Dr Kay Tye, from the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, recently had a baby. Keeva is now 10 months old, and has been to the lab, on multiple trips around the world, and even gets a photo in Nature before her first birthday. In March 2013, Kay featured alongside other fantastic female scientists in the Nature article: From the frontline: 30 something science. At the time, Kay was 5 months pregnant, and was just beginning to dial down her work levels to prepare for her daughter. I caught up with her, just over a year later, to see whether her opinions on having a child whilst being a scientist had changed.
What response did you get from the article in Nature?
I got mixed responses from both ends of the spectrum. Some people really liked that I wasn’t afraid to admit I have other interests besides science, others were critical of the “one can have it all” attitude. Specifically, I was criticised for being “dismissive” of the amount of work parenthood entails. Some said that it would have been more appropriate to feature someone who already had children.
I have always wanted to be a mother, and have always looked up to women with successful careers and families, and never intended for my comments to come off as dismissive in any way. I always worried about if I would be able to make it work, and tried to focus on my mentors and role-models (including my mom, my PhD advisor, and other leaders in my field) who have had successful careers and happy families.
When I compare my situation to my mother’s, for example, she was a woman in science when 9 out of 10 scientists were men. She did such a good job that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how pervasive these social biases were. Obviously, the biases still exist and I certainly did not mean to trivialise anyone’s struggles (or my own). I only meant to express my gratitude that I get to benefit from hard work that pioneering women like my mom (who has had her own lab for 35+ years) have already put in.
Why do you think there is this preconception that having a child whilst being an academic is particularly difficult?
Well, having a child whilst trying to excel in any career is extremely difficult.
It is unfortunate that the most sensitive phase of an academic career (postdoc and pre-tenure faculty) often overlap with a woman’s prime child-bearing years. But I don’t think of science as a job, I think of it is a lifestyle. It is a career that spans decades, and a year or two in the scope of a career with that type of longevity is probably not going to make or break you. A lot of very successful female scientists have kids, and while of course being pregnant and having an infant takes a lot out of you, there are many examples of people who have made it work.
However, it is tricky because often parents of young children may be graduate students, postdocs, or junior faculty – people who are at a stage of their career when they may not feel comfortable speaking up about their needs. However, this population is a huge part of the scientific community – and how can you get what you need if you don’t ask for it?
What reaction have you had from colleagues at MIT and outside, about having children and continuing to work in the lab?
Within MIT I have received nothing but support and positive energy. My colleagues at MIT have been wonderful; the faculty welcome my daughter Keeva, and the pack-n-play in my office, the chair, swing, clothes, etc. are all gifts from others at MIT.
Outside of MIT, comments have mostly been supportive, but of course there is the occasional inappropriate comment, and I try my best to dismiss it as such. Ultimately, my science should speak for itself, and I’m really excited about the progress of my research program.
Has your daily routine changed since the birth of your daughter?
Yes: It now takes 2 hours to get ready in the morning instead of 30 minutes. I definitely don’t have enough hours in the day, and always feel like I’m a little behind on work. I don’t work as late as I used to, and I don’t really have time for as much recreation – my daughter trumps all other priorities. I still meet with all of my trainees every week, have lab meetings, teach classes, write grants and papers. I just have to be more efficient.
Having said that, Keeva is now 10 months old, and the past year has been the happiest, most fulfilling year of my entire life.
What is it like to run a lab, when you have your daughter there with you?
It’s highly variable. If she’s sleeping, it’s business as usual except I have a baby strapped to my torso. If she’s awake, then I don’t get much work done.
Sometimes I reminisce about what it used to be like before baby with my graduate students, when I would be at the lab until midnight and always around…but to my surprise, the world just kept on turning when Keeva was born and nobody seemed to miss a beat (except for me of course).
Has your daughter been on work-related trips with you?
I am also aware that I am fortunate to have an amazing husband who is very supportive and we take turns supporting each other. Even so, travelling with a baby is an order of magnitude more complicated, so I have become more selective about the trips I commit to these days.
Do you still maintain that academia as a career path is family friendly?
Yes, I do. I also received some criticism about this statement, but when people ask me “how could you say that academia is a family friendly career path?” I say “name a career path that is more family friendly.” People then think about it, and then realise how lucky they are. Academia is flexible, relatively secure, there are no quarterly deliverables, and there is no need to wear a suit every day. There might be jobs or lifestyles that are more family friendly, but to excel in any career requires dedication and hard work.
Also, every micro-environment is different, and so is every parent and child. But for me, if my daughter all of a sudden needs to be picked up, I bring her to my lab meeting or meet with people while I bounce her. If she has total meltdown, then sometimes I have to bail and follow up later.
What advice do you have to young female scientists who consider not having children in order to succeed in their scientific career?
Being a good parent is a tremendous responsibility, and it leaves less time for everything else. That said, with respect to science, family and life in general, I would say the following:
1) Do the things that make you happy. If having a family is important for your happiness, then you can’t put that off forever. Do it and enjoy it.
2) You get out what you put in. If you put a lot into your research program and into your family, you will get out just as much – you’ll be exhausted, but you will also be deeply fulfilled.
3) Consider the environment you work in. You should think about taking a job in an environment that will be understanding and supportive. When I was on the job market, I was very honest about my desire to have children pre-tenure, and while this was a scary thing to do at the time I felt that if something this important to me was going to be a problem, I would prefer to know in advance. So I would say I wanted to have kids and I would see how my potential future employers would react.
4) Share your experiences. Educating people who are not in your situation about your needs serves all those who are in your situation. Many people (deans, department chairs, colleagues, spouse etc.) actually want to be supportive but just don’t know how.
5) Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you feel guilty asking for something (a lactation room in your building, on-site daycare, relief from teaching or departmental responsibilities, or dependent travel support) – just think of all the other science moms that you’re helping.