Family Matters

When Patricia Gregg received an e-mail invitation from first lady Michelle Obama asking for her social security number, she assumed it was a scam. But on September 26, Gregg found herself at a White House event shaking hands with the First Lady herself. Gregg sat in the second row as one of 14 select scientists and a group of industry and university leaders that filled the room. The event, put on the National Science Foundation (NSF), was held to promote a new initiative encouraging up and coming scientists to take time off for family matters.

Patricia Gregg and Subra Suresh, Director of the National Science Foundation, at the White House announcement of the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative” on September 26, 2011. Gregg was invited to the White House as one of 14 outstanding early scientists. Not only was Gregg’s science being honored; her request for a no-cost extension of her Postdoctoral Fellowship for maternity leave was the catalyst for the NSF policy changes that now provide better flexibility for scientists and their families. (Photo: The White House)

Moreover, unbeknownst to her at the time, Gregg laid the groundwork for the event. The post-doctoral geologist at Oregon State University was the first scientist to apply for an extension of an NSF postdoctoral fellowship in order to start a family.

In 2008, Gregg earned a Ph.D. from MIT and had just begun an NSF fellowship at Columbia University with Prof. Roger Buck, a geologist she had long admired. But just as her research program began, her life took another turn: She discovered she was pregnant. With her husband working across the nation at OSU and a baby on its way, Gregg had a decision to make.

“Either it works out or I leave academics,” Gregg said later. “Am I going to be a mom, or am I going to be a scientist?”

While this ultimatum may seem excessive, Gregg says it is a common mentality among many female scientists. Taking a year off creates a gap in your resume, something noticed by employers.

“As a scientist you are assessed by how productive you are, how many papers you get out, how many proposals you get funded. And I have a year where I have an awesome little girl, but no major products,” Gregg adds.

Nationally, the desire to have children or to advance other personal goals may contribute to the relative lack of women in professional science careers. A study by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that women hold a mere 24% of the total STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs, and while women earn 41% of STEM Ph.D.s, only 28% of those continue on to become tenure-track faculty in higher education.

While at Columbia, Gregg discovered she could take a no-cost extension for up to a year. A call to her NSF program director, however, revealed that Gregg was the first to ever apply under this provision. When NSF granted the extension, she was also able to move her fellowship to OSU where she had already established research connections with geologist Shan de Silva.

New NSF Initiative

During this time, her NSF program director contacted other NSF program heads to discuss ways to encourage more scientists to follow Gregg’s path. Word quickly spread until NSF Director Subra Suresh got excited about the project, and Michelle Obama joined the cause. At the September conference, NSF announced the Career-Life Balance Initiative that provides greater flexibility for both female and male scientists. Policies include the ability to suspend or postpone grant funding for family matters such as birth or a sick parent, and the opportunity to receive extra money for lab technicians to maintain the lab while the scientist is on leave.

“No one should be forced to choose between caring for their family and losing their job. No employer should lose a quality employee just because life happens,” Michelle Obama said during the event.

Back at OSU, Gregg began her new postdoc position working with de Silva studying how volcanoes erupt and how the underlying principles apply to other planets. In October, their work was presented at the Geological Society of America conference in Minneapolis, Minn.

With the new NSF support, Gregg hopes to see more scientists — both men and women — take time off and focus on their families without risk to their research careers. While continuing her work, she also educates elementary school students about the importance of geology through Skype conference calls.

“It’s good for the kids to see that a scientist isn’t just a white man in a white lab coat,” Gregg said.

While this is an important lesson for young students, NSF hopes to make it an important issue for scientists of all ages.

See a video of the Sept. 26 White House event.

Gregg is a post-doctoral scientist in the College of Earth, Oceans and Atmospheric Sciences.