Julius Hafalla’s scientific journey has enabled him to build a global career, from Manila to New York and then London, where he and his wife settled and had their daughter. Julius investigates the basic science of immunological response to infection. In recent years he has combined his laboratory-based research in the UK with laboratory and field work in the Philippines, the country of his birth, and beyond.
Starting a family
Julius and his wife – also a scientist – moved to the UK in 2005. This was made possible by their fellowships, including a Royal Society Incoming Fellowship for Julius at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), where he is now Associate Professor of Immunology.
While they considered having a child while still PhD students at New York University, USA, the couple decided to wait. It was when they were post-doctoral fellows in London in 2009 that they chose to start their family, which Julius says brought many joys, but also some challenges.
“As a post-doc there’s a lot of pressure and responsibility. The reality of science is that, until you have tenure, it’s a series of fixed-term contracts. But we wanted to build our family as well as our careers. We were fortunate that my wife was able to take nine months’ maternity leave, and that science also offers flexibility.”
The couple balanced childcare with navigating dual scientific careers. They invested in nurseries and preschools that offered hours suiting their research schedules. Once their daughter was in primary school, they embraced after-school clubs, encouraging her to try everything, from karate to flamenco, to discover what she enjoyed.
“She took karate from Reception and ended up getting her brown belt pretty young.”
The daily rhythm
Julius and his wife share the parenting responsibilities in ways that suit their family. They make adjustments depending on who needs support and what needs to be accomplished for home, school and work.
“I get up early and am very productive in the morning, but in the mid- to late afternoon, I benefit from taking a break, which worked well with collecting my daughter from primary school. Now, we organise school journeys with other parents; in the afternoons, the children travel the few stops from secondary school on the Tube together, and we meet at the station. Later, after our daughter is asleep, I can get my laptop out and do additional work.”
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the Hafalla family developed a love of walking for their daily exercise, and re-discovered their city on foot.
“My wife and I used to get on the Tube or bus for every journey. It’s been fantastic to walk as a family, and we just walk everywhere now. London is a small city.”
Re-connecting with home
Julius’s research has centred on the immunology of malaria for his whole career, but until recent years his work was predominantly laboratory-based. When the UK government launched the Newton Fund to build research partnerships with developing countries, he recognised the opportunity to build scientific links with fieldwork on malaria and other infectious diseases in the Philippines and beyond.
“It became a partner country of the UK for the first time. My collaborators and I were successful in obtaining research funding for LSHTM and the Philippines, enabling us to establish international partnerships and to promote scientific exchange.”
These new links also meant more travel overseas, and being in different time zones meant more creative juggling for Julius and his family. However, despite time away from his wife and daughter, the additional work trips made it possible to see his parents more often.
“Mama was ill for several years and no longer able to travel to the UK, and so when I had research visits to the Philippines, I was able to spend time with my parents on weekends. Mama died in 2017, and then Papa was diagnosed with cancer in October 2019. We knew he was terminally ill, so my wife and I decided to ask my mother-in-law to come to London from the USA for two months to help us. Then I was able to work from the Philippines for an extended period, and to be with Papa between my field studies.”
Communication and collaboration
Julius says that managing his research work, his teaching and mentoring responsibilities, as well as day-to-day family scheduling, depends upon good communication and collaboration. When there are multiple demands on their time, and logistics are tricky, having open conversations and focusing on shared goals helps them to strive for the best outcome for their family.
“My wife and I have by some means succeeded in having two complementary careers, not always by precise preparation, but by working as a team and embracing opportunities as they came. The most important thing is communicating with your partner and making sure that you prioritise time together as a family.”