No one talks about it much, but if you’re a woman scientist, you’re faced with it everyday: the challenge of being a serious scientist and an ideal mother. Those who haven’t made the choice must decide what they can live with: foregoing motherhood for a career in science or a career in science for motherhood, or finding a way to meld the two.
Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, edited by Emily Monosson and published by ILR Press, is a collection of 34 essays by mother-scientists who share their stories and insights on achieving balance and defining success. Monosson, an independent toxicologist in Montague, Mass., gathered essays from women at various stages in their careers who combined motherhood and careers in often male-dominated fields of science.
Rochester Institute of Technology scientist Stefi Baum contributed her insights in her essay, “The Accidental Astronomer,” detailing the career and family choices she made at the outset of her career in the 1980s.
Baum is the director of RIT’s Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science and co-chair of the new Astrophysical Sciences and Technology graduate program. She has balanced a successful career inside and outside academia with the domestic demands of being the mother of four children.
In her essay, Baum reflects on timing her pregnancies “so as not to be visibly pregnant” during her early job interviews; giving birth to her first child in a small village in Holland while on a joint post-doctoral fellowship with her husband at the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy; and returning to work only one week after having had her first son.
“Critical to being able to juggle a scientific career and a young family was having the perfect collaborator—a husband who shared all aspects with me from scientific discovery to baby trips to the doctor,” Baum says. Her husband, Chris O’Dea, is also an accomplished astronomer and a professor of physics at RIT.
As director of the Center for Imaging Science, Baum has sought ways to increase the representation of girls in science and women in academia. She started a series of annual programs with the Girl Scouts of Genesee Valley through the center. Baum is also working with her RIT colleague Margaret Bailey, Kate Gleason Endowed Chair and associate professor of mechanical engineering, who won a National Science Foundation grant to increase the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers.
Prior to joining RIT, Baum worked at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), pursuing research on the nature of activity in galaxies and developing the first functional scientific archive for a major observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope. She eventually headed the engineering division supporting the Hubble ground systems and supervised 140 engineers, scientists and support staff.
Baum also lead the team working on a new instrument to be placed on Hubble called the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. Baum and her husband took the family to Cape Canaveral, Fla., to watch the launch of the shuttle carrying the instrument Baum had help develop.
“STScI was a male-dominated environment when I first arrived there,” Baum writes. “I remember clearly how all astronomers were spoken of us ‘he’ and never ‘she.’ And there were no family leave policies or tenure-clock-stop policies at the time to support young scientists and engineers as they started families. But change was underway…The small number of women astronomers at STScI 17 years after I first went there is an indication of how long and hard you have to push to turn a culture around.”