In our expe(e)rts section, Lizzy Parker talks about her life as an academic mom and PhD candidate and shares advice on how to keep a healthy life-work balance, the importance of setting priorities and being able to say “no”.
How did you get into research?
When I was choosing what to study at University, I knew I wanted to do Biology because I’d loved it at school, but I also wanted to continue with learning a language. Luckily I was able to do both, studying Biology at the University of Sheffield with an extra year in Dijon at the University of Burgundy. This meant my course was a year longer than most UK degrees and gave me lots of opportunity to try out working in a lab and get a better understanding of the research process … I enjoyed it so much that I decided to do a research Masters in plant and microbial biology. My Masters introduced me to the plant-soil-environment lab which I have worked in for five years now, as both a technician and PhD student.
What is your focus?
In my PhD research I work with a type of fungus called arbuscular mycorrhizae. These grow into the roots of about 80% of land plants and help the plant take up extra nutrients. In exchange, the plant provides carbon which is the fungus’ only energy source. We know that these fungi can benefit crop plants in many ways and I focus on how they help wheat to survive drought. We hope that this work will show us ways to maintain wheat yields as droughts become more severe and more common with climate change.
What is it that fascinates you about research and science?
I love finding out about how the world works and how people find solutions to big problems. Sometimes the way people have worked out how to find new information is just as interesting as the information they’ve found!
What are the biggest challenges?
Often experiments fail or we ask the wrong questions. However it all feeds into working out a better way to get to the bottom of things. We learn how to do things better next time … but sometimes, when you’ve worked on something for months, and you’re physically and mentally exhausted, then it can be so depressing that your experiment has “failed”! At these times it’s important to remember why you love your research field and why you got into it in the first place.
Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for a student deciding upon her/his field?
If you are applying for a masters or PhD then definitely make sure it is in a field you are passionate about. However, I would say that it’s not the only important factor. The scope of the project is also really important: will you have free rein or is there lots of built-in structure? Your supervisors will make a massive difference to your experience. I am very lucky to have had extremely supportive and understanding supervisors which has helped me grow in confidence with my academic work but has also been really important since I have been pregnant or breastfeeding for the whole of my PhD so far! PhDs last longer in some countries and it is definitely worth considering who you will be working with for that time as well as what you will be working on.
Do you feel you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?
I think sacrifice is a strong word! I would say at times I have compromised in order to be able to combine my academic work with other interests and commitments. For example, I lived in a different country away from my partner for a year to complete my undergraduate course which was tough but there were also lots of upsides (like amazing french pâtisseries!).
What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice on what worked best for you?
At the moment I have a 16 month old who is still breastfed and I am part way through my confirmation review for my PhD. I am also helping prepare some science communication activities and trying to keep my experimental plants alive. I am full-time funded but I am only in work 4 days a week. So I have a few challenges with work-life balance at the moment!
Having said that, I think my work-life balance might be better than before I had a child. I try to stick to strict lab/office hours and always be home by a set time. Having clear priorities makes me plan really carefully and I think I find it much easier to say “no” to extra commitments than I used to. I know there is not much opportunity for over-spill which makes me very focused. Because I have an extra day at home with my son I feel less like I’m “missing out” on his childhood than if I worked 5 days a week and it also gives my brain some time to relax. I think this is really important in a PhD and it would definitely be my main piece of advice for others: do something else sometimes!
Is there time for hobbies?
I love my work but it’s not my whole life. Now that I have a toddler I spend A LOT of time in the park (which is lovely in Sheffield because we have so many to choose from). I also knit and try to grow some food in our tiny garden (though this is more difficult than I would like to admit as a plant scientist!).
If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc …), what would they be?
- Undergraduate funding in the UK is a big issue. The high fees and constantly changing goalposts for funding seem like they are shifting the emphasis of undergraduate degrees in a way which is causing problems for the whole academic system. Not only that but it may put off a lot of promising students because of issues with affordability or perceived value.
- There is a persistent idea that science is a slog and you have to work long hours. YES, you have to work, and sometimes the hours ARE long … but you can take a break and still do well.
- Linked to number 2, there seems to be a big taboo around mental health issues in academia. I think this is slowly starting to change but the competitive atmosphere of science can make it easy for people to burn out if good support structures aren’t in place.
Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (older or younger) or any person interested in science?
Science is for everyone and if you are even remotely interested, you can participate. There are tonnes of citizen science projects out there where you can be involved in DOING science, not just hearing about it. https://www.zooniverse.org/projects is a great place to start where you can choose to help with projects as diverse as spotting galaxies, counting flowers for bees or sorting unidentified fossils.
What did you want to be as a kid?
When I was very young I wanted to be a lollipop lady. I just really liked their fluorescent coats. Then when I was a bit older I wanted to be a plumber or an artist.
What does your child want to be when they’re older and what is your response?
He’s a bit young to tell me, but based on his interests I’d say something with horses or trains! Or water or books or food or dogs … I want him to have a job that he loves!
You can also find Elizabeth on twitter: @parkerpannell