Biophysicists Finding Balance: Mother’s Day

May 10 is Mother’s Day in the US. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with Biophysical Society members Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Umeå University, and Taviare Hawkins, University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, about what it is like to be a biophysicist and a parent, and how the two roles impact each other.

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

Pernilla mother's day

How many children do you have? What are their ages?

I have two girls. Selma is 13 years old and Hilda is 9 years old.

At what stage of your career did you have children?

My first daughter was born in 2001 in New Orleans just when my tenure application at Tulane was submitted. I got my tenure, but because I had a baby at home I never worried about the outcome. My second daughter was born in Houston when I was tenured at Rice during Hurricane Rita in 2005. I started to think about kids already as a postdoc, but things did not turn out as we planned. Thinking back, it was good to have the kids later when my independent research group was up and running.

Has your career been influenced or changed by your role as a parent? How?

Definitely. I have always worked a lot and I love what I do. However, having children made me become more efficient and it has also given me a perspective on what is most important in life. Before the kids, science dominated my life; it still does but not to the same extreme.

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a biophysicist and a parent?

Time management. You want to work a lot and you want to spend a lot of time with your kids. It is a dilemma. It is easy to feel guilty that you do not do enough towards both work and kids. Also, I missed a lot of conferences when my kids were little. It was simply too complicated to go away for a long time. I still find it hard to go to conferences as it is a lot of logistics to organize – but I know it is important for one’s career and it is always very inspiring.

Have there been any benefits to being both a mother and a scientist?

Yes, absolutely. As a scientist I work very freely and I can do a lot from home. That means I can take time for the kids when needed, when they are sick, need a ride, or have doctor’s appointments for example. Also, because I had my kids in the States at the time when there was really no maternity leave, I worked around this by taking sabbatical to avoid teaching; instead I was home with the baby while at the same time I worked from my house. For me this was great because I would not have wanted to take off for 1 year (the common maternity leave in Sweden). It does not work if you are a group leader.

Would you encourage your children to be scientists?

I will encourage them to study at higher levels and I will definitely support them to go abroad for university studies in order to experience other systems and see the world. I have a feeling I have talked so much about science, performed experiments at home and organized their birthday parties in the lab, so they will pursue other careers.  I have already noted that my oldest daughter is very talented towards art and writing, although the little one is analytical like me.

How would your children describe your work?

I guess they would say their mother has a job that involves eating a lot of chocolate while trying to save the world. They have both been with me to work so they know my group, and my colleagues, and thus have an idea of where I spend my days. I suspect they would complain that my job involves too much reading and sitting in front of the computer, which is what they see at home.

Any advice for other mothers or prospective mothers pursuing science careers?

Being a scientist and a mother is a good combination but – and this extends to everyone pursuing an academic science career – you have to truly enjoy doing research as it is never easy and there will always be a lot to do.  An important aspect is to have a husband who you can share all the responsibilities with. This is common in Sweden, but not always true in America. I am married to such a guy and it definitely helps.


Taviare Hawkins

IMG_1249

How many children do you have? What are their ages?

I have one child, a daughter, age 9.

At what stage of your career did you have children? 

I had my daughter at an in-between stage in my career. I was in a faculty position, at a small private liberal arts college, and I was ABD [“all but dissertation”].

 Has your career been influenced or changed by your role as a parent? How?

Yes, after she was born I finished my dissertation and changed the focus of my research to biophysics.  I had done computational biophysics but now I work in experimental biophysics.

How has your career been influenced by your own mother?

I think the biggest way that my mother has influenced my career choice is that she has always encouraged me to pursue my interests, whatever they were. Even now as a college professor, she manages my child so I am free to work till I drop in the lab, travel to give talks, and to perform research with collaborators at other institutions.

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a biophysicist and a parent?

Explaining to my daughter why mommy needs to travel so much; to conferences, to give talks, and to do research. When she was little I didn’t think she understood where I was going but now she asks about it and even looks forward to summer travels. She asks, “Where are we going this summer?” She has buddies all over the place.

Have there been any benefits to being both a mother and a scientist?

Yes, it definitely buys you little kid cred! On the playlot, others know who I am from my kid, so from time to time they will ask me science questions.

Would you encourage your children to be scientists?

Of course- right now she says she wants to be a bioengineer.

How would your children describe your work?

I’ve heard her tell her buddies and teachers that her mom is a physicist who works on cell stuff; she’s a biophysicist. She uses a microscope and some math to look at these stringy things (microtubules) that are in cells. She wants to know more about how they work.

Any advice for other mothers or prospective mothers pursuing science careers?

Just do it! It’s never a “good time” in academia to have a kid, but it can be oh so rewarding!

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