"It's always a challenge [being a parent while in graduate school] so anything you can do in a lab to facilitate and help out, we try," he explained.
A Massachusetts professor recently set off an online conversation about the struggles working mothers face and what can be done to make it easier for them to balance their parenting duties without sacrificing their careers. Dr. Troy Littleton, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, unwittingly sparked the important discussion on Twitter earlier this month when he shared a thoughtful arrangement he had set up in his office for a grad student's 10-month-old daughter. According to Good Morning America, Littleton — who runs a research lab at the college — put a travel crib in his lab's office to help new mom Karen Cunningham bring her infant Katie to work when necessary.
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. Win-win!! pic.twitter.com/1R7QKprOLr— Troy Littleton (@JTroyLittleton) May 7, 2021
"Usually in non-pandemic times we always have baby showers for expectant mothers and fathers where we give them gifts and we weren't able to do that with Karen because of the pandemic, so this was sort of the lab gift for Karen, 10 months later," Littleton explained. "It's always a challenge [being a parent while in graduate school] so anything you can do in a lab to facilitate and help out, we try." The professor tweeted a photo of the crib in his office when Cunningham brought Katie to the lab for the first time recently and it went viral in no time as many working parents showered him with messages of appreciation.
Well that little tweet blew up?!? However, I wish people were able to spot the real hero here. It's the graduate student mom, not me. She's amazing to do all she has to with her daughter and still keep up her thesis project research. Happy Mother’s Day to all – they deserve it!— Troy Littleton (@JTroyLittleton) May 9, 2021
"The tweet came from just being delighted to be able to see Katie for the first time and to have the opportunity on occasion, when Karen wants to bring her in, to be able to play with her a little bit," said Littleton. "That was the genesis of the tweet, not from any idea it was going to create this large discussion about the challenges mothers face in the workplace. But I'm glad it had that effect because we need to be solving these issues, both in academia and on a broader level as well. It's highlighted that this is a really important issue for our community."
Finally got to play with my graduate student Karen's little daughter Katie. What a delight! pic.twitter.com/8dOYuIWipL— Troy Littleton (@JTroyLittleton) April 29, 2021
Littleton revealed that since tweeting the photo of the crib, he has received many messages from his peers in the research field on how they can also better support working mothers. "This is fantastic. I'm going to do that too when a lab baby arrives," wrote one commenter, while another tweeted: "So much better than when I was told to bring my baby in a backpack and put the backpack on the floor while I did experiments with carcinogenic agents. Thank you for being you!!" A third commenter wrote: "A [principal investigator] that sees his members as human instead of machine... Thank you for this!! It made my day!!!!"
As a graduate student with a 9 month old who is still on the wait list for daycare I can't afford: thank you.— Elizabeth Roepke (@elizabethroepke) May 8, 2021
While my wife was a law student @ Kent Law School in Chicago, two of her professors gave me their office keys, so I could entertain our daughter, who was born during her second year. I drove my wife to class. Amazing educators.— Steve Cihak (@SteveCihak) May 21, 2021
Clearly, you are cut from that bolt of cloth.
Still a postdoc, but will definitely be doing this if I ever make it to your side of the desk! Well done!— Priyan Weerappuli (@PWeerappuli) May 8, 2021
Cunningham explained that while MIT does offer resources for working mothers, Littleton's efforts to provide a backup, safe place for Katie has been extremely helpful. She added that her husband — who according to the graduate student, plays a very active and engaged role in their daughter's childcare — will be staying home with Katie until she is ready to start daycare in the fall. "There's the solid, focused six to eight hours of work that you wouldn't want to bring a baby in for, but then there's the lab errands that you do here and there and that's when it's really useful," said Cunningham, who researches synapses. "I can put Katie down and just go do something quick and I can see her and talk to her and she can nap in there. It's great."
This is beautiful! And thanks for thinking of me, @mrsveciii. We need more work places like this that consider caretaking as a healthy & necessary part of an adult worklife, not a distraction from it. Love this!!!— Anne Hofmann (@profannehof) May 9, 2021
This portacot image has made my day. It is so NOT hard if you care to think of inclusive solutions. 🤔👏🏼👏🏼— Melissa Petrakis (@MelPetrakis) May 13, 2021
Endless, useless lectures don't bring more women in science. We need real, practical solutions, like yours. Great lesson for me. Thank you very much for sharing this.— Vahid Abdollah (@vahid_abdollah) May 8, 2021
"One of the reasons I picked MIT was because I got a really positive response from the biology department when I brought up the fact that I was definitely going to want to have a baby during grad school," she added. "I was thinking about that the whole time." The support from Littleton has been particularly meaningful for Cunningham and her husband since they've had to navigate parenthood mostly without the support of their friends and family due to the pandemic. "The first year of being a parent is hard and it's helpful to have a lot of support," Cunningham said. "I think during the pandemic parents have been isolated from a lot of their support so [the crib] is definitely an add-on and a really wonderful one."
Karen and Katie's crib made it to NBC Boston News -- Katie is the cutest 10 month old movie star I know! pic.twitter.com/LlHO5GzKyO— Troy Littleton (@JTroyLittleton) May 21, 2021
"I think it's really easy to look at the systemic challenges facing parents and moms in our country… and kind of throw up your hands and be like, 'Well it's huge. I can't fix that,'" she added. "But then these sort of local ways that people in positions of power can protect parents against the systemic things, like what Troy's been doing in creating a really supportive and inclusive lab, I think that does make a really big difference and it's great to have an example of that."