Hello! My name is Aurora and I recently completed a masters degree in Geophysics focusing on glaciers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I grew up in Fairbanks and after bouncing around from Minnesota (for college), to Maine, to Montana, I found myself back in Alaska as a graduate student. I’m excited to be sharing a story with you today because I believe it’s incredibly important for scientists to be whole people and for scientists to be seen as human. There are the obvious individual benefits, better mental and physical health, more creative thinking, and ultimately better science, but it’s also important for the public’s view of scientists. A recent study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) showed that Americans view scientists as competent but not trustworthy (Fiske and Dupree, 2014), and people listen when they find someone trustworthy. Being viewed as more trustworthy by the public can be as simple as telling more personal stories about science or your experience as a scientist, or even instagramming your work in the lab or the field.
So here’s my more personal story about being a scientist and a strategy I found for myself for better mental health:
Despite dedicating more than three years to studying glaciers and being an active mountain lady, I’ve only just started to become comfortable calling myself a “glaciologist”. There is a specific image that comes with any title ending in “-ologist”, and on a day to day basis, I didn’t feel like I met the requirements of the image of “glaciologist”. A glaciologist should wear crampons more often than shoes, have a body as chiseled as rocks found in glacier moraines, always have a sunglasses or goggle tan, and fly their own plane to their field site. In contrast, I spend much of my time sitting at a desk, slumped in my seat, picking through code, and staring at the results of computer simulations.
Sometimes these results are interesting and engaging, and sometimes it’s a complete slog just to do anything. During graduate school, I spent more and more time in front of the computer and less time outside (on my own time or in the field), my mental health degraded and how I felt in my body became more negative.
I found myself having panic attacks, something I had never experienced before. There were multiple times I found myself curled up on the floor of my room, not knowing how to make myself stop breathing so fast, stop crying. I felt like my mind was broken and pulling me into a dark hole. These panic attacks happened most often when I was neglecting the other parts of myself. I felt stuck and trapped when I had fully taken on the identity of “grad student”, leaving no space for other pursuits that made me feel confident, valued, or allowed me to connect with others.
I started talking with a counselor, something I highly encourage anyone struggling in grad school (or in life in general!) to do. In our sessions, my counselor encouraged me to work on self-compassion in many different forms. This also coincided with a friend introducing an art sharing project to me. She created a blog for a handful of friends to share art they were intending on making every day for the month of January. The blog and sharing helped keep us accountable so that we would actually make time every day to practice art making.
Painting and sketching with watercolor has always been a relaxing outlet for me. I’m not the best watercolorist, but I love playing with the physics of water. There is a constant game of relinquishing control and being surprised by what the water and paint will do. I also love having the time to get to know a landscape or object better through sketching. It’s a time where I am completely focused, relaxed, and in the flow. Not surprisingly, my favorite subjects to paint are glaciers, ice, and mountain landscapes. I deeply value experiencing glaciers through the lens of a scientist AND as an artist.
While I had taken time to get to know glaciers by painting them, I had never applied this to myself. For the January art blog, I decided to sketch or paint a self portrait everyday. At the time I felt guilty carving out time to do a quick self portrait every day. “I should be working instead of doing this,” I thought. But, with the positive peer pressure of the blog, I still made time everyday. Increasingly, I became more comfortable with this time and more intrigued by how this process was changing the way I was thinking about my body and myself. I got to know folds of skin that I couldn’t stand to look at before. I began to appreciate my differently proportioned body. I remembered how much I simply enjoyed painting.
The blog was also a way to connect with friends and see what beautiful art they were making. Reading poetry from a friend in Minneapolis, smiling as I looked over sketches by a friend in California, feeling resonance with art made by a friend in Southeast Alaska.
There are still ups and downs in grad school, and I still struggle with body image and leading a balanced life. But, I’m slowly getting better at prioritizing my whole self over the “grad school self” and remembering to find joy in other places. Actually, right at this very moment, I’m packing and preparing for a kayaking trip with a dear friend. This past month there were times when I thought it would just be easier to cancel this trip and try to do it another time because I’m feeling crunched with research and writing. I’m holding myself to this time off to be full person, to gain some perspective, to laugh a lot, to dance, to get rained on, and to not think about research for a little while.
Happy trails everyone! And thanks Megan for providing this space to share and to find inspiration!