A roadmap for the budding scientist
Author: Sabrina Sartori
It’s raining outside of the lab, and while I am working on the last experiments for my thesis, the monotonous sound of the rain is broken only by the one of a running centrifuge. As I put on a pair of gloves and get ready to pipette the next set of samples, my mind is busy wondering about the career choices I have made so far. At the crossroads between university and the job market, I believe it is common to reflect upon the past and what we wish we had done differently. Like many other molecular biologists pursuing a career in research, a couple years ago I moved abroad for my studies. This was not what I had envisioned for myself when I was a high school student. All my readings about Jane Goodall and her field studies on chimpanzees fueled my passion for ethology, the study of animal behaviour. This inspired me to also become a field biologist and to pursue an undergraduate degree in Biology. Initially, my studies were primarily textbook-based with no chances to interact with real-life scientists. Books and mainstream media shaped my idea of what a scientist’s work entails. As such, I imagined lab scientists as socially isolated and “awkward”. As weird as it may sound, I was fascinated by those characters, probably fostered by the glamorous, romantic aura surrounding mysterious people doing bizarre things.
During the final year at university, my bias was completely changed when I met one of my lab supervisors. She was a passionate and friendly female researcher blessed with charismatic teaching abilities and empathic mentoring. She showed me how rewarding it could be for a young woman to work in a lab, both enjoying her job and finding time to cultivate her passions. Meeting that one special lab researcher shaped my future career. Jane Goodall was still my hero, but she was out of reach to me, which left me with many questions about the research she carried out. Bestselling books aside, what would it really take to perform field experiments like she did? My mentor at university revealed a new world to me - the world of the lab. This is why, after graduating, I applied for a research-oriented Master’s programme in Germany with a focus on molecular biology. I could see myself becoming a real lab-scientist!
Excited for the adventure ahead, I left Italy, my home country, with a cargo of warnings from family and friends about the cultural shocks awaiting me, the homesickness I would feel, and the language barriers I would face. Once in Germany, I realised my luggage was heavier than I thought. As soon as I started my lab internships, I began to face some struggles that nobody prepared me for, not even the mentor that set me on this path. Academia can be tougher than expected and the most unsettling aspect was finding out that you rarely hear people talking about mental health in this environment. I didn’t believe it until I found myself in a hyper-competitive environment. I saw how the pressure to succeed often leads to burnouts and impairs your work-life balance. This is especially true for smaller institutions, which are the usual starting points for inexperienced students like me. As a foreigner, finding support was even harder. Was there something wrong with me for not being able to keep up the pace I was expected to? Starting to doubt my self-worth, feeling lost and inadequate, I felt the need to spend some time outside of the lab. I took a break from my studies, and jumped on the opportunity to work for an institution that does outreach activities for high school students.
During my time there, I was involved in moderating events in which researchers talk to students about their life and work. I was surprised to see how the ideal lab life that was pictured clearly differed from my own experience. I remember an early-career researcher talking about his many international trips, the daily beer sessions with his colleagues, his string of successful experiments and how he would celebrate them. His words painted a picture that was far from the bumpy ride that I was intimately familiar with. As you can imagine, my feelings of inadequacy were now mixed with confusion. But then something happened: behind the scenes he admitted to me that his speech was not reflecting his routine in the lab, but rather he described just a few memorable events. By leaving out the unpredictable nature of research, I felt that he failed to deliver the message that hard work and sacrifice do not always pay off in academia. After hearing the truth behind this sugar-coated talk, I had to dig deeper into this topic. Despite being commonly swept under the rug, I managed to talk to other researchers in my field willing to disclose their struggles, which were so like mine. I was not alone. I would describe this as a bittersweet moment, in which the relief of knowing that many people felt like me was combined with sadness for those who left academia because it was taking a toll on their wellbeing. In the stories I was hearing there was a recurring theme: having some tools to navigate the academic world would have made a huge difference: “I loved what I was doing. But if only I had known better, I would have chosen a lab more carefully”, “I wish I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now. I would reach out for help so that I wouldn’t leave”. I couldn’t help but start wondering: what could be done now, to make a difference for aspiring lab researchers?
Once my internship in science outreach was over, I felt ready to go back to the lab, where I am working now. While I wait for cells to grow or enzymes to complete their reactions, I find myself reflecting upon that question. I had never met a scientist in high school, and the choices for my studies were influenced by media representation of scientists, and by meeting a real one when I was already far into my studies. What if I had met more people representing the scientific community authentically earlier? Maybe this is part of the answer I was looking for. Native Scientists and similar organisations are invaluable in that they help students shape their idea of science. More than just inspiring talks, pupils need to hear that sacrifice is a big part of lab culture, but this does not mean that one should settle for poor working conditions. I value what former researchers told me, and I wish for students to be aware of the many tools that might help them navigate the struggles of academia, which are very specific and rarely spoken about. Research topics and work culture should both be taken into consideration while choosing a workplace, and nobody should feel afraid to have an open dialogue about mental health. Support systems exist, if one knows how to look for them. What helps me get through hard times is talking to the university counsellor and fighting the urge to compare the achievements of others to my own. In research, a flexible schedule means you often get absorbed in your work. I always try to remind myself of this quote: more work does not automatically equal better work, and I set specific boundaries for my daily working hours. As a result of all this, I can say that I am happy about where I am now. In fact, I decided to continue with my academic career, at least for a while. Now I have the invaluable tools to help me make informed choices.
As Dr. John Tregoning, from the Imperial’s Department of Infectious Disease, says in an article on Nature, “It comes down to making choices. And to make those choices, you need the best, most accurate information”. I add that pupils should be equipped with this knowledge early on, through outreach programs, which are unique in their opportunity to give a more accurate representation of real scientists. Knowledge is power, and the common goal should be to create a new generation of healthy young scientists who are able to promote scientific discoveries while always protecting their wellbeing, navigating the stormy sea that is the academic world… and safe navigation, especially for the budding scientist, is only possible if you have a good road map.