A family affair: how scientist parents’ career paths can influence children’s choices

Children whose parents have science degrees are twice as likely to pursue science degrees themselves than are those whose parents have degrees in other fields (N. Tilbrook and D. Shifrer Soc. Sci. Res. 103, 102654; 2022). Scientist parents can be role models for their children and often provide early exposure through science-focused extracurricular activities. Their children can see at first-hand the highs and lows of a career in academic and industry research — the discoveries, collaborations and opportunities to live and work abroad. But that can be tempered by intense workloads, temporary contracts, pressures to publish and time away from families.

Four researchers share how their parents influenced their choice of a research career and how their own parenthoods have influenced their science.

FRED CHANG: Respect personal choices and decisions

Professor of cell and tissue biology at the University of California, San Francisco.

My parents immigrated from Taiwan to the United States in the 1950s to pursue graduate studies in engineering. My father, David Chang was a mechanical engineer who started a company in our garage, so my childhood was surrounded by electrical machinery and tools. My mother, Helen Chang, worked as a staff scientist at a diabetes lab at Stanford University in California. She introduced me to the environment of a biomedical lab and trained me to work in one. My parents placed a high priority on getting me the best education possible and gave me opportunities to broaden my education in maths and science.

In my early 30s, I married and had two children. I am a cell biologist and my ex-wife is a professional musician, so my daughter and son grew up with both music and science at home. They spent many formative summers with me at Woods Hole in Cape Cod, where I work as a summer investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory. Woods Hole is like a summer camp for scientists, and my children got to see how much fun I had making discoveries while collaborating with friends and colleagues.

Woods Hole also operates a science school at which my children learnt how to observe and explore the rich natural environments at the seashore. They’re now in their late twenties. My daughter has always been fascinated by the history of Earth, and she’s now a geologist. My son is a mechanical engineer who enjoys the practicality of building structures.

In my 40s, I came out as a gay man. It was an extraordinarily difficult process that took many years; I regard my coming out as my most courageous act. Although this was a challenging time for everyone in the family, we gradually adapted to the changes. My children have been an important source of support, and they fully support me and my partner. I would like to think that seeing me navigate my identity has had a positive influence on my children. Both have grown to be empathic and respectful humans.






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