Mental health awareness month

I opened my email this morning to see a message from my department with the subject line “mental health series”. The email addressed that the month of May is mental health awareness month and the department was organizing a “mental health break in the form of a Popsicle social” to kick start the mental health awareness series. Reading this email made me think about the important roles that universities and graduate programs play in spreading awareness about mental health issues in academia and in weeding out the stigma surrounding this issue in a professional setting.

Mental health in academia is no joke. MANY studies have highlighted the stress and depression experienced by graduate students and researchers in academia. How big of a problem is this, you ask? From a Nature study of 2,279 students from 26 countries and 200+ institutions:

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Nature Biotechnology 36, 282–284(2018) doi:10.1038/nbt.4089

A 30 min ice-cream social to highlight mental awareness is not going to help solve the issue. It may initiate some conversations amongst the students but let’s be honest — how many people attend a Popsicle social to talk about their depression at 3:00 pm on a Thursday afternoon? During the first week of graduate school, we are made to attend a series of safety, teaching, research, etc information sessions. Nothing is said about tackling mental health or dealing with depression during these orientation sessions. What are the resources available on campus (if there are any in the first place)? How does one deal with constant failure and disappointment in grad school? How does one deal with isolation and loneliness during one too many 16-hour days? How does one deal with work-life balance or should that be thrown out of the window? What are the realities of academia that are not openly talked about in the fancy brochures and newsletters? Perhaps the incoming first year students are too naive to realize what lies ahead of their graduate school careers. But what about the senior students? What is being done to address this issue amongst the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and the 5th year grad students?

Graduate students should not be ignored and definitely deserve some sort of a counseling or orientation on tackling mental health issues during our time here.  We need appropriate resources to be able to reach out in time of need. This is an ongoing conversation and should not be limited to one day or even one month. We need senior students as well as professors who are compassionate mentors, we need counseling resources specifically targeted towards academia, we need to educate our community about the stigma around depression, anxiety, etc along with the realities of mental health, and so much more.

More on the mental health crisis in academia –

  1. More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before
  2. Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions
  3. I wish we could talk more openly about mental health in academia
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The three tiers of science communication

Perhaps one of the most important yet widely ignored skills that us scientists need to cultivate is to communicate our science better. By “communicate science”, I am not simply referring to publishing research articles and reviews in journals and publications. This is about conveying ideas, research, theories, and facts to a wide audience. This is harder than it seems. On a day-to-day basis, we are so engrossed in our little scientific bubble that we hardly engage with people from outside our labs, departments, and universities. For example, I can prepare to present my work during our weekly group meetings with an accurate understanding of how to introduce my research project to my fellow lab members and what data to present during my talks. Most individuals in my program or department have an understanding of the common scientific language and the several jargons that are overused during the talks and seminars.

I would like to think that being in my research group has given me a better understanding of communicating my work to my fellow peers.  My lab is a “hybrid” wet and dry lab i.e., it is comprised of computer scientists, computational chemists, synthetic chemists, and biologists. Our group meetings are extremely interdisciplinary covering a multitude of topics ranging from machine learning and molecular dynamics to immunology and cancer biology. At this point in my career, I am certain and confident with my ability to convey the scope of my project and the several particular aspects of my current research.

The most challenging audience are individuals who are completely outside the realm of our scientific bubble. These individuals serve critical roles in our society but are overlooked by us all the time. I have interacted with my friends and family from different professions and they’re always intrigued by my work and more specifically about *what* we do in the lab and *how* we do science. These are important questions that not only establishes confidence in the scientific community but also bridges the gap between our worlds. Questions that may seem simple or even silly to us may be important in the large scheme of things. For example, the other day, my friend asked me “How do the lab mice get Alzheimer’s disease?” To answer this, I could have just said that there are several transgenic models of mice with genetic mutants that spontaneously develop Alzheimer’s over time. This is an answer that I would have had for someone in the scientific community. But for my friend who happens to be a business associate, I candidly described genetics of the disease, how mice are bred in laboratories, and how they develop plaques that can be viewed in their brain tissue sections. In order for the public to trust us, first and foremost, they need to be aware and educated on the basic scientific methods and principles. This includes communication about the bases of experimental design, process of gathering significant data, peer reviewing, reproducibility, etcetera.

This brings me to what I consider are “the three tiers of science communication” that scientists should cultivate. We need to learn how to communicate our science to:

  1. Our fellow peers in the field i.e., individuals from our specific area of research
  2. Our scientific colleagues from different areas of research
  3. The general public including individuals from other professions

Tier #1 is a no-brainer. Individuals from this tier read and review our work. They are critical of every aspect of our research and question the scientific methods used. They make signifiant contributions to our work and provide guidance for the growth of our research. Tier #2 is tricky. Why would I, a neurobiologist want to communicate my work to a computer scientist or a meteorologist even? A major aspect of creating new solutions to old problems is to collaborate with scientists from outside our specific focus areas. Drug discovery is not possible without computer scientists teaming up with chemists and biologists. Many of the problems in the areas of neuroscience such as understanding of neural circuits and systems, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, etcetera would not be solvable without the help of electrical and mechanical engineers.

Individuals from tier #3 are probably one of the most significant yet overlooked in this regard. Science communication to the general public does not happen until there is a problem affecting people from the both worlds. Involving this tier should not be limited to the difficult times but should be an ongoing process. It should be a part and parcel of our work. Much has already been said about this. How do we make science outreach a regular part of our work? Should the burden of outreach not be imposed on scientists at all? We need more science communicators breaking out of our bubble and out into the real world. Furthermore, many grad students and researchers make contributions in their own way. For example, using social media (#scicomm on twitter and instagram) for science outreach is a great way to reach thousands of individuals from your fingertips while working in your lab. No fancy equipment, no travel money, no event organization necessary! Well established senior scientists with the means and resources should strive to connect with and impact a larger audience.

 

Science vs. the scientist

A common thought in the entertainment industry is whether an artist and their art can be held in mutually exclusive standards. Do you like a song because you like the musician or do you like a musician because you like their song? Can the two be separated from one another? People boycott Woody Allen films because they do not want to support his career or his power in the entertainment industry. By watching his movies, do we validate his actions by contributing to his growth as an artist? Same goes with Harvey Weinstein and many others.

Similar parallels can be drawn with scientists and their science. For example, James Watson may have contributed to one of the most significant discoveries in science -the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA- or may have led a great scientific undertaking with the Human Genome Project, but relinquished his reputation when his racist and sexist remarks were made apparent. Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist, cosmologist, famous atheist, and a “liberal crusader“) was recently accused of sexual harassment which was followed by more allegations and expose by female academics on social media. I have thoroughly enjoyed Krauss’ popular science opinions as well as supported his science and public policy advocacy in the past. The recent allegations and accusations have left me transfixed about whether his work deserves my support at this point. Will I (indirectly) validate Krauss’ ghastly actions by supporting his scientific literacy and the skeptic movement? The deep dark spaces on the Internet harbors more stories about prominent scientists. Do scientific contributions become less significant due to the scientists’ reprehensible actions and behavior? One may argue that science is larger than one individual where do we draw the line?

The fact of the matter is that scientific principles, discoveries, and inventions do not stem from one individual. The credibility of scientist is validated by several other scientists in charge of legitimizing the science with a proof of approval. Does continuing to fund and support such researchers mean validation of bad behavior? The forthcoming ripple effect and propagation of a toxic environment will eventually affect others in the community. Science is scrutinized and validated by peer review over and over again. Is it time to scrutinize and peer review scientists as well?

More: Harassment case opens dialogue and When will science get its #metoo moment?

Thoughts on lab rotations

The thing with first-year rotations in a Ph.D. program is that anxiety starts kicking in somewhere along the way when you consciously identify the lab that you want to join and want to get started right away. Having realized that this is going to be a long journey and rushing into things may not help, I am now gaining patience and perspective, and hope to make the most of the remaining time of my first year.

Rotations are a great way to learn about a lab and get involved in the nitty-gritty of research. I was warned at the beginning by a few seniors that I would either love a lab or reject it within the first few weeks of the rotation. Mind you – this has nothing to do with the science pursued in the lab (one wouldn’t decide to rotate in a lab if they didn’t find the research interesting in the first place). This is more about getting comfortable with the way a lab functions and deciding if the environment is a good fit for you. An eight-week lab rotation is really like an eight-week long interview with a potential PI and the lab! It is essential to identify the kind of relationship you foresee having with your advisor for the next couple of years (and beyond). This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of a rotation for me, next to the research work. A good mentor-mentee relationship can go a long way and can be extremely beneficial to one’s academic/professional career. I prefer having an open channel of communication with my mentor and learn as much as possible from him/her.

Not all graduate programs require laboratory rotations. Many departments or programs accept or reject students simply based on their application and/or an interview. In the UK for example, students are recruited to work on specific projects and grants as a part of their Ph.D. for the time period of around 3 years. This may not benefit the candidates who wish to propose their own ideas and develop their own thesis based on their individual research interests. In the US, for most graduate programs in the life sciences (mainly biology and chemistry), the average time for graduation is around 5-6 years. I believe that the freedom and independence of this system trump the short graduation time of the other systems. Although I am certain that both sides have their set of merits and demerits, at the end of the day, the journey is unique to each one of us and what we make of the experience matters the most.

Measles Outbreak: The Rise of Anti-Science

The recent measles outbreak in the United States with 121 reported cases (as of February 12th, 2015) along with the continuing spread is extremely alarming. Whether or not to have mandatory vaccination requirements should not be a debate when there have been constant affirmations from the scientific community about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Parents who believe it is in their children’s best interest not to vaccinate refuse to recognize the importance of herd immunity. This troubling trend in ignorance and denial of science is endangering thousands of lives. The war between science and anti-science is not a new one. Personal beliefs towards evolution, climate change, GMOs, and vaccinations should not dictate public health and safety. The current war against vaccinations is the most dangerous one because of its immediate threat as compared to the long-term perils of climate change or GMOs.

A recent vaccine discussion on Real Time with Bill Maher was troubling to watch due to the many misguided and misinformed comments that were casually thrown across by the panelists. The ignorance of Maher and his guests was exposed when comparisons were drawn between the safety of vaccines and climate change, antibiotics, and Monsanto. One panelist said, “The implication is that if you have any skepticism whatsoever, you are anti-science..and I think there is a difference between having skepticism against science and having skepticism against the pharmaceutical industry.” – This is an interesting point as well as an important one. Having mistrust over pharmaceutical industries should not prevent the parents from vaccinating their children. Questioning the ethics of large pharma corporations should not overshadow the larger issue that is public protection and immunity. Maher continued to compare vaccines with antibiotics, and the highlighted the concern regarding antibiotic resistance. These are different modes of treatments used in different situations. Trying to deduce the reasoning and thought process of the guests in this 12 minute conversation was just frustrating. Maher’s comment, “I’m not so sure that people who get a lot of them (vaccines) have as robust an immune system” proves that he is misinformed about the science just like many others. This is one of the many debates that exposes the gap between what the scientists know and what the public perceives.

Politicizing scientific truths seems to be the highlight of the decade. Skepticism is healthy and favored for the advancement of science and medicine. However, skepticism should not overshadow evidence and accuracy. Media and other outlets have the responsibility of communicating science with all its truthfulness. With a decline in trust and credibility of various media outlets, it is on us to bridge the gap between scientific reasoning and the rising anti-science brigade.

Insightful conversations:

  1. The Biology of Vaccinations
  2. The TRUTH about Bad Measles Charts the Mainstream Media Is Suppressing
  3. The politics of measles
  4. How science deniers use false equivalency to pretend there’s a debate