Life story: Gaby Da Silva Xavier

For some research is not just a job, and pursuing a career you love can help you be a good role model for your child.

Gaby Da Silva Xavier has just accepted a senior lectureship at the University of Birmingham. Her son was born in 2012, while she was a lecturer at Imperial College London.

Gaby and her son, at four months old. Image credit: Gaby Da Silva Xavier.

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

I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. Being from Macau, where scientific research is non-existent, I always knew that I would probably have to spend most of my life studying and working away from home to achieve my goal. I did my A-levels in the UK where my Biology teacher, who was a biochemist by training, advised me to apply to the University of Bristol to continue my studies. It was a great piece of advice. I went on to spend 10 happy years at Bristol – first as an undergraduate student, then as a PhD student, and finally as a post-doctoral researcher.

I had a lot of time in one place, and support from a great mentor in Guy Rutter, which gave me space and time to develop my own research interests. I got fellowships from the European Foundation for the Study of Diabetes (EFSD) and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The EFSD fellowship allowed me to take a sabbatical in the laboratory of Raphael Scharfmann in Paris where I learnt to work with embryonic pancreatic explants from rodents as a research model to look at how changes in nutrient environment can impact on the development of the pancreas. The two fellowships allowed me to explore my own research interests and to eventually set up my own lab.

I also met my husband at Bristol; we were members of the same volleyball club. And when I moved to Imperial College London in 2006, he moved to London the year after. Imperial College is a good place to conduct metabolic studies using mouse models, and the move allowed me to take my research in a new direction. Fortunately, my husband works from home, as an IT consultant, which means he has enough flexibility to allow him to move with me.

I got a few more grants after I moved to London, and was appointed lecturer in 2009. With the relative job security and the possibility to appoint a post-doctoral researcher and a technician to help develop my projects, my husband and I decided to start a family. My mother always worked full-time and I never felt neglected as a child, so she effectively demonstrated how it is possible have a career and a family. I had my little boy in 2012 and took six months of maternity leave, meeting with my research group weekly, sometimes with my baby in tow.

Over the last two years, I have become more heavily involved in teaching. I have taken on different job roles, gained experience and tried out new methods of teaching. I am now studying for an MEd to allow me to conduct research on learning and teaching; I was recently awarded a Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Also, after 12 years in London, I have just accepted a position as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham to continue my scientific journey. The family and I are looking forward to the next challenge!

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

I have received a lot of help from my family and friends in the years of study and struggle for an academic position. My parents paid for my education and it would have been impossible to realise my dream without that financial support. Friends and family have also helped in other ways. For example, there was a period during my PhD when I was working late in the lab most nights. My sister, who was studying for her A-levels, and my flatmate, who was doing an MSc in the same lab, often kept me company in those early hours of the morning. The Medical School at the University of Bristol can be a bit of an eerie place at night, and it was nice to have company. The moral support when things did not go to plan was also much appreciated.

In the first three months after I had my little boy, my parents came over to the UK to help. Between them and my husband I managed to not feel too sleep-deprived and managed to still do some work (e.g. I edited a book, kept on top of work from my team, wrote papers). My husband is hands-on with childcare and my son spends his long school holidays with my parents in Lisbon, which makes childcare less of a nightmare. It also means, hopefully, he will pick up some Portuguese!

I also got funding through the Imperial College Elsie Widdowson Fellowship, which I used to employ a technician who could help with the day-to-day running of lab. The funding is available for academic staff returning from parental leave to provide relief from teaching or administrative duties and to help them to concentrate on research. It helped me immensely and I am grateful to Imperial for the support.

Gaby's four-year old son visits the lab. Image credit: Gaby Da Silva Xavier.

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

Time is always an issue and there is always the pressure to do enough to advance the work without compromising family life too much. Arranging childcare is not an issue for me – my parents are very willing babysitters and we had access to a great nursery when my son was younger. But it is a bit pointless to have a family and not spend time with them. Yet work is fun and interesting and there is always that pull to do more. Finding that balance is hard; I sometimes get it wrong but learn from the mistakes. Based on my colleagues’ experiences, I chose to have a child when I was less physically involved in lab work and could work more flexibly. There are days when there is interesting data and I would just like to get on with the work but cannot, and that can be frustrating.

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

For fully flexible working schemes, flexibility in funding would help immensely. It would take pressure off PIs when they or their postdoctoral researchers need to take parental leave. This flexibility should be open to both parents in the interests of gender parity.

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

Plan and then plan some more. There will be disruptions but just go with the flow – stressing over it only makes things worse. Don’t be scared to accept or ask for help from friends and family. There are times when paid help is the only help. There is of course a financial implication with that, but it won’t be forever and as long as it is balanced then the payoffs are keeping your career on track and keeping you and the rest of your family sane! I am saying this as quite a few people had said to me that it was cruel to leave my six-month-old son at nursery to go back to work, and asked why I didn’t stay home for longer. I love my son and I also love what I do. Research is not just a job. I would not be me if I gave up on my work, and that arguably would not make me a good role model for my son or help maintain a harmonious family environment. My parents paid for services – for example, nannies and tutors – to make their lives easier. I have never minded being cared for by people other than my parents as we did spend time together as a family as well. Weekends, for example, were sacred. This experience in childhood contributes a lot to my not having any qualms or guilt about letting other people look after my son when needed. It is about balance and compromise.

How do you think being a scientist and a parent compares to being a parent working in another profession?

I don’t think it is that different generally. Research working hours can be quite punishing in that the boundaries between work and leisure time can be very blurred. This is particularly true for researchers who are active in the lab. However, there is the possibility of flexible working, particularly for academics and even more so when involved in teaching. In a lot of ways the traditional model of academia where the academic does both research and teaching is a good working scheme to help achieve some of that work-life balance.