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190. Mailbag: Can I blend art with science?

It’s time to open the listener mailbag to answer your question about the human side of science, and life in the lab! This week: the importance of lunch, blending art with science, and the dream of a lab-based sitcom.

We didn’t have to dig very deep into to the mailbag this week because we heard from an undergraduate listener Monika. She asked a series of questions that covered so much ground, we devote the entire episode to her!

Her first question is about disordered eating, and how lab schedules might interfere with getting three square meals each day. She writes:

For the past year, I’ve been working in a lab with a grad student advisor, and was working there over the summer over 40 hours a week. However, in that entire time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen my advisor eat a meal, and I found that a lot of the time when I asked to take meal breaks it was seen with a sense of inferiority or “weakness” for taking time away from work. I definitely understand that food is not allowed inside of a lot of lab settings for safety reasons, but it was a bit alarming for me to see how little people in this kind of research slip into some unsettling habits like replacing meals with coffee or just skipping meals entirely. I feel like the grad student trope are just so busy that they don’t have time to consider proper nutrition, but as someone who has struggled with disordered eating and eating disorders, this is something I can’t compensate for, if that makes any sense. What are your thoughts about this?

It can definitely be alarming to see students or faculty ‘working through lunch’ because they’re too busy to stop. Long term, that habit is harmful to your mental and physical health, and no job is worth sacrificing those things.

We do our best to reassure Monika that skipping lunch is not pervasive in research labs. In fact, Dan took extra long lunches everyday just to get out of the lab! More seriously, though, you may not see your lab mates eating for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t mean they’re not finding time to grab a bite.

Next up, we talk scholarships and fellowships:

What are your thoughts about the big research scholarships during undergrad like Goldwater, or postgrad like Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell, etc.? Are they necessary for getting into grad school? How well would they distinguish an applicant (or not)?

We recently spoke with Elizabeth Somsen about her experience with the Fulbright Scholarship. She studied abroad in Turkey after graduating from college and before entering a PhD program. She’s written a helpful guide to Postbac experiences which is a great place to start your research.

To answer the question more directly, having these experiences on your CV is a wonderful booster, but it’s neither necessary, nor sufficient. Applicants will be judged mostly on their research experience and letters of recommendation.

If you have NO research experience, a postbac is not enough to secure your position. And if you have lots of quality research under your belt, a postbac looks great but is certainly not required.

Next, we discuss the intersection of art and science:

 I am hoping to double major in Film/Media along with a STEM major, as I really love art and science, and want to find a way to do both. I’ve recently been accepted into a study abroad program where I’ll be taking classes at a nationally-ranked film school and doing an entire semester without any science. Would that be a turn-off for graduate school applications? Do graduate schools want people who are strictly research focused, or are they welcoming of people with more creative/non-scientific interests?

Let’s face it: scientists are some of the most creative people you’ll ever meet! Yes, they’re creative in devising new research programs, but we’ve known plenty who were photographers, painters, chefs, and makers. Having experience outside the lab will not be a turnoff, but there is a pitfall that you’ll want to avoid.

When interviewing for a graduate program, the committee is trying to assess your interest in scientific research, and your capacity to see it through. If you were to ONLY take film classes and never engage in a research lab, they’d certainly pass by your application. But having a diverse set of skills and experiences can be good, not just for your mental health, but also for your development as a scientist.

Think deeply about your career goals before you apply to graduate school. If you like learning about science, but find the research itself is kind of boring, you may not actually need a PhD to find work you love. Instead, you might find a way to leverage your capacity to learn AND your love of film as a documentarian, lecturer, or marketer for a pharmaceutical company.

Whatever you decide, be up front about your goals as you choose a program or a lab. If you want a career in science communication, find a mentor or research lab that regularly needs to communicate their findings with the public. If you love to draw, make connections with medical illustrators to find out how they developed in their careers.

And definitely take advantage of the amazing art and performances available on your campus. Student discounts don’t last forever, so don’t miss out!

Finally, Monika asks about the lack of scientists in popular culture:

Do you have recommendations for shows/movies about research/grad school/academia? All I know is Big Bang Theory for TV shows, which I strongly find to be an inaccurate representation of science and scientists. My dream is to develop a TV show about neuroscientists and specifically neuro grad students, because from my observations through being in labs grad school is such a fascinating experience that more people should know about! If you were to watch something like this, what would you think would be important for audiences to see?

We don’t have many good examples of scientists on TV, but we definitely should! We’ve met some of the strangest and most wonderful people in various labs over the years. They’d make a great sitcom, except that no one would believe the stories!

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