How to achieve work-life balance: Stories of success from CSC Science Moms
As we gear up for Women’s History Month, the Early Career Climate Forum and the Fisheries Blog are joining forces to highlight and build upon the personal stories of female researchers in our scientific networks by showcasing perspectives from the Department of Interior Climate Science Centers (CSCs).
Featured Science Moms
Dr. Toni Lyn Morelli is a research ecologist at the Northeast CSC. Multiple lines of funding from the National Science Foundation kicked off her career examining the effects of global change on wildlife, and she has built extensive collaborations across the U.S. as well as overseas. Among her nearly 40 peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports, her recent work on climate change refugia and on translational ecology (in collaboration with CSC colleagues) have received extensive press coverage on NPR, Mother Jones, High Country News, and other outlets.
Dr. Abby Lynch is a research fish biologist at the National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center in Reston, Virginia. She coordinates InFish and serves as a fellow and lead author for the ongoing global assessment of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Abby’s research portfolio has resulted in 25 peer-reviewed publications (12 first authored) and an extensive network of over 100 collaborators from over 70 institutions and over 30 countries. Abby is also a regular contributor to the Fisheries Blog.
Dr. Nicole DeCrappeo is deputy director of the Alaska CSC and lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her research experience includes 10 years with the U.S. Geological Survey Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, where she studied the links between native and exotic invasive plants, soil biological communities, and nutrient cycling in arid lands of the western U.S. She has also worked on topics ranging from biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in tallgrass prairies to climate change effects on nematodes in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica.
Dr. Michelle Staudinger is the science coordinator for the Northeast CSC and adjunct faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Michelle co-led the primary working group and technical input underpinning the 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA), and is currently an Author on the Ecosystems Chapter to the 2018 NCA. She has co-authored 30 peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports, is a co-founder of the Early Career Climate Forum, and leads an active research program on coastal phenology and climate adaptation.
An Introduction from Toni Lyn
I’ve never been much of a kid person. Maybe it was being the youngest in my family, and the youngest among my dozens (and dozens) of Italian cousins, but I’ve never been one to ooh and ahh over baby pictures, or to feel the need to share mine. But I mention my 4-year-old son in every introduction to a new colleague, every conference presentation, every departmental get-together. I imagine myself as a 20-year-old in the audience, rolling my eyes at the gratuitous cute shot of a toddler in a bear snowsuit. But that confident (and delightfully clueless) 20-year-old student grew up to find that most women felt forced to choose between family life and their STEM careers. I know now that the rates of women who make it to the highest echelons of scientist status in USGS, as in academia, are woefully low; although numbers increased by 5-10% in the preceding decade, women still only made up 37% of USGS GS-13s in 2015 and only 21% of the GS-15. And the numbers of professional women in STEM with children are even worse. I’ve listened with sadness to graduate women considering dropping out of the profession they’ve worked so hard for because they felt they had to choose to be moms or to be scientists/engineers. And I know that social psychology has shown that role models, even just pictures of people in your field that look like you, are incredibly powerful devices for reducing attrition of women and minorities from science and engineering. So, I wave my toddler’s picture or otherwise declare myself a Science Mom with every new introduction in the hopes that somewhere is a woman who will think - maybe I can have it all.
Below you’ll hear stories from some CSC scientists who exemplify both the struggle and the success of having it both ways. They are women that I admire; USGS is lucky to have them, and this February, we’re lucky to hear how they are making it work and achieving work-life balance as CSC Science Moms.
Three personal stories and some advice for navigating work-life balance
Though my son is now almost 11 months old, I still have trouble identifying myself as a mom. I think that the “new mom” label, in some way, helps me give myself a pass for not yet being an “expert.” But, as I’ve started on this new phase of professional and personal life, I do know that that being an “expert” at parenting isn’t really a thing the same way it is in a scientific field. All kids are different; all situations are different; and all we can do is just do the best we can. I think it will take time, but I am beginning to come to grips with that, thanks to a strong community of Science Moms that have been willing to share their stories and experiences like Nicole, Michelle, and Toni Lyn. A commonality to success in science and at home is surely having a supportive office culture and work environment. Overall my personal experience has been very positive in that regard -- increased opportunities for telework and privacy for pumping, for example, have, no doubt, allowed me to breastfeed my son longer than others in less accommodating environments. But, I would like to share one small example where my experience was less positive in an attempt to bring broader awareness to an issue that is often unconscious:
Before my son was born, I didn’t know what “mom shaming” was -- but it is a real thing. My first (and thankfully only!) experience with it was on my first professional trip after returning to work after maternity leave. I was offhandedly criticized for taking the trip and leaving my son home without milk when he was so young. While the person who commented didn’t know that I had painstakingly prepared a supply of milk for my son during my absence, the small remark cut deep as I was already quite fragile for taking the trip in the first place and balancing my desire to re-establish my professional role while still wanting to spend time at home with my son. Still, what if I hadn’t had been able to breastfeed at all? That would have been a double whammy remark. The “mom shaming” resulted from implying that my decisions about professional life would have ramifications for my family because they were different decisions than the commenter had made for herself and her family. Just try to remember, though it is difficult at times (like this instance was for me!), everyone is different. What works for someone else professionally and personally may not work for you. All you can do is the best you can do and that is the best for your family and your science.
I’m a perfectionist with OCD tendencies who has long suffered from imposter syndrome - pretty standard for a scientist, right? As a USGS research ecologist, I loved studying soil critters and figuring out how they were affected by - and contributed to - dramatic vegetation changes in the Great Basin. But I was constantly racked with guilt about not working long enough, hard enough, well enough. I continuously compared myself to others and felt that my research was inadequate - and, by extension, that I was inadequate.
Luckily, I’d once expressed a vague interest in science administration to my center director, and when a research coordinator detail opened up at the Northwest CSC she recommended me for the position. As it happened, this opportunity came when I was six weeks into maternity leave. I had already upended my life with a baby, so why not throw in an entirely new job to really shake things up?
What happened during the next six months was remarkable. I was “forced” to work between the hours of 8:00-10:00 (because at 10:00 I biked to my son’s daycare to breastfeed), 11:00-3:00 (because at 3:00 I pumped, with a hands-free pumping bra of course so I could still get some work done), and then call it quits at 5:00 (because I had to pick up the baby, go home and breastfeed, make and eat dinner, wash baby bottles, get the baby to sleep, and crash in bed in exhaustion). Because of my demanding boss-baby, I learned to be very efficient at work, to plan and prioritize tasks constantly, and to say no to extra professional activities. My lifelong guilt about not working long enough or hard enough started to melt away. Soon, I started to feel completely adequate for doing what I was doing, which was getting through each and every day and enjoying every moment I could with my son. There was no guilt in that for me - it was truly liberating.
Five years later, I’m the deputy director of the Alaska CSC. I still work 8-5 (except when I need to make up hours at night because I volunteered that day at my son’s school), and I’m still guilt-free. I’m incredibly grateful to my son, who “forces” me to reenact scenes from The Empire Strikes Back with his Lego sets on weekend afternoons instead of answering work emails or finishing reports. I’m refreshed on Monday and ready to jump into the week because I’ve taken the weekend off. I’m a happier and more productive USGS scientist because of the balance my son provides.
Having kids can be an identity crisis. For me, I was all-in as a scientist, and couldn’t fathom how I would give up an ounce of the scientist part of myself. But then, my boys were born, at the same time. Yes, I have twins. Nothing has been, or is ever going to be the same again. It took a long time, maybe 2-3 years, to come to accept this idea fully and get comfortable with my new duality as a Science Mom. It probably seems like it shouldn’t have taken that long, but I was really sleep deprived, which brings me to my first point on how to balance being a new parent and yet keep up with your career. Sleep deprivation is not something to take lightly, and it can have a big impact on your processing speed. There are days when you can do more and some when you can do less. This is probably universally true for all parents (Moms AND Dads); for me, I found that the tired (zombie) days were a good time to do the more mundane tasks like credit card logs, booking travel, trainings, or design Powerpoint presentations. Better and less frustrating to save things like crunching numbers or creative writing for the days that you got a good night sleep.
I am also the “Queen of Lists” (so says my husband). I keep weekly “To do” lists of everything I need and want to accomplish at work, along with household chore lists of “go-to easy healthy meals,” etc. I also enter “to dos” in my calendar so if something has a hard deadline, I get multiple reminders and see it coming. This helps me stay organized and on top of the little things. I also learned that whenever possible, it’s good to get things done ahead since you never know when you will be home with a sick kid. Speaking of, teleworking is probably one of the most important benefits of my job and probably has saved my career. As federal employees we are very privileged to have this option. Early on after returning from maternity leave, working from home allowed me to stay close to my young ones a few days a week and transition back slowly to full weeks at work in my relatively new position as science coordinator of the NE CSC. Even now that they are in preschool, I appreciate this benefit on days when someone is sick (me included). Most of the time I can still squeeze in a half day or spread my hours over non-nine-to-five times and get what needs to be done, done. Lastly, one of the biggest changes I have made to maintain work-life balance was to reduce travel. Because of the additional strains on my family as well as my stress and exhaustion levels, I am very careful about what I commit to, and only attend a few long-distance meetings in person each year. I undoubtedly miss some opportunities but for now, it is a really important way I can keep up with the daily grind, reach my personal goals, and keep everyone happy at home.
It is through these featured stories and shared challenges of how successful CSC Science Moms are navigating and finding balance in work and life we hope to inspire other women in STEM and increasingly break down barriers of this traditionally underrepresented group. For more information and resources see From scarcity to inclusion: The continued need for women in science, prior Fisheries Blog posts from Dana Sackett and Jennifer Cochran Biederman, and visit the ECCF’s Diversity in STEM
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