Why I Do What I Do, and What’s In It For You Too

January 24, 2017

My twisty- turny journey to doing the work I love involved numerous careers, multiple colleges, and both coasts.

I have been a professional ergonomist for 17 years and would love the opportunity to help you and your employees create healthy and productive habits within your work environment.

I can honestly say that not once as I child did I stand up in class and say “I want to be an ergonomist when I grow up.” In fact, drawing on my lifelong love of art, I started my career off as a medical illustrator drawing fish bones at the Museum of Natural History in NYC! It was a fun job, but despite the training and specialized nature of the work, it just didn’t pay enough.

In order to increase my salary and get steady work, I became a graphic designer. Graphic design required drawing and design work using computer based software. All this software required extensive use of the mouse (or other input device). After many years of being a graphic designer and using the mouse a lot, I developed a repetitive strain injury in my right hand. After a while, I realized I could no longer do this kind of work full time, since my hand was not getting any better. I needed to take care of my body and ensure I could support myself.

During that time, I had tried many treatments to help myself, from massage to chiropractic care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture, medication, industrial physicians, wearing braces, using topical medications, self massage, stretching, you name it! I was experiencing so much pain in my right hand and arm that I eventually took to calling myself a massage slut, because I would ask anyone and everyone to massage my aching limb.

As they say if you cannot do, teach, so I became a graphic design instructor. I did that for a few years, until I figured out that to become a full-track, tenured faculty member I would need to have a Master’s degree in graphic design. Because this would involve me going back to doing nearly the same level of graphic design work (and using a mouse) that had caused my injury in the first place, this was not a good solution.

Hence I found myself fully immersed in an early mid-life crisis. What was I going to do for the rest of my life to earn money that would not further compromise my health? As part of my search for a solution, one summer I went to visit the career center at the local community college and met this very helpful woman who did not have much to do during the scholastic off-season. I ended up visiting her two to three times a week and she would help me evaluate various career possibilities.

Lost as I was, I did know that I wanted to spend the rest of my career helping people and doing preventative and/or therapeutic work. I considered everything from physical therapy and occupational therapy to phlebotomy (people trained to draw blood from a patient). I made lots of calls and did many informational interviews for all sorts of careers. Unfortunately, none of these turned out to be a good match, in that they would involve using my hands too much and therefore wouldn’t be a good match for my physical needs (I don’t like to use the word “limitations”).

This was before the internet-based age of Information we now live in, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it was an unassuming little piece of paper that set me on the path to what I do today. One day this wonderful councelor found this 2” x 3” flyer talking about something called The Human Factors and Ergonomic Society. Intrigued, I called them, asked a bunch of questions, and then waited patiently for the (snail) mail to arrive that contained the book of all the schools in it with Ergonomic programs around the US.

After still more phone calls and interviews, it turned out that yes, being an ergonomist was something I could physically do. Eventually, I started graduate school for Human Factors and Ergonomics at San Jose State University in San Jose, CA. I was now in the engineering building, which seemed to me a strange place for an artist to end up. One of my teachers called me a “canary in a coal mine” meaning that if I can get through the program anyone can. I wrote a 99 page thesis and I graduated in 2004 with my Master’s degree. I became a full time intern at a tech company in 2000, working and going to grad school simultaneously.

Having been a practicing ergonomist now for 17 years, I know I made a good decision. I love my job. I love helping people. I love sharing my knowledge and helping people to keep their bodies healthy and their lives productive. And I am immensely grateful (and aware of the irony in the fact) that I am now in a position to help people avoid the very type of injury that set me on a path to this career in the first place.

Because of the experiences that brought me to this work, I am in a unique position to provide empathetic and insightful assistance to your company and employees regarding the ergonomic environment at your business. I would love to help keep you and your employees healthy and productive. – Serafine Lilien, Owner, ErgoArts

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