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Volume 87 Issue 2 | pp. 39-40
Issue Date: January 12, 2009

Graduate Families

More universities are providing parental accommodation policies for graduate students
Department: Science & Technology
Working Mom
Woertink readies a sample for a resonance Raman spectroscopy experiment.
Credit: Roger Kuhn/Stanford U
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Working Mom
Woertink readies a sample for a resonance Raman spectroscopy experiment.
Credit: Roger Kuhn/Stanford U

ACADEMIC CHEMISTRY departments are perennially vexed by the challenge of increasing the number of women in their ranks. Whether the family-unfriendly reputation of careers in chemistry and other sciences is deserved or not, that reputation is believed to be one reason underlying the dearth of women in academic chemistry settings.

"There is no good time for any woman who is a professional chemist to have a child," says Richard N. Zare, chair of the Stanford University chemistry department. For a woman on the academic track, childbearing years essentially coincide with graduate school, a postdoc or two, and time to tenure. "If we want women to go into chemistry—and I really do; I want to use the full human talent pool available—then we have to make adjustments in what we do," Zare says.

Zare's call for change is being heeded. At both the department and university level, administrators are putting into place specific childbirth accommodation policies for graduate students. Such students previously had to take a leave of absence—and suffer the loss of housing, health insurance, and perhaps their student visas. Or they had to negotiate individually with their advisers, and perhaps student services personnel, about time off, pay, and academic deadlines. Now, a growing number of departments and universities are codifying new parental leave policies, providing unprecedented clarity and chipping away at the perception that the pursuit of science doesn't mix well with the pursuit of family.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Dartmouth College, and the chemistry department of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, led the pack by implementing these policies for graduate students as early as 2004. A slew of additional schools have come on board since 2007, including Northwestern University, Princeton University, Yale University, Cornell University, and the University of California, Berkeley. Postdoctoral researchers are typically covered under separate parental leave policies and, unlike graduate students, may be eligible for disability as well as leave mandated by state and federal employment law.

If the graduate student policies have a common element, it's that students get at least six weeks of a paid childbirth accommodation period, during which they are typically excused from regular teaching or research duties but remain registered and retain their access to university facilities, computer systems, housing, and health insurance. Schools with such policies have also generally instituted extensions that range from a quarter to a full year for academic and degree progress deadlines.

MOST SCHOOLS offer the new accommodations only to female students and only for childbirth. Others, such as Yale and Cornell, make them available to male students as well and include adoption or even foster parenting as a qualifying event. The UW Madison chemistry department originally offered 12 weeks just to new mothers, but the department will likely amend the policy to open six weeks of that time to fathers, says Chair Robert J. Hamers.

The Stanford chemistry department and the MIT physics department each pay to accommodate students above and beyond what their universities mandate, providing an additional six and four weeks of paid relief time, respectively. Princeton, in addition to providing 12 weeks of accommodation for birth mothers, provides an extra semester of enrollment and financial support to any graduate student who is the primary caregiver for an infant.

Schools also vary in how they pay for the accommodation period. The Stanford and UW Madison chemistry departments use unrestricted department funds. Schools with university-wide policies typically have some sort of schoolwide fund set up to cover tuition and stipends. If a student is supported by an external fellowship or grant, however, the preference may be to continue to draw support from that source if the funding agency allows it.

The paid accommodation period is also often meant to cover any time that a woman may not be able to work due to safety or medical issues before giving birth. Hamers and other department chairs emphasize the need for students and advisers to work together to mitigate any safety concerns about laboratory work, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals, while a student is pregnant, even if it means shifting the focus of a project. Students are often encouraged to work with their advisers to find ways to continue their research even if they're not able to be in the lab, for example, by working on tasks such as data analysis or paper writing.

Stanford chemistry graduate student Julia Salas Woertink, who studies O2 activation by copper enzymes and related model complexes, says having the maternity policy in place made it easier for her to talk with her adviser, chemistry professor Edward I. Solomon, when she found out in fall 2007 that she was pregnant with twins. The policy gave them a structure through which to discuss leave, salary, and project issues, she says, adding that Solomon was very supportive.

In terms of her laboratory work, the materials Woertink works with aren't hazardous. She was concerned about the high magnetic fields used for some of the spectroscopic work in the lab, but after researching the issue and discussing it with her doctor, she decided the risk was probably minimal. When her pregnancy took a difficult turn and she was put on bed rest, she continued to work part-time on her project by doing computational work until she gave birth to two girls in June 2008. Six weeks after that, she was back in the lab full-time. "After being out of the lab for so long, I was anxious to get back to my projects," she says.

Of course, having children is not just about giving birth and nurturing infants through the first few weeks. If a parent is going back to work, child care can be a difficult issue, especially on a graduate student stipend. Although students are often eligible for on-campus day care facilities, such programs can be expensive and can have long waiting lists. Woertink, for example, does not use Stanford's campus child care facilities; instead, her mother cares for her daughters.

"There is no good time for any woman who is a professional chemist to have a child."

Li Zhang, another Stanford chemistry graduate student who has taken parental leave, works for chemistry professor Hongjie Dai. Zhang's projects have involved developing carbon nanotubes and graphene as materials for field-effect transistors. She continued to do most of her experiments while she was pregnant, she says, although a labmate assisted with certain procedures involving materials that could have been hazardous to the baby. With Dai's support, Zhang was able to take 12 weeks off to stay at home with her son after he was born in December 2007. Zhang's mother has looked after the new baby until this month, when he will start in off-campus day care.

At Yale, chemistry graduate student Sarah Lipchock is due to give birth in April and plans to take parental leave after the baby arrives. Lipchock works for chemistry professor Scott A. Strobel with whom she studies catalytic RNA intermediates using X-ray crystallography. Some of the chemicals in Strobel's lab are hazardous, and Lipchock did have the option of stepping out of the lab entirely once she became pregnant. Instead, she chose to stop using those troublesome materials herself and give a wide berth to colleagues who handle them.

Right now, Lipchock is focusing on growing crystals and collecting as much experimental data as possible. After her eight-week leave is over, she hopes to be able to work from home on structure refinement and writing up her results.

Yale's parental relief policy does accommodate both mothers and fathers. Couples who are both students, however, must split one pool of leave time rather than each receiving their own. In Lipchock's case, she and her husband decided that she alone will take leave time, although her husband will likely take a few days off when the baby is born. After that, Lipchock and her husband are hoping to manage their schedules without needing to put their child in day care.

Of the schools that C&EN looked into, only Cornell and Princeton currently offer significant child care subsidies to students. Cornell covers 20 to 35% of a student's child care costs, depending on family income. Princeton offers a child care assistance subsidy of $5,000 per year per child, up to a maximum of $10,000 per year. Princeton also offers a backup care program for times when normal child care is disrupted. Princeton and Northwestern have additional grants available to cover extra child care that might be necessary if a parent travels to a conference or a job interview.

WHETHER MORE family-supportive policies will, in the end, increase the representation of women in academia remains to be seen. But in some department chairs' eyes, the policies are already producing positive results, and not just for the female graduate students.

"You could say that we didn't do anything for men," Stanford's Zare says. "But it turned out that we did." Stanford's maternity policy "has broken a taboo and allowed men to talk to their advisers if they're going to become fathers and need to adjust their time in lab," Zare says. Zhang's husband, for example, is also a Stanford chemistry graduate student, and with his adviser's support he took two weeks off to spend with his newborn son.

Stanford's program has supported eight students so far and cost the department the equivalent of one graduate student's stipend per year, out of a population of about 240. "This is a minor cost, relatively speaking, and a major change in the way the department operates," Zare says. "I've gotten back letters from women and men, and both say what a huge difference it's made. It's very positive."

UW Madison's Hamers agrees. Although the department has only paid to accommodate one female student so far, "It's incredible to me how much of a positive feeling it has generated among the students and even outside the university," he says of the accommodation policy. "I would say that the value we have gotten in terms of setting a tone that we support our students has far outweighed any cost that has been associated with the policy."

 
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