Balancing Life and Science

How four successful scientists find time for their other passions, and why it's good for their science.

Jennifer Evans
Dec 31, 2008
<figcaption> Credit: © Harold Shapiro</figcaption>
Credit: © Harold Shapiro

Richard Flavell

Scientist: Age 63, over 700 publications; cited over 58,000 times (ISI Web of Science).

Bio-rocker: 6 gigs per year, recorded 2 CDs and practices 30 minutes per day.

When Yale immunologist Richard Flavell stepped to the front of the packed room with his electric guitar during a New Year's Eve party in 1991, he had already made a name for himself in science. But his life as a rocker was only just beginning. There at the home of the famous virologist Ari Helenius, facing the audience of 50, Flavell was poised to strike the first chord with his guitar. With one foot on the drum machine, the tenured Flavell, then author of more than 125 publications and head of a lab of more than 20, led his "bio-rock" group The Cellmates in their very first performance. As a group, we "were unrealistically confident," Flavell...

While The Cellmates enjoyed success over the years, so too, has Flavell's lab at Yale University, slowly unraveling the mechanisms employed by T cells that cause autoimmunity, innate immunity, and apoptosis. Flavell became a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002 and of the Royal Society in 1984. "The music comes second [to my science], of course," he says. But, as a dedicated researcher of 30 years, he says each passion complements the other.

Here's how a hobby can help you:
Step back and laugh

Writing lyrics has allowed Flavell to pause and think of science more philosophically. Some of Flavell's all-time favorites include "She's a Knockout," the story of a female research tech whose work leads to her mentor's success, but for which she receives no recognition; "Rejected," the story of the lengthy and often painful process of paper submission and rejection; and "Kits-R-Us," which contemplates how science can be based heavily on kits that researchers don't really understand.

The songs have helped Flavell remember "science is not just about subject matter, it's about people," and in doing so, he says he's become a better principal investigator. "You can't just yell and scream at people. You need to understand a problem and help fix it."

Writing lyrics has allowed Flavell to pause and think of science more philosophically. Some of Flavell's all-time favorites include She's a Knockout, Rejected, and Kits-R-Us.

Stop working - you'll get more done
Flavell says he's been able to balance science with music because he's come to understand "more activity doesn't necessarily translate into more results." There are insatiable requests for letters of recommendation and invitations to give lectures, Flavell says. He's made peace with the fact that there are times he needs to decline requests, and recommend someone else in his place. "You can make time for these things, or you ask yourself, after doing science for, say, 57 hours per week, 'how important is it to keep working?' If that hour is not going to have an impact," maybe it's time to pick up the guitar.

<figcaption> Credit: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison</figcaption>
Credit: Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ahna Skop

Scientist: Age 36, 9 publications, cited over 400 times (ISI Web of Science).

Artist: Curated 7 exhibits; created 100-200 digital and ceramic pieces and spends 5-10 hours per month on art.

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, cellular biologist Ahna Skop, found herself questioning her place in science as she juggled courses in science and art. Skop, the daughter of two artists, says as she worked in the confines of the sterile lab walls running RNA gel samples, she felt something was missing. "I loved what I was doing, but I wasn't turned on. The gels weren't living," Skop says. She started thinking "there has to be more to science than this."

Her junior year, she enrolled in a developmental biology course. The first textbook picture she saw of microtubules in a Caenorhabditis elegans embryo lit up with GFP, left Skop awestruck. She circled the photo like a school girl doodling in a yearbook. "I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was so visually appealing," Skop says. That image and the possibility of exploring science through images like it seduced Skop and helped direct her attention to a career in developmental cellular biology.

Skop now focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind asymmetric division in C. elegans by investigating membrane-cytoskeleton connections at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In 2006, she received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She continues to draw creative inspiration from her research through visual art, applying vibrant colors to black-and-white microscope images and designing logos for scientific meetings. Every time Skop looks through the microscope, "I feel both creative processes at work," she says.

Here's how having another skill helps your science:
Stand out from the crowd

Demonstrating your talent away from the bench can help you gain prominence as a scientist, Skop says. While showing her work at an exhibit at the UW-Madison, a scientist approached her and told her she was wasting her time by spending it on art. "Being raised by artists, I was used to being made fun of," I didn't care, she says.

And she wasn't wasting her time, it turns out. Years later, when interviewing for faculty positions in science, Skop's art helped her get noticed. At interviews, people kept introducing Skop as 'the girl who does the science art ... who also does good science,'" Skop says. "In this business where you are trying to be different, [being 'the girl who did art'] paid off for me," Skop says.

Discover through an artist's lens
Skop says training in the visual arts has helped her see patterns in the organization and movement within the cell. Having an "artist's eye" for research allows her to see things others might overlook. "People in general are biased in believing bright stains are most important, and things not intensely stained are not so important," Skop says. "But, sometimes in research, it's exploring what you are not seeing" that yields discovery.

<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of Phyllis Martin</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of Phyllis Martin

Phyllis Martin

Scientist: Age 55, 2 patents, 38 publications, cited over 600 times (ISI Web of Science).

Quilter: Sewn 71 quilts, and spends about 10-15 hours quilting per week.

USDA microbiologist Phyllis Martin had seven years of government insect biocontrol research under her belt, a husband who was in the process of switching careers, and her hands full with an infant and toddler when she noticed her mother-in-law quilting and decided to give it a try.

Martin says she started simple, and realized quilting was something "I could do with a baby and it could take my mind off the lab," she says.

Twenty-one years later, Martin's research on the bacteria such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kill insects has led to 38 publications and two patents. And she hasn't stopped sewing—the royalties from her first patent helped Martin purchase "a fancy sewing machine." Martin looks for bacteria that kill insects for agricultural applications. Martin's patents on acetate selected Bt strains and the violet bacteria, Chromobacterium subtsugae, are licensed to companies working to develop it into insecticides for commercial use. The vibrant colors of the bacteria and bugs she works with often show up in her quilting patterns, Martin says.

Here's how hobbies help you stay on track:
Find relief in short-term milestones

Although her research projects, from bacteria research to patent, take on average six years, Martin says she can tackle a baby's quilt from start to finish in as little as a month. What's best, Martin says, is the tangible successes felt along the way. "It takes a day to cut it out, within 2-3 days you start to see progress being made. In two weeks, the top is done and pinned to a back."

Take an escape
"If research is not going well, sometimes you need to step out and do something else." When Martin's lab had fumes from building construction last year, she had to suspend experiments, throw away results, and temporarily shut down her lab. But she didn't freak-out. She made five quilts, instead.

<figcaption> Credit: Courtesy of James Spudich</figcaption>
Credit: Courtesy of James Spudich

James Spudich

Scientist: Age 66, over 200 publications, cited over 22,000 times (ISI Web of Science).

Pilot: Favorite flights include the San Juan islands, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Aspen, Colorado. Takes a flight about once a week.

In the mid-1970s, Stanford University biochemist James Spudich spent back-to-back summers in a marine biology lab off the coast of Seattle, just five minutes away from a small airport. It wasn't long before Spudich, who says he grew up playing with a chemistry set in one hand and a model airplane in the other, jumped at the chance to take hour-long lessons to earn his pilot license.

"I would put something in centrifuge, take a flight and then come back" to the lab, Spudich says. It took two summers, but Spudich tallied enough hours to earn his pilot's license while never disrupting his research.

Spudich's dedication to the study of cellular motility over nearly 40 years has led to a better understanding of how molecular motors translate chemical energy from ATP into mechanical movement and discovered the role of myosin in non-muscle cells. In the early 1980s, his lab created one of the first in vitro motility assays to measure how myosin moves along actin filaments. He later developed single molecule techniques to watch myosin interacting with an individual actin filament. Spudich was honored with the Biophysics Society Award for Outstanding Investigator in the Field of Single Molecule Biology in 2006.

"I have many friends in science," Spudich says. "I don't think any of them can do it 99.9 percent of the time. Taking a break is essential." For a short breather, Spudich takes to the runway, flying roughly 50 hours each year.

His advice: Find the moment of mental stillness
"As wonderful as science is, it's not easy to be creative," Spudich says. "Tensions can get high if we're not being as creative as we need to be, or our students aren't as creative as they need to be." Spudich says his creative juices start flowing when he's completely relaxed, catching the sunset in-flight over the San Francisco Bay area. Flying provides "a momentary break without eating into too much science time," he says.

Wait for balance
Spudich got married by year two of grad school, and by year four he was a new dad. Back then, his priorities were divided between his family and the long hours at the lab as he completed grad school, a postdoc, and set up his own 12-member lab. Early on, "I worked, worked, worked," Spudich says. "The weekends weren't free. Evenings weren't free." Many nights his young wife, who was also a scientist, slept on his mentor's couch at the lab; his newborn also came to the lab. However, once a researcher starts to attract bright people, he says, "That's a good time in life to start to bring in something that's not going to take you away from lab, but will give you more balance to life."