Life story: Chileshe Mabula-Bwalya

Adjusting to a new identity as a mother comes with challenges, but with help, a rewarding research career is possible.
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Chileshe Mabula-Bwalya is a Research Fellow in the Enteric Disease and Vaccines Research Unit at the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ). She completed a Bachelor’s degree in Human Development at the University of California, San Diego from 2003 to 2007, during which she also received lab training through a summer program and an internship. Between 2008 and 2014, she trained as a medical doctor at the University of Zambia, while also voluntarily taking part in research projects. Her first daughter was born during this time, in 2013. Two more children (another daughter in 2014 and a son in 2016) followed during her medical internship. She also has an older stepson who lives with his mother most of the time. She took her current research position in 2017.

Chileshe's daughters playing with pipette tips in a lab
Chileshe's daughters sorting pipette tips while at work with their mother. Image courtesy of Chileshe Mabula-Bwalya.

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

I attended the University of California, San Diego as an undergraduate in human development, a multidisciplinary program that covers the lifespan from embryonic development to old age, with courses in biology, anthropology/sociology and cognitive science. I entered my college experience with this nebulous idea of wanting to be a medical doctor, and I did, in fact, become one. My first summer at UC San Diego, I was recruited to (read: stumbled upon!) a program that supported minority students interested in careers in science. During this program, and the lab fellowship I was awarded afterwards, I felt so clueless: I didn’t understand half of what they asked of me, and I never seriously considered myself pursuing research as a career.

Still, the concepts and methods I was exposed to at that time got their hooks into me. When I moved back to Zambia to go to medical school, I was repeatedly drawn to research projects that were being conducted at the hospital where I trained. Something about the kind of investigation and problem-solving that research entails resonated deeply within me. I worked as a research assistant on various clinical trials: a study testing an intervention for postpartum haemorrhage; an eight-country survey of the commonest causes of childhood pneumonia; and the investigation of a protocol for managing severe sepsis. This experience impressed upon me how research can influence practice.

I had my first child during my penultimate year of medical school. Babies two and three came during my medical internship, where I was enjoying saving lives and learning how to operate in a semi-rural hospital near the Zambia-Malawi border. In total, I had three babies in four years. All were wanted (after the initial shock), none completely planned.

It was a busy time, between practising as a fledgling doctor, and chasing three kids in diapers. All the while, potential research questions would jump out at me, like cartoon-thought bubbles: questions I had neither the time, nor the training to answer independently. So much of what we did was based on European and American textbooks that don’t always reflect our context, or acknowledge practices that necessity and cultural preference have modified. More practically, my undergraduate experience taught me that being a research centre of excellence had the power to attract resources that could save and improve lives. I felt the pull of research ever more strongly.

To remedy this, I applied for a research fellowship at the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ). At CIDRZ, I am attached to the Enteric Disease and Vaccines Research Unit, working on vaccine effectiveness studies, and learning scientific writing, and clinical trial management. The fellowship has been extremely engaging, and has deepened my interest in exploring immunological questions, which will be the focus of the next stage of my training.

What support have you received as a parent?

In Zambia, we actually have some supportive infrastructure for working mothers; there is ‘Mother’s Day’, a sometimes-controversial national policy that entitles working women to a day off every month. You can use it to take the kids to the under-five clinic, or just take care of yourself if you’re having a particularly tough day during your period (I believe this was the reason it was established). Paid maternity leave is three months, and paternity leave ten days.

I have discovered, having finally crawled out from under it, that I do not much enjoy the first year of motherhood. I was lucky to have a lot of help, at work and at home, and easy, healthy pregnancies every time. The support from my parents and husband was amazing, and we have a live-in nanny who is so much a part of the family that my youngest son calls her Mummy as well as me. I have relied on her heavily over the past three years, and I scintillate between guilt and relief. For about six months while I was settling in to life as a new doctor, my oldest daughter lived with my parents, who are always ready and happy to take one, two or all three for the weekend or in a pinch.

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

Feeling like I am part-timing everything: part-timing motherhood, and part-timing scientific discovery. Too often I feel like I’m hopping from weekend to weekend, just looking for a slight reprieve, but never quite getting in front of any of my obligations.

There is a passage in The Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which says: “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters concern themselves only with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella.”

If you substitute ‘art’ for ‘science’ in that paragraph, that pretty much sums up my greatest frustration. If I decided to leave for work at 5am and come back at 10pm in the service of my passion, my children would be motherless. That morning period with laughing toddlers streaking from bathroom to bedroom, and breakfast porridge, and traffic-jammed school runs, also happens to be when my focus is sharpest and my brain works best. I still struggle with feelings of ambivalence about motherhood, but it is getting easier as they grow more independent. I would most likely still choose to be a parent if I had it to do over. It feels kind of awful to say that, like a negation of my children’s value… but it is more a statement of how unprepared I was to have my identity… ‘restructured’ by these funny little beings!

What more could be done to improve the lives of scientist parents? And what single change would have the biggest impact on you?

Having a supportive environment is key, at work and at home. I have a really supportive boss and it isn’t a rigidly punch-clock kind of work setting. For a lot of what we do, as long as the work is done, it doesn’t matter where or when you’re doing it. My husband also works full time, but we coordinate school runs, and one of us is generally able to pick up our children or take them to school outside of the usual schedule if the situation demands it.

Presently there isn’t much I would change at work. However, my two daughters go to different schools: one is only a five minute drive away from our house, but the trip to the second one takes 20 minutes by car, if you time it just right. If we leave the house just a few minutes late, the 20-minute drive becomes 45 minutes because of the traffic, and then everybody is late. This commute has been a daily nightmare.

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

Don’t.

Just kidding: Enjoy the chaos of childhood. In answering these questions, I realise I would probably benefit a great deal from using scheduling and checklists much more than I currently do: I tend to ‘wing it’ more than is probably prudent.

Find and leverage your support systems, whether it’s other colleagues with kids, a relative willing to put in some babysitting time, or a great day-care centre. I find it comforting that my kids know what it is to be loved and nurtured by a wide variety of people: grandparents, nanny, schoolteachers.

When it starts to feel frustrating, make an effort to reframe each part of the experience positively, both at work and home. I hate the traffic on my daughter’s morning school commute, but my supervisor advised me to take advantage of the time when they’re small and actually interested in your company, and I have enjoyed the commute much more since then. Oftentimes the exact same situation can make you laugh or cry, just depending on your frame of mind, so do try to reframe it, and laugh more often than weep!

When I am at work, I try not to worry about the kids too much; when I am traveling, I enjoy the mini-holiday from mothering; and when I am home I get into whatever they are doing as much as possible. As much as I can, I keep at least one weekend day free from work-related activities, but some of the time, I find myself typing around a small body, and then I just try to keep sticky fingers off the keyboard.

I think the most important thing I’ve realised is how easy it is to sacrifice self-care at the dual altars of work and family. My immediate supervisor says: “You can’t pour from an empty cup”, which is advice I’ve taken to heart, though I’m yet to make it to a yoga class. Sometimes it’s an act as simple as closing the bedroom door and letting my husband deal with the chaos on the other side for a little while.

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?

I think the challenges of being a working parent are fairly universal: having to split your time and attention between two (arguably) equally important demands, and not feeling like there’s enough time to dedicate yourself fully to either. For some people, an advantage might be that it may be possible to work from home, although I personally have too many toddlers for it to be a conducive environment.

I expect that scientist or non-scientist jobs that require a large amount of travel might make one feel like they’re missing out on home life, both important and mundane events. Although I actually don’t travel that much, my kids seem to make a point of achieving milestones while I’m away: two started walking, one started talking, one sprouted a tooth… but the new achievement is still there when I get home, so I just enjoy it whenever I get there.

I am still a little bit amazed that I have a job that pays me to be curious and read, rather than always feel like I have to find or steal time for it. I really love applying myself to discovery, and the generation of knowledge. I think that, as a parent, being happy and fulfilled teaches children something important, whether you choose to work inside or outside the home. For me, the work I do feels important and meaningful, and I personally believe that my being able to feel that sends an important message to my kids. Overall, I feel like I am training as a scientist during a really exciting time for science in Africa, and I’m just thrilled to be along for the ride.