3 years ago

How to turn your interests into a career

How to turn your interests into a career
Emily Sohn

Indre Viskontas took piano lessons as a child and made her opera debut at age 11. But her mother, a professional conductor, told her that music did not pay well. So Viskontas, who often listened to the opera singer Maria Callas while doing homework, decided to pursue science instead, earning an undergraduate degree in psychology and French literature at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a PhD in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles. During a year in London, she took singing lessons that she continued during her PhD, when she also sang opera.

Viskontas saw neuroscience as a stable career choice that might offer ideas about how to better embody roles in operatic performances. But after years of alternating her focus between science and music, she found a way to combine the two, by applying neuroscience to musical training. She now works as an opera singer and cognitive neuroscientist, with positions at the University of San Francisco, California, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Scientists who have successfully crafted a research career out of their non-academic passions and talents say that persistence and patience are key, especially when trying to merge two professional paths that might not seem obviously connected. Melding worlds can be unsettling, and it takes time and creativity to persuade funders and advisers that the work is worthwhile.

But those who have done so say that focusing a research lens on their life’s passions has expanded both their personal horizons and scientific goals in an academic landscape that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Viskontas’ research projects include teaching people with cochlear implants how to sing. “My life is like this DNA double helix constantly turning itself over,” says Viskontas, adding that she has noticed a drive towards innovative solutions in science and a demand for a more scientific approach in the arts. “I feel like I’m a bridge between these worlds. And we are entering an era where that overlap is more celebrated.”

Forging a path

It often takes perseverance to find ways to study one’s personal interests, especially if those interests don’t already belong to established research departments, says Vanesa España-Romero, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cádiz in Spain. She got hooked on rock climbing while she was at school and chose to pursue sports science, partly as a way to learn how to be a better climber.

But when she began studying elements of climbing fitness for her PhD, such as handgrip strength and percentage of body fat, nobody else in Spain was studying the sport. She had to create tools and formulas while explaining what she was doing to colleagues and supervisors. Funding was impossible to get, she adds, because grant providers didn’t understand climbing or see any reason to study it. “People felt I was doing something weird,” she says.

Instead of giving up, España-Romero recommends, go for long-term thinking and creative strategies for forging new research paths. She sought funding for research into the promotion of physical activity and health. Then, she applied existing research tools to her climbing studies. It’s a strategy she still uses, although increasing interest in the sport has made it possible for her to get a little money for climbing-specific studies. “I think the key thing for me was the persistence,” she says. “If you love what you do, go for it. But you need time.”

Peter Vuust, Director of the Center for Music in the Brain

Danish neuroscientist Peter Vuust heads a lab, teaches music and plays his bass in 60 concerts a year.Credit: Mads Bjoern Christiansen

Publisher URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07357-2

DOI: 10.1038/d41586-018-07357-2

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