Podcast: science while parenting, part 1

Can you be a scientist and parent? Of course! But it's not always easy. This podcast is a conversation with Dr. Ying Diao from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. It's about her research and about how she handles science while parenting.
Podcast: science while parenting, part 1
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Dr. Ying Diao has a stack of awards, a lab and two children. She is at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department. She spoke with me about her research and what it's like to do science while parenting. 

She was in a story I did a long while ago called 'Science while parenting' in Nature Methods. A link is here and here. She is in the story as are others.

When I find the time, I  do podcasts with aspects interviewees tell me. Here, Ying Diao talks about her research, for instance a project focused on wearable electronics for plants with which one can track their growth and well-being. The idea came to her during her pregnancy. She talks about deciding to have children and the reactions of those around her. Among other aspects, she describes which conferences have lactation rooms and which do not. 

You can listen to the podcast right here. And you can also find it on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you get your podcasts. The podcast series is called Conversations with scientists. A transcript is pasted below. 

(Art: J. Jackson, Music: Bubbles by XiMo, licensed from artlist.io)

Transcript of the podcast

Note: These podcasts are produced to be heard. If you can, please tune in. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and there’s a human editor. But a transcript may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Science while parenting 

Ying Diao
There was a moment I clearly remember that we have a jar, that's the shape of a snowman. And then you can open it, and they're fortune cookies in it. And I was just looking at the jar, and it's so cute. And I just felt like I want my baby.

Vivien
That’s Dr. Ying Diao from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She is in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department and she is also affiliated with the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. She is describing the moment she decided to have a child. Science  while parenting is the main focus of today’s podcast and Ying Diao will talk about that. And we will get into a bit of her science and research, too, of course. Hi and welcome to Conversations with scientists, I’m science journalist Vivien Marx. I wrote a story about science and parenting, a link to that is in the show transcript and I just think it’s fun to give you all a listen to some things people said as I reported this story. Stories usually have space constraints and this gives interviewees are bit more time and space. 

Dr Diao studies the molecular assembly process in order to develop sustainable materials and devices that can be used in environmental engineering, energy and healthcare. She and her group have for example developed wearable electronics for plants that record data and track things like growth. She collaborates with NASA and with a colleague at University of Illinois in plant biology and crop science. We will get to that in a bit in this podcast.  She works with different departments on campus but I wondered if she had a home base. 

YIng Diao [1:45]
That is a chemical and biomolecular engineering. That's my home department.

Vivien
I see. And then you then you kind of you you pivot, and you

Ying Diao
diffuse across the campus 

Vivien 
Here we go, diffuse. Yes, of course. 

As an engineer she, as she calls it, diffuses across departments on the campus. She has a stack of awards and I wondered if there was one award she was most proud of. 

Ying Diao
Probably is the MIT Technology Review. 35 und 35. 

Vivien 
35 under 35 is a list compiled by the magazine MIT Technology Review to present 35 innovators under 35 years of age. And the award was given because she developed a printing technique to make flexible solar cells and you could print onto surfaces like windows. What’s special about this feat of  is the way she made it possible for polymers and not silicon to be a solar material. 

I also asked her how to pronounce her name. Regular listeners of this podcast know I always ask this in an attempt to kind of try to sort of get a name pronounced ok. Doesn’t always work but, I try. 

Ying Diao

Ying Diao 

Vivien
Ying Diao?

Ying Diao
Ying Diao

Vivien
The main reason I queried Dr. Diao was to learn  about what it was like for her to do science while parenting. Her children are a bit older now since it takes me ages to process these podcasts. 

Ying Diao
my son is four years old. My daughter is nine month old.

Vivien
I interviewed her a while ago so her children a little older now. I asked how she went about deciding what might be the right time to have a child, given her her busy life as a scientist, her research, professorship and lab group. 

Ying Diao
Yeah, that's a great question. So we had our first child, in my third year as assistant professor. So I think it was not a rational decision.

Vivien  
When is that kind of thing, a rational decision, like, Okay, we're going to mark this down. And we're going to do an Excel chart. And yes, but I do think that sometimes PhD students, and even postdocs are like, No, I can't do this.

I loved that Ying Diao had such a sense of humor about this. I do hear in my interviews that PhD students and post docs as well as faculty sometimes go back and forth on this decision. Their studies, their research are all consuming so there seems to be too little time for children. In her case Ying Diao did her bachelor’s degree at Tsinghua University in China and her Master’s and PhD at MIT, then she was a postdoc at Stanford University and SLAC The Stanford linear Accelerator also called SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. She decided to wait a bit to have children. 

Ying Diao [3:00]
Alright, so yeah, so I think I intentionally did not do it. I mean, to not try to have kids in my PhD or postdoc because I was working my ass off. And then I couldn't think of how I would be able to work if I had a kid. But then, I mean, so, but I think I'm kind of fortunate that I had my first child in my third year because at that time, my lab is already running by myself. Right? So I trained my first two batch of students. I made sure They were treated well. And I also hired a postdoc who can mentor them. And so by the time I was ready for my first child, I think my lab can run without me for a couple of months. So and another thing, as I said, It's not a rational decision, not because it's because that is a emotional decision that I just felt this urge I want, I want my first child, I'm ready for that  ready. And there was a moment, I clearly remember that we have a jar, that's the shape of a snowman. And then you can open it, and they're fortune cookies in it. And I was just looking at the jar, and it's so cute. And I just felt like I want my baby.

Vivien
Did you? Did you already own this jar? Or did you see it like in a store? Or online? Or?

Ying Diao
Oh, yeah, we, I own a jar. But then, at that moment, I looked at it differently. I felt like, oh, it looks so cute. And I really felt this motherly urge that I want my child.

Vivien 
Of course, and I mean, it's also, I mean, it's a it's something that obviously you can do whenever or not, but it's also something that has to be right for you. Right. If you're not ready, then that's something that you have the freedom to decide about. But so when you decided and all the other sorts of things that kind of come together, then the question is, Who do you tell? Do you not tell? Do you wait until somebody says, Oh, it looks like you're eating a lot of cookies? You know? I mean, like.

Ying Diao
Actually, I was very concerned. So I didn't tell tell any of my group members. I was worried that they will be worried that it'll take a lot of time from me and from mentorship. So I think I waited until maybe seventh or eighth month, until it's really, really obvious. I told them the delivery date, so that they can plan accordingly.

Vivien 
It’s tomorrow, and I'm not going to be in the office. But don't worry, I will call you at one to check in on the lab group meeting. Wow, that's great. Well, I think that's understandable, right? Also, because they're looking to you, as you know, that magician that they can always turn to so maybe their first thing is fear. But I would think that some of them are thinking, I want to be a scientist and a parent, right? Whether it's a man or a woman doesn't matter, but they might be kind of figuring out okay, how do I do this?

Ying Diao [3:35]
Yeah, exactly. So but at the time I wasn't able to to look through this lens that I could be a role  model and that. But then it turned out my worry is not complete is not necessary at all, because my my students actually did a baby shower for me, a surprise one. So sweet. That's me. Yeah, that was very sweet. So there was a group meeting and I went into the, to the conference room. And then suddenly, I saw all these gifts on the table. And also they drew these beautiful pictures on the whiteboard. And it was so lovely. And they gave this statistical thermodynamics for babies. And then organic chemistry for babies. They give me these books.

Vivien
There is a Statistical thermodynamics for babies book, oh, my God, but I should probably get that it’s probably like at my level. Well, I see. So they actually really embraced this idea. 

Nice, nice. And I mean, that's also makes it makes you calm or write about. But then, so but then you still have to tell. I don't know, the department chair and maybe other people and colleagues, or did you just say, you know, I'm not going to bother with that in any formal way? I'll just send an email or something.

Ying Diao [4:40]
Ah, yeah, actually, I didn't do anything because I was worried as well. Because in my department, it was, I think, a colleague, a very senior colleague later told me that I was, it was after 120 years that the department has a faculty who gave birth to a child in that department.

Vivien 
Really?

I was wowed when Ying Diao said this. She was the first person to be a mother as a faculty member in 120 years. Of course among her colleagues, others are parents. 

Ying Diao
They have kids, but then I think he was talking about literally giving birth. Basically faculty members giving birth to two kids. 

Vivien
So you’re a trailblazer

Ying Diao
(Laughs)

Vivien
Being a trailblazer is not always an easy position to be in so I wondered about the reactions to her pregnancy she experienced. 

Ying Diao [10:35]
Yeah, some mixed reactions. So the colleagues who had me who have kids, they're really nice. And, and one of my colleague, he asked his wife to show us how she designed a baby room, and what kind of stuff to buy? And oh, that's really sweet. And then she keeps on checking up with me, checking in with me. And, and, but then there are colleagues who do not have kids, their reaction is kind of different. Right? So I think, in a way, I felt like they had to arrange for others to step into to do the departmental service in my absence. 

Vivien
Scientists who become parents face all sorts of situations with their newborn of course but they also have to navigate how their colleagues will react. This is likely never easy. And logistical things have to be arranged such as parental leave. 

In her case both she and her partner took leave. She didn’t teach during her leave. But she did tend to some departmental duties after she went on leave. For example there were qualifying exams for PhD students that she supervised. 

Ying Diao [11:40]
So both of us take my I mean, leaves by then. So it was like no teaching, but then the service, the service still on? So I remember, right after delivery, there was this departmental and then the qualifying exams I'm supposed to serve on but then they had to scramble to find somebody else to do it. And, and those colleagues are not happy.

Vivien 
Most universities in the US and around the world offer parental leave but the options vary of course. 

Ying Diao
There is routine that there is a teaching release, for sure. And also, so the birth, the delivery date, I think, after a week of delivering, and I had to come in to give a talk to prospective students to recruit was brutal.

Vivien
Oh, my gosh, and it wasn't via Zoom, but it was actually in person. Oh,

Ying Diao
Y eah. It wasn't at the time zoom was not a thing, I think.

Vivien
Pre-pandemic if one can remember that phase, which somehow feels like forever ago, it was less common to have video-chats.What has also changed is the way conferences are set up. Many, but certainly not all, let scientists bring their children along. But there tends to not be on-site child care. But sometimes even dedicated lactation rooms are lacking. Here’s Ying Diao

Ying Diao [13:10]
Yeah, varies significantly from meetings to meetings. So for the big meetings, usually now there's at least a lactation room.  I went to American Physical Society meeting. 

Vivien
That's a big one. 

Ying Diao
Yeah, that's a big one that that doesn't actually that doesn't have a lactation room. There is a mother's room, but then in a mother's room, there is no privacy. So there are other parents there and taking their kids. So there is no privacy. You cannot you cannot pump breast milk in that room. 
 
Vivien
That's hard and they're changing diapers or what have you or doing other things. And I see. So that's really that's awkward.

YIng Diao
That one was a weird one. But the other ones are there is indeed lactation room. And I can request access to those. And I think the best one is the Telluride Science Research Center meeting. TS RC. That meeting is quite nice that they arranged for childcare as well.

Vivien 
In general she does not take her children to scientific meetings. 

Ying Diao
Usually I don't tend to bring my like kids. My husband we take turns to make sure we don't overlap while we travel.

Vivien
I wondered as Ying Diao was explaining how she handled her pregnancy and scientific meetings, how having children shapes the way she interacts with her lab members on the subject of parenting. With her graduate students, the subject of having children does not come up but it does arise with with postdoctoral fellows. 

Ying Diao [14:55]
It's very uncommon to have kids in grad school and but recently, my postdoc had his third child rare, so but that when he approached me for salary raise, so I was very understanding, I understand this, and we, you know, we had a good negotiation.

Vivien
Of course, children often can’t sleep because they are teething or sick or restless. That can meana parent gets little to no sleep. How does she handle that when she has to head to the lab that day. Maternity leave, at least in  the US, is quite short. 

Ying Diao [15:30]
 Yeah, it was tough. It was tough, I try to take naps whenever I need to. That's the nice thing about academic,  I have a lot of flexibility and I have my own office. when my first was born, I was constantly sick for maybe one or two years. And it turned out that. So it was also the year I tried to give a lot of talks and go to a lot of conferences to prepare for my tenure. And so I remembered I, there was several times I almost completely lost my voice. And I was still breastfeeding, so I couldn't take any medicine. And so I read, so I figured out all these natural remedies to help maintain my throat, so I can speak.

Vivien
During and right after a pregnancy one has to scale back in the lab. I wondered how the pregnancies and having children has affected her science. As it turns out, it gave her some ideas.  

Ying Diao [16:35]
For these two pregnancies, our publication definitely has gone down, right, the year after the delivery. So there's an obvious dip. But then there was this positive moment that so I was on maternity leave. And then I find I was able to read a lot of papers, because there was no distraction whatsoever. No teaching and no, I didn't have to do service. So I actually had time to read. So I had some new ideas during those times. And even another example is that I had. So I work on printed electronics, basically wearable electronics that one can put out human body. And so when I was pregnant, I had to do all these tests frequently to see the health status of my baby. And, and I realized how cumbersome these devices are.

All these big probes and they're, they're difficult to stay on. And then I have to lie there for like hours every week. And I thought, yeah, we have these wearable pressure sensors and all that t   hat's commercially available. That's really helpful, too.

Vivien
She got some ideas as she looked at the devices used to assess her pregnancy and of course experienced them first hand. The ideas were about better ways to attach sensors to living things, her body and other living things. In her case they started to think about working on sensors for babies and ended up developing sensors for plants.  

Ying Diao [18:15]

We did develop electronics for plants, not directly with babies, but then we pivoted towards plants now to monitor their growth. Wearable electronics for plants. The rhythm of their growth informs on their health status. 

So, so that is the intersection of material science and manufacturing, manufacturing is more like chemical engineering, and plant biology and molecular sciences, like designing molecules  So yeah, basically, we develop materials so that they can grow together with the plants. And we attach them to the plant leaf, and to monitor the how fast the plant is growing under different conditions. And so, so we were able to track the plant growth with very fine details. So it’s similar to if you were to measure your pulse. And so there are fine details of the pulse that can correlate with your health status. Sam for plants that the rhythm of the plant growth actually informs on their health status.

We actually work with a plant biologist called Andrew Leakey, he's in the Plant Biology department, the department head and so he he helped me more on the intellectual brainstorming side of things, but we're about to start a collaboration where we extensively test sorghum or soybeans so that we can study the plant biology questions with these tools. So far we focused on developing tools. But now we we are planning on carrying out experiments to answer plant biology questions.

Vivien
 Ying Diao traverses across those often fields of study that tend to be quite separate. And she’s a mother. We returned to the subject of science while parenting. 

Ying Diao [19:50] 
I think I'm really grateful for having my kids that who, who are I mean, so After having kids, having rejections from about grants or papers felt much less painful. Because I, it really offers about a sense of balance in my life. That before, before, before they're here, I plays well represent. I mean, I just felt my work is wonderful as everything I really need to succeed. And once they're here, I think I'm much more happier, I wouldn't change a thing.

Vivien
She wouldn’t change a thing, that’s important to know on this subject of science while parenting. 

And that was Conversations with scientists. Today’s guest was  Dr. Ying Diao of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. And I wanted to say thank you to Jenna Kurtzweil at the University of Illinois’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology who helped set up this chat with Ying Diao. 
The music in this podcast is Bubbles by XiMo licensed from artlist.io. 
And I just wanted to add because there’s confusion about these things sometimes. The University of Illinois didn’t pay for this podcast and nobody paid to be in this podcast, this is independent journalism that I produce in my livingroom. I’m Vivien Marx, thanks for listening.

A group of colorful children's toys and a teddy bear

(artisteer/ Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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