The Stepping Stones of Integrating Emotions into Practicing Science

Saturday, March 14, 2015 - 6:41am
Photo by DFES

The Stepping Stones of Integrating Emotions into Practicing Science

I was a scientist just a few years out of graduate school when I had a career-altering experience speaking with a man in tears at a community workshop.

A large cluster of wildfires had burned through his small, close-knit northern California town, and many residents were forced to evacuate their homes. They were worried that their properties would be unprotected in the time they had to stay away: firefighting resources were strained due to additional wildfires in other parts of the state. Emotions ran high for everyone as my colleagues and I presented our work on how houses burn during wildfires.

During the workshop, we talked about the controversial “stay or go” policy. Instead of being evacuated, families would be trained and have the option to stay and protect their homes during wildfires since firefighters may not always have the resources to worry about each individual property. This idea of staying with your house as a wildfire rages through can raise a lot of literal life-and-death feelings — as well as intrigue — for communities and firefighters alike. And, here we were, talking to people who had just lived the dilemmas of our research topic. While some were sad, angry, afraid, and anxious about having had to evacuate, others were just grateful that the damage to their property had not been worse.

This kind, gentle man shared with me how powerless he felt when he left behind his home and irreplaceable belongings after many exhausting hours spent moving equipment and farm animals. Listening to his story was the first time I became acutely aware that the intellectual rigors of my scientific training did not prepare me for the strong bouts of emotions that come with research that has immediate meaning in people’s lives. Speaking with him inspired a decade of work (so far) to understand how science and emotion can be integrated — for myself and others.

Volcanic scientists collect samples of ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in eastern Iceland to send to labs for content analysis on April 15, 2010.

(Omar Oskarsson / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.)

The precarious balance between subjectivity and objectivity in science

Scientists are encouraged to be as objective as possible by adhering to the scientific method. Yet, that objectivity is often challenged by the subjectivity that comes with being human, particularly for those who work on complex and sometimes contentious issues that may bring up a lot of feelings. Rationality and objectivity — often seen as opposites of emotionality — are idealized in modern science, and there is a deep-seated fear that moving away from that norm will ruin the profession.

On the other hand, not recognizing the emotional context of topics such as climate change, species loss, or natural disasters can be both stifling for individuals and prevent scientists from connecting with affected communities on these kinds of issues. It can even become dangerous when we intellectually distance ourselves from the emotional implications of our research by ignoring or dismissing feeling-based reactions. It can cause us to miss out on the valuable role emotions can play as a source of information in our work.

While emotion in scientific research and practice is not often broadly discussed, there seems to be more active conversation surrounding this topic in climate science. Historian Naomi Oreskes argues that scientists should express more alarm about climate change. She recalls a conference presentation where an audience member stood up and said, “You are telling us that we have a very serious problem, but you don’t sound at all worried. You don’t even sound upset!” Oreskes argues that expressing concern would help convey the seriousness of the issue, that it’s difficult to get excited about something when the experts themselves seem dispassionate. Author and environmental communicator George Marshall believes that when it comes to climate change, the unwillingness of scientists to show emotion has been counterproductive in engaging the public.

Some people are also concerned that stifling emotion could take a toll on scientists who work on difficult issues. Madeleine Thomas recently wrote an article geared towards scientists on “climate depression.” In addition, communicator Joe Duggan started a project titled “Is this how you feel?” that contains letters from climate scientists who expressed a wide variety of emotions — ranging from anger to optimism — about their research.

It’s not just climate scientists who experience deep feelings about their work. Pat Thomson, a professor of education at the University of Nottingham, gets angered while studying poverty and inequality in education. Raul Pacheco-Verchago, a professor at the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, gets very emotionally involved in his work on water and sanitation, tweeting:

I have written on my own deeply-felt experience “live tweeting a drought” as I work closely on the slow-moving natural disaster happening in California.

Incorporating emotions into the practice of science

When we recognize and allow for the diverse range of emotions that can arise in practicing science, a key question emerges: what, if anything, should we do about it? Climate change, scholars, and communicators like Oreskes, Marshall, and Duggan hope that scientists will convey the seriousness of key issues and get others to act by expressing their emotions. Psychologists and others are more focused on providing support and resources, like therapy and mindfulness, for researchers and practitioners.

For me, the questions around science and emotion are more exploratory. I initially became curious about how emotions came into play with my work, inspired by interactions like the one I had with the man who had been evacuated. Over time, I began to focus on when it is or isn’t helpful to share them. These days, I am particularly interested in what happens when my emotions intersect with others, whether they be scientists or members of the many communities I interact with.

Since emotion is not commonly discussed in the natural sciences, I sometimes turn to other fields like medicine and law where practitioners are better trained to handle emotional situations with, for example, training in empathy and compassion. I ultimately developed a personal training program by integrating techniques I found helpful from empathy and compassion training in those fields with those from my own experiences. Halfway through grad school, I sought out therapy, a process that has greatly informed both my personal and professional life, and I have also benefited from contemplative practices like yoga and meditation.

Over time, my efforts in understanding the role of emotion in my work have become more intentional. I recently took a six-week Compassion Cultivation Training class with Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. There were several mid-career environmental scientists in a class of about 30, all of whose work had inspired the need to take the class. That course affirmed my belief that being in touch with and expressing my feelings offers an unique opportunity to connect with people around shared human experiences.

I gave a talk a few years ago (with much trepidation) at a professional society meeting on the value of contemplative practices in my work as a science communicator. The positive reception to that talk inspired me to write a short paper on the important themes that emerged in my own work: the value of listening, building relationships, and resolving conflict in community-engaged science. I have seen that one of the biggest challenges by allowing emotions to be expressed in a group setting is that they can simmer into a cauldron of collective emotions: grief, trauma, anger, even joy. Befriending the conflict that can come with this kind of engagement can be hard, but also incredibly useful.

It has been at least a decade since that wildfire workshop where I realized scientific discussions lacking awareness and respect of emotions can be ineffective, counterproductive, and painful. At that time, I stumbled through conversations full of suffering. Today, I can sit with my own and others’ emotions and navigate whatever arises. Integrating emotions into practicing science is not the for the faint of heart, and my methods may not be right for others, but for those of us with the ability, desire, and deep impetus to forge a different path, the stepping stones are there.

This essay was originally published on Hippo Reads and is reprinted here with permission.


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Faith Kearns

is a scientist and communicator with the California Institute for Water Resources of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She has worked on topics ranging from urban stream ecology to wildfires to citizen science and in non-profit, government, and academic organizations. She has undying interests in depth psychology, contemplation, and the role of emotion in science practice.

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Thank you! I'm struggling with this currently: studying resource extraction in Nunavut, the implications of climate change, the reality of it, the effects now and those which will come. It keeps me awake every night, but there is no place in my program or in my department for those feelings. We just don't talk about it. This is a problem. Thank you for addressing it.

Jessy, thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I can imagine that in a place like Nunavut these issues are front and center, and I do hope that over time programs like yours will evolve toward making space for subjectivity in research and practice. In the meantime, please know you are in good company in terms of having deep feelings about your work, and that even though it may not always feel like it, having those feelings is a good thing.

Thank you so much for acknowledging that there is an emotional side to science and engineering work. It's very real, especially when I interact with people whose properties have become contaminated as the result of a hazardous material release. None of my science and engineering courses covered relating to people as part of engineering practice. I chose to take classes (in science and technology studies) that considered the human aspect of fields best known for their emphasis on logic and reason. These classes have been just as valuable for my career as the engineering classes.

Lori -- thank you for reading and for the thoughtful comment. I am glad to hear that you had access to STS courses (and that you chose to take them!) that have helped you in your career as an engineer. My experience (at an R1 university) was that the biggest rewards were often given for the most "traditional" kinds of success in research and publishing, but in more practice-oriented careers, the people that seem the most satisfied and successful are those that were able in one way or another to incorporate more "non-traditional" training/skill into their work. My best to you.

This is an interesting edge to a thoughtful subject. My background is in merchandising and gallery management. There is an underlying need in those fields to translate and read emotions in order to do business with a public that has to find resonance in my efforts. Late in life I have taken a plunge by deciding to finish my fifties in the field of healthcare, primarily to earn what living I can by contributing directly to physically helping others. The juxtaposition of the "patient first" policy in direct care and the hard facts of doing business and avoiding litigation is very stressful. The care team system is combed into an assembly line of scheduled chores and objective digitalized information. I would say that my skills in the areas of empathy and compassion must be superseded by a closed businesslike demeanor through which I try my best to exude calm love in the face of the needs of both the institution and the patient… and my own stamina.

Pam, I so appreciate the many facets of your comment. It is interesting to me that in some fields, it is simply a given that emotion is a key piece of the work, while in others it is not. And I also just want to say that I relate to the idea of wanting to do work that is about literal physical support of others -- it reminds me of Ram Dass' reflection about being called to "feed people, serve people." Much respect to you for following the calling. In general terms, it sounds like you are very much navigating similar issues around balancing the "head and the heart," but the institutional set-up is a very challenging one -- the litigation issue alone must be so stressful. Thank you for sharing.

Caregivers in the medical field need help with feelings, too. So I find with the art- and literature-based discussion and writing group I run at a local hospital. Not everyone receives training in compassion and empathy. In an intense environment, confronted with illness and death, many experience compassion fatigue. Building community, sharing, and staying connected all help.

Hi Lauren, thank you for this reflection. Training does seem limited, and even with it, community, sharing, and connection are priceless. Your discussion and writing group sounds so valuable.

I really love this article, thank you. I am a qualitative researcher in the social sciences, and I follow a constructivist approach in which the researcher's emotions are acknowledged through memos as part of the methodology. The emotions of my participants tend to affect me very deeply. Even though it's expected for me to admit to these feelings in my academic writing, the personal process I go through sounds similar to yours. I think that we can tap into this sensitivity as a great resource to fuel the passion for our work, but it took me a long time to realize that.

Sabrina - thank you for the comment (and apologies for a late response - have to manually check for comments). It is very interesting to hear that even with "permission" to acknowledge your emotional response to your research, it's still a challenging proposition to do so. For me, that is further indication that we are just scratching the surface of the value of this kind of effort. My best to you.