Scientist and Parent: Finding joy in the balancing act

Flexible working hours and a supportive lab allow Rebecca Burdine to organize her research around caring for her children.

Rebecca Burdine is an associate professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. She leads a lab that studies the intricacies of organ development and left-right patterning in zebrafish to understand how errors in the process can cause congenital heart defects. In 2005, with her lab thriving, Burdine welcomed her first child Sophie, who was born with a genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome.

Balancing research with caring for Sophie and her younger brother Donovan, who was born in 2008 has its challenges, but as Burdine explains, it can also be a lot of fun.

Rebecca Burdine with Donovan and Sophie. Image credit: Rebecca Burdine.

How has having children affected your career?

Becoming a parent was one of the most important and life-altering things that I’ve done. I wasn’t prepared for how life changing it was going to be, and of course with Sophie it’s been a little more different than maybe it would’ve been otherwise.

I spent a lot of time in the early years dealing with her medical issues, which were pretty severe. After that I tried to help her the only way I knew how, which was to support research. I helped a group of parents form the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics (FAST). We spent almost ten years starting the foundation, raising money, and supporting research on therapies. I put a lot of effort into that in addition to running the lab. I stepped down from the foundation about two years ago to consult for an ongoing clinical trial for Angelman Syndrome therapies.

Did it change your day-to-day life as a scientist?

It definitely made me more organized in terms of my time. You want to be with your kids in the morning when they wake up, and at night to read books and have baths and go to bed. It also changed my schedule in terms of when and how long I was in the lab.

The atmosphere in academia is that you should be working super long hours and if you’re not putting in 100 hours a week you’re not a true researcher. I was definitely conscious of that when I first became a mother. Now that I’m older, and have done this for longer, I realize there really is no minimum working time that makes you a good scientist.

Are there advantages to being a scientist parent?

I've had people say to me, “I don't think I want to stay in science because I'm not sure I could raise my family.” I say the flexibility is unbelievable. I can leave at 11am and go watch my kids do a play and then come back to work. If I had had Sophie while working a regular 9-to-5 job, I would’ve lost that job ten years ago. There was no way I could’ve maintained such a job and dealt with the issues that we were dealing with. I feel like academia, actually, is well suited for people who want to be a parent.

Has your institution been understanding about your needs?

There was definitely a lot of sympathy. Princeton is fantastic about making sure that you get automatic additional time on your tenure clock for children. Then, I got extra time for the fact that we had so many issues with Sophie. On the other hand, despite the accommodations made, I sometimes think people forget that she always has Angelman Syndrome.

My lab has been amazing. My students have all been self-motivated. They’ve taken on lots of responsibilities, and I’m proud of how well they’ve done. I’m going to carry some guilt about wishing I could’ve done more mentoring and been more present. But a friend of mine once said, “You’re only as well as your sickest child.” And that’s true. And when Sophie’s not doing well, nothing really goes well.

What other kinds of support were available for you at your institution or from the government?

Princeton has some really great things for parents including last minute care. If your kids get sick and you have a meeting, you can call the Back-Up Care Advantage Program and they can send a caregiver over so you can go to your meeting. But you can’t really use that when you have a kid like Sophie, who requires skilled care.

From the government, what you can get in terms of services varies from state to state, as do the rules for qualifying for government-funded health insurance. New Jersey is not a fantastic state in terms of services. In other states you can get respite care, or more money for medical equipment or supplies.

As the leader of a laboratory, are there things you do now to try to help people in your lab who have families?

A lot of people in my lab have kids and it’s really fantastic to be part of that. So many people will tell you about how horrible parenting is. Nobody ever remembers to tell you how much fun it is. Even with all the issues that Sophie has, she’s a really delightful kid. It’s hard for me to be worried about turbulence on an airplane when she’s laughing her head off because it’s so much fun to bump. Her brother is just a delight. You end up laughing so much because kids are just so cool.

I try to remind the people in the lab that it’s going to change your life for the better. There are always ways to do research around having kids. If the daycare calls and you have to leave work to pick up the kids, don’t worry about it. Just do the things you have to do.

Not a single person in my lab who has had a child has had it negatively impact on their scholarship, their science or their productivity. In some cases, it even makes them better because they become more efficient.

What advice do you have for other scientist parents?

One of the things you need to ask when you interview for a postdoc position is, “Is this a family friendly place?” Look around – how many people have kids? Are they happy? There are so many great places to do postdocs, so if somebody’s not going to be supportive of you being a family person, you can find another place.

What can be done to make science and research more family friendly?

Princeton schedules faculty meetings between 9 and 5. That’s such a small thing that institutions can do, but it means that you can drop your kids off and pick them up and not feel like you’re the one person who’s leaving early.

Institutions should make sure that there are adequate, clean, comfortable places for moms to express milk. They can also support daycare facilities near or on campus and subsidize them for students and postdocs.

Most importantly, if we want to retain people in academia who aren’t well represented at the moment, we have to start changing the attitudes about what makes a great scientist and what you have to do to be considered good at your job.

Interview performed by Bridget M Kuehn, a freelance writer based in Chicago