Sharing the caring: marine ecologist Dr Rasa Morkūnė

Photo from Dr Morkūnė’s personal archive.

What is the nature of your work?

I’m working as a researcher at Marine Research Institute of Klaipeda University which is located at the Baltic Sea coast in Lithuania. Our institute is male-dominated as it is common in the field of marine ecology. However, I know it only from statistics – it is not really felt at everyday work and communication with colleagues.

Career as a researcher.

I defended my PhD thesis in Ecology and Environmental Science 2 years ago at the same university where I work now. My PhD studies were extended due to my maternity leave which is normally 2-3 years in Lithuania. As common in the life of researchers, during the maternity leave, I really did my best in continuing to collect samples, preparing them for analysis and analysing results. Also, I tried to find time to write manuscripts while having a small kid and being mostly at home. My son did not sleep outside from a very early age; I tried to keep him awake during the hours we spent outside and put him to sleep at home. It saved me an hour to work on writing or to read. Does it sound possible? Well, sometimes it was. However, like other moms, I had too many things to do besides research at that time. However, I still remember that contradiction inside when being with the kid and getting the results from the stable isotope lab at the same time, which I was really curious about (nice things, aren’t they?).

Please describe your family commitments.

My husband also works as a researcher at the same institute as me. Additionally, he has other work in another institution. When we created our family, we both were PhD students and we both had quite stressful moments, responsibilities and problems related to our activities, but also a success. I think our son knows a lot about labs, field sampling, observations and conferences. Even if we do not explain things directly to him, he listens and collects information by himself.

Waterbird Survey in the Curonian Lagoon. Photo from Dr Morkūnė’s personal archive.

When our child was younger, his regular sick periods were a challenge for us. Sometimes I was really stuck at home for these long periods when my husband could not replace me at home. Theoretically, at home, I could do data analysis, read publications or write manuscripts, however, people with children know that it doesn’t really work like this. During long periods of our kid’s sickness, we felt tired, sometimes were sick ourselves too…

Still, at the moment we are doing well. Just I am wondering about life when our son starts school (from upcoming autumn 2019). I understand that life will be even more focused around his schedule because his “job” will not be flexible as it was at kindergarten.

What has helped you?

Fortunately, my parents live at the same city as us, so we have their help with childcare, mostly a day during the weekend or for few hours in the evening of working days if it is needed (my mom works full time). Where did I go when my kid was still a baby and I had some free time? Mostly I was going to work because I always had a possibility to come to my office and work, even in late evenings or weekends. During longer leave periods, I think this is really important to have a personal or shared work table. It really helped to continue research, be effective in writing, finish and defend my PhD thesis.

When our kid started kindergarten, our everyday life became organised from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, as scientists, we have to travel for several days. For a few years, me and my husband really tried to synchronise our work travels and not to go away in the same week. If one of us is away, the other one stays with our son. When we both are away (we have a maximum one trip per year together, but many separated trips), one of the grandparents takes care of our kid. However, we try to minimise help from grandparents as it consumes their short vacation time.

Dr Morkūnė and her son in Stockholm. Photo from Dr Morkūnė’s personal archive.

What has hindered you?

During my maternity leave (which, remember, is quite long in Lithuania), at some point, I stopped to receive common work emails and that is not really fair. Even when I came back to work, it took some time to get to the same informative stage. So, I think science institutions should keep colleagues (students or researchers, fathers or moms) informed about work stuff even if they cannot come at regular basis for each scientific seminar etc., but they should feel like a part of the scientific community. Maybe in countries, where parental leave is short, this aspect is not as important or it may not be relevant for senior scientists, but in countries with longer leaves, it is important, especially for young scientists. Mums or fathers have some free time at home, which could be used to read the news, watch TV, check Facebook. However, it could be used to read scientific papers, check emails, read about interesting seminars and try to attend some of them even if the arrangements are at the same extent as a trip to the Moon.

How do you balance your work and family commitments?

Sometimes relatives who live in countryside help to take care of our son when we need it. Fortunately, my son likes to stay with them, also he loves staying with grandparents. We are really lucky that our son is very understanding about our travels and duties or scientific wishes at work, which sometimes occupy our evenings, weekends or vacation time. Our son just needs to know in advance with whom he will stay. It seems that he is like us – takes all opportunities and challenges. 

When it is possible, we take him together with us. For example, he visited me at a longer internship. Just before going to trips and sometimes between subsequent working trips, I try to spend more time with my son. Explanation of what we are doing, where and why also helps to communicate with him and prepare for some temporal changes in his life.

Dr Morkūnė’s young nature lover and bird observer in the Nemunas delta. Photo from Dr Morkūnė’s personal archive.

Is there anything else that you would like to share on this topic?

At the institute, we have some kids who come here every day. In the summertime, the number of kids coming at least for few hours increases.  Seeing these kids running around and also my kid caring some toys from home just in order to have what to play with for few hours at the office, I suggested the idea to have a corner with toys. I emailed all colleagues who had kids at that time and suggested to bring some toys from home and leave them at one board located in the corridor. Now we have some toys there. Sometimes I see these kids playing around but actually most of the time they still spend at parent’s office, preparing homework (hopefully!), talking to each other, building castles from chairs, or playing on tablets or mobile phones. I think if that “kids’ corner” would be cosier, it would attract and keep kids busy and happy for these few hours.

I am happy that the director and colleagues kept this “office of toys” idea and understand that it is needed; pity, it wasn’t organised earlier and now these toys are just at the corridor. Anyway, this “kids’ corner” might be useful for PhD students or scientists who are taking care of the kids at that moment but want sometimes to come for seminars or meetings.

Childcare at conferences and meetings would be good too. It is not so difficult to arrange, especially for large project meetings. Sometimes childcare is the only possibility for some researchers with smaller kids to attend a meeting.

Photo from Dr Morkūnė’s personal archive.