Engineer by training, craftsperson at heart

Duanduan Han describes how she has made her lab experiments and hobbies complement each other.

Hobbies can enhance your work — as well as helping you to take a break from it.Credit: Getty

Scientists are frequently encouraged to foster a healthy work–life balance to maintain good mental health and sustain their productivity. One way to find balance is to separate work from your outside life entirely, and leave science in the lab. But I see it differently: I have found joy and balance by joining my research and hobbies.

I’m a graduate student in engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, where I research and build polymer-based devices to study how fluid flows at the micrometre scale; I also design tools for medical care in resource-limited areas.

Since joining an engineering lab, I’ve spent a lot more time in craft stores picking up supplies — something I long ago sacrificed to focus on my school work. I forgot how much I enjoyed it. Eventually, I even decided to build a home studio for crafting to pick up where I left off in high school. Thanks to my experience in the lab, I’m a lot better at crafts than I once was: I can craft projects that require more-delicate skills, such as glass etching and metal leafing.

In 2014, my PhD adviser assigned me a second project: making 3D-printed objects that soak up liquid easily. 3D printing has been praised as a revolutionary manufacturing solution, which certainly would be a valuable addition to crafting. Without hesitation, I bought my own 3D printer.

One of my creations was a monogrammed pendant for a friend’s birthday, which drew high praise for its intricate design. I started to apply a similar type of design in my experimental work. Eventually, my crafting inspired one experiment that resulted in a prototype for a perfume-oil diffuser, which I’ve used to demonstrate my research project to non-academics.

That was the moment when my alter ego of a craft enthusiast contributed to my professional work. When I gave up crafting to do school homework, it was because I saw work and life as two competing forces, and had abandoned my love of craft in favour of engineering. Now, I see the similarities between work and the rest of my life, and I’ve made an effort to achieve a harmony between my experiments and hobbies.

Today, I often dive into craft stores after work for comfort, after facing repeated failed experiments. Something in the store will catch my eye, and I’ll jot down an idea that might help to tackle my problems. These light-bulb moments help me to fall back in love with my experiments.

In turn, my lab work offers opportunities to learn new techniques and practise my skills to improve my craft creations. My journey has taught me a valuable piece of advice. Your work life and your life outside of work don’t need to be in combat — they can complement each other.

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