Mums in Science: Isabel Christie, neuroscientist

“I missed out on some rare opportunities while on maternity leave. I don’t think I’ve been very savvy with planning my research around my career break.” Neuroscientist Isabel Christie on combining motherhood with a demanding career in science (that she loves)…

Isabel Christie, 31, lives in Harringey, north London, with her husband Aaron, their 13-month-old son Rowan and Otis the dog. She works as a Research Associate at the Centre for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Neuroscience, where she’s been since 2014. She’s been working in science since 2010.

“Due to health problems I was a few years behind my peers, so I started my PhD at 25 and finished it about a week before my 30th birthday. The post PhD years (typically 25-35) are very critical years in an academic science career. Some women postpone having children until they get past this threshold (getting a fellowship or tenured position) but I wasn’t willing to do that because I wanted to have a big family.

So far, combining motherhood and a science career has been good, but frustrating in places. I missed out on some rare opportunities while on maternity leave. I don’t think I’ve been very savvy with planning my research around my career break. I’m writing grants for future work and I’m frustrated that I can’t readily move around the world to go and work in the best labs with the best people/equipment.

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I took eight months for maternity leave and now I work full time with some flexibility. I missed my work while on maternity and really like being back in the lab. I was still breastfeeding when I returned to work and the first few weeks were challenging because I had to find somewhere to express milk. UCL does provide facilities in about 50% of its buildings.

Scientists can be very blunt. I have had more comments about my breasts than I would like.

My boss is amazing, very supportive and understanding. But I am working in a male-dominated environment, which is generally fine but a little awkward sometimes. Scientists can be very blunt. I have had more comments about my breasts than I would like.

I really don’t know what would make the science industry more open to women having children as well as their career. Currently I think we have positive discrimination, so if my CV is compared with a man I won’t be expected to have as many publications.

I have a good work/life balance but it has changed since we got our dog and had a child. Both my husband and I used to work 10-12 hour days regularly. Now we both do about 8-9 hours and I take a couple of days a month to look after Rowan. However, I think we both feel like our careers are suffering so there is some frustration underlying the new equilibrium.

The real dream is to understand the physiological causes of psychiatric disease states

I’ve always wanted to write a best-selling popular science book, but this is highly unlikely. The real dream is to understand the physiological causes of psychiatric disease states. I’ve always thought that if we could find the physical causes of mental illness a) we could fix them and b) people wouldn’t feel so ashamed when they or family members are afflicted.

And regarding family life, I hope the size of our family is not determined by financial constraints. I hope we always have a dog and a veg patch and that we can move out of London. At the moment our careers seem to have us locked in to London but we would rather live somewhere more provincial.

My husband and I are both ambitious, high achievers. Neither of us wants to compromise our careers. Science is a competitive career and some people work constantly. I know I’m not putting in as many hours as other scientists and that worries me. But I enjoy growing veg, walking the dog… and I love my job. So I’ve got nothing to complain about.”

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