Life story: Ali Twelvetrees

Transferable skills can be useful to juggle the demands of being a parent scientist.

Ali Twelvetrees is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, University of Sheffield, Molecular & Cellular Neuroscience. Her first child was born in 2015 during a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (between 2011-15). Ali took a one-year maternity leave in 2015 to raise her daughter and initially had to return to London in 2016 without her partner. She joined the University of Sheffield, UK, as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow mid-2017 to be reunited with her husband.

The family taking a break as they were walking along Stanage Edge near Sheffield last summer (2017). Image credit: Arun Bose.

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

My husband Dan and I are both scientists and have been together since 2004. We met as Biochemistry undergraduates at Imperial College, London, and moved in together when we were graduate students (at Imperial and UCL, respectively) in 2006. We had talked a lot about doing postdocs abroad, before deciding to move to Philadelphia in 2011. We were slightly out of sync academically when we relocated, but in the end it all worked out well. It felt like a huge achievement at the time to make that move together.

We got married in 2011, just before we moved. We always wanted to start a family but knew it would be very challenging. I was lucky enough to have been awarded a Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship to work with labs in Philadelphia and London, which meant a degree of independence, four years of employment and proper maternity leave whilst staying in control of my project. To me, it seemed like there would never be a better time to start a family – so that’s what we did.

Our daughter was born in Philadelphia in 2015, but from the moment I knew I was pregnant, things started to get (even) more complicated. At the time of her birth, I only had one year left of my Fellowship and we started to plan hypothetical childcare scenarios for various countries. I needed to go back to London to finish my Fellowship work as had always been intended, but Dan’s postdoc project wasn’t finished. And in the end for us both to be in a position to get the next job, he wasn’t able to come with us when my maternity leave ended. He helped us move and then returned to Philadelphia to finish his project, not knowing how long it would take.

Turns out it took a year, and 2016 saw me being a single working mum in London. Emotionally and financially it was very hard, but we both decided it was time to find our first independent academic positions. We focused on cities we could both work in and started to approach potential departments. Logistically it was insane. Dan even had to fly to London to take care of our daughter so I could visit places.

Towards the end of 2017, our contracts were coming to an end and we had nothing lined up, which was frightening. And then, all of a sudden, everything seemed to come together – but we did work incredibly hard to make it happen. In late 2017 we moved to the University of Sheffield to establish our groups, and to be working parents together for the first time. It took practice to figure out how it all worked, but we’re finally into the swing of a normal family life.

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

My postdoc fellowship allowed and supported me to travel. Knowing we wanted to start a family, I deliberately kept the administration of my employment in the UK to retain my rights to maternity leave whilst in the US. I know how lucky I am. The Wellcome Trust offer some of the best support for researchers who become parents. This flexibility allowed me to take a full 12 months leave to keep our family together in the same country as long as I could. The administration team at my UK institute were super supportive about sorting everything out remotely.

When I returned to the UK, I was eligible for child benefit from the government, but because our daughter was born in the US, it meant relinquishing her passport for six weeks during the application process. I didn't want to give up the option of travelling back to the US, so I didn’t apply. We currently receive a tax-free childcare allowance from the government that covers about half of our childcare bill. From Easter 2018, we'll be eligible for some free childcare hours (30 hrs a week, for 38 weeks a year) which will help a bit. Even so, our childcare bill is currently over £1,000 a month. Back in London it was even higher – most of my monthly salary.

I tried to secure a childcare place at my University nursery for when I went back to work. I knew from colleagues that the nursery was very short of spaces. I tried to plan it well ahead of time but securing childcare from another country is not ideal. I only found out three weeks before I went back to work that we had lost our place. Turns out this was actually the best possible outcome for us. I found a childminder (a registered Ofsted-inspected childminder, who provides childcare in their own home) who was a saint; I can’t imagine what it would have been like without her, even though it extended my commute by two hours every day to be able to drop our daughter off.

While we lived in Philadelphia, our immediate family were thousands of miles away. There really wasn’t much they could do to help us. Even back in London, they weren’t nearby, so day to day I was on my own with a one-year old daughter. I love being a mum, but not being able to share childcare with anyone in that period made the daily grind relentless. I pretty much collapsed at the end of every day. Parenting can get pretty lonely and my friends really kept me going at the weekends. Inevitably, moving around so much destroys your support network, and this is really hard to rebuild again and again.

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

I found being on maternity leave for so long difficult. It’s hard to stand still while the world moves on around you. Parenting can be monumentally boring at times, especially when you are isolated. Eat, sleep, poop ­– there’s not a lot going on and no adults to talk to. As our daughter grew more independent, I started to really miss my work while I was on leave.

The transatlantic separation of our family was obviously hard, but (luckily) I hardly had time to think in that period. I was exhausted most of the time, but my day to day existence was locked into a rigid routine that helped me cope. Weirdly, my mental health was better than during the last six months of my maternity leave, where I felt my grip on my science slipping away. I was more worried about Dan than myself.

Our daughter, who’s just turned three, has lived in three cities and two continents so far. As previously mentioned, the constant moving means rebuilding your support network every time. I guess I’m not naturally gifted in this area and find it really hard. I miss my London-mum friends – sometimes you just need someone who will listen to you complain about your kid’s eating habits for the umpteenth time without judgement!

We’ve been in Sheffield less than a year, and I think that as a family we’re still learning how to balance everything. It still feels like we’re playing catch up the whole time. And since we’re both in new roles, there’s been a lot of learning going on in our house.

I do my best not to get bogged down in the inevitable “am I a bad mother?” self-critical narratives. I often fail. It’s just as easy to find myself questioning whether I am I a bad scientist for needing to be other things too. Learning to go easy on myself is something that I am still working on.

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

The way organisations funding research in the UK handle parental leave varies widely. I was fortunate enough to have the best option open to me, others aren’t so lucky. This has detrimental effects on the careers of women in particular. Many departments in UK Universities work hard for their Athena SWAN awards, and I think if applied properly this can improve equality. However, if funders aren’t trying to support all their researchers equally, then we have a real problem on our hands. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that all funding bodies should face more scrutiny in how their policies impact the lives of the talent they are trying to support.

And personally, I want childcare. Subsidised, high-quality care, preferably on campus. The cost of childcare in the UK is crazy, the current government's approach to childcare and families is abysmal. These things are not the problem of scientists alone, but universities have it in their power to make life easier for their employees.

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

Scientists are trained to weigh the evidence and observe carefully. These are great skills for parenting. You don’t need more patronising advice about time management and working while the baby naps. You’re smart enough to figure that stuff out. Scientist parents need structural change in the way the scientific community values families (first on the list, drop weekend conferences). Children aren’t a niche lifestyle choice. Until there is strong evidence that having children no longer disproportionately affects the careers of women, I know where the community should be focusing their efforts.

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’m a millennial, and the challenges faced by our generation in terms of job security and income make the life of a scientist seem secure by comparison. When I look out across the spectrum of work in the UK, it really doesn’t seem that as a society we are comfortable with mothers working in general. Why does the government only support childcare for children over the age of three, for instance?

Many of the challenges faced by scientist parents compared to other professionals aren’t unique. Finding and affording childcare are universal problems and amongst the most stressful. The next significant hurdle we’ll face is juggling childcare around school term-times, a problem anyone with regular office hours will be all too familiar with. I often see flexible working being touted as an academic benefit, but the reality is that I work when my daughter is in nursery and there’s very little flex in my schedule. When I compare my working life to friends in industry jobs with real flexitime, I certainly don’t see the advantage. On the other hand, it’s definitely more conducive to family life than shift work and for that I’m grateful.

A surprising number of my scientist skills are useful as a parent. Sterile technique and being able to do a serious amount with just one hand spring to mind. Others are subtler: the ability to wade through the morass of total nonsense aimed at you as a new mum, to come out with the concrete evidence you can trust to make informed parenting decisions.

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

I suspect to an outsider the story of our family might seem rather crazy – I can’t imagine anyone just starting out in their career to read this and find within it any inspiration to attempt juggling family and an academic career. The only explanation I can offer in terms of how we made it work is that we believe in each other unconditionally. And even though we are not authors on each other’s publications, we have always treated the joint success of our family and careers as team work. We’re really excited for what comes next.