Dividing and Conquering

I’ve found it quite interesting lately that a few of the students and lab heads I talk to about the issues in science immediately shut down and say, “that’s just the way science is.” Other times when discussing one issue, all the other issues inevitably come up due to their interconnectedness and we end our conversations with sighs of “there are just so many, aren’t there?”

If you’re familiar with gardening, dealing with these issues can feel like trying to remove ivy from a plot of land. You pull one strand up, and a massive tangled web that extends to the entire patch comes up with it. If you break the delicate strand, you lose the roots, and you might as well not have done the job at all. Overwhelming, right?

But like with ivy, compartmentalizing the issues in science that need fixing and maintenance as well as finding support from a team can make something daunting seem much more manageable. I’ve broadly categorized the issues not only to help people tackle them more effectively at the individual and cultural level, but also to break the misconception for a lot of these that they’re inherent to the process of doing science.

1. Issues Intrinsic to Scientific Discovery: 

These are the issues that are truly “intrinsic,” and any scientist across time and cultures will experience these as a curious individual. These include failed experiments, results that don’t support our hypotheses, and feeling like we’re trudging along with no direction. In his TED talk on emotions in science, Uri Alon refers to this state of being as “the cloud.” Because everyone will inevitably experience this at some point or another in their career, the best solution for getting ourselves out of these ruts is to rely on the support networks we have in our labmates, group heads, mentors, and peers. At the individual level, there are tried and tested ways for promoting clear-thinking, creativity, and problem solving (Hint: they involve stepping back and taking a break, not spending more time in lab). Though they may not seem like it, these problems are actually healthy. Overcoming them is what truly leads to new and exciting data and ideas. Check out our links to resources on the site for some ideas on how to deal with some of these issues and stay tuned for future blogs on this topic.

2. Issues Intrinsic to Scientific Enterprise: 

These issues are less intrinsic and can be changed with culture. They are intrinsic only to this day and age, and how the enterprise of doing science is structured. The pressures of having low levels of funding and constantly needing to write grants, to publish in high profile journals to prove your worth, of getting scooped, and of not having enough job prospects all fall into this category. Again, because most scientists will have experienced these issues in some form, getting advice and support from those who have overcome these obstacles or deal with them on a regular basis is good practice. Feeling like you’re alone in your struggles will only push you deeper into despair and hopelessness. Seek support and solidarity.

At the individual level, taking writing (and reading!) courses might be highly beneficial. At the cultural level, becoming actively involved in changing the policies that govern science and how we see funding and publishing can generate momentum that leads to measurable change in the long run. This is something we hope to accomplish here at Labmosphere, but also encourage everyone to do so at the local level, and share their stories of inspiration with the community.

3. Issues Extrinsic to Science: 

These are the most problematic, from the microaggressions to the overtly blatant problems, because they get excused as being “a part of science,” when this is not the case. Issues of discrimination and bias based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical disability, as well as bullying and harassment from mentors and group heads and hyper-competitiveness within and among lab groups should never be tolerated. Because they have permeated the culture, we think of these as intrinsic to science, but they actually stifle creative and productive output. To make things worse, all of these issues stem from interactions with the communities that should be providing support and solutions to the other two types of issues mentioned above. In these cases, not only are they absent in this role, they are actively contributing to the high levels of stress and discomfort in lab environments which actually decrease our creativity and problem-solving abilities.

Hopefully we can all avoid environments of this kind, but if and when you find yourself in them, you should consider taking courses in nonviolent communication, managing up and conflict resolution. However, expecting everything to get suddenly better and not be a constant struggle in really toxic environments is unrealistic, and you must make the choice either of reporting abuse, negligence, and/or workplace dysfunction, or of leaving the situation for an environment that fosters healthy growth, learning, and development. Both of these will take large amounts of emotional (and therefore physical) energy, as well as time. You should always make sure you have appropriate safety nets, supports, and advocates in place to maintain a healthy state of mind during these difficult times. (You can also stay in the toxic environment, but that can take huge tolls on your emotional and mental well-being, not to mention your career).

Part of Labmosphere’s mission is to raise awareness of these issues and demand that universities and departments take a more direct and active role in holding those who perpetuate this last type of problem accountable, as well as in providing more effective and protective means of reporting such abuse for trainees. If you want to share good or bad stories with us to be published anonymously as a way to raise awareness of these issues, see our Share your Story section.

Our main mission at Labmosphere is to generate discussion, solidarity, and support from a global community of scientists for people dealing with any of these three types of issues. We also hope to generate awareness that leads to sustainable cultural change. Hopefully with the appropriate tools and team support for recognizing and dealing with the problems at hand, you will feel less overwhelmed next time you pull up a handful of scientific ivy.


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Juan Pablo

Juan Pablo Ruiz is currently working towards a DPhil in Biomedical Sciences. His research interests are in tissue and stem cell engineering, as well as developmental biology. He also has a wide array of interests which include positive psychology, literature, and creative writing. He recently received an ASD level 1, or Asperger's diagnosis, and is now working to break the stigma surrounding mental health and neurodiversity in academia.

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