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Professor sets up a crib in office for grad student's baby

"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.

Professor sets up a crib in office for grad student's baby
Cover Image Source: Twitter/Troy Littleton

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.


"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.


"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."


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!!!!"






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."






"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."


"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."

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