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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / November 2019 / Mindfulness for Scientists

Mindfulness for Scientists

By Kathleen Miller-Rhodes, PhD Candidate in Neuroscience

Scientists are excellent storytellers: we can take data and connect them into a cohesive story. Not only are we great at creating stories, but we are also experts in breaking down complicated stories into easy to understand elements. Storytelling is integral in communicating research to other scientists and the public, but what happens when storytelling boils over into our personal lives? 

Spinning stories is a natural phenomenon of the human mind. Our minds actively think about the past and future, creating scenarios to explain why something did or didn’t happen. This past October, I attended a Mindfulness Workshop hosted by Sabrina Vogler through the URBEST Program. Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the “right now” while using techniques to maintain inner calmness and accepting things for what they are. Being mindful also involves recognizing unhealthy habits (e.g. spinning stories, Imposter Syndrome, etc.) and correcting them. Through mindfulness, scientists can begin to analyze their own mental health and habits in order to alleviate stress and improve overall well being. Learning mindfulness is an ongoing process. For me, learning about others’ experiences and introspection has allowed me to begin my own mindfulness journey. Here are some pointers for how I keep myself calm and collected during busy lab days:

  • Don’t isolate yourself. Research is tough - probably one of the hardest things that many of us will do and you can’t do it alone. Find someone you can connect with, someone who you can  vent to and get advice from. When you share your experiences with others, you’ll most likely learn that your friends are also going through similar things. Knowing that you aren’t alone in your struggles is therapeutic and can lift a weight off your shoulders.
  • Rushed experiments ≠ good experiments. When I first started grad school, I would get this chaotic feeling where I felt like I had to get so much done in so little time. This is not a good habit to foster - rushing around lab will cause you to make inevitable mistakes and you’ll end up having to repeat the experiment anyway. No one wants that! When I find myself becoming overwhelmed by the number of tasks I have to do, I take a breath and center myself (cheesy sounding, but it works!). I can then focus on doing the experiment in front of me and completing it properly.
  • Accept the fact that things will fail. From my own experience and what I’ve heard from other scientists, experiments fail all the time. This can be really frustrating and can cause many to feel like they can’t do research. Try to break that mentality as quickly as possible! If an experiment fails or a result is opposite of what you expected, think back to the question and hypothesis being asked. Can you ask it differently? Could you try a different technique or method? Use failure as a learning experience rather than blaming yourself.
  • Don’t resist change! So, #4 is closely tied to #3. Sometimes things just don’t work. No available method can get at the question you’re asking or sometimes the question asked doesn’t lead to anything interesting. At this point, it is critical to reconsider a different research avenue — what is another question that you can ask that is tangentially related to your original question? Don’t be afraid to bring up your research doubts with your PI — make a case for why you think it is time to move onto another question. The sooner you do this, the better. No one wants a dead-end project because we were afraid to speak up.

While maintaining Mindfulness in the lab is important, it is also important to cultivate healthy habits outside the lab. Here are some habits I’ve incorporated over the years:

  • Take time to do the things you love every day. It is important to remember that you can have other interests aside from research. Indulge your hobbies on a daily basis without feeling guilty. Taking a step back from manuscript writing or experiments will allow your mind state to reset, improving productivity once back in the lab.
  • Weekends are for relaxation! There have been countless weeks where I work straight through the weekend. Initially, the fatigue is held at bay, but then it catches up and you’re left with a  burned-out feeling. Don’t worry, this feeling goes away with sleep and relaxation. I’ve found that it is better to not push through the weekends – your research and your state of mind will thank you.
  • Have a “no-email” policy when you are taking time off. So, for some this might sound silly, but for me, the idea of checking my email over the weekend or when I’m on vacation makes me anxious. In order to curb that feeling, I made the conscious decision to not check my email when I am checked out from work. It has lifted a huge weight allowing me to relax and enjoy my break.

Taking time to actively think about unhealthy habits and correcting them with new healthier habits is the first step towards improved mental health. Even if you find yourself spinning stories, maybe they will take on a new tone – one that supports you rather than tearing you down. 

If you’d like to learn a little more through reading, here are a few places to start:

How mindfulness can help Ph.D. students deal with mental health challenges

In academia, hard work is expected—but taking a break is effort well spent, too

Learning from rejections

No, You're Not an Impostor

Tracey Baas | 11/8/2019

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