View a 508-compliant PDF of this issue here: NICHD_Connection_2010_12.pdf

Cartoon of a spikey-haired person sitting at a desk. On the desk is a cup of coffee and a huge stack of paper.

Stress, the ugly beast that causes anxiety, headaches, and depression (among many other ailments) is a daily encounter for most biomedical researchers. During the holiday season, stress can be amplified as family visits and holiday shopping pile atop the enormous pressure to finish experiments before year's end. So, what are the most prominent sources of stress for the average fellow and what can we do to relieve the tension?

In a recent issue of Molecular Cell, Dr. Douglas R. Green of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, offers his list of “six impossible things” that postdocs in biomedical research encounter and elaborates on strategies to alleviate the strain these "things" may cause.

Dr. Green begins with the fact that a researcher is not in control of the answers. The thrill of designing an experiment based upon perfect logic, where no other answer could possibly be true, is a trap that many scientists fall victim to at least once in a career. Dr. Green is quick to point out that “Life is not logical, because living things are not designed. Any biological system is a cobbled-together, makeshift affair that once upon a time happened to work better than another contraption...” He contends that the key is to control what you can control. Do small pilot experiments and plan carefully so that results can be interpreted and repeated. A lack of repeatability can lead to more stress than an experiment not working in the first place!

A second source of anxiety stems from the struggle to generate that great idea. The continuous need to satisfy an inner drive for making the next mind-blowing discovery can be a foundation for stress. Dr. Green argues that the best way to alleviate the stress of—well, constantly thinking—is to be constantly reading! The more a researcher reads and knows the field, the easier it becomes to enable an overactive mind to piece together disconnected information into a beautiful hypothesis.

The remainder of Dr. Green's “six impossible things” point to the fact that a researcher can be pulled in many directions at once. To counter this reality, Dr. Green recommends avoiding the temptation to put off some of the deadline-less aspects of research, such as developing ideas, analyzing results, or planning future steps. Simply devoting time to the creative facets of research can in-and-of itself be relaxing, thus relieving some of the stress. Of course, this is easier said than done. Just as athletes train to be able to power through physical exhaustion, Dr. Green emphasizes that researchers must “struggle with difficult concepts until we hit a wall and keep thinking.” The more training a researcher has thinking through challenging problems, the more likely his/her stress levels can be minimized during future quandaries.

If you'd like to read more advice from Dr. Green—his humor and frankness will make it well worth your time—check out his article "Stress in Biomedical Research: Six Impossible Things" Molecular Cell, 2010, vol. 40(2): 176–178, found at:

If you are experiencing unmanageable levels of stress, check out these resources:

OITE "Get Help Now" Information:

Helpful Phone Numbers for NIH Staff (including 24-hour crisis hotlines):

Division of Occupational Health and Safety Employee Assistance Program:

Office of Ombudsman:

PHD Comics, transcript below

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

PHD Comics Transcript

Vacation Relaxation? Graph of stress incidence curve before, during, and after vacation:

  1. (stress peak) Try to finish everything before you leave! AAAHHH!
  2. (vacation begins) aaahhh...
  3. Resist urge to check email.
  4. Check email.
  5. Worry about all the things you have to do when you get back.
  6. Realize there's more to life than work.
  7. Existential crisis.
  8. Briefly consider never going back.
  9. (vacation ends—stress peak) 350 new messages in inbox!!
  10. Wait, most of it is spam.
  11. Phew, no one really noticed you were gone.
  12. Does that mean you're useless??
  13. Back to “normal.”