My name is Tanweer Beleil. As a mother and a scientist, on this International Women’s Day, I would like to grab the opportunity to express my admiration for all women, who have had to put their professional careers on hold in order to raise their families. I would like to share my story and hope that it will inspire other women in that; it’s never too late to resume their career. We should be proud of all that we do and deserve recognition for raising our families by being given opportunities for high-flying careers when we are ready. We women absolutely have a lot to offer, not only in the workplace, but also most importantly in fields that matter.
In November of 2018, I joined Dr David MacIntyre and Professor Phillip Bennett’s team as a research associate at the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology, Imperial College London. This opportunity was made available to me after being awarded the Daphne Jackson Fellowship, sponsored by Imperial College London and the Genesis Research Trust. The goal of this fellowship is to help female scientists resume their careers after long breaks. The reasons for these career breaks are varied but often due to circumstances beyond our control.
Prior to my ten-year career break, I was pursuing a high-flying career in Reproductive Molecular Biology. I was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship for my achievement at University, which sponsored my MPhil degree at the University of Cambridge. I then went on to complete my PhD in Reproductive Molecular Research, also at the University of Cambridge. However, it was not all smooth sailing. Towards the end of my PhD, my eldest daughter was born prematurely at only 31 weeks of gestation. She weighed less than a kilogram and stayed in hospital for two months. This led to my PhD studies being delayed. As if the terrifying experience of having a premature daughter wasn’t traumatic enough, at the age of three, she was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. That just changed our perspective as a new family and adjusted our priorities. I made the decision to postpone my research career to dedicate my time and fully support my eldest daughter. I then went on to have two more children.
I was glad to be at home with my children during this crucial period. I developed new interests and trained in social behaviour and communication, speech and language skills, sensory integration and applied behaviour analysis to support my daughter. Thanks to my daughter and her support requirements, I was a school governor and chair of the special educational needs committee.
I found myself in a better position to resume my scientific career when my eldest daughter demonstrated good progress and my other children were at school. Finding an opportunity in academic work, after such a lengthy break, was very challenging, to say the least. It took me almost two years, but I was determined and driven by my passion for research in the field of preterm birth, an area that became very close to my heart.
The focus of my research fellowship is understanding the role of vaginal infection (bacterial/ fungal) during pregnancy, and determine if and how infection in the vagina can move up the reproductive tract to reach the amniotic sac and fetus. This will hopefully provide us with better understanding as to how reproductive tract infection can cause preterm birth, which is the largest cause of death of under-fives worldwide and survivors often suffer significant motor and sensory deficits, respiratory disorders and/or learning disabilities. Detailed knowledge of the mechanisms causing infection associated preterm birth will enable advancements to be made in early diagnosis and the development of patient specific, targeted treatment approaches.
Although I didn’t think twice when decided to put my career on hold at the time, as the years went by, I was often filled with many “what ifs?”.
We live in a society that often under-appreciates, and takes for granted, stay-at-home mums. I felt like all the years poured into my studies were worthless and my confidence was almost gone. Would my personal circumstances become a hindrance?
Life is not supposed to be neat and orderly. We all face different obstacles and have our own personal battles to fight.
As difficult as it was for me to resume my career after a ten-year break, I am always aware of how extremely lucky I am, even with all the obstacles I faced. There are still women who have not received the same opportunities as me and do not have the same support system as me. This is dedicated to all those women, who feel like they are in a hopeless situation and will never be able to find their way back to their career.
I have been able to use my personal experience with premature birth to inspire my research. Would my research have taken me down this path, had I not had a personal connection with the research matter? I’ll never know for sure but I do know that if my research can help at least one woman, then it will have all been worth it.
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