Monday, February 8, 2016

Chemists and infertility

Also in this week's C&EN, a heart-rending read by Linda Wang about chemists who experience infertility: 
Still, the pressures of pursuing a scientific career lead many to choose to wait to start trying to have a family. “Richard,” who is in his early 30s and is a faculty member at a midwestern university, says he and his wife, who is a speech therapist, have been trying to have a baby since 2010. “We had both decided to postpone trying to have children until we were done with graduate school,” he says. 
Looking back, he wishes they would have started sooner. “Don’t take fertility for granted,” he says. “Putting off a family for the sake of a career has consequences that you may not be prepared for.” 
But for many chemists, particularly women, it remains taboo to have a baby during graduate school. “When you’re in graduate school, the implicit understanding is, ‘Thou shall not get pregnant,’ ” says “Rebecca,” who, with her husband, waited until they both had jobs before trying to have a baby. Their first child came relatively easily, but Rebecca was diagnosed with secondary infertility and was never able to have a second child. 
Some people simply don’t meet the right person until later in life. “I didn’t meet anybody that I wanted to get married to,” says “Betty,” who is now a chemistry professor at a large research university. “I worked all the time.” 
She got her first faculty appointment at age 34. “I was an assistant professor, and I still hadn’t met anybody. It gets really hard as an assistant professor to meet people because you’re working your butt off to try and get tenure.” She acknowledges that when she was 38, she seriously considered getting a sperm donor and having a baby alone. She also considered freezing her eggs, a procedure with no guarantees of success. 
At age 39, she finally did meet someone, and they got married. “I met him through the personal ads in the local newspaper, and he was widowed with two teenage children,” she says. “We got married four months after we met, and I got pregnant right away at 39 years old.” 
After the birth of their first child, they tried unsuccessfully to have a second one. “We tried artificial insemination for a year, and we did two or three rounds of that.” She then used a donor egg and got pregnant, but that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. 
A second miscarriage followed shortly after. “It was horrible,” she says. Her grief over the loss made it tough to focus on her teaching and research that semester, she says. “My students gave me really bad evaluations, and I didn’t feel comfortable talking to hardly anybody about it.” 
Betty estimates she and her husband spent around $40,000 out of pocket for two rounds of in vitro fertilization. “At that point, I was 47, and I just quit trying.”
This is a tough one to read, but it's a good article. The difficulty in talking about this sort of thing is quite understandable; would that we all had more workplaces where we could talk about it more openly.

23 comments:

  1. On this topic, can anyone share their understanding of typical rules for pregnant bench chemists at major chemical/pharma companies?

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    1. With respect to female grad chemists being pregnant, a big part of my perception of that is that without the ability to step away from the bench immediately you risk damage to the pregnancy (same for all bench chemists). I don't know how you balance telling your supervisor if you need to be reassigned with the general secrecy of early pregnancy. Also, given the recent CDC recommendations regarding alcohol (which I am not endorsing), I would be curious to know what the rules should be about prenatal chemical exposure. There is definitely a need to reduce stigma of pregnancy in graduate school especially. I have watched several male friends start families and the consensus among my female friends is always that even if we wanted to, it can't be done in grad school.

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    2. My understanding has been that large pharma companies are quite accommodating of the actual pregnancy, and a transfer to desk duty is done quite often.

      I suspect that, at small companies, this sort of thing is most certainly not accommodated for, and there are probably lots of "I expect you to be careful and stick to our chemical hygiene plan, blah blah" stuff that bosses trot out when they mean "you're gonna keep workin' and I don't care."

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    3. Another of the "small company bonuses" that explain the shift in industrial research and development.

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    4. I worked at a small company and had many female coworkers (organic/polymer/organometallic) who had one or two kids while working there. It was definitely the "be careful and stick to the chemical hygeine plan" No one got a technician or got put on a desk job, but did phase back somewhat. We did have modern facilities, a lot of hoods and gloveboxes, and often worked in teams where the non-pregnant person could step in more with more of the wet chemical handling. Everyone's pregnancy turned out ok, fortunately.

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    5. I work at a big pharma company. My department (and the company overall) is very supportive of women not wanting to do chemistry while pregnant (and at least in some instances, again when they return from leave and are still breastfeeding). Every woman in my department has gotten pregnant in the last 5-6 yrs (which is the extent of my knowledge) has been able to do a chemistry-free rotation, or just focus on chemistry-free project work within the deparment (eg, managing a project, focusing on outsourced projects), and in many cases those rotations ended up being beneficial to their overall career path.

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  2. When I was a grad student an advisor recommended that their grad student have an abortion after announcing the pregnancy.

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  3. I had a colleague in graduate school who gave birth to a baby and still completed her Ph.D. Her advisor was pretty chill guy, and her work had a large computational component - I'm sure that helped. At the large chemical company I work for now, there are procedures in place to help manage risks in pregnancy. Usually, they get assigned a dedicated technologist, and their supervisor and medical work through it. We have lactation support and rooms for such a thing, and our family leave was just extended. We are family friendly here - it's a small town and that's the major draw. I am female, and I don't want offspring, but I liked the programs in place to support families. It means they care about their male and female scientists. Now, there are still injustices, but this is not one of them

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  4. FWIW, it seemed that writing up the thesis was a good time to have a child in my old department. Less bench work, more desk work, and flexible hours. Plus, going into a postdoc may mean turning up the efforts to impress again, and better to have one already then try again after postdoc. (Or after tenure!)

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  5. we all make own choices, knowing full well that fertility decreases as a function of age....


    I don't know that "taking time off to have kids" is any more severe career-wise in chemistry than in law, medicine, or accounting. Not a good thing, but given how poorly the US esteems child bearing, not a surprise (no other major economy treats pregnancy as a "disability" or provide such poor maternity leave). The GOP seems to revere children in the womb, but very much less cares for them once they emerge.

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    1. The GOP doesn't much care for the carrier organism before or after their emergence, either.

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    2. There are plenty of other places on the internet to discuss politics.

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  6. In my big pharma department, the process seems to be 1) tell your supervisor the minute you realize you're pregnant. 2) get discreetly assigned to desk duty. 3) kiss your career growth goodbye. They'll swear up and down they don't discriminate, but I've been watching for >15 years, and darned if I can point to a female bench chemist who has been promoted after taking a maternity break.
    As a result, among the female bench chemists I work with, only ~50% have children, but it's about 80% for the male bench chemists. And the males tend to be younger and less likely to be married than the females.

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  7. I'm going to take the heartless approach here. Our planet is drowning under too many human beings; it's near impossible to find a major problem humanity faces that doesn't have overpopulation as it's core cause.

    Certainly the education and empowerment of women has a beneficial effect of lowering birthrates. But I'll contradict myself by saying that we should dis-empower people from being able to have children in any way we can! What I'm conveniently ignoring is that these types of difficulties will affect the intelligent people who should be breeding, not the ones who shouldn't...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unoMMru4-c0

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    1. There are plenty of other places on the internet to discuss issues of overpopulation.

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  8. One thing that makes addressing infertility even more complicated is that it is difficult to identify which companies offer infertility benefits. At best one can usually find infertility as "benefits not covered" or "other covered services". However "other covered services" can range from diagnostics only to IUI only to complete coverage with IVF but the lifetime maximums and copays can also vary substantially. I very much wonder how we can bring improved transparency and awareness to this important benefit. As many pharmaceutical companies are domiciled in states with mandatory infertility coverage, I can only imagine that benefits cover a wide range - from excellent to none at all.

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  9. In a related topic, life ain't fair.



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    1. Yeah, I know. I keep telling this to all the non-breeder whiners who complain about me getting a half-year off from work and an extra tenure clock year for each spawn. Just because you don't have kids, doesn't mean you should be jealous of my (still quite meager when looking at the next 18 years) benefits.

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  10. Taking time off to have kids is still taking time off. What is the incentive to sacrifice if persons who don't sacrifice get more perks.

    Even thought I can't have babies I'd still like the same paid time off and no career harm.

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  11. "Taking time off to have kids is still taking time off"

    LOL, having kids is time away from work, but it ain't "time off".....

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  12. "It seems to me that marriage and motherhood are at least as socially important as military service." Kathleen Lonsdale

    Motherhood takes a toll - the parental leave should be viewed similarly to military service. It is definitely NOT time off.

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  13. With the help of a man called Dr.Addo I was able to get pregnant though his root and herbs. I'm 47years of age, it was really difficult for me to pregnant though my husband loves me but it was really hurting me not having my own child but after many years I came across Dr.Addo whose email address is ( addosolution@gmail.com ) he gave me Root and herbs and I was pregnant a week after i his help. I'm 7months pregnant now and also I will like to advice everyone looking for help to get pregnant to contact this very man via his email address: ( addosolution@gmail.com )

    Vivian from CANADA

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  14. I found out about my fertility issue (I have a septate uterus, a birth defect) after having lots of "unexplainable" pelvic pain in 2009. They did a pap first which was normal so they did an ultrasound of my uterus and I found out that way. My problem basically means that I have an 80-something percent chance of miscarrying. The cycle you described above sounds exactly like a miscarriage to me! I miscarried a twin (carried in one half of my funky uterus) during my pregnancy and it was the most painful, hormonal, and gory experience I've ever had in my life. If you like you can read about my experience with my uterus, pregnancy, and un-natural birth here: Where You Came From - Birth Story.

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