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An advice column featuring our STEM experts, who are here to answer all your questions about studying, working, and being a human being in the world of STEM.

What is your philosophy on learning? What do you do, Who do you turn to, What do you focus on when you are trying to learn a new skill?

 

 

Learning is a fundamental human activity. From the moment when we take our first breath, our bodies and brains are engaged in learning new things: how to get our mother’s attention when we are hungry, how to defy gravity by learning to stand and walk, how to read, and so on until the end of our days. I believe that continuous learning is essential to happiness and perhaps even survival, whether we are college students, professionals at work or enjoying retirement. How boring would life be without the daily delight of a new word, new route to work, new cooking technique, new data point, a new algorithm?

I think of learning in different categories, each requiring a different approach: academic learning, physical learning, and fun learning. For academic learning, I figured out that I need a lot of repetition. Especially if I am not familiar with the subject or simply don’t care about it. For this type of learning, my most impactful approach is to get a tutor or join a study group so that I can be exposed to a few different ways of looking at the subject at hand. My study groups in college are probably the number 1 reason why I was able to graduate. Some of my classes were very difficult and the professors did not have time to explain things in a way that I could process, so I would look for other students or teaching assistants who could. The more a concept or process would show up in my academic career, the better I got at it. I also noticed that when I delved deep into a subject I would start to dream of the answers to problems, or become more proficient in a language. This type of learning prepared me for my professional career. I have learned that my best way of excelling at a job is to learn from as many people and documents as possible, let all the information “be loose” in my brain, then organize it with repetition. Physical learning is much more difficult for me. I am not naturally athletic and moving my body in ways that are unnatural to the way I learned to move as a child are a continuous challenge. However, I have learned that when my brain hurts from trying to learn line dancing, tennis, or hiking a difficult terrain (well, difficult for me…) it means that my brain is developing new pathways which are essential for brain and body health as I age. Getting a good night’s sleep is required for recovery and processing for both academic and physical learning. Fun learning is the everyday joy of figuring out something new. This takes very little effort and gives me great pleasure. Reading the newspaper, talking with strangers, trying a new craft or even watching a (high quality!!) youtube video are eclectic ways of keeping the mind and body engaged. It can also be very relaxing to learn something random. And you never know when you will use the information in a trivia game.

-Mayra Montrose

How do you contend with anxiety on the job or in school?

 

I think the first thing that should be done is acknowledging that you are having an anxious thought or feeling. From recognition comes understanding, and by understanding how anxiety manifests itself within your mind and body you can build a healthy management strategy. For me I always try to first determine if there is anything that I can do about my perceived “source” of anxiety. Sometimes this is possible, but oftentimes there is nothing “in particular” that is causing my anxiety, it is just a general feeling. Or I am anxious about something that I have no control over whatsoever.

For manageable cases I will often try a few anxiety techniques. Controlled breathing, going for a walk, talking to a friend, hugging my cat. For the times where I can affect the source I will try and enact a plan to do that. For example, if I am anxious about a presentation, I can practice in front of peers, I can reread and edit it, and/or I can record myself saying it. Just remember that confronting your anxiety is an act of bravery that you do not need to do on your own.

-John Montalbo

What role do you think science communicators will play in the coming years in development of policy and how can we become better science communicators for our communities?

 

Science communicators must be focused on building community in science in order to become better science communicators for our community. It sounds simple, but community building must be done intentionally, genuinely, and in a way that is culturally responsive to the community that we are seeking to serve. Policies are rules and guidelines that can impact people, and we need to get to the core of our communities to understand what other people want and need to thrive and be properly informed and educated.

-Raven Baxter

How do you juggle your long-term goals with your short-term tasks and needs?

 

Planning is an important step in achieving short- and long-term goals. I highly recommend making a to-do list based on priorities. For example, if a student is applying to graduate school while finishing undergraduate students, I would suggest generating a checklist with all the different requirements for the application process such as letter of recommendations, writing personal statements, etc. Each week, the student can accomplish a small goal while keeping tracking of the current assignments and responsibilities to finish their undergraduate degree. In addition, I suggest tapping into their networks (peers, mentors, and advisors) to play important roles in the long-term goals such as asking others to review and edit personal statements. It is very important to create a weekly calendar to reach small but attainable goals. At end of the process all the small steps will add up to complete the major goal.

Mary Garcia-Cazarin

 

 

How do you cultivate wellness in times of heightened stress?

 

 

A first step is to simply accept that stress and anxiety is normal and many external factors will exacerbate our degree of stress (i.e. pandemic). One thing that has helped me personally is to diversify my daily activities across many points of mental and physical wellness. This helps me build resilience in times of anxiety and pressure. You can think of it as a preventive measure of managing stress before it hits (because it will eventually!). Always take the time to care for yourself on a daily basis, whether it is taking a break from work regularly by exercising or practicing mindfulness. Developing a self-care routine is an essential part of wellness. And when crunch time hits, learn to savor the moment when you are done with a particular deadline or project (regardless of the outcome) and remember to always be kind to yourself! – Tarek Fadel

 

Black and white circular photo of Tarek Fadel

Tarek Fadel is Assistant Director at the MIT Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine. Dr. Fadel also serves in board and advisory roles in at the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association and the MIT Science Policy Review.

 

 

what was a moment in your career where you felt stuck, and what did you do to help you in that situation?

 

That “stuck” feeling happened three years into my postdoc. I saw a couple career paths but none that interested me, and I didn’t want to try one and get stuck again. After some frustration, I kondo’d my career. This was before the Marie Kondo movement but that is what I did. I pulled apart my day-to-day and asked what brought me joy. When I say “pulled apart” – I looked at everything. From running gels to writing papers to middle-of-the-night lab visits when the freezer alarm went off. I learned that I found joy in conversations around high-level issues, for example why did researchers often use only male mouse models in studies. But, how to translate that, whatever that was, into a career? That’s when I did what I was best at – research. I read about all types of science careers, I did informational interviews with anyone that was willing, and I looked at a lot of job descriptions. In the end, I foundthat’ thing that brings me joy, science policy.” – Diana Pankevich

 

Photo of Dianna Penkevich

Diana Pankevich serves as the Director of Innovation Policy at Pfizer where she leads policy development for issues related to clinical trials, including enrollment, diversity, and data sharing.

 

 

 

“I felt stuck in my career when I was an assistant professor. I was having difficulty getting my work published, and I did not feel supported by my senior colleagues. The stress of being an assistant professor was having a negative impact on my marriage. I decided to put my personal life before my career and left my tenure-track position for a research position in the Federal Reserve System. Leaving academia gave me new and important information about how I interacted with my career. I was afraid of failing by not getting tenure. Once the stress of getting tenure was taken away, my research literally took off. After two years of being able to focus on my research, I returned to academia with tenure. I recommend that people be willing to make changes in their career and then learn from them. It’s your career, and it’s very important to make your career work for your entire life (personal and professional).” – Donna Ginther

 

Photo of Donna Ginther

Donna Ginther is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, as well as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

 


 

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