Parenting in science – an interview with professor and mother Eva Kiermaier

Continuing with our series about Family And Science we interviewed Prof. Eva Kiermaier who recently gave birth to her second child. She started as a junior group leader at the Life and Medical Sciences (LIMES) Institute in Bonn and became professor in June 2018. Previously, she pursued her postdoc in the lab of Michael Sixt at the Institute of Science and Technology (IST) in Austria.

Prof. Dr. rer. nat. Eva Kiermaier, group leader at the LIMES Institute since December 2017

“You got your professorship from the ministry for innovation NRW via a come-back program. Did someone suggest you or did you apply yourself?”

Eva: “I did apply to the LIMES institute first. At that time, it was not clear if there might be a financed position. That was when I got introduced to the NRW-Rückkehrer program as another option to finance your own group. One of the requirements for the application is that you are still abroad, and I was still in Austria with an ongoing contract (as a post doc). I applied and then everything went relatively smooth: I got invited for the interviews. We were about 16 people and with an equal ratio concerning male and female applicants. And luckily, I was one of the three that got selected.”

“So you had that intrinsic motivation to become a group leader?”

Eva: “Yes, I had been post doc for six years, including one official year of maternity and then you automatically reach the point of no return. During the postdoc you realize what you really want: I could not imagine doing something else or going to industry. Further, I figured out that I’m a person that rather likes to take over responsibilities and that was when I decided that I wanted to start my own group. But I have to say that I was very much supported by my former group leader.”

“How can we imagine the situation when you first had this idea of becoming a group leader and how did your supervisor react?”

Eva: “Actually, you should not talk about this at the end of your post doc. Ideally, you should have career talks during the whole time of your post doc. The IST (Institute of Science and Technology Austria) does a lot for post docs career-wise. And probably like many others, I was not always sure about becoming a group leader. But my group leader emphasized that he could really well imagine me as a group leader. Of course, it was my own decision, but he really encouraged me and also actively promoted the position as a group leader. He brought me in contact with the LIMES institute and allowed me to continue working on different projects and develop my own ideas.”

“You are the third female who has been awarded with a professorship in the last 20 years at the LIMES institute. 80% of the professors and group leaders are male. What do you think is the reason for this phenomenon?”

Eva: “That’s a rather delicate question. Of course, you have this coincidence of having a career and a family.  Usually, the age where females get their children is also the time when you start your career and it is hard to manage both at the same time. There are many aspects that play a role: You really have to like your job to continue, you need the support of your partner and the support of your surroundings. And even having all this, you have to make some sacrifices, making this a very personal decision. And I actually do not know any women that would sacrifice family or the wish of children for a job.  Usually, women would rather step back carrier-wise than not having a family.”

“You’re not only an excellent researcher but also mother of two little children. How do you combine the traditional roles of women with the cutting-edge top level research?”

Eva: “I would formulate this in a more positive way. It’s a privilege that I can have both, my family and my job that I love. But surely, I’m also dependent on help. I would not be able to do my job properly without my partner and child care. That’s another thing: You should not feel guilty bringing your children to child care because you want to do your job. There is still this social issue that you are a bad mother if you don’t stay home with your child, but it is simply not true. Personally, I think at a certain age a kindergarten can provide them much more and teach them much better than I can. Of course, it’s though sometimes, my youngest child will be four months old when we’ll bring her to the day care mom but I also believe that it is better for your children when you don’t force yourself to stay home.”

“You had your first child during your post doc and the second as a professor. What is your advice concerning the best age for family planning?”

Eva: “A friend of mine, also working in science once said that there is no bad timing for kids. If you want to have kids and work at the same time, there is going to be a possibility. I’m not saying that it’s easy but, if one wants it, it is definitely possible. Now with the second child I can say it is easier when you’re already in a leadership position. During a pregnancy as a post doc, you have to do all the lab work by yourself, which is especially difficult if chemicals are toxic. Whereas now I don’t have to do the lab work on my own.”

“Pregnancy in the laboratory is difficult to handle for a young group leader. Let’s say you have two female PhD students that get pregnant during their experimental phase of their PhD…”

Eva: “I think this is a rather negative view which sheds bad light on this whole issue. You should rather see it on the long-term: We have to do this job for about 45 years, so it´s not possible that your career depends on two PhD students that get pregnant and drop out for a year. Also, there are different support systems you can apply for. In my case, I could still perform most of the experiments and for the other ones I had someone assisting me. If you have this possibility at the university, it already helps a lot. We cannot afford to hire only men because women might get pregnant.”

“I think you’re saying that because you managed it two times but people who do not have any children or see women that drop out for several years after birth might get afraid of the whole idea.”

Eva: “A professorship is a long-term position and doesn’t depend on two years where you are less productive. First of all, that can always happen for different reasons and second, having a pregnant PhD student does not inevitably mean your group is less productive. And personally, for me pregnancy was a really positive experience. Even if experiments didn’t work, I always had something I could look forward to. Also, family forces you to switch off sometimes. But I remember when I was pregnant the first time that I had similar concerns towards my work and my boss, but his reaction was really positive.”

“Your partner is also in academia. Do you think it is better to have a partner working in science or better to have someone with a 9-5 job?”

Eva: “I think it is beneficial, if both partners are flexible and this is usually the benefit of academia. Of course, you have responsibilities, you are involved in teaching and have fixed appointments but besides that we are relatively flexible. And it is helpful, whenever one partner can work from home.”

“How do you manage your daily tasks? And how do you handle stress?”

Eva: “We hired a lady who would pick up our oldest from his day care mum twice a week and we split the time for parental leave.  And it is almost not possible for me to bring stress home. Especially small children are very demanding and want your full attention. But for me it is something positive, because it helps to switch off, once you’re home.”

“Is there a good advice for mothers and fathers in science?”

Eva: “First, what I said before: One should see it as a privilege for both. Second, I wouldn’t say it is easier for a male. Of course, they don’t get pregnant, but they also sacrifice a lot. And lastly, one should see it in a positive light and don’t bring it to a point where you see it as a decision between career or family, because I think both is manageable.”

The interview was conducted by Nóra Balzer and Miki Uchima.