Babies versus science

Babies versus science

Balancing parenting and careers – why bother?

Some readers of this column might wonder why people like me even bother trying to balance a career and motherhood. Surely life would be easier if I moved out of research and took a part-time job somewhere.

Over the last few weeks I have questioned this myself. In a post prior to Christmas, I mentioned applications for the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) fellowship scheme for early-mid career researchers opened on the December 19 (the day before childcare broke for Christmas) necessitating a submission deadline at my university of January 23 (the day after childcare restarted).

Despite this ridiculous – some might even say discriminatory – deadline, I was determined to spend as much time as possible with my two young children over this period. So in the end my solution/compromise was that two or three times a week I would drink as much coffee as my body could take and work into the early hours of the morning.

I then used the next few days to recover, spending time with the kids and having a few early nights, before doing it all again.

Baby Max at 10 months old enjoys attention from his big sister.

Ironically the one thing that helped motivate me through this period of chronic sleep deprivation was the fellowship application. A major component of it involved me describing in great detail what my goals and objectives were for the coming four years.

Importantly, I also had to argue why this research was important and why I was uniquely positioned (in terms of facilities and experience) to conduct this research. The more time I spent trying to explain what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it, the more I remembered what got me interested in research in the first place.

If you are wondering (like many of my close friends and family) what it is that I actually do at work, a large focus of my research and teaching relates to the question:

How does the brain generate a conscious experience?

Given this question was beaten only by “what is the universe made of?” as one of the greatest questions facing science over the next 25 years, it’s unsurprising I’m not alone in my interest in this area.

I should also clarify that I’m not so conceited to believe I am likely to actually solve this question – in fact, I’m not convinced it will be answered in my lifetime.

One main focus of my research is understanding how the brain processes visual information in order to generate a conscious visual experience. As you view this illusion of “Motion Induced Blindness” keep your eyes on the green dot. If you see the yellow dots disappear, THAT IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD! For the best effects view the illusion in full-screen mode.Alongside other research teams around the world, my research uses illusions of this sort to investigate what is changing in the brain to make those dots pop in and out of your consciousness. If we understand this, we will go a long way to understanding how consciousness arises in a healthy brain, and possibly how hallucinations might result when things are not functioning properly .

It is fair to say that my interest in this question is motivated primarily by my personal fascination – let’s be honest, I’m not trying to cure cancer or solve world hunger.

As a teenager, I used to lie in bed at night wondering how the jelly-like ball of neurons in my head could create all of the thoughts, feelings and perceptions that make me “me”.

After two undergraduate degrees, a year of honours, a PhD topped off by three years of post-doctoral training at Harvard University (each either subsidised or fully supported by Australian government funding), I now head a research lab and lecture hundreds of undergraduates every year focusing on questions relating to neuroscience and consciousness.

So in response to the question of why I am trying to balance a career and motherhood, my answer is two-fold:

  • 1) Because my research question - that gets at the heart of who we are as people - is my passion. I simply don’t see why anyone should have to cut themselves off entirely from such a big part of their life, as matter of course, simply because they have children.

  • 2) I believe it’s a massive waste of tax-payers money to train people (often over ten years of tertiary and post-doctoral training) to then receive no benefit from this expertise over the subsequent 25-30 years of their remaining working life.

Now that I am in a position to contribute to research and teaching, I would like to use the skills and education that I’ve been lucky enough to receive to start giving something back.