Children on fieldwork: how two scientist mothers made it happen

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Indigenous mother Rosalia Gomez with her child in Santa Victoria Este, Argentina, where the authors worked in May 2022.Credit: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty

Fieldwork can be a nightmare of logistics. Nobody would increase the burden by taking their children along — would they? We did just that, embarking on a four-day field campaign in a remote village with our three children, all under four. Not only did it work out, but we recommend it.

We met in 2015, when we worked in the same laboratory at the University of Buenos Aires. Both of us are biologists: V.L.L. is an ecotoxicologist and M.L.L. studies the ecology of shallow lakes.

We’ve both also been involved in other projects. M.L.S. has worked on a study of drinking-water quality in neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires for the past 15 years. V.L.L. has worked with rural and Indigenous communities as part of the Argentinian arm of the international organization Vía Campesina. We’ve formed a strong friendship and enjoyed holidays together with our partners before we became mothers.

We supported each other in our shared desire to embrace motherhood as working scientists, which posed certain challenges. In 2019, M.L.S. began a three-month internship at Michigan State University in East Lansing, and her partner, Fede, took on full-time caring responsibilities for their six-month-old daughter, Maite, when the family moved to the United States. At the same time, V.L.L. relocated to Salta, Argentina — 1,490 kilometres from Buenos Aires — to live with her partner, Nacho, when their daughter, Julia, was just two months old.

Family trip

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we applied for funding to combine our scientific interests. The idea was to collaborate on the quality of drinkable water available to Indigenous and rural populations in Santa Victoria Este, a remote area of northern Argentina, bordering Bolivia and Paraguay. Santa Victoria Este encompasses approximately 6,430 square kilometres and is home to around 7,000 families, from the Wichí, Chorote, Toba, Chulupi and Tapiete communities. The zone is very arid, with little rain, so access to safe drinking water is a huge problem. This is probably one of the reasons for the infant death rate in the area — among the highest in the country.

Beyond our scientific and social interests, we were personally motivated to find a way to ease tensions between motherhood and our scientific careers. The project involved a four-day research trip to the area. V.L.L. was still breastfeeding her second daughter — now one year old — and was committed to nursing throughout. For both of us, it was our first time so far from home since the children were born. So when the project was approved, we agreed with the rest of the team that we would embark on the trip as an extended family, with two little girls and a baby. Any scientific campaign requires teamwork; in this case, our daughters and husbands would be part of it.

There were challenges. Our partners had to take leave from their jobs, for example. And Santa Victoria Este has a precarious health-care system and the potential for extreme temperatures. We felt guilty about exposing our daughters to possible risks, both on the journey and during our stay. The pandemic had heightened everyone’s fears. We took all the precautions we could, from using secure child seats on the journey to preparing a fully stocked first-aid kit.

Despite the complexities involved, one driving force for both of us is the belief that our daughters will be happier if their mothers pursue their aspirations. We want to give them the message that they should chase their dreams and never feel limited by being women or having children. We also believe that, even though our children were very young at the time, living through such an adventure with their mothers was a valuable life experience.

Toddlers on tour

Finally, in May 2022, M.L.S., Fede and Maite flew from Buenos Aires to Salta, where they met up with the rest of the team. We spent two days finalizing our plans with the other team members. The care of the girls was included in the planning: we needed to make some adjustments to ensure the baby’s breastfeeding, as well as provide activities to keep the children entertained and happy. Slightly behind schedule owing to the unpredictability of family life, we loaded specially equipped car seats into the van, along with a tablet, toys, books, pencils, children’s music and other essentials. We also made sure to pack nappies, cleaning wipes and other necessary equipment for the baby. With everything in place, we embarked on an 8-hour drive. We planned stops to eat, use the toilet and stretch our legs. Fortunately, our children became friends, and played a lot during the long trip.

Once on site, we worked with the whole team to take water samples at various locations. During the fieldwork, the children stayed in the village with their parents, playing among themselves, although Julia — then aged four and the oldest among them — joined us on some occasions. Before setting off, we had collaborated closely with local team members to establish a laboratory, providing the communities with the resources to conduct microbiological and chemical analyses of the water. Besides the results of the campaign, which provided valuable information about the drinking water, we anticipated establishing a local monitoring system. The communities of Santa Victoria Este have been organizing themselves to address their challenges. In 2020, they achieved a landmark victory when an international court ruled that the national government is obligated to ensure the restitution of lands to Indigenous communities, along with access to safe water and other rights. This historic ruling presents an important opportunity for us to support the local people’s empowerment and autonomy by providing them with equipment and training to monitor the water quality periodically.

Motherhood and science

Our experience fortified our conviction that it is possible to navigate the roles of mother and scientist committed to societal welfare simultaneously. We honed our ability to overcome obstacles, innovated effective solutions and, above all, relied on the unwavering support of our families and dedicated team as a real safety net. It was crucial that our partners acted as the main carers during the trip, and that the rest of the team was flexible and patient about our need to adjust plans during travel. This gave us the confidence to carry forward this ambitious project.

Having the girls with us undoubtedly caused more tiredness (mental and physical), but the experience and lessons we gathered were very positive. Nothing we had done before could compare. For V.L.L., it was a relief to be able to continue breastfeeding, because neither she nor her daughter desired to end it prematurely.

We hope that our story serves as an inspiration for other women in the scientific community, motivating them to pursue their professional aspirations while finding meaningful ways to meet the demands of motherhood. In this way, we can propel scientific progress, and foster the well-being of the communities we endeavour to serve.

Source: Resources -

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