Interview

‘There was no time to even take a shower’

11.2.2022 | Chemist and pharmacist Prof Olivia Merkel describes the huge pressures put on academics with children, in particular women, during the beginning of the pandemic – from an exploding workload to gate-kept childcare.
Recently, AcademiaNet reached out to our members to ask of experiences related to being a female academic during the pandemic. You got in touch. Why?

What I've seen myself as a reviewer on the panel for the Swiss National Science Foundation, is that in the summer of 2020 we suddenly received almost twice the amount of grant applications, and I want to say that 80% of these grant applications were from male applicants. I’m a reviewer for the natural sciences so usually there’s a gender imbalance anyway, but this time the imbalance was much greater.


And what I’m hearing from some of my female colleagues is that they’ve considered quitting. I’ve heard them talk about burn-out, about how everything is just too much. In academia, we always work 120-150% but now on top of that, we’re also working a full time ‘mom job’.

Did anything in particular contribute to that?
During the first lockdown in Germany, our government totally forgot about university teachers. Elementary school, middle school, high school teachers, they all had access to emergency day care for their kids, but professors didn’t.


What’s striking is that in Germany, pharmacy is a state exam licence, and with that comes a curriculum that legally binds us to 60% lab courses taught in person. At the same time, elementary school, middle school and high school was all completely virtual. So while my teacher colleagues were able to send their kids to day care without having to teach in person, I had to teach in person and take care of my child.


I have really wondered about it, and I got to the conclusion that a woman professor with children, at least in Germany, is still such a rare find that we were simply forgotten. It happened again when it came to priority for vaccinations: all my teacher colleagues had priority 1 for vaccinations, and I didn’t have any priority, even though I had to teach in person.

And what did your work life as a professor look like at the time?
My workload exploded. Suddenly we had to do everything via email. I would open my laptop in the morning, still in my pyjamas because there was no time to even take a shower, and there would be 200 emails.


There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, we were trying to reorganise an entire semester, taking into consideration the restrictions that came with the pandemic as well as the legally binding obligations to teach pharmacy.


At the same time, my field of RNA formulation and RNA delivery suddenly seemed to be the thing that everyone wanted to do. I received tonnes of emails from people wanting to collaborate and wanting to start projects, and I simply had to say, ‘I’m sorry but I’m drowning’.


Online meetings had a lot to do with it. In the past, people might have said: ‘Well, if we have to come to Munich, let’s schedule a quarterly meeting’. Now everyone wants to have a monthly meeting. For many things video calls are great, but it also has an impact on how we perceive urgency. When there’s not this barrier of having to travel, people think, ‘let’s discuss this right away.’

You mentioned the rarity of female professors with children. What about your male colleagues with children, did you see them struggle in the same way?
Sometimes I have the feeling that the pandemic threw us back a few decades. The typical answer fathers get when they say they can’t join a meeting because they are taking over family duties, is: ‘Well, why isn’t your wife doing that?’

Sometimes I have the feeling that the pandemic threw us back a few decades

In academia our work is very flexible, which is often an advantage. I don’t have a global role where I constantly have to be in meetings with people on three other continents, so I can work around things. But a friend of mine once said that with the flexibility, our work is sometimes perceived as less important and forced to be squeezed into lots of ‘night shifts’.

It’s almost ironic that you should be struggling so much at a time when your field – RNA formulation and delivery – is receiving such positive attention …
Yeah. What we do is essentially artificial viruses, like lipid capsules, nanoparticles, or polymer-based nanocarriers. In this pandemic, they’ve really shown that they’re very safe, though it’s still a young field in terms of clinical application. Consider the Pfizer vaccine, for example, that had to be stored at extremely low temperatures. What our field does is to optimise the carriers and make them more stable for storage at room temperature on the one side, and change their composition to cause fewer side effects on the other.


But in the first lockdown in Germany, our faculty decided that we needed to reduce research activities for contact reasons, and I guess I was not bold enough to say, ‘I have COVID projects ongoing, I need an exception just like a few other labs.’ It felt a bit like a bad joke because we were trying to come up with a therapy, but I couldn’t work and neither could the people in my lab.

Prof Merkel, thanks so much for speaking with us.

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)

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