"It just came from the sky ... the timing was just wonderful for me," says Ildiko Unk. Meanwhile, Susanne Müller's boss told her, "It really fits your profile perfectly." And as for Barbara Belletti, browsing the Internet led her to something that "was really very similar to my career and my story."

Meet three European scientists with diverse backgrounds but a great deal in common: All are young mothers, and all are among the first recipients of the European Molecular Biology Organization's Restart Fellowships, which appeared on the scene just when these women needed them most.

Together with another three women who have taken at least a year's break from research, Belletti, Müller, and Unk will have 2 years of financial--and moral--support to help them get back into the game of science.

The importance of the moral support cannot be underestimated. "Sometimes, you feel completely out [of the loop] when you have a child," says Belletti, so "it's nice to think somebody still thinks you have the chance to go back to work." Unk also understands the loss of confidence that taking a break can engender. She's just had her third child and actually took longer breaks after her first two. "You don't really forget what to do," she reassures scientists thinking of embarking on family life, but you do need some time to regain the necessary self-confidence when you go back to the lab. She found previously that "it was very fast. ... Once I got back and I started to work, it was like I'd never had a break."

Why, then, should scientists with children get special treatment in the form of a dedicated fellowship scheme? Quite simply, says Unk, it levels the playing field. "The problem with other fellowships is that you really have to compete with men." That means the men who have maintained their research activities and who "have more energy" if they aren't chasing after demanding children at the end of a hard day of lab work. "Men have lots of papers" during this early stage of their careers, she points out, which places parents who have taken a career break--generally women--at a disadvantage.

Müller, meanwhile, points out that it's "never the right time" for a scientist to take a career break, so often scientist mothers delay starting their families and "end up being quite old." Unfortunately, she says, "fellowships often have an age limit," so when it's time to come back to the lab, most are unobtainable. This is not a problem with the Restart scheme, which has no such restrictions (see box).

The EMBO Restart Fellowship

The fellowship is open to both men and women who have taken a career break of at least 1 year for child care. They should hold a PhD and should normally have done some postdoctoral work before taking the break. The fellowship can be held in any of the 24 member countries of the European Molecular Biology Conference. The next deadline for applications is 15 August 2003.

For Belletti, the great bonus of the programme is that "it recognises your achievements." Instead of having to backtrack and do your time as a postdoc again, you start with a degree of independence. Having "something that's really mine" is very important to her.

The Restart fellowships aren't just helping Belletti and Unk reenter the lab. They are also allowing the women to break into the European job market again. Both had their latest children in the United States but will be taking up fellowships in their native countries--Belletti at the National Cancer Institute in Aviano, Italy, and Unk at the Hungarian Academy of Science in Szeged.

Unlike most EMBO fellowships, international mobility is not a compulsory feature of the Restart programme. Müller thinks this is just as well, because moving around is "very difficult when you have a child and, most likely, a partner." Nevertheless, she has been no slouch when it comes to her career-related travels. Originally from Germany, Müller has already returned to the lab where she was working before she had her baby: the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Milan, Italy. And she spent 6 years in Sweden before moving south.

But Müller is finding that such internationalism can have its disadvantages when it comes to raising a family. "In Italy," she observes, people don't tend to move around very much. This means that women can often return to work very quickly after having a child, because they "generally have the backup of family." Indeed, without extended family readily at hand, Müller is relieved that she has an understanding boss. "When you put your child in day care, they catch every disease around--and not only them, you [do, too]," meaning she needs the flexibility to stay at home at the drop of a hat.

But not everyone is so lucky. As well as hoping to see more funding bodies offering the kind of targeted financial support represented by EMBO's Restart scheme, all three women think that attitudes will also need to change if the professional life of scientist-parents is to improve. Unk has heard it said by other researchers that "a good scientist can't have children." Fortunately, her U.S. boss was an excellent contrary role model, having "raised four children" and still reached "the top level." And this occurred in spite of the much lower level of social support in the U.S. than Unk is expecting when she returns to Hungary.

Müller compares Italy with Sweden, where, she says, "things are much better set up" with "more day care centres." It's also "really normal" for Swedish fathers to take time out from their careers to help bring up their children. Belletti acknowledges, however, that Italian men may not be entirely to blame for the current situation. "For us, it's difficult to think, 'I will go to work and [let my partner look after the children]'," she admits.

But for now, simply by showing that it is possible for a mother to return to the lab and have a rewarding career, the EMBO awardees will be doing their bit to change attitudes. Belletti, Müller, and Unk all aspire to running their own research groups one day and intend to spend some time during their 2-year fellowships writing grants, so that they can maintain their independence in subsequent years. Indeed, Müller is confident that the fellowship will continue to help her for quite some time. After all, she points out, the EMBO label is "very prestigious," so she is looking forward to adding "EMBO has selected me!" to her CV.