Life Outside Lab? I Can Have One of Those?


Photo courtesy of Michelle Dubuke

Playing a musical instrument. Ballroom dancing. Musical theater. Knitting. Painting. Woodworking. What do all of these activities have in common? Most obviously, they all have an extremely creative component. But what if I asked about motorcycle racing, rock climbing, skiing, and distance running in addition to the activities above? Now the common thread is a little less obvious, but very intriguing—these are hobbies of graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the University of Massachusetts (UMass) college system.

Besides being a scientist, I am a competitive ballroom dancer. I have been dancing for nine years, since my freshman year of college, and my dance partner is another graduate student at UMass Medical. I always thought I was a bit odd, a scientific mind that loves the arts, but when I stepped into the collegiate competitive ballroom circuit, I realized a creative mind is very prevalent in STEM fields. More than half of my fellow competitors are scientists and engineers; in fact, the largest college team in the northeast is from MIT! To those outside a STEM field, it may seem incongruous that scientists tend to have other non-scientific hobbies.

I asked professors at UMass Medical about their outside hobbies, and what they felt these hobbies gave them that their science didn’t or couldn’t.

“My major outside hobby is fly fishing for trout in the local rivers, though mainly the Farmington River in Connecticut, and for striped bass down off the Rhode Island shore” said Craig Peterson, a PI and the director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program. “Fly fishing gets me some solitude and time away from all the stress of writing and reviewing papers, grants, etc. It’s also an activity that requires a lot of thinking, so you are not thinking science for a while!”

Hardy Kornfeld, a medical professor, said “[I’ve done] tai chi for 30 plus years with the same family, and up until a few years ago I was an amateur motorcycle road racer in the New England region… Racing was the one thing I did that completely cleared my brain of all the vexing BS associated with work (grants, approvals, budgets, travel) if only for a day. It’s very much like meditation but it takes less discipline since the brain is very willing to focus when threatened with extinction.”

So professors use their hobbies to turn off their brain, which is understandable. To these individuals, science is more than a career; it’s a way of life. But do students feel the same about their hobbies? Or are there other reasons we graduate students insist on having a life outside of our research?

One of my summer internship bosses really enjoyed doing home repairs. When I asked her about it, she told me she loved the sense of completion, the feeling that at the end of her efforts there was a result. This resonated with me. Science is an exercise in delayed gratification. We work on long-term projects willingly, even enthusiastically, but at the end of the day do we need immediate gratification? I asked my fellow graduate students what they do when not doing their research.
“Sewing! I get to use my well-nurtured focus and attention to detail abilities; unlike science, I get instant gratification when I finish a project. Plus, it’s a nice creative outlet that doesn’t involve pipetting,” said Jeannette Osterloh, recent UMass Medical PhD alumnus.

“Knitting … is something that is creative, but does require a degree of skill that you can work on over time to improve. Mostly, it’s the satisfaction of the finished product … that helps with the frustration I sometimes have with lab (particularly when I get stuck in a death spiral of troubleshooting and feel like I’m not getting anywhere). You spent all of this time knitting something, and yes, sometimes you make a mistake and you have to unravel it, but at the end you have a thing that you made… and hopefully it’s not too ugly and you can actually wear it in public,” said Andrea Kadilak, PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering at the University of Connecticut.

“Rock climbing … provides the opportunity to problem solve in a very different context that yields tangible success in a shorter period of time. … [T]he range of difficulties … ensures there is always a new challenge and always success. It rewards diligence, hard work, patience, and focus, which are all attributes required by scientific research. Add in all of the benefits of an outstanding workout, and [rock climbing helps] maintain one’s emotional baseline through years of stress in the lab,” said Brian Quattrochi, MD/PhD candidate at UMass Medical.

So professors need an outlet to turn off their brain and focus on something not related to science, and we students need something which provides the immediate gratification and tangible successes that our scientific work can’t. So, no matter how much your PI insists that science should be enough, make sure to get out of the lab sometimes and enjoy your hobby! You will be more relaxed, more focused, and more willing to continue the sometimes tedious, delayed gratification task of science.

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