The value of choosing when, and how, and how much to think about work

It has been a long time since I have written a reflection-style blog post (as opposed to simply sharing updates and events), and for good reason — I have been overcommitted for my time during (at least) the past year and half and have had little left over for the imagination-based portions of my work. I love what I do and I routinely choose to spend my free time on it, but with the increase in demands for my attention I have lost the freedom to choose when, and how, and how much I think about work.

Many of the non-essential aspects of my job, such as creative writing on the blog, had to be paused to accommodate an increasing number of requests for my time on task-based items (emails, forms, admin, logistics, planning). While many of those requests were simple, the urgent or time-sensitive nature of resolving student, colleague, or university requests with impending deadlines required me to cycle rapidly through tasks/conversations each day, which is mentally taxing over extended time.

More than that, many academics and researchers have had to learn to multi-task even to the point of answering emails during meetings or engaging in multiple conversations simultaneously just to find time to respond to all of the requests for our help and expertise. It might be feasible in short bursts, but after keeping up this pace for so long I started to face burnout over the fall.

I’ve previously written about the value of having time to think in research careers. It is well-recognized that more time off and better-quality time-off (in which you are not just taking work with you to the beach) is needed. But, it is critical to recognize that resolving academic burnout requires universities to increase hiring for faculty and staff rather than cutting positions to lower budgets and redistributing the workload among remaining faculty and staff.

The “too-busy-to-think” problem in academia can never be resolved if we have so many components to our daily task list that we don’t have time to complete the very things we were hired to do: research and teach. To excel in these, we need time to think. Over the past week, I took several vacation days (filled with amazing adventures with friends not al of which is pictured here) prior to attending a small (< 150 people) conference for two days, during which I intentionally minimized the amount of multi-tasking I did while listening to presentations. I never truly stop thinking about my work; it is a part of my identity and I love the problem-solving activities I do, but having this precious time to choose what I consider or spend my time on, and being able to focus on what was in front of me, was immensely rewarding to how I create my own research as well as restorative.

A music band onstage, with a blurry crowd in the foreground.

One of those adventures that I remembered to take photos of was a concert. I was lucky enough to catch “Tank and the Bangas” perform live at Belly Up in San Diego. The band’s most recent album has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and their live performance was electric, passionate, and inspiring.

I was even luckier to spend time with the incredible Candace Williams, a friend and researcher at the San Diego Zoo. Candace took another friend of mine and I around the park (most of which is not pictured here), and I really enjoyed the opportunity to hear about and see her work on rhino gut microbiomes in this setting.

One of the main reasons for my trip was to attend the 3rd CMI International Microbiome Meeting (CIMM) at the Center for Microbiome Innovation at UC San Diego. The conference was held at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography in La Jolla (just north of San Diego), and the long pier shown in the distance in the photo below is one of their state-of-the-art research facilities. I’ve wanted to visit the Institute for the past few years but have not had the opportunity to travel there.

Some other conference attendees and I got a tour of the pier from Jack Gilbert, who is the Deputy Director for Research and Associate Vice Chancellor for Marine Sciences there. Jack is also the Editor in Chief for the scientific journal mSystems, and has been a major supporter of my career and the Microbes and Social Equity working group for the past two years. It was awesome to finally meet Jack in person!

Having a small conference venue, and multiple meals and networking events on-site during the day, meant that I had plenty of time to chat with Jack and other storied researchers in my field. For example, I chatted about my work on scallop microbes as well as my unique conference-fashion combinations with one of the foundational researchers in host microbiology. I got ample opportunity to meet with peers and science celebrities-in-the-making, and even to re-meet Dimitry Krementsov, whom I had originally met way back in 2008 due to overlapping friend groups in Burlington, Vermont, well before I went to grad school or though about microbes. It turns out that not only do we have complementary research interests that we’ll be following up on, but had unknowingly shared mice recently through a collaborator we have in common.

The talks on the first two days of the event (I did not attend the third day as it was outside the scope of my work) ranged from gut microbiome, to diet, to agriculture, to the ocean, and because the presentations times were long the researchers were able to tell better stories about their science and progress through their thought process over time. As an early-career researcher, I enjoyed their perspective on the process of discovery. I enjoyed all the presentations, but a few in particular resonated with me. For example, a talk on gut immunology reflected on the idea that commensal bacteria have been anthropomorphized as friendly to us when in reality the commensalism arises from our immune system setting good boundaries for those relationships, which has me thinking about my own work on disrupted gut microbial communities. Rosie’s work on microbes in aquaculture-managed oceanwater got me thinking about how curating agricultural/aquacultural management practices within the context of working with an ecosystem can help reduce the negative impacts of those human activities while boosting production. And one talk on using plant biology and plant-microbe interactions to instill disease resistance in citrus plants was just awesome to hear about; I don’t work on plant microbiomes anymore but the research ideas were so novel to me that it sparked my curiosity and creative thought process.

I spent quite a bit of the conference with Candace with Rosie Alegado, during which we reflected on the scientific research being presented, the tastiness of the food served, and the immense value of ‘capacity sharing’ by inviting community members to participate in the design and performance of research.

Sue, Candace Williams, and

Rosie and Candace are both famous for their community-rooted research in ocean and wild animal microbiology, respectively, and I continue to learn and be inspired by them. Equally inspirational is Carla Bonilla (not pictured) who I caught up with (too) briefly while I was in San Diego. In addition to her research, Carla’s work on pedagogy and expanding our views of microbiology is one of the pillars of MSE.

I was also fortunate to spent quite a bit of time with Sean Gibbons and Jotham Suez, both prominent researchers on diet and gut microbiome who both presented their work. In addition to hanging out at the conference, we found time to go on several adventures. We caught the cherry blossoms in peak glory at the Japanese Garden in Balboa Park, as well as spend the day strolling around the rest of the park and La Jolla beach discussing research, judging coffee, laughing hysterically, perusing the art colony in the park, and meeting every dog within petting range. I can’t wait till the next round of shenanigans!

  • Sean Gibbons, Sue, and Jotham Suez posing on rock path in front of bright pink blooming cherry trees at a Japanese Garden.
  • A view down the underside of a concrete pier, with breaking waves and cloudy sky in the background and wet sand in the foreground.
  • Sue jumping in the air below a concrete pier, with wet sand in the foreground and breaking waves under cloudy skies.
  • A closeup of the sandstone cliff at La Jolla beach with green algae growing over the bottom several feet of the cliffs.

While I was in San Diego, I also went to a drag show with friends and colleagues. For anyone who is not familiar with ‘drag’, it can be presented in many ways but it always an artistic performance in which the performers adorn clothing, hairstyles, and makeup to create a persona for the stage. In the same way that actors don clothing, makeup, and more to create personas in order to tell a story, with drag the chosen persona plays on the idea of gender norms of what society thinks a person should wear or say based on which genitals they have. The performers often sing/lip sync, dance (including some extremely athletic moves while wearing high heels), perform stand-up comedy, read book aloud, or in the case of the show I just went to – host a game of bingo. However it is performed, drag engages in humor, pageantry, and the idea that how we look can be a form of artistic expression rather than the composite of other people’s opinions on how we should look or act. I can’t think of anything more wholesome than an event which welcomes everyone to be their authentic self. If you have never been to a drag show, I highly recommend it, and everyone is welcome at drag shows!

I have included some photos of a previous show I attended there, as I wasn’t able to get good photos of the performance this time (I do have an amazing group photo, but I wasn’t sure if my friends would want to be featured on my professional social media).

Several drag queens in elaborate gowns, hairstyles, and makeup, standing on a stage.

Overall, the combination of time to relax, to think, to share, and to have fun was an restorative and enjoyable way to make new friends, deepen connections with previous friends and colleagues, and to enrich my own research by learning from rockstars in my field. You’ll definitely find me at CIMM again next year!

*The title of this blog post is directly inspired by phrasing in Arundhati Roy’s novel, The God of Small Things.

One thought on “The value of choosing when, and how, and how much to think about work

  1. You speak for so many academics in this post regarding the crowding out of what we thought the job was supposed to be about. I, too, was experiencing burnout (last spring) and found a conference (last summer) to be restorative. I enjoyed hearing about what sparked your interest at CIMM and the fun had with associated shenanigans and shows. Keep up the great work, maintaining boundaries, and finding time to be your best!

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