From the discovery of antibiotics that kill bacteria to the development of packaging that keeps bugs away from our foods, scientific discoveries can change lives and transform our world for the better. But, aside from talent and patience, research takes time and rarely follows a nine-to-five working pattern.
For early-career researchers, a 60-hour week is often the norm and some even report putting in 80 hours − that’s more than an 11-hour day, seven days a week. Add in attending international academic conferences and you’re clocking up some serious hours and possibly making some tough choices between work and home.
"I always say to conference organizers: ‘You never forget about supplying alcohol, but you forget about offering childcare.'"
Dr Ahu Gümrah Dumanli-Parry, mother and materials chemist
Dr Dumanli-Parry is one of two recipients of the new BP International Centre for Advanced Materials (BP-ICAM) Kathleen Lonsdale Research Fellowship. Covering a five-year period, the fellowship is designed to help early-stage scientists, whether male or female, avoid having to make a choice between their career and family. “This fellowship is different to others because it explicitly accounts for things like childcare,” she says.
Dr Ahu Gümrah Dumanli-Parry, who will commute between Cambridge and Manchester, combing research with caring for her young son
Dr Dumanli-Parry (pictured above) and fellow recipient Dr Lisa Joss (below) were both attracted by the family-friendly flexibility that the fellowship offers. Dr Joss, a chemical engineer, was eight months pregnant when she heard about the fellowship and applied immediately. “I just thought it was the perfect fit for me − the science fit within the scope of my expertise and it offered the flexibility I knew I would need with a young child," she says.
With a three-year-old son, Dr Dumanli-Parry had taken a step back from her research and moved into teaching, but now the fellowship is bringing her back to her passion. “For me, it’s all about being in the lab,” she says. Dr Dumanli-Parry will commute between her new laboratory based at The University of Manchester and her home in Cambridge for about a year until her son is old enough to start school.
“My other half will stay in Cambridge for now, but I don’t want to miss out on a year of my son’s development, so I asked BP-ICAM if I could have some additional funding to have him stay with me some of the time and they said yes. I was impressed − that kind of support is unheard of,” adds Dumanli-Parry.
Dr Lisa Joss says the fellowship gives her flexibility while allowing her to build up her research to a full-time career again
In a world that retains a fairly traditional outlook and doesn’t easily make allowances for work-life balance, opportunities like the BP-ICAM fellowship are rare. As a result, researchers find themselves having to work at all hours of the day just to keep their hand in. Something Dr Dumanli-Parry knows from experience.
“While I was teaching, I’d say only about 10-20% of my working hours were dedicated to research, which is not enough to create valuable and publishable science, so I would work nights and weekends just to stay published, but it was hard.
“This programme allows Lisa and me to work as principal investigators,” she says, “meaning our names go on our research, which is the chance to attract funding to our work. I’ve written a lot of grant proposals under my supervisor’s name, but this is my chance to attract funding to my work. It’s so important that researchers keep their funding streams going.”
Arguing for both doesn’t seem terribly controversial today. That wasn’t the case when trailblazing scientist and mother of three Dame Kathleen Lonsdale made a stand against the conventional wisdom that said women belonged in the home, not in the lab.
She took time out in the 1930s to care for her young family, but continued her research from home. She then went back to a distinguished career pioneering the use of X-rays to study crystal structures. So influential was her work that in 1945 she became one of the first two women to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific academy.
Despite her success, she never escaped outdated views of ‘a woman’s place’, leading her to speak widely about the struggle of balancing family and laboratory life, right up to her death in 1971.
It’s fitting, then, that a family-friendly fellowship is named in her honour. While the social pressures she faced are more relaxed today, the logistical challenges of working in research while raising a young family remain.
And, it’s not just the publishing of papers that builds interest. Making a name for yourself in science also depends on showing your face at conferences, Dr Joss says. “And, if you slip out of that, it can be hard to recover. That’s often extra challenging for women because you want to dedicate time to your child and that usually means taking a step back from your career.”
The backing the programme offers clearly matters a great deal to the pair, but they are just as enthused by the prospect of getting stuck into new challenges. “I’m excited about the connection with BP and using our skills to tackle real-life challenges,” says Joss. I think BP-ICAM offers the opportunity to guide lab-scale research performed in small quantities towards commercial applications involving large industrial plants.”
The $100 million BP-ICAM partnership includes The University of Manchester, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
It was set up by BP in 2012 to find new ways to improve the safety, reliability and performance of materials used in the energy industry through fundamental and applied research.
Under the programme, Dr Dumanli-Parry will lead research into bio-inspired materials, learning from systems found in nature to develop new and improved advanced materials.
Meanwhile, Dr Joss, a chemical engineer, will investigate new material characterization methods to bridge the gap between laboratory research and large-scale process design.
The Kratos Axis Ultra instrument, used for x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy in the School of Materials at the University of Manchester
The fellowships are the brainchild of Dr Angelo Amorelli, BP’s technology vice president of group research. He says: “We are committed to supporting talented scientists and engineers who have a passion for translating their research into industrial applications that can make a difference and add real value.”