Self-division: how I split my time between family life and cell cycles

This festive period Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of their wisdom.

Our second wise woman, research fellow Dr Alexis Barr, provides an insight into how she’s balancing family life with a research career.  

I never realised that when I started a family that other scientists would be so interested in my work/life balance. I am frequently asked how I manage a research career with bringing up two young children, aged two and four. Thankfully, it’s not as hard as you might think, but having a partner who shares the responsibility helps enormously.

I know why researchers are keen to talk about this as it seems to involve squaring a circle. Before I had children, I couldn’t easily conceive how working in a lab 8am – 7pm every day and often ‘popping in’ at weekends could work with caring for children. The problem is that it doesn’t, well at least not if you want to spend time with your children (which I do – not least because they’re hilarious). But it turns out that this isn’t a problem as there are other styles of working. Like most scientists I know, we love what we do so we’re quite motivated to find ways to make it work for us.

Changing work patterns

Since I had my first child during my postdoc, I am usually in the lab between 7am and 4pm so that I can spend time with them in the evenings before they go to bed. I think that is a big benefit of working in research – flexible working. After dinner, I may do some more work. I don’t go into the lab at the weekends now. I work full time which means I don’t see my kids as much as I would like during the week and so the weekends are our family time. Yes, I do frequently log back into the computer when they have gone to bed, but when I’m with them I try to focus on them alone.

This all works because I have a husband who believes in sharing childcare 50:50. This has been the case from when the children were born. After the birth of both of our children, we split our parental leave and took six months each. I am still surprised that in 2018, with the option of shared parental leave, that this doesn’t happen more often. I’m even more surprised that still, later down the line, it seems to be mothers that opt to work part-time or give up work to take on more of the childcare. I feel there is still work to do on social attitudes to equal parenting but I’m confident we’ll get there.

Achieving more in less time

One aspect that helps with balancing my research and family life is automation. Throughout my career I have been fascinated by the process of cell division – that is how one cell replicates all of its contents to give rise to two new cells. This process is absolutely essential during development and in maintaining our adult tissues. It is also very beautiful to watch. I have invested a lot of time during my career in building tools that allow me to film cells using video microscopy so that we can see exactly how this process happens and what are the consequences when things go wrong. What this means is that I can put cells on a microscope and image them over several days.

By using highly automated microscopes we can image thousands of cells – all growing under different conditions – at the same time. We can then automatically analyse those movies to extract information from them that tells us, in an absolutely quantitative way, how those cells are replicating under different conditions. Contrast this to the early days of my PhD when I had to count hundreds of individual cells and phenotypes by eye. I simply wouldn’t have the time to do this now!

I am also a strong believer in collaboration. During my postdoc at the Institute of Cancer Research, I had several fantastic collaborators. In collaboration, you can do really exciting projects that you wouldn’t be able to achieve alone. I trained as a biochemist and cell biologist and have collaborated with mathematicians, computational biologists and clinicians to really dig deep into our research questions. From a work/life balance point of view, I think these collaborations have also helped as the work is often distributed across two or more people meaning that projects move faster, allowing us to achieve more in less time.

Looking ahead

In writing this blog post I have been reflecting on the last few years of my postdoc and only the first couple of months into my position as a team leader at Imperial. I am fully aware that as I progress in my career I will have to face new challenges and will need to adapt my working patterns as the demands of both my family and my team change. But I love my work and feel very privileged to be able to pursue such a fantastic career, so I am ready to face challenges as they arise. I am also looking forward to the day when we are asking male scientists how they manage their work/life balance!

Dr Alexis Barr (@Alexis_Barr) is a Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellow and started the Cell Cycle Control team at the MRC-LMS in September 2018.


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