Tag Archives: science

A call for acceptance of career polygamy in science

Throughout my academic career from undergrad to my current postdoc, I’ve been perplexed by my atypical relationship with science. Yes, research and I have maintained a long, passionate love affair, but an affair apparently unlike those enjoyed by my colleagues. My unconventional attitude towards my work has served as a disconcerting voice that I’m just not cut out for a serious scientific career. I’ll certainly never win a Nobel, probably won’t publish in Science and may never even hold a faculty position. This reality has never really bothered me, but my lack of bother has been a subtle source of concern.

Only now, as a postdoc years into my Neuroscientific career, am I beginning to understand what makes my love affair with science so unusual. It’s by no means less genuine or less impassioned than those of colleagues madly pursuing tenure-track jobs; rather, it’s set apart by its polygamous nature. I get enthralled by new theories, overwhelmed with the excitement of shiny new data, and bore friends and family with my ecstatic ramblings about my research. I am a scientist for no other reason than I love it. However, it’s not the only object of my affection. I have never been, and probably never will be, able to suppress my love for so many other facets of life. A monogamous relationship with Neuroscience would just never suffice for me.

20131007-001611Since I was a teenager, a certain passage from Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar has always haunted me. She shared her predicament of being unable to choose a single fig – a life path, and as her indecision gripped her the figs wilted, leaving her starving and without a future. I’ve long been distraught by this similar fear of foregoing any one of my many dreams, wavering among so many enticing options and failing to commit to one whole-heartedly. As did Sylvia, I too considered this a flaw … a characteristic that would hold me back and prevent me from attaining my goals. As I’m finally understanding that these scattered passions or lack of focus – call it what you will – lie at the heart of my atypical approach to my work, I am also finally accepting that this is not necessarily a flaw.

“Good” scientists come in all shapes and sizes, but common to all is a sincere curiosity, a longing for answers and a rigorous devotion to unveiling them. Although these are precisely the factors that originally drew me to Neuroscience, I have always struggled with the conviction that I must not love my work quite enough – or at least not as much as the rock-stars around me, spending grueling hours in the lab, aiming for the highest impact-factor journals and power-networking with the bigwigs in their field. To a certain degree, these are crucial elements of a successful research trajectory, and I too have worked hard, held my research quality to the highest standards, and of course reveled in the rewards of grants and publications. But I have worked equally hard outside of the lab. Throughout grad school and my postdoc, I’ve allowed myself to pick several of those ripe, juicy figs and have savored every one of them. I’m not talking about the conventional concept of work-life balance that we’ve come to accept – at least superficially – is essential for job satisfaction. I’m referring more specifically to work-work balance. I indulge my writing addiction through freelance writing and editing and won’t hesitate to take on other side-projects as I’m so inspired. These endeavors are often neuro-related, but sometimes sprout from my obsession with running and fascination with sports physiology and biomechanics. These extra-neuro pursuits are as much “work” as my research, and I approach them all with the same intensity and devotion. They have not limited my productivity as a Neuroscientist, but have actually fostered it, by keeping me fresh, motivated and engaged with novel perspectives within and beyond the science community.

I’ve been blessed with both graduate and postdoc advisers who’ve been remarkably supportive of my promiscuous work habits, which has doubtlessly contributed to my own recent acceptance of my choices. Yet, I suspect my fortune is the exception rather than the rule, with the admission of this sort of behavior being met with disapproval or condemnation in many labs. In the current academic environment, time spent outside lab or even (gasp!) enjoying yourself is too often considered a sign of laziness or lack of drive. Tales of researchers working themselves to poor health or even suicide are rampant. It’s not clear how a field based on incentives so beautiful as curiosity and understanding has become so ugly, but it’s far time this trend is reversed. Outside interests or other professional pursuits should not be sources of guilt, and are not – contrary to common belief – prohibitive of a flourishing scientific career. Any culture that discourages the nurturing of broad interests can be toxic, stifling both personal growth and, ironically, professional development and productivity.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with the driven pursuit of a focused scientific career – and I strongly admire my dedicated colleagues who have chosen this path – it’s time we reject the myth that this is the only honorable or effective route to scientific success. As a first step, I’m embracing my relationship with Neuroscience, idiosyncrasies and all, and proudly proclaiming that we’ve been polygamous all along.

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n=1

The fundamental motivation driving most scientific research is simple: to discover the truth. To accomplish this goal, researchers attempt to find reliable patterns that explain why something is the way it is. But as hard as we might try, it is exceedingly difficult to boil down reality to simple rules and laws. More often, we might discover an effect that holds some of the time, under some conditions, depending on a multitude of frequently unpredictable or unidentifiable factors. In our quest for answers we therefore aim to control for the irrelevant variability across our sample in order to reveal meaningful differences related to our variable of interest. Although this variability can be the frustrating source of a finding that hovers just above the (arbitrarily) coveted .05 alpha, it can also be magnificently informative.

Recently, there have been growing efforts to integrate scientific understanding of human physiology, biomechanics and metabolism into the realm of athletic performance. While I entirely support and encourage every runner to self-educate from well-conducted scientific research, it can be dangerous to accept every claim without a certain level of skepticism. Peruse the countless running blogs, forums, magazines and books and you will find self-proclaimed experts confidently backing their particular running shoe, diet, training plan, pre-race routine, blah, blah, blah as the healthiest or most effective. Why, then, is much of the running community stuck battling frequent injury, fatigue and discouragement? As much as we try to generalize into tight, clean categories, the fact remains that immense variation exists between runners in terms of ideal nutrition, biomechanics and training. When was the last time you heard a claim along the lines of “The majority of people report increased (insert effect Y here) from (insert cause X here)”? Many will readily infer a universal, causal relationship between X and Y while overlooking that in a subset of individuals X did not increase Y. Again, variability can be informative. Assuming that such claims are based on properly designed and conducted studies (watch out – this is not always a valid assumption!) a likely explanation for such differences is that individuals have distinct responses to X. We like to assume that if it works for you it will certainly work for me, while forgetting the not-so-insignificant detail that we are different people. My best advice to become a stronger, happier runner is to value your own experience above that of others. In fact, you might want to stop reading this blog right now. The most informed expert about what will benefit you … is you.

Over the recent past I have approached my lifestyle as an experiment with n=1 and made the fascinating discovery that what works for my optimal health and happiness is often drastically different from what the media, coaches and even doctors traditionally advise. This exploratory period was sparked largely by a 6-month journey through Asia and Africa during which I ate, slept and exercised erratically. Upon returning to the U.S. I appeared thin, weak and scraggly. Paradoxically, I clocked each of my 7 post-travel marathons faster than my 3 pre-travel marathons, with an average 20 minute post-travel improvement (p < .0001; yes I am just that nerdy that I ran the stats). How had months of exposure to intense physical stressors and a clean break from running, all while abandoning conventional health advice left me with greater strength and endurance than ever before? It turns out I may not in fact be a freak of nature; rather, a wealth of research has demonstrated that mild to moderate stressors such as physical activity, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, social or environmental stress are associated with diverse benefits including improved cardiovascular health and cognitive function, increased hippocampal neurogenesis and longevity (Lyons et al., 2010, Mattson & Wan 2005, Minois 2000Parihar et al., 2011) .

While I by no means advocate abusing or shocking your system into super-human running condition, there seems to be a delicate balance between positive and negative stressors that varies from person to person. Using a mindful approach of starting from the conventional center and slowly testing my limits, I am continuously discovering my individual zone of comfort, health and strength. In future posts I hope to share observations from my personal experiments with injury prevention and treatment, nutrition, footwear (and lack of) and training tactics. To any runner looking to these posts or any other resources for advice, I strongly suggest you take them with a grain of salt and then conduct your own experiment of one.

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