Dr. Ilene Busch-Vishniac
From interview 1/22/2020
Ilene Busch-Vishniac married Ethan Vishniac when she was 21 years old. Both pursued graduate degrees and became tenure-track faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They waited to have children until they were both secure in their careers and able to financially support children. Ilene found out she received tenure three days before her first child was born. Ilene applied for tenure (a year early) when she was pregnant but was concerned that signs of her pregnancy might negatively impact the tenure decision. However, she was granted tenure three days before her first child was born.
At the time, no process existed for dealing with child-bearing women professors: no paid maternity leave and no way to stop the tenure clock. Her first daughter was born right after the end of Fall term–students in her class had a poll going to guess the delivery date. To allow more time off than just the holiday break, she worked out a deal for the next semester with a colleague who was scheduled to teach the same class: He taught both two sections the first half of semester, and then Ilene taught both sections the second half. This arrangement gave her a few months of unofficial “maternity leave” and worked well for both students and the faculty. Ilene appreciated the extra time at home with her newborn and was able to hire full-time caregiver 5 days/week when she returned to work. Her second daughter was born during the summer, when she was not teaching class and was able to make the occasional meeting with her research students.
Ilene worked very hard with Teresa Sullivan to change things for parent faculty at UT Austin. They came up with proposals for what appropriate maternity leave would look like, including a “stop-the-clock” plan for men and women for family reasons (child and elderly care).
As her daughters got older, they enrolled in a daycare center, and once they were in school, scheduling became easier because of the afterschool programs. Ilene recalls, “The stress when kids are young is all the energy you must devote. The physical stamina required to keep up is incredible.” However, Ilene remembers that the most stressful period with her children was not when they were young, but during the pre-teen and teen years where they needed more help and she couldn’t arrange to be there. Both her girls went through very tough times: “Middle school is horrible time period for all students, especially girls. Like entering a tunnel. If there are mental health or developmental issues, they tend to begin manifesting during this time.” Ilene, who was a dean at the time, found it difficult to be expected to be out of the house 3-4 nights/week during dinner knowing that they would have benefited from her presence. “I stuck it out as long as I could,” she recalls. “I didn’t sleep a lot and had a wonky schedule. I finally stepped out of the deanship to have more time. I had to decide between my academic/administrative career and my family; I made the decision I thought was best for my family.”
To Ilene, ASA feels like a family. She recalls attending an ASA meeting when she received the Lindsay award with her young daughters in attendance. She remembers being up on stage being presented with the award while her husband was sitting with the girls in the audience. By the time the intro and initial thanks were over, one daughter had escaped and climbed up on stage. Ilene calmly said, “don’t worry, this one is with me.” She also recalls swapping child care with Jim West, a long-term colleague, at ASA meetings. In Ilene’s current job, she now reports to his daughter, Ellington. Ellington talks about how many “moms” she has–those who move mountains to make sure she’s safe and things are going well.
Ilene says she has been blessed by the ability to make a couple transitions in career that have allowed her to appreciate the full breadth of what ASA members experience, as a student, an academic, and now working in industry. She has a newfound appreciation for NAAC because they have to earn their keep all the time, and for companies that make acoustical equipment because it’s a very different atmosphere. Now, late in her career, Ilene is finally not writing papers but making devices to save people’s lives. She is grateful to work with really talented people to detect pneumonia and TB early enough to save patients. This effort takes work to a different level. Her team recently won the MIT SOLVE Tiger Challenge for Bangladesh (out of 500-600 applications) for the development of a respiratory device that can monitor, record, upload, and classify lung sounds. These devices are being used in Bangladesh, Malawi, Peru, Baltimore, Antwerp, etc.
What helped you most as a parent acoustician? “The most important thing in parenting is having a supportive partner. I was very lucky. Ethan and I are both academics. He was very supportive, which was very helpful.”
What do you wish you’d known? “The familial system is ever evolving. My kids are now 34 and 31 years old. Every year my relationship with each of them changes a bit. No matter how things are going now, it might be completely different 5 years from now.”
What advice would you give to acousticians currently planning a family in terms of balancing work and parenting?
Work always expands to fill all available time and comes without the same biological boundaries as family. At any point you can postpone a promotion or a move, but there is a limit to the time you can postpone having a family.
“Many think you have a kid and how the kid ends up depends primarily on how you behave as a parent. But I have seen many examples to the contrary on both sides. There are limitations to the influence a parent has.”
“Regardless of what’s going on, the most important thing is to love your kids and that they know and feel that you love them. Be vigilant and watchful for problems as they arise and seek help and intervention as needed.”
What remains to be done to improve the situation for parents now?
“Back when my kids were born, there was a concern that peers would look down on you and there was no opportunity to slow down your career. It is changing. Today, more people are in the same position. There are only 7 days a week and 24 hours a week, and we should not be working every minute. It is ok/important to take time for important family and health things. When I started my career, people worried about absentee-ism, but now many are more worried about present-ism: coming to work sick, not working up to par, and infecting others.”
“The US is horrible by comparison with every other country in terms of paid time off for new parents or elderly care or disabilities. Matching what happens in the rest of the world would be extremely useful. Some concrete steps or improving things for working parents are to set a more reasonable expectation than the work 24/7 model, make it more expected that it is ok to preserve family time, and train managers and bosses to be more careful about when they send emails to respect time that employees don’t have to be working.”
Dr. Busch-Vishniac is the Women in Acoustics 2019 Spring Luncheon Honoree. Ilene is also highlighted in the Acoustics Today article, Work-Parenting Harmony.