My husband and I chose to be pregnant during my time as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Pittsburgh Medical School. A lot of women in scientific lab-based research make this choice during their time as a graduate student or postdoc. Pregnancy in itself is a unique and eventful experience for women and, through this blog, I will take the opportunity to highlight the laboratory environment-specific steps I personally took to try and ensure that I have a healthy pregnancy while continuing to be a productive researcher.
I worked till the last days of my 42-week pregnancy. The usual long hours in the laboratory can prove to be challenging but I wanted to have an effective plan so as to overcome this challenge. I wanted my pregnancy to minimally interfere with my career as a research scientist and the only way to ensure that was to be as informed as possible about what my body was going through, what it needed, how best to provide this and constantly remind myself that I am still a professional. Below, I listed some of the things that helped me achieve this, with a cautionary note that one should only follow these tips with full understanding of their personal health and circumstances, and not interpret them as medical advice.
1. Reproductive hazards assessment: Identify reproductive hazards (https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/reproductivehazards/) in the laboratory that are harmful for you or the growing fetus and stop using them or find suitable alternatives or educate yourself regarding their safe handling. You can also do this as a general precaution if you are even remotely considering getting pregnant in the future.
2. Talk with supervisor: Talk to your supervisor as soon as you are comfortable announcing your pregnancy and discuss a concrete plan as to how you want to work in the following months. Both your supervisor and you should be on the same page with respect to timelines for projects. These might change because of unforeseen circumstances in the pregnancy; nevertheless, discuss the best- and worst-case scenarios so as to minimize unexpected work-related stress.
Try to find out beforehand from fellow lab mates about how supportive your supervisor is about pregnancy, policies regarding maternity leave and return, your rights as an employee etc., so as to help with the discussion with your supervisor. Try not to wait having this discussion until he/she brings up the issue of your low productivity in the lab, which can possibly happen in the first few months as you adjust with the hormonal changes in your body.
3. Precious naptime: Find a private/semi-private spot in the building away from the lab where you can rest during the day. I found these cat naps to be great energy boosters which ensured that I was getting enough rest and could also work in the laboratory 8-12 hours a day. Learn to listen to your body and take rest whenever you feel weary especially if you are working with potentially dangerous materials in the lab and need to be mentally and physically alert. You will soon fall into a pattern and can time your lab work accordingly.
4. Physical activity: I found being physically active to be very empowering and refreshing although I would not start an activity that you have never done before. I practiced prenatal yoga, breathing exercises and dance on a regular basis to keep my body and mind active and healthy and supply enough oxygen to my baby. When you are pregnant, people often offer to come to meet you at your lab desk.
However, I used to tell my collaborators that I will come and meet them instead, which ensured I got my 30 minutes of walking every day. I did light exercise throughout my pregnancy at 50-70% of my pre-pregnancy capacity and stopped whenever I did not feel good. Regular exercise with continuous hydration throughout the day helped me maintain my stamina, stay strong and agile to deliver 1-2 hour long presentations in lab meetings and actively attend conferences and seminars. However, get help where it is important. For example, as your pregnancy progresses, it will get increasingly difficult and dangerous to do manual lifting so try to find colleagues who can help you.
5. Stay focused: Pregnancy made me more focused, structured and goal-oriented. I became more conscious about my timelines for each project because maternity leave could begin anytime so I wanted to finish as much as possible and be less distracted by the Internet news and social networking websites that we all love to visit every minute of the day! Whatever free time I had between experiments, I utilized it to write my drafts or plan my next experiment or have a positive discussion with my colleagues or simply rest.
My motivation for this was that I did not ever want to fall in the trap where I use my pregnancy as a so-called valid excuse for sedentary life. I support being healthy and pregnant and if health complications arise you should step away from work and take care of yourself. But otherwise stay focused and continue to be a productive researcher just like anyone else in the lab (if not better).
As a researcher in the Life Sciences I found pregnancy to be an exciting and fascinating journey which gave me a first-hand experience of seeing nature in action and realizing the incredible potential of a woman’s body. I hope sharing my experiences helps you to make informed decisions about your career and pregnancy. Last but not the least, congratulations soon-to-be mammas!