“Find your passion” is, I think, one of the most overused and unhelpful clichés spouted on university campuses. The idea that everyone has a fixed set of interests is harmful, because it encourages us to drop subjects that don’t instantly bedazzle us. It creates the illusion that the perfect project will always be enjoyable. In reality, every scientific venture comes with its own set of challenges. And choosing a PhD or postdoctoral project is influenced as much by factors such as location and availability as by topic.
Although PhD work can spark passion, it has a dark side. Nature’s November 2019 survey of more than 6,000 graduate students found that although most respondents were satisfied with their decision to pursue a PhD, more than one-third had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies. The fact that students keep enrolling in PhD programmes, despite the documented experiences of past students, perhaps points towards a love of science and discovery that doesn’t always make its presence felt in the day-to-day work of a PhD student.
Scientists everywhere have faced unprecedented challenges in the past few weeks as laboratories shut down and employees shifted to working from home. For some of us, these changes occurred within the space of a week, meaning that all experiments and cell lines had to be thrown out or frozen down at only a few days’ notice. Having worked from home for two weeks now, I’ve realized that life as a remote scientist is full of Zoom lab meetings, Zoom hacking sessions, Zoom catch-ups and occasional Zoom happy hours (complete with ‘quarantinis’). As a computational biologist with no children or teaching obligations, the transition to working from home should theoretically have been easy. As a human with increasing worries and a limited attention span, the current situation is, at best, distracting.
Personally, I’ve stopped counting how many ‘productive’ hours I have in a day. Instead, I’ve found it helpful to stay up to date with aspects of science that interest me, even if my current topic or task is not going smoothly. I find the reminder that I’m still ‘into’ science, which I often get from outside my day-to-day work, a reassurance during these uncertain times. Here are some of the resources I use whenever I need a science pick-me-up.
YouTube. Learning scientific concepts through video can be entertaining, informative and sometimes hilarious. Some of my favourite channels include
• Simone Giertz. Formerly known as the Queen of Shitty Robots, Giertz’s videos showcase the delight of making useless things, as well as not-so-useless things such as a Tesla turned pick-up truck — Truckla.
• A capella science. Combining deep science with sweet harmony, Tim Blais creates musical summaries of a huge range of science topics including, but not limited to, evolutionary developmental biology, quarks and exoplanets.
Layperson-friendly science articles and books. I often read summaries (across all fields, not just genetics) by Ed Yong (The Atlantic) and Carl Zimmer (The New York Times) before pursuing the underlying publications.
Science is meant to be fun. Taking a break to program with pictures or revel in an interesting discovery about barnacle sex can make the self-isolation of working from home more bearable. Whether that means experiencing Eminem-inspired physics a capella or discovering a new podcast, we could all use some light-hearted science right now.