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Why Bench Science May Scare Off Potential Scientific Mothers-to-Be

Jane Curry was a researcher at the University of Sydney at the Centre for Animal Immunology Research.

Quite honestly, I've never thought of myself as what my American sister-in-law calls a wimp. I've always enjoyed challenges from mountaineering to tackling tough scientific questions. So it came as quite a surprise over a year ago when one of my co-workers announced that she was planning to quit the lab due to "potential environmental hazards" because she was expecting.

What environmental hazards? We worked with animal cell cultures and molecular biology techniques (and the occasional sheep if we were developing veterinary applications). I've always thought our exposure to chemicals was nowhere comparable to that of a radiologist, for example, who deals with x-rays and radioactive tracers 10 hours a day. My co-worker's announcement puzzled me, in particular, because she'd always been such a dedicated sort, coming into the lab on weekends and during evenings to finish an experiment. When we stepped off campus one day, I asked her why she was going to quit.

Her response was initially puzzling. She wanted to carry the baby to term without complications, the long hours in the lab were getting to her (at the time she was 6 months pregnant), she didn't think she could reduce her hours without receiving unofficial "black marks" from her supervisor, and so on.

But the environmental hazards? It was, she said, only a partial truth. Although she was concerned about exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals, the most hazardous time period for exposure to teratogens was now past, when she had been extremely careful. She was most deeply concerned about--and most reluctant to talk about--the impact of having children on her career.

It turned out that my colleague, the perfectionist, didn't see science as a worthy career when she couldn't give it 60 to 70 hours over 6 days a week. Part-time wasn't an option, she claimed, because you can't do part-time science. And even if she could, she didn't think her supervisor would let her. Did she ask, I countered? Yes, and she wasn't convinced that it would work.

My colleague perceived a general lack of understanding for parents who try to balance the rigors of scientific research with family demands. "If an experiment doesn't work, I don't want them to automatically think that I didn't put enough time into it because I ran off to the sitter at 4," she said. Professional respect, undiminished after 6 years in the lab, was important to her. "And no experiment is going to be as important as my child."

Fear of failure. That's the reason. Raising a newborn takes a lot of time and effort. And the "progress of science" marches on meanwhile. (Or lumbers glacially on, depending on how experiments are faring!) Academics can be very unforgiving.

I tried not to think about what it would mean for me, if I decided to have a child then. Well, as it turns out, I wasn't pregnant at the time, but my roommate from university days was (we spent 2 years in a drafty British campus), and she, too, was thinking of dropping from the bench.

She called me from California. She was going to finish her postdoctoral fellowship, write a grant renewal to help the lab, and take an extended leave from science after her child was born. I asked her the same questions I had asked my immunology colleague.

Her response was slightly different but hit the same notes. "I'm tired of fighting the long hours. And the comments about how my bench won't be the same if I return because everyone will have 'borrowed' my reagents." She also mentioned something about part-time not working out. "I asked, and they said they didn't have a policy, and I was welcome to try, but I'm not so sure. I probably wouldn't be able to keep my project because it would take too long for me to publish, and another postdoc would take over as first author."

The sharks were already circling, she said, because she had not given a definite time for returning. "I've never done this before. I'm supposed to know how long it will take for the baby to sleep through the night, and how tired I will be, so that I can schedule computer time 5 months in advance?"

My old roommate said she planned to apply for company jobs, maybe not even doing research, after the baby was 4 months old. But it would mean not returning to her old academic lab. "I can't seen why it's supposed to be worth it. What faculty jobs will be open to me if I take 1 year off?"

What drives female researchers to leave the lab? As I found out, many different reasons. But a strong perception about the lack of adaptability in the lab and academic setting, work ethics (perhaps too extreme), and the requisite long hours seem to be large factors.

So now that I'm expecting, will I be leaving my new lab? Yes, but only because my spouse and I are relocating. I've lined up a research job with a newly established program but won't begin until 3 months after our son is born. I suspect my reasons for not leaving the lab have to do with the fact that I was lucky enough to find a position that won't require 60 hours in the lab. Also, my husband will be taking care of our child for the first 6 months while he's taking sabbatical leave. And my aunt will be flying in to act as a pseudogranny for the next 6 months.

But although I'll be able to spend more time in the lab than I would have expected, I don't know if I'll want to. Is there an intrinsic difference between males and females in this regard? (My university preceptor had four children and never seemed to miss them despite the long hours he spent giving tutorials.) Probably, although much of it may be socialization. It would be nice to see my child reach major developmental milestones. (My husband has promised to videotape them.)

I'll have to make an educated guess: My guess is that I, too, will be receiving "black marks" for not spending all my waking hours in the lab. And that I may be constantly second-guessed for all the mistakes I will make. "Working mother, you know." I suspect the administrators who hired me do see my 1-year contract as an experiment.

Will I stay at the bench for certain? I don't know. And I certainly can't speak for anyone else. What I can say, for myself, is that if it weren't for the fact that I have so much family support, and my new job wasn't 5 minutes from home, and I didn't have a flexible schedule, I might have taken the same steps as my colleagues before me.