Balancing life inside and outside the lab is not always easy, but it’s possible to be a parent, a carer, #AndAScientist, says Seralynne Vann.
Guest contributor Seralynne Vann.
I have always had a love of science and always knew I wanted to be a mother. I’ve managed to combine a career in neuroscience with motherhood although at a numerous points over the years I questioned whether I would be able to have either, let alone both.
I have heard plenty of discussion about the right time to have a family if you want to have a successful career as a scientist. I don’t think there’s a clear-cut answer. But, while some people are able to decide how they want to combine their careers and family lives, for me there was no great plan; no great strategy to “have it all.” Life just happened. Ideally I would have loved to have started a family when I was younger. I have a chronic health condition (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and osteoporosis) and am physically disabled. My health and mobility has deteriorated over the years so, realistically, I would have been in a better physical situation to deal with a young child earlier on in my career. But as things turned out I didn’t meet the right person until I’d turned 30 and, due to my health issues, we were not sure we would be able to have children at all. Amazingly with the help of scientific advances and IVF we were able to have our little boy. I took 11 months of maternity leave to look after him.
By the time I had my son my career was established. I had been an independent researcher since being awarded my first David Phillips Fellowship by the BBSRC, which I took up in 2005. I was also awarded a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship in 2011. This meant that when I had my son, I was running a relatively large research project with a team of postdocs, technicians and PhD students.
The benefit of this was that my research didn’t come to a grinding halt during my maternity leave. However, it wasn’t just my career I had to be concerned about, and despite officially taking 11 months off, there wasn’t a day where I did no work at all. If you’re running a research grant, it’s impossible to delegate all aspects of the project. You can’t ask someone else to come up with experimental designs in the same way you would, or interpret the data and form theories in the same way. Also, I didn’t think it was fair if my PhD students were disadvantaged in any way, so I made myself as available to everyone as much as possible.
During my leave, I made it very clear that if there was a problem or if anyone was struggling then it was important that they felt that they could tell me about it. I made sure we had a strategy for my time off and everyone understood the experimental aims for that period. This definitely helped, although even the most rigorously designed experiments don’t always go to plan, so being in regular contact with the team meant things went as smoothly as possible. There were lots of e-mails; I’d bring my baby into meetings at work; and people would come round and have meetings at my house.
In a way, staying so involved with the lab made the transition back to work easier – the world of science moves very quickly and trying to catch up with a year’s worth of advances would have been hard.
That’s not to say that my return to work has been easy. My confidence has taken a hit, especially in terms of writing and public speaking. I found the best cure for this was to just to keep throwing myself at it and to ask for feedback and advice. This feedback helped me realise that the quality of my work hadn’t changed, I had just become far more critical of myself. I’ve been in the very fortunate position where I have been able to return to work on a part-time basis. A large part of my research requires someone to be in the laboratory 5 days a week, so working with a team who have been able to help with the day-to-day running of experiments has been a huge help.
Individually, being physically disabled, a scientist, and a mother are all incredibly challenging. Together it’s even harder. Despite this, I feel extraordinarily lucky. My partner and family provide a lot of help at home and I have a fantastic team at work. The Wellcome Trust has also been a support – with a great maternity package and an excellent approach to flexible working.
There is a lot of variability in the maternity packages provided by different funding bodies and charities, so it’s important to find what’s available early on. I’m not sure what the future will bring, I will start thinking about fellowship renewals soon and hope that my publication record hasn’t been too badly affected by my periods of leave and reduced hours. My son has given me an even greater drive to continue with my research career. I’m not just doing if for me anymore, I am also doing it for him.
Seralynne Vann is a Wellcome Trust senior research fellow at Cardiff University and has a two year-old son. Her interests are in the neural bases of episodic and spatial memory and her research uses convergent approaches (lesions, gene-imaging, and neuropsychology) to identify how brain structures such as the mammillary bodies and retrosplenial cortex contribute to memory. Dr Vann shared her experiences of combining parenthood and researcher for the Royal Society’s project, Parent, carer, scientist’.