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The Secret Passions of Scientists

Face the bitter truth: Scientists have a reputation, undeserved of course, for being humorless, overly analytic, controlling, antisocial, competitive, arrogant, elitist, obsessive workaholics.

What’s that old adage? You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t judge scientists by their lab coats, or by their day jobs. When you spend quality time with scientists outside the laboratory, rich personalities emerge, and you may be startled by what you discover. They can be just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Scientists Come out of the Closet

A rocking astrophysicist. Charles Danforth is a postdoc in observational astrophysics at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His job, in his words, is to sit in front of a computer--reducing data, writing code, writing papers--and he has an ample list of refereed publications to prove it. But the lure of nature beckons, and he follows. He calls his personal Web page an "adventure library" because it details the outdoor pursuits that recharge his battery: hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, rock-climbing, and caving.

A geneticist with swing. Ken Frauwirth (pictured right) is an assistant professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland. His work focuses on genetics and the immune system. When he was recruited 7 years ago, Frauwirth was young and single and felt isolated from his colleagues, who were mostly married with children. Then they coaxed him into going swing-dancing with them after work, and there he found an "instant social group" that eased his adjustment and gave him an outlet to avoid spending too much time in the lab.

Frauwirth also doodles. His cartoons, displayed on his personal Web site, are inspired by seminars, conferences, and course lectures.

An instrumental engineer. Grant Kristofek joined the Design Continuum in West Newton, Massachusetts, after graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. By day, he works as a design consultant for clients such as American Express and Starbucks. As an engineer, he is responsible for making sure that the products they develop function properly, can be manufactured, and will work reliably over time. By night, the engineer morphs into a musician in a band called The Product that plays "fun, upbeat, technologically and socially aware, humorous, and diversely inspired music."

A gardening computer geek. Bill Alexander is a computer scientist who oversees IT policy and planning and maintains computer services for almost 400 employees at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research. Most of his colleagues aren’t aware that Bill spends his weekends tending vegetables and maintaining an orchard in the Hudson Valley. His recent book, The $64 Tomato, takes its name from his realization that one year it cost him $1219 to grow 19 near-perfect heirloom tomatoes.

A gourmet earth scientist. Donald I. Siegel teaches earth science and hydrogeology at Syracuse University and chairs a committee in his field for the National Research Council. His main areas of research include wetland hydrology and biogeochemistry--particularly watershed contamination and remediation--and the interface between science and law. But outside of the classroom, Siegel hangs his hat in the kitchen. A gourmet chef of kosher-Chinese cuisine, he often cooks 10-course banquets. He recently published his first nonscience book, From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food (Gefen Publishing House, 2005).

A high-flying astronomer. Timothy Barker, a professor and chair of the astronomy department at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, conducts research involving the study of planetary nebulae. He has some conventional hobbies, such as tennis and snorkeling, but Barker is also a bit of a Peter Pan. He flies powered paragliders that are launched from the ground and can travel as high as 3000 meters, moving at 40 km/hour, for several hours.

A designing biologist. Another faculty member at Wheaton College, Edmund Tong, teaches biology and dutifully studies angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. Off-campus, he volunteers as a teacher of Chinese painting to local children and applies his knowledge of science to the art of landscape design, advising friends and relatives. Tong has even entered a contest sponsored by Garden Design magazine. His own yard combines elements of a classic American, traditional English, and Chinese garden.

The Quest for Balance

When I asked these scientists about the synergy between their work and their passions, the consistency of responses was remarkable. Most of them were searching for some kind of balance.

"My job is very sedentary and intellectual," says Danforth, the outdoorsman. In a lab, the markers of success can be few and far between. Publishing a paper or solving a difficult problem may happen only several times a year. "Climbing a mountain or exploring a cave gives me a sense of tangible accomplishment," he says. "To some extent, the contrast between a 'boring' job and hanging off icy cliffs helps keep me mentally sharp."

"I can completely turn off a part of my brain while I enjoy the beauty of my garden, instead of gazing through a microscope or staring at a computer screen," says Tong, the landscape designer. "I can listen to bird sounds instead of being bombarded by humming noises coming from various lab instruments." He believes that his connections to landscaping help him "think outside the box" at work.

Kristofek, the musician, quotes Einstein, who said, "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music." Music helps Kristofek relax and focus too. "It inspires me to do great work and guides me through stressful situations. Learning to listen to and play music has trained me to organize vast amounts of information in my head," he says.

"While my cartoons haven’t contributed to my science, per se," says Frauwirth, the swing-dancing cartoonist, "I think they have helped me become better known among my peers. They have been icebreakers in meeting some of the 'big names,' who can be pretty intimidating to a trainee or even a junior PI," he says.

And why does a computer geek garden? "It’s one of the few activities left that doesn’t require a mouse," says Alexander. "I think there is some kind of biological imperative in my genes. I love being outdoors and in the dirt, and certainly the nontechnical nature of it is a satisfying antidote to my highly technical day job."

"Cooking takes minutes to a few hours, depending on the dinner," says Siegel, the gourmet chef. "It’s a pursuit that provides instant reward and gratification and the ability to change and make things better in rapid fashion." What a counterpoint to the long-term rewards of a productive scientific career!

The Gift of Time

In some instances, an overabundance of passion outside the lab can be a smokescreen for something else. A senior faculty member may become bored and frustrated with work and increasingly spend more time moonlighting rather than working on research or mentoring students. Or a young scientist may question his or her career ambition and realize it isn’t turning out as expected. When the balance tips too far in the direction of avocation versus vocation, it may be a warning sign of burnout.

If a vacation away from it all doesn’t solve the issue, perhaps it is time to take a hard look at the situation. By speaking to your supervisor, you may find ways to realign your work so it is more satisfying and put your career development back on track. Some situations may be so serious, though, that you may need to change jobs or change careers. The Web site of Texas A&M University offers some excellent tips for recognizing and resolving job burnout.

At the other extreme, some people find it difficult to switch off work. A story on work, vacations, and retirement in Harvard Men’s Health Watch reports that "death from overwork" is a recognized diagnosis in Japan, one that even requires employers to provide compensatory payments to survivors. The article also mentions an analysis of 21 studies that confirms a small but significant association between long work hours and ill health. Are science trainees able to balance their work and their passions? Can they afford not to?

In my nonsystematic, nonquantitative research for this article, a few trends emerged. First, only one woman came forth to describe her after-hours passion. (She teaches a Pilates class at the YMCA every Wednesday night to help pay for her family’s membership.) Are female scientists too busy balancing family and career to have leisure pursuits? Perhaps they feel they can't admit that they have other hobbies, lest their colleagues conclude that they aren't serious about their work?

Science and Marriage: Mutually Exclusive?

Does your spouse ever tell you that you are married to your work? Do you ever feel like your work is compromised by your marriage? Should young trainees hold off on relationships to devote more time to their career? Or, can the stability of marriage actually enhance a trainee’s career trajectory? For an upcoming column of Mind Matters, e-mail your thoughts and experiences to

Second, the majority of scientists who "came out of the closet" tended to be senior, already accomplished in their fields. Does that mean that trainees and more junior faculty are too busy building and competing, so that their true passions can only be expressed during their careers' twilight years? Or maybe younger scientists just haven't yet reached the point at which they need to turn away from their work to find satisfaction?

"Young scientists can indulge in outside passions to a point," cautions Siegel. "They have to build labs or other infrastructure, win large grants, publish peer-reviewed papers in decent journals, present papers at major conferences, mentor grad students, serve on committees, and teach undergrads." To do that, they must eat, breathe, and sleep science, with only occasional small diversions to keep them sane. "I don’t agree with the system," he says. "But that’s what it is." Indulging in passions like his, Siegel says, is something you do after you get tenure.

Still, young scientists have everything to gain from taking some time for themselves, even during the week. "Secret passions create an endorphin rush like falling in love, says New York stress-management expert Debbie Mandel. "We all have buried treasure inside ourselves, and when we know what we love to do and get to implement the inspiration--we fall in love over and over again. This relaxation response, like a minivacation, can translate to greater productivity at work."

"Sleep is overrated," quips Kristofek. "Spend your time doing what you love. Often the best discoveries are born from the synthesis of disciplines or concepts believed to be unrelated." Danforth concurs. "Take time for family or for whatever your passions are. If you’re mentally relaxed, your work will be more effective."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America 's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua , New York .

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