Parents in Science: weighing career and family


This guest post is by Renata Migliati. Renata is a scientist, a self-taught artist, and a mom of two. She was born and raised in Brazil and has lived many places, but currently finds herself in Texas, USA. She is a certified teacher and has taught at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

I got my PhD at the age of 29, and then moved from Brazil to the US when I was 30 to do postdoctoral research and possibly get established as a principal investigator (PI). I joined a lab whose research was in basic mitochondrial sciences – the kind of subject that is not ‘in fashion’ and therefore not appealing for getting grants. I worked hard to produce a few high-impact publications, but it required being in the lab weekends and extra hours. Then, the economy in the US started to fail. We felt the crisis really early, and I realized that if I kept working as hard as was required to get grants in that funding environment, it would take all my time and I would probably loose the opportunity to be a mom. I decided I should not postpone the decision any longer.

When I was 35, I had my first child. He was born when my husband, who was working on his PhD, had finished classes and passed his comprehensive exams, so we thought things would be easier. But my husband still had to finish his research, and we couldn’t afford childcare with our salaries. Things were even harder as foreigners because we were not guaranteed the right to stay in the country without a visa; if your job ends you must leave. I had to work part-time as a postdoc for awhile so we could manage to take care of a baby and my husband could finish his dissertation. My productivity decreased and it became harder to keep up the publication rate needed to get grants. Eventually, I ended up going to teach at a community college where I taught lab/lecture integrated classes. I enjoyed it a lot. It was a way of being involved in science without having to neglect my child and personal life.

My husband graduated and went on to postdoctoral positions. But given how often PIs run short of grants, we had to move several times so he could continue his work. This, and the fact that I wanted a second child, made it more difficult for me to pursue my own career as a PI. I would have had to neglect my kids completely if I wanted to grow to the point of having my own lab. And faced with that reality, it was a sort of an easy decision. I knew I did not want to do that. I still love science but I guess I now think of myself as more of a teacher and a science writer than a PI. It is sad that a lot of women with a lot of creativity are being pushed out of science because they face this very same decision.

Sometime ago I read an article* about a woman that managed to be very successful in science and was a mother of two. I thought her strategy was very smart. She decided to couple with other female scientists in her department and they worked as a team. They collaborated on projects and they would cover for each other every time one of them had maternity leave or needed childcare. I think this could be a great solution for many women, especially if the current funding environment continues as is. Groups of women in sciences can form cooperatives to collaboratively mentor students, write grants, and monitor lab productivity. Of course, this requires a lot of team effort, and a sense that the group result is more important than the success of the individual. This will require a change of mentality in the sciences, where the competitive environment encourages people to hide results, not want to share data, etc. For cooperatives to work, egos will have to be put in second place to give priority to women occupying their rightful space in science.

Though my career direction has changed, I remain positive. I value the experimentation and creativity we get to exercise in sciences. And I feel my formation gave me a spectrum of opportunities, special problem-solving abilities, and so many other things that are valuable in life. I loved teaching and would like to go back to that, or to a management position in science…maybe just as soon as kid number two goes to school!

*Editor’s note: We were not able to track down the original article that discussed women scientists forming cooperatives. If anyone knows the reference, or of similar stories, please leave a link in the comments.

Related posts
Mixing motherhood and science
‘Parents in Science’ series

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