By Maria Baron Palamar
My parents always said that education was the key to a life of opportunity. My dad was the first of his family to graduate from university and eventually he went on to earn not one, but two PhD’s. It was expected that my siblings and I would go to school; so we did. We were later encouraged to continue into graduate school; so we did that too. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a burden for me, it was a pleasure. Yes, graduate school was hard, but learning is exhilarating; the university environment is challenging, ever changing, creative, alive. I enjoy learning, and I enjoy teaching, and graduate school gave me an opportunity to do both. After many years of school, I was offered a really good job in my field… all that education had paid off. Around that time, I had my second child, and because my work schedule was so demanding and provided no flexibility, my baby had to spend most of the day with someone else, not me. At some point my parents told me that I should take a year off, raise him and later come back to work. Yes! You read that right! The same people that encouraged me to go to university for 12 years to prepare for the job that I had now, were telling me to quit, because this was the time to be a mother, a critical time in the formation of a family.
I was exhausted, nursing a baby that decided that he would stay up at night to spend time with me, working a full time job that did not end when I left the office (because science jobs rarely do), trying to stay up to date with scientific journals, going to conferences, writing articles, being a mom to my other son, being a wife, trying to be a sporadic friend, etc. I spent many nights considering what my parents had recommended, should I leave the job? But what would I be if I was not a scientist? Could I get off the train of scientific discovery to find 5 years later that there was no way to get back on it? Why did I have to choose? Why couldn’t I be a part time scientist? Well, because the system that was created by the half of humanity that does not have to carry babies inside of them is broken. This system does not want you distracted. You can be a parent OR a scientist, but not both. This same system is constantly sharing the scientifically proven facts that we need to spend more time with our children, take vacations to be more creative, exercise to keep mind and body healthy for parenting and work, have a hobby, meditate every morning, and many other things to be happy and productive members of society. But how? How can we do all those things in a system that does not allow for flexible or part time work?
I should not have to choose between parenting or being healthy or my work. I should be able to use my hard-earned skills in a way that also leaves a bit of time to live the rest of my life, to take care of myself and others, to just be present. I have many friends that decided to stay at home, and I know that they are crazy intelligent, many of them have several degrees, and the scientific world would be richer if we had them in the workforce, at least part time. Shutting them out because they did not choose to dedicate their full lives to their science, is not only cruel, but also unwise, as we are also shutting out all the knowledge and experience they have accrued over decades of education.
I believe in a different way of doing science, one that allows scientists to be part of specific projects they are passionate about, and where their skills will be useful, without having to give up on the rest of themselves or their families. In Resolve Conservation’s business model, we contract scientists and specialists as projects come up, we negotiate how much time each will give to the project, the work schedule that fits their life, and the tools that will make them more productive. We started working this way, partly because we wanted to be a flexible and agile organization, but more importantly because we had seen so much scientific potential parked at home, lots of brain power that was looking for a creative outlet but could not do it full time. Having scientists participate in specific projects will help ensure that the right person is working on the right project, and that the person is interested and engaged in the work they are doing, after all, they have chosen to work on that specific project, and they are happy to put their skills to good use.
We know that this system is not all flowers and unicorns, and there are some negative aspects of this type of work, such as the inability to provide benefits, leaving the (mostly) women that work with us having to resolve that on their own. Sometimes communication can be hard with everybody working remotely, but technology and patience are getting us to where we need to be. Other times we miss the camaraderie of working in an office or a lab, of seeing each other more regularly, but the upside is that we are all being scientists and taking care of ourselves at the same time. It is expected that someone will have a family emergency of some kind at some point, or that there will be children running in the background of our video calls when school gets cancelled because of snow. Having personal interest that go beyond our work is not only natural, it is important for our productivity. Making space and time for those interests is fundamental for living a whole, happy life. Like we did at Resolve, you can also try to create opportunities for other scientist that are taking some time to spend with family, or that can’t work outside the home. If you are the one deciding to stay at home, think of it as long sabbatical, you can still publish and work on projects that need you, but you also get to experience something new, that is why you decided to take a sabbatical in the first place, right? And if later on you decide to go back to full time work, your resume will reflect that you stayed active in your profession the whole time.
If we are unhappy with the system as it is, then we have to create a new one; we are trying to do our part at Resolve, and we know we are not the only ones exploring the different ways we can be more than scientists.