Mums in Science: Dr Abhilasha Tiwari, stem cell research

For the second in our Mums in Science series, we hear from Abhilasha Tiwari about being raised in India with great aspirations and combining her role as a stem cell researcher with motherhood…

Abhilasha Tiwari, 32, lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and their two-year-old daughter, Aadisha. She is a postdoctoral research fellow at Hudson Institute of Medical Research where she works on the use of umbilical cord blood stem cells for treatment of neurological diseases.

“I was born in a small village in India. At five years of age, I used to walk three kilometers to go to my school. I was the only girl child in a big joint family and favorite of every one, hence got my name Abhilasha, which means ‘desire/wish’.

My father wanted me to study in an ‘English medium’ school, which was a big deal for a girl from a small village, considering that everyone else in the family went to a regular Hindi medium (regional) school. For this, I went to live with my uncle and aunt who lived in a city, at six years of age.

I still remember, my father would always tell me these motivational stories of women in public services, medicine and science and me promising to him and myself that I will, one day, make his dream come true.

Shoot forward to 2006, and I had passed my Bachelor of Technology in Biotechnology from India. I went on to work at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), one of the most prestigious research institutes in India.

In 2008, I received an Indo-Australian fellowship to do a collaborative PhD between CCMB, India and Deakin University, Australia. This provided me with an amazing opportunity to work in Australia, which became my home after my PhD.

I started working full time as a postdoctoral research fellow immediately after completing my PhD in October 2012 and still continue my research passion. In between, I took an 11-month break for maternity leave.

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Before having kids, I wasn’t concerned about combining motherhood with my career but I was maybe a little anxious. Especially as I was living in a foreign country with no family around to support me.

It has been quite a journey. Aadisha is my first child and I was both excited and anxious after her birth. Thankfully, my mum stayed here in Melbourne for the first six months and provided the much needed support (both physical and emotional).

Like everything else, I learned and am still learning and getting better at juggling motherhood and my career. After maternity leave, I started working two days a week and slowly increased to four days a week, which not only provided me with an easy transition but also allowed Aadisha to settle in her childcare. I must add, my supervisors have been supportive and the flexibility of my job in general has certainly helped.

I hope to continue in a career that makes a positive impact on humanity

To be honest, I was nervous about returning to work after maternity leave. Not only was I unsure of performing at work but also the thought of staying away from my little girl gave me chills. However, to my surprise, Aadisha settled in nicely at her childcare.

She loved exploring the new environment and making new friends. This gave me confidence to focus and get back on track with my career. The transition was not easy but once I got the balance and priorities right, work and motherhood complemented each other really well.

My colleagues, especially supervisors, are very supportive. There are times when I have to leave work to care for my daughter and my supervisors happily exempt me, and my colleagues cover for any critical experiments. I make up for the work and return the favour to my colleagues and supervisor whenever there is an opportunity.

Motherhood becomes a part of a woman’s life after having a child and she needs support throughout the journey

The environment I work in isn’t male dominated. Although I will admit that most of our group heads are male but if you look at the bigger picture, there are more females than males in my work community.

The science industry or, for that matter, any workplace has to understand that it is not just the time off during maternity leave that matters. Motherhood becomes a part of a woman’s life after having a child and she needs support throughout the journey. Work life balance is essential and flexible work arrangements go a long way. Equally, women have to understand that they need to get their priorities and balance right and then everything else falls in place over time.

I can’t say it is easy, but with my current work arrangement, I think me and my daughter are doing well. She gets an opportunity to make new friends and learn to be independent at her childcare and I can take my turn to continue with my career and we still get plenty of time to spend together.

I work on the use of stem cells for treatment of neurological disorders and I take great pride that my work has the potential to improve the quality of life for those in need. I hope to continue in a career that makes a positive impact on humanity.

For me, my family comes first and then my work. Like any other mom, I want my child to be happy and an independent girl. Maybe at some point in time, I would like to go back to India and spend time with my parents and in-laws.”

Connect with Abhilasha on LinkedIn