LettersNextgen Voices

Broad interests reap benefits for science

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Science  06 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6397, pp. 24-26
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau3978

We asked young scientists this question: How do broad interests benefit your science? Scientists with a variety of hobbies responded that their extracurricular activities have enhanced a wide range of skills, from creativity to communication to resilience. Many also mentioned the value of clearing their minds and relaxing. Follow NextGen and share your own hobbies on Twitter with #NextGenSci.

As a rock climber, you have to risk falling in order to become better; the same principle applies in science. Realizing this has made me look at research failures in a more positive light—less as a demonstration of incompetence, and more of an opportunity to learn something and build resilience. I've learned that reminding yourself of your own competence (on the wall or in the lab) is a useful way to build up the courage to take more risks.

Beth M. Adamowicz

Biotechnology Institute, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108, USA. Email: adamo010{at}umn.edu

As a biotechnologist, I manipulate experimental variables under the most precise conditions. Gardening, in contrast, is much less controlled. Not everything will go the way that I want it to go, but that's okay. I can try to eliminate slugs from my garden, and I can also restart an experiment while considering the previous trials. Gardening teaches me patience and reminds me that it is natural for things to go unexpectedly.

Derrick Ho Yan Chong

Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada. Email: derrick.chong{at}alumni.ubc.ca

My experience as a cartoonist/comic artist has taught me how to take a complex visual image (such as a human face) and boil it down to key facial signatures that capture the essence of the person, and how to tell a story visually without text. These skills have helped me to express complex physics processes through simple schematics and to produce scientific figures that tell a visual “story” about the research topic.

Christopher Gutiérrez

Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, Canada. Email: christopher.gutierrez{at}ubc.ca

In sewing, you turn a flat pattern into a three-dimensional object. You need a good imagination and excellent spatial reasoning skills to do this effectively. As an entomologist, I try to discern subtle differences between closely related species. The skills I've developed while sewing have helped me to dissect and understand the intricate shapes of butterfly anatomy.

Jess Matz

La Vergne, TN 37086, USA. Email: jessofthebugs{at}gmail.com

I have applied the lessons of aikido, a martial art of self-defense, to my science career: Avoid unnecessary arguments by understanding the opposite side, stop comparing myself with others, and focus only on my own path.

Evrim Fer

Department of Bioinformatics, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, 6800, Turkey. Email: evrimfer{at}gmail.com

As an experimental physicist, I build semiconductor devices. My model aircraft building hobby helped prepare me for this work. When implementing a complex design, I always imagine how I would put together the base, interior, and outer armory of a model aircraft. Assembling models has provided me with a sense of smart design.

Emre Ozan Polat

ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences, Mediterranean Technology Park, Castelldefels (Barcelona), 8860, Spain. Email: emre-ozan.polat{at}icfo.eu

Woodworking engages a mode of thinking that differs from the mental process I use in the lab. Developing my mind through building has made me better at planning solutions several steps in advance and more willing to try to formulate my own problem-solving strategies. These skills have informed my bioinformatics work.

Harry MacKay

Department of Pediatrics, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX 77030, USA. Email: harry.m{at}gmail.com

Painting has opened my eyes to the hidden details of the world. Playing with colors stretches my creativity and helps me to see things in a different light. For a scientist, these are important skills.

Ruwansha Galagedara

Department of Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13902, USA. Email: ruwansha89{at}gmail.com

Cooking has taught me that reproducing a recipe is not always an easy task, especially if crucial details are missing. I've learned that I should not spare any detail if I want others to be able to reproduce my experience, whether I'm making dinner or documenting experimental materials and methods.

Alexandre Coste

EuroMov, University of Montpellier, Montpellier, 34090, France. Email: alexandre.coste1{at}umontpellier.fr

In collaborative role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, a group of people work together to tell stories. These games require creative problem solving, communication, collaboration, and conflict-resolution skills. By playing a character, participants see problems from a different point of view. I apply the skills I've developed by playing role-playing games when working in multidisciplinary research projects, which require coordinating many collaborators and understanding the perspectives of scientists from different fields and different cultures.

Justina Pupkaite

University of Ottawa Heart Institute, Ottawa, ON K1Y4W7, Canada. Email: jpupk094{at}uottawa.ca

Chess has improved my analytical thinking, composure, and persistence. I have developed a habit of constantly evaluating research projects and looking for the right “move.” In chess, I frequently have to make decisions under time pressure; this has helped me stay composed and think clearly even when deadlines are close. In chess, as in research, you do not always win, but you learn more from your losses than you do from winning, and learning from losses is the only way to improve.

Amir M. Farnoud

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701, USA. Email: farnoud{at}ohio.edu

In today's political, partisan and information-dense world, being right is not enough; you have to convince your audience to listen. As a Renaissance Faire performer, I practice reading the audience, following their cues, and timing jokes for maximum impact. These skills allow me to stand in front of a professional audience, regulatory panel, or commission and deliver a message that not only conveys information but also holds my audience's attention.

Colin W. Murphy

Nextgen Policy Center, San Francisco, CA 94104, USA. Email: persuasivescience{at}gmail.com

Learning Spanish and American Sign Language has made me a better science communicator. American Sign Language is partly the signs themselves, but also partly facial expressions. This has tricked my brain into being more expressive when I speak English. Of course, not everything translates directly from English to other languages. Thus, I have become more aware of my word choices. Like any new skill, learning languages reminds me how it feels to be a novice. Because I struggle to learn languages, I am more empathetic when communicating science.

Easton R. White

Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA. Email: eastonrwhite{at}gmail.com

By playing the guitar, I have learned how to improvise and think outside the box, which is vital for working in Croatia. After the war, we sometimes could not find sufficient grants for all of our needs, so we had to use our resources creatively.

Iva Rezic

Faculty of Textile Technology, University of Zagreb, Zagreb, 10000, Croatia. Email: iva.rezic{at}ttf.hr


Every time I bake a loaf of bread, I am reminded of my research. Because gravity on asteroids is very weak, the cohesive forces between grains are relatively strong. Cohesion is also responsible for the steep cliffs that form in baking flour. Just as flour sticks to your hands, grains on an asteroid could stick to astronaut gloves. Baking is my field work. It gives me an intuitive understanding of the near-surface asteroid environment.

Christine Hartzell

Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA. Email: hartzell{at}umd.edu

The amount of originality that comedy requires makes performing stand-up an incredibly vulnerable craft; an audience's silence in response to an act you've invested so much into can feel like a personal defeat. Science requires a similar intimacy with our work. With countless weekends and holidays spent in the lab, our work can become an integral part of our identity, and scientific setbacks can feel like personal failures. Every day, I come to the lab with the persistence that I learned performing stand-up, and I am a better researcher because of it.

Allison Matia

Psychology Department, Rutgers University, Piscataway, NJ 08854, USA. Email: acm263{at}scarletmail.rutgers.edu

As a scientist, I am increasingly focused on specific skills and subjects of study, and I may miss the big picture. Contemporary dance allows me to think in an unstructured and unpredictable way, different from the controlled scientific environment. Dancing connects my body with my mind and with what surrounds me; it challenges me to question established truths, overcome my limitations, and be creative.

Marcela Viviana Nicola

Instituto de Botánica Darwinion, B1642HYD San Isidro, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Email: mnicola{at}darwin.edu.ar

I seek out the history of nearby towns. Many of my weekends are filled with road trips to these obscure locations, and I am consistently filled with awe at the step-by-step progress of long-forgotten persons who helped make the world a better place. These historical ventures provide me a moment to reflect on the immediate task at hand. Analogous to the building of cities, scientific advances are made one spilled chemical after another. This perspective guides my work each day.

Kyle J. Isaacson

Department of Bioengineering, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA. Email: kyle.isaacson{at}utah.edu

I have engaged with my community, as a Humanity in Action fellow and departmental representative for equity and diversity, to bring about positive social change. I strive to be radically kind and to seek justice for voices that have been silenced. I bring this urgency for social activism to my science. I must be socially responsible in the questions I ask, my methodological processes, and the conclusions that I draw from the data. The pursuit of knowledge must be inclusive and equitable, or else it's not worth doing.

Mehrgol Tiv

Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC H3A 1G1, Canada. Email: mehrgol.tiv{at}mail.mcgill.ca

It can be easy in science to get caught up in the frustration of an experiment not working or the disappointment of negative reviewer comments on a manuscript. Yoga has helped me realize that these external forces do not define me, and it's up to me how I handle stressors when they arise. Yoga allows me to step back and be less stressed, which makes me more present and focused when I am in the lab.


Aliyah M. Weinstein

Carter Immunology Center, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908, USA. Email: aliyahweinstein{at}gmail.com

The highly technical demands and progressive nature of Olympic weightlifting make it a slow, laborious, and often frustrating endeavor. Like science, progress is nonlinear. The process of mastering the lifts is a daily grind and not always glamorous, but the outcome is highly rewarding. This sport has instilled in me a deep patience, persistence, and resilience—qualities that have carried over into my research.

Sarah Ch'ng

Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Parkville, VIC 3052, Australia. Email: sarah.chng{at}florey.edu.au

Playing the saxophone builds my confidence and enhances my creativity—both skills I need in my work. Just like science, music requires precision, teamwork, and an ability to think about what you're creating and what you want to show.

Melissa Sweeney

Department of Biochemistry, Monash University, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia. Email: melissa.sweeney{at}monash.edu

The slow but steady nature of progress in ballet has prepared me for the similar pace of experiments. Ballet has also helped me understand how to be creative in science. Both science and ballet provide a structure within which to explore, anchored by technique or technology. In ballet class, I use the space inside the choreography to make it my own. Understanding this has taught me that creativity in science can look similar: I can find places where other people haven't looked and adjust them to create my own style.

Anna Lipkin

University of California, San Francisco, CA 94122, USA. Email: anna.lipkin{at}ucsf.edu

As a crisis counselor with the Crisis Text Line, I've learned how to support people in crisis through active listening and collaborative problem-solving. Scientific research involves a multitude of experimental, cultural, and personal setbacks, which can substantially affect mental health. Being a scientist means not only executing experiments but also maintaining a healthy lab atmosphere. My counseling skills help me to promote a lab environment that supports mental health and nurtures curious minds.

Sayantan Chakraborty

National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore, MD 21224, USA. Email: sayantan.chakraborty{at}nih.gov

I use creative writing as a form of escapism, especially when I'm struggling in my research or in desperate need of a fresh perspective. Creating characters, plots, and conflicts mirrors research framing and design.

Edmond Sanganyado

Marine Biology Institute, Shantou University, Shantou, Guangdong, 515063, China. Email: esang001{at}ucr.edu

Joining a progressive Christian church community was by far the non-science interest of mine that most improved my ability to be a scientist. Open-minded religious communities have a broad cross-section of society with diversity in age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, income, interests, and backgrounds personally, professionally, and geographically. Being part of a diverse community opened my mind and helped me see the world from different (and dare I say, nonscientific) perspectives. Learning to discuss, deliberate, disagree, and listen together was the heart of this religious community, where we wrestled with questions about life, morality, ethics, society, and justice all in the face of current events. Engaging with this community enriched me by requiring me to think in different ways and from different perspectives, which has made me not just a better scientist but also a better human being.

Sarah Marie Anderson

Washington, DC 20018, USA. Email: sarah.m.anderson.10{at}gmail.com

When writing fiction you must present your world such that the reader wants to enter it. This applies science writing as well. You must entice readers with a good premise, introduce them to the background of your field, bring them through the journey of what you have done, and finish with a climax of what you have learned. Research is just data, but writing makes that data into a story.

Neilson Nguyen

Brainwave Phantom, Mississauga, ON L4Z 2J1, Canada. Email: neilson.nguyen.phd{at}gmail.com

In ground fighting, chokes and joint locks are applied to submit your opponent. The sport has given me the mental strength to deal with the stressful situations that I, as a female scientist, face every day. We all have our battles, whether they are on the mat, in the office, or in our heads. Thanks to my hobby, I now know that no matter the outcome, I either win or I learn.

Triin Laisk

Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Tartu, Tartu, 51014, Estonia. Email: triin.laisk{at}ut.ee

Conservation science is a never-ending grind punctuated by rare victories. While other disciplines unlock innovations and achievements, ours is focused on the cessation of loss. And conservation scientists often face abuse by people who feel the discipline infringes on economic progress. Competitive swimming helped prepare me for these challenges. Victory in the pool means a total commitment to training, mostly in the wee hours of the morning when no one is watching. It means racing with everything you have, and not giving an inch until the race is won. When you do win, the cycle begins all over again. Swimming has taught me to remain committed to goals that others may not understand.

Brett Favaro

School of Fisheries, Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL A1C5R3, Canada. Email: brett.favaro{at}mi.mun.ca

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