A tweet from an MIT professor went viral when he revealed he was watching one of his student’s babies while she worked on her P.hD.
Troy Littleton was not expecting the response he got, saying that he was no hero – it was his student, Karen Cunningham.
When Karen Cunningham got pregnant, she didn’t plan on raising her baby in the midst of a pandemic.
She also knew that it would be a difficult task to balance her newborn baby with her research duties as a biology graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.
When the pandemic hit, she and her husband, Steve, had to try to manage their 2 jobs alongside the needs of their daughter, Katie, who was born July 6th.
Karen, Steve, and baby Katie Cunningham lived in student housing and the on-campus day-care center was shut down during the pandemic.
They didn’t have any relatives nearby who could assist and while Steve could look after Katie while doing online math classes for his middle-schoolers, there were days where it just wasn’t possible as Steve had to attend meetings.
“It really was a little stressful to have the world shut down in the middle of our pregnancy, then give birth knowing we were going on this big adventure without all of the infrastructures we needed,” said Karen.
Fortunately for them, somebody unexpected decided to step up and help them out.
Karen’s biology lab professor, Troy Littleton, thought baby Katie could spend some time with the class in the lab and asked if the other 9 graduate students in Karen’s class would like to pitch in for a travel crib.
“When we have new fathers or mothers in the lab, we usually have a baby shower, and everyone pitches in on a gift,” Littleton said, “We couldn’t have a shower for Karen due to the pandemic, but we all agreed that a portable crib would be the perfect gift.”
After the class received their coronavirus vaccinations, Katie was able to spend time hanging out with Littleton in his office where they set up the crib so she’d be safe to nap or play while Karen was in the lab.
On May 7th, Littleton posted his new office arrangement on Twitter.
“Child care in any profession is a challenge, but in science, it can even be more challenging,” said Littleton, who has an adult son and has taught at MIT for twenty-one years.
“Experiments don’t always fit a 9-to-5 schedule. It just made sense for Karen to bring Katie in.”
Littleton admitted that he really enjoys watching Katie and interacting with her when she is in his office.
“She’s a little ball of energy who points to everything and says, ‘Dat!’ ” he said, “Nobody is disturbed if she cries a bit, and everyone likes to play with her. Having a baby around is a good thing.”
But don’t worry, Katie isn’t allowed in certain areas of the lab and is never left alone, Karen assured.
However, Littleton admitted that he wasn’t expecting the response he received.
“I’ve posted probably seventy tweets in my entire life,” he said, “I put this one out on Friday, and when I came back on Monday, it had 9 million views. I was really glad that it sparked a discussion about how to create more family-friendly working environments.”
Karen said she considers herself very fortunate because her husband can still handle Katie and online teaching while she’s doing research for her Ph.D.
“It’s wonderful that we can switch off, but there are still times when we need another option for an hour or two,” she said.
Cunningham is in her last year as a graduate student researching synapses — the way neurons in the nervous system communicate with one another.
“What Troy has done is like a little warm spot in a mess of unaffordable child care and inadequate parental leave in our country,” she added.
Karen and Steve had always known they’d have started a family while she was in graduate school, she explained. They have been together for 10 years, ever since meeting as undergraduates at the University of Minnesota.
“My parents are both university chemists, so my sister and I always had an example of how it was possible to balance a career with having children,” she said. Though she was always well aware of the difficulties she would face raising a baby while completing the final year of her graduate program.
“I didn’t know anyone who’d had a baby in grad school. Having to make that choice is driving a lot of women out of science. I honestly felt like I was bushwhacking, but I really wanted a child.”
Karen said there is a need for more options for graduate students who choose to have children.
“The barriers against having babies early in a career in academia contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership in science, and we really need to fix that as a community,” he said, “If we lose the women from science, we’re losing half of our best scientists,” her husband Steve agreed.
He said that while he’s thrilled Littleton did this for his wife, there needs to be more conversation surrounding the systematic issues new mothers face in the workplace.