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How creating purpose through non-research activities can help your scientific career

Take small steps to re-energize and inspire new momentum in your academic career by pairing your hobbies with research

A career in academic research can be all-consuming. There’s constant pressure to publish or perish to rise to the top. Those who want to succeed will need to have the stamina to survive; as my mentor once said, “An academic career is for tortoises, not hares. It’s a slow grind.”

Many researchers deal with high volumes of work and employment precarity simultaneously. In the rush to show value, it’s easy to go on autopilot by working long hours but not getting much done. Left unaddressed, just going through the motions may lead to detachment, without necessarily driving toward outcomes or finding purpose in the work.

As someone who’s been in academia for over a decade and leading a group of early-career data scientists, how do I break out of a rut? I transform parts of my work that are monotonous into something that I enjoy. I turn to art to re-create a sense of purpose. I may be a data scientist by profession, but drawing is second nature to me. As a child, I was a fan of picture books. I would always study the artwork first before reading the text.

Today, when I connect art with my research on mental health, I reimagine ways to share and talk about my work. I use illustrations to transform research findings into a format that holds people’s attention and connect those findings to current issues. Our article on mental illness in patients with cancer is one example. In that study, we explained that patients with cancer have a high burden of mental illness, but the impact varies across cancer types and cancer treatments.

Since I don’t have to get past gatekeepers to share my illustrations online, not having to do things in a certain way gives me complete freedom to express my research through art. Connecting a low-stakes hobby with research allows me to assess and recalibrate my attitude towards academia to maintain decent levels of morale and momentum.

The illustration provides a visual accent and an entry point for readers to understand the key takeaways from our study. In the visual, the tumour featured in the left corner represents blood vessels and invasion. The predatory fish on the top left depicts the negative effects of cancer. The brain, split into two hemispheres, represents mental illness. The left hemisphere has triangles of different sizes to signal danger, similar to the triangular road signs that warn drivers of upcoming hazards.

Our study proposed that timely intervention for mental illness through collaborative psychiatric and cancer care could mitigate self-harm and suicide. To visualize this, I added yellow and orange colours to portray a positive outlook. The right brain hemisphere, made up of brightly coloured circles, is reminiscent of the sun. With early recognition and treatment of mental illness, cancer survivors could be on a path to wellness, as portrayed through the strong and healthy-looking tree that provides a safe habitat for lifeforms such as birds.

To bring the visual to life, I drew on popular culture: the characters Mirabel and Luisa Madrigal from the Disney movie, Encanto. In the script I wrote, Luisa talked about her struggles with mental illness from being ‘afflicted’ with super strength. Her story is an allegory of mental illness in people struggling with a physical condition such as cancer.

Do you find yourself running out of steam and losing track of the reason that made you choose a research career? Harness your talents and commit to a purpose to help you stay on course.

  • Reflect on what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. Whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be what you do in your professional life or in the lab.
  • Consider how you can use your talents to transform the less exciting parts of your job into something that creates meaning and inject new life into your work.
  • Create a plan to integrate your hobbies into your work. Restructure your schedule to gain more time for your new purpose. Eliminate tasks that are time-consuming but have a low return on investment from your calendar.
  • Reflect and revisit. Always evaluate how you can change your relationship with work and grow for the better. Think about alternative ways of doing things and keep an open mind to different possibilities. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take the path less travelled. It helps you remain adaptable and provide an experience that will come in handy when navigating the changing landscape of academia.
  • Be persistent. Things don’t always work out the way you’d expect but keep at it. Setting an immediate goal helps. As for me, I do that by sketching out my initial thoughts using the Adobe Fresco drawing app.

I encourage you to look outside your profession as a scientist to reinvigorate your work. Break the status quo. Be creative. Take risks. Dig deep down and ask yourself what brings you joy, regardless of how ludicrous the idea might sound to others. Channel it into purpose and use it as an internal compass to point you towards the direction of a fulfilling career in science.

Alvina G. Lai is an associate professor, data scientist, illustrator, science communicator, and content creator for the Zero to Data Science YouTube channel. She leads a Health Informatics group at University College London and has won multiple awards for her research, including a recent award from the Royal College of Physicians. Her work has also been featured in a BBC Panorama Documentary.

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