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Balancing a science career with family life

15 Oct, 2013

Ada Lovelace Day - celebrating women in STEMToday we celebrate Ada Lovelace day with a guest post from Dr Camilla Larsen, who shares her personal experience of the challenges of balancing a career in science with bringing up a family. Larsen works on olfaction (sense of smell) in the fruit fly at the MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London. She explains how a Wellcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellowship allowed her to get back to what she loves.

Like any other career, science is tough and success relies on hard work, a talent for project management, and often, good luck. The success of a scientist is often measured by the number and status of published articles. These are scientific publications based on the data generated by the scientist. But publishing takes time.

It can take years to do the experiments, analyse the data and write the manuscript. Researchers work incredibly hard to be able to generate as many articles as possible, and since publications are taken to be the measure of a scientist’s ability, they are also an absolute requirement for career progression. It is unsurprising therefore that in such a career is not easy to have a career break or be working part-time. Compromising the time you spend at work can severely impact your publication rate and hence your career prospects. For many women and men starting a family is a situation where a compromise has to be made between time spent in the lab and at home.

I faced this conundrum when I started my family. At the time both my husband and I were working as senior postdocs in California. My husband was in San Francisco whereas I was based in Los Angeles. A year after starting my postdoc I became pregnant. This was a great surprise and completely unplanned as I had been told by doctors that I would need to go through IVF to become pregnant.  Since we lived far apart it was clear that I would have to give up my work so I could move to where my husband was based. This was a tough decision since I knew that a break in my publication record could make it difficult for me to return to science. On the other hand I was pregnant with a miracle baby and I had been very successful in my career so far by publishing a number of articles.

To facilitate my return to science we planned to apply for fellowship funding and return to jobs in the UK. These fellowships provide funding for young career scientists to start their own research.

Camilla Larsen balancing family and science

However I had severely underestimated the effect of pregnancy on the amount of hours I could spend at work and found that when I went on maternity leave I had not managed to generate enough data to write a competitive fellowship application. Furthermore I only managed to publish one article from my post-doctoral work. Consequently I was not successful in my fellowship application and found myself without a job when I returned to the UK.

I resigned myself to the fact that a return to science seemed unlikely. It was a Catch 22 situation. I was too senior for another postdoc position and not competitive enough for a faculty position. This was devastating to me as I love my job. I have always been fascinated with biology and trying to understand how biological systems work. I love the satisfaction and excitement of experimental design and obtaining the answers to scientific questions. It was difficult for me to imagine myself doing any other kind of job.

Then I learned about the Wellcome Trust career re-entry fellowship that provides funding for scientists who have been out of science for three years. At the time Wellcome was the only funding body to provide such a scheme. I was successful in my career re-entry application and have been back in research for little over five years. It has been a great joy to be doing science again. Every day I look forward to going to work, being back in the lab and doing experiments. Being able to talk about my science with colleagues.  I think it is safe to say that had in not been for the Wellcome Trust I would not be working as a scientist now.

Even with this opportunity, returning to science with two young children (one and three years old) was a challenge and I soon found myself struggling to balance my commitments to both the lab and my family. This was perpetuated when my older daughter started school a year into my fellowship. I now had to balance work with one child at school, another child in nursery at the other end of town, homework and cooking dinner for the children. Luckily the Wellcome Trust was incredibly understanding and allowed me to reduce my working hours while extending the period of funding. This has been crucial to my career as it has allowed me to finish projects and generate publications. I would have struggled to do this with reduced working hours within the original time frame of the fellowship. With under a year left of my fellowship I have managed to complete many of my and I feel more secure about my future job prospects too.

It has been an amazing journey since I have entered a new, and very exciting, field of research. I discovered that the neurons I was interested in are involved in sensing smell and this work has opened up many new avenues of research. I am now trying to understand how the activity of these neurons is translated into appropriate behavioural output.  So I’m back, doing what I love, trying to answer scientific questions.

Today several funding bodies provide career re-entry fellowships and flexible working hours and I think there is a genuine desire to provide equal opportunity for all in science. I hope these opportunities will level the playing field allowing talented researchers to succeed regardless of their commitments outside work.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellowships and see if you’re eligible to apply.

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