From astrophysics to microbiology to behavioral science, one common thread runs through all research – the human element.
Science is an intrinsically human endeavor. It takes human curiosity to ask the questions, human logic to design the experiments, human ingenuity to incorporate the results into an evolving model. Despite tropes portraying science as a purely logical enterprise executed by cold automatons, it is wonderfully, woefully, beautifully, messily human.
Yet sometimes it feels as though we’re expected to be both more and less than human. More in that we need to work longer hours at higher efficiency, through health and illness. More research, more papers, more grants – sleep is for the weak! Less in that we should not allow little things like stress and emotions and events outside the lab to influence our pace and focus. Chop, chop, no time for distractions – science waits for no human!
Sometimes the pressure to be more and less than human comes from external sources – those above us in rank or, more often in my experience, those at our own level. But much of the pressure to perform is internal. We see funding woes and dire job prospects and competitors’ papers, or maybe we just see an unanswered question, one that we know we can resolve if only we work hard enough. We dial up the pressure to be “better”. That compulsion drives us and can be a constructive force. We also use it to build unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.
Sometimes we try to keep our lives outside the lab compartmentalized, to keep it from interfering with our work. But you know how we’re fond of saying that science isn’t 9-to-5? Well, life isn’t 5-to-9. It isn’t so easily contained, packed into a box and placed onto a shelf, to be taken down at a less disruptive time. We must take care of ourselves and the lives we have – lives that bring change and crises and good fortunes that demand our time, focus, and attention.
There are times in life we need to let up on the pressure we place on ourselves. If we’re really lucky (or choose very wisely), then we surround ourselves with people who help us accomplish that. We circulate the stories of the departments and supervisors who set forth maniacal models of how science should be done. We perpetuate illusions of the excessive standards of Real Hardcore Scientists(TM). Do these people and places really exist? Sure. But there are also real scientists doing good work who believe it’s important to have a full life, who do not expect themselves or anyone else to place elements of their lives in suspended animation for the sake of science.
Science demands that we work hard, but our lives demand, on occasion, that we cut ourselves some slack. Science has always been and, unless we are one day converted into cyborgs, shall ever remain a human endeavor, complete with all its humany wumany madness. And in spite of this (or perhaps with its aid), science has marched forward and shall continue to do so with mere humans making the way.