Two members of the UW community were among 14 scientists nationwide who attended a White House ceremony Sept. 26 at the invitation of First Lady Michelle Obama and the National Science Foundation. Kate Huntington is an assistant professor in Earth and space sciences and NSF CAREER award winner and Gina Schmalzle recently completed a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in the same department.
The ceremony in the White House East Room was held to announce the NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative, and featured NSF Director Subra Suresh and remarks by the first lady.
The new initiative is to be applied foundationwide to help postdoctoral fellows and early-career faculty members more easily care for dependents while continuing their careers. It will:
- Allow postponement of grants for child birth/adoption – Grant recipients can defer their awards for up to one year to care for their newborn or newly adopted children.
- Allow grant suspension for parental leave – Grant recipients who wish to suspend their grants to take parental leave can extend those grants by a comparable duration at no cost.
- Provide supplements to cover research technicians – Principal investigators can apply for stipends to pay research technicians or equivalent staff to maintain labs while PIs are on family leave.
- Publicize the availability of family friendly opportunities – NSF will issue announcements and revise current program solicitations to expressly promote these opportunities to eligible awardees.
- Promote family friendliness for panel reviewers – Researchers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) who review the grant proposals of their peers will have greater opportunities to conduct virtual reviews rather than travel to a central location, increasing flexibility and reducing dependent-care needs.
- Support research and evaluation – NSF will continue to encourage the submission of proposals for research that would assess the effectiveness of policies aimed at keeping women in the STEM pipeline.
- Leverage and Expand Partnerships — NSF will leverage existing relationships with academic institutions to encourage the extension of the tenure clock and allow for dual hiring opportunities.
Because the initiative will be especially helpful to women, most of the invited scientists were women. Huntington, whose CAREER award is one of the most prestigious given to junior faculty by NSF, said she believed she was invited because of her previous contacts with NSF.
“I was on their radar as an early career award winner who juggles work and family because I served on an NSF panel when I was six months pregnant,” said Huntington, whose son is now a year and a half. “Then I gave the Geosciences Directorate Distinguished Lecture at NSF last spring and brought my son with me on the trip. I left him at my parents house while I was at NSF, but the NSF people were aware hed made the trip.
“Recently I was asked to submit a statement to NSF on strategies that have helped me achieve a satisfying work-life balance,” she said. “I cited the freedom to be flexible as an academic and the importance of networks. Even if formal policies arent in place, colleagues and administrators at the UW have been very supportive and as flexible as they have the power to be.” Huntington was able to stop the tenure clock when her son was born and will come up for review a year later than she would have otherwise.
Schmalzle, who received an NSF fellowship for her post-doctoral work, has no children. She talked about a different barrier that early career scientists often face — the two scientist family. Shes married to Craig Faunce who has a job with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“I was lucky because I was able to move to the same city my husband was working in,” Schmalzle said. “But many times dual Ph.D. families have to live apart and thats very stressful on family life. If the couple decides to live together, one person often gets a good job and the other struggles. In my case, my husband has a good job and I had a post doc. Now that the post doc has ended, Im struggling to keep soft money coming in.”
The NSF initiative is meant to address these and other issues. At the White House ceremony, Suresh spoke briefly about the initiative then introduced Michelle DelRio, a graduate student who spoke about her struggles to move ahead in her education while caring for her younger siblings. DelRio introduced the first lady, who joked that she became a lawyer because she wasnt any good at STEM subjects.
“We cant add or subtract,” she said of lawyers, “so we argue.” More seriously, she discussed the need to remove barriers so that people, especially women, can enter and remain in STEM fields.
Huntington said she had never heard Obama speak in person and found it very inspirational. “You could tell everyone in the room had a little crush on Michelle Obama,” she said.
Neither of the UW women was able to meet the first lady, but both pronounced it exciting to be in the same room with her and hear her speak. A video of this part of the ceremony is available online.
Following Obamas remarks, there was a panel moderated by Suresh and including White House Council on Women and Girls Executive Director Tina Tchen, UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Purdue Associate Professor of Engineering Monica Cox and Technology Collaboration Development Director of Dow Chemical Company Catherine Hunt.
Schmalzle said it was extremely exciting to be at the event. “The retention of scientists in STEM fields is an issue that needed to be raised,” she said. “Implementing policies to help retention is a fantastic first step.”
Huntington agreed. “I was really impressed with the message of the day and very excited by it,” she said. “There were representatives there from industry, academia and government all echoing the same message, that these policies are good for everyone and theyre especially good for our economy in a time when we cant afford to miss out on the talent of women or of anybody.”