“Combining motherhood and research is always a challenge”

Osnat Penn is a computational biologist, which means she uses computers to analyze massive quantities of data obtained through genome sequencing. But the Israeli scientist is also a mother of two so she has to manage her career and a family, which can be a challenge. She hopes having a family and a career will no longer be a hindrance for women in the future.

DiscovHER - What sparked your interest in science as a possible career path?

Osnat Penn - I have always loved to study new things and my parents have encouraged me to expand my horizons. During my studies I was exposed to the genomic revolution currently taking place, and was fascinated by the theory of evolution and its various implications on every field in life sciences. I was especially interested in bioinformatics, in which the power of computers is harnessed to study the secrets of life. More specifically, I became fascinated by the development and application of computational methods to study our genome, how it evolved, and how mutations in it lead to diseases.

D/H - What do you want society to gain from your research?

OP - I hope that my work will contribute to a better understanding of the etiology of autism spectrum  disorders – ASD – and to the genetic classification of their different causes. I also hope it will lead to biomedical implications on early diagnosis of children with ASD, molecular prenatal screening, and pre-implantation diagnosis.

D/H - What have been the biggest challenges presented to you during your career?

OP - Combining motherhood and research is always a challenge. You want to excel in both, but you have only 24 hours a day. This is even more difficult now, when I am away from my home country, my parents, and friends, as I became a post-doctorate fellow in one of the world's top human genomics laboratories. This issue is never completely resolved, but I try to be efficient, both in my science and in my family duties. It helps a lot that my husband is sharing this challenge with me and is a full partner in parenting.

D/H - Clearly family support has been essential from the start of your career. What do you think about mentorship in general?

OP - A good mentor is important for everyone, and is key for building a solid foundation for a future scientific career. I couldn’t be more grateful to my PhD supervisor, Prof. Tal Pupko, who always supported and encouraged me to pursue a career in science. Especially as a mother of two, I have also learned a great deal from him about combining family and a scientific research career.

D/H - What is your opinion of the current scientific landscape in regards to women?

OP - A lot has been improved in the recent decades with regards to women in science, and today women are present in virtually every field. Yet, there is still progress to be made to remove the ancient bias in our society’s expectations of women and men. For example, when I go to conferences abroad, colleagues often ask me: “who is taking care of your kids while you are away?” Needless to say, my husband has never been asked that same question.

The biggest challenge is to not make any compromises because of gender, combine science and family life, and excel in both. The biggest accomplishments are when you manage to do just that. What makes it even harder is that the most stressful time period for young scientists usually overlaps the period of young motherhood.

Many women do not consider themselves as candidates for research positions, but I think women scientists can genuinely contribute by encouraging talented young women to pursue scientific careers.

For Women in Science

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