STRESS OF SCIENCE, SCIENCE OF STRESS
I am scheduled to give a seminar in 2 weeks on a topic that I have less familiarity with than I'd like. The people from whom I am supposed to get a crucial data set for the talk aren't returning my calls. My backup plan has been scooped by a seminar in the same series on Monday. So I'm a little panicked. Not too panicked, mind you - I have learned from long experience that I will eventually figure something out, and fear has proven quite an effective stimulus for creative thinking in the past for me. But it's enough to cause all the physiological effects of stress to kick in.
Back when I was an undergraduate, I had some vague notion that work as a researcher would be motivated primarily by a quest for a state of flow. That's definitely there, but it is frequently punctuated by moments of terror. Research careers can be quite stressful, even in the best of times. Experiments can go awry, conference deadlines can sneak up, and there is always last minute lecture preparation.
I recently finished an excellent book by Robert Sapolsky on the physiology of stress, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. I highly recommend it.
First, it's a great piece of science writing. Sapolsky manages to keep things lively and engaging without dumbing things down. Part of what keeps things moving along is his use of an informal tone, something that unfortunately is drummed out of a lot of people by writing endless journal articles. The book is a lot closer to sitting in an undergraduate seminar with a friendly but brilliant prof than reading a bunch of journal articles. He's also generous with credits - I discovered that a friend of mine did an undergraduate internship with Sapolsky because he spent a half page describing the work she had done. He mixes established knowledge with informed speculation, being careful to distinguish between the two.
Second, the subject matter hits pretty close to home. Having spent the past 20 years or so in fairly high-stress environments, I've tended to brush aside suggestions that I try to adjust (sorry, Mom!). Vague notions that stress is "bad" somehow just don't do it for me. Sapolksy, in contrast, spells out in grim detail exactly what chronic stress does, and believe me, I'm listening now.
Two effects of stress are particularly relevant to researchers:
There's an interesting policy implication: it suggests that universities might do well to invest in stress-reduction / mental health services for researchers. Given that a sense that one is not in control of one's work is a major risk factor for depression (google "learned helplessness") and other stress-related morbidity, graduate students and postdocs could be some of the biggest beneficiaries.
A recent survey at Berkeley suggests stress-related mental health issues are startlingly common among graduate students:
Fortunately, remedies are fairly straightforward and inexpensive. Exercise, for example, has big benefits, so simple things like intramural sports for grad students and gym access for postdocs can help a lot. I learned at a recent conference that Vanderbilt has hired a full-time counselor for its postdocs, and apparently it's been a very successful experiment.
Another interesting thing I discovered in Sapolsky's book: there is interesting evidence that men and women's responses to stress are fairly different. The well-known "fight or flight" response is apparently a better description of the male response to stress than the female. The female response is characterized as "tend and befriend":
This work dovetails nicely with some research by Anne Preston on why people leave science. Preston found that female graduate students who did not have a mentor were much more likely to drop out of graduate school than those with a mentor. Intriguingly, there was no such effect for males. Tend-and-befriend provides a potential explanation: a mentor may play a more important role in women's mechanisms for coping with the stress of graduate study than in those of men.
This is potentially good news, if true: the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey found that women who worked for female PIs were substantially more likely to consider their PI to be a mentor than women working with male PIs. As the ranks of women increase in the professoriate, we may well see a virtuous cycle: as female students and postdocs have greater opportunities to find a female mentor, retention rates may increase, which in turn could lead to further increases in women in the faculty.