Motherhood and Academia: Nurturing Dreams – A Personal Journey Through the PhD Experience

  • Post category:Blog post
  • Reading time:6 mins read

The history of women in science is a testament to their resilience and determination, spanning centuries marked by societal barriers and gender biases. The 19th century witnessed the contributions of Mary Anning and Ada Lovelace, while the 20th century showcased pioneers like Marie Curie and Rosalinda Franklin. The history of women in science reflects both accomplishments and ongoing efforts to ensure inclusivity and equal opportunities in scientific pursuits. BUT, what about the intersection of motherhood and scientific careers? Allow me share my personal journey that started three years ago when I embarked on a doctoral research training program focused on PFAS contaminants as part of the PERFORCE3 Innovative Training Network (ITN).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I relocated from the beautiful landscape of Scotland, where I had completed my master’s degree, to the music-loving city of Leipzig. Here, I embarked on my doctoral journey at the Environmental Research Center, a place destined to be my home for the next three and a half years. The initial experience was somewhat different from what I had expected – an eerily quiet building, labs equipped with sophisticated instruments but devoid of activity, and an office where I occasionally met my knowledgeable and experienced colleagues in the PFAS field. In the first few weeks, my focus was on gathering information from recent PFAS research, striving to fill in the gaps. This task was assigned by my supportive co-supervisor, who stood by me throughout my journey. From collecting samples to data analysis, I delved into journals, some of which seemed too abstract initially, while others became like a bible for the next three years. The first consortium meeting took place online, where we introduced ourselves and our project. Reflecting on it now, it brings a smile to my face as I recall stressing about the meeting for three days. The idea of presenting our projects to nearly 100 people and my fear of public speaking made me question my worthiness for a PhD. However, at the time, I forgot why I initially pursued a PhD. As I completed my master’s degree, I felt that although I had gained a lot of knowledge, it was scattered and not neatly organized for easy retrieval during conversations. I wanted to consolidate and focus on one thing, and that’s precisely what I set out to do.

As the year progressed, my enthusiasm to learn more and the prospect of traveling, which was part of the program, grew. However, six weeks before our annual meeting in Tromsø, I received unexpected news – I was pregnant. WHAT?! We were overjoyed by the news, BUT there was a moment of pause. I am pursuing a Ph.D! I had signed a contract, was supposed to travel for several weeks to different countries for training, expecting visitors, and the family that could potentially help with the baby was a thousand kilometers away. However, as the saying goes, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” and indeed, we found a way. My son was born exactly one and a half years after I began my journey at UFZ. I took a 14-week break to stay home, and then I returned to work. For the remainder of the year, my husband took on the role of a stay-at-home dad. The time wasn’t without its challenges, but then again, what can truly be defined as “easy” in adult life? Despite the difficulties, I considered myself fortunate to have encountered a great deal of understanding from my supervisors, office colleagues, and my wonderful fellow Ph.D. students in the consortium. They were incredibly supportive and considerate when they learned about my pregnancy. However, if I look beyond that supportive circle, I also encountered judgment and harsh words. It wasn’t exactly easy to hear criticism, both from individuals I randomly met and, surprisingly, from within my own family. I come from a country where societal norms dictate motherhood, often lacking understanding for working mothers. The prevalent expectation is for women to stay home for 3-5 years and adopt the role of a stay-at-home mom or wife. However, I find myself questioning whether this is the legacy we want to continue and pass on to the next generations. Personally, I am passionate about my work, and I refuse to place blame on anyone later in my life for choices I make. I aspire to be a role model for my son and any future children. My husband and I aim to be inspirations in their lives, guiding them with our example rather than having them seek role models on social platforms, where authenticity is often compromised. As a mother and scientist, my contributions are rooted in the junction of fostering qualities and academic expertise. The empathetic nature and diverse life experiences as both a mother and a researcher enable me to inject a unique diversity of thought into the scientific community. This varied perspective becomes instrumental in developing innovative research methodologies, offering distinctive insights and approaches to problem-solving. Embracing and valuing this dual role allows me to make meaningful contributions that extend beyond the laboratory, shaping a more holistic and vibrant scientific landscape.

 Silvia with her husband and son.

My son is almost two years old now, and we’ve had the opportunity to create beautiful memories together as we traveled across Europe. This journey has not only enriched our lives but has also allowed me to gain valuable insights, from data expertise to the time management skills-that I am still working on. Here’s my advice: Don’t be afraid. Refuse to let fear dictate who you are or what you can achieve. Communication is key. If you ever find yourself in need of assistance, remember that there are always people willing to listen and help. Knowledgeable individuals are not intimidating, as I initially believed; rather, they are eager to share their expertise and knowledge, fostering the growth of the next generation.

Finally, I would like to express my gratitude to all the individuals who have been a part of our lives over the past three years. Additionally, I am thankful for the incredible opportunity provided to me through Prof. Dr. Thorsten Reemtsma and PERFORCE3 funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.