A life outside science

This is a guest post from Nathan O’Brien who works at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia.

Are you up to much over the weekend?” I (perhaps naïvely) asked of an undergraduate student one Friday afternoon.

I’ll be here, running experiments all weekend” he said.

In fact, he had a series of time-sensitive experiments to do, which would involve sleeping in short bursts in his car (campus security isn’t keen on anyone sleeping at their desk after hours) and stop him from straying too far from the lab over the next few days.

Oh OK, are you at least taking some time off next week to make up for it then?

No, I have too much to do

To be fair, the submission date for his thesis was rapidly approaching, but this is not an isolated occurrence. A few weeks later, a PhD student had to reschedule a meeting with me several times because he had pushed himself too hard in the lab over the weekend and came down with a fever as a result of ignoring the basic needs of his body, like sleep.

I won’t spend time outlining my own experiences in research, but I think it’s safe to say most people would be familiar with stories similar to the ones above and, regretfully, probably have stories that had much more long-term consequences than exhaustion or fever. As a science-trained person now working on the “professional staff” side of a university (i.e. no longer working as a researcher), I’m often in an interesting position, staring in shock at the norms of scientific research that would not be accepted in any other workplace. I ask myself, do the academics around me see the lengths their students go to for their results? I know and respect the supervisors I work with, most of them have shown themselves to be fair and compassionate, so I like to hope there is nothing deliberate or malicious going on. At the same time, it can’t be denied that many areas of science are plagued by an unhealthy workplace culture and unrealistic expectations.

So, if we all know it’s an issue, what can be done? How do we even start to enact large-scale cultural change? Part of it comes from starting the conversation at local levels, first at the individual laboratory level, then looking at whole departments and institutions. Talking about the issue might be a start, but it won’t be enough. We need to suggest realistic changes and bring solutions to the table too, even if they are only partial ones.

In the corridors and laboratories of the department I work for there are a number of health and safety posters. Signs reminding everyone to use gloves, clean up spills, report hazards, label unattended experiments, and so on. Part of this stems from the university’s obligation to provide a safe work place for staff and students. A cynic might suggest that the only reason these efforts are made is to show that the university has taken “all reasonable steps” to prevent mishaps that result in injuries, removing any legal liability from the university if an accident were to happen. I wonder then, what would the research culture and working environment look like if the same weight was given to emotional and mental wellbeing?

While this is a lofty goal, changing workplace law doesn’t fall onto the list of reasonable and achievable goals, at least for me. What does seem reasonable though is having mental health and safety reminders sitting right alongside the lab safety posters. Taking it even further, I’d like to see more “personalised” signage. A sign on the back of the laboratory door is all well and good, but a simple reminder of the importance of balance and knowing your limits, personally signed by the lab supervisors would send a powerful message. Even better if the reminder is a short excerpt taken from a larger lab policy that includes everything from good lab hygiene to the importance of wellbeing (there is plenty of inspiration on social media, such as this excerpt from Jen Heemstra’s lab). Then to round it out, a genuine in-person follow up from the academic. This could be as simple as encouraging lab members to look after themselves as part of a regular meeting with the research group, or a genuine enquiry after the student’s wellbeing in their one-on-one meetings with their supervisor. Supervisors ask how the research is going, why not ask how the person is going?

Widespread cultural change will be a long, difficult process but I don’t think anyone can argue that the rewards would be insignificant. I’m going to talk to the post-doctoral researchers and supervisors around me to propose a system like the one I’ve outlined above for our area, and I hope that sharing my thoughts might lead others to do the same.

Note: as a result of Nathan’s suggestions in this post we have introduced a “Posters” page which can hold downloadable PDF posters for people to use in their offices, labs, teaching rooms and coffee rooms. You can find this page here: Posters from Scientists are Humans. We’re starting off with just one poster but we have plenty of ideas for more.

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