - either the the father or the mother (although women in general seem to be more adept at the multi-tasking required to run a household). I ended up not getting tenure partly because I was not willing to work 70-hour weeks while my wife was building her business,
but at least I didn't have some stranger raising my kids.
Posted by Edyta Zielinska [Entry posted at 20th August 2008 06:00 PM GMT ]
All fat is not not created equal: In the past couple years researchers have come to realize that there's good fat and bad fat, and a study in this week's Nature points to a biological reason for this difference.
White fat, the main type of fat in the body, develops from fat precursor cells and stores excess energy. Brown fat, however, burns energy rather than storing it, and the new findings suggest it originates from muscle precursor cells. That means that "brown fat is one gene away from skeletal muscle," said Bruce Spiegelman from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School , who led the study.
Once thought to be important only for keeping infants and small mammals warm, brown fat may play a role in maintaining normal body weight in humans. Mice that have stores of brown fat are leaner than controls, and become obese when brown fat is knocked out. Brown fat stores have been difficult to find in adult humans, but recent studies using PET scans have identified several brown fatdepots, bolstering the idea that brown fat plays an important role in adult physiology as well.
In previous work, Spiegelman had identified the gene PRDM-16 as the "master regulator" of the brown fat's genetic program. (He wrote about the experiments that led him to PRDM -16 in our January issue ). So his group set out to further define how the gene switches on brown fact cell production.
Researchers had long assumed that white fat and brown fat come from the same fat cell precursor. So when first author Patrick Seale and colleagues knocked down PRDM-16 via RNA interference in brown fat taken from mice, they expected it turn into white fat. Instead "we got muscle," said Spiegelman. To double check their results, researchers took myogenic cells -- muscle cells precursors -- and forced PRDM-16 expression. This time, they turned the cells fated to be muscle cells into brown fat cells. When they tracked the development of myogenic cells in vivo, they saw the cells develop into brown fat or skeletal muscle, but not white fat. The results suggest that "the natural precursor cell type [for brown fat] is probably myogenic," said Spiegelman.
Spiegelman believes that PRDM-16's ability to increase brown fat stores may make it a good target for treating obesity. Along with collaborators at the Broad Institute, his group is now searching for the natural and pharmacological triggers of the gene.