EU network of mesocosms facilities for research on marine and freshwater ecosystems open for global collaboration.

Joining AQUACOSM TA 2018 mesocosm experiments at the CNRS-MARBEC MEDIMEER while pregnant and later with a newborn baby

Katharina Bading, PhD student, Department of Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, Norway

Back in fall 2017, I was excited that our MIWA user group application for the AQUACOSM Transnational Access program was granted so that our NTNU team was able to join the WARMPLANK mesocosm project (lead by Behzad Mostajir) on “Effects of warming on the Mediterranean plankton food web functioning” at the CNRS-MARBEC MEDIMEER mesocosm facility in Sète, Southern France. Two experimental mesocosm rounds were planned – one in April and the other in October 2018. The research focus of our MIWA user group under the lead of Nicole Aberle Malzahn was to investigate potential changes in microzooplankton dynamics and to run additional side experiments investigating the trophic link between microzooplankton and larval fish. The plan was that I would be able to integrate the anticipated results as a chapter in my PhD thesis.

However, life is sometimes hard to predict. So – just a few weeks later – I found out that I was pregnant and that the due date would fall right between the spring and the fall mesocosm experiments. Despite this sudden but great prospect of becoming a mother, I was also filled with worries regarding how to be able to still join the mesocosm experiments but also regarding the general course of my PhD and my career development in general. Of course, family planning becomes a topic for many female researchers at some point during their career but it felt like that choosing to get a child while you are doing your PhD is implicitly not desired in many cases. More specifically, it was hard to imagine myself being six to seven months into pregnancy while being actively involved in physically demanding experiments and later again when being a mother of a just few months old baby without too much stress involved.

To my great relief, the project leader Behzad Mostajir and the entire WARMPLANK research team offered great support and flexibility so that it was easy for me to participate in both mesocosm rounds. During the mesocosm experiment in spring, the practical work was physically quite demanding and time-consuming so that I was relying on receiving additional manpower in order to run the additionally planned larval fish experiments. Luckily, my analytical work during the experiments involved no long or direct exposure to toxic substances. Another lucky aspect was that I was not too late in my pregnancy so that I was physically still very fit and agile.

Regarding the mesocosm experiment in the fall, it was a bit harder to predict what would be possible and what not since babies can be very different in their temperament and needs. Furthermore, I could also not be sure how fit I would be by then – especially since I was expecting a chronic deficit of sleep due to the baby. Luckily, the CNRS-MARBEC MEDIMEER team was able to book a whole apartment with more than one sleeping room. This made it possible for me to ask close family members to take turns in visiting me in Sète so that they could babysit right on-site where I worked. This way, I was able to help with the daily mesocosm sampling and to focus on microzooplankton species identification and quantification at the microscope. In between, I could take small breaks to breastfeed and to look after the baby.

I was indeed very lucky that the two WARMPLANK research stays in Sète turned out so great. Thanks to all the people who helped me for realizing these experiences! Finally, I would like to encourage all female scientists – especially at PhD and PostDoc level – to try to continue your research activities even during challenging times like becoming a mother.

Left: Katharina Bading, second left person in the picture, during WARMPLANK experiment at CNRS-MARBEC MEDIMEER mesocosm facility in spring 2018 (@T. Trombetta).

Right: The father of Katharina as a babysitter in the office rooms at CNRS-MARBEC MEDIMEER in Sète while Katharina is working (@B.Mostajir).