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 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.

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