May 14, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 16

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    Finding right formula for family and science

    By Sarah Galer
    News Office

    Gina Wesley-Hunt, an alumna of the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, was working as a postdoctoral researcher at a large museum when her position was terminated upon the announcement that she and her husband were expecting a child.

    Wesley-Hunt’s experience is just one example of how scientists with young families can struggle to balance family and careers, which is the subject of the upcoming event, “Motherhood & Success in Science & Engineering.”

    “There are a lot of concerns from young women as to whether you can actually juggle between family and work in academia,” said event co-organizer, Ka Yee Lee, Professor in Chemistry and the College.

    “I think it is a very important issue, and I think that any correct and adequate support that any workplace can provide is very important to enhance the involvement of women in science.”

    The event, which will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. on Monday, May 18 in Room 109 of the Biological Sciences Learning Center, promises a diverse discussion with a panel that will include faculty and other laboratory scientists, administrators and a clinician. They will speak about the challenges they encountered in their chosen career paths in science before the floor is opened up for discussion.

    One of the panelists, Leslie Kay, Associate Professor in Psychology, is a lab scientist, professor, institute director and mother of two.

    “Although this shouldn’t be an issue, it is. Women have children around the same time they are starting faculty positions, running labs, which require long hours and intense oversight of training and data collection,” she said. “This interferes with raising children for obvious reasons. Raising children interferes with running a lab for obvious reasons as well. It’s a delicate and dynamic balance to do both, even with a very supportive spouse.”

    She hopes the event aids both women and men early in their science careers.

    “This should probably be called ‘Parenthood in the Laboratory,’ rather than ‘Motherhood,’ but the fact remains that women take a bigger hit on this than men,” she said.

    Bringing an international perspective to the panel is Amanda Petford-Long, Senior Scientist in the Materials Science Division at Argonne National Laboratory. Early in her career, she juggled raising two young children while at Oxford University. When she moved to Argonne four years ago, she made the difficult decision to let her son stay behind to finish high school while her daughter accompanied her to the United States.

    “It has been hard work raising two children and combining that with my research and teaching activities, but I know that I have benefited from being able to do both, and I think that my children have grown up with a healthy outlook on women combining work and family,” said Petford-Long.

    As for Wesley-Hunt, her story has a happy ending. She successfully campaigned to change the policies at the museum where she had worked to protect future postdoctoral researchers with the help of the National Women’s Law Center. She now is an assistant professor of biology at Montgomery (Md.) College.

    “My hope for the event is to get the conversation going about the raw discrimination and the subtle discrimination that, to this day, affects women in science,” said Wesley-Hunt. “I don’t want my daughter to have this same conversation when she is 30 years old. We need all of the talent available to solve today’s problems. Society will lose out if you shut out 55 percent of amazing talent.”

    “Motherhood & Success in Science & Engineering” is free, but space is limited and registration is requested at: http://www.regonline.com/motherhood. The University and Northwestern University co-sponsored the regional event; Northwestern will host a panel earlier in the day.