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F R O M T H E D E P U T Y D I R E C T O R F O R I N T R A M U R A L R E S E A R C H
PARENTING AT NIH: IT TAKES A CAMPUS
This volume of The Catalyst is devoted to "family values" at NIH. Believe it or not, the scientists and administrators who supervise and oversee research at NIH are themselves members of families and are sensitive and responsive to the needs of employees who likewise have family obligations. Many are parents and know the joys and vicissitudes of nurturing children. In this brief essay, I would like to share some of my own experience and address some of the concerns of parents at NIH.
My wife, Susan, and I have two children, who are now in their 20s. Both are graduate students - one in physics and one in medical school - and show all signs of becoming responsible, productive adults. They were brought up mostly in Bethesda (we have been here a total of 23 years) while Susan and I were postdoctoral fellows and young independent investigators at NIH. Our experience is mirrored by many other NIH scientists who have had children during their years of research training and early research independence.
I strongly believe that it is possible to be a good parent and a good scientist. In fact, there are many aspects of life at NIH and other research institutions that make it easier to be a good parent than in other, more structured environments. Although we all work very long hours, these are usually of our own design and can be as flexible as specific research requirements and supervisors allow. For Susan and me, a trip to check on a sick child or to stay home for a few hours while the other spouse worked in the lab was a matter of mutual agreement; we were fortunate to have understanding supervisors on the rare occasions when parenting responsibilities collided with laboratory requirements.
Additional advantages of raising children here include the excellent schools, and one of the joys of being an NIH parent is having the opportunity to interact with the local school system. NIH parents have traditionally contributed in a major way to the science education of our children and their classmates through appearances in local school classrooms (never uninvited!) and at Science Fairs. Scientists interested in contributing to their local schools should contact Gloria Seelman at NIH's Office of Science Education (6-0608).
I realize that it is not always possible to achieve the kind of scheduling flexibility my family enjoyed, either because one spouse has fixed work hours, the parent is single, or the supervisor or the nature of the work is unforgiving. It is appropriate for the NIH community itself to try, both informally and formally, to make parenting easier. Informal solutions to childcare problems include babysitting pools; shared responsibility for pick-up and delivery of children to daycare, school, or after-school activities; and the occasional visit of a child to a parent's office (but always under total supervision and never in areas where there are hazards). I am looking into the feasibility of developing a parents' list-serve where subscribers could swap childcare information and maybe even a few hours of babysitting with other NIH employees and their spouses.
NIH's formal solutions to childcare needs include the infant and preschool facilities on campus and the daycare center at Executive Plaza (6006 Executive Boulevard). Currently, all of NIH's centers are filled to capacity and have long waiting lists. NIH's Master Plan proposes expansion of some existing centers and two new daycare facilities on the north and east sides of the campus - to accommodate an additional 350 children - but it is unclear when the funds will be found to build these. One idea is that these facilities, in addition to providing routine daycare, would also provide temporary backup care when regular daycare arrangements fall through for an NIH parent. The possibility of an infirmary for sick children could also be considered, but it raises a number of more complex issues.
This issue of The Catalyst is intended to help generate discussion on campus about what NIH parents need to meet their obligations to their children as well as to their science. I am interested in hearing your ideas about how to improve life for NIH scientists who are parents.
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