Babies versus science

Babies versus science

From crawling to flying, movement is a prerequisite for progress

Max enjoying his new vertical position in the world.

In the weeks since my last post, life has continued to run at a million miles an hour. As a mother it was great to see my little baby learn to sit up with a beaming smile watching the world unfold around him.

I remember at the time feeling like I was finally going to get a chance to – metaphorically – catch my breath while little Max sat and played happily for a few weeks before he learnt to crawl and could get himself into a new realm of trouble.

You can imagine my mixed emotions as I sat down that same afternoon for a cup of tea and watched him slowly rock himself forward onto his tummy and drag himself half way across the floor to pull on my shoelaces … my break was over!

The pride I felt watching my little Max learn another trick was replaced by a deflated realisation that my excusably messy house was now a deathtrap covered in random bits of scrap paper and Lego pieces littered around the floor.

I am now trying to give my three-year-old daughter a crash course in identifying not-for-baby-to-eat things. Unfortunately it seems that not-for-baby-to-eat things are an unavoidable byproduct of most of her activities … As fast as I put things in the bin new items are appearing on the floor.

Max on the move.

Coinciding with little Max’s first attempts to explore the world, I had my first trip away for three days to attend a cognitive neuroscience conference that was held in Brisbane recently. It was obviously a little sad to leave my boy for a few days, but I really enjoyed the opportunity to re-engage with my colleagues and my science – and three uninterrupted nights of sleep was priceless.

Invisible men and women

As I have been writing this column over the year, I have talked to a number of men and women about the difficulties of balancing family with career, and the one issue that keeps being raised by researchers is the reduced capacity to travel and attend conferences.

Beyond the obvious benefit of being immersed in the science and having a relatively uninterrupted period of time to think about new results and how they relate to your own work, I think it really is priceless to have some face-time with colleagues.

On the flip side I also wonder about the “cost” of not attending conferences. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but I do get the feeling that people partly judge the degree to which you are active in research by the amount you are literally seen being active in a research context.

If visibility helps – which I believe it does – periods of leave and a reduced capacity to attend events must similarly retard career progression.

I have helped to organise a number of national and international conferences recently; and discussions about identifying key speakers as draw-cards to the conference often settle on individuals doing interesting science, but who are also known to give great talks.

In fact, regardless of the quality of research, it is very hard to risk inviting someone to give an important “keynote” address if nobody has seen the person present at a conference before.

Dropped connections

I can’t help wonder what impact it’s having on women’s careers if they are less able to both gain good experience and good reputations as speakers simply because they are less able to travel and to speak at conferences.

A number of women have told me that, if you were invited to give a talk but were unable to attend, this should be mentioned in grant applications. This is good advice.

But what about the subsequent conferences and invitations that might have followed from the conference you were unable to attend? Are some men and women being overlooked, or even forgotten, simply because they are less visible?

I definitely don’t think this is the only, or even the major, problem caused by career interruptions.

But the very fact this problem is so difficult to quantify means it’s nearly impossible to acknowledge properly in grant and fellowship applications; and this lack of acknowledgement, in turn, makes it harder to break the self-perpetuating cycle of invisibility.

Christmas obstacle course

On the topic of fellowship applications, I would like to finish with a digression to vent my frustration with yesterday’s announcement of the Future Fellowships.

For those that don’t know, it is the final year these fellowships will be awarded by the Australian Research Council. They cover salary and research support for four years and represent one of the primary sources of funding to early- to mid- career researchers in Australia. And so the application details have been announced the week before Christmas, while my university’s deadline for submissions is January 21.

I have heard whispers in the corridors that this date was selected to make things sufficiently “inconvenient” to discourage large numbers of people applying just for the sake of it.

While I have no doubt this timing would be annoying for everyone applying for the Fellowship, I can’t help but feel it disproportionately affects those with young children.

Daycare closes today and my daughter’s kinder (the university-sponsored program) doesn’t start until the January 22 – the day after the Fellowship application is due.

With the Christmas holiday period approaching, it’s hard to be anything but thankful to have a happy, healthy family at home to spend some time with; and it’s disappointing to have to decide between sacrificing this time with my children or forgoing any chance of getting one of these Fellowships.

Of course, if I did not have a supportive husband and a close extended family I guess I wouldn’t even have the choice to make.

Looking back on the year it has been an amazing ride, full of excitement and challenges. I just cant help thinking that there is more that could be done to reduce some of the obstacles facing parents trying to juggle a career and a family.

I’d be interested to know whether you share this view.

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