USC Stem Cell junior faculty balance babies with biomedical research

Senta Georgia, Assistant Professor, Endocrinology and Metabolism, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Pediatrics, and Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, USC

Growing stem cells isn’t just something junior faculty do in the lab. Eight of the junior faculty in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine recently welcomed new babies into their families-more than half of them within the past year. Here, our junior faculty parents share their joy and wisdom about balancing career and family.

Who’s in your family?

Four children! My oldest is my daughter Nola. She’s eight, and my son Felton is six. My daughter Alexandra is three, and I have a newborn, Marshall. I had my son Felton two months before I became an assistant professor, and I had the youngest two kids while I’ve been an assistant professor. My husband is a lawyer, and he works for a law firm, and he has law firm hours. Both of us have pretty demanding careers.

How do you balance work and family life?

The most important thing is our support network. And so I have a babysitter, who is just a friend of mine’s mom, and she has taken care of all of my kids from the time I finished maternity leave and went back to work until they were ready for preschool at two-and-a-half years old.

So I’ve been really lucky to be able to keep them in a home environment with just one person, who’s really like a grandmother to them, because my parents aren’t here, and my husband’s parents aren’t here.

We also have an afternoon nanny, and so that person starts working for our family at 3 p.m. and picks my kids up from the bus stop. She takes them home, gets some lunch, does homework with them, takes them to whatever activities they have, picks up my daughter from preschool, makes sure everybody takes a bath and such. The hard stuff of the day is done, so I can spend quality time with them between 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. when they go to bed. And that’s really the only way that this ship keeps sailing!

What do you wish you had known before you started?

You should think about what you’re going to do, but you still just have to do it. Don’t get paralyzed by the possibilities. If you want to have kids, you have kids. If you don’t want to have kids, don’t have kids. Allow yourself the freedom to change your mind. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do and design your whole life such that it all fits. And so my goal is to master the moment. From 8:30 in the morning to about 5:15 p.m., I am the master of my lab. Monday through Friday from 5:15 to about 9:15 p.m., I have to be the master of my home. And then in that time after, before I try to sleep, I try to have a relationship with other adults. And so I just try to design my life to work.

Min Yu, Richard N. Merkin Assistant Professor, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

My husband and I moved here when I became faculty in February of 2014. My son Nathan was born in May 2016.

How do you balance work and family life?

I try my best to be more efficient at work, and get up early in the morning to catch up on work, so I can spend some time with my family during the weekend.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

I would have kids much earlier! It is busy once you have a growing family, but it is a lot of fun. But having a small baby is difficult for faculty to plan travel easily. So maybe having a baby earlier would have been a bit helpful.

Rong Lu, Richard N. Merkin Assistant Professor, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Biomedical Engineering, Medicine

I became a junior faculty member at USC in January 2014. My husband and I married when we were in graduate school, but I gave birth to my daughter in September 2014 and my son in March 2017. We are currently a family of four!

How do you balance work and family life?

To achieve some sort of balance, I try to reduce my standards on relatively unimportant things, and I outsource the house/lab work on the less critical parts. For example, I don’t have time to cook. I eat at Keck Hospital café or order restaurant food. I don’t have time to keep the house neat. I hire people to do the gardening and clean the house periodically. I don’t have time to keep an eye on the daily running of the lab. I hire a lab manager to train people and help me keep the lab running. All these are to save my time for important things, such as spending time with my kids when they are little, helping lab members at the critical stages of their projects, etc.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

I wish I had known how much work the two kids require. Maybe if their ages were a little further apart, then family life could be less challenging.

Zhongwei Li, Assistant Professor, Medicine, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

I joined USC in September 2017. I got married to my wife Jingying Yu in 2012, and we just had our first baby boy, Nelson Li, in February 2019.

How do you balance work and family life?

I think it is difficult to balance work and family life. Usually, it is just a sacrifice of one for the other, depending on which one has the priority, case by case. I am glad to have a very supportive wife who takes care of a lot of home duties for our family, so I can put more effort in my work. I also feel that the flexibility of time, being a PI, helps balance work and family life. We can work at home sometimes if we need to be at home with some home duties, such as babysitting. In this case, work and family life are balanced very well.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

Everything looks good. I would do the same if had a chance to do it over again.

Megan McCain, Assistant Professor, Biomedical Engineering, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

I began my faculty appointment in January 2014, married my husband Leo in March 2017, and gave birth to my son Clayton in July 2018.

How do you balance work and family life?

It is really hard! I have a lot less time at work than I used to, so I am forced to say “no” more to ensure that I have enough time for research and teaching, and to manage my stress. I also have to spend more time carefully backwards-planning from deadlines, because I don’t have the same flexibility to stay late at work if I fall behind. I also have to rely on my postdocs and students to be more independent now, which is probably good for them in the long-term anyways. Whenever I have an invitation to travel, I also have to decide if it is a really important trip and make sure my husband is able to take care of Clayton, since my husband also works full-time.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

When I came back from maternity leave, I felt overwhelmed and a little lost! When I was pregnant, I did a lot to prepare for leaving for maternity leave, but I didn’t prepare for what I would do when I returned. I wish I had set up some achievable tasks for myself during that time so that I had more direction when I came back to work.

Giorgia Quadrato, Assistant Professor, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

My family is composed of three people now: my husband Sergio, and my daughter Matilda. I started working at USC in this department in June 2018, and then after two months, I had my baby.

How do you balance work and family life?

There is no such thing as balance. It’s a matter of coping with the pressure of doing both. But the most important thing to succeed and keep some sanity as a mom in science is having a supportive partner. And the daycare close by definitely helps. I also feel quite supported in the institute. There are many other faculty with kids, so I feel that everybody understands what I’m going through. I also tried to assemble a team of people that I trust in my lab, and being able to delegate is very helpful. And then, one just needs to accept that you cannot be perfect at pretty much anything anymore!

What do you wish you had known before you started?

Somehow, I thought that the first months would be kind of slow when you start the lab. But I mean, it’s overwhelming at the beginning. So I don’t know if there could have been a better time to start a family. Maybe there is never a better time. I thought it was going to be probably easier. But at the end of the day, maybe it’s better not knowing. Otherwise, you may end up waiting forever!

Michael Bonaguidi, Assistant Professor, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

I got married during graduate school. My first child was born towards the end of my postdoc, so I was basically on the job market when he was a year old. Fun times! We had our second son about two years after starting at USC. The older one is Xavier, and the younger is Adrien.

My wife Marika and I both work full time, so the kids are in daycare during the day. But then we have family time nearly every day from about 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. And unless there’s something that’s absolutely urgent that I need to deal with, everything’s blocked out.

How do you balance work and family life?

There’s an interesting article about the four “burners” of life. It’s essentially saying that there is no such thing as perfect work-life balance. So one burner is work, one burner family, third burner is your own health, and the fourth your friends. And to really be successful in life, you can really have two burners going at any one time. I try to balance my life by having two burners go strong, and I divide it up by week. And so I know certain weeks I’ll be able, for example, to do better exercising while traveling, but maybe I don’t spend quite as much time on work. Or a week after that, I see my family more, and I don’t really see my friends at all. I try to rotate those burners or oscillate them, and a lot of it just depends on the priorities for that period of time.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

Being faculty here, you have to prioritize, because there are so many different things that are thrown your way that there’s no way to do it all. And so it’s essentially saying that I have limits, realizing what my limits are, and working to the strengths. Efficiency is delegating, prioritizing and improving your productivity.

Leonardo Morsut, Assistant Professor, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

I got married in 2009 when I was a graduate student in Italy, and then we moved to San Francisco in 2012 for my postdoc. And in 2013, we had Gabriele in San Francisco. And then in 2017, I started here at USC as an assistant professor, and we had Aurora that summer.

How do you balance work and family life?

The money component is kind of critical, as with different amounts of money, you can get different lengths of care of different quality. So I’m grateful that we have the resources to pick what we think is the best. So Gabriele goes to pre-school and is starting kindergarten next summer, and we have a nanny that comes to our place for Aurora. I feel like we have good people taking care of them. So knowing that they are with people that are helping them-even better than I could do-that’s important, and then that allows me to be focused on the job.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

It’s like life. I mean, you can post-rationalize about everything. But there’s nothing that I don’t like about the situation as it is right now.

Amy Ryan (Firth), Assistant Professor, Medicine, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine

I joined USC in January 2016, so I have been a tenure-track assistant professor for a little over 3 years now. To say life has changed over the past 3 years may be an understatement! I got engaged and married Dan in August 2017. We bought our first home in December 2017 in anticipation of extending our family, which shortly followed with the birth of our baby girl Madelyn Annie on Independence Day 2018! Life is changing every day.

How do you balance work and family life?

I have always prided myself on having a healthy work life balance. Dan and I are both avid athletes: in fact, we met while training for triathlons. Having cycling, running, hiking, swimming, climbing and any other adventurous outdoor activities leaves us with no shortage of ways to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle while spending time together. Since having Maddi, priorities have changed a little!

Balancing being a PI and running my own lab with a healthy family life has definitely become more and more challenging. I often have to spend time on evenings and weekends writing grants or reviewing manuscripts and chatting to collaborators. I am incredibly lucky to have the most amazing husband, who stays home to raise Maddi. I miss her when I am not home, but I am able to come to work and focus, knowing she is in the best hands; he is a fantastic father to her.

Time management is key to trying to maintain balance. One thing that has helped tremendously is commuting to USC by train. This gives me an hour of travel time in each direction to have quiet time to get as much “busy” work done as possible. This frees up time at work for interacting with my research team.

What do you wish you had known before you started?

I attended seminars and courses about the transition to PI. Nothing can quite prepare you. Mastering the art of science is possibly the easiest part of the transition for a postdoc; networking, business, finance, management, travel and teaching are all essential things we are less prepared for, especially all at once!

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