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Are we there yet? Challenges of conference travel with kids

I am an assistant professor and mother of a two-year old. We recently returned from traveling together for our third conference. Despite enormous support from my partner and family, each trip I come back wondering if it was worth all the logistical and financial challenges. Last year, after returning from the same conference with the same sentiment,  I joined a working group of mothers in science and we wrote a piece with suggestions for how conferences can better support parents, especially women1. Here I provide a bit more context for what some of these challenges are, and insight into what considerations an academic parent is likely to need to make when traveling with their child(ren). I will focus on the logistical and financial challenges, although there are certainly physical, social, and emotional challenges as well, which have already been described by others more eloquently than I could2,3.

The Decision – should you go, and should you bring your kids?

Deciding whether or not to attend a conference always involves a careful calculus of weighing options. Does the chance to disseminate your research, get feedback, meet colleagues, start collaborations, and engage in networking outweigh the time away and cost? This choice can be particularly challenging for early career investigators for whom gaining visibility is critical, with some institutions even having requirements for conference attendance associated with promotion, but for whom conference travel may mean dipping into a limited start-up fund or time away from a fledgling laboratory. If you are a parent, the decision is even more complicated.

The first choice you need to make when navigating conference attendance as a parent is if you will bring your child(ren) or leave them at home. For some parents, especially ones who are not primary caregivers or who have family or other caregivers nearby, leaving children home may be the most obvious and easiest decision. For others, for example single parents, breastfeeding mothers, parents of infants and toddlers or children with a disability, parents who share caregiving with another working spouse, or parents whose partner is in the same field and attends the same conference, leaving children at home may be challenging or impossible. There also may be parents who simply don’t want to spend that much time away from their children. After all, our jobs are demanding and navigating the work-life juggle is hard enough during daily life – travel can really throw off the balance.

This is a very personal decision, and I think there are great reasons for choosing to bring your child or choosing not to. Regardless, it is important to remember that only certain academics, most often women, are put in a position to have to make this choice, so making either option as easy as possible is a critical step towards gender equity in STEM fields.

Logistics of traveling with a child

If you are bringing your child to a conference, the basic logistics (flights, hotel, transportation, and meals) become more complicated, and childcare is an additional concern. Below I discuss some considerations for each.

  1. Childcare – For conferences that are child-friendly, depending on you and your child’s preferences/temperament, it may be possible to wear or stroll young infants through a conference center, and older children may be able to entertain themselves quietly during presentations. However, this may not be practical for all children, and so many parents find they need to arrange child care for all or part of the conference. Some child-friendly conferences have on-site childcare, which can be a great option. Unfortunately, it can also be expensive4, and in many cases, fees associated with this will not be reimbursed5. At a conference I recently attended childcare was $100/day per child – well over the cost of conference registration for attendees. Also, provided childcare will likely not have hours that extend into evenings, meaning you will have to skip evening sessions or dinners. The other option would be to bring a caregiver with you, perhaps a family member, babysitter, or nanny. This can work great (it is what I have done with my daughter), but of course, it only works if you are lucky enough to have such a person who can accompany you. This can be particularly challenging since conferences often happen mid-week meaning potential caregivers need to have schedule flexibility. It also means that the caregiver’s travel costs will have to be paid for, often by you. Which brings us to the next topic – flights.
  2. Flights – If your child is under 2 and you are traveling domestically, you may be able to avoid buying an additional ticket by holding them on your lap. This is a huge financial savings, although it does come with drawbacks (say goodbye to finishing up your presentation on the plane – even if your kiddo falls asleep, one-handed typing is infuriatingly inefficient, not to mention uncomfortable.) Otherwise, you will need to buy a ticket for your child.  If you also need to purchase flights for a caregiver, flight costs can really add up. Additionally, bringing a child often involves additional schedule considerations. Depending on your child, red-eyes and tight connections may be a terrible idea. You may also want to avoid very early or very late flights, or want to try to time flights with naps. Overall, your flexibility may be impacted– which may mean that you will end up spending more to get the flights you need. This can be challenging since, in most cases, your child and/or caregiver’s flight will not be reimbursed5.
  3. Transportation at Destination – This issue is very city specific. For cities with good public transit, you can take your child on buses/trains/subways, which may be a fun adventure for your child. It may mean buying an extra ticket or two for a caregiver and/or child (depending on their age), but likely would not add a huge expense. Cities that do not have reliable public transportation are more difficult. You may be forced to choose between renting a car (which may not be reimbursed depending on institutional rules/guidelines) or taking taxis/Ubers/Lyfts. The later can work well for traveling with older children, but anyone who has dealt with trying to install a car seat in an unfamiliar car, especially with a grumpy cab driver watching you, and angry traffic surrounding you, knows that this is a great way to raise your blood pressure and probably make some enemies.
  4. Accommodations and Food – First, keep in mind that whereas other conference attendees wishing to save money may be able to share rooms to reduce the cost, this likely will not be an option if you are traveling with children. So, you will likely be paying more. On the other hand, not having a roommate may give you more flexibility when choosing where to stay. Many conferences have a designated conference hotel. This can be a good option for children, since these hotels are usually the most convenient and may allow you flexibility to drop in and out of sessions. However, conference hotels are often not particularly family-friendly. Hotel rooms can also be small and painfully boring to spend long periods of time in. If you are traveling with children, you will likely be spending more time in the room – so keep that in mind when you book your stay. Also, remember that in a standard hotel room you may end up sitting in the dark for a few hours after your child goes to sleep. This may be particularly frustrating if you know you are missing out on networking events, collaborator meetings, or social gatherings. A standard hotel room may also not have enough space if you are bringing along a caregiver, meaning you would likely need a second room (which would probably not be reimbursed). Finally, many children require an endless supply of snacks. For some children, dining out exclusively may be a viable option, but for others, waiting to get their food at every meal is a recipe for disaster, and in any case, eating out frequently can get expensive. So, you will likely want to have snacks on hand, which may require a kitchenette or at least a refrigerator. All this may lead you to consider staying at an extended stay hotel or a condo/apartment/Airbnb. These options are great since they typically include a kitchen/kitchenette, a separate living space, and perhaps a second bedroom for a caregiver. The extra space would not only prevent being stuck in a dark room after your child goes to sleep – it may even allow a post-bedtime meeting or social meet-up, if your colleagues are willing to come to you. However, there are negatives too. First, keep in mind cost. Even if these options are less expensive than the conference hotel (and often they are) you may run into trouble with reimbursement since US government guidelines (which many universities – especially public universities – have to follow) will only reimburse at the federal (per diem) rate unless you stay at the conference hotel. Often these rates are impractically low, especially for expensive cities6. This means that even if you are saving money by not staying in the conference hotel, you personally could end up paying more, due to federal guidelines. Another consideration is that these accommodations may be further away from the conference center, meaning you may have less flexibility to come and go and may miss out on more conference opportunities.

I do not want give the impression that it is all negative.  Attending conferences with your child has its benefits. You get to experience new places with your child, give them a taste of your awesome job, and help normalize parenthood in academia to build a more inclusive future. However, for many parents, choosing to attend conferences can feel like they are giving much more (financially and otherwise) for what will most likely be a watered-down version of the conference.  It is easy to see why some parents may decide to just skip conference travel all together. Between flights for children/caregivers, possible childcare fees, additional hotel fees, maybe a rental car, and potentially food costs, the conference may cost twice (or more) what it would be for a single person, and based on many institutional and funding agency policies, many portions would not be reimbursable. With the time between graduate school and obtaining tenure growing, many academic parents are early career researchers: graduate students, postdocs, or assistant professors, who often have limited financial resources. In short, the cost and flexibility required for traveling with children is incompatible with the rigid guidelines for reimbursement put in place by the universities, funding agencies, and the federal government.  This stacks the deck against academic parents, and in practice, disproportionately affects women, since, due to biology, cultural and societal norms, women are more often put in a position where they have to choose to bring their child with them, or not travel at all. These same considerations are further compounded for academics with limited financial resources meaning that some of the groups most vulnerable and under-represented in academia are most impacted.


I feel like this is where I should give advice on how to gracefully navigate these challenges and succeed. But I do not have these answers. Besides giving yourself space for self-care and attending conferences that support you, I do not have a game-changing suggestion that will solve the challenges of traveling to conferences with small children. But I don’t think I should have to. The burden shouldn’t be on parents to figure out how to survive in a culture that clearly was not been built for them. It is time to change the culture.

Some may disagree and argue that if we have made the “choice” to be an academic parent, we should deal with the challenges. I would argue, though, that for funding agencies and universities who have taken the stance that increasing diversity, equity, and  inclusion matters to them (and there are many reasons it should7)– the fact that the current structure creates a logistical and financial burden which falls primarily on already under-represented groups – should give pause. 

Fortunately, small things can be done to help. These include making conferences more family-friendly, offering travel grants to help defray costs, and changing the ways that conference and other work-related travel are reimbursed. Specifically, conferences can include free or subsidized child care and family-friendly spaces1,4,8, universities can provide travel grants to parents to cover additional costs of work-related travel with children8, and funding agencies can offer similar grants or at least make work-related dependent travel (and travel-related childcare) reimbursable, similar to how conference/work-travel is covered for individuals*. Additionally, rules for allowable expenses could be adjusted to help accommodate traveling with children; for example, loosening restrictions on hotel reimbursement or ground transportation. Such changes would be relatively inexpensive, but could make a huge difference in how achievable conference travel is for parents, making academia an overall more welcoming and inclusive place.

*This point does have the disadvantage of depleting grant funds, which could have the ultimate consequence of disincentivizing conference attendance, making it the least attractive option. However, at the very least, this option shifts the financial burden from personal to professional funds, which is especially important for trainees/early career researchers.

Nicole C. Swann, PhD University of Oregon


1          Calisi, R. M. & a Working Group of Mothers in, S. Opinion: How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 115, 2845-2849, doi:10.1073/pnas.1803153115 (2018).

2          Calisi, R. M. Got milk, must conference. Science (New York, N.Y 359, 838, doi:10.1126/science.359.6377.838 (2018).

3          Calisi, R. M. in Scientific America    (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-special-challenges-of-being-both-a-scientist-and-a-mom/, 2018).

4          Langin, K. Are conferences providing enough child care support? We decided to find out. Science Magazine (2018).

5          Can, T. S.    (ed A Medium Corporation) (2018).

6          GSA Travel Resources, https://www.gsa.gov/travel-resources

7          Nielsen, M. W. et al. Opinion: Gender diversity leads to better science. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114, 1740-1742, doi:10.1073/pnas.1700616114 (2017).

8          Bos, A. L., Sweet-Cushman, J. & Schneider, M. in Inside Higher Ed    (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/02/07/conferences-should-be-more-family-friendly-women-scholars-children-opinion, 2018).

Getting Connected with Women in Science

We all know that professional networking is an important part of climbing the ladder to success. What might you gain from building a network of colleagues? You may develop comradery, friendships, confidants, and mentors to help guide you in your career. Networks may expose you to new ideas, provide scientific collaborations, expand your influence, and alert you to opportunities. But how do you build this network? Networking can be awkward and time-consuming, and conflict with your struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Don’t let this push networking to the back burner. If you sit back and wait for the network to come to you, it might not come knocking on your door. You must be willing to devote time and energy to building your network. What if you are shy or introverted? Do you really need to get out there and get to know people in your scientific field? The answer is a big fat, YES! The best way to have a strong professional network is to build it yourself. Look for successful women in science, introduce yourself, and ask them questions about their path to success. Build a mentoring and professional network to help you navigate the next step in your career. Dismiss the myth that asking for help means that you are weak or incompetent. It is important to recognize your strengths and weaknesses; to capitalize on your strengths and find ways to improve your weaknesses. In fact, knowing who and when to ask for help could provide you with the “leg up” that you need to navigate the path to success. Asking for help communicates to others that, although you may not have all of the answers, you are willing to find out strategies to address these weaknesses. Use these relationships for exchange and promotion of ideas and information. Continue the networking conversation by following up with someone you’ve recently met at an event. For a network to be successful, the interactions should be continued over a suitable period of time and not just a one-time meeting. You might send them an e-mail when you return to work and make arrangements to meet during upcoming events. Say yes to serving on committees, and be an active and vocal member. Learn the names of the people on the committees and contact them outside of the committee service. You must be willing to do the work and ask for the type of help that you need, or you may be passed over when it really counts. Mentors may not know what you need as a mentee. Since your mentor may be your research advisor, a postdoctoral fellow in the next lab, a faculty member in the department, or a scientist you met at a national or international meeting, you may need to help each other figure out what type of mentoring relationship will provide the best outcomes. You want to feel connected, supported, and inspired as you build the professional network.

Advantages of Connecting with Women

For some female scientists, they may not perceive an advantage of gaining a mentoring relationship with female over male scientists. Male mentors might predominantly focus their efforts on your scientific goals, whereas female mentors are more likely to focus on guiding your life inside and outside of science. Many female scientists have experienced novel guidance from female mentors and role models. Female scientists are positioned to share their personal experiences with conscious or unconscious gender discrimination in science. By sharing their stories, female mentors may prepare their mentees to handle these types of encounters if they occur in the future or help mentees look in retrospect at discriminatory events. Female mentors may encourage you to be more direct in asking for what you need and in making your career goals clear to those around you. Women often need to be encouraged to value their knowledge, skills, and contributions to science, and not to underestimate their value and worth. Don’t be afraid to ask successful women in science to share their secrets of how they have succeeded in a male-dominated career. Learning how the “good old boys” club works is not likely to be shared with you by male mentors; instead, women who have discovered how the system works can guide you into making strong connections and gaining experience. Don’t wait to be invited as a scientific symposium speaker; propose a symposium and place yourself as a speaker. Don’t patiently wait to be asked to give a research seminar within your institution or outside of your institution; chair a scientific session, serve as member of a committee, review abstracts, or serve as a judge. Volunteer your services and get in the middle of science instead of looking in from the outside. Many female mentees find that women mentors are able to share their experiences in maintaining a healthy life and work balance. Because these women have gone through the challenges of handling marriage, pregnancy, and child care with the demands of a scientific career, they may offer concrete suggestions on how to manage these many demands on your time. In fact, time management is very important, since it will focus your efforts on what needs to be accomplished in the laboratory in the upcoming week so that you’ll have time for your personal life.

Connect Informally with Women at Your Institution

I have found that getting connected with women in science is important for guiding my career forward and providing me the forum to mentor junior women in science. I hope that you are inspired to take a closer look at the women in your institution that may serve as a part of your scientific network. I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be mentored by many successful women in science. I’ve found that it is worth the time and effort to seek out and serve on committees that are designed to serve women in science as well as committees to serve the department, university, societies, and organizations. My exposure to the benefits of meeting female colleagues, finding out the types of research that they conduct, and sharing difficulties and successes in science began as a first-year graduate student at Tulane University in New Orleans. At the time, there was one female faculty member in the department of physiology. She invited the female graduate students to lunch, and I was the only student who was available. I was amazed that a senior faculty member could take the time to get to know me. These lunches grew to include female postdoctoral fellows, technicians, and faculty. I looked forward to these times to get away from the campus and have a nice lunch in a nearby restaurant. I had the opportunity to really get to know the graduate students, fellows, and female faculty in my department. Also during this time, she arranged for women faculty in the school to meet for lunch on a regular basis. At these networking events, I was able to learn from basic and clinical scientists about strategies to balance work and family, maintain resiliency, and become a successful woman in science. Maintaining a positive outlook and preventing burnout are important behaviors to learn in the highly competitive field of science. When the senior scientist left Tulane, I took over the role of continuing the physiology networking lunches until my departure. Now, I’ve begun a “Junior Women in Physiology Faculty Networking Luncheon” at LSUHSC and enjoy our time together. You may want to start your own networking luncheons at your institution. Also, I hope that you’ll accept invitations from members of your department and institution to participate in social networking events. These meetings may provide a forum to discuss issues related to 1) authorship order on manuscripts, 2) strategies for grant proposals, 3) collaborations on research projects, 4) promotion and tenure, and 5) work and life balance, to name a few. Be sure to start close to home and connect with women in your department and institution.

Connect Formally with Women at Your Institution

You might be surprised how serving on a committee at your institution may provide a unique perspective of success in academics. Serving on multiple committees for the school of medicine has fostered my interaction with basic scientists, clinicians, and university administrators. Working in these capacities has provided the forum for me to develop relationships with members of the school that I would not normally encounter if I focused all of my attention on my own department. Serving on committees may help you gain the bigger picture of what is going on at your institution. By sharing information, practices, education, and experiences, women can accelerate the advancement of women in science.

Connect with Women in Your Scientific Societies

It is never too early in your career to develop a supportive network. Be sure to develop friendships with fellow graduate students who share common research interests. Like you, they will become the scientists of the future. They may be able to help you find the right person to answer questions about methods, strategies for advancement, finding a fellowship, and how to gain teaching experience, to name a few examples. They can also be life-long friends with which you can share your successes and challenges during your entire career. As an assistant professor, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Women in Physiology Committee. This was my first experience serving as a member of a scientific society committee. At the time, I thought that I was too junior to serve on a societal committee and almost declined the invitation. Many scientific organizations have trainee members on committees and may have an entire committee run by trainees and devoted to the specific challenges of graduate students and fellows. I learned a great deal from the women chairing and working on the committee. These successful female physiologists taught me how to positively impact the career success of women in physiology by implementing the symposia we hosted at the Experimental Biology meetings that were specifically designed to address issues related to being a successful female physiologist. I did not realize that my serving on one societal committee may lead to my serving on another committee in the same organization. Later, I was appointed to the American Physiological Society Membership Committee, for which I served as a member for 2 years and as the chair for 3 years. I worked closely with the members of the committee as well as the American Physiological Society staff. I gained confidence in leading a team, implementing new initiatives, and realizing that I could make a difference. During my time as chair of the committee, I had the opportunity to attend the annual summer council meetings, which broadened my circle of colleagues and my knowledge of their scientific area of expertise. At the time that I accepted the position of chair, I did not know that I would have the opportunity to attend the summer meeting with my fellow committee chairs, councilors, and presidents. Name and face recognition provided me with an extended scientific family. Looking back, I can see that saying yes the first time opened the door for my continued participation in the mission of the society. During this time, I was appointed to the American Society of Nephrology, Women in Nephrology Programming Committee, for which I served for 8 years. My major contribution to the mission of the committee was to organize scientific symposia topics that included female speakers for the annual American Society of Nephrology meetings. In addition to attending the business meetings held during the annual meetings, we also gathered each year for a group dinner. The conversations at the dinners were often the most informative for gaining strategies to optimize my career success while balancing the time that I needed to have a rewarding and fulfilling personal life. As a member of this committee, I was able to connect with female nephrologists and renal physiologists. Continued service to the American Physiological Society as a member of the Education Committee cemented my relationships with the society staff members and physiologists with a commitment to further education initiatives in K-12. Without serving on these committees, I would not have developed long-lasting female scientist mentors who have assisted me with research ideas, strategies for career advancement, and invitations to give seminars and symposia, as well as provided letters of support for promotion. At the time that I said yes to serving on the committees, I did not realize the positive impact these women would have on my career trajectory. Be proactive in your volunteer service to societal organizations. Many committees would welcome a new member who is enthusiastic about contributing to the mission of the society. Trainees and junior faculty need to find a balance between the time commitment spent on research and service. Be careful that your time devoted to service does not hinder your career trajectory.

Connect with Women in Your Geographical Region

More recently, my time has been spent as a founding member, active participant, and secretary of the Southern Louisiana chapter of the Association for Women in Science. The chapter is dedicated to empowering women in science and technology by providing a platform for networking opportunities and career development programs, and to promoting an interest in science among girls and young women. In many ways, my service to this chapter is a compilation of my efforts honed while a member of societal committees. I’m in the position to gain mentoring from senior female faculty and to serve as a mentor for junior women in science in the geographical region. There is an intangible benefit to getting to know both the scientist and the person. Developing a working relationship with female scientists from basic and clinical science in the region has provided a larger and more diverse professional network. Contributing to education outreach and professional development programs offered by the chapter has provided me with a venue for me to reach out and mentor young women in science. It is rewarding to have a positive impact on the education and careers of young women in science. You may not have to look very far to find an established group of women in science in which to participate in your geographical region.


Networking expands opportunities within company walls and externally. It allows women to find role models and mentors inside the department, institution, region, nationally, and internationally. Of course, one can have many mentors, male and female; to help grow into the scientist, teacher, and person you want to be. Social connection and professional engagement can make your job more interesting, rewarding, and enduring. I hope that you will look for and engage in formal and informal gatherings that promote women professionals connecting with each other. Take a break from your desk or bench and get out to meet and learn from others. Invest more of your time building relationships instead of keeping your head to the grindstone. I hope that you find many new avenues for career development, advancement, and self-fulfillment by building and maintaining an effective professional network of mentors and colleagues.

Lisa is grateful for the assistance in the preparation of this article provided by Michael G. Levitzky, Kathleen H. McDonough, and the members of the Southern Louisiana Chapter of the Association of Women in Science.

Harrison-Bernard 2010[1]



Lisa M Harrison-Bernard, PhD is a New Orleans native who graduated from the University of New Orleans in 1984 with a Bachelor’s degree with a major in Biology and a minor in Chemistry.  She graduated from Tulane University in 1990 with a doctorate in Physiology and continued with 4 years of postdoctoral training with Drs. Pamela Carmines and Gabriel Navar at Tulane Medical School. She joined the Tulane Physiology faculty in 1994 and rose through the ranks to Associate Professor in 2003. She joined the Physiology department at LSUHSC in New Orleans in 2004. Her research has been funded from the National Kidney Foundation, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the American Heart Association.
Her research focuses on the prevention and reversal of diabetic kidney disease and the role of the renin-angiotensin system in the progression of renal disease in type II diabetes.
She has published 58 scientific papers and is currently a member of the Editorial Review Board for the American Journal of Physiology: Renal Physiology, Physiological Reports, and 3 other scientific journals.  She regularly serves on grant review committees of the American Heart Association and National Institutes of Health.  Society memberships are held in American Physiological Society and the Association for Women in Science.  She is active in community outreach and education with an emphasis on increasing minorities and women in STEM fields.