CAMBRIDGE — Two and a half years ago, biology researchers at MIT were discussing their work with an outside advisory committee. What could help you in your job, they were asked. One simple answer came from the women in the room: child care.
David H. Koch, a billionaire philanthropist and MIT graduate known as much for his conservative activism as for his generosity, had attended dozens of these meetings, but had never been so moved. “I got a tear in my eye,” he said.
Koch, who had already given the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about $150 million for research and faculty positions, decided to spend $20 million more on day care.
On Friday, the David H. Koch Childcare Center will be dedicated, in a celebration that highlights a major and ongoing shift in universities’ thinking about recruiting and retaining people who do world-class research. The best professors, scientists, and researchers are not just minds, universities have increasingly acknowledged; they have families, too.
The new center will serve 126 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. It nearly doubles MIT’s day-care slots on campus.
“I’ve never seen a group of people speak with such passion and such disappointment that a problem existed and it wasn’t being fixed,” Koch said, recalling the meeting with biologists. “We would miss out on some outstanding researchers if they didn’t have proper facilities for their children.”
Large philanthropic gifts to Boston-area research institutions often support gleaming laboratories and cutting-edge equipment, not spacious, airy rooms filled with wood blocks and toddlers napping on mats.
Just a few decades ago, life was drastically different at MIT. Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor who began her career four decades ago, can recall women who treated their families like a secret.
“We really were afraid to literally talk about children in the workplace,” said Hopkins, who does not have children. “We did not talk about them; they didn’t exist. There were people who believed if a woman had children, you couldn’t be a great scientist.”
In contrast, many universities today have increased their day-care offerings and are beginning to offer new kinds of financial and other support.
At Harvard University, efforts to support work-life balance have increased in the last decade. There are more day-care slots, new financial support for families, and extensions of the “tenure clock,” the time young parents have before they are reviewed for tenure.
Judy Singer, senior vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Harvard, said that over the past four years, nearly $4 million in financial aid has been awarded to faculty to help with child-care costs. When Singer arrived at the university in 1984, such accommodations were unheard of.
“People did have families,” Singer said. “But it was your problem.”
And it is not just mothers pushing for more support. So are fathers, who increasingly share child care with partners who are equally busy and ambitious.
Phillip Zamore, codirector of the RNA Therapeutics Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said that although he was supposed to start his own research laboratory in Worcester in 1999, he did not actually move there until the following year, because he and his wife were waiting for their daughter, Hannah, to get off the day-care waiting list.
Once he was finally at UMass, Zamore set an example by working hard at science, but making it clear his family was also a priority.
One of his graduate students would walk with Zamore to day care in the afternoon to talk science, holding data in front of Zamore as he put his son in a baby carrier.
Later, Zamore and other faculty members pushed the administration to open a new day-care center on campus that followed one rule: “the Zamore mile,” close enough that faculty could walk to it from their offices.
He has tried to foster a culture in his laboratory to support people having families: There have been four babies born in the last year to his research associates.
“The very period when people are making the transition from trainees to faculty — the end of graduate school through postdoc to first faculty appointment — coincides exactly with when human beings are designed to have kids,” Zamore said.
“And we certainly don’t want to tell our best and brightest young people that one has to choose between the joy of being a parent and the joy of being a scientist.”
The culture may have changed so much that young researchers no longer see the current state of affairs as anything out of the ordinary.
This week, Chris and Elizabeth Follett, graduate students at MIT, began taking their 10-month-old daughter, Marie, to the new day-care center, about a 15-minute walk from their apartment on campus.
Before Marie started day care, the Folletts divided child care into six-hour shifts; one of them would work while the other cared for Marie. Sometimes, they would walk as a family to Elizabeth’s laboratory in the evening so that she could check on an experiment.
“We figured out what priorities we have and made it work,” Chris said. “We put her in day care because we value the jobs we have, and day care is a great experience.”
What is perhaps most striking is how talking about family has become a matter of course, among people best known for pushing the frontiers of knowledge.
When Sara Seager, an MIT astrophysicist won a MacArthur “genius” award in September, she said she planned to spend the award money on child care and household support.
Seager is a widow who lost her husband, a stay-at-home dad who managed the household and their two son’s schedules, to cancer. Freeing up her mind by getting help with managing her household, she said, is the best investment she can make in her career.
“It will go farther for my creativity and success,” Seager said. “After I stay up late and have time all to myself, should I be making lunches?”
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@
globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.