The Hidden Life of an Athlete-Scientist


“What did you do this weekend?” a labmate asks.

“I had frisbee practice!” I respond, knowing that this answer is probably uninteresting, given that it’s my answer every Monday. Yet I’ve still never figured out a way to effectively convey what having frisbee practice every weekend means to my life. So here’s my attempt to explain what it means to be a scientist who is also an athlete (or perhaps it’s the other way around).

I am a member of Fury ultimate, the winningest ultimate team in history (#humblebrag). My teammates range in age from 24 to 39 and live all over the Bay Area (except for one player who lives in Colorado and flies in for practice and tournaments). In addition to being talented athletes, my teammates are also full-time physical therapists, accountants, data scientists, engineers, etc. We are united by our love of ultimate frisbee and competition and a desire to push ourselves, our team, and our sport to a higher level. Our season starts in March with a tryout process typically including over 150 women from around the Bay. After a few grueling weeks of tryouts, we set a roster of roughly 25 people. This constitutes the core group that will compete together over the course of the next seven months, working towards the goal of winning the club national championship in late October. To meet that goal, we compete in three regular season tournaments across the country, often at exotic locations such as Rockford, Illinois or Blaine, Minnesota (#sarcasm). We practice nearly every weekend between April and October, typically 3.5 hours on both Saturday and Sunday. We also have weekly small group practice, track and lifting workouts as well as regular team values and culture sessions.

Alright, great. So I play a lot of frisbee. Why am I writing about this and how does this relate to being a scientist? It turns out, being on Fury has enormously shaped my identity in a way that has pervaded all aspects of my life. This is directly attributable to my teammates being some of the most impressive and wonderful humans I’ve ever known. To curb my excessive use of gushing adjectives, I’ll explain with a couple examples.

At the end of a brutal early-season practice, we were all lounging around at the fields, pretending to stretch and discussing where to get lunch. Well, almost all of us were. One of teammates, Marika, promptly changed into her running shoes and ran a timed mile. It took her five minutes and twenty seconds—roughly the amount of time it took me to plop down and unlace my cleats. Another one of my teammates, Nancy, while at a 6:45am morning practice, casually mentioned she would be leading a company meeting that afternoon. I later learned that she was, in fact, leading a full company meeting at Uber. That is A LOT of people. A lot of very intelligent people. Yet here she was at morning practice, drawing no special attention to herself and rather asking other people about their day. Another teammate, Yelena, suffered a hand-injury in July that sidelined her for the rest of the season. But she still attended every practice, ran sprints on the sideline as we scrimmaged, developed team strategy and contributed hugely to us winning nationals. Another two of my teammates, Gen and Alex, have been on Fury for 12 years during which time they won 8 national championships. Yet these two come to every single practice fully focused and work tirelessly for their inches of improvement. I could go on, but suffice it to say that these women are endlessly inspiring. And the character traits they display on the field every weekend contribute greatly to my competence as a scientist. Seeing the perseverance, focus, and selflessness that they bring to practice, motivates me to apply these qualities in my professional life. When I’m struggling to get out of bed and into lab on Monday morning, I think about Marika running a timed mile after practice and demonstrating that you can always work harder. When I’m feeling nervous about giving a research presentation, I think about Nancy leading a meeting for hundreds of Uber engineers, and feel a little bit less nervous. When I’m in the lab, and my bacterial cultures get contaminated again and again (like they do), I think about Yelena, facing a season-ending injury but continuing to contribute in any way possible. And when I think more broadly about what I want to accomplish as a scientist, I think about Gen and Alex’s endless pursuit of excellence and dissatisfaction with ‘good enough.’

And while there are certainly times when being an athlete makes me less productive (I am a zombie in lab after tournaments; I leave early to get to team workouts; I sometimes watch frisbee highlight videos when I should be working), the values I have learned from my teammates on Fury are ones that ultimately make me a better scientist.