An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Scene at MIT: PhD Baby and Her Mama

  • Alejandra Falla PhD '18
  • Slice of MIT

“I am originally from Colombia. I did my BS and MS in microbiology at Los Andes University in Bogotá. I decided to come to the U.S. to gain additional research experience, so I went to Dartmouth College to work as a research associate at the medical school. I joined MIT in 2011 and became part of the Jacquin Niles Laboratory at the Department of Biological Engineering to complete my PhD in microbiology.

Starting a family while still finishing my PhD was definitely challenging, but at the same time inspirational. My husband and I always wanted to have kids, but we are both scientists and were unsure about the best time to do it. About a week after my final thesis committee meeting, I found out I was pregnant. I was very scared at the beginning because of the stressful time ahead; I still had to finish experiments, write a thesis, and have a public defense.

Visualizing her wearing a baby regalia and being with me during the graduation ceremonies was an image that motivated me to continue.

I had a difficult first trimester. But as I started to process the idea of having a baby, I began to understand the true meaning of life and how my priorities were about to change. Being pregnant while finishing my thesis helped me to have a better perspective on life: My PhD thesis was not my entire world anymore; I was responsible for another human being, and that came with many responsibilities. I had to be productive, accomplish all my goals, and also take care of myself. With all the challenges ahead I needed to find a good balance, and for that, I had the incredible support of my husband. We worked as a team to ensure I had a healthy pregnancy.

I defended my thesis when I was six months pregnant. Everything went really well, and after the defense I kept doing experiments right until the end, a day before I went into labor. My little girl was my principal inspiration, she gave me the strength I needed. Clara was born Feb. 14 — a Valentine’s baby! — and she is very happy and healthy. Visualizing her wearing a baby regalia and being with me during the graduation ceremonies was an image that motivated me to continue. It soon became my dream to walk with her during Commencement, both of us wearing regalia. So I mentioned the idea to my mother-in-law, and she made it possible! Back at home in Colombia, she talked to her tailor to see if she could make MIT regalia for Clara. We sent her a picture, and the tailor created a handmade replica of the regalia very similar to the adult version. My mother-in-law sent the outfit with my dad and my brother, who came from Colombia to attend Commencement, which meant the world to me.

It felt like a dream come true and at the same time gave me some closure.

The hooding ceremony and Commencement were very memorable. It felt like a dream come true and at the same time gave me some closure. In addition to my brother and dad, my husband — who also graduated with a PhD in microbiology from MIT, three years ago — was present with our daughter. Attending both ceremonies was also a way to honor my mom’s wishes. She passed away unexpectedly two years ago at the age of 59, and she always had the dream of seeing me on stage receiving my diploma. She also dreamed of being a grandmother, and I know she was present in spirit during the ceremony, watching me graduate. I am very grateful to the MIT Microbiology Graduate Program and the entire MIT community. This place has been very supportive and welcoming, and I cannot think of a better place to have started a family.”

First published by the MIT News Office. Read the full story.

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