Meet Dr. Maria Martignoni, a mathematical biologist advocating for a better work-life balance in academia!

Long story short, I am a postdoctoral fellow in mathematical biology, and I have five children, ranging in age from one to nine years old. Two of them were born before my PhD, two of them were born during my PhD and my youngest was born during my postdoc. It is not hard to imagine why when talking about ‘work-life balance’ I find it difficult to unambiguously identify my ‘work’ and my ‘life’, and if being a balanced person means flawless rationality and stability, then I am probably not one, as I never sat down to reflect thoughtfully about what it could mean to take care of such a large family while simultaneously starting my career.

After my master, I just knew that I was ready to have children, and once I did, I realized that I wanted to study too, so I went back to academia, where I felt I belonged. Eventually, I had more children, but I kept walking my way through comprehensive and candidacy exams and, at the same time, through hours of diapers change and baby talks. I held on to my two passions, blaming myself for not having been able to let one or the other go, and fearing the judgments of colleagues and of other parents. ‘How do you do it?’ was the most common commentary. I just shrugged and lowered my eyes, timidly, unconsciously feeling that there was something intrinsically wrong in pursuing a university degree with young children.

One day, a colleague commented on the fact that I was wearing unmatched socks in the office. ‘That’s how I do it’, I said to myself. I wear unmatched socks, put salt in the tea, find my keys in the refrigerator, forget my youngest in the car seat, and regularly burn cooking spoons, when I am trying to listen to my kid, mentally check my lab results, and decide how much salt to put in the sauce all at the same time. I do all this, and more, but on top of everything, I also get my job done, and I get it done right. I know the literature, I do the stats, I meet deadlines (would it cost me the entire night!), I go for family walks, and I sing lullabies. The truth is, I like the life I am living, and day after day it is becoming increasingly clear that my research benefits from a happy and gratifying personal life, and vice versa.

Time is finite, and investing more hours in data analysis or baby feeding will inevitably mean having less time for other activities. To me, it didn’t need to be a sacrifice. I do not want to spend half an hour of my day trying to sort out the mess of colorful socks that remains on the bottom of my laundry basket. I know what is important for me, and give up something else first. It just requires a bit of reorganization, and a powerful side effect of having little time to work is that one acquires impressive time management skills.

I can think about my research while cleaning the floor, while washing dishes and (mum’s the word) even while pushing my child on the swing. Thanks to my family, I learned to work extremely efficiently and remain focused, appreciating every minute of the  time I have got for fulfilling my personal ambitions. Overall, what I long for is to have abundant quality time at work and at home, such that on Fridays I am excited about taking the weekend off, as much as I am happy to restart my morning routine on Mondays. I establish weekly (or even monthly) achievable goals, as having daily goals would not give me the flexibility to handle the unexpected without feeling guilty for not being at work. When I find myself trying to write with two children pressing random keys on my laptop, and the other three fighting in the sitting room, I sigh and set aside research for a bit. Afterall, just because academics can think about work everywhere and at all times, it doesn’t mean that one needs to do it. Moreover, a forced break may help me to get that change in perspective I would never have experienced by sitting at my desk. So I close my laptop, and enjoy having the privilege of being a working mom that can spend so much time with her family.

Certainly, it is not always easy, and I have good moments, bad moments, and dull moments too. My partner is a passionate cyclist, and observing him I realized that even if he has some destination in mind, what he loves about cycling is the road itself, with its uphills, downhills, and flat stretches. He wouldn’t be cycling if he were only interested in the arrival destination. Similarly, I didn’t choose to be a parent just because of the sweet card I may receive on Mother’s Day, and I didn’t choose to be a researcher just because one day I may write a very impactful paper that will revolutionize my discipline. I like the process of looking up research questions, interpreting results, and choosing the color of my graphs (possibly, with my children’s help), and I like to feel their little hands in mine when we walk back from school while talking about science and numbers. Eventually, I may publish my work, but it may be the same day that my two-year-old child decides to open the fridge and break all the eggs on the kitchen floor. I try to do my best, and keep enjoying the pedalling, loving my road made out of scientific papers and toddler books in all its wholeness.

I strongly believe that having two passions doesn’t mean twice the load. I couldn’t have handled so many children without a stimulating job that brings me realization and satisfaction at a personal level. I wouldn’t be as creative and committed to my work without my family’s positive energy, which often strikes me when I am lost in front of the computer screen. To me, having a successful academic career while raising a family, or while cultivating other hobbies and interests, is not only possible, it is endorsed. Today, I know that my successes at work and at home are indeed due to the fact that I do have a work and a life to balance, meaning that, even if I wear unmatched socks, something in what I am doing is exactly right.



I would like to thank my PhD and postdoc supervisors for having encouraged me to present my perspective on work-life balance, and for having always been understanding and supporting. A huge thank you also to my partner, for believing in me and in my dreams, and for matching my socks from time to time.