The greatest challenge in the life of a mother-scientist, almost without exception, lies in refining the balance between the two rewarding roles. It takes effort and adjustment, not to mention compromise and sacrifice. It’s not about “having it all”—which, in my opinion, is an unhealthy, unhelpful expectation—nor is it about being one thing more than the other. My passion lies in my field, and my pride in my children.
I am a young scientist and mother, specializing in food safety research, training and collaboration. I lead several research projects in my area of mycotoxin risk management in foods such as maize, peanuts, oil and milk. In addition to conducting in-house research, I also help promote research findings and insights generated at the Mars Global Food Safety Centre in Beijing and through our global network of partners and collaborators.
Unfortunately, parenthood is a key driver of gender imbalance in STEM—almost half of all women in full-time science jobs leave or go part-time after the birth of their first child. This is twice the number of men, according to the results of a recent 8-year-long study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
While my personal and professional journeys have not developed without considerable challenges along the way, these encounters have only taught me valuable lessons in balance, perseverance and purpose:
Lesson 1: Understand What Drives You
I grew up in an environment surrounded by scientists, with my parents and grandparents all working at an agricultural university, so understandably, being a scientist has been a lifelong dream of mine. I found myself with a curiosity for plants, insects, animal life and even dinosaurs as a little girl, all while learning first-hand from my father about the work he did. I then went on to choose Biology as my major in university and found my passion for microbiology there. Following this, I made the decision to pursue a PhD program to further explore this field.
But it was soon after the birth of my first son that I read reports of several serious infant formula food safety incidents. I remember feeling profoundly affected by the story, especially as a mother myself, and this ultimately drove me towards a slightly different path in food safety.
Research can sometimes be tedious or disappointing, however, if you are pursuing a passion that is in line with your values, drivers or beliefs, your enthusiasm will prevail. In STEM, there are always new questions and challenges that need answering and facing, however your work will prove extremely rewarding if it encompasses your key drivers. These come in use for personal and academic growth and will help you to develop resilience against any difficult situations.
Lesson 2: When In Doubt, Lean On Your Network
When I started off in my career, I quickly realized that there are many different people who all possess a fantastically wide range of strengths. I am lucky enough to work alongside strong female leaders, who demonstrate constant respect and care for those around them. Yet, there have been critics too. My network have helped me cultivate trust in my own abilities and ways of working, while still being inspired by those around me.
There is also something to be said about keeping communication channels open with your scientific community and being able to obtain valuable advice from mentors accessible to you. Identifying role models throughout my career has helped me understand and learn from my own and others’ experiences, enabling me to approach these situations with a range of different perspectives.
Seeking out role models—those other working mothers in science—can be highly rewarding. They do exist, trust me.
Lesson 3: Look for Balance Wherever You Can
I had my first baby while I was conducting research into the production of vaccines at the beginning of my PhD. This was also at the same time as preparing for my qualifying exams and dissertation proposal and working as a research scientist and teaching assistant. When I first became a new mother, I definitely struggled to balance my work and my new role. No matter who you are, you only have 24 hours in one day! However, I had a responsibility to take care of my baby as well as making sure I finished my research work and made time to study. This was also at the same time as my husband was working in another city.
I was unbelievably lucky to receive a great amount of support from my family, advisors and other mother-scientists in the lab, who provided a tremendous amount of help while I adjusted to being a mother and researcher. Without that support, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
Despite some progress in recent years, there is still a glaring underrepresentation of not just women in STEM, and a noticeable absence of working mothers in these fields. And parenthood remains an often-overlooked topic when discussing "women in STEM."
I, for one, understand the apprehension of women who are looking to enter STEM fields, while not willing to give up any family ambitions. Unfortunately, it is still seen as an either/or choice. But my career in science is a brilliant accompaniment to my family.
As women and mothers in STEM, we need to increase awareness of the attainable, albeit challenging at times, possibility of balancing both responsibilities.