Third letter to Martin Chalfie

Dear Marty,

It is heartening to hear that you think I will do fine in selecting a good problem to work on, since I obviously have my doubts. We have been discussing the choice of a research topic in some detail, but we have not yet touched upon the actual day-to-day practice of science. Scientists are often stereotyped as workaholics, tinkering away in the lab until the wee hours of the morning, which I am afraid describes my own life all too well much of the time.

Before coming to Berkeley I spent a year working at the NIH and, to my surprise given the dry material, vividly remember a mandatory safety training video. The specifics of the regulations that were reviewed in the video are of course long gone; what I recall is a quote from a principal investigator, along the lines of, “I am always happy when I see people working late into the night because it means they are excited about what they are doing. However, I do want to make sure that they continue to work safely.” At the time I had a cynical reaction to the P.I.’s perspective: she of course had an interest in the members of her lab working extremely hard and was either unaware of — or choosing to ignore — their presumed suffering.

Although I like to think I maintain a rich life outside of the lab, these days often enough I find myself working there at odd times, without any sort of compulsion beyond my own desire for results. So, maybe the scientist in that video was wiser than I had anticipated. In my line of work, intermittent long nights running the electron microscope are generally a given if one wants to successfully get good data. I am more concerned about a tendency, which I think is not uncommon among scientists, to work obsessively beyond what is needed to succeed, in fact to an extent that may be detrimental.

I must admit to sometimes feeling a bit like a lab monk, toiling away in my little cell somewhere along the sacred Hall of Science, far away from the concerns of the “lay public” you mention in your first letter. I think we agree that science as a whole requires a certain distance from the immediate demands and desires of society at large if meaningful progress is to occur. However, I wonder how much this is also true for individual scientists. It seems like common sense that maintaining a healthy work-life balance is important for a sustained high level of performance, but I am not sure what this entails for a successful scientist.  My greatest concern would be to lose out on the diverse array of perspectives in the world, which can inspire flexible creative thinking: you mentioned it is important to interact with scientists in other fields as much as possible, but isn’t important to interact with other types of people as well (for instance, artists), whose thoughts might prove productively disruptive?

To sum it up, in your experience, how much is too much?

Cheers,

Greg

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