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THE JUGGLERS: HOW NIH SCIENTISTS
by Celia Hooper
It's a safe bet that no NIH scientists on the tenure track or who successfully win permanent positions here work a paltry 8 hours a day or a mere 40 hours per week. Competition in biomedical fields is tough, and expectations run high. Says NCI Lab Chief Anita Roberts, "I honestly think science is one of the most difficult professions to balance with having a family - it is not a 40-hour-a-week job. It's total involvement, and you have to work very hard to fit a family into that."
Yet despite her long hours and devotion to research, Roberts and her husband managed to raise two sons, Greg, now 27, who owns and runs a successful Jacksonville graphic design company, and Karl, now 25 and a third-year medical student at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Roberts took an unusual step in balancing parenting and career: a seven-year hiatus from research after her sons were born and in the middle of her postdoctoral career. But while Roberts' particular strategy is unusual for an NIH scientist, her dual success as parent and scientist is not.
For this article, we interviewed or received feedback from close to two dozen tenured, tenure-track, and staff scientists and physicians, including men and women; single parents; parents of infants, teens, and grown children; couples in which each spouse was an NIH scientist; couples who share equal responsibility for kids and career; and couples in which one parent or the other took the lead in parenting or cultivation of a career. Many of these parents cited common problems and similar techniques in juggling the demands of family and research. Many saw areas where they felt NIH should strive harder to be more family-friendly. But many also commended NIH for the support and understanding of NIH supervisors and staff, the presence of on-campus daycare, and flexibility in hours on the job - all seen as essential for simultaneous success in the workplace and at home.
Many of the scientists interviewed for this article unapologetically give their families a high priority. NCHGR Scientific Director Jeff Trent plays an active, if not predominant, role in parenting his 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. "It's critical to put as much effort into family as into science," says Trent. "The time you spend with your kids is more than amply rewarded compared with scientific endeavors." Trent, who over the past 12 years has coached his children's basketball and baseball teams, observes that beyond a certain point, additional hours at the lab or office become marginally productive. "Investment in family is infinitely more rewarding than doing one more experiment." NIDDK's Matt Rechler, chief of the Growth and Development Section in the institute's Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology Branch, says flat out that for right now, his two sons - roughly a year younger than Trent's children - "are my number one priority." Rechler, who coaches his 12-year-old's soccer team, says he "made a decision early on to be a hands-on parent, to be as actively involved with the kids as possible. The years go fast, and this is your shot."
Unfortunately, for many scientists this one shot as a parent coincides with their one shot at the big leagues in biomedical research. NHLBI's Cynthia Dunbar gave birth to two daughters, Alexa and Anna, while she was on the tenure track. With multiple outside job offers, Dunbar was even put up for tenure early. She breezed through (see Recently Tenured). Anna is now one-and-a-half and Alexa almost four. Dunbar and her husband are also singers with the Choral Arts Society of Washington, D.C.
How did she do it? Dunbar says, "I had good childcare - a live-in nanny and a husband who had regular hours as a teacher." Whereas Dunbar's spouse, Charles Cerf, had less flexibility in his schedule, he also worked fewer hours than Dunbar, allowing her to return to the lab nights and weekends. Dunbar says she and her husband have always been in agreement that her career would come first while she was getting established, and Cerf backs up his verbal support with deeds - he runs the household, from shopping and paying bills to managing investments.
Dunbar says another key to her success was excellent support from NHLBI Scientific Director Edward Korn and her lab chiefs, first Art Nienhuis and then Neil Young. As at home, the support went beyond words. "I had good technical support in the lab, good postdocs, good animal caretakers, good research nurses, secretarial help, etc.," says Dunbar. She can also work at a home computer to write and answer e-mail. "There is lots of integrated support in this Branch - you're not isolated and confined to just one module and a technician." Branch chiefs trusted her to put in the needed hours of work and didn't clock the hours she was in the office.
Dunbar says that even with help from spouse and institute, there were challenges and problems. Her position as a commissioned officer precluded her taking family leave, stopping the tenure clock, or working part-time (see Leave box). Now, with constant interruptions, both at home and at work, she feels less focused and able to do long-term planning than she was before the children arrived. She feels guilty that she doesn't spend more time with her girls and worries this will intensify as they get older and want her involvement in their activities. She says there were moments - during a difficult second pregnancy and then with a colicky infant - when "I thought I was not going to make it."
Teresa Jones, a tenure-track investigator in NIDDK's Metabolic Diseases Branch, is also under the intense double crunch of career and family demands. On Jan. 28 of this year, the stork presented Jones and her husband, Joshua Zimmerberg, chief of NICHD's Laboratory of Theoretical and Physical Biology, with fraternal twins, Joseph and Aaron. Like Dunbar, Jones and Zimmerberg hire a sitter in their home and stagger their work schedules during the weekdays, with one parent coming in early, the other staying late. But during the evenings and weekends, taking care of the twins keeps both parents out of the lab.
"We really both have to be there when the daycare person leaves," says Jones. "We used to have our nights free for science. Now they're for playing with the kids and putting them down to sleep. By then, you're too exhausted to review a paper or write," says Zimmerberg. Jones and Zimmerberg say the key for them is being highly organized and efficient during their workdays since "there's no option of going into emergency mode" on nights and weekends. Jones says things are working out. "At this point, I have good postdocs and things are moving ahead as well as can be expected. It's amazing how you can make your time count for more - how much more efficient you can be." Zimmerberg claims that having children and forced efficiency has actually helped his work. "This has been a stimulus for creativity . . . There's a joy that we got with our kids. It helps everything at work."
Supportive bosses - Allen Spiegel at NIDDK and Arthur Levine at NICHD - have helped, too. Jones says no one batted an eye when she had to take eight weeks out on bed rest before the twins were born and then took another eight weeks of leave after their birth. "People have been 200 percent supportive," she says. Zimmerberg took two weeks off, then started working slowly, mostly at home, for the next four weeks after the babies arrived.
As for other resources, Jones says she has appreciated NIH's room for nursing mothers (see Nursing Moms' Room box) and both Jones and Zimmerberg say home-computer access has been helpful. Zimmerberg says one thing NIH could do to be more family-friendly would be to help people get wired. "It would be really great to have high-speed ISDN connections so people who really need to move data between work and home could do that." When Zimmerberg asked for help, he was told that the government can't pay for anything connected with a person's home - even if it could improve their work productivity. (But this problem may actually be misinformation. Marvene Horwitz, deputy director of the Office of Human Resource Management says that home-computer lines can be, and have been, installed to help staff work from home.) Jones says she would like to see NIH set up a clearinghouse for information on childcare providers. Both she and Dunbar were lucky enough to inherit sitters from families that were moving or whose children no longer needed in-home care. But Jones has a postdoc with a one-year-old child who has not been so fortunate.
Similarly, many of the parents interviewed said finding high-quality childcare coverage has been hard. For higher-income parents of preschool children and families with more than one young child, in-home care appears to be the choice, but it still has its problems. NICHD Section Chief Peng Loh found two good au pairs, each caring for her now-4-year-old son, Adam, for a year. But this year, Loh went through three au pairs in three months. "It is a matter of luck sometimes, depending on who is available at the time."
Several parents said Montgomery Childcare Connection, Inc., of Rockville (301 279-1773) had been a great help to them in locating in-home or institutional daycare. For a user fee of $22, this group works one-on-one with parents to locate convenient, age-appropriate all-day or after-school programs for children. The Maryland Department of Non-Public Schools (410 767-0100) maintains a complete list of private schools in the state.
Once primary daycare is lined up, there may still be problems. Numerous school closings, snow days, holidays, and caregivers' vacations - which rarely seem to coincide with government closings - can cause problems for parents with nannies or daycare that is not closely tied in with a federal schedule. "NIH should make more of an effort to have more flexible childcare facilities to accommodate school closings," says Loh. "Right now, unless you are enrolled in after-school care in Executive Boulevard, you cannot put your child there during school closings."
The NIH facility on Executive Boulevard is the Executive Child Development Center (ECDC), one of three childcare facilities that NIH houses (see Childcare and Schools at a Glance). The program at ECDC, formerly housed in the Ayrlawn Building a few blocks from NIH, was known as the Nellie Ottenberg Memorial Childcare Center. The Parents of Preschoolers, Inc. (POPI), preschool in Building 35 and the Childkind, Inc., infant-care facility in Bldg. T-46 are run by parent-staffed boards of directors.
Parents who have recently and not-so recently had children in POPI and ECDC credit the centers as critical factors in their ability to succeed on the job, citing the excellent program and professional staff. NIDDK Section Chief Edith Miles and her husband, Todd Miles, also an NIDDK section chief, sent their sons to the POPI preschool the year it opened. Son David is now 27 and a graduate student at Stanford University in aeronautical engineering; son Eric is 25 and pursuing a master's in art at the Pratt Institute. "For me, worrying about childcare was the hardest part" of balancing career and family, Edith Miles says. "Once they had the preschool, things were better. A key question in parenting is, Are they getting quality care? I came to the conclusion that with good daycare and several hours of attention (from my husband and me) every night, plus the weekends, I didn't need to feel guilty."
Health physicist Roger Broseus has been a single, custodial parent since his daughter - now 15 years old - was 4. Things were bumpy as he went through divorce, custody proceedings, and adaptation to single parenthood, and Broseus suspects his promotion may have been delayed because of the need to focus on family matters during this period. But when the dust cleared, the promotion finally came. "When I got my promotion, one of the first persons I told was Anne Schmitz," then head of the Ayrlawn Center, where his daughter went for before- and after-school care. "I told her, 'If you weren't there, I'd never have made it.' Good daycare allowed me to off-load concerns, and not worry about my daughter while I was at work." His experiences also led him to lend his male, single-parent perspective by serving on the NIH Daycare Oversight Board, which advises NIH on daycare.
But as good as the staff may be at these NIH-affiliated childcare facilities, there are also problems. The centers do not admit children when they are sick, forcing parents to have back-up care for sick children or to take the day off work. And many people feel the cost is too high, especially for infants; the waiting lists are too long, precluding new staff and visiting scientists from using them; and the on-campus facilities are too run-down. Paul Horton, director of the Division of Space and Facility Management in OD's Office of Research Services, says of the 15-year-old POPI facility, "We're really holding it together with love and prayers." The facility was carved out of the Building 35 cafeteria, while Childkind is housed in a temporary building. "They have a committed staff, but they endure makeshift arrangements, inadequate ventilation and toileting facilities," Horton says. He estimates that bringing the facilities up to snuff would cost $250,000 but thinks the improvements won't happen any time soon. "When [daycare] competes against research dollars, it is always at the bottom" of NIH priorities, Horton says, citing NIH's fundamental lack of "appreciation of the value of these daycare centers. It's like parking. No one complains until they can't find parking. Our daycare centers are no different - no one has taken up that flag."
Things may be changing on this front, however. A subcommittee of the Women Scientist Advisors, led by Maryalice Stetler-Stevenson at NCI, is now taking up the childcare issue. (Anyone interested in helping the WSAs address this issue should contact Stetler-Stevenson at <firstname.lastname@example.org>). Also, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala has directed NIH and other HHS divisions to form a committee to publicize and catalog programs that improve the work life of employees. NIH's Quality of Work Life Committee is chaired by OHRM's Horwitz.
Special childcare problems arise when scientist-parents must travel to professional meetings or site visits out of town, and this was one of the biggest problems cited by the parents interviewed for this article. The most typical solution for working parents is to stagger travel schedules with the other parent. Tenure-track scientist Helene Rosenberg of NIAID, with a 6-year-old son, 1-year-old daughter, and a husband who is a psychiatrist for the Veteran's Administration, says that she has had to reduce her travel schedule to the barest minimum. "I've gotten in the habit of not going to meetings. When I did, I had three levels of back-up [childcare]. That is a big problem." Stetler-Stevenson, a unit chief in NCI's Laboratory of Pathology says she and her husband, Bill, a section chief in the same lab, work around each other's schedules. "We don't schedule important work events at the same time. That way, if our daughter is sick, one can always stay home. I don't know how single moms do it."
Single parents - as well as parents in two-parent families where both parents may be traveling - say their answers to the travel problem include hiring sitters, flying in parents or other out-of-town relatives, shortening the trip to one very long day, taking the children with them, or simply curtailing travel.
NIH scientists have mixed feelings about whether things are getting better or worse. Roberts, Miles and Dunbar all say it now takes scientists longer to get tenure or otherwise reach a point in their careers when it is possible to have children. Roberts is doubtful that many scientists today could take a seven- year hiatus from research and expect to return as she did. Yet at the same time, childcare options have increased, more spouses are prepared to shoulder their share of parenting responsibilities, parents may be able to substitute home computing for commuting, and supervisors - who may be active parents themselves - are more likely to be flexible in allowing parents to set their work schedules and sensitive about scheduling lab meetings at the last minute or when parents cannot easily attend. Says Hee Yong Kim, a section chief in NIAAA, wife of a former NIH scientist and mother of two sons, ages 14 and 10, "NIH was very good for us - quality daycare was nearby, most parents had a similar background (scientists or NIH people), and in most cases, people that I worked with were understanding and willing to accommodate my schedule."
While such accommodation may make the juggling act a little easier, the fact remains that scientist-parents, especially single parents (see Single with Children), must make sacrifices at home and at work. Elizabeth Read, a section chief in the Clinical Center, is custodial parent of two children - Maddy, age 14 , an honors student in ninth grade, and Sam, age 9, an enthusiastic fourth grader. Read says she has resigned herself to the exigencies of her life. "I feel that those of us who have extensive parenting duties are ultimately competing on an uneven playing field, and that those who don't have kids or those with partners or spouses who manage the homefront and kids on a full-time basis will always be able to work longer and harder and get ahead more quickly in the traditional sense." However, Read says, she doesn't have time to dwell on the inequities and no longer expects life to be fair. "I've been juggling things for so long that I don't know any other way to live, and besides, I wouldn't give up my responsibilities as a parent for anything in the world - my children have truly brought me the greatest joy in my life."
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