A Day in the Life: Information overload and pressure on scientists

Penny Jeggo once gave a career talk at an EACR meeting about the increasing information overload and pressure on scientists. She was surprised by how everyone there, old and young, told her they felt the same. She writes about how this pressure can affect a single day as a researcher.

24 September is World Cancer Research Day, which raises awareness of the important and lifesaving work done by researchers. As part of this the EACR asked a variety of members to share a day in their life as a cancer researcher.

Back in the lab today after a wonderfully relaxing few weeks enjoying the UK’s summer sunshine. I am excited to get back, to hear about results obtained whilst I was away and to read several great looking papers published just before or after I went into relaxation mode. I made sure to keep on top of emails whilst away, precisely to avoid an impossible backlog on returning. So I’m feeling positive that I can be on top of mundane tasks in a few hours – with the promise of the more “exciting” nitty gritty of my research on DNA repair not too far away.

But … before the day even starts, I get emails reminding me of two papers I agreed to review before leaving; I recall I have to update my papers on the university web site for the REF (Research Excellence Framework, a UK impact evaluation exercise designed to eat time); I have to write a blog (yes this one); and I have multiple requests for cell lines.

Soon it’s lunchtime, and more tasks have accrued. I am further behind than when I started and my stress levels are rising. I can’t remember an essential reference (neither the paper nor the author!) and the IT system of a journal website is thwarting my attempts to access a paper I have to review.

The love of a life in science returns:  that freedom to escape from the triviality of the everyday, and lose oneself in models and ideas

By late afternoon, the wonderful relaxing feeling built up during my weeks off has completely disappeared. I go home to seek a glass of wine to calm me. Ignoring the multiple tasks, I turn to the first of the papers I was so excited about this morning. Abandoning all the triviality and focusing on real science, I sink into the paper. It does not disappoint –though scary how much data is in there. I think how it relates to my own work. Before I know it – and with my wine untouched because I don’t need it so badly now- I have planned out several experiments provoked by the paper. The love of a life in science returns: that freedom to escape from the triviality of the everyday, and lose oneself in models and ideas.

By bedtime, I nod off thinking about those mundane tasks again. How to achieve them quickly; how to exploit technology to deal with the problems technology creates; how to cope with the information overload that the computer age brings.  But the next morning I wake up thinking about those experiments again, and the potential model and my next paper!

other jobs do not offer those fleeting but exhilarating moments of pure intellectual flight

And that’s the joy of science. Almost all jobs in this day and age come with the stress of managing an email inbox, of dealing with too much information, and the nightmares that come with navigating truculent IT systems. And survival in science brings the stress of having to publish. But other jobs do not offer those fleeting but exhilarating moments of pure intellectual flight, delving into the unknown and maybe achieving something that will help human health and combat disease. It’s not always easy, but I wouldn’t do anything else!

How can you get involved with World Cancer Research Day?

1. Sign the World Declaration for Cancer Research

2. On 24 September share a snapshot on social media from a day in your life as a cancer researcher: use #WorldCancerResearchDay

Click here to see more posts about a ‘Day in the Life’ of other cancer researchers.

Penny Jeggo
Mark Hill, Penny Jeggo, Rhona Anderson at the ICRR
About the author

Penny Jeggo is Emeritus Professor at the University of Sussex Genome Damage and Stability Centre, UK.

Penny recently co-organised the International Congress on Radiation Research (ICRR) in Manchester, which was supported by the EACR, and the photo was taken just prior to the EACR poster awards being presented