Life story: Yanlan Mao

Planning your time effectively can help to set aside quality time for your children.

Yanlan Mao is a Principal Investigator at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, University College London, studying developmental biophysics. Her first child was born in 2015, a year and a half after starting her own research group. She took seven months maternity leave.

Cookie baking on a snowy day when the nursery was closed. Image credit: Yanlan Mao.

How has your life led you to become a scientist parent?

After my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge University (2001-2004), I went on to do a PhD at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge (2004-2008) and a postdoc at CRUK London Research Institute (2009-2013). I started my own research group at MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology, UCL, in 2013, and I’m currently funded by a MRC Career Development Award Fellowship for five years.

My dad is a university professor in mathematics and a huge influence on my career choice and research interests. Growing up, I was very good at maths and thought I wanted to be a mathematician, but then I discovered biology and found the natural world more fascinating. I always wanted to use mathematics though, to help understand biology, which is what I am doing now in my own research lab.

Although my dad was always very busy, I felt I had a lot of time with him as a child. He would always be home for dinner and would spend quality time with us during school holidays. He often worked from home in the evening and during the holidays, but it still was good to be able to see him a lot, unlike some of my friends who hardly saw their dads. My mum and I accompanied my dad to conferences, which meant I got to see a lot of the world and to appreciate the work-life balance of an academic/scientist.

As a scientist, you are almost always working, but because you can manage your own time and are not tied to e.g., clients or patients, it allows you to fit in a family. Having said that, my mum did give up her career to be a full-time mother, so that my dad didn’t have to worry too much about childcare and other things at home and could fully concentrate on his work. So, I’ve seen how important a supportive partner is for successful scientists. Luckily, my husband has always been very proud and supportive of my job, and shares our childcare and family duties equally, allowing us both to work full time and pursue our careers and interests.

What support have you received as a parent from your country, institution, and friends and family?

I had my first child in 2015, a year and a half after starting my own group. I took about seven months of maternity leave but could have taken a year. I was nevertheless working pretty much throughout, on writing papers, revising papers, etc. Unfortunately, science doesn’t stop and wait, and I had a paper in the middle of revisions, so I kept working on that. After about three months, I started going back to the lab once a week for lab meetings and to catch up with lab members on progress. This worked out well. Luckily, these days were used as ‘keeping in touch’ days, which I could add on at the end of my maternity leave. I could only have 10 of these days though, which is not really enough.

In the beginning, my parents and in-laws were great, taking turns to stay with us and help us out with the new arrival. As my daughter was born almost four weeks early, the extra help was very much appreciated, especially as my husband wasn’t able to take his official paternity leave yet (he lectures part-time at the university and it was the last two weeks of term). UCL’s nursery has also been a great help, even if the waiting list is very long. We registered while I was pregnant but my daughter still didn’t get a space until she was eight months (we originally wanted her to start at six months). Luckily, the family was able to help in the first month I went back to work fulltime and nursery wasn’t available yet. Having nursery on site and near my office was a great comfort – knowing that I could reach her within five minutes if anything were to happen helped a lot at the beginning.

What has been the most difficult aspect of balancing parenthood and science?

Not having enough hours in the lab and office, even though my daughter goes to a fulltime nursery. And whenever she is sick, the nursery won’t take her, so my husband or I have to take the time off work to be with her at home. This makes conducting experiments very difficult and I often have to reschedule meetings. Luckily, nowadays, I can do a lot of my work from home, after my daughter goes to bed. I used to work until at least 7 or 8pm in the lab, but now I have to take time out between 5-8pm and pick it up again after 8 or 9pm. I don’t always manage to pick it up again!

Travelling is also tough. Science requires a lot of travelling to conferences and to give talks at other institutes, which I’ve found much more difficult as a mother. I feel bad leaving my daughter alone with my husband for too long or too frequently, but I also feel bad rejecting invitations to conferences and seminars. I end up doing lots of very short trips, such as a two-day trip to China once – that was very exhausting!

What more could be done to improve the lives of scientist parents?

The main problem is that the success and achievements of scientists are basically measured by publications. Employers, funding bodies and grant committees should take into account that progress will be affected when you are a parent scientist.

On-site nurseries are great and should be available at all large scientific institutions, but the nurseries should have longer opening hours to reflect the longer working hours of scientists. The nursery is also very expensive in the UK, so if childcare supplements or discounts could be given to scientists, especially when they are postdocs, that would help significantly. UCL’s salary sacrifice nursery scheme (tax-free) has been a great help in that respect.

And what single change would have the biggest impact on you?

Longer time added onto fellowships than just time taken off for maternity leave. You lose much more time than just maternity-leave time, so to expect the same level of outcome, even with added maternity leave time, is unfair. I would suggest an extra six months for new fathers and at least an extra year for new mothers.

What advice would you give to other scientist parents or scientists who are thinking of having children?

There is no right time to have children and you have to accept that your scientific progress will be slower. However, you can manage your time to get the best out of both worlds. There will always be more work to do, but you can never make up for lost time with your kids when they are young. Don’t check your emails and work while spending time with your kids. I did that sometimes, but then my daughter started saying “Mummy, stop looking at your phone”, which made me really guilty. Now, when I am playing with my daughter, I give her 100% of my time. So, dedicate time to your kids, and then when you actually do work, you will be more efficient too.

How do you think the challenges of being a scientist and a parent compare with the challenges faced by other professionals who are also parents?

No one – or hardly anyone – can do your work for you, especially when you are the principal investigator (PI). If you have to take time off, your progress pauses, the work accumulates and you will have to make up the time afterwards. However, unlike many other professions, you can be flexible and manage your own time, and as long as the work gets done, it doesn’t really matter when you do it. I think a scientist is actually one of the best jobs to balance work with parenting.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

People often ask if there is ‘a best time’ or career stage to have children. The challenges vary at different stages. But I would say it’s probably harder to be productive and to keep the momentum when you have a child as a student and postdoc. As a PI, it can be easier as you have lab members who keep things going, but you don’t really get a maternity leave – you have to keep up with your lab members!