Vicki of Another Sewing Scientist on Sew-viving Academia

Finally finishing graduate school this year was the hardest thing that I have done in my life. Working through the challenge, I learned so much about myself. Part of that was learning how important it is to me to sew – to work with my hands, to design, and to create. Sewing is my rock that gets me through hard times. Curious to see if others have had similar experiences, I asked some other sewists to share their personal connections between sewing and making it through graduate school. I’m excited to introduce Vicki of Another Sewing Scientist.

vicki of another sewing scientist

Sewing Scientists are the coolest kind of scientists. It’s true. (Trust me, I’m a scientist.) Confession time: I’m not Dr. Another Sewing Scientist. I have 18 years of schooling, but never wanted to do a PhD. I did a Graduate Certificate in Biotechnology in 1999, and the program has since been altered to be an MSc, so make of that what you will!

That being said, I’ve worked in research labs for 20+ years now, doing everything from ocean sediment sampling, to plowing experimental fields for barley planting, to designing drug assays, to brain surgery. Yes, brain surgery; it takes a steady hand, lots of pre-planning before you cut, and the ability to monitor and juggle several projects simultaneously. And then there’s a bit of hand stitching at the end. Exactly like sewing. ;)

overeducated seamstress vicki of another sewing scientist 4

I’ve spent many hours over dinner or drinks (more often drinks) with colleagues during which the conversation tends to veer towards the personal: we all do the same kind of research, but how do we differ? Turns out, we all have a secret creative side: my project manager studies classical voice; my post-doc is a singer/songwriter, my grant reviewer is a film maker, the annual parasitology conference I attend is organized by a woman who crochets baby blankets for all her favourite PIs…. there is even an auction night to raise money for a student travel fund, and the highest bid usually goes to the works of a professor emeritus who does watercolours of parasites!

overeducated seamstress vicki of another sewing scientist 5

Conversations with these creative scientists tend to go like this: “Well, when I started university, it was a toss-up between creative pursuit X and my scientific field, and I decided that I could always be a scientist during the day and do my creative projects after hours, but I wouldn’t be able to do the opposite.”

Indeed. Home genetic engineering is highly frowned upon, both by one’s neighbours and one’s government, while home sewing is much less likely to land you in jail. (aside: rather than the famous “Home Sewing is Easy” fabric, wouldn’t it be fabulous to have “Home Genetic Engineering is Easy”? No? Just me then. Ok, how about browsing the extensive science collection of fabrics at spoonflower instead. The diatom prints are my favourites.

vicki of another sewing scientist 2

The downside to being a sewing scientist is lack of time. Since going back to full-time work after my last maternity leave, I usually only have a few hours to myself per week, and that doesn’t include sewing as often as it used to. Case in point: I’ve been working on this “1 hour” skirt for more than a week already, sewing in 10 minutes snatches. Luckily, my kids are getting older and more independent, and I can see that soon I’ll have longer and longer stretches to myself again.

vicki of another sewing scientist 6

I’m constantly inspired by things in my lab. I have one project in the works that I’ve been steadfastly piecing together since last year’s Project Runway unconventional challenge that saw Justin Leblanc made a “test tube” dress (which was actually made with pipet tips. I was so adamant about correcting that mistake that I wrote a blog post about it. I’m also working on a fabric painting project based on my alamar blue yeast assays. The colours are mesmerizing.

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But hands down, the best part of being a sewing scientist is all the travel I get to do. For the past 5 years, I’ve worked on a project with partners in Canada, USA, Botswana and South Africa. That means travel to all the research centres for technology transfers and conferences. That means fabric shopping, and even the occasional meetup! While I’m very unlikely to buy typical souveniers of these work trips, I always come home with my baggage tipping the weight limit in fabrics. Always.

Comments 27

  1. “Well, when I started university, it was a toss-up between creative pursuit X and my scientific field, and I decided that I could always be a scientist during the day and do my creative projects after hours, but I wouldn’t be able to do the opposite.” —eee!! there are others just like me! i’ve said this quoted bit pretty much verbatim but have mostly gotten funny looks in response (or occasionally the story about that guy doing cancer research in his garage), so its exciting to hear it from another scientist :) :). i really enjoyed reading this post! :)

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      So nice to hear you say that, since it was completely true for me too! Of course, now that I’ve finished my Ph.D. I’m off to do creative pursuit X full time, but that’s a whole other story :)

      1. i think thats fantastic :). sometimes i wonder what it might be like to go full creative, although its kind of scary thinking about starting over in a different field…even though science is pretty excellent training in dealing with unknowns and what to do if things fall apart :p. good on you for following your creative dream :) :)

  2. That is great! I sew since I was 8-9 years old… Why? Because there was a machine involved :) Since then, I got involved in several other creative things, usually all related to transformation, including my PhD :) Great to know that I am not alone. Thanks.

  3. It’s so refreshing to read a story so similar to mine. I, too, am a doctoral candidate in formational counseling and I love sewing and designing. It’s so hard for me to choose–I love both. I also work part time as an Early Childhood Therapist. Creating provides an escape for me, a stimulation much different from my chosen profession. From my world view, artistic pursuit is necessary, it energizes the human spirit.

  4. First of all, congratulations on finishing you PhD! I’m from more of a humanities background so reading about how science inspires and ties into your sewing is really interesting. The colours on that pic you posted (yeast essay? I’m out of my depth here) are lovely. Being on campus, I teach language, is like being in a little self-contained bubble sometimes and I need the creative outlet that sewing provides. Especially since it doesn’t deal with words!

    1. I can give you a 30 page PDF of the assay SOP that explains the assay image above if you’d like. No? heheheh.

      Short story: it’s yeast that’s acting as a model for a parasite. It changes colour as it grows because of an indicator that I add (Alamar Blue); it changes from navy blue -> violet -> fushia -> hot pink -> orange then fades to clear after a few days. It’s like a rainbow of limited colour. I want to make a maxi skirt with dots of all those colours moving up from the hem.

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  5. Hey Erin – thanks for asking me to participate in your OverEducated Seamstress project. Funny, because working in the environments that I do, surrounded all day by PhDs and DPhils makes me feel UNDEReducated sometimes ;)

    1. ha yes!!! vicki is down to travel!!

      i would like to jump on the vicki love bandwagon, she is marvelous. and i really really hope this ongoing PR inspired project has something to do with that crazy beautiful mulitcolored thingamajig circly hoohaa (the technical name).

      1. Oona, are you sure you don’t have a PhD? ‘Cause you got the scientific lingo down pat girl.

        Well, it’s a good thing I’m headed to NYC next month so we can jump on each others’ bandwagons. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Unless you have an actual bandwagon? I wouldn’t put it past you.

    2. I love travelling, which comes from growing up with a mother who worked for Air Canada, and I could travel anywhere for almost free. Totally spoiled me. And emptied my bank accounts while I was in my 20s, but whatevah. I have friends who use music festivals as their impetus for travel; others who use conferences; others who use shopping; others who use visiting friends and family. I just happen to use all those excuses (+sewing) rolled into one! ;)

  6. Thanks for this! I am a home sewer and knitter in addition to working on a PhD in Civil Engineering. Because I am a woman in a male-dominated field, I feel very out-of-place with my hobbies. This is so reassuring!

  7. You (Vicki and Erin) are two of the four (I think) scientists whose sewing blogs I’ve been following and it is so good to read about other scientists who sew as a creative outlet. Thank you for sharing so much! I’m a PhD student in biology (ecology of fishes). I often feel guilty for taking any tiny bit of time for myself, including vacation, hobbies, or visiting my far-away family. Many of my colleagues feel the same way, but most of us recognize that we need some sort of creative hobby to keep us balanced and inspired. Hopefully nurturing my creativity in my hobbies will help me to access it in my scientific work when I need it, too! In the meantime, I’m making the connection by donating two shark washcloths that I’m knitting for the raffle to raise money for student travel at my conference. Congratulations on finishing your PhD, Erin!

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      Thanks for chiming in with your experiences. Please do take time for your hobbies and your self. Self care is very important (if not essential!) for surviving graduate school! I totally understand the feelings of guilt that come from taking any time away, but don’t let that guilt rule your life (says the pot talking to the kettle!).

  8. “Home genetic engineering is highly frowned upon…”


    What an entertaining interview!

  9. What a lovely interview. I work in Consulting and I feel mentioning sewing as a hobby is being looked down upon. Don’t knock it till you try it, I say.
    Go sewing scientist!

  10. Vicki is the best!
    I’ve met her twice and am already scheming to meet her again! Bright, funny, generous and did I say bright?
    I love her presence. So yes, sewing scientists are the best!

    1. Ah yes….I’ve managed to bring another one over to the dark side. Join us Carmen. Join us.

      But seriously, why aren’t you coming to Montreal this summer? :(

  11. I was mostly offline this weekend, and I’m just reading all your comments now….you ladiez are making me blush! (*´ ˘ `*).。oO ( ♡ )

    (Yeah, I just put that sickly sweet thing there. I’m not really a 15 year old girl. I’m a mature scientist.


  12. I’m not a “scientist” since my field is history, and not necessarily overeducated since my degree is an MA. However, I do feel that if your brain is challenged, it’s challenged. And sewing certainly challenges my brain. Why in God’s name did I sew that seam that way? What was I thinking when I bought that fabric? How am I going to make something wearable out of this UFO? And other such creative endeavors.

  13. Beautiful pictures of you, Vicki! I do hope you get to come to Tampa again. What you said about your science side vs. your creative side, and not being able to do science on the side? That’s what I tell my daughter. She’s got the bright science mind, along with the gift of artistic talent. No one can take your creativity away! In my field, I have met many other doctors who have creative pursuits. It’s a healthy outlet!

  14. Not a scientist, but I like that my job also gives me lot’s of opportunities to travel/fabric shop/meet up. So fun that I’ve met Vicki on 2 different continents!

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