Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Childbirth Policies that Really Matter

The following letter appeared in C&E News (a publication of the American Chemical Society):

Childbirth policies for grad students

The item on the "Progressive" childbirth accommodation policy at Stanford University's chemistry department made me smile (C&EN, Nov. 7, 2005, page 8). Nineteen years ago, my husband and I-newlywed first-semester graduate students studying chemistry at Colorado State University (CSU)-were surprised by my unexpected pregnancy. I was mortified at the thought of informing the professor whose research group I had arranged to join the following summer.

Frank Stermitz's encouraging response soon laid my anxieties to rest. Transferring me a semester early from the department-sponsored teaching assistantship to his grant-sponsored research assistantship, he allowed me to begin my dissertation project immediately after the Christmas break. When my daughter was born the following summer, he gave me several weeks of paid leave, requesting only that I study for cumulative exams when I had the time.

After I returned to the laboratory, Stermitz and my husband's adviser, Ken DeBruin, supported the unorthodox hours that allowed our daughter (and a year later, our son) to have a continuous parental presence. At a time when other professors in the department were demanding 12- to 14-hour days and weekend group meetings or were requiring that pregnant graduate students sign liability waivers and continue working in the lab, Stermitz always made sure that there were cookies at his group meetings in case one of his many "graduate student grandchildren" had to be present.

My husband and I both defended our dissertations less than four years from our matriculation at CSU. It required a lot of hard work, but no exertion would have sufficed had Stermitz not long before implemented his truly visionary childbirth and family accommodation policy.

Today, nearly two decades later, C&EN asks whether Stanford's move will prompt other chemistry departments to follow suit in establishing similar policies. If there were more people like Frank Stermitz in the world, such a question would be completely unnecessary. And to him, all I can say is, "Thank you."

Wherever this guy is, he should be sainted! I wish more advisors took this approach to childbirth policies. I really think that if your graduate students are happy, they will be more productive researchers, and will bring the lab more success. Have you ever noticed that the Professor who yells at all his students gets results, but not nearly as many as the advisor who is much beloved? Just thought I'd add one positive note, amidst a chorus of displeasure.


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