Science March DC, Future of Research Teach-In

Thanks to Future of Research and some last-minute planning, I had the pleasure of leading a Teach-In at today’s March for Science DC, titled, “Challenges in Becoming a Scientist.” Despite the rain, the tent was packed with people ranging from the ages of around seven to seventy: some scientists, others not; all in support of science. While there will be an official write-up, I’d like to write some thoughts while the conversations of the day are fresh in my mind and the feeling of hope and solidarity awakened in my heart.

In what was a beautiful example of the marriage between the arts and sciences, banners with poems relating to science were placed in a tent for people to admire. I got permission to borrow the banner of this poem, “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” which I used to kickstart the session with the affirmation that anyone, including a one-year old curiously tugging at the tablecloth, can be considered a scientist and should be encouraged in that pursuit (perhaps to the chagrin of her poor mother, which I’m sure many of our own parents can remember well).

It seemed appropriate that the first question came from a small girl who expressed to me her concern over global warming and pollution, followed by another by a young boy who expressed his concern over the loss of wildlife due to hunting. Their bravery opened up the inquisitive, if somewhat shy or socially conscious minds, of the adults in the room, who quickly followed suit.

I mentioned a desire to hear everyone’s voices and concerns, and asked for a respect of the differing opinions shaped by our own limited and human experiences, for a recognition of the inherent human worth in everyone present.

I was incredibly grateful for the older man who bravely asked, “If I get two identical resumes, should I go with the diversity pick, just for diversity’s sake.” I say he was brave because we unfortunately live in a world that might have labeled him as ignorant or angrily responded YES! without considering his concerns and engaging. He was being a true scientist, asking a question that challenged his worldview, open to the data that might contradict him.

I challenged him to invite both candidates in for an interview, to recognize that rarely are two people as identical as their resumes might make them seem. I challenged him to take an implicit bias test online; to be aware of the quick, unconscious decisions his brain might be making to make two non-identical resumes seem identical. Another young man, a POC and recruiter at an engineering firm, challenged this man to ask what the stories behind the resumes were:

Did one person, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, disability, or religion, take out student loans, work part-time, or finish his degree in ten years instead of the traditional four due to circumstances outside their control? Does their struggle show a strong resilience to succeed where others would not, a perseverance to pass on to mentees through example?

Finally, I challenged the man to recognize that a diversity choice is not “just a diversity choice.” I asked him to look at the faculty in his university or place of work. If there is a prevalence of one gender, race, religion, ethnicity…etc, then bringing diversity inherently challenges outdated forms of thinking, brings innovation and creativity, and provides a real example of success and mentorship to those who might have a hard time finding those who will understand their own struggles.

When a sophomore in high school asked me what he should do to become a scientist, I didn’t tell him to pile on more AP’s, join more clubs, or rack up service hours. I told him to find people who he wanted to be like and ask them for mentorship and guidance. I told him he wouldn’t have the high school phase in his life again, and he should enjoy that, to do what he loves and love what he does.

We heard from people concerned about open access, and from graduate students concerned about a lack of mentorship in careers outside of academia. We heard from a graduate student worried she wasn’t involved enough in activism as a first-year. I encouraged her to focus on her project and her own health and mental well-being; to perhaps find one issue she was passionate about and get involved only to the extent it relaxed her, not stressed her more.

Among the voices, some expressed concern about bullying and harassment, this time not in academia or higher-ed, but at the K-12 level, remembering all too clearly curiosity and enthusiasm snuffed out or closeted by taunting peers and frustrated teachers. Another young girl confirmed there was a lack of encouragement in STEM at her school.

I reminded those in the audience, especially the young ones, that enthusiasm and curiosity did not make them weird, strange, or different. It made them unique, beautiful, and a gift to a human race that so desperately needs of that very enthusiasm and curiosity.

If you are the parent to one of these children, and they are in need of encouragement, role-models, or just a friend who will listen attentively to their monologues about citrus trees or grizzly bears and answer their questions patiently, I am more than happy to help with that, be it by Twitter, Facebook, or even Skype, and am sure others would too.

It was fitting too, that the young girl who opened the questions closed them by stating:

“I’m interested in all types of science. But when I grow up, I wanna be in science with the earth…animals…and humans! And I want to make sure we are all healthy, and strong, and all feel good.”

If that’s what the future looks like, you can certainly count me in.

In science solidarity,

Juan Pablo Ruiz

 

Radical Self-Care: 3 Strategies

The pace of life in today’s world and a cultural focus on productivity and outcomes leave little time for self-care. Taking time for mental hygiene is not embedded in our culture in the way physical hygiene is; I would argue that both are equally important. You’ve probably heard or even used the phrase, “I thrive on stress.” In our scientific culture, long days and nights in the lab or in front of the computer are worn as a badge of honor, of dedication to the cause, or simply what must be done. And while low levels of temporary stress do lead to increases in some measures of performance and productivity, our bodies did not evolve to “thrive” on high levels of chronic stress. This leads to decreases in output and creativity, but is also correlated to long-term risks to your cardiovascular and immune health. Functioning on low levels of emotional energy and high levels of stress for long periods of time can feel like we’re treading water: we’re still breathing, but it’s not sustainable.

Unfortunately, it sometimes takes us sinking to notice that something is wrong and feel required to take action. And while some of us notice the issues while we’re treading water, there’s a fear that putting in more energy to fix things followed by failure will only make things worse. Many things have been said about the PhD (and academic science in general) and whether or not continuing is worth it, including this recent blog in Science and this one on the “Valley of Sh*t.” As someone who was recently in that place, and has hit rock bottom at other points in my life, I’ve developed a three point strategy for turning discomfort and stress into personal growth, ultimately leading to what one of my past counselors has called “Radical Self-Care”, and a recognition of what my needs are in a situation. Though these three points are listed in the order that makes sense for me, sometimes there is a clear need for one over another. Care must be taken however, to not get stuck on one solution if it fails to get us where we want it to: Continue reading

On Science and Narcissism

We all as scientists have experienced the joy and nervousness of meeting the superstars in our fields. Our palms get sweaty as they walk up to us after a talk, and we either sigh with relief when we’re congratulated on a job well done, or are otherwise crushed when we’re told, in a somewhat offhanded (or quite direct way) about the thousand and one flaws with our current ideas. If we’re presenting data that refutes theirs, then we’re at the risk of suffering through a diatribe during the question session of the talk.

Not all leaders in the field, and certainly not all group heads, fall under the category of what we would call narcissistic. However, the unfortunate reality about our scientific culture means that we are all, if not directly, indirectly acquainted with stories of the sometimes baffling and at times downright rude behavior of some scientists.

For Dr. Bruno Lemaitre, an insect immunologist who was on the team that won the Nobel for its work on Toll receptors, these displays of narcissism became as intriguing as some of the things he was studying at the bench. It is from this inquisitive nature and open-minded approach to researching the researchers that arose his short book titled, “An Essay on Science on Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research in the life sciences?”

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In Search of Truth and Happiness

I recently found myself at the King’s Arms pub at Oxford, across the street from the newly opened Weston Library, where works such as the Gutenberg Bible and Dorothy Hodgkin’s drawings of the structure of penicillin are on display. I was there discussing happiness with Michael Plant, a DPhil student in philosophy studying this very subject. While my life at Oxford revolves mainly around working in a biomedical lab up the hill, it’s these moments I came to Oxford for, when the magic of the city of dreaming spires truly works its way into the mind through a pint in hand. Continue reading

An Open Letter to the Creators of Lab Wars

Dear Caezar and Kuly,

I write you this letter because no board game with a kickstarter campaign has generated this amount of mixed feelings for me. You see, I, like you, am a huge board game nerd and also a scientist. I am a fan of Catan, Small World, and Dobble, to name a few. And, like most of our generation, I have also indulged my darker sense of humor with Cards Against Humanity and Common Decency and had a great time. Your game looks amazing. I will probably buy it and play with my friends. I’m sure we’ll enjoy it very much.

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Mental Health Issues in Academia – a Documentary

We have become aware of an amazing initiative taking place that aims to bring light to the struggles of PhD students suffering from mental health issues during their studies through a documentary. If you or anyone you know might be interested in this, please see the advertisement below for more information. We look forward to seeing the finished piece and partaking in the much needed dialogue that it will bring to this topic.thumbnail_Mental Health Pic

Mental Health in Academic Research – A Systematic Problem

“In recent years, a crisis has been building in academia,” says this post on Polygeia. University counseling services report increasing demand due to rising  numbers of students with serious and complex mental health problems. From what we’ve either seen or heard from colleagues, mental health problems are very common in academia, but it is surprisingly difficult to find hard data to back this claim, especially since open discussion of these topics is socially discouraged in lab environments. A recent report that came out of Berkeley last year points to 47% of PhD and 37% of masters students scoring as depressed. While these numbers are estimates and not clinical diagnoses, the few studies available in peer-review journals produced numbers of a similar scale. In an UK study, mental health issues among academics were estimated as high as 53%, while an Australian study found that mental illness among academic staff was three to four times higher than the national average. These numbers have to be handled and reported with care, but they are really concerning and point out that this issue needs to be urgently addressed. Continue reading

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.

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Welcome to Labmosphere

Welcome to Labmosphere, a social experiment and resource in the making. We are currently a small team of graduate students in the academic sciences who also have a wide array of interests in psychology, mindfulness, organizational behavior, and human wellbeing and happiness. We care about our fellow man (one of the many reasons we joined scientific exploration) and dislike seeing some of our best and brightest going through difficult and stressful times.

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