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Enabling Women to Return to Physics Research Careers

After a couple of years of postdoc-level research, I got married and very shortly afterwards got pregnant. I was super excited that I was going to have a baby. In a few weeks, I was to discover that there was a price to that joyful news.

By Asma Al-Qasimi

In October, iRelaunch shared an article from the University of Rochester NewsCenter about Asma Al-Qasimi, a 2018 recipient of the American Physical Society's M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship enabling women to return to physics research careers. We reached out to Dr. Al-Qasimi to hear more about her relaunch. She graciously shares her story here.

I received all of my university-level education, both undergraduate and graduate, from the University of Toronto in Canada, a world-renowned university that is very rich, rigorous, and intense in its curriculum. What I am trying to say is that they worked me hard! By the time I graduated with a PhD in physics in 2011, I was relatively accomplished in what I wanted to do most, which is research in Optical and Quantum Physics. The papers that I published as a graduate student were getting respectable attention. After a couple of years of postdoc-level research, I got married and very shortly afterwards got pregnant. I was super excited that I was going to have a baby. In a few weeks, I was to discover that there was a price to that joyful news. My morning sickness kicked in, and it was really bad.

Although initially I resisted being put on medication, I had no choice when it became obvious that I could not continue in this state. These medications, although they helped a little bit, did not solve my problems completely and had side effects associated with them; I was no longer focused enough to be able to drive safely. Naturally, this also affected my productivity at work, and I was really embarrassed about my situation, especially that most pregnant women I have encountered in my life have been able to maintain their productivity during their pregnancies. I was, then, forced to make the decision to put my career on hold so that I can have kids and take care of them while they were still very young.

Although there was no question in my mind that the decision to give my kids priority over continuing my career, without interruptions, was the right one to make, I was feeling unfulfilled intellectually. The mention of my scientific achievements before the break brought me no satisfaction, but instead reminded me of what I used to be like. I thought that, by choosing my kids over my research, it demonstrated to the scientific community that I do not care about science and am not passionate enough about it, which, of course, is exactly the opposite of how I felt like.

As it got closer to the end of the three-year break, I approached my supervisor about resuming research, expecting him to not want to work with me (because I decided to opt for the career break). Then, I was pleasantly surprised by him saying that he was looking forward to working with me again! I realized, then, that he did not judge me badly for the decision to become a mother. I also realized that scientists are human too, despite the serious face they have with their single-mindedness in talking about research most of the time. I wish I had not worried so much during the break about being misjudged about my true love and desire to do research. My advice to anybody who finds themselves in this position is not to worry; life throws responsibilities at us that can delay us a little bit, but if we had worked hard and proved that we can do it when we had the chance, that will carry a lot of weight when we want to resume in the path that we so much want to continue in taking.

At some point, after I resumed my work at the University of Rochester, the funding issue came up, and I looked everywhere and could only find one fellowship that I was eligible to apply for, the M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship. This is a fellowship, given by the American Physical Society, that supports re-entry of women physicists back into research after having had to interrupt their career. I applied for it and waited. The day the results were due, I was feeling tense: if I win it, I continue in what I so much want to do. If not, I have to give it up! When I was told that I won it, it felt like I came back to life again. I did not have to give it up!

I cannot describe how grateful and happy I am for this opportunity. It feels so nice to be back at work, asking new questions and spending time to learn and think to find the answers. It feels like the old good days, except for one thing: having to take care of two toddlers as well! Although it gives me less time outside work to do work (yes, that’s what physicists do if they can get away with it: no break!), they are such a pleasure to have in my life, so I have no complaints. It also taught me that time is something not to take for granted, so if I were to go back in time to when I was a student and during my early postdoctoral years, I would tell myself to appreciate all the time that I had on my hands! My husband is also a physicist, and we are both understanding of the responsibilities we both have at work, so that really helps when one of us needs that extra time to get something done, while the other takes care of the kids, and, like with all children, it is becoming easier and more interesting as they grow!

Click here for more information about the M. Hildred Blewett Fellowship. Other STEM-related research re-entry programs include the National Institutes of Health Research Supplements to Promote Re-Entry into Research Careers and the National Science Foundation Re-entry to Active Research Program (RARE).

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