How motherhood has made me a better scientist

Rebecca_Gelding_relaxedBy Rebecca Gelding,, @RebeccaGelding

Rebecca Gelding is currently completing her PhD at Macquarie University in Sydney. She is a part-time student, and full-time mum to two young children. Come say hi to Rebecca on her Soapbox, August 20th 1pm – 4pm in Brisbane, where she will be talking about “Changing the song on your internal jukebox: using MEG to investigate manipulating music in your mind”.



Rebecca_Gelding_first day at school_smallIs there an “ideal” time to have children as a female scientist? Should you wait till you’ve completed PhD, and secured some post-doc funding? Completed a first or even second post-doc? Or maybe have them during the PhD? Fortunately for me, I’ve never had to wrestle with this question, because I was a mum before I even began my PhD. I started part-time on my 3-year old daughter’s first day of preschool (as pictured on the right), and brought my 18 month old son on campus with me that day. It was tricky, and I look back on those early days and wonder where I fitted it in. But reflecting on these past few years, I can also see so many ways in which motherhood has made me a better scientist.


So regardless of whether you have or want kids, I hope these lessons from motherhood can inspire you to be a better scientist too:


Learning is a process

Over these 4 years my pre-schooler has become a fully literate 1st grader. Watching the development of my little reader is astonishing – but it hasn’t been linear. There have been times where the growth has been slow – snail’s pace, stuck practicing the same words. Other times it seems exponential; like the day she finished reading her first chapter book, and then immediately grabbed a second. It’s the same as a scientist. We are always on a learning curve – sometimes it is steep when you first start learning a new technique or researching a new area, but there are other times where progress can feel painfully slow, leading to boredom. Either way, the learning never ends, which means we are often left feeling like we don’t really understand what we are doing. Which is why so many could relate to @Sciencegurlz0 tweet:

“My advice for my students: The “I don’t know what I’m doing” feeling never goes away. You just learn the “but I can figure it out” part.”

 The lesson we can all take from children is to never give up, and persevere. Eventually we will make progress, and then find another thing new to learn and start the learning process all over again!


Making friends is the best way to collaborate

Have you ever witnessed a group of kids at the park go from strangers to best friends in the course of an afternoon? Kids make friends so easily; watching them play and interact can be a lesson in networking and collaboration.

In usually starts with one brave step, where a child approaches another and just begins talking. Before long a group will grow and then the games will start, and each child contributes ideas for how the game will play out: “Let’s pretend the bad guys are goblins”… “oh yeah, and I can do my super ninja kick”….   The kids know that the most fun is had when everyone joins in the game and plays together.

Networking is even more important to a scientist. Watching my kids interact with others has taught me we need to be brave and make the most of opportunities to meet with other academics and potential industry partners (either in person or online through social media). From these networks will come our potential collaborators – other scientists with whom, when we work together, there is a synergy that happens as each person in the group has a “role” to play and contributes. Perhaps there is a new potential ‘friend’ that you could consider approaching today?


There are always chores to be done

Talk about Groundhog Day: the washing, the dishes, tidying up, vacuuming, dressing, brushing teeth, toileting. It’s always so incredible how much more housework there is when you add one or two kids into the family unit. It. Never. Ends.

But you know what, there are parts of my work as a scientist that are chores. I’m sure you can identify parts in your work too.  It’s the stuff that I put off; often trying to procrastinate before doing. Like writing up my manuscript, or re-reading that difficult paper that I’ve already tried to understand several times before, but still seems like a foreign language. Perhaps administration for you is a chore, or endless meetings.

So what has motherhood taught me about academic chores? Just do it. The longer you leave them, the worse they get, so it’s better to have a regular routine where you fit in those academic chores. Plus there is a great sense of satisfaction you get when you do complete a chore – so get working!


Play is Important

Kids learn best when it is fun – which is why making time for play is so important. As scientists, taking a break for “fun” can improve our productivity. For me, my ‘playtime’ is communicating with others – over coffee, in my blog, or even standing on a soapbox! By scheduling some playtime into my week, I can see how more productive I am. Some of my best ideas or solutions to problems have arisen whilst away from my computer. Also, by enjoying my playtime it puts me in the right frame of mind emotionally to tackle some of those chores I mentioned previously – play becomes a reward for getting the work done. We don’t need endless hours in the lab to be successful. Its quality over quantity and playtime helps ensure I am energised and focus for my work.



So I can’t answer the question of when or if you should have children, and if you already have children, whether you should consider starting a PhD, but I hope this at least provides a fresh perspective for all of us to appreciate the richness that motherhood can bring to any women in science. And as we stare up at the stars, into our microscopes, at the world around us or the brains inside us, may we be reminded to never lose the wonder of a child.



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