One afternoon last week I wanted to retreat home and cry. I was feeling so tired that I was on the verge of tears. The next day, I stumbled back into my office after trekking back from the other side of campus and I wanted nothing but to lie down. This week I’ve nearly had a break down and realized that I lost my debit card (3 days since my last use).
I’m tired. I feel how I felt around 4th of July weekend in Tanzania. Then as now, it’s taking every bit of my cognitive machinery to focus on my projects at hand – which are many. I’m combing hundreds of Excel rows to decipher aging patterns of pouched rats. I’m reviewing data and running (very) prelim SPSS analysis of the behavior data I generated from my time at OkState and Tanzania 2015. I’m #madwriting the rough, rough drafts of my pouched rat research manuscripts. I’m also coordinating a new round of experimental observations of female pouched rats in hopes of deciphering their reproductive biology.
I’m doing all of this and 6 weeks ago I had a terribly close encounter with The Reaper. Driving very early in the morning (during that bad winter storm in February) on the highways in Pennsylvania I lost control of my vehicle.
It should come as no surprise that I’ve been a bit of a mess, psychologically speaking. And yet I am pushing through because – well one has to. But I’m also sharing some important wisdom (mostly talking to myself, to reminding me of something very important): Take care of yourself. You can’t do good science if you are a mess.
There was a point around week 8 in the field when I was literally fighting with myself to stay focused. If I sat still and quiet for more than a moment I would catch myself dozing off. What if I were in the middle of a behavior observation? I might have missed an important interaction. What if I were doing something simple like cutting up vegetables to serve to the pouched rats as food or bait? I might have done this:
What if I were in the field? I might have gotten injured. What if I were driving? I might have hurt myself or someone else or damaged my vehicle. Or any number of things that not only jeopardize my safety and security but the very thing I was there to do: Collect data.
That nick from the knife was an annoyance, but later my thumb suffered a more serious injury.
How did this happen? I was tired. And my reflexes that I normally brag about were sluggish. I was letting my assistants handle the measurements, but I stepped in for a minute (and I knew I was too fatigued to handle the animals well or fast enough) and got snagged. I was tired and slow. But I was lucky. I didn’t get sick, from Rat Bite Fever which was a definite risk. However, I wasn't able to handle pouched rats very well for weeks. Heck, I still have no feeling in the pad of this thumb -- 7 months later!
Even now, here in the States, spending time at my desk pouring over numbers in spreadsheets and words in manuscripts, I find I can’t concentrate very well when I’m tired and hungry and cranky. And I’ve been all three of these lately. I'm reading papers twice just to comprehend concepts. It's taking me longer than it should to do simple tasks. I'm catching errors I am making as I transcribe notes or review edits. I can't even remember what science I'm doing.
Spending long days and evenings, working days on end I go home and go straight to bed. I eat only what can be grabbed and gobbled on the way home or in the bed. Putting in some extra-long times for special projects, especially to meet an important deadline, is expected. We got to put in the work. But when all the long days and nights, the poor rest, the lack of exercise and fresh air seem to never end. When the hunger or culmination of bad food, the exhaustion, the crabbiness catch up to you and you find explaining your hypothesis is hard work, then it’s time to step away for a moment. Take a break. Get your mind and body right. Rest. Have a proper meal. Go love on your family. Sleep. Visit the Spa. Color, Paint. Skip rocks. Something else besides the science for a few days.
If you’re honest with yourself, then you know the work you are doing (the data, the analyzing, the writing or whatever) is likely sloppy or at the least not your best work. You’re slipping. I wager a lot of us are slipping...(especially in those "high stakes situations.. and summayall wonder why you can’t replicate experiments and results, but I digress). For the managers, supervisors, and PIs, I implore y’all to be cognizant of this, too. Rested students, staff, post-docs, assistants are better data generators and paper producers. Take care of yourselves and each other. After all, if you aren’t having fun (doing science), then you aren’t doing right.