Saturday, March 12, 2011

Separating people from their science

On a daily basis, graduate students and other researchers get figuratively beaten down by experiments that don't work, and they take it personally.  This can lead to depression, an unpleasant work environment, and even a poisonous aversion to science that can spread all too easily to others as they fall into the same trap.  We all get a little self-deprecating when we run into a spate of bad laboratorical luck, but when do we cross the fine line of failures in the lab extending to our views of our self-worth?

Back in the day, I heard about a professor who had some dubious dealings, and being a young scientist, this shook me down to the core.  I recall the poignant memory of feeling physically ill and shutting myself away for a few hours after hearing the news.  I remember calling my parents while taking a walk to clear my head, and my mom telling me, "Krissy, if you're going to be in this business, you've got to learn to separate people from their science.  They're people, too, and they make mistakes just like everyone else."

This advice from my mom, who is quite the scientist herself, was some of the best I have ever received, and it came at the perfect time (i.e., early).  Since then, I have encountered professors, researchers, and colleagues that  might choose different paths than I would in life, but I don't associate our disagreements with their science.  Their science and work is independent of and not influenced by their personal decisions (hopefully).  More, I don't tie in failed experiments with my self-worth.  If it didn't work, I 1) still try to salvage some knowledge out of it (a subject for another post, for sure), and 2) dust myself off and start another day.  It's amazing the insight a good night's sleep can provide.

This advice might be why I only had very minimal inklings of imposter syndrome just at the beginning of my graduate career (i.e., feeling like you don't belong or are not good enough for a certain professional setting), or why I have no problems talking to famous professors on a casual level.  I also have no qualms calling professors by their first name if they ask me to; I know a surprising number of people who struggle with this.  They are just people, and they are just as fallible as I am.

On the flip side, I am relatively disinclined to throw my proverbial professional weight around.  "Doctor" is reserved for formal introductions and solicitations of my money from my previous academic institutions.  I believe making myself approachable facilitates discussion and promotes teamwork.  Looking around at my environments past and present, this seems to be the direction that this new generation of science is taking, and I have to say, I'm liking it.


  1. If failure in the lab is affecting your self-worth, you are in for a heavy depression in a few years when you fail to get tenure (repeat after me: most of us won't get tenure).

    1. Luckily, a good bit of us aren't even trying to.