In September, Troy Lionberger and Diane Wiener launched Thriving in Science, a peer-support program that provides support and resources to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Open to all graduate students and postdocs, the program focuses on training students in the science fields on how to stay motivated, minimize anxiety, manage interpersonal relationships and prevent professional fatigue.
“We’re trying to promote the idea that mental health and your own abilities as a scientist are intimately related,” said Lionberger, an alumnus and HHMI research associate in the Carlos Bustamante Lab. Part of our effort, he explained, is connecting with graduate students before there’s a crisis situation, whether it’s a meltdown, a career burn out, or if someone is thinking about leaving the science community.
As a current member of the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee for Student Mental Health, Lionberger gained more insight into the problem. One example, he explained, is how graduate students can feel socially isolated from being trapped in the lab for most of the day. “If you’re stressed out, anxious, sad or depressed, you’re not doing your best work, you’re not thinking outside the box or creatively.”
Post doctorates Lionberger and Wiener, who met while working in the labs at University of Michigan, were familiar with the stressful climate that at times arose from working within the scientific community. Many students experience stress, depression and mental health issues from industry pressures such as the need to publish papers, perform successful lab experiments, find more funding and compete with other labs.
They felt that “something had to be done” after witnessing many colleagues “not in the best mental place” and others feeling unsure about whether they should be scientists, according to Wiener, a fellow in The Marqusee Lab.
“The real way to make [the program] effective is to make it student-driven and get people to take an initiative,” said Wiener, who added that the university has been supportive. Thriving in Science’s first meeting drew nearly 150 people.
Within the sciences, there is a stigma attached to mental health, according to Lionberger. Colleagues aren’t comfortable talking about it, and most graduate students are unaware of the resources that are available them through the counseling and psychological services on campus.
“It’s perceived that if you’re struggling with your own mental health, that there’s a weakness in you as a scientist,” he said, adding that it’s something he hopes to change by encouraging students to talk about mental health on campus.
If you’re an international student, the issues escalate due to stresses stemming from dealing with visa status and acculturation.
How to Get Involved
Thriving in Science supports students via emails and monthly meetings. Every month, they email an article from The New York Times, Molecular Science or Harvard Business Review that discusses the topic for the month. Throughout the month, graduate students and postdoctoral students meet one to two times in small peer support groups to discuss the topic, and share experiences related to that topic.
Thriving in Science also offer monthly readings, lectures, networking mixers, structured discussions, assigned readings and guest speakers. A survey-based program evaluation also helps the group keep aloft of issues pertinent to students.
Upcoming speakers include Professor Kim Cameron (Ross School of Business, University of Michigan) on October 29, at 6 p.m., and Professor Christina Maslach (Department of Psychology, U.C. Berkeley) on December 10, at 6 p.m.
All graduates and post doctorates are welcome to attend. Find more resources and support at Thriving in Science. The program is supported by UC Berkeley’s California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) and Berkeley’s Visiting Scholar and Postdoc Affairs (VSPA) Program.