A man and a woman smile at the camera while holding a newborn baby. There are balloons in the background.
Image: Priyanka Verma

PhD and pregnant: How this researcher used motherhood as a motivator

8 Mar 2022

Dr Priyanka Verma is a researcher at Confirm, the SFI smart manufacturing research centre. Here, she shares her story of becoming a new mother while working in STEM and applying for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions fellowship.

I just started on my journey of motherhood two and a half months ago. After submitting my PhD thesis, I joined the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology in Bhopal, India as an assistant professor.

It was a matter of great pride for me to be a part of such an institute of national importance and teach future nation-builders. I wanted to continue my research on real industrial topics and so I started looking for good post-doc opportunities.

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In February 2021, I first received information about the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) SMART 4.0 Fellowship. The main objective of the fellowship with the Confirm centre for smart manufacturing research is to deliver the next generation of smart manufacturing leaders.

I was really excited when I heard about this, because it perfectly aligned with my life goals and so I started preparing the phase-one proposal of my application.

Meanwhile, on 15 March 2021 I found out that I was pregnant. There was no limit to the happiness my family and I felt when we got this news. We were all very excited to welcome a new member to the family.

‘I had to make a proper timetable to balance my health, work, family and fellowship proposal preparation’
– DR PRIYANKA VERMA

The gynaecologist advised me not to spend more than four hours at a time on the laptop to protect my unborn baby’s health. However, it was impossible for me because I needed to achieve my goals, which required hard work, study and usually a lot more than four hours laptop time!

I was a little worried about this and wondered how I would manage. At that point, my husband, Dr Nitesh Bharot, and my entire family encouraged me and said that: “You can do it; nothing is impossible for you.”

With this encouragement, I began preparing my proposal for the MSCA fellowship. In the meantime, I was also in touch with my supervisors, Prof John Breslin and Prof Donna O’Shea, for guidance to prepare the proposal.

At the same time, my health was changing day by day and I needed to take care of that. I had to make a proper timetable to balance my health, work, family and fellowship proposal preparation, which was quite challenging.

I also had to balance the usual home-related responsibilities, so I tried to manage as best I could. At night, I studied some inspirational stories before sleeping so that my baby could listen and learn good things. Our family is a joint family in India, totalling 11 people, so with all these life circumstances to contend with, I started concentrating on making the proposal.

Another challenge I had to face was Covid-19. During this period, we had a second wave in India and, unfortunately, my husband, mother-in-law and sister-in-law all tested positive. It was a tough time for my family.

On the one hand, I was fully dedicated to my fellowship proposal and needed to take care of my pregnancy. On the other hand, it was challenging to nurse the family members affected by Covid-19.

Submitting the proposal

The last date for submitting the proposal was approaching. I needed to put in even more effort. I only slept about four or five hours every night at that time and spent more of my time with the laptop than taking care of my family responsibilities.

Thankfully though, my supervisors helped me a lot to come up with a really good proposal. After incorporating the suggestions from them, my proposal was ready for submission and I submitted it on time on 30 April 2021. On 18 May 2021, my PhD viva [oral test] was completed and I got my doctoral degree.

It was a great day for me and my family because it was the result of six years of long, hard work. It is said that each baby brings luck and happiness for themselves, the family and the mother – this was the first gift from the baby.

On 10 June 2021, I received an email about the MSCA fellowship phase one outcome. When I opened this email and saw my result, I was ecstatic.

I got through phase one of the fellowship selection process – the second gift from my baby. Now I completely got involved in preparations for phase two of the process, which was an interview.

I wanted to get selected for this fellowship no matter what. I received guidelines for phase two from my supervisors, I completed my PowerPoint slides and other preparations and my phase two interview was held on 8 July 2021.

At this point, I had completed four months of my pregnancy, and then 15 July 2021 arrived, a massive day in my life. On this day at 9.48pm Indian Standard Time, I received an email.

When I opened the email and saw the result, tears welled up in my eyes, I was overjoyed. I had been selected as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow. I shared the good news with my husband and the whole family, and it was a tremendous achievement for us. This was the third and most significant gift from the baby about to be born.

In September 2021, I carried forward my teaching and research work and waited for the contract and hosting agreement to join the fellowship. During this time, three more of my research papers with students of the research group in my college also got accepted.

I was very excited about the start of my fellowship, which was due to begin on 1 November 2021. When I met Dr Preeti Devpujari, my gynaecologist, for a consultation and informed her about my fellowship selection, she was delighted with the news.

I discussed the date of commencement of the fellowship with her and she said that because more than 26 weeks of my pregnancy had already passed, and due to the Covid-19 situation, air travel would not be appropriate for me.

I shared this information with Susan Daly, who managed the MSCA fellowship at the Confirm centre, and my supervisors. They congratulated me and said that I could postpone the fellowship for three months and could start on the 1 February 2022. I was so thankful to Susan, my supervisors and Confirm for this kindness.

The new arrival

On 8 December 2021, I left for college at 8.00am. Shortly after, I started having severe labour pains. I was taken to the hospital from the college at 10.00am and on the same day at 1.00pm, I became a mother.

I gave birth to a baby boy named Samarth. I cannot express in words the feeling that I had after becoming a mother. Motherhood is that ocean of happiness that never gets empty and increases every day.

A tiny baby in a blue outfit and santa hat lies on the floor with his eyes closed.

Baby Samarth. Image: Priyanka Verma

Our whole family welcomed Samarth. We were all delighted. I saw the tears of joy in my husband’s eyes for the first time on that day when he held the baby in his hands. We were all congratulating each other.

After seven days in the hospital, on 15 December 2021, we arrived home. We took Samarth for his first outing to the passport office the next day.

My baby was just eight days old, but we didn’t have any other option because we knew that if we wanted to reach Ireland on 1 February 2022, we would have to complete the remaining procedures as soon as possible. We could only finalise the hosting agreement once we had Samarth’s passport.

On 23 December 2021, I received Samarth’s passport, which I shared with the NUI Galway officials. On 5 January 2022, I received the hosting agreement. After that, we applied for the visa, and on 18 January 2022, my husband, my son and I reached the Delhi visa office from Bhopal after traveling for 10 hours in the heavy cold weather.

On 25 January 2022 we got our visa and on 31 January 2022, we flew from New Delhi to Dublin.

On 1 February 2022, I officially became a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow with Confirm, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for smart manufacturing at NUI Galway. This success was only possible because of hard work, patience, self-belief, motivation and passion.

It is up to every woman to see her responsibilities and roles as inspirations or hurdles to her life. In my case, motherhood became the source of motivation and encouragement to achieve my goals, not the hurdle in my life.

I am thankful to the Confirm centre, Science Foundation Ireland and NUI Galway for providing this great opportunity.

Together we all must make efforts to empower women and ensure that women get equal rights in society, can progress in their careers, and give a new direction to the country and the world.

I also encourage the world’s women to seek out their careers in the STEM field. You can make your career in STEM, and your contribution supports building a better society, nation and world.

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