Mothers Leading Science helping researchers focus careers | University Times



Traci M. Kennedy — a psychiatry department faculty member researching interventions for alcohol use in young adults with ADHD, and the mother of two children under four — saw the announcement for a new program at Pitt, Mothers Leading Science, and recognized the need in her own career and life.

“Especially recently in the pandemic,” Kennedy says, “I’ve felt like I’m treading water a lot of the time, balancing my research career and being a mom.”

She hoped the Mothers Leading Science program would give her “the space and the dedicated time to really figure out my direction and get more intentional with my career. I thought that this opportunity would help me cut through the day-to-day treading water and be more intentional getting to the next step,” helping her not only pinpoint but also master “what supports did I need, and how I’m going to do that?”

“For me, I often feel like I’m alone, or I know that I’m not but don’t have the time (just) to go get coffee” with a fellow mother/researcher, let alone consult about their shared issues and possible solutions. “Having a group of colleagues who are also mothers and having that support and validation, being in it together,” sounded like a great opportunity, she says.

Kennedy is part of the first cohort of nine Pitt faculty women in Mothers Leading Science, a program developed at the University of Minnesota by its faculty member Michelle Lamere, who is assisting with bringing the program here.

Co-directing the Pitt cohort are Tasha Alston, who came from Pitt–Bradford to the Oakland campus recently as director of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for internal medicine in the School of Medicine, and Amery Treble-Barna, a medical school faculty member in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation and Clinical & Translational Science.

“I’ve always been concerned about the notion that women cannot ‘do it all’ (be a mother and have a career)’ “ says Treble-Barna. “These competing careers have been a daily challenge” in particular, she says, for women working as primary investigators in research projects in academia. Securing grant funding in this “exceptionally competitive environment,” she notes, has for the past few years become even tougher, “excessively exacerbated by the pandemic” and the shutdown of some labs.

Treble-Barna is already leading a grant-writing workshop for scientists just starting their careers through the Institute for Clinical Research education here

Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead leadership training program will be part of the Mothers Leading Science curriculum, with its emphasis on creating leaders who take “responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and … to develop that potential,” as Brown’s website explains.

Mothers in academic science still encounter “many inequitable societal expectations” based on traditional gender roles, says Treble-Barna. Universities “are an up-or-out environment,” she adds, and mothers who are caregivers may miss a critical window for achieving tenure. They have long opted out of academic careers disproportionately to men, she notes, “and the pandemic only made these inequities worse,” as well as lowering the publication rate and upping the rates of stress and burnout for faculty women who are also child caregivers.

“Being a primary investigator, the work never ends,” Treble-Barna points out, and of course technology has put work into our home life through computers and smartphones. This makes more than work-life balance necessary, she says, but calls instead for work-life integration: the understanding that work time may be paused for family caregiving, and taken back up later, with no penalty.

Mothers who are primary investigators are leading teams of researchers and thus need strong leadership skills, says Treble-Barna, which leads to better science. Leadership skills will help bring more mothers to head scientific and academic endeavors and reduce gender disparities “that are plaguing academia,” she says.

The program, which kicked off two weeks ago, has in-person and virtual sessions.

“We hope that Mothers Leading Science will promote personal and professional growth and provide peer mentoring,” Treble-Barna says.

At Minnesota, Lamere is studying outcomes of the program among its several cohorts, and the results have already suggested participants are better able to navigate work-life integration and experienced reduced burnout and renewed their passion for research. They also have better used their networks and gained greater confidence in their leadership skills and ability to advocate for change.

Gina P. McKernan — a faculty member in Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, assistant director for Data Science for the Human Engineering Research Laboratories and mother of three kids, 7, 4 and 2 — is part of research efforts to improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. As a biostatistician, she works on incorporating machine-learning algorithms to improve predictions of clinical outcomes.

“I am a mother of small children who has experienced a lot of challenges over the last couple of years, balancing childcare and work — and lack of childcare,” she says. “I have a lot to offer as a mom, not despite being a mom; the ability to be present for my children only makes me a better colleague or researcher,” since the time-management skills and compassion she has gained as a mother only enhance her scientific work.

The opening session of the Mothers Leading Science group “was incredible,” she says. “The first meeting was so rewarding — to meet other women throughout the University who I didn’t know.”

Throughout the year-long program she hopes “to improve my leadership and communication skills and to have tactical solutions to some of the challenges” all the members face. Already, she says, “just to hear some similarities and differences was really great … to recognize that there is so much power in our small group and we have a great opportunity to help ourselves and future cohorts.”

Applications for the next round of this annual program will be available next spring.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at [email protected] or 412-758-4859.


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