Thursday, May 30, 2013

Dealing with disappointment

To me, one of the hardest things about being a scientist is dealing with the disappointment of rejected manuscripts, grant proposals and fellowship applications. Not to sound very annoying, but so far my life has been extremely smooth sailing. I was lucky enough to bicycle through high school (a literal translation of a Dutch expression meaning that it wasn’t too hard) and in the home country it’s also not hard to get into college when you’ve finished 6 years of high school. And the ‘prestigious’ Neuroscience Master’s program I went to had just started so you really only had to apply to get in that year (in the years that followed I might not have made the cut with my grades…). In conclusion, I did not have a lot of practice dealing with disappointment.

So the first time I applied for a fellowship at the beginning of my post-doc and it was rejected (without review comments) I cried,in the lab. I was heartbroken and felt really bad about it. Luckily my PI told me that he only got a grant on his fifth try and that made me feel a bit better. After that, 3 more grant/fellowship rejections followed (and a bunch of papers that got rejected). Every time I got a bit better in dealing with the disappointment. Now, I feel sad for a day, and then try to make my application better for the next time. I try to see the strong points that the reviewers point out as much as the weaknesses. Sometimes I let it sit for a couple more days and re-read the review comments.

However, what I still find really hard is anticipating disappointment. Right now, I’m about to hear whether I’m invited for an interview for my home country grant that will guarantee me a job in the home country. I would be ecstatic if I would get invited and heartbroken if I wouldn’t and I find it hard to just sit and wait until I get the email to tell me which it is.

So how do you deal with disappointment? By the way, heavy drinking is not an option when you’re pregnant and/or breastfeeding for most of the duration of your post-doc.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is bed-sharing unsafe?

The other day I read that "Bed-sharing raises cot death (SIDS) risk fivefold". You probably know that we have been co-sleeping (as in bed-sharing) with BlueEyes since he was about 5 months and we might co-sleep with prospective baby from a much earlier age. So I thought "Yikes!" when I read this press release about a study by Carpenter et al. However, there are a number of limitations to this study, which have been nicely summarized by here at This is the summary of ten important variables that have not been included in this paper:
  1. The researchers importantly did not consider whether the bedsharing was planned. Previous research from Venneman (2009) showed no increased risk in planned bedsharing (versus unplanned). This is an incredibly important omission.
  2. The paper did not consider the effects of the mother smoking during pregnancy, only smoking post birth. This is a missing risk factor.
  3. Breastfeeding information is too limited to draw conclusions. No difference has been drawn between frequency and percentage of breastfeeds versus formula feeds for those ‘partially feeding’.
  4. The paper only considered ‘illegal drug use’. Many postnatal mothers (0-12weeks after the birth) are prescribed analgesic medication for related birth induced injuries including but not limited to Caesarean healing, known to have a sedative effect. This was not considered at all.  This is a missing risk factor.
  5. Prematurity was not considered at all. This is a missing risk factor.
  6. Parental exhaustion was not considered at all. Some experts suggest this is considered to be less than 4-5 hours sleep in the past 24 hour period, other experts advise parents to use their instinct. Parental exhaustion naturally impacts on responsive to infant cues. This is a missing risk factor.
  7. The researchers did not examine the effect of maternal (and paternal) obesity. This is a missing risk factor.
  8. No differentiation was made between having one or both parents in the bed and importantly the location of the baby. It is advisable that the mother sleeps in between the father and infant. Equally it was not noted if older siblings were also present in the bed. This is a missing risk factor.
  9. The researchers did not consider fully the impact of alcohol consumption by the father when bedsharing. This is a missing risk factor.
  10. No mention was made of whether parents were aware of the risks of bedsharing and how to minimize these before sharing a bed with their infant.
And to end, here are guidelines for safe co-sleeping from James McKenna's lab website.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On paid parental leave

I have argued before that it would be nice if post-docs would get paid maternity leave. I didn't realize then that this should be the case for the entire workforce. I didn't know that actually the US is one out of 8 countries in the world that do not have paid parental leave.
Here is an interesting infographic on all the benefits that paid parental leave has for both mom, dad and baby:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The part-time paradise

My home country is the country in Europe where most people work part-time. Nearly half of the workforce (both male and female) work part-time (meaning less than 38 hours a week). And if that is broken down for gender you can see that 75% of women work part-time.
Source. I couldn't find this figure in English, but the X-axis shows the percentage of working people, and my homecountry is the longest blue line all the way at the bottom.

You might say: ‘Oh nice, there are so many jobs that people can do part-time and they get to spend more time with their family’. True, but the downside of this is that daycare providers often also work part-time. This means that if you are one of those few mothers that want to work full-time, you will almost certainly put your child in a daycare where it does not have one steady care provider, but different ones for almost every day, making it much harder for your child to form a bond with their care provider. 

And that is not even the worst part of it. Because the reality is that because so many women work part-time, it is almost seen as a crime when you have children and decide to work full-time. Almost no child goes to a daycare 5 days a week, and if you ask if that’s a possibility, the answer we got was:”I guess, if you insist”. I won’t even get started about the judgmental looks and comments from other mothers. It is just not done. 

So can you science part-time? I think you can, because as a matter of fact a couple of my mentors from grad school (both men and women) worked four days a week. Some of them worked 4 times 9 hours (technically full-time but with one day to be home with their kids), others worked 4 ‘regular’ days. I’m not saying that these people did not work at nights and on the weekend, because I’m pretty sure most of them did. And I guess in about a year from now (if all goes well, we get some kind of grant, etc etc) we will try for ourselves. Both Dr. BrownEyes and I are considering working 4 days a week, so that BlueEyes and prospective baby can go to daycare 3 days a week, just like their fellow homecountry kids.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pregnancy and safety in the lab

I do surgeries on rats using isofluorane as anesthetic. This is a gas that the rats breathe in, but because of poor ventilation, the person doing the surgery in our lab also occasionally smells the isofluorane (it has a very distinct smell). When I found out I was pregnant I wasn’t sure if I should still be using isofluorane, so I asked google. Google told me:
Pregnancy Category CIsoflurane has been shown to have a possible anesthetic-related fetotoxic effect in mice when given in doses 6 times the human dose. There are no adequate and well-controlled studies in pregnant women. Isoflurane should be used during pregnancy only if the potential benefit justifies the potential risk to the fetus.”  
Pregnant mice exposed to light doses of isoflurane were found to have an increased frequency of cleft palate, skeletal variations and fetal growth retardation (Mazze et al., 1985). At doses similar to those used in humans, other investigators have not observed teratogenic effects among the offspring of pregnant rats or rabbits treated repeatedly with isoflurane (Kennedy et al., 1977; Mazze et al., 1986). There are no epidemiological studies reporting congenital anomalies in children born to women exposed to isoflurane during pregnancy. Therefore, its risk in human pregnancy remains undetermined.”

Still, from this information I found it very hard to make an informed decision. So I decided not to use isofluorane but instead use injectable anesthesia for my surgeries. The surgeries that I do are also performed under ketamine/xylazine anesthesia, so I think that should be fine. 

However, this whole search for a risk assessment made me realize how hard it is do determine exactly how dangerous something is for you. This is especially important when you’re pregnant (or breastfeeding), but also just for your own health. A friend of mine who also uses isofluorane had her PI tell her when she was pregnant that it was okay for her to use this. I don’t know where the PI found this information, or that ze just really wanted this post-doc to continue her work.

If you ask me, it would be great if there was someone you could ask how dangerous the things are that you encounter on a daily basis in the lab; someone who could tell you what to change when you are pregnant. For radioactivity this is very well documented, but in the lab you encounter so many things for which it is hard to determine the risk using google and common sense. Does this information exist somewhere that I just don’t know about? If not, this should be a thing!

Friday, May 3, 2013

On breastfeeding while pregnant.

Before BlueEyes was born I knew I wanted to give breastfeeding a try, but I didn’t have any particular goals in mind. I first wanted to see how things went and if I could even do it. Shortly after he was born he started nursing and it went surprisingly well. I was very lucky and never really had any problems. No clogged ducts, no mastitis, no nipples that were hurting. It was all smooth sailing. 

Before I had BlueEyes, I thought nursing a toddler, let alone a bigger kid, was a bit weird. I guess it doesn’t help that you rarely see people do it. But your own child becomes a toddler very gradually. So slow that you almost don’t realize that he’s not a little baby anymore. So there is no one day when all of a sudden he is a toddler and you ‘have to’ stop nursing. I’m still breastfeeding BlueEyes, because I really don’t see a good reason not to. What I didn’t realize before is that after about a year you can stop pumping at work, because your breasts slowly turn from milk storage units to milk making units (i.e. you make the most milk during a feeding instead of throughout the day). BlueEyes nurses shortly when we come home from daycare, he nurses (a lot) before he goes to bed, and then when he wakes up at night he nurses to fall back to sleep easily. And he nurses when he’s really upset and angry and when that is really the only way to get him to calm down.

And now I’m pregnant and again, before I had BlueEyes I didn’t even realize that that was a thing: breastfeeding while you’re pregnant. Well, it is. And now you know it too ;-).