088: Ben Hartwig Tips and Tricks

This is the second episode of Dr. Ben Hartwig, in which he will talk about resilience and will share tips on how to stay resilient and how to deal with stress.

In his first podcast (#85) Hartwig shared his story and the lessons he learned during his PhD.  So if you have not listened to his first podcast, don’t hesitate to do so.

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialized in Epigenetics and toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

In this episode, he shares four relevant tips.

The first tip is to surround ourselves with people who believe in us. The second one is to ask better questions. The third tip is to see the things for what they really are and the last one is Ecotherapy and to be our own doctor.

To become more resilient we can make changes on three different levels – environmental changes, cognitive changes and habitual changes”.

Ben Hartwig

To learn more about Ben’s tips, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!

Transcript

Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, the podcast about career path inside and outside academia. I’m Viral Panchal and it is my pleasure to introduce Ben Hartwig. Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Cologne, specialized in epigenetics and toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars. I hope you will enjoy this episode of PhD career stories.

Worried, overwhelmed, not sure if the struggle will pay off? 

Here, I want to introduce you to the topic of resilience. It is a quality that you can train and grow over time. Resilience helps in dealing with stress and overwhelm to bounce back to a happier and healthier pursuit of your goals in science. 

Being in science can be demanding. Stress and overwhelm are very common amongst PhDs, Post-Docs and PIs. The latest big PhD survey in Nature in 2017 and in the Paper of Katja Levecque et al. about work organization and mental health problems of PhD students paint a fairly clear picture. 

PhD students are 2.4 times more likely to get mental health problems than the highly educated in the general population. The main predictors for that are job demands, your family-work relationship, job control and inspirational leadership (Levecque et al., 2017). 

If there are constant high demands, an unbalanced family-work relationship, the lack of control for what you do at work and a lack of inspirational leadership, your nervous system will be challenged. After a while, you’re at risk of losing control. Each of us has a different tolerance for stress, but even the strongest tree will fall, if the storms are too strong. 

Instead of just dealing with the stress and resisting as much as possible there is another way. Storms might break trees, but they’ll have a harder time with bamboo or grass. Resilience is the power to bounce back from adversity. You feel the stress, but it does not break you, instead, you learn to let it pass. What makes us resilient and how can we use it in science?

To become more resilient we can make changes on three different levels – environmental changes, cognitive changes and habitual changes. Meaning, how we prepare ourselves to feel less stress, how we think about our challenges and how we regenerate and recharge after a period of stress. 

One thing we can do is to work on our networks and connections to other people. The truth is that PhD students are hired to become experts. To become the person that knows the most in the world about a particular niche of a subject. Specialization creates loneliness, if the wrong system is in place. Studies such as the one conducted by Emmy Werner on the Hawaiian island Kauai show that we need at least one person in our network that tells us that we’re good enough and that we’re able when things are not going well. 

We need to remember that great discoveries are rarely achieved alone. And we all depended on the help of others to get where we are now. Watson had his Crick, Daniel Kahneman had his friend Amos Tversky and Einstein was lucky to have a wife smarter than him. So, my first tip is to surround yourself with people who believe in you, even though your work might not be successful yet. 

You can find those people and change your environment by asking better questions. 

This is my second suggestion, seriously, ask better questions. A lot of people told me that it wouldn’t be possible to reduce my working hours as a Postdoc to pursue a second career. But simple questions and a boss, who was willing to listen and saw the benefits instead of the problems helped. I could reduce my hours to 50 %, then 40 % and finally a B.Sc. student helped me in the lab before I decided to found my own company. 

There are three secrets to asking. First, observe if the person you’re asking is ready to receive your question. Second, be specific and only ask for one thing at a time and third stop talking after you’ve asked your question and wait for the response. You might not always get what you want, but then you have at least as much as you had in the first place. If you hear a no, you haven’t lost an opportunity, you’ve gained some experience. 

The third tip is about surprises. We don’t like all the surprises we encounter during our PhD. The ones we like are called gifts and the ones we don’t like are called problems. My advice to become more resilient is to not confuse a gift or a problem with your personality. This either leads to entitlement or to depression. Instead, see the things for what they really are. This way you’ll learn to develop realistic optimism instead of blind optimism or pessimism. 

My last tip is ecotherapy, which is essentially going outside to relax and recharge. I’ve met a doctor who has founded a successful burn-out clinic. He said that sometimes, when people came to him with feelings of overwhelm and worry, he would see that and he would suggest that they don’t need to take any pills. He was convinced that all the patients needed was to take a break or walk through the forest an hour a day. Research should later prove him right, but his patients just wouldn’t follow his advice.

He realized that they would take the pills though, when he wrote it on a receipt. So, he decided to change the things he would write on the receipt. He wrote things like: “Take a break 3 times a day for 10 minutes during working hours ” or “Have lunch in a park.” And when he handed the receipt to people they would start doing it. All they needed was the permission. So, my last tip is to be your own doctor and give yourself permission to relax.

Thank you very much for listening.

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career Stories. As always, you can find us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram as well as on our webpage phdcareerstories.com.

If you like what we do please subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify we would love to hear from you.

Good-bye for now, we will be back with a new story in 2 weeks time.

#085: Ben Hartwig Story

In this podcast, Dr. Ben Hartwig shares his story and lessons he learned during his PhD. 

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialised in Epigenetics and aside he toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

Dr. Ben Hartwig

If you are curios how Ben successfully combined his analytical and creative side together, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Intro:

Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, my name is Alice Corani, and in today’s podcast you will listen to Ben Hartwig, a German Scientist passionate with Science and Acting. He will explain how he successfully combined his analytical and creative side together.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

This is my story. My name is Ben Hardwick, I’m a German scientist born and raised close to Hamburg who has done his PhD at the Max Planck institute for plant breeding research in Cologne. This is also a story of those two hearts because I’m fascinated by the creative world and by the analytical world and how to combine the two.

At first glance, there’s not much that combines acting and science, not much that the two have in common. But there are a few things, as an actor you need to stay curious, as a scientist you need to do so too. And ultimately, we all want to understand ourselves and the world better, so curiosity and understanding are the glue between creativity and the analytical world to me.

Curiosity is also what got me into science. I’ve always been fascinated by it, by the world and by people. I chose plant biotechnology as my studies during the bachelor and masters. I signed up at the Leibniz university in Hannover. For part of the master’s I studied at the Purdue University in the US in West Lafayette, Indiana. During the masters I had a professor called professor Daimler, and he was the first reason why I got into my PhD. He thought it would be the next right career step for me and suggested the Max plank in Cologne, because he had gone there earlier.

I decided to follow his advice in the plight and actually found my supervisor because we had a beer together during the selection days. My supervisor during the PhD was Francisco Torque who is an expert in epigenetics. I had no idea about epigenetics when I signed up, but today I can roughly explain it as how the environment influences our genes. Epigenetics makes that influence visible, that was great. I got to study plants and I got to understand epigenetics better. I got to immerse myself into a subject for a long time and I wanted to know if I could do it, so I love the challenge of being a PhD student. But I didn’t know what I would do afterwards. So when the time to defend this thesis came, I had already booked a ticket to fly around the world and interview actors and scientists because I still had two hearts beating in my chest throughout my PhD. 

And also early I had done acting and actually learned something called improvised theater or improvisation, it’s a type of theater where you walk on stage without a script or fixed role so you walk out there every night and you don’t know what the play is going to be. Both science and acting were passions of mine and on that journey around the world I wanted to discover which way to follow, what should I do with my life.

I had learned a few things during my PhD that helped me on that journey. The first thing was organization, Francisco Torque decided that I could do an enhancer suppresses screen, well I was in-charge of thousands and thousands of plants. I had to be very organized to not lose track of all of the individual plants and their individual mutations. 

The second thing I learned was resilience, one day I came into the lab and most of my plants that I was studying had died because of a technical error in the green house. I was devastated and thought oh my god so much work and it all went down the drain because of one thing. But I had a friend in the laboratory from China and he used to say a Chinese saying which roughly translates to “When winter comes is spring faraway?”. When I heard him say that I thought of course he’s right. The plants were dead, but I still had the seeds and I still had the knowledge, so I could continue the project and I didn’t have to be that devastated about it. That was the second thing, resilience. 

The third thing I learned, that was big for me during the PhD was network. During lunch breaks and sometimes in the afternoon, I had a coffee with my friend Jared Rolands, who also did his PhD at the same time at the Max plank. We became friends and we used to go for long walks and talks science. He was in a protein lab and I was in the molecular biology lab. And sure enough during our PhD journey I sometimes needed advice about proteins and he needed advice about molecular biology. We helped each other and I believe that made our PhDs much stronger and better than they would have been.

So I was on that journey in 2012 and I had scheduled interviews with scientists and with actors to find out, what to do afterwards. The journey didn’t really give me an answer but it opened up new opportunities. So I was allowed to travel with a company, selling sequencers in Southeast Asia as well. And all that combined knowledge, let me to understand that I don’t have to choose one or the other but I could try to combine the analytics with the creativity. And after my post doc, I decided to found my own company in science communication, where I combined my knowledge from improvisational theater and from science to help creative people think in the more analytical way and analytical people to think in a more creative way. 

This work fulfils me and it really feels like the two hearts in my chest are starting to combine in a becoming one. What drives me and what has driven me is that moment of discovery, there’s always more to discover but that moment of discovery is unique, that moment of really understanding something. I love to really understand something for the first time to have that realization myself but I also love seeing it in others. Nowadays when I teach and give workshops and see that realization on a person’s face that is something unique and beautiful.

Thank you for listening and have a great day this was Ben Hardwick.

Outro:

Thank you for listening to another episode of PhD Career Stories.

If you like our podcast you can follow us on our website PhDcareerstories.com or subscribe to our page on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter. 

That’s it for today, thank you and see you in two weeks