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#76 Deborah Rupert Story

In this episode Dr. Deborah Rupert talks about her experience of working way too much during her PhD which led her towards becoming a coach of mindfulness in research. Dr. Rupert holds a PhD in Biological Physics.

Published onJun 07, 2019
#76 Deborah Rupert Story

Dr. Deborah Rupert was born and raised in France where she did her undergraduate studies in physics. Her passion for blending physics and biology brought her to Sweden where she did her PhD in Biological Physics. During her PhD, she reached very close to burnout and informed her supervisor she wanted to quit science. After few months of recovery, she started the PhD again with a very different mindset and a wish to use her personal story to prevent other scientists from burning out.

Deborah decided to become a professional coach and designed a career switch strategy where she worked 80% as an application scientist in a tech company while training herself as a coach. Today, Deborah is a professional coach certified by the international coaching federation, ICF. She supports science innovators with knowledge and tools designed to take care of their mind and protect them from burnout. She is an active member of the international coaching federation where she acts as a coordinator of the west Sweden chapter and is part of the Swedish ICF research forum.

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So this is my mission now, I’m trying to convey this message of personal self-care within academia, which is a closed bubble world where burnout is still a taboo and seen as a sign of academic failure. We have to learn to see beyond the cliché of the non-stop working and stressed researcher and realize that creativity arises from a place of peace of mind.

Dr. Deborah Rupert, Coach for Mindfulness in Research 

Hi, my name is Deborah Rupert, I’m a professional coach for scientists and innovators. I am passionate about science, sustainability and personal development. Through my company, I’m helping science innovators cultivate mental clarity and protect themselves from burnout so they can thrive and be creative. My road to becoming a coach is not straight forward so let me share with you how I transitioned from doing a PhD in biophysics to being a professional coach. I see my story as a hybrid journey between the analytical thinking of science and the emotional awareness of coaching and psychology. And this journey started very young but I was not aware of it. As a kid I was naturally curious about understanding how things were working and my parents encouraged me to read popular science books and ask all types of questions. And when they could not answer my questions, they would say “have you checked the encyclopedia?” which was the equivalent of nowadays “did you google it? “. So science was part of me very early on. The psychology awareness was more diffused. It was more an attempt to understand my world and try to figure out how to survive being bullied at school. It was through the books I was reading about the effect of meditation on the brain which I started to read around the age of 16.

And that’s about at the same time that I heard the advice that would shape my studies and career choices for the next 12 years. It was the second last year of high school and I was following a generic science track. I had to decide a major for my last year of high school and I didn’t know what to choose between physics and biology. I loved both topics for very different reasons. Physics seemed to be able to explain the world in a way that made sense. And biology was depicting the beauty of the world and life on Earth. Since I didn’t know what to do, I asked my biology teacher who was truly passionate about biology. I asked “physics or biology?” and he said “go for physics because you will always be able to come back to biology later, the opposite is more complicated”. So I followed his advice and I went for physics. I did a bachelor in natural sciences with a major in physics at my hometown in south of France. Then I joined engineering school, the National Institute of Applied Science, or INSA in French, in Toulouse. There I followed the applied physics track with a specialisation in microelectronics. I started to make my way back to biology during internships around the world between Denmark, Canada, Switzerland and by joining a parallel master in nanosciences where biosensing was taught.

I graduated in 2010 with no idea what to do about my life. 2010 was also the year of the economic recession in Europe. Which means that it was hard to find a job and many friends were offered industrial PhD positions, which was a cheaper way for companies to attract engineers. My partner at the time  was moving to Gothenburg in Sweden to do his postdoc. So I thought, why not trying to join him. I was offered a research position in a group at Chalmers University that had the perfect name: biological physics!

I was finally doing physics and biology together, it was fascinating! Six months in, I was having fun and I applied for a PhD position in the same group. As many research assistants before me, I naively thought that doing a PhD was like playing the research assistant but for a longer period of time. I discarded the warnings telling me to think it thoroughly, that it was a tough job. I just went with the flow and jumped right into the PhD.

My first 2 years focused on a topic that was well thought throw on paper but very difficult to achieve technically. It was the exact illustration that theory and practice don’t often match. It took me many days and nights in the lab to convince my supervisor to change topic. So 2 years into my PhD, I started a brand-new research project from scratch. It was risky but the topic was fascinating: studying a potential new type of cancer marker called exosomes. The field was relatively new and not yet well blended between physics and biology. I realized very soon that it was so little blended that virtually nothing was known in terms of physical properties and that we had to make assumptions about almost everything. I started full speed in the new project working around the clock trying to compensate for the 2 years lost in my PhD and the lack of established knowledge in the new field that I was studying.

Few months later, in December 2013, I was proudly working 80 to 100 hours per week, I was virtually living on campus, eating, working, sleeping, and around you go. I was exhausted and stressed but it didn’t really matter because I was doing science. I thought that the more I worked the closer I would be to “save the world” or publish at least. And I wasn’t the only one doing it, that was the culture, that was how you were supposed to do science.

Unfortunately there is another thing in science that is very common but it’s much less discussed and this is burn-out. Over the years, I had seen too many friends collapsing in front of me, blanking faces, unable to access their brain, disappearing for months, and some never came back. But I thought I was immune to it, I was doing science, I just had to work a little bit more and then everything would be fine.

One day I was walking through my living room at home and I suddenly started to picture a line in front of me. I heard myself thinking “if you continue to work this way and cross this line, your brain will be damaged forever and you’ll never be the same”. I freaked out and told a friend that I didn’t think I was going to finish my PhD if I was to continue this way, I was going crazy. And she said “No. Not this way”. Her answer brought clarity to me, I realized that I was destroying myself and I had to do something about it. With an exhausted mind and thinking about all my friends that had been through burnout, I did the only sensible thing I could think about: I informed my supervisor that I was quitting science.

He listened carefully and suggested that I could maybe take some time off my project, focusing on defending my licentiate which is a half PhD degree one can take in Sweden and to start to take time and  to have fun in the lab again. Now, it was hard to have fun in the lab in my state of mind freaking just by the sound of the machine around me, but I started to develop a strategy for recovery. I scheduled long sleeping nights and me-time. I started to read a lot about psychology, mindset, selfcare, I started meditating on daily basis and tried different tips and tricks until I found what suited me. I reflected on what success meant to me, to society and why I was pushing myself so much “in the name of science”. I basically pressed the reset button.

A few months later, I was feeling better and I decided I could try to finish this PhD. But this time I had a very different mindset. Science was not the main focus, my mind was what mattered the most. And as soon as I would see it drifting away again closer to burnout, I would slow down, leave the lab, take a nap, talk to someone, meditate, get back on track. So in December 2015, I eventually defended my PhD in biological physics.

During that time, I also realized that being in the lab was not for me. I could do it, I was good enough but that wasn’t home. I was longing for something different, I was fascinated about psychology and sustainability. The complexity of the social problems, the different scales, the fields that go from economics, social science, technical innovation, nature, ethics, inequality.

So I started to look into how I could contribute and I realized that if innovation starts in the lab and if someone else was to be in the lab instead of me, then that person should not burnout. And maybe I could help there. Now starting a new master in psychology was a bit too much, like maybe it was time to leave the university so I looked into professional coaching training.

So what is coaching? The international coaching federation defines coaching as partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.

So coaching is not psychotherapy. Psychotherapy is a place to focusing for example on trauma, childhood and healing the past while coaching is directed towards now and the future. It’s about what can you do in your life that will allow you to find and reach your goals. I like to see coaching as the ultimate problem-solving tool for the mind. Coaches are not advisers, we don’t give solutions. I don’t know what is the solution to your problem. I may have ideas of what could help you but it may not be what suits you fully. So my job as a coach is to help you find your own solutions beyond what you have tried already. As an individual, we try to fix our problems and challenges going through mental patterns and strategies of thinking that we have learned in the past. We do that through internal dialogue and we often end up in the same thinking loop. I mean we all recognize this typical inner dialogue when you feel like you are going nowhere because only the same ideas keep on coming back. And it usually requires externalization of the problem in order to see it through another angle so we can solve it. So for science, it can be putting things on a whiteboard or trouble-shooting with colleagues. Because it brings the inner dialogue outside. And this is exactly what coaching is doing. We take the inner dialogue and we split it into 2 people, the coach asks the questions and the client answers them. Now the art of coaching is for the coach to ask open questions that the client has not been thinking about so that we disrupt the mental patterns. We offer a safe, non judgmental and compassionate space for deep thinking.  And this is what I find beautiful with coaching, it’s the journey of the thoughts, how one can rethink oneself through and go beyond fears by finding solutions that are deeply personal.

And I personally discovered all of that while by being coached myself through my career change and I realized that coaching itself was an option that I would never have thought about otherwise. I focused on becoming certified by the international coaching federation which is the golden standard in coaching, ethics and grounded in science.

Now such a switch doesn’t happen overnight so I had to find a strategy that would give me the time to train myself as a coach while being able to fill up the fridge and pay the rent. The strategy shaped itself during a job interview for a position as an application scientist in a tech company. Together with my then-to-become new boss, we explored the idea of a win-win strategy where I could work 80% for the company and educate myself 20 % on the side. I motivated the fact that 80% of the working time would most probably result in an equivalent of 90% in productivity simply because I would be more rested, relaxed and focused during working hours. I was also open from day one that I would most probably not continue as an application scientist after the 2 years contract but I promised full dedication to the project in the 80% of working time. So that’s what I did for 2 years, I worked as a an application scientist in an EU project in collaboration between universities and companies and I trained myself as a coach on the side.

So now I run my own company and I am discovering the world of start-up and entrepreneurship. I’m  giving seminars and workshops raising awareness about burnout in the science innovation community. I coach researchers, scientists, tech start-up founders and science leaders about their career strategy, their vision, goals and mental self-care.

I realize that as much as behavioural change can be hard, coaching is an effective way to get clarity and find personal strategies that are leading to a more grounded mind. Looking back on my journey, I am thinking about how much I would have loved to understand how resilience is the key to peace and creativity. That school doesn’t teach us self-leadership although it is so important when you do your PhD. I wish someone would have told me that it all started from within.

So this is my mission now, I’m trying to convey this message of personal self-care within academia, which is a closed bubble world where burnout is still a taboo and seen as a sign of academic failure. We have to learn to see beyond the cliché of the non-stop working and stressed researcher and realize that creativity arises from a place of peace of mind.

Through my journey, I hope I could convey to you the idea that personal self care is key to your wellbeing and that it’s never too late to reconsider your choices. For all of you going through doubt, stress and moments of despair, know that there is a gentle way out. I invite you to develop tools for personal resilience and to take care of your mind before it’s too late. Burning your brain out in the name of science is not worth it. And I also wanted to add that it is very fun to experiment with your own mind and change the way you relate with yourself! It’s like doing science on your own brain. So if you have questions or if you are interested in learning further about how to take care of your mind, please visit my website I wish you a peaceful and creative journey ahead! Thanks for listening.

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