Life story: Louisa James

Being a parent helps to put things into perspective – and make strategic career decisions.

Louisa James has been a lecturer in immunology at the Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London since 2016. She did a PhD in allergy and immunology between 2002 and 2006 at Imperial College London followed by two postdocs between 2006 and 2010 both at King’s College London. She was awarded a two-year early career fellowship in 2010 at King’s College London, during which she had her son Albert. Between 2012 and 2016 she was a postdoc, before obtaining her lecturing position.

A mother and child outside of a centre for scientific outreach 
Son Albert with his mother Louisa James outside the Centre of the Cell, a public engagement space within the Blizard Institute, the building in which she works. Image credit: Dr Monica Escorcio-Correia.

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

I followed a fairly typical career path, with an undergraduate degree in immunology (1999-2002) followed by a PhD in allergy and immunology (2002-2006). The department in which I did my PhD was very clinically oriented, and at that time there was not much emphasis on career planning. As such my understanding of career paths in basic research was quite vague. Regardless I was sold on the idea of a research career, so after my PhD I started a postdoc at a new institute (2006-2008). After two years I moved to a different lab to take up my second postdoc (2009-2010). With encouragement from my lab head I started thinking about getting my own funding and in 2010 I was awarded an early career fellowship. I had been married since 2007 and thought we would probably start thinking about children at some point. Still, it was a surprise when I found out I was pregnant during my fellowship in 2011. My son, Albert, was born during the final weeks of my contract, in March 2012. Fortunately, my lab heads were happy to support my salary and so following maternity leave I returned to my department and continued with my research as a postdoc. Over the next four years, I obtained funding to support my research but I remained on short-term contracts and ultimately decided to start applying for permanent positions elsewhere. In 2016 I was offered a lecturer position at a new institute where I have now established my own research group.

What support have you received during your journey to parenthood?

My former institute had a well-defined policy on maternity leave; staff were entitled to 52 weeks leave, of which the first 18 weeks was at full pay, the following 21 weeks at statutory maternity pay and the remaining 13 weeks unpaid. I chose to take nine months leave and felt very supported by my colleagues and lab heads. Before my leave, I was afforded flexibility to attend antenatal appointments, and the division handled the maternity leave process very efficiently.

Whilst on leave I took my son into the department a few times, which was always very welcomed. Out of choice, I kept up to date with my colleagues and work, even attending a meeting with a collaborator with a baby Albert in tow. At the same time, I was granted the time and support to enjoy my time off and learn the ropes of motherhood.

When I returned to work my husband chose to take a year off work to care for our son full time. This really helped to make my transition back much smoother, and I was able to jump back to full-time research. When my husband returned to work our son started at nursery full-time and I received childcare vouchers from my institute to help with the cost. Since Albert started school, when possible I work from home one day a week so that I have some contact with his teachers. The rest of the time he attends a breakfast and after-school club across the road from his school.

We don't have any family nearby to call on for ad-hoc support but between my husband and I, we have so far managed to attend most of the school events that Albert has been involved with. We take turns to use annual leave for holidays and he attends holiday clubs. My current institute has also been very flexible, and I have the option of applying for flexible working hours if I wanted to make a more formal arrangement to work from home.

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

Balancing parenthood and science is definitely a skill to be learned, and I don’t always get it right. I feel a perpetual sense of guilt that I am not dedicating enough time to either, which can at times leave me feeling overwhelmed or overworked. I think this is common among parent scientists.

Practically, it is often very difficult for me to attend major conferences and certain events outside of normal working hours. I am conscious that I miss out on opportunities to network and raise my profile, and so I try to balance my time carefully by attending local conferences where possible and selecting events that will be of most benefit. I also feel that missing out on such events is a very worthwhile price to pay for being a parent, particularly while Albert is young. As he grows, this situation will change and in the future I can build upon the networks that I have nurtured in my own alternative ways.

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

Everyone’s experience of being a parent is unique and influenced by many variables. For scientists, these can vary even within the same department. I think good mentoring would go a long way to improve the lives of parent scientists because this can be individualised to suit the circumstances or career goals of a particular person. A good mentor can provide support and practical solutions to overcome some of the hurdles that parent scientists may face.

Personally, restricting seminars and meetings to working hours would probably have the most positive impact on my day-to-day life. This is promoted in many institutes under the Athena SWAN initiative, but it is not always adopted and should be more widespread. Having to make the choice between missing an event (or leaving early) or arriving home after my son is asleep is a source of regular angst for me.

What advice would you give to scientists who are thinking of having children?

It is easy to focus on the negative impact that becoming a parent may have on scientific careers. While it is important to consider how to balance the two, I think it is also very important to realise the many positives. Becoming a parent has made me a better scientist. I am much more resourceful now and manage my time better. Probably the most surprising aspect for me was that once I became a parent I learned very quickly what mattered to me and what didn’t. This has really helped me to prioritise different aspects of my research and make rational decisions about my career. I place much more importance on the things that matter to my research and my development as a scientist because my time is limited. Equally, becoming a parent taught me that my career is not the only important part of my life. This has really helped me to build perspective, especially during the low points. So my advice to prospective parent scientists is to focus wholly on the positive things that becoming a parent brings to every aspect of life. Do not view becoming a parent as detrimental to your career, and try to see each high and each low as an opportunity to develop.

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?

Having only ever worked in science it is difficult to say, but there are certainly advantages and disadvantages in science that may be unique. In academic research at least, scientists tend to work relatively independently and manage their own time and research. This culture allows more flexibility when trying to balance parenting. For example, it makes it possible to adjust working hours regularly or on occasion to accommodate time off for childcare, appointments etc.

A distinct disadvantage for scientists is the short-term nature of postdoc contracts, which leads to many choosing to leave science to gain more stability for their growing family. Similarly, mobility – for example, the ability to move to a new lab in a different country – is often viewed favourably and equated with talent. Scientists who are less mobile may be viewed as less competitive or even less talented. This may impact on reputation (at least with individuals that hold such short-sighted opinions) and it fosters a lack of long-term support for postdocs on fixed-term contracts.

Final thoughts?

Becoming a parent has brought different challenges which have certainly slowed down the progress of my career. However, it has had such a positive impact on my own personal development that I have been left with the determination and resources to persevere. Also, seeing the world from the perspective of a child has given me a much broader love of science: it has really made me appreciate my job and the uniqueness of a research career.