From the lab to the stage: A less conventional PhD portrait

There is nothing like the bittersweet rollercoaster journey of a PhD training. Some may disagree, but the majority of us will acknowledge delightedly savoring our achievements once the demons quit the party. What are those demons? Fear, anxiety, exhaustion, loneliness, and a sense of impending doom as the moment to defend one’s thesis approaches. At the lab bench, I had frightful daydreams about how the PhD would finally turn out, but also one daydream that was different. It came with a light that blew me away – far away, to a distant land where there was singing, laughter and hands clapping. There I was, standing-up on the stage as a comedian.

The crazy thing is that this really happened: I became a nerd comedian. Acting was not part of my research, but it was of paramount importance to boost my creativity and get through the PhD with a smile. My comedy act counterbalanced the occasional research lab days that left me down.

Learning how things work had been my favorite playground since a young age. Science has always fascinated me. Small wonder I continued my studies until the PhD degree where I worked on the mechanical properties of cells and tissues. The goal was to develop new techniques to study how soft or stiff cells and tissues are. These tools could be used in fundamental research, such as studying changes in the mechanical properties during the onset and development of cancer. By combining experimental and computational methods, I gained some of the first insights on how cells collectively change during early stages of cancer. Eventually the outcome later on would be new diagnostic and prognostic tools for cancer patients.

Why did I jump into this research topic? Interdisciplinarity! There was a gratifying mix of bioengineering, biology, chemistry and physics. In my free time, I would do comedy about science and other outreach activities. For instance, I got involved in a project called “Outer Space Inner Space", which was born out of the similarities in images taken in outer space and those taken from inside cells. Within this project, I developed activities that explained the optics of astronomy and biology – hey, telescopes and microscopes use exactly the same principles! Ah, I love interdisciplinarity… At the same time, friends and I started making a workshop called “Build a Legoscope” in which a microscope gets built out of Lego pieces. All these experiences combined taught me that I love talking about science more than being stuck in a lab doing it per se.

After defending my PhD, guess what I turned out to work with? Lego robotics. Through fun teaching, I am further honing my skills of translating scientific principles into teachable moments to youngsters. We often forget how much of scientific research requires creativity. I believe that through play, tinkering, creative learning and the right support, we can ensure that everybody who wants to do science knows that they can!

If you, reader, thought that a PhD training was only a troubling journey, you got it all wrong. Today I keep dancing with the demons: these are friendlier ones though and follow me mostly only on stage!

I am Valerie Bentivegna and I was a PhD student affiliated with Prof. Inke Näthke and Sandy Cochran at the University of Dundee in the United Kingdom. My PhD research work was funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). Currently, I work on different fronts, including science writing, informal education, and science comedy. Come check out my next show if you happen to be around Seattle, or check out the videos and news on my blog:


Digital art

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso