I always wanted to be a scientist. I have very clear memories of walking into a chemistry lab for the first time aged 11, the age my daughter is now. Having been educated in a village school, the idea that you could have a whole classroom devoted just to chemistry seemed pretty cool. At 16 I fell in love with DNA and genetics and after that I never had any doubts that I wanted to pursue a career in science. Today I'm a lecturer in pathology at the University of Oxford, I lead my own research group working on atherosclerosis, and I am a tutorial fellow of Hertford College, Oxford.
While I never really considered any careers outside of basic research I was very fortunate (in many ways) that I married a successful lawyer. My wife has always been the major wage earner in our household. I really enjoyed my postdoctoral career in London and later in Oxford and my wife's high-profile career insulated me from the relatively modest salary and short-term nature of postdoctoral research contracts.
With the arrival of our first child, Nathan, we had to address the issue of child care, a new challenge for two busy professionals used to working late and bringing work home at the weekends. The arrival of our daughter, Abigail, 3 years later was a very happy event that added to the practical challenges that derive from two kids and two careers.
In all the current discussion of child care, paternity leave and getting mothers back into full-time employment, the unspoken assumption is that the major burden of child care will fall to women. One very positive aspect of being a male postdoc in a laboratory with an understanding (male) mentor was the ability to work flexible hours when the children were younger. This allowed me to do my fair share of child care and allowed my wife to work the hours she needed to in order to be a successful commercial litigator.
All working parents face a the same challenges--getting everybody out in the morning, collecting the kids from school, making dinner, supervising homework, and then bedtime--ideally with the children falling asleep before you do. Just when you are getting into a routine that works for everyone, you have to cover school holidays. No two families are the same and everyone approaches child care in different ways. I offer a few insights gained from 10 years spent marking essays and reviewing papers while waiting outside the school gates.
Always prioritise tasks the minute they land on your desk or appear in your email. Complete the task straight away, politely say you can't do it and explain why, or pencil a time in your diary when you can devote the time required to finish the task.
Turn up to meetings on time but don't feel guilty about getting up and walking out if they run over their scheduled duration. The vast majority of academic meetings I have attended could have achieved their goals (given that anyone could agree what they were beforehand) in half the time.
Identify work tasks that can be accomplished at home and put them in your briefcase. Use the time you are in work to do things you can only do when you are at work--for example, doing experiments and discussing ideas for future experiments.
Only take a coffee break or lunch break when there is a natural gap in your schedule--the tissue culture hoods are rarely booked solid at 8 a.m. or over lunchtime.
Always try to eat together as a family in the evening and talk about what you have done that day. Explaining chemotaxis assays to 7-year-olds is a challenge but it is not impossible. The hardest questions I have ever been asked about pathology have come not in college tutorials but in the car driving back from school. This week: "Dad, what causes Parkinson's disease? Will I get it?"
Has my scientific career suffered from trying to combine child care and being a full-time scientist? Yes. I don't go to as many seminars as I should. I am always watching the clock. I miss the opportunity to shoot the breeze and talk about science and sport in the corridor. I miss playing 5-a-side football on Tuesday lunchtimes or going to the pub after work. I don't attend as many conferences and meetings as I would like. I have fewer impromptu discussions with my graduate students and I don't dine at high table in college very often.
Have I been an effective scientist and teacher? I hope so. As a postdoc I cloned the CCR6 chemokine receptor and now as a group leader I head a team looking at chemokine biology in atherosclerosis, the disease process that underlies the development of myocardial infarction and strokes. I am very proud of the achievements of all the medical students that I have tutored in pathology and biochemistry, and it has been a pleasure to supervise undergraduate students doing their experimental project work in my laboratory.
Has being a parent made me a better teacher? Maybe. I think being a parent helps make me a little more patient and understanding with undergraduates who are now only a few years older than my own children. Being a student in 2004 presents very different challenges to those that I faced when I was a student 25 years ago, and I do worry whether we put our children and our students under too much pressure around exam time.
What was the highlight of 2003 for me? A conversation I overheard in the playground.
"What does your Dad do, Abbie?"
"He's a scientist; he's working on a cure for heart disease."
How cool is that?