Wednesday, August 26, 2009

on the practicality of scientists with health problems

In the interest of re-endowing this blog with its intended voice, it has become necessary to divert from the traumatic events at hand.

I have been reading a biography of Galileo Galilei, and stumbled upon a thought that - quite oddly - I have yet to address in this blog. The practicality of scientists with health problems is one of the most inchoate issues in science. Nobody talks about what it is like to pursue an intense academic career under physiological strain. I decided, after a more in-depth education on Galileo's chronic arthritic and rheumatic seizures, that it was time to give this some serious regard.

Galileo, while employed as a mathematician at Padua, was maimed by a 16th century air conditioner. Italian villa AC consisted of a conduit which delivered cool air from a mountain cave on a hot summer day. Unfortunately, one particular cave sported noxious vapors which proved fatal to two colleagues after an afternoon nap, and left Galileo with a chronic flares of pain which, for the rest of his life, confined him to his bed for weeks on end. The godfather of physics was intermittently bedridden for most of his successful career.

Of course, time was a different thing in the 16th century; a "minute" was not even a calculable unit of time, and canonical hours were long. Galileo's observations of pendulum motion, in fact, would be instrumental in the standardization of time measurement. Modern time, however, may seem to suggest that a scientist does not have time to be ill, and I would like to propose that this is not necessarily true.

I have come across a very unique book called Faculty Health in Academic Medicine: Physicians, Scientists and the Pressures of Success. It is the first of its kind to conceptualize the influence of these careers on exclusion of personal well-being, and design interventions within academic systems. However, this resource, albeit outstanding, does not address physicians or scientists entering the academic world with pre-existing conditions, which is the nexus of this discussion.

My general philosophy on pursuing demanding goals with chronic health problems is that you are forced to develop creative ways to maneuver obstacles. Creativity being an essential component of being a scientist, this is excellent skill conditioning!

For instance, I am currently negotiating a balance between a severe Crohn's flare, studying for the GRE, applying to graduate programs in Neuroscience, and maintaining productivity as a research assistant in a Neurocytology lab. It is proving to be very demanding on my creativity and efficiency, but I am by no means straggling. Burn-out is perched, minatory, on my shoulder, and I am finding that my greatest battle is not with keeping up, but with the frustration of anxiety.

What if my study regimen is not sufficient? What if my boss does not write me a strong letter of recommendation because I have missed a week of work? What if I continue to miss work? What if I am too stressed/ill to prepare my scheduled presentation for Journal Club? What if I am still so ill when I take my exam that I perform poorly despite good preparation? What if Stanford rejects me because they suspect my illness will dampen my contributions as a scientist and hinder my ability to bring in funding?

These fears are not unfounded, but they are more damaging than are their realities. I found an article with some interesting set of statistics regarding scientists with "non-apparent disabilities [such as]... chronic illness such as celiac sprue, a psychiatric condition such as bipolar disorder, or even a history of childhood cancer":

  • "According to the National Science Foundation, 5.4% of employed doctorate holders working in the life sciences in 2001 were disabled. While NSF stats suggest that working science and engineering grads with disabilities make as much money as their peers, their statistics - as well as the sharp difference between the percentage of life scientists who are disabled and the percentage of disabled persons in the general population - suggest disabled scientists may have difficulty finding jobs. In 2001, 27% of science and engineering degree holders were out of work, versus 10% of S&E grads without disabilities.
  • "Disabled doctoral degree recipients appear to form postgraduate plans that are roughly similar to those of their peers without disabilities, with 26% choosing academic employment, 17% choosing industry, and 38% planning post-doctorate study, compared to 22%, 22%, and 39%, respectively, for non-disabled individuals."
This suggests, to me, that while it may be more difficult to convince academic institutions to invest in a chronically ill scientist, it is certainly not impossible, and definitely sustainable. My ambitions are not to become Stephen Hawking, but I do want to spend my life asking unique questions, suggesting prolific theories and teaching. Presentation deadlines and funding demands do not scare me. I have proven myself capable of obtaining research funding, performing protocol, interpreting and expanding on implications, teaching and learning.

Crohn's disease is particularly destructive under conditions of chronic stress. This is a serious concern in careers of academic science because stress is what Faculty Health and Academic Medicine cites as the primary cause of scientists neglecting their health. No kidding. I firmly believe that there exist ways to maneuver academic demand in such a way as to limit the potency of stress. Perhaps I will find them in this book, and perhaps I will find them through experience (likely, learning the hard way as is typically my preference...).

Pythagoras had epilepsy, Thomas Edison had diabetes, Albert Einstein was dyslexic, David Bohm had chronic depression. I will make great contributions to modern neuroscience.


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  2. addition from J Belle:

    "Fritz Haber was a noted physical chemist who discovered nitrogen fixation and harnassed artifical nitrogen fixation in developing the first chemical weapons. He also coordinated science for German war efforts in WWI and then established a renowned physical and chemical science center following WWI. During all of this time, Fischer suffered from a nervous condition (severe anxiety and something else) for which he often went to rest centers in the countryside for weeks at a time."

  3. super post. and let us not forget, either, the vast pantheon of creative minds at large -- scientists of course among them -- who do great things, ill, without our even knowing...