Taking Time for Baby

By Bob Grant Taking Time for Baby Having a child changes everything. But it doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt your research while you’re out on leave. Alicia Timme-Laragy with baby Collin Erik Timme Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) postdoc Alicia Timme-Laragy was overjoyed at the birth of her first son, Collin, in March 2008. She had made all the preparations for his arrival and for a 10-week maternity leave from her work in the WHOI l

By | March 1, 2011

Taking Time for Baby

Having a child changes everything. But it doesn’t necessarily have to disrupt your research while you’re out on leave.

Alicia Timme-Laragy with baby Collin
Erik Timme

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) postdoc Alicia Timme-Laragy was overjoyed at the birth of her first son, Collin, in March 2008. She had made all the preparations for his arrival and for a 10-week maternity leave from her work in the WHOI lab of toxicologist Mark Hahn, where she studies the response of the transcription factor NRF-2 to toxins in developing zebrafish embryos.

But after Timme-Laragy had begun to work full-time following her maternity leave, she realized that something was amiss. She hadn’t planned for how exhausted and run-down she’d feel going in to work after a string of sleepless nights and seemingly endless feedings. One day in the lab, she was struck by one of the dizzy spells she’d been experiencing for a few weeks. Rather than dissipating after a little while, this one continued for several hours. Timme-Laragy and Hahn called for the on-campus medics, who administered oxygen to the postdoc. But her dizziness persisted.

She called her doctor, who had no open appointments but advised Timme-Laragy to seek immediate medical attention. Hahn drove her to the ER, where she received her diagnosis: exhaustion-related dizzy spells. She had landed in the hospital again “after a few months of being back,” in the lab, Timme-Laragy recalls. “It was pretty intense.” She received fluids at the emergency room and over the course of a few days recovered her strength. But Timme-Laragy took away important lessons about how to best transition back into the lab after maternity leave. “Part of it was not knowing what to expect,” she admits. “I didn’t anticipate the whole mommy-brain syndrome.”

There are as many different ways of handling parental leave as there are universities.
—Cathee Johnson Phillips

With her five-year fellowship ending in 2012, Timme-Laragy has already submitted her first manuscript for publication. She has been working on writing a chapter for a book to which she was invited to contribute, and has compiled most of the data for a second paper. Last spring, she and her husband welcomed another son, Steven, into their family. The second time around, Timme-Laragy returned to the lab at the right pace for her—working part-time for the first three weeks.

Having employees go on leave can create a strain in a fast-paced work environment such as a lab. “As a PI, you want to move the work forward, and sometimes it can be really frustrating” when team members take maternity or paternity leaves, says Harvard immunologist Judy Lieberman. “On the other hand,” she says, “I believe that people can only be effective when they’re happy and doing what they want in their life.” Here are tips on how to plan for taking time off as a new mother or father, and how to minimize the disruption to your research.


Whether you’re interviewing for postdoc spots or hunting for your first faculty position, the crucial step towards successfully balancing a family and career in science is choosing the right place to work. Though the competition for good faculty and postdoc positions can be fierce, vetting an institution for its flexibility toward family needs should be an important part of your search process. You probably shouldn’t blurt out your imminent plan to start a family during that first face-to-face interview, but here are a few roundabout ways to get a sense of how your prospective employer feels about maternity or paternity leave.

Ping HR
You can find out a lot about an institution’s policies on family leave before you even get an interview with a department head or PI by searching the Web site of its human resources department. Although federal law (the Family and Medical Leave Act) mandates allowing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for qualified employees, state regulations and institutional policies can add to this period and alter its terms. “There are as many different ways of handling parental leave as there are universities,” says Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. A prospective employer’s HR site is “not something that a postdoc looking for a faculty position thinks to look at,” says Gail Simmons, provost and VP for academic affairs at Manhattanville College in New York. But, she continues, it could make the difference between choosing a work environment that’s supportive and one that isn’t.

Investigate tenure policy
Academic job seekers should also familiarize themselves with institutions’ tenure policies, adds Simmons. She advises that you comb faculty handbooks or ask questions of HR like: “Can you stop a tenure clock for a life event?” Again, policies differ among universities, and the best way to find out whether or not you can take time out for a new baby without seriously damaging your chances for timely tenure is to do your homework before you ever sit for an interview.

Stay alert on tours
Once you do get an on-campus interview, you’ll probably be taken on a tour of the department to see the facilities and meet other faculty or employees. Keep your eyes and ears open as you stroll about. Are there toys or children’s books stashed in the corner of a faculty member’s office? This may mean that they sometimes bring their children to work and that the department is more family-friendly.

Mingle with insiders
Often, job candidates are invited out to dinner with current faculty or lab members as a part of the interview process. This could be a crucial time to feel out the family-friendliness of an institution, department, or lab. As the tone gets looser and more informal, ask how many of your potential colleagues have children, when they had them, and what their experiences were like. “You’ve kind of got to listen to the chitchat,” Simmons says.

Engage the help of friends
Chances are you know someone now who has some kind of connection at the place where you’re interviewing. Get your friend to ask around about attitudes towards family leave without blowing your cover, then report back to you.

Ask about campus child care
A major part of successfully juggling parental and career duties is finding appropriate and convenient child-care options. Many universities and research institutions have facilities nearby or on-site. But Simmons warns that some child-care facilities on or near university campuses will accept the children of students, but not those of faculty members.


Once you’ve secured a fellowship or faculty position in a place that is amenable to maternity or paternity leave, you can take steps that will decrease the disruption your absence causes—and that may even help your own research continue while you’re out. Here are a couple of things to implement long before you start trying to make babies.

Make friends
Tensions and competitiveness can run high in labs, but making friends with your colleagues right off the bat can make taking family leave a lot easier. Daniel Gorelick, a postdoc studying how hormones affect zebrafish development at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, learned this firsthand when his son, Simon, was born last year. As for many researchers, providing constant care for his live animal subjects was a top priority. Gorelick says it was essential for him to get on good terms with the people in his lab, especially the lab manager and the fish technician, so that he wouldn’t have to worry. “It’s good to make friends before you need them,” says Gorelick.

When it was time to take her maternity leave in early February, Lorraine Tracey, a postdoc studying drug resistance in neuroblastoma at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, says she wishes she had done a better job at building bridges. “I kind of never envisioned having to rely so much on other people to do stuff for me,” Tracey says. “I play my cards pretty close to my chest, and in this case, that wasn’t smart.” Tracey adds that instead of just interacting with her labmates during scheduled lab meetings, she should have discussed her projects with them so that she’d feel better about their taking over certain aspects of her research, such as performing Western blots and real-time PCR, and determining when to end animal experiments based on measurements of tumor size.

ivanastar / Istockphoto.com

Don’t wait, collaborate
Besides making friends within the lab, researchers set on becoming mothers and fathers should also focus on forming collaborative connections outside the lab. The more your project involves researchers at other institutions, the less likely it is that your leave will negatively impact the overall momentum of the work. Timme-Laragy says that having collaborators at Emory University in Atlanta who do mass-spectrometry analysis of her zebrafish tissue samples was invaluable, because she had a stack of material ready to send to them for analysis before she went on her second maternity leave. They were able to process the samples while she was away. Gail Simmons, of Manhattanville College in New York, agrees that forging collaborations is a good idea, saying that professional relationships with scientists at other labs, and perhaps other institutions, can cushion researchers from disruptions in research caused by illness, pregnancy, or other life events.

Floortje / ISTOCKphoto.com

Now that you’ve announced your big news, do everything you can to reassure your labmates, collaborators, and advisors that your maternity/paternity leave will not completely disrupt your research. “If I knew, as a supervisor, that my employee had thought through those things already and showed that they had a plan, I’d know that there was a good possibility that when they came back things would be very stable,” says Simmons. Lorraine Tracey adds, “The most important thing is that you’re pregnant for nine months. It gives you tons of time to plan experiments so that your most important experiments are not being done while you’re not there.” Beyond trying to get your most important work done before you duck out, here is a checklist to help you organize your thoughts before you disappear to welcome your new addition to the family.

A status report
Write out a detailed description of your research project for your advisor and any colleagues who may lend a helping hand while you’re out. Include details such as

• your current phase of research or writing,
• what experiments you have completed, which ones are in progress,
• which will be conducted in the future,
• any problems or challenges that have or might come up,
• estimates of how much time each of these pieces will take,
• lists of animals or plants that need to be maintained, and
• arrangements needed to help accomplish necessary tasks while you’re out.

Provide your lab or supervisor with this report a couple of months before the due date, and present an update one month before you’re scheduled to leave.

Copy your lab notebook
Make time to copy and distribute your lab notes and protocols to all who might oversee your work while you’re away. Your lab notebook may contain crucial information that could help your colleagues avoid making disastrous mistakes in your absence. “If you’re the only one that knows all the pieces that you do, it becomes a real arduous task to prepare” for an extended absence from the lab, says Jody Smiley, a senior clinical analyst at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. But if all of your methodologies and protocols are clearly spelled out in your lab notebook, the people filling in for you have a template to follow.

Don’t forget teaching
If you teach or TA classes, you’ll also need to make arrangements for their continuity while you’re out. Craft detailed syllabi and lesson plans for the person who will be filling in for you in the lecture hall.


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

March 23, 2011

I either wouldn't have been a scientist or wouldn't have had a child. It nearly killed me and the exhaustion, depression, and resentment ruined both my marriage and my relationship with my child. I did the prozac, the therapy, got a year off my tenure clock (which my tenure committee chair refused to recognize). My advice to women is DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT.
Avatar of: Kathy Barker

Kathy Barker

Posts: 7

March 23, 2011

This is a thorough, wonderful article that makes the situation and individual responsibilities clear.\n\nI disagree on one point- the most important choice isn't the workplace, it is the partner you choose! A great deal of the tension of childcare comes because each person has a different and unspoken expectation of contribution to childcare. If this isn't honestly and constantly negotiated, institutional backup won't really make a dent in the resulting tension.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 23, 2011

I found it really interesting that the writer was a man. Are we really expecting to advance our careers, work full-time, publish multiple papers, keep the house running perfectly, and not get exhausted? Most mothers are exhausted all the time. Just take a look around you.


Posts: 6

March 23, 2011

Yes, it is possible to have kids and a scientific career. I agree with one of the posters below, ones choice of spouse is key, you need someone who will be a co-parent. However, this means giving up some control of the parenting, for instance it does not matter if the baby is dressed in mixed plaids as long as the correct end is dry and the other end is fed. Too many women discourage men from taking responsibility by hyper criticizing their efforts.\n\nHowever, it is also key to not sweat the small stuff, it is fine for your house to be disorganized and for sure pay someone to clean it. Also, make choices to make your life as easy as possible, for instance chose the day care 4 blocks from your office instead of the one that is "ideal" that is also a 30 minute drive away, chose a smaller house close to the lab instead of the big house with a 45 minute commute, and chose activities for your children with free wifi so you can work while they are practicing whatever.\n\nFinally, once they get alittle bigger, make them help. Six year olds are perfectly capable of washing and folding the laundry as long as you can relax about some wrinkles or the occasional mismatched sock. You are not responsible for being everyone in the household's servant, make the kids pull their own weight as young as possible. This creates confident self sufficient kids that are a pleasure to be around instead of whiny ones who have a big sense of entitlement.
Avatar of: heather buechel

heather buechel

Posts: 2

March 23, 2011

I'm a grad student who just gave birth to my first child and I absolutely adore him! I would love to be a stay at home mom, but that's just not an option. I consider myself lucky though, I have a wonderful son, a fairly supportive significant other (I know that they say relationships get hard when you throw a baby into the mix, and it's true, but I still think we're doing better than a lot of people I know), and a boss who is very accommodating. There are certainly some days where I'm so tired that I can barely keep my eyes open, but I'm lucky to be in a stage of my research where there are things that I can work on while I'm awake for a 2am feeding if I can't get them done during my regular work hours. So far so good!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 2

March 28, 2011

I found this article unrealistically optimistic. In my experience, there is NO such thing as a family-friendly research position. I had my first child when I just started my post-doc and my husband and I managed for a while, however when I was pregnant with my 2nd child, I made the decision to quit research. The realization dawned on me that I was in an impossible sitation; I wanted to raise my own children and pursue my career, but my options seemed sadly limited. I made the decision at 5AM, when I was 7 mos pregnant and pulling yet another all-nighter. Yes, it is possible and other women do it, but that kind of punishing lifestyle is not healthy for me, my marriage or my kids.\n\nI took time off after the birth of my 2nd child, and when I interviewed for research positions, ALL the PIs asked me "are you sure you're ready to go back?". Besides the fact that this is an illegal question, and NO ONE would ask a man this question, it says everything you need to know about the attitudes of people in reasearch and the culture of academia. Many PI's pay lip service to a "balanced lifestyle" but they don't really believe it themselves.\n\nI now work in a different field, making a great salary, with normal hours that allow me to be part of my family.\n\nIf academia wants to retain talented researchers and get a return on their investment (training, grants etc), they MUST do more to change their attitudes and policies!!!
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

April 1, 2011

Two babies in five years is a lot, for a post doc in a competitive place like WHOI. If you have a financed project and you have invested money in personnel to carry it out, the funding agency does not care if you say: we did not deliver all the results we promised because one paid collaborator was in maternity leave, twice. They do not care! And you are in trouble. The deadline of the project cannot be postponed, the money is available just for that period, if you pay somebody else, you cannot pay the person on leave, pushing her to unemployment in a delicate moment. And you cannot postpone the payment anyway, because the project has an end. So you are in trouble. The real question is: is the project more important than two babies? There is no question to this. The hell with the project, or, better, you do the work of the mother, and hope that the rest of the lab will support. Because if you do not deliver, maybe there will be no more projects. And no more salaries for postdocs involved in frantic reproductive practices. \nThis is the world we live in. It is apparently not prepared to the reproduction of scientists. It is presumed that scientists are like catholic priests and nuns. And probably that's why the catholic church is so long lived: no babies! \nThis is a Catch 22 situation. You produce babies when you are young, and you are supposed to produce very good stuff in the very same period, so to have a career. Or you wait to have settled with your career, but then you are too old to have babies! No problem if you are rich, but if you eat out of your salary, life is very difficult. No matter how supportive the mate is, the baby is sucking up time, if you want to be an effective parent, without letting others due your parental care. Which is a rather important thing, by the way. \nIt is a matter of values. For sure it is a matter of partners, and of employee policies. But, eventually, you will be judged by your curriculum, and the number of babies does not count in academia. \nNow I do not remember the name of the renewed US University whose dean (a male specimen) a couple of years ago said that science was not a good choice for female specimens. He was immediately removed from office (of course!). The University had to elect a new Dean and, surprise!, it was a female Dean. The first in the history of that University. And it was also the first dean that had not graduated from that University. I can figure the situation. Now we have to choose a female dean! And the committee inspected all the available candidates for the post. And none of those who came from the very same University (according to the tradition) had strong enough qualifications, or were willing to do it. So they eventually found an external dean. Ironically, this means that there was some ground in what the stupid male dean had said in the first place!\nIt is very easy for a male like me to spit out wisdom. We do not have the equipment to produce new individuals of our species (besides some paraphernalia to give a little push to the process) and we can just stay at a safe distance. Whatever we do, as one participant to this forum underlined, with some sympathy for us, is surely wrong! But this means to leave the mother alone. Another Catch 22. \nMaybe only catholic priests and nuns can do science, or egotistical males, or homosexuals. But I would not enjoy my lab so much if it were made of these categories (I can get along with homosexuals, though...), or if I would meet this kind of people at scientific meetings. Anyway, now that I think about it, science business is mostly made of egotistical males. Who knows why?

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