We're a little crazy, about science!

Outreach as a hobby

I reference this photo later in the post, but it’s my robot foot!

It feels like only yesterday I was fighting to stay alive and stay warm, but now like a bad dream it’s gone before it settled. Sure I’m still stiff from sleeping on the floor and the water isn’t on yet, but life has quickly thrown us back into “normal.” I don’t understand how people can shift so suddenly like the last week didn’t happen, but here we are, and here I am getting ready for another round of outreach.

If you’re new, welcome. This is my daily (unless I’m trying not to freeze to death) blog about my life as a PhD candidate in neuroengineering. I’m in my third year, but I’ve been blogging for the past two — roughly. Most of the time I talk about “boring” day to day stuff, but I’ve shared knowledge on certain topics (know your spinal cord) and my personal day to day life (my DIY projects). It’s been… a lot frankly. Some days I wonder if I have anything to talk about and others I’m stuck debating about what I want to share first. I have good days and bad, a lot of bad days, but some good ones too. My research keeps me pretty grounded, I’m studying how spinal cord injury changes communication to the brain. I’ve even developed a “super secret” technique that I can’t talk about unless it’s hush, hush, whispers and vagueness. For now anyway, if when we publish some data using this technique then I’ll be able to talk about it more and that’s sort of exciting. Today we’re talking about something I absolutely love and that’s outreach!

The day my power came back on I was thankful. Not because I could finally warm the house to something not so close to freezing temperature (literally), but also because I had an outreach event I was doing (Skype a Scientist). Every term I sign up to talk about my research with students and I just happened to have an event scheduled that day. It was pure luck because my cell phone was completely dead and had been for days, my laptop a useless brick, and internet was a distant dream. Yet hours before the meeting happened my power came on and stayed on. Because I’m a professional instead of canceling at the last minute, I sat at my desk — thoroughly covered myself in blankets just outside of the camera view — and did my talk like nothing had happened.

It was a huge hit and if you follow me on Twitter you may have seen the teacher send out a fun little tweet showing off my robot feet. It would’ve been easy to cancel or to reschedule, I mean I was in a literal life and death situation at that point, but I really didn’t want to. It was a nice distraction from everything going on and while I haven’t been able to do much of anything else, it was as much for my sanity as it was for the enjoyment of sharing my work.

While doing your PhD and even a Masters, you wear several different hats, mentor, teacher, student, expert, and science communicator. Outreach is, in my opinion, just as important as the research I do. It excites people to follow along and chart their own paths, to dream of things they were to scared to imagine. Then to grab ahold of those dreams for dear life and end up in places that are new and sometimes frightening. That’s the power of outreach, it’s something bigger than you and you don’t get the satisfaction of seeing a return right away, it could be years, decades, or very often never. You don’t always know who you inspired, but it is always worth trying to inspire.

Thanks to even more luck (despite not having water in my home… ugh!!) I have more outreach scheduled this week. It was scheduled for last week, but the teacher had to reschedule so it works out perfectly now that I have power on regularly. While I’m still trying to muster up the motivation to do actual research related work, which has definitely not happened since the whole ordeal ended a few days ago, I’m okay with taking baby steps back to my normal. There’s a lot of pressure to perform right now, because I lost last week, I’m not a full week behind on everything and the stress of not having the water running (which means I haven’t had a real shower in over a week now) is not making things any easier.

Point being, outreach is nice because it doesn’t feel like work. It’s something I love to do and while I absolutely love my research, don’t get me wrong, it’s not as effortless as outreach. Doing outreach doesn’t feel draining or like a burden, I always leave feeling a little lighter than I did going in. I’ve spoken to at least 50 or 60 classrooms and it never gets any less stressful leading up to the day, but it’s still something I enjoy and when it comes time to sign up again, despite the nagging feeling that I’m taking on too much, I still do it because afterwards I am always grateful for doing it.

I guess the point of today is simply, make sure you have activities you really enjoy sprinkled into your routine. Even if those activities are work related, like my outreach is, it can make all the difference. Hobbies are great and I highly recommend them, I love reading for example and do it daily. I also enjoy woodworking, but that doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Outreach is a good mix of “work” but not really work. It’s something that helps me advance my career a bit, but it’s also something I really love doing so I don’t ever feel guilty for doing it when I should be “working.”


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