Scientists and Resilience


What does Science tell us About Resilience: Lessons for Early Career Scientists

Karen S. Quigley, Research Physiologist, Bedford Memorial VA Hospital, Bedford, MA and
Research Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, Boston, MA

Dr. Karen Quigley is Research Associate Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, and a Research Physiologist at the Bedford Memorial VA Hospital in Bedford, MA. Her work focuses on the basic science of emotion, including how we use bodily signals to make meaning of our experience, for example, as affective feelings or physical symptoms. Her applied work emphasizes using physiological measures as a motivational tool to encourage better self-management of chronic health problems such as insomnia, and finding novel tools to encourage greater social reintegration to civilian life in those who've experienced the life disruption of a military deployment. She is currently Past-President of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, and a Fellow of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research.

For last year’s Experimental Biology meeting, I was asked to talk to junior scientists about “what science tells us about being resilient in our careers”. Like any professional, academic scientists face ups and downs over a career, and for junior scientists, it can be hard to take the long view because you don’t yet have a long view. I like to think of it this way: Your career is a series of marathons. Thinking about it in this way will help you make it across the multiple “finish lines” that will occur in your career. The “science of resilience” provides some suggestions about what to pay attention to in your career and your life, in addition, of course, to doing really great science. Resilience has been defined by the American Psychological Association as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and even significant sources of stress”. There are a wide variety of major and minor events that may require one to adapt. The scientific literature on resilience reveals that some aspects of our lives that impact resilience are things we have little choice or control over, such as a having a childhood with multiple major stressors, being born into poverty, or having a serious or life-threatening illness. These can be overcome, in other words, neither biology nor experience alone = destiny. In fact, many who are exposed to such events adapt very well. Here, I will provide a brief and selective overview of the science behind the good behavioral habits that all of us can use to enhance our resilience and reduce distress in the face of professional adversity.

When it comes to determining the features of our lives that we can control and that will help us adapt most quickly and adroitly when life’s challenges come our way, what our parents always told us turns out to be true. I will focus on four basic health habits that can help us to weather the “slings and arrows” of an academic career – from rejected papers to experiments that don’t work to harsh critical statements by colleagues (and if you have never experienced any of these things, rest assured that you someday you will as well). The four key health habits are to: (1) be active, (2) sleep, (3) eat a healthy diet, and (4) do work that you love, and if possible, with people that you like. I will provide some brief evidence in support of each of these.

Be Active

When it comes to being active, two things matter – some level of aerobic physical exercise that gets your heart beating faster and not spending too much time sitting. Exercise can regulate mood, improve cognitive function (at least in older adults), improve sleep, and in some studies has been shown to reduce inflammation. I won’t have time to say much about sedentarity, but it is now becoming an important issue of interest among scientists. Sedentarity is typically defined as “excessive inactivity” and is often defined by the amount of sitting time or in some studies by the amount of screen time (TV viewing or computer use), and in some studies is measured using accelerometry (for a review see 18). Epidemiological evidence in men with sedentary occupations, for example, has shown an increased risk of cardiovascular events (10). Simple exercises like walking have been reported to improve mood symptoms when combined with social support, and forms of movement as diverse as Hatha yoga and African dance were related to decreases in perceived stress and negative affect (see review by 19). Aerobic fitness training in older adults can enhance cognitive performance, especially on executive function tasks like planning, maintaining focus and resisting distraction, and coordinating complex tasks (6). Exercise can also improve sleep, although this has been mostly shown in epidemiologic studies (rather than in randomized controlled trials). For example, in a Japanese study of >3000 people, those who reported no habitual exercise had an odds ratio (OR) = 1.3 for insomnia (and by comparison reporting stress had an OR = 1.8 or being unemployed had an OR =1.2; 13). In a smaller study by Uezu and colleagues where sleep reports were corroborated by actigraphy, those with better sleep also exercised more (27). For a review of epidemiological evidence on this issue, see Youngstedt and Kline (36).


To keep pace with the professional goals in your “career race”, you also need to keep up good sleep habits. First, this requires keeping relatively regular sleep times, meaning that from day to day you should go to bed and wake up at similar times. Second, limit the amount of any caffeine you ingest, and make sure that you stop ingesting any caffeine early enough in the day – the half-life of caffeine is almost 6 hours for healthy individuals (24). Other important sleep habits include keeping the bedroom for sleeping and sex only (i.e., not for work), and ensuring that your bedroom is quiet, cool, and dark. Another useful sleep hygiene tip (from the evidence-based treatment Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) is to get out of bed if you are awake for more than about 20 minutes, do a quiet activity, and then return to bed only when you are drowsy (for a review of the elements of behavioral treatment for insomnia, see 20). You may also find that some relaxation tools can work to help you wind down at the end of the day or when you cannot sleep (e.g., guided meditation, progressive muscle relaxation techniques, deep breathing). Critically important for academics, who spend hours at their computers, is to stop viewing a screen (especially if it is bright and close to the face) for 30-60 minutes before bedtime. Otherwise, the screen signals to your brain that you should be awake and works against your getting sound sleep (34). Better sleep can enhance mood whereas sleep disturbance can be prodromal to major depression and anxiety, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD; 5, 17, 21, 26, 35). Less objectively measured sleep time has been related to: (1) increased distress (29), (2) altered hormones related to appetite and hunger (decreased leptin, increased ghrelin; 23, 25), and (3) increased risk of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and mental health outcomes (9, 28, 30-33). In short, getting more and better quality sleep can greatly improve your ability to handle academic and work stressors.

Eat a Healthy Diet

Although what is deemed healthy does seem to vary with time as new studies appear, several common themes appear over and over again in epidemiological studies. These include eating proportionally more vegetables and fruits, eating little or no red meat, eating fish, and eating whole grains rather than heavily refined ones like white flour or white rice. Systemic inflammation is promoted by diets with lots of refined starches and sugars, saturated and trans-fats, few omega-3 fatty acids, and little fiber (see reviews by 1, 12). Stress can also increase inflammation and interact with poor diet, as suggested by an older correlational finding (with its usual inferential limitations) that countries whose residents eat more fish also have lower national rates of major depression (11). Finally, stress has been shown to reduce fruit or vegetable consumption in several epidemiological studies (as reviewed in 12) suggesting that we need to be especially cognizant of our tendency to let good habits slide when we are busy and overworked.

Do Work that You Love with People You Like

So what about the work environment itself? Despite cultural notions about the solitary scientist working hard at the bench (or perhaps even more often, the computer), science, like most other professions, has an important social component. Humans are social creatures who survive and thrive, not just by competing, but also by working cooperatively (7, 22). Choose work that interests and excites you because you will spend long hours doing it. Ensure that you have a supportive social network, and preferably that includes individuals both in your workplace (e.g., co-workers, lab mates, mentors) and outside it. Once you head your own lab, foster a team mentality that respects, encourages and supports one another’s ideas and productivity. You are in this business for the long-haul and fostering a cooperative environment in which to work is important for both your individual success and that of the members of your team. Science confirms the importance of building social cohesion with those with whom you work, including evidence of enhanced team performance in cohesive groups (8, 16). Use your social networks wisely as a source of encouragement or moral support, to gain a fresh perspective, to confirm that what you are experiencing is normative, and as a source of new ideas. Talking with peers and colleagues often solidifies and shapes thoughts about our work in ways that suggest a new way forward when we are stuck. An independent evaluation from someone whose judgment you trust also can provide a buffer or reality check that can enable you to keep moving forward. A tip from a senior faculty member that I found especially helpful early in my career was the idea of a “morale folder”. Keep a folder on your computer or in hard copy of compliments, nice e-mails, good reviews of papers or grants, and other items that made you feel supported and efficacious. Pull them out to read when you need a reminder that things are not as bad as they seem — or maybe they are, but to remind you that they will get better. Different social networks of which you are a part can serve different supportive roles, so connect with networks that support a few of your most valued identities, whether that is as a scientist, mentor, partner, parent, child, friend, or volunteer. Just be careful to choose these networks wisely as they can take time and be sure they are fulfilling your social needs.

Some Final Take Home Messages

The science of resilience suggests two other important take home messages that are helpful. Dr. George Bonnano of Teachers College, Columbia University, has demonstrated two important findings about resilience to extreme stressors over time in diverse groups of participants. First, his team has showed that the predominant trajectory or pattern of stressful response over time (whether measured as PTSD symptoms, depression symptoms, or reported distress) is a resilient one, regardless of whether you have been deployed to combat in the military (4), experienced a spinal cord injury (3) or had surgery for breast cancer (15); for review see (2). Take home message #1 from this work is that even in the face of major life stressors (what is called a “potentially traumatic event” in this literature), most people weather potentially traumatic events well and do not show prolonged distress reactions. Take home message #2 from these data is that those who are resilient to a major life event, are those whose pre-event functioning is better. This should provide motivation to heed the tips here even in the face of the busyness of one’s academic work life. A set of good behavioral strategies that are well-ingrained habits is your best insurance against prolonged or serious distress (or allostatic load in the stress literature; e.g., 14). In keeping with the marathon analogy, if your functioning is already impaired, you won’t be able to deal as well with the unexpected detours that happen in every career. Thinking of your career as a series of marathons is helpful because it reminds you to take the long view. You’ve spent many years “training for your races”, but that does not mean that any of us will make it through them without the inevitable bumps in the course. By maintaining good health habits — staying active, well rested, well nourished, and establishing a supportive social network — you will be best placed to optimize your function and complete each race. If you don’t love your work, think about why, and change what is preventing you from loving it. It is important to work with people you like (and if you cannot do so in the short-term, at least seek out support and encouragement from mentors, family, friends, and peers whom you trust). By connecting with people, you build the very social networks that can help you to create even better opportunities in the future. Once you have your own lab, ensure that you spend time and effort to make sure that people in the lab feel supported and work together as part of a team. It’s important to indicate explicitly that this is a goal of your group and then do the work needed to ensure it happens and be a good role model. If there is good morale in your team, they will be more productive and quite likely be even more creative as a result. As the lab head, you help to create the buffer against stressors that your research team needs to perform at its best. Following these tips may not be easy, but the best evidence is that consistently engaging in these more healthful behaviors as part of your career ‘plan of action’ will reap the best rewards in the long-term.


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