AbbVie: Flexibility is Key to This Mom's Work-Life Balance

Achieving balance between work, family, health and outside interests is a lifelong challenge for working mother Sarah Co. And it tends to be a moving target, as it can be for all working mothers, with every piece growing or changing in different ways.

At work, Co is a senior scientist at AbbVie in operations science and technology, and at home she’s a wife and busy mother of Ethan (age 8) and Ellie (age 2). Most days, Co works 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and plans her schedule carefully so she can make sure she’s home for family time, which many nights includes dinner, practicing violin and piano with her son, and reading or playing piano with her daughter.

Although process chemistry is a demanding full-time job, Co worked to create a schedule that enables her to be home with her family most evenings. She has the flexibility, thanks to her AbbVie managers and project teams, to start later on Mondays to take care of her children in the morning and leaves early on Fridays to pick up her son from school to take him to his violin lesson.

In addition, Co reduced her travel over the years to be as home as much as possible with her young children. And since much of Co’s work is done online, she makes good use of her time working while commuting on the train.

“Having this flexibility has been a huge benefit to me personally to reduce the amount of time I was spending at night completing work,” Co says.

Driving Culture Improvements

Co recently celebrated her 10-year anniversary with the company and despite her busy home schedule, she continuously drives culture improvements at AbbVie to work smarter and better.

“It’s so important to me to be a loving wife, mother, daughter and sister, but my work at AbbVie is also an integral part of who I am,” Co says.

Co is a generous team player, consistently looking out for her colleagues. While pumping at work for more than 24 months for her two children, Co maintained excellent productivity and used her experience to be a role model and advocate for other nursing mother scientists. As a mentor for a recent new mother, she courageously ensured that her mentee had an appropriate mother’s room in their building, allowing her to work efficiently.

Co is a change maker not only at AbbVie, but also in the community. When she discovered firsthand that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was not completely prepared to accommodate nursing mothers at Symphony Center, she and her husband offered some recommendations to CSO house manager Charles Braico that might change the experience for nursing mothers.

“I am always grateful for specific ideas about how to improve the patron experience here at Symphony Center,” Braico says. “After speaking with Ms. Co during her visit to one of our family concerts, it led us to take steps to educate our front of house staff about the options that we already have in place at Symphony Center for nursing mothers and how to assist them.”

Outside of her scientific contributions for AbbVie, Co has explored and promoted a number of technologies to help her department be more efficient, collaborative and productive, in one case implementing a brainstorming tool for creating maps of ideas or hypotheses. In addition, she rolled out electronic lab notebooks and automated data archiving to her department to help collaboration and sharing among process researchers across divisions.

“I’m passionate about working at AbbVie, not only because of the remarkable impact we have on patients, but because of the talented, dedicated and caring people with whom I work,” Co says. “I am inspired by them and learn new things from them every day.”

“While I am so honored to receive this recognition, I want to honor all the other working mothers at AbbVie, especially those in laboratory scientific fields,” Co says. “There are so many unsung heroes who make sacrifices at both work and home to be both amazing contributors at AbbVie, as well as wonderful mothers.”

Falling in Love with Science

Co’s father was a chemistry professor, so she was exposed to science throughout her childhood, but it wasn’t until sophomore year in college when she took organic chemistry and fell in love with science. The professor started with stereochemistry, commonly a difficult to understand topic, and explained every concept in a clear, simple way.

“He emphasized the puzzle-solving aspects and highlighted the patterns of reactivity rather than the memorization of hundreds of reactions,” Co says. “His teaching method really clicked with my thinking and the rest is history.”

Before changing her major to chemistry, she started college as a music major and wanted to be a professional cellist in a string quartet or symphony orchestra.

A Creative Outlet

Music has always played a large role in Co’s life and she played three instruments growing up cello, tenor saxophone and oboe. She participated in marching, jazz and concert bands, as well as multiple orchestras in and outside of school. Co also attended intensive summer music programs for five summers during middle and high school, where she developed her cello playing, met now-superstars (Hillary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz) and made good friends.

“Music is not only a creative outlet for me, it teaches me about non-verbal and verbal communication and working with a diverse team,” Co says. “A beautiful symphony is the perfect example of collaboration. Like the development of a successful medicine, it requires everyone doing their best to achieve a common goal. With visionary leaders and agile, mindful team members, it becomes more than the sum of its parts.”

She’s now passing on her love of music to both of her children and works with them in the evenings practicing violin and piano with her son, and playing piano with her daughter.

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