What to Expect when Expecting in the Lab
Mary Kate Mitchell Lane, Hanno Erythropel (LSA 3 Alumnus) and further researchers published an article on What to Expect When Expecting in Lab: A Review of Unique Risks and Resources for Pregnant Researchers in the Chemical Laboratory. We talked to Mary Kate about her experience as a pregnant researcher and what laboratories can do to support vulnerable groups in science.
1. How did you and your colleagues come up with the idea for the paper? What did you want to change/improve?
The initial idea for the project came from Dr. Paul Anastas and Dr. Julie Zimmerman, both leaders in the field of Green Chemistry and Green Engineering, who invited me and my fellow researcher, Dr. Mahlet Garedew, to look into what was out there in terms of what unique risks exist for pregnant researchers in chemical labs and corresponding recommendations and resources. Both Mahlet and I were pregnant at the time and expecting our first babies, so were in the process of trying to navigate a safe work plan for ourselves in lab. However, we were having trouble finding useful or cohesive information.
By diving into current resources and the academic literature, we found good information. But it was scattered in many areas too general (e.g. “try to avoid exposure when pregnant”), or too specific relating to a specific industry (like healthcare). That is why we decided to write a review specifically for pregnant researchers in chemical labs. That was the big motivation behind this review – to provide a single, comprehensive resource that can be used by pregnant researchers as well as institutions.
2. What are you most proud of/happy with?
I am most proud that this review exists, is useful, and is accessible. First, this review was the product of the dedication and hard work of an amazing team of researchers that was able to synthesize an immense amount of information. Next, I do believe bringing all the information together will be immensely useful for both pregnant researchers and institutions to weigh risk and inform decision making.
We included over 200 references!
Some pregnant researchers are already expressing how useful they have found the review to the various co-authors. In sharing this resource on my own social media, I have had only positive comments. Finally, we wanted this review to be accessible to anyone who needs the information, so we worked with Chemical Research in Toxicology to make the review open access and free to download.
3. What’s your understanding of a “culture of safety“?
From a green chemistry perspective, safety should be an inherent part of research, instead of an additional consideration the beginning or end of a project.
Most often, risk is best managed by re-designing work spaces to be inherently safer by the elimination of hazards, such as by substituting of hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives, rather than by exposure control. With this perspective, laboratory spaces are safer for everyone as well as pregnant researchers.
4. What can individual researchers do to promote such culture of safety?
- On the individual level, I believe it is important to have a sense of ownership of safety – safety is everyone’s job and priority and cannot be outsourced to a “safety officer.”
- Lab managers (including principal investigators, department chairs, safety officers, among others) have the potential to create an inclusive laboratory environment for pregnant researchers by 1) setting work standards and 2) supporting the pregnant researcher.
Setting certain work standards in the laboratory environment from the beginning, before anyone is known to be pregnant, can be an immense help as it sets a foundation for safe and confident work. It is of particular importance for pregnant researchers to protect their pregnancies. In small laboratories, setting a standard where each researcher shares their experimental activity noting the hazards involved with other researchers may be adequate.
5. What effects do you hope your paper has for vulnerable groups?
My hope is that this review empowers pregnant researchers to assess their risks of working in a chemical lab and make decisions that they feel confident in. This review includes discussion of mechanisms of lab-relevant hazards, so researchers can understand where recommendations come from as well as discusses lab-relevant exposures and times of vulnerability to hazards during pregnancy.
Good to Know
It is important to listen to the pregnant researcher in terms of their acceptable risk, which may be different from others or change over the course of a pregnancy.
The intent of this paper is to provide information so that risks can be evaluated for informed decision making.
6. What can PIs and group leaders do to foster a culture of safety?
- Lab managers have a unique opportunity to be enthusiastically supportive of pregnant researchers when they share their pregnancy status by aiding in risk assessment, adapting research, and being attentive to changing needs.
- As a laboratory manager often knows the lab the best, they can aid in the personalized risk assessment by disclosing all the known hazards in lab in case a pregnant researcher is not aware of them, like radiation producing equipment in a room they pass through or chemicals another researcher is using at the next bench.
- The lab manager should be knowledgeable about and help connect pregnant researchers to company.