Professional scientists can find time to volunteer in their communities

Alex Nyarko

It is easy to be bogged down by the demands of planning and executing experiments as well as further time spent in analysing data. Suffice to say, a professional scientist can spend the majority of her/his time going in and out of the lab, just endlessly doing work, often with frustrating outcomes. The tendency to even lose sight of what is going on around you in the community is all too likely when such a lifestyle is adopted, as you get sucked into the doldrums of work. But enough with the gloomy talk! There is light at the end of the tunnel. For me spending time to volunteer for one cause or another is that light.

In general, volunteering brings a form of richness to one’s life. The feeling that you have added some value to the society or to the life of another individual is priceless. Even though there are so many problems in our society that need fixing, doing your own small part can encourage others to also pitch in with their portions. Together, each individual contribution will go a long way in bringing about an immense positive change. In addition to the slow and grinding societal change, you will no doubt experience an immediate change: studies have shown that volunteering through a personal project or someone else’s project is guaranteed to bring you satisfaction, improve your morale, and raise your productivity. 

For a professional scientist, setting aside time from lab work can also enable the creative juices to kick in for solving some complex problems in the lab. However, the key term here is “setting aside time”, which in itself presents an arduous task. Most of us are stretched to the limit even on regular work days. There’s always more work to do! True as that may be, I believe that consciously booking time in our individual calendars for a volunteer activity is a means of going round this problem. Do not wait for free time to magically appear. Be proactive. It’s a matter of priorities: just as we make time for the things that we place priority on, we can also learn to prioritize our volunteering time. 

One of the exciting things I did as a grad student was to take part in science outreach activities organised by my college to local schools. The sense of satisfaction was always palpable after every school trip. The smiles and excitement on the faces of the students were always a source of encouragement to keep me going back. Again, the richness and self-worth this brought cannot be overemphasised. Similar to everything that is worthwhile and productive, such as reading a book or going to the gym, there is a barrier for you to get started, but once you’re in the productive routine, you keep coming back for more.

But how do you decide what to volunteer for? The sheer number of different volunteer areas might be overwhelming and even put you off. For me educational outreach has always been exciting and hence my inclination towards such opportunities. But your source of excitement might be different. Remember, at the end of it all the passion for that volunteer activity will be the main driver keeping you to still volunteer.  

As a researcher working in industry, I have observed that volunteering with my colleagues presents a different kind of bonding experience. This kind of bonding cannot be easily accessed through our daily work, but a pursuance of our individual passion of giving back to the community. The camaraderie developed through such activities is very strong as you tend to see the “other side” of your colleagues. This goes a long way to fostering a tightly knit unit at work. Companies that provide opportunities to volunteer contribute immensely to the welfare and development of their communities and must be spurred on by their employees to continue to be consistent in their corporate social responsibility initiatives. If these programs do not exist in your workplace, you can be proactive and create them, even if it is through a casual initiative with your colleagues.

It is indeed better to give than to receive. The giving of your time, resources, and energies to a good cause always pays back. It’s easy to find excuses about the lack of time, but I would encourage you to step out and roll your sleeves, I guarantee, you will never regret it.  

Dr. Alex Nyarko a Technology Leadership Program Associate in Research and Development, currently working on developing new sustainable technologies and products.

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