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Original Article: How Stepping out From my Comfort Zone Helped me Become a Better Scientist


Silvana L. Costa imageby Silvana L. Costa, PhD

Research Scientist
Center for Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Research
Kessler Foundation


Neurological disorders are complex and there is no doubt that only a multidisciplinary approach will help us achieve rehabilitation breakthroughs. Nevertheless, during our PhD and postdoctoral studies often we are advised to work hard towards a specialization. We start going to the same conferences every year and soon our network group end up being those who think like us.

For me, the most rewarding experiences have been those that I step out of my comfort zone and explore areas I know little about. When I was a PhD student in Portugal I had the opportunity to do several internships in the United States. That was probably one of the biggest challenges of my PhD and without any doubt the most rewarding. During these internships, I was exposed to different points of view, different ways of working and doing science, which shaped the researcher I am today.

As a postdoctoral fellow, I started working with biomedical engineers and that experience changed the way I do science, too. I have a background in clinical psychology and I study cognitive functions in multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury. Working with engineers allowed me to improve my coding skills and learn eye-tracking methodologies. This postdoctoral fellowship experience shaped my line of research. I am still working towards the specialization I started during the first years of my PhD, but the way I think about it is different because I have been working with so many experts from so many different fields. Today, I can say I collaborate with clinicians and researchers from different fields, from neuropsychologists, speech therapist, occupational therapist or optometrists. Sometimes it can be a bit chaotic, because we all see the same topic from different perspectives. However, at the end of the day, it is these different perspectives of the same topic that lead to the next big project, the next big idea. Today, I make sure I go to conferences from my field, but I also try to go to a more medical or clinical conferences, so I am exposed to different ideas, different ways to think about neurological disorders. The conferences I like the most and the ones I learnt the most from are those that provide talks on topics I know little about. Often, I find myself solving my every day research problems, or developing my new research project idea, after talking with a colleague from a different field, after a conference talk I had to do research on afterwards to completely understand what I heard.

My advice to all young scientists is: do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. It is ok to feel lost when confronted with new ideas and new ways of thinking. Enjoy the ability to learn as you go and have an open mind. A lot of times your biggest opportunity, your best idea, comes to you when you least expect!