How to square the circle – our new series: Family and Science

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You might know the movie “Groundhog Day” (German: “Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier”), in which Phil (Bill Murray) experiences the same day over and over again. Well, sometimes our typical Monday morning lab seminar reminds me of this movie: We never really start at the scheduled 9 o’clock; we initially have some 15 min chit-chat about the previous weekend, talk about general lab business and, eventually, someone presents his or her most recent data. Then, at some point, people become nervous and cannot wait to rush into the lab to get their experiments started, since we go for lunch at 11:30 am. We usually stick to this routine adamantly. However, this particular Monday morning was different, when one of our PhD students said “I have an announcement to make: I’m becoming a father!”

Probably all of us know someone who got a child during their studies, while working towards their PhD, during a Postdoc position, or as group leaders. These examples, however, seem to be the exception to the rule. In fact, most of my friends became parents after finishing their PhD and, sadly, after leaving academia.

Therefore, this particular Monday morning seminar prompted me to ask whether it is possible to pursue a career in science, with the well-known mentality of “publish or perish” and, at the same time, dedicate enough time to your kids and be a good parent.

Labs are full of hazardous materials. While you are pregnant, how do you get things done in the lab while staying away from ethidium bromide, acrylamide or radioisotopes?

I started this journey and attended an information session of the University’s equal opportunities office and the family office (“Familienbüro”). The central point of that meeting was that there are roughly equal numbers of male and female students at German universities. Likewise, an equal number of male and female PhD students graduate every year, while the number of female postdocs and professors is dramatically lower than the number of their male counterparts. Thus, women seem to drop out of academia after obtaining their PhD. Consequently, the University of Bonn introduced a number of measures, mainly mentoring and financial support, to help young female scientists. While we will introduce these measures in a later article, comments from the audience revealed the more practical issues of young scientists with children:

Who is going to take care of “long-term” projects, such as mouse breedings when you are on parental leave? Even if child-care is available, long experiments or night shifts on confocal microscopes will not fit into the schedule of a 9 to 5 daycare. And what can you do, if you have an important experiment scheduled and your child becomes sick?

Many researchers with children have encountered similar issues and found ways to cope with them. Thus, we wanted to learn more about their experiences and decided to cover them in a new article series. Join us on this journey, get to know extraordinary people, and read their stories.

Sebastian Schmitt