I was riding my bike one evening to clear my head and enjoy the nice break from the 90-degree evenings we’d been experiencing lately. While riding, I suddenly realized that I had helped more people by being compassionate than by being a strong scientist.
Even after a 13-year academic and professional career I would say my greatest impact has happened out of the lab. I have had many conversations where I just sat and listened to broken hearts, hurt feelings, unwelcomed news, and wrong decisions. Sometimes I would offer advice but as I get older, I realize that people typically know what to do. They just need clarity to sort things out in the heat of the moment. The realization that my impact out of the lab was greater than my impact in the lab caused me to reconsider my perspective.
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I wondered how I could be such a technical person in the lab using one part of my brain and so compassionate outside of the lab? Initially it felt like a dichotomy, but I refused to believe that I was a different person in the real world than in the lab. So, I challenged myself to make the connection.
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I am not a different person when I am in the lab. I go to the lab because of who I am outside of the lab. The skills I employ in the lab translate to helping others outside of the lab. Let me explain.
1. Scientists observe, compassionate people listen
When starting new experiments, sometimes even before a hypothesis is formed, scientists make observations. They intently witness what is happening. Every sense is engaged and focused on the situation at hand. Out of the lab, this is analogous to providing the person you are consoling your undivided attention and engaging multiple senses. You are listening to what they are saying, watching their body language. Like science, the results of these observations dictate how you proceed.
2. Scientists hypothesize, compassionate people question
Before conducting experiments, it is vital that you know what it is you are testing. Some experiments take considerable time to run or require a lot of resources. A carefully crafted hypothesis based on the observations is the sign of a good scientist. Compassionate people perform similar behaviors. Once you recognize that someone is having a rough time, it may be prudent to try to figure out the trigger. Thoughtful, empathetic questions can help reveal more about the situation surrounding the who, what, when, where, and why.
3. Scientists perform experiments, compassionate people offer remedies
After the hypothesis is formed, scientists perform experiments. Simply, scientists are trying to improve the current situation, and this can be achieved in a multitude of ways, but we won’t get in the weeds of the many types of experiments. The goal is to be better off after the experiments than before. Compassionate people offer remedies for the person they are consoling to implement. Like the variety of experiments, there are many types of remedies, all of which aim to leave the person better off afterwards than they were before. Some remedies, just like experiments, can be costly and time-consuming but are an investment to achieving a goal. However, sometimes the person in need might just need someone to listen so be sure you are observing the situation accurately. Getting the earlier steps right will increase the likelihood of success.
4. Scientists discuss, compassionate people follow-up
One of the most vital parts of research papers is the results and discussion. This is where you get an expert analysis of what happened after the experiments. Did the experiments work? Was the hypothesis correct? Are more experiments needed? This section is key for describing the next research project and is usually the longest section in a publication. Compassionate people follow-up after the proposed remedies have been implemented. Following up is critical for ensuring that you have helped to address the issue. I have been in numerous situations where what I ‘thought’ were the issues were merely secondary to another more pressing matter. At that point, we began the cycle again, working until we obtained the results we wanted.
I became a scientist because I wanted to help people and because I enjoyed science. By writing this blog I no longer see my identity in a lab coat separately from my identity in a raincoat. The nomenclature and tools may differ, but the goal is the same: Make people’s lives a little bit better. When you read this, I challenge you to check if who you are at work is consistent with who you are outside of work. How you express yourself may be different, but are you helping to make people’s lives better (directly or indirectly)? It’s easy for society to see doctors, firefighters, teachers, and advisors as being responsible for making our lives better but it is up to all of us to do the same whether in uniform or not. Great scientists and compassionate people may wear different uniforms, but both make people’s lives better.
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