Danielle Speller on burnout, identity, and how to maintain balance

This week was BlackInPhysics Week and as part of that, experimental physicist Danielle Speller discussed burnout (which is this year’s theme for the week).

Physicists—like artists, artisans, and revolutionaries—often pour themselves into their work. In fields like particle physics, nuclear physics, and astrophysics, experiments are often huge endeavors that can span decades. A success, then, is not just a single moment of excitement when something works or a measurement is completed. In some circumstances, that moment is the affirmation of many years of training, planning, and work, as well as years of personal and professional sacrifices made in pursuit of truth and discovery.

This means that what you do can become your whole identity. Without balance, any interruption of what you do—a loss of position or funding, a poor result, a different lab scooping your finding, a technical setback—can become a direct assault on your person, your livelihood, your reason for being, and your place in the world.

I know I’ve felt a lot of burnout over the last two years and while I know we all feel it in relative terms, I can’t imagine how Black scientists must feel given how Black representation is low, racism is high, and that’s before we take the COVID-19 pandemic into account (where Black people have played an influential role in the vaccines aimed to reduce its effects).

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