The Cunninghams live in student housing, and the on-campus day-care center was shut down during the pandemic. They didn’t have relatives living nearby who could pitch in. Steve Cunningham taught his middle-school math classes online and could usually care for Katie while his wife was doing research in the lab, but there were times when he had to attend meetings.
“It really was a little stressful to have the world shut down in the middle of our pregnancy, then give birth knowing we were going on this big adventure without all of the infrastructure we needed,” said Karen Cunningham, 29.
Fortunately for the Cunninghams, somebody stepped up in early May to help.
Karen Cunningham’s biology lab professor, Troy Littleton, thought perhaps Katie could spend some time in the lab, so he asked the other nine graduate students who work with Cunningham whether they’d like to help him buy a travel crib for her.
“When we have new fathers or mothers in the lab, we usually have a baby shower and everyone pitches in on a gift,” Littleton said. “We couldn’t have a shower for Karen due to the pandemic, but we all agreed that a portable crib would be the perfect gift.”
Once everyone who worked in the lab had received their coronavirus vaccinations, he told Cunningham she could set up the crib in his office so she’d have a safe place for her daughter to nap or play while she was in the lab.
“Child care in any profession is a challenge, but in science, it can even be more challenging,” said Littleton, 54, who has an adult son and has taught at MIT for 21 years. “Experiments don’t always fit a 9-to-5 schedule. It just made sense for Karen to bring Katie in.”
On May 7, Littleton posted a photo of his new office arrangement on Twitter, along with a caption:
“My favorite new equipment purchase for the lab — a travel crib to go in my office so my graduate student can bring her 9-month old little girl to work when necessary and I get to play with her while her mom gets some work done,” he wrote. “Win-win!!”
Littleton said he was shocked the next time he checked Twitter.
“I’ve posted probably 70 tweets in my entire life,” he said. “I put this one out on Friday, and when I came back on Monday, it had 9 million views. I was really glad that it sparked a discussion about how to create more family-friendly working environments.”
Hundreds of people have chimed in:
“As a graduate with a 9 month old who is still on the waitlist for daycare I can’t afford: thank you,” one new mom commented.
“You sir, are a feminist. This is how equality happens,” a woman from Canada wrote.
“For the win! Fantastic!” added a man who is a scientist from Maine.
Lack of affordable child care, closed schools and lost jobs during the pandemic have helped to expose a frustrating problem faced more often by women than men, Littleton said.
“A graduate student on my team makes about $40,000 a year,” he added. “When 50 percent of that salary goes toward housing and 80 percent toward child care, the math simply doesn’t add up.”
Cunningham said she considers herself fortunate because her husband can generally handle parenting duties and online teaching while she’s doing research for her PhD. Cunningham is in her last year as a graduate student researching synapses — the way neurons in the nervous system communicate with one another.
“It’s wonderful that we can switch off, but there are still times when we need another option for an hour or two,” she said.
“What Troy has done is like a little warm spot in a mess of unaffordable child care and inadequate parental leave in our country,” she added. “I can set Katie down for a bit and talk to her while I do a few things, and that means a lot.”
Cunningham always knew she wanted to start a family while in graduate school, she said. She and her husband have been together for 10 years, ever since they met as undergraduates at the University of Minnesota.
“My parents are both university chemists, so my sister and I always had an example of how it was possible to balance a career with having children,” she said.
Still, she knew it would be a challenge to juggle caring for a newborn while completing the final year of her graduate program.
“I didn’t know anyone who’d had a baby in grad school,” she said. “Having to make that choice is driving a lot of women out of science. I honestly felt like I was bushwhacking, but I really wanted a child.”
Cunningham said she’d like to see more subsidized day-care options for graduate students who choose to have children.
Steve Cunningham agrees and said he’s thrilled that his wife and her professor have helped start a conversation about some of the systemic issues that new mothers face in the workplace.
“The barriers against having babies early in a career in academia contributes to the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership in science, and we really need to fix that as a community,” he said. “If we lose the women from science, we’re losing half of our best scientists.”
Littleton said he enjoys interacting with Katie (and watching her on occasion) when her mother brings her to the office.
“She’s a little ball of energy who points to everything and says, ‘Dat!’ ” he said. “Nobody is disturbed if she cries a bit, and everyone likes to play with her. Having a baby around is a good thing.”
Katie isn’t allowed in certain areas of the lab and is never left alone, Karen Cunningham said.
Now 11 months, her daughter will start day care this fall, and she shows a curiosity that might be useful in the field of science someday, her mother said.
“She’s very happy, independent and active, and she’s interested in the world,” Karen Cunningham said. “I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
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