Omer Dushek was trained in the physical sciences but now applies his knowledge to biological questions. He leads a research group at the University of Oxford, investigating how T cells in the immune system distinguish – or don’t distinguish – between healthy cells and infected or cancerous cells in the body. This interdisciplinary approach stems from the work that first inspired him: Erwin Schrödinger’s book What is Life?
"It was a physicist’s take on a very fundamental question. It got me interested in the enterprise of science."
Adapting to parenthood
Omer and his wife had their first child in 2015, and a second in 2018. He remembers the things that he found the most difficult to adapt to as a new working parent.
"It became less acceptable to work long days, so I had to be more efficient. I’d say no to meetings that weren’t absolutely necessary. I would take shorter breaks and socialise less at work. It was hard to come to terms with, but it’s what I had to do.
"And then there was the sleep thing. I found that very difficult. Going into work after a night of no sleep and having to be in meetings. You’ve already used the no sleep excuse five times, you can’t say that again!"
During the 2021 COVID-19 lockdown, the couple’s weeks became very divided. Being a secondary school teacher, Omer’s wife had a full timetable of online teaching Monday to Wednesday. Omer took these days off to look after the kids.
"It was hard because I had to try and take them out of the house as much as I could while my wife was teaching, so they wouldn’t interrupt the lessons."
On Thursdays, they swapped roles, with Omer working for the rest of the week and weekend. This necessary arrangement to get through lockdown unfortunately meant the family "never spent any time all four of us together".
However, in normal times, as well as enjoying being all together, Omer and his wife try to make time – however brief – to be a couple.
"We tried babysitters but found that we were too tired in the evenings to enjoy time together. Instead, we now take a day off work every couple of months and spend it together when the kids are at nursery and school. In addition, we try to have a few 'micro-dates' each day that last up to five minutes when both kids happen to be distracted simultaneously."
Support at work
Omer has found his colleagues, bosses and the university to be very supportive of his needs as a working parent. He took over four months of shared parental leave with his first child, which is actively encouraged by the university.
"It was hard at the beginning because I was trying to get a bit of work done, but as soon as I let go of that it was fine. My group were very supportive and it all went pretty smoothly. Colleagues even stepped in to help, offering to assist my group members when I couldn’t. I was very happy with the outcome."
The situation was born out of necessity; the couple didn’t have a nursery place organised in time. The second time around they made sure a place was ready and waiting for their baby daughter, and – despite his positive experience – Omer chose not to take shared parental leave.
"It was a lovely time, I really enjoyed it, and it was my obligation to support my wife to go back to work. But if I have the option, I prefer to go to work during that time. If I could take four months off now to spend with my son [aged five], I would take it."
Be kind to yourself
Omer says it’s hard to give advice to other working parents, because every case is specific. But while the juggle will always come with compromises and challenges, just try to give yourself a break.
"Whatever I’m doing I feel guilty. When I’m working I feel I should be with my family. When I’m with them I feel I should be giving more to a certain project. But we try not to be too hard on ourselves and resolve to muddle our way through child-rearing rather than strive for perfection."