Work-Parenting Stories


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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.”

Traci Neilsen

My nonlinear career path as a mother acoustician

written February 2020

I was born when my parents were very young.   My mom dropped out of college to take care of me while Dad continued to get his Bachelor’s degree in Physics at Utah State University.  My mom devoted most of her time and energy to me, and subsequently to my five siblings, while my dad became an Air Force pilot and then a prestigious test pilot.  While supporting my dad in his career, my mom dedicated her life to teaching us, taking care of us, helping us explore the world, and showing by her example how to serve others.  When the youngest child was in school, my mom went to college part time and received her degree—something she had always wanted to do.

With this background, I always wanted to have a family and do the stay-at-home mom things that my mom had done.  With my mom’s encouragement, I also knew I had to finish my degree. As I went to college, however, I became aware of the potential conflict between trying to pursue an education and have the same amount of time with children as my mom had with me.  I did not know how it would work out.

I married during my first year of graduate school in Physics (Dec 1994) and was pregnant most of the third year (1996-97). While pregnant, I defended my Ph.D. prospectus on my computational underwater acoustics project and wondered if I should write up the research I’d done and stop with a Master’s degree.   The end of my pregnancy included taking final exams when I could barely squeeze my stomach into the desk, then six weeks of bed rest, getting a computer to work from home, a very supportive husband, and understanding research advisor.  In June 1997, our daughter was born. 

Although most newborns primarily sleep and nurse, she didn’t want to do either of those things.  The first weeks were very difficult, and I was very overwhelmed feeling like I would never be able to do anything again other than try to feed the baby and get her to sleep.  I remembered going to a lactation specialist and just sobbing from exhaustion as she tried to be encouraging.  I don’t remember what I told her, but I distinctly remember one of her comments: “If they want more women in science, they need to find a way to allow flexibility for mothers with young children.”  At the time it seemed like a nice thought, but I was not sure what would happen with my life.

With time, things smoothed out.  I told my colleagues at work that now I was only master of my schedule to “the first approximation” because all the details in the “higher-order terms” were controlled by the baby.  Nevertheless, I found that it was still possible for me to proceed with my Ph.D. program.  I could make progress on my computational research project from home. My husband’s grad school schedule was flexible enough that he could be with our daughter while I took my last class and met with my advisor and other colleagues.  My husband graduated (Aug 1999) a year before me and began a postdoctoral research position at the same university.  Slowly but steadily, I finished the research, wrote the dissertation and graduated (May 2000).  I didn’t know what would come next.

The Applied Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), where I worked as a graduate student, had a considerable number of women scientists and engineers.  Although they were not my direct research advisors, these women provided role models for me.  At the time, the UT system provided health benefits to everyone employed 20 hours a week.  This rule was not only great for graduate students but also made it easier for some of the women to choose to reduce their hours when their children were young, without loss of benefits, and then return to full-time status.  Some of the women had worked full-time their entire careers, but others had cut back to part-time status when they felt the need to have more time with their children.  I explain this because I believe it laid the foundation for the offer I received for a part-time postdoctoral position.

I was quite astounded by this offer.  I didn’t know there could be such a thing as a part-time postdoc. I did know that I did not want to work full-time.  I was enjoying the time I had with my daughter, the long walks and talks, pushing the swings at the park, etc.  I was also pregnant again. But perhaps this part-time post-doc could work. I gratefully accepted the position and, to this day, continue to thank those who made it possible.

Our son was born six months into my postdoc (Jan 2001).  My understanding advisor allowed me to take time off and flexibility to begin working again as I could handle it.  Two years into my postdoctoral position, we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (July 2002) when my husband accepted his second postdoctoral position at Louisiana State University.  My advisor allowed me to telecommute about 10 hours/week to finish my project.  Then I started as a research scientist on a different project telecommuting and had our third child (March 2003).

When my husband finished his second postdoc, he was hired as a faculty member at Brigham Young University (BYU).  When we moved to Utah (August 2004), our children were 1 ½, 3 ½, and 7 years old.  Life was very busy.  I was asked if I wanted to teach a class at BYU.  This began a few years of teaching 1-2 classes a year, with the MWF morning schedule of drop of eldest at elementary school, drop of middle child at preschool, take youngest to campus and have a friend entertain her for an hour, then pick up the youngest and middle child and a few hours later the eldest.   I finished the telecommuting project and took a break from research just teaching a few classes each year as an adjunct professor during this busy time of life.

A few years later, when my youngest went to school, I spoke with the other BYU acoustics professors about perhaps supplementing the teaching by getting involved in research again.  None of them were doing underwater acoustics research, but they did have some funded projects that needed work done.  I began to learn about jet noise and slowly began contributing and then helping to mentor students on research.  For almost a decade, I worked as an adjunct instructor and part-time, soft-money researcher—another thing I couldn’t have imagined existed.

When my youngest was in ninth grade, BYU posted a physics faculty position opening (October 2017).  My husband and I did not have some grand master plan that I would apply for full-time faculty when our youngest child was in high school, but I received a strong impression that I should apply for this job.  It turned out to be the best possible year to apply. Although only one job was posted, a subsequent retirement announcement and a posting to NSF allowed for three new professors to be hired: One of them was me.

Since May 2018, I have been a full-time faculty member.  With this position, I need to show I can be the PI and lead research.  I have returned to my underwater acoustics roots.  My post-doc advisor asked me to collaborate with him and others in the underwater acoustics community have welcomed me back.  My first graduate students have been amazing, and our research is rolling along.

I attribute my ability to return to underwater acoustics research to my continued participation in the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).  For most of the past 20 years, I was able to attend at least one ASA meeting a year. Members who knew me when I was a student would check in with me and see how life was going.  They encouraged me and included me as part of the society even when I was only able to keep one toe in.  I have cherished the mentoring I have received from ASA members over the years and the friendships I have made.  I am grateful to have a professional home that has accepted me and allowed me to contribute as I have pursued my unusual career path.

When I pause long enough to think about how my life has unfolded, I am still surprised.   I didn’t know if I would need to stop my education when my children were born. I didn’t know if there was a way to work as a scientist part-time while raising my children.  I didn’t know what would come next.  We just took it one decision at a time.  At the birth of each child and as each opportunity arose, my husband and I prayerfully considered what to do.  Along the way I have been encouraged and assisted by many great mentors, students, and friends.

Life as a new faculty member is very busy.  I am amazed by those who are at this point in their career while having young children.  I applaud all who are doing their best to find harmony between their careers and their families.  I use the word harmony instead of balance intentionally.  Balance seems to imply that all the pieces are in one perfect arrangement—an unstable equilibrium—and that the slightest nudge will send all the pieces flying.  I like to think about work-family harmony instead because harmonies come in many varieties.  So many harmonies are beautiful as are all families. Harmonies ebb and flow just as our family and work responsibilities change over time.  Harmony is something that can come incrementally and is easier to find on some days than others.  I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story. I hope to encourage everyone to do the best they can, to find things that work, to see if they can allow flexibility, and to take it one step at a time as they strive to enjoy the journey. 

Lauren Ronsse

written January 2020

My story begins when I was in graduate school.  I was pursuing a PhD in architectural engineering with an emphasis in acoustics.  I was very dedicated to school, research, service in the professional world, and I was enjoying my work.  During this time, I went on my first date with my later-to-be husband, and he clearly recalls me stating that I was very happy with my professional life and future career and did not plan to have kids.  That was that.  (Note: A friend of mine also recalls this was my state of mind, so it must be true, although I now do not remember ever not wanting to have kids.  It’s funny how kids really do change everything.)  I also had a strong female role model in graduate school (my advisor, Dr. Lily Wang) who had kids while pursuing a professional career in acoustics.  She managed to be actively engaged in her children’s lives, work full-time, advance her career, and engage in leadership positions in professional societies.  It was inspiring to have her as a role model, and I thought there was no reason I should not do the same if I ever had kids. 

I finished grad school, got engaged to be married, took a postdoc doing acoustics research, and started applying for assistant professor positions in acoustics.  This was the plan, and everything was going well.

I finished my postdoc, got married, and started a tenure-track assistant professor position in acoustics.  I was enjoying my work: my students, my teaching, my research, my leadership in professional societies, and I was on-track to achieve tenure at my institution.  I was enjoying life in downtown Chicago: the operas, Broadway shows, ballets, restaurants, live music, the walking commute.  This was the plan, and everything was going well. 

Then, I had my first child in March of 2016.  This changed everything.  Suddenly, my life priorities changed and my vision for my future changed.  I finished the spring semester of work after my maternity leave, and I realized that I needed to spend more time with my son.  I could not work full-time while raising a baby.  I wanted more time with him.  I asked my institution for an extended leave of absence for the following fall semester to accommodate this, and I planned to return to work full-time the following spring.  They complied.  This was not the plan.  But I would soon return to the plan, so no worries.

While I was on my leave of absence, I temporarily relocated to Omaha for reasons related to my husband’s job and our extended family.  I was a full-time stay-at-home mom during this time.  As the time neared for us to return to Chicago (and for me to return to work full-time), we made the decision not to go back.  I was not ready to return to full-time work yet (I needed still more time with my son), my husband’s job no longer allowed him the flexibility to return to Chicago, and we needed to be close to family for a myriad of reasons.  This was not the plan, and this was the hardest decision I had made in my professional career to date.  I knew that I wanted more time with my son than a full-time job would allow, but I did not know what the next steps would be for me professionally (which was tough!).

During this time, I was still active with my leadership position as the Chair of the ASA Women in Acoustics Committee.  Dr. Traci Neilsen and others on the committee were very supportive and encouraged me to do what I thought was best for me and my family during this time.  This was very helpful and affirming for me, and it gave me some comfort to see others who had followed similar paths.

After a while, I felt something was missing.  I wanted to return to my career in acoustics, but I also wanted to continue spending time caring for my son, so I explored a variety of options.  I started working part-time as a Collaborating Consultant with an acoustical consulting firm and as an Industry Fellow, teaching acoustics classes, for the University of Nebraska.  Working part-time provided the perfect balance for me.  I had the time I needed to bond with my son and the professional engagement and interaction I needed to live-out my passion for acoustics.  This still was not the plan, but everything was going very well.

I had another baby boy in November 2018.  I anticipated that I would want ample time with him following his birth, so I made plans to return to life as a full-time stay-at-home mom for a while after he was born.  I returned to work part-time when he was nine-months old.  I am still working part-time while raising my two boys.  Life is busy, and I love it.  

A few lessons learned:

Be flexible.  If you discover that you want to spend more time with your children than a full-time work schedule will allow, do it.  If you want to pursue a professional career while having children, do it.  Be creative and open to professional opportunities that will allow you the flexibility you want or need as a parent.  These opportunities may not be as obvious or widely available, but they do exist, and the trouble it is to find them is worth it.  Seek out and find the right balance for you.  Find others who are pursuing or who have pursued a similar path and talk to them to find out what worked well and what didn’t.  There may (read will) be some trial and error along the way.  My life is so much fuller and more fulfilled with children than I could have ever imagined – they are the loves of my life, and they are worth it.    

Evgenia Zablotskaya

written January 2020

The beauty of life is the many roles we reflect upon ourselves. We begin as the children of our own parents, and then become students, working for the career that we desire. Once our education is over, we begin our career. And at some point, if the universe chooses to bless us with our own family and children, we take on the role of a partner and parent. Many of us who have gotten the pleasure of a career and raising a family understand the struggle that can come with balancing both. I’ve experienced this, in a country that provided meager support compared to the United States. 

I have two daughters, both of whom were born when my education was already completed and my career in physics and acoustics had already begun. In Russia, particularly at this time, there was little to no child-care available, so my mother was a supportive figure at this time, providing care for my first daughter. When my second daughter was born, she was cared for by my first, as my mother had passed away by this time. My husband, Yuri, was by my side from the beginning, and we founded our family together from the start. In Russia at this time, women were often discriminated against when working in science and having children certainly didn’t help this situation. Nonetheless, I persevered, continuing my work through the scrutiny I faced. A pressure that was certainly relevant through the years of having children and working was the difficulty of balancing both. This is never easy and can’t be made easy. It is made doable only through the support of your employer, family, and friends. In today’s world, especially in the United States, the attitude towards mothers and women in science has become a lot more tolerant, and that is an incredible improvement. However, maternity, as well as paternity leave, should be made more accessible and not be seen as a hindrance towards success in a scientific career. I’m forever grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and the joy I experienced both in my professional life, and my personal life, with my wonderful husband, and two beautiful, incredible daughters.