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Lab, and Life, Lessons From the Treadmill

Back in high school, I ran track and played sports all the time. With the stress of grad school slowly taking over my entire life, I decided to start running again, in the hopes that it would give me something to focus on outside of science. To my surprise, I’ve actually learned a tremendous amount about how to do science while putting in the miles. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned:

Skills are important, but practice is a necessity
Being naturally fast is great, but if you only run once a month, you won’t be winning any races. Likewise, a natural talent for research and logical thinking is a tremendous advantage in science, but results depend upon putting in the hours at the bench, gaining experience and generating data.

Mental toughness can overcome many obstacles
After one bad run, I often want to give up and forget about training for the next
couple of days (or weeks), but if I can push myself to get back out there for another run, I’m often surprised at the positive results. Failed experiments and those agonizing slow days in the lab make me want to throw in the towel and get a job at Wendy’s; but the day after a spectacular disappointment is often the day I get a great idea on how to make it better.

It’s not about what someone else can do; it’s about what YOU can do
Lots of people are faster than me or can run farther than me, which can be pretty discouraging. However, I can run faster and farther now than I could 6 months ago (or 1 month ago, for that matter). This mental attitude is really helpful when you run up against other graduate students or post-docs who seem to be outcompeting you, whether in number of publications, grants funded, advisor approval…whatever the standard. Compare yourself to yourself and focus on how you have improved by putting in the time and effort.

Know your limits
Some days I just can’t do the run I’d planned; maybe I spent longer at work than I had planned for, or I’m just exhausted from the day. Sometimes it pays to push through this feeling, but sometimes that’s the run that pushes me over the edge into exhaustion. Learn to know when an extra hour in the lab will really help, and when adhering too strictly to a plan or timeline is actually harmful.

What lessons have you learned about science from a surprising or unexpected source?


  1. Emily Crow on November 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Thanks, Christopher!

    I appreciate your marathon analogy — pacing yourself along the road to a publication or a degree is so important.  It pays to take the long view!

  2. Christopher Dieni on November 3, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Excellent article Emily!

    I suppose one lesson that people can get from this, intended or not, is something right there in the very first paragraph: focus on something outside of science from time to time. Play sports, run, walk, lie on the beach… whatever. In addition to your parallels between running and science, merely the context of running itself- getting out of the lab and doing something you enjoy- may be one of the most important things here.
    Another lesson follows up with your running analogy, and maybe ties into what I just said. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t work 12+ hour days every day, 7 days a week, and then do additional scientific reading and writing when you get home. If you try that, how on earth are you going to pace yourself in a scientific career that might last the rest of your life?
    Again, great job!

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