Science, Now + Beyond

Do I have to give up being a mom for science?

It's not an impossible combination

Being a mother and a professional is hard in any field. But the sciences have a reputation for being particularly rigorous and male-dominated, making it an even tougher field for women and, even more, mothers. Still, hundreds of scientists manage to handle both roles. Here are a few notable scientists of all ages who have handled both science and motherhood.

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1. Dr. Joy Hirsch

A neuroscientist and researcher, Dr. Hirsch has taught at Columbia University and at Yale, where she also founded the Brain Research laboratory. Her labs were some of the first to use fMRI for both research and as an aid to surgical procedures. She has studied a wide range of brain functions, including vision, brain disorders, language and consciousness.

Yale Medicine

2. Joan Feynman

Dr. Feynman grew up in a family of scientists. Her father was interested in science, and her brother who was nearly a decade older encouraged her to study astronomy. Her husband also studied physics, so it might seem natural for Feynman to raise a scientific family. Yet the values of the day said that women should stay at home, and not work once they had a family, so managing both at once was nothing short of revolutionary. Still, Feynman was unhappy unless she was able to work. So work she did, authoring or co-authoring more than 150 scientific papers.

Tuva Research

3. Brenda Wingfield

Wingfield is a professor of genetics at the University of Praetoria. She is notable for her large role in founding the Centre for Tree Health Biotechnology, a nationally acclaimed facility. Her research has focused on fungal pathogens and their global spread. She has written on the challenges of balancing a scientific career and motherhood, and the traits that she admires in other scientist-mothers.

University of Pretoria

4. Ada Yonath

This mother and grandmother was the first woman to found a biological crystallography laboratory in Israel, where she was born and raised. She earned a Nobel prize for her work to map the structure of ribosomes. She thanks her daughter in the Nobel biography for tolerating both her presence and absence. Yonath mentions, charmingly, that her 5 year old granddaughter invited her to a kindergarten presentation on the ribosome.

5. Jacquiline Romero

This scientist studied quantum physics, and had her son while she was in graduate school. She currently works in research on light, and trying to slow the speed of light down, a field known as optics. She has written for Science magazine that she was worried before becoming a mother, but also that she doesn’t regret the decision to have a child while in a competitive field.

6. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn

Dr. Blackburn is a biochemist who won a Nobel prize for her work in investigating telomeres– the caps on the ends of chromosomes that help to protect the genetic material contained within the chromosomes. She discovered which molecules constructed these caps. She mentions that her son inspired her to find ways to combine science and motherhood, and to pass those lessons on to other scientists.

7. Ming Yi

This young scientist and mother studies superconductors, materials that conduct electricity with 100% efficiency. The problem with superconductors is that they often need very low temperatures to work. So Yi researches how to make superconductors work at a temperature that is closer to room temperature. She was recently awarded the L’Oreal Women in Science Fellowshoip, and plans to use the money that she earned from the fellowship to support other young scientists who are also mothers.

8. Galit Lahav

This biological researcher has written a scientific-style paper on how to balance motherhood and a scientific career in which she likens motherhood to a marathon. In her research pursuits she studies the internal and external signals that cause various types of cells to die. In particular she focuses on the p53 protein, which is often connected to human cancers.

Future of Research

9. Ottoline Leyser

A plant biologist who heads the Sainsbury Laboratory, Ottoline Leyser wrote a book called “Mothers in Science,” to inspire and instruct other mothers as to how to balance a scientific career and a family. Although many other scientists seem to view parenting while being a scientist as a daunting new task for women, Leyser proposes looking at the way that men have been both parents and scientists for centuries as a model for today.

10. Dr. Meg Lowman

Although her name contains the word “low,” Lowman actually does most of her environmental biology research from high up in canopies. After a divorce, Lowman found herself raising her two children while also trying to launch a career. Still, she was able to pioneer many of the techniques of canopy investigation, using walkways, hot air balloons, and even construction cranes. Another secret to her work is her tendency to bring her sons with her on research trips. They even co-authored a book with her!

In the end, the ways that each of these scientists tackled motherhood was as unique as the varied fields that they studied. Some are able to bring their children with them, while others only use them as inspiration. Their ingenuity will hopefully serve as inspiration, also, for any young scientist doubtful about the possibility of both a career in science and a family. These women prove that it is possible.

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