‘Lifesaver’ program helps Science faculty members balance research and real life

Image of Kristen Bell standing with her arms folded in the middle of gym equipment

Assistant professor and new parent Kirsten Bell talks about the Life Events Support Program, which helps faculty members keep their labs running while on leave.

Launching a research group is exciting and exhausting. Starting a family takes excitement and exhaustion to a whole other level.

Kirsten Bell is doing both at once with some help from the Faculty of Science.

“Getting a lab up and running is hard,” says Bell, an assistant professor in the department of Kinesiology. “There’s a ton of pressure to publish, bring on graduate students and secure funding so you can get tenure. That’s a lot to hold in your head even without a baby.”

But the challenges with starting a lab are familiar, she says. “You know more or less what to expect.”

That’s not the case for first-time parents. Bell gave birth to her daughter — Eimear Elizabeth Bell Palmer — in August. It’s been a leap into the unknown.

“With a new baby, all your routines are blown out of the water. Your time and your body are no longer your own. And you have this constant undercurrent of anxiety associated with trying to keep a tiny human alive.”

Bell put off starting a family while she completed her PhD at Mac and a four-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Waterloo.

“I know some people choose to start a family during graduate school or as a postdoc. That didn’t feel like an option for me,” she says.

“As a grad student, I was entirely focused on work. Starting a family wasn’t on my radar. As a postdoc, things felt way too precarious from a financial standpoint. More than anything, I wanted to maintain momentum and secure a permanent job. Deciding to start a family and step ‘out of the game’ as a postdoc didn’t feel like the right decision for me.”

Bell landed that permanent job when she returned to McMaster as a faculty member in January 2022. By September of that year, her lab — which explores how fat impacts the body’s ability to handle blood sugar — was up and running. She hired her first graduate student and welcomed her first group of senior thesis undergraduates.

She also secured her first three grants to fund her research — a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery grant with a Discovery Launch supplement, a Canada Foundation for Innovation John R. Evans Leaders Fund grant and an Ontario Centre of Innovation Collaborate 2 Commercialize grant.

When she started her parental leave in August 2023, Bell was supervising two masters students, two research placement students, a research assistant and two volunteers. Research was in full swing. Hitting pause for a year wasn’t an option.

But Bell was able to hand over her lab to postdoctoral fellow James McKendry, thanks to the Faculty of Science’s Life Events Support program.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” says Bell. The Life Events Support program funds a dedicated research position while faculty members are on parental, short-term, medical and other types of leaves. Faculty members like Bell, who are on a full-year parental leave, can receive up to 15 months of support.

“James has done a fantastic job helping with the day-to-day running of my lab. I feel so much better knowing that my students have someone on the ground who they can go to with questions and help with data collection, wet lab work, writing and everything else that happens in a lab. I can’t imagine being on leave without a senior trainee like James leading my lab.”

The Life Events Support program was among the early initiatives that Dean Maureen MacDonald introduced following her appointment as the first woman to lead the Faculty of Science in 2017.

MacDonald knew how badly it was needed: She had three sons while running her research lab.

“That’s when I discovered there was no reduction in either the research or in the expectations around graduate student supervision while faculty were on parental leaves,” she says.

“Back when I was a new parent, it wasn’t possible for someone to take over the day-to-day operations in my lab. I wound up bringing my infants into the lab on more days than I care to remember. Two of my sons were with me in the lab a week after they were born.“

While the financial challenges facing postsecondary institutions in Ontario is forcing the Faculty of Science to rein in expenses, investing in the Life Events Support program will continue, MacDonald says.

“It’s important that we support our faculty colleagues while they’re on leave, whether it’s because they’re a new parent, they’re caring for a loved one or they need to care for themselves.”

Along with the Life Events Support program, Bell says she’s grateful for her support system on the home front: “My husband is a wonderful and super hands-on father and my parents live in Dundas. If I need an hour or two to really just think and get some work done, I know there are people I love and trust to look after my daughter.”

Bell wishes someone had warned her how much extra time it would take to get that work done or how long it would take before the new parent brain fog lifted.

“Everything takes exponentially longer than you think it will. A routine task that would’ve normally take me an hour to do can before I had my daughter somehow now takes a whole week to accomplish.”

While she’s on parental leave, Bell says it still feels like she’s working part-time. “For the first four to six weeks after Eimear’s birth, I didn’t think about work. But I don’t know if it’s possible for any academic to truly leave her work completely while she’s on a parental leave. There’s always some work that has to be done. People tell you to turn off work and soak up every moment with your baby. But it’s hard to live in the moment in your personal life while being hyper-aware of the timelines and deadlines in your professional life.”

Bell continues to meet virtually with her grad students one-on-one every few weeks, along with monthly research group meetings. “My mentorship style is quite hands-on and I feel a responsibility to my grad students to keep their degrees progressing. Part of me wishes I could completely leave work but I love my job so part of me is happy to keep one foot in the door.”

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