Dr A Bashir
05 The Power In Sum
I was delighted to speak with Sarah Louadi this month, a research technician and recent graduate from the Experimental Medicine Master's Program at the University of British Columbia. We begin our conversation talking about Sarah's love of the human brain, which was nurtured as a young woman in Tunisia. Later on in our conversation, we spoke at length about the importance of mental health, balancing one's time and energy within and outside of the laboratory, and the beautiful mentor-mentee relationship that she shares with her supervisor, Dr Neil Cashman.
You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and more.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Her Royal Science jingle
Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. We're coming to you from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and today we'll be speaking to an incredibly talented individual, Sarah Louadi. She is a research technician at UBC working on developing immunotherapies for Alzheimer's disease and ALS under the supervision of Dr Neil Cashman. You and I have had a number of conversations about mental health, about graduate school, and about finding balance within one's self, so I thought we could talk about that interplay today, but before we get started, what's your story?
Sarah Louadi: Alright! Thanks for having me here today.
AB: Of course!
SL: I think it's a true privilege and a big chance to have time and space to share stories from grad students, and to be able to speak on such an important—and also controversial at times—topic. So, here's my story: I started at UBC in my undergrad. When I came to Vancouver from Tunisia, which is Northern Africa and where I grew up, I really had no idea that I would get into science the way I did at the end.
SL: I thought I was gonna be a doctor. Research was not something that I was exposed to before. It was something that was very abstract, wearing a lab coat or whatever, and even in undergrad when people spoke about research it felt like this thing that was only for the elite. When I started volunteering in the Cashman lab, for me, it was just a chance to dabble in it and see what it was about. It was a great opportunity to be able to volunteer there for a full summer. And then, at the time I applied to medical school, I did not get in, so my supervisor, Neil, offered me a position in the lab to pursue a Master's thesis. I thought, 'Oh, I could do this.' I got in not really knowing what to expect. There was no course on how to be a grad student!
AB: <Laugh> I know!
SL: I spoke to all the grad students and everybody had their own experience with it, but what kept me in research, I think, is a lot for project management. I've always enjoyed planning things, managing projects, and that's a big part of what we do in research. What keeps me there now, even though I'm still aspiring to pursue a clinical path, is I do find a lot of enjoyment in what I do.
AB: What was it about the medical field that drew it to you in the first place? What was the thing that made you go, 'I really just wanna be a medical doctor'?
SL: Well, it's funny 'cause growing up, that was the last thing I wanted to do! <Laugh>
SL: It felt like a calling at some point later on, but growing up I wanted to be a psychologist. I read this book called 'Sophie's World' that really explores the history of philosophy from Egyptian times with Euclid, Thales, all the way to contemporary philosophers. As a 14-year-old that was very impressionable, [I thought] 'Oh, psychoanalysis! Amazing!' I wanted to be a psychoanalyst at the time because of [that], and then I looked into opportunities back in Tunisia, how I could really address issues that I saw around me, depression and anxiety with the friends I had at the time. I thought perhaps medicine would allow me to achieve that goal more effectively where I was.
Then my dad had a heart attack in my last year of high school, and I actually really enjoyed taking care of him! It sounds a little odd to say, but I was caring for him at home, changing his band-aid after his open-heart surgery, administering some subcutaneous injections and I thought, 'Oh wow, this is something I actually enjoy learning about and doing,' so that refocused me into medicine. That's where I came from. And then I had other ideas and projects I wanted to expand on related to psychiatry and neurology, but that would be story for a different day maybe! <Laugh>
AB: I do have one more question about that since it was a heart-related condition, [did] your first impression in the world of medicine [lead] you into cardiology? Is that what really opened up your eyes? Was it the heart that you fell in love with, or was it just medicine that you fell in love with?
SL: No, I didn't have an interest in the heart. I still had interest in the brain at the time, so psychiatry was my first choice, and then it kind of evolved into neurology. But no, it was mainly the patient-doctor interactions that I witnessed between my dad and his doctors and nurses. I loved going to the hospital. It was interesting because I had very mixed feelings. I was very worried about my dad at the time, but I'd go there and think, 'Ooh, I'd love to work here!' It was really odd, [but I] thought, 'Wow. This is where I belong.'
I enjoyed speaking with his care aids. I think problem solving too was something I really liked; there's a problem [and] how [do you] use your knowledge of science, human anatomy, human biology to solve that problem? And I did really enjoy my life science courses at the time too.
AB: So, why do you think mental health often gets overlooked in academia?
SL: Oh, my goodness, [that's] a big question! There are many reasons. One, I'd say there are certain expectations in academia. There seems to be this idea that you have to prove yourself when you start, that you have to pay your dues and slave away for a few years before you get to become a PI. I've spoken to people who are further in their career and they'd say something like, 'Oh, I was here this weekend,' or I'd say 'Oh, that student was here yesterday very late.' And a person [responded], 'Yeah, I did that too. I don't do it anymore, but I had to do it as a student.' So, there seems to be an expectation for people to go above and beyond that way, because of the expectation people feel like, 'Oh, I should not complain because that's part of what it's.'
The other thing is a lack of, not a lack... I remember it took me a long time to completely realize that I needed help or that I didn't feel well because I was not listening to my needs. I was so focused on what was going on around me that I didn't feel like I deserved for my needs to be heard by others. And perhaps there isn't space for these conversations to happen between supervisors and their students. I think a lot of supervisors do care. I've had a wonderful experience with my own supervisor, where he made that space and made it very easy for me to talk to him when I needed help, but that doesn't happen for everybody. A lot of students don't have that initial conversation with their PI [about] what the expectations are of their job, so they have to guess, on their own, what is expected and often they guess very high, they expect to do amazing, right?
AB: With Dr Cashman, were the expectations outlined when you immediately started your job or did you have to ask him? Was there a comfort in you being able to ask him?
SL: With Neil, things happened very gradually, and beautifully too. When I started, I was a volunteer in the lab, and a few weeks in he invited me to his office because he wanted to hear about [my] ambitions and where I wanted to go from there, which was beautiful. He made time! At the time, I was like, 'Oh wow, this neurologist/PI is taking an hour of his time to talk to this new volunteer about her aspirations in lab.' I really valued that. He gave me a chance to talk about my dreams and where I wanted to go. And he made it clear that [he] was [there] to support me to get where I wanted to go, and if there was a space in the lab for me to also contribute, that was also an option. From the get go, he established that relationship of support and mentorship.
He came across to me as someone who was very vulnerable too. He was not just a scientist. He was a human being, and that's something that just happened with us. I can't speak for other students in the lab, but I can really speak from my experience with him. He made himself very vulnerable and he asked me a few questions as well about mental health, because I'd shared some things about my past that have driven me to wanting to get into healthcare. He said to me, 'Well, if you ever feel like you are... If you ever feel depressed, feel on the edge, I hope that you feel comfortable talking to me about it.' This happened when I was a volunteer, before I even considered being a graduate student. And then as part of my program in Experimental Medicine—when I applied to be a Master's student—we had a form to fill about expectations, and that was mandatory. There [was] a list of expectations from students, and a list of expectations from the PI. And we had to make time with our PI to discuss these expectations, sign that and return it to the head of the department.
That was amazing because some things were kind of self-explanatory and I felt, 'Duh!' but I thought, 'You know what? It's nice that we talk about them.' For example, one of them was that the student had to make an effort to apply to conferences or to publish, and that had to come from me. That was nice to talk about. Neil was not gonna hold my hand and say, 'I'm gonna send you there. You're gonna do this.' There was also an expectation from him to support me financially and support me with mentorship, and we spoke about that as well. There was talk as well about updates on progress: it was my responsibility to make sure to update Neil on my progress regularly. I made it a point to go every month, knock on his door and say, 'Neil, I need to tell you what's going on.' Even if I didn't have much, he needed to know what was going on. So, establishing that relationship was extremely important because when I needed him, I felt comfortable knocking on his door.
I think a lot of students get intimidated by their PI where they don't feel like, ‘I can show myself as a vulnerable person to them because they will think less of me,' or the image we have of a scientist like, 'Oh, this person has no feelings,' or 'They won't understand.' But for me, it was important that Neil came across as a human being first. It was that, and the fact [that] he gave me a good model for balancing life and work. I know that his family is important to him, and he'd often say, 'Yeah, I'm going on vacation with my family' or '[I'm] spending time with my wife.' Because I saw him model that and make time to spend time with his loved ones, and it was okay for me to do the same.
AB: So, do you think a lot of PIs end up modeling bad behavior and then we mimic that behavior? Is that the trap a lot of us end up falling into, do you think? Just from your almost 'outsider looking in' perspective, because you have had quite a unique experience.
SL: It's hard to say because every PI is different, right? I've heard PI say, 'Yeah, this is science.' I've seen PIs message their students late on a Saturday night, text message them—
AB: Expecting a response!
SL: —and expecting a response! If your PI sends you an email at 2:00 AM on a Saturday, you think, 'Well, my PI is working. Maybe I should be working too.' You know what I mean? Yeah, I've seen some behavior—I mean, I don't wanna label it as 'bad'. Everybody has a choice on what they wanna prioritize; it's just a matter of finding a good fit. If you are someone who has aspirations in academia that are like, 'Oh, I want to be working in the lab 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I want to achieve this and this and this,' then maybe a PI who does the same is a good fit. But if you're someone who values life, family life, balance of work—and I had a lot of people like that in my lab—perhaps a different PI would be a better fit.
We also had postdocs in my lab and students who modeled that behavior. When I joined the lab as a volunteer, I asked, 'Oh, can I volunteer 9-5 every day?' And there was a bit of a chuckle at the table. They said, 'Well, only if you want to babysit! A lot of us leave at 3:00 PM because we have young children.' And I was shocked. I thought, 'You guys are scientists. We're supposed to be here until, like, 7! I see people in other labs here until 7.' They said, 'In our lab, we leave a lot earlier because we have young kids we need to go pick up. We work from home and that's work too.'
SL: There was this one student at the time who left around 2 or 3 every day. He'd come at 9, worked non-stop till 3. He'd say, 'That's it. I'm done.' And we'd often say, 'Hey, you are leaving early.' And he said, 'Yeah, I have young kids and they're my priority. And I'll work from home later tonight when my kids go to bed.' And he told me a valuable thing. One time I said to him, 'I'm coming to the lab on Saturday.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Well, because I have whatever to take care of.' He said, 'Can't it wait Monday?' And I said, 'No.' He said, 'Why can't it wait [until] Monday? Is it that urgent?' And I said, 'Not really, but if I wait till Monday, it will make things slow down.' And he said, 'If you get yourself and your surroundings used to coming on weekends and working overtime, you'll never stop because that will become an expectation.' He never came in on weekends and he finished his [projects]. He was very productive. He just managed his time in a way that, 'Okay, I have a few hours a day in the lab,' and then make the best of it. 'I'm gonna do my writing at home, my writing and reading.' He read on the bus every day, he wrote and edited papers on the bus. And to me, that was a valuable lesson of compartmentalizing things and making sure important things got the time they deserve.
AB: Yeah. With respect to mental health, because you have a PI who's so cognizant of the well-being of everyone in his lab, would you say that most people either feel comfortable coming to him to speak about any mental health issues or... No? <Laugh>
SL: Well, I don't wanna get into details of my lab, because I don't wanna speak for other people, but I think it's a two-way street. I mean, the PI can open the door and we need to encourage students and employees to come forward as well. I've been on both ends. I've been an employee and I've been an employer or manager in other settings. As a manager, as much time as you put into making sure people are comfortable, there are things you don't know until the person tells you. If I'm going through hardship and I try so hard to show that I've got it together, Neil's not gonna know. He's not gonna guess. He's going to expect that the deadlines are met and if they're not met, obviously there's going to be disappointment and frustration. But if I come forward from the beginning or even midway through and say, 'You know, it's not gonna work because of this,' as long as there's clarity on my side, I think he can act on that.
I always encourage students to be honest with PIs, and I say, 'You know, if you're feeling depressed, why don't you tell PI?' 'Oh, we don't have that relationship.' And I'm like, 'Well, even if your PI doesn't make that step forward, and doesn't meet you halfway, you can also make that step towards them and open that door.' And I know it's hard. It's really hard.
AB: What was it like for you? What was that conversation like? Did you have to work yourself up to be able to have that conversation with Neil, to say, 'I'm the not feeling that well, and this is what's happening with me?' How do you even open that conversation?
SL: Because he had opened the door—he'd said to me, 'I hope you will feel comfortable [reaching out to me]' —I felt like I [was] making a promise.
When the time came, it was really bad. It was my second year of grad studies and I had so much going on in my life. The stress and the depressed feelings didn't come from grad studies; they came from everything coming together at the time. I was at rock bottom at the time and I felt like I could not be counted on or relied on at the time, so I felt like it was almost my duty and responsibility to let my employer know that he could not count on me, but because he had opened the door before—he said, 'When you feel that way, please come'—it wasn't difficult. I just... I went to his office, he happened to be there that day, and I said, 'Can we speak?' I closed the door and I explained what was going on. I said, 'This is how I'm feeling. This is what's going on. I wanted you to be aware of it.' It was such a beautiful conversation because he started giving me a few pieces of advice on what's going on. He said, 'Well, maybe you can prioritize this over this. This is important. This is not that important.' And then he said to me, 'Beyond this week, if you feel like you need to take a break from your thesis or even [wrap up] here without finishing your grad studies, that's an option and nobody will think less of you. You've accomplished a lot already, so if you want to stop now, that's fine. I will support you. But if you need time to go longer, if you need a year, that's also okay. The choice is yours.'
Hearing that from a person I held the high esteem and hearing that from someone of authority, he's a neurologist, [I thought] 'Oh, wow! He said it's okay.' If my friend said that, it wouldn't have been as valuable as coming from my own supervisor. He said, 'Either way, we're not gonna think you're stupid. We're not gonna think you're weak or inadequate. We support you.'
I didn't, you know, leave my grad studies. I finished a year later. But knowing that was an option was really nice. And he didn't say it like, 'Oh, maybe you should stop 'cause you can't finish.' It was more like, 'If you want to, that's okay.'
AB: You're right—beautiful is the perfect word for it, because beyond making sure that your self-esteem and self-image was okay, he wanted you to take care of yourself. There was an understanding that if you went away and came back, it wasn't like you'd have things docked against you. Your workload wasn't gonna pile up. There were no repercussions essentially. Or did you feel that there were? Did you at any point feel like, 'Oh, there might be repercussions to me?' Even though he had assured you, was there any hesitation in your mind?
SL: No, mainly because of the relationship we cultivated until the time, because it wasn't [the] interview and then this. We had an ongoing conversation every month, and often it was initiated by myself and often it has to be because PIs are very busy, sometimes they forget, that happens. And it doesn't feel good as a student who has been forgotten. It's not a nice situation. For me, I felt there were times I felt a little forgotten, that my project was not at the forefront of what he had in his mind, but I had to make this step, go beyond my comfort zone and knock on his door and say, 'This is what's happening. And this is what I plan on doing next month. What do you think? These are the ideas I have.' And that really helped us, you know, cultivate that relationship where I got to a point where I'm comfortable putting up boundaries now, comfortable saying what I need and what I want, and that doesn't come right away. It's so difficult, especially for a student, to say, 'I want this,' or 'I need a raise,' or 'I need time away. I need less projects.' That's extremely difficult, and it takes time and effort on both sides.
AB: Absolutely. 1000% agree. I see the hesitation with which people come to my own supervisor because they do hold her in such high esteem and they haven't broken through the humanness aspect. I think that's a really crucial aspect that you bring up.
Where does dance fall into this whole idea of balance for you?
SL: Ooh, dance is beautiful! <Laugh> I mean, it doesn't have to be just dance. For me, it happens to be dance. For other people, I've seen it be swimming, running, painting. For me, dance is an amazing way to get out of my head, get into how I'm feeling, take a break and say, 'Okay, how am I feeling?' Yeah, it's a work in progress <laugh>; I'm an extremely anxious person. I'm always thinking, thinking, thinking, and it's not necessarily good because I'm not aware of when I'm tired. The analogy I use is I'm like this balloon working at 110%, and it seems fine, but then if you add anything extra, I'm gonna explode, and that's not a nice feeling. Dance helps me really work on that, and checking on how I'm feeling. 'Am I tired? Am I sleep deprived?' I do need my body, and we tend to think that our mind has an infinite capacity.
SL: It's like, 'Oh, I'm stressed but I can push through!' But my body, I'm really very much aware that I don't have an infinite capacity. There's only so much I can bend. There's only so much I can lift. And there's only so long I can move. Dance helps me with that.
AB: What's your dance story? I don't think I've ever asked you how you started dancing.
SL: I come from a culture where dance is such an integral part of our life. In weddings, we dance. Often my cousin would put on a song and we’d dance with my grandma and my cousins at home. Yeah, I used to have fun!
AB: We do that too!
SL: Oh, you do?
AB: Absolutely! People wonder why I have rhythm. They think I went to dance class and I'm like, 'No, this is just being in the house.' Someone puts on a record, or at that point it was a tape player!
SL: One of my cousins also drums on the table, like, he’d pull a table and start [drumming]—it's called darbouka—and we'd start dancing at home. So, it came from there. When I came to North America, when came to Vancouver, people would say, 'Oh, are you a belly dancer?' because that was a word that people used here. It's not the word we use for it back home. It's just... It's interesting, because I don't use my belly that much! I had to label it to explain it to people, and I joined a belly-dancing group when I was on exchange in England and started performing. For me, because I hadn't received any formal training, a lot of it was like, 'Oh I'll do it because I enjoy it.' Then, [when] I joined these different academies and classes, they'd give things a name. Someone would be like, 'Oh, we call this this.' And I thought, 'Oh, it has a name; okay!'
That's how I started! Then slowly, I kind of migrated towards other dance forms. I do partner dancing: salsa, bachata, different Latin dances which I practice regularly with my partner.
AB: Does Neil know that you dance?
SL: He does!
AB: Has he attended a show? Has he seen for perform?
SL: No, but he's very encouraging of it. He's aware of it. I've presented a few videos in a lab meeting of a few projects we've done in the past. There's one that I did, a project instigated by Naila Kuhlmann who was a PhD candidate at the Centre of Brain Health before, and she's in Montreal now. That's how I got into joining dance and science. I hadn't seen that connection before until she brought it up, so I can't take credit.
I remember we had this project where we explored connectivity and how to make that with our movement. There was a big event at a space center where we presented this. There was a video that came out of it and I presented that to our lab meeting. He loved it. He said, 'Oh, please don't change.' He's very encouraging of it.
I can't speak for any other ideas he has about dance, but I've seen other reactions around me when I say that I dance. People see it often as a hobby rather than a means to exercise or a way to socialize, which is fine too. But I used to salsa dance a lot before, and that was my main form of exercising. I'd go dancing 3-4 nights a week. Often I'd go at night. Mind you I'd be in bed by 1:00 AM, but people would say, 'Oh, you party so much. You dance every night.' And I'd say, 'You know, it's interesting because for me, it's not a night-club, "partying" atmosphere. I'm going there to move, to connect with people, and explore movement.'
I think there are some stereotypes and judgments around that. I see some people exercise every day, but they don't receive the same, you know, reactions to it. Aside from the perceptions people have for dance—maybe they don't see it as exercise or a way to connect with others—there is a sexualization of dance, so I am careful now who I tell that I dance and what kind of dance I do, because I'm a woman and the association of dance with it. I can see a reaction sometimes. People think, 'Oh, she does that?'
AB: Do they treat you differently afterwards?
SL: It's hard to tell. I'm lucky that the people I work with regularly know me well enough that they don't put too much, you know, weight on the other things I do, like my hobbies, but I'm very cognizant and aware that if I'm introducing myself to someone for the first time, if I'm gonna say dance, I have to be very careful how I present that, because also, I don't have power. I'm a technician. I was a student for a long time. I'm not in a position of power where I can say, 'I'm gonna do this and not care what people think.' Unfortunately, I do have to care how I present myself in applications, through my medical school applications, through my CVs and everything. For a PI, you have a reputation to back you up, or if you are a research associate, you have a lot of other things that back you up. But here, I have to be very careful because any impression can either hurt me or help me. And I feel like if I were doing ballet, for example, as opposed to belly dance... sorry, I shouldn't say that <laugh>. If I were a painter, if I did other forms of art where I don't use my body, I would probably see a little less judgment.
AB: That's so sad.
SL: I have received comments, I'm not gonna lie. I've received some comments that I thought were inappropriate, related to my dancing. I've seen women who say, 'Oh, that's objectifying.' Or, 'We fought so hard to be valued for our brains.' And for me, I think, 'Why can't we be both? Are we just one-dimensional creatures that are either smart or...?' That's where the judgment comes from. There are women who feel like, 'Why do you show your body or use your body that way and dance? We fought so hard not to be objectified.' And I think, 'Why do we have to be objectified to start with? Why is dance associated with objectification?'
AB: Yeah, that's one element of it. What really frustrates me is the freedom to choose is what people were fighting for. It's the freedom to not have your personal space infringed upon no matter what you're wearing, at any time of day, no matter who you're with.
AB: That is the basis of feminism. I think there are pockets of people who look at it very differently—and yeah, everyone's entitled to their own opinion of course—but I think it's unfair to dictate anything, to ask someone to put more clothes on or take clothes off in order for them to fit whatever mold you've created for what a woman should be. It makes me sad when women don't support other women. [In fact] it makes me more upset than when a man doesn't support a woman. And it's wrong because there should be some level of equality, but no, we're supposed to stand together. Unfortunately, when you are in a position where you haven't necessarily had the same amount of power as someone else, you have to recognize that your power is in sum, it's in all of you working together and fighting for something bigger than yourself. That disappoints me. I'm sorry that you've had that experience.
SL: Oh, it's okay. It's given me an interesting perspective. The first time I got quite upset because I received some anger and harsh judgment from some women. With men, it's a little different. I think a lot of them understand that, you know, that's your choice. Some of them are scared too—
SL: —and some will make demeaning or sexualized comments, and I think they're not so aware that that's how it comes [off]. Some of them will just say it. And I would say, 'What you said came across that way.' With women, that's when I get the wide spectrum, anything from 'You go, girl!' to 'How dare you do this?' And when I say belly dancing, people's eyes change and I get certain different reactions. Now I use 'Northern African traditional dancing' 'cause that's cultural. They can't say anything about your culture!
SL: And that has to do the history of belly dance too, how in the Western world it was portrayed and used, and the orientalist history that comes with it. It's something to be aware of on both sides.
AB: Yeah, thank you for bringing that up.
What do you think you've learned about yourself through the hardships that you feel you've faced, in terms of your mental health, keeping yourself in check, and keeping yourself number one in your life? You do need to look after yourself!
SL: I do. Well, I've learned that I'm resilient now. I'm more resilient for it. I'd say what I learned... not something I've learned about myself, but something a skill I had to hone: I've learned to establish boundaries—
SL: —which is very important. I think it's easier for me to do now that I'm a research technician as opposed to a graduate student, because I'm on a contract and paid for a certain number of hours a week. If I work overtime, I don't feel guilty for taking that time off the day after or the week after. I do keep track of my hours. There are weeks I work for two hours. There are weeks I work 38 hours. There are weeks I work 20 hours, or 60 hours. I keep track of that. I didn't as a grad student because the assumption there was that I'm not working for someone; I'm working for myself. Thinking back, I wish I had sat down with myself and thought, 'Okay, how many hours are going towards this part of my life per week?' And that can be 80 hours. That can be 40 hours. That can be anything as long as I'm aware of what I'm taking time away from. If you're someone who has another job, who's a teaching assistant, that's 6-12 hours a week. If you have another kind of job where you are working in retail, that's hours. If you wanna spend time with your partner, with your friends, if you have a hobby, if you're part of a nonprofit, if you're part of a student club, those are hours. All of it comes down to numbers for me, so I try to turn things into numbers. 'How many hours is this gonna take? That number of hours is gonna take it away from something else. That could be my sleep. That could be my health. That could be a commute. That could be time that goes towards food.' Now I learned to turn things into numbers and prioritize, and it's still work in progress. I'm not really good at it. I get carried away by passions and ideas, but it's something [that], looking back as a grad student, I wish I had done more: putting those boundaries.
Sometimes my PI will come up with an idea, say, 'Oh, we should do this.' If there's time to do it, I'll do it. But sometimes I’ll say, 'Look, this is a list of projects'—we have a Google document now where I put the list of things I'm working on and update it with progress—and I say to him, 'This is what I had planned. If you want to add something to it, you tell me what is going to [be] compromised. What are we going to take out of this to make that project happen?' And sometimes he says, 'Yeah, let's reorganize the priorities.' And sometimes he'd say, 'Oh, okay, no, this is not that important. Let's leave it for a later date.'
I think PIs and supervisors often get really excited that they'll ask you to do things, and I think it's up to you to put that boundary and say, 'I can't do it,' or, you know, 'I don't want to.' And I mean, I'm sure there are some PIs who won't care. I've seen some PIs who don't care. I've seen someone say to his PI, 'I work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I don't have time to shower anymore.' That does happen unfortunately. My heart goes [to] everybody listening to this who is in this situation. But the reality is that there are PIs who are like this and there are PIs who are not. There are PIs who will listen, if you let them know what's going on. Sometimes if you're not in the lab, you might not know how much time something takes. So, it's like, 'Oh, can you do this? It sounds like one day.' [But] it's actually work for five or six days. So, make sure your PI actually knows how much time things take.
AB: Yeah, and they do need reminders the more time they spend away from the lab. It's okay to have that check in with them and go, 'Listen, this can't happen in the time-frame that you think it's going to happen,' and do it in a respectful way. It doesn't have to be confrontational or anything like that. I have noticed that PIs who have just completed their most recent postdoc have a much better understanding that, 'No, this is a five-day affair or a two week affair, or even longer than that.' Whereas individuals who've been around for 20 plus years, they're just like, 'You can get it done, but you're the limitation. You are the person who is preventing it from happening. Why don't you just buckle down and do it?' when that's not necessarily how it works out.
SL: It does not. And if you make it happen very fast, they will expect that you make it happen again!
AB: Yes! Even if you pushed yourself to the limit to do that.
SL: There's one project I remember—'cause I was going away for a long time—I discussed it with my PI and he said, 'We have this happening.' I said, 'I will move heaven and earth and make it happen in that week. I won't sleep.' So, I made it happen, and when a similar project came around, Neil asked, 'Oh, can we do this again?' I said, 'No, I did not sleep that week. If that's what you want, I can make it happen. But I need to take the week after off, because for me to make it happen in that deadline, that came at a high cost. And me not sleeping one night means I need two days to recover unfortunately. It doesn't mean I need eight hours.' Kind of putting things in perspective... and it can be done a very respectful and collaborative way where it's not like, 'Oh, I need this...' but more like, 'Okay, this is what this is about. Let's come up with a plan together to make this happen in a way that's respectful of your goals, but also respectful of my health.'
AB: Yeah, and of your time and my time.
SL: So often people will work, work, work and say, 'Oh, I'm such a hardworking person. I work so hard,’ and I say, 'They will keep pushing. That's what a manager does. That's what a supervisor does.' I've been in that role too. You push because you have another person who's asking for things above you, or you have some deliverables you're aiming for. They'll keep pushing and it's up to you to say no, or, you know, [give them a] reality check.
I learned that from my grad studies, and I'm trying to apply that currently. I do acknowledge that as a technician, I'm in a very different position because you are on a contract or an employee. But it's something that is possible, I think, for grad students to aim for. It's just a matter of us being aware of what our rights are, that we're not machines—
SL: —and hopefully there'll be some efforts from PIs as well to create that space for conversation.
AB: Have you found that the external community was beneficial to your mental health and the way you felt about yourself in your program?
SL: Yes. This [ties] in what I just said as well, because my partner is in engineering and business, so he would comment sometimes and say, 'You worked really late yesterday. Why are you going at 8:00 today?' And I say, 'Well, because this and this.' Just seeing how things are done in other places, in other businesses and other companies—not that we want to adopt a company model—but seeing how employees are treated or how they work, it was really helpful because it made me feel less guilty about how I was going to approach things. I had a lot of support, I think. In academia, because we think, 'This is how it is,' there's a lot of guilt if you don't come on the weekends, like, 'Oh, I didn't come, I feel guilty. Or I left at 5:00 PM yesterday.' Seeing something different that was possible, and a different setting, really helped me think, 'Okay, what are the good things I can take from that environment and apply it here?' That was very helpful. Obviously, my extracurriculars with dance, painting, and other things—I like working on non-profits—that was helpful because it also kept me on track of why I'm doing the work I do. Working with seniors, for example, they often ask, 'Oh, what is research like? What is research? What are you doing for Alzheimer's research?' That motivated me to work harder, and to [maintain] integrity as well. I think that's important; this is why we do science. This is why we do good science, because at the end of the day, it's not just about my thesis. It's not just about of papers. It's about the people who are going to benefit.
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