The Imitation Game

I review the new movie ‘The Imitation Game’ below. It’s about Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma code. If you care about spoilers, they’re here so stop reading now. However, this is a pretty well known story I think these days.

The quote of the movie is

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Turing was certainly different. As was Joan Clarke, the sole female code cracker portrayed (again, no idea if this is accurate to Bletchley Park, but the recruiting strategy of using Crosswords in Newspapers is a clever one). And of course the rest of the Enigma code breaking team were likely different in their own ways as well in being quite intelligent at puzzles, games, and other logical work. Basically, this was an era when different minds were not as celebrated as they are today (and in many cases still aren’t and it’s movies like this that really do make the case for inclusion).

Still, it was a whole team (men & women) that broke Enigma with government (military) funding that was fickle, at least according to the movie. I don’t know how true that was, but certainly the approach Turing took; building ‘Christopher’ to crack the code, eventually based on a German weather report (truly, the down fall of all codes is the humans using them and making some mistakes or repetitions) was difficult, expensive and took time to pan out. An understandably impatient British Government needed the code broken to save Britain.

Two of the big stories from Britain that were the keys to World War II were technological or information based. The first is radar that was key to winning the battle of Britain. And the second is the Bletchley Park story of cracking Enigma and keeping the fact that they’d broken the code secret from nearly everyone. The sustained resources put into it and being insistent and putting the pressure on probably didn’t help get the problem solved faster. The stakes were quite clear; The Imitiation Game shows some of the blitz of London and people huddled in underground station tunnels to seek shelter from the bombs. They also show British citizens trying to get on as normally as possible; there’s a scene of an old lady sitting on a pile of rubble with a tea cup sitting next to her.

It demonstrates that solving problems that have never been solved before takes time and different thinking that hasn’t existed before. Even when the stakes are high, rushing out a flawed solution (i.e. solving the Enigma code on one day before it changed encryption the next) isn’t ultimately all that helpful as is made plain when the British realize they have to be very cautious to not signal to the Germans that they’d broken Enigma and let some planned attacks happen anyway based on some statistical models that Turing helped develop and put into practice. It can’t have been easy figuring out the protocols for what German operations would go forward and which The British could counter.

Turing was a mathematical/logical titan whose ideas live on today (as the movie somewhat patronizingly points out at the end we call ‘Turing machines’ ‘computers’ now…). He compares himself unfavorably to Einstein and Newton early on in the movie, but clearly, he had a talent for cryptography. This is also another movie that portrays a scientist like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. I don’t know how Alan Turing was to work with, but certainly it’s the scientist type we see over and over again (obviously, there really are scientists like Sheldon out there, but that isn’t all of us…unfortunately, I tend to be like Sheldon :-/). Certainly, Turing was an important figure in the history of science/math as was Joan Clarke and the rest of the team (I’d actually like to know more about her, but perhaps that’s another movie waiting to happen).

Knowledge work takes time. It often doesn’t deliver an answer on a schedule and is an ongoing process. It’s why governments fund basic science and not companies. The payoffs are too far down the road for most businesses. Turing and his work are part of a long chain of scientists that have contributed to our digital age, and of course, we shouldn’t underestimate those that didn’t develop the tools, but developed the protocols and governance to implement and manage the cracked Enigma code. Without them, likely it would not have been as effective an operation. It truly is remarkable that The British pulled this off and kept it secret for 50 some years.

I’ll takes all types. And determining where each of us fits best with out talents is a good problem to be a part of and solve. I am still largely trying to find where I fit in. In fact, one of the keys in the movie comes from Helen, one of the British women that recorded German transmissions when she says that she has a relationship with the German communication officer that transmits the code since each British recorder is assigned a specific radio tower to record from. Basically, Turing suddenly realizes ‘Oh, people talk to each other and leave traces of themselves in their speech and communication, including identity clues’.

The Imitation Game can partly be seen as a meditation on how we do science now under tight budgets and minds not being free to pursue the big ideas, the out-of-the-box ideas. I suppose a few fortunate researchers get to do that (the few winners in what is becoming a winner take all system in the science world. Because it is a golden age of science. Just not for most scientists. How to best foster creativity and knowledge generation to solve problems has become ever more important in the 21st century and I’m not sure our current systems are doing the best at fostering that kind of thinking.

As the quote from the movie above suggests, people may have been skeptical of Alan Turing and many on the Enigma cracking team because they were different, not ‘normal’ minds, but that’s who it took to break the code. And in fact, Turing was really punished and committed suicide because he was a homosexual, a crime in the UK at the time that he (and I hope the other 49,000 prosecuted under that law) was pardoned for in 2013. In the movie, the investigating police officer is portrayed as being sympathetic (he thought he was busting a spy!), but am not sure that that’s historically accurate either.

I’m not as smart as Alan Turing. But am trying to cobble out my place and certainly, at least in some respects have never felt like I fit in most places I’ve been. I usually am quick to blame myself for this; but perhaps I can learn to celebrate that fact that I don’t fit in as well in many situations and celebrate others that have been excluded, many for systemic reasons that I am fortunate enough to not have had to deal with.

I’d recommend The Imitation Game. The gimmick of jumping in time between periods of Turing’s life (during the war at Bletchley, in the 1950’s, and when he was a prep school student) is a good one, almost making the movie a puzzle to solve. The performances are good and it’s a hell of a story from history.

do you have thoughts on the movie and what it says about the nature of Knowledge work?

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Update: For a better take on the history of Bletchley Park and Alan Turing, see this from the New York Review of Books. And this episode of Tech Stuff from How Stuff works. The Imitation Game is certainly a Hollywood version of the Turing story, with historical inaccuracies and all.

 

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This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

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In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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Superstition.

I was re-listening (yes, I do this sometimes w/ things I find great) to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts “Good Job, Brain” (it’s about pub trivia, and trivia, and knowledge and the hosts are amazing, if your’e done w/ Serial…it’s different than that, but give it a listen).

Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?
Gathering storm leading to superstition and other things in science?

This episode was about the circus. One of the hosts talked about how people that work in the circus and other performing arts were highly superstitious and cited a researcher saying that the people most likely to develop superstitious thinking are those in fields where the people have little control over what happens to them. There are a lot of things that could go wrong at a circus even if you do your own job perfectly. Same with sports, acting, comedy, mime, all that. And it suddenly occurred to me: uncertain environments, little direct control over our futures, funding, and just the chaos of doing research itself might mean scientists are prone to superstition, especially early career ones.

In the life sciences, we pray to PCR Gods, take our pipette tips in certain patterns, and I’m sure more. Of course, scientists don’t like to think we are superstitious perhaps, but it seems like something we may well be prone to given the pressures academics are under these days. Dealing with such seems to result in risk aversion, becoming more insular (i.e. less inclusive of diversity), less willing to ask for the help we need, less willing to leap into the unknown (a problem if you’re trying to figure out a plan B,C,D or E career path), and more obsessive compulsive than usual. So we may evade superstitions, but the same environments may make us more prone to these other issues. I’m not a social scientist so I don’t know how all of these thing interrelate or if they’re separable, but it does make logical sense (or perhaps that’s just confirmation bias).

So let’s do a yes/no/haven’t noticed poll. Reflecting on the current academic climate and how you behave, have you noticed yourself or the scientific community being superstitious?

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What to do?

On her blog, Doctor PMS wrote about needing to find a new path.

I am too. Though I still have things I want to do in my research career…like publish. Anything.

these are tough times for postdocs. And the entire research system (despite signs of reform…those won’t actually help me much I don’t feel). And I hate the state of being static for so long; and I think other people can sense it. I dread being asked what I do because I should be further along than I am, period. And I constantly worry I’m in a delusional bubble; in denial about just how bad it really is.

Something really has to change. I am still staring at a brick wall. Maybe I’ve put a few holes in it, but it doesn’t really feel that way. I’ve tried upgrading my skills and yet don’t feel like that’s come as far along as I’d like either. Writing, learning stats better, learning to code more, having fun with photoshop/illustrator…I still don’t have many things to apply those skills to (a “real” project), outside of fun internet projects. I networked more than I ever have this year. And yet I still am feeling blind to possibility. To opportunity. And I’m aware that opportunity often looks like hard work. I don’t mind that.

I’m feeling like the amount of effort I put into things is not yielding the results that are needed. Change is hard, and I still need to get out of my own way and just take more chances, even stupid ones and stop this stupid analysis paralysis problem I seem to have.

I suppose the first step I have down: trying again. Because for years, I had stopped. Given up. And not felt like anything I did could possibly matter. Feeling low in value, me building something on my own, mostly of my own (of course in collaboration with other people) just stalled and that’s the primary job of a postdoc. It all just feels futile now.

So many people I run across are putting out such amazing stuff. I’d like to join them in getting work I do out there, and it may just be I am not doing the right kind of work that I am deeply connected to to put out into the world.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s all I can say. I’d like to feel like I’m growing, but it still feels like I’m not moving anywhere fast in any avenue of life. And of course, making an arbitrary decision as to which direction to go does not seem smart or feel correct to me either.

In 2015, my vow is to better measure progress. Emails sent to network contacts, number of women I ask out on dates, miles run, etc. along with clearer goals…I don’t know what my long term goals are anymore…since academia isn’t likely to be in my future, I still feel lost as to where to contribute; where to go. Or if it’s even possible. Most of all, I need more people in my immediate real life. My friends on Twitter and the ones I have in life all live rather far away…and sometimes, I just need a real hug from a close friend when I’m going through all these thoughts.

I feel I can’t go on exactly as I am much longer and I don’t know what that means. So many fits and starts. will anything spark within me?  Will anything pan out?

I want to show my friends that I’m growing with one of those ‘major life events’ everyone seems to go through but me. Dating, buying a house, getting married, having kids…I don’t have to have any of them nor am I entitled to them of course, but I feel like I have robbed myself of the opportunity to even explore the possibilities because I said ‘work first, academia first, science is more important’…but it’s not.

Science will be fine when I’m long gone. The people I get to know, help, and be around are what matters more to me. And yet I don’t see them nearly enough. As much as I’d like to blame a completely upside down academic system that encourages a ‘science first, over people’ mantra, a lot of this is still my own fault. And up to me to change. To ask others to help me make a new reality. That’s the component I always seem to muck up…being able to ask for help when I need it. to explore.

Sigh. I hope it’s not too late. I don’t know. And of course, I’ll need help.

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Blogging, National Academies postdoc experience report, et al.

Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) put in his application for Full Professor recently and wrote about how he described his blogging activity and tried to put it into context for the review committee and describing the benefits he gets out of it, most of which are not tangible, or really “count” by traditional academic metrics. He’s a teacher and a scholar. Productive includes syllabi and publications for the most part.

And I agree that locally, blogging probably has no impact or is seen as a slight negative on the campus where he works. I try to keep my social media and blogging activity under wraps too. I don’t talk about it at work at all.

Except. Here’s the thing with my blog. It’s saved my life.

I don’t have 4,000 hits/month like Dr. McGlynn does, nor have I been a good scholar and published as I should. Though Katie Hinde (@mammals_suck) does nicely lay out the argument for why publishing fewer “real” papers with more rigour and less status-chasing on her own blog.

Ottoline Leyser (@OttolineLeyser – a great plant scientist, btw, auxin!) published a post today about the state of the academic environment and the effects of hyper-competition and chasing prestige on academics and why it’s problematic (specifically in the UK).

Also issued today was a National Academies report on the postdoc experience and suggested reforms. There are two posts about it in Science careers here and here (and I’m sure a lot more coverage elsewhere– it’s a big deal for the science world).

Publishing matters. However, I have refused to play the game of chasing prestige. I’d rather do good work that’s correct rather than overhype some result. Of course, as I’ve written, I haven’t been productive. Failed projects, perfectionism, crippling impostorism, clinical depression, have all derailed productivity. Some of that is completely 1000% my fault. Some of it is the system of academia though and the mental health problems it can cause as Melonie Fullick writes (@Qui_oui). Largely, I have managed my mental health problems the last year or so and am in a much better place to actually do something. And this year, in ways that academia would say don’t count, I have.

What has my postdoc experience been? Getting over depression, but also blogging. I don’t have a lot of hits each month, but blogging has helped me build a writing habit and given me opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s helped me build out my network (mostly on Twitter). It was a way to put my voice out into the world that had no other place to go. If I hadn’t started writing, I honestly think it’s quite likely that I’d have gone the way of Stefan Grimm.

Because of my blog, it’s made me want to stay. To do better. To write more, to learn, explore, connect, and yes, do good science (a manuscript I’ve written will be submitted soon!). None of these things really count in academia though. I know that and beat myself up for it still sometimes that all I do is what anyone else can do: start a blog and type words on a page (the bloggers/writers I follow in fact, by and large all do it better than I do, in my opinion). Blogging has brought me back from the ledge. Perhaps I could have achieved the same ends with a personal journal, but at least my blog is something I wrote, publish and maintain and made a commitment to write on at least once a week.

The National academies report seems useful for anyone just entering grad school or is early on in their postdoc time. For me, it’s cold comfort, but glad it’s out there to further the discussion of the postdoc experience and how it can be better for everyone involved.

So no, my blog doesn’t count, except that it does. It’s the most important thing to me. And I know that no one else probably cares, but it’s an archive of writing samples that I can trot out for discussions I see on Twitter. It’s also led me to new small projects like this:

see plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more plant advice to scientists.
See plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more advice from plants.

My next goal is to write more about actual science (I don’t tend to say I want to be a science writer because currently, that seems outlandish somehow– I want to help the enterprise of science, but am still not sure if or where any talent I might have lies). I’m not sure if I’ll do it here or someplace else, but if my “alternate career” can involve writing, count me in.

 

And even if not, I’ll still find a way to keep writing online about things that interest me like the Twitter discussion I was in earlier today that set off the horrifying thought that any image of a plant and a DNA molecule now signifies GMO, not just a plant (because some may not realize plants have full genomes unto themselves as living beings). Perhaps that’s my next post.

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Meditating on 2014.

This was my year to do things. And I kind of did. I’ll outline it below in roughly chronological order. And I’m grateful for all the people that helped get it all done.

Content Creation

I did some things/created online content for a startup called HappiLabs, go check them out; they offer a virtual lab manager and auditing of your lab supply costs. Both are good things for any lab. It was a good close look at the entrepreneurial spirit. I may not have it in me to do just yet, but then perhaps I just lack an idea I’m passionate enough about and a market where that idea would be valued.

Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.

I took on an online course in content creation for thought leaders created by a great blogger & doer of things, Sarah K. Peck. I learned a lot about content creation and that lead to my guest post on the ASPB blog “Communicating Plant Science in The Digital Age” that I am pretty proud of even though I know it’s not perfect (trying to list twitter accounts by numbers of followers as a proxy for scope/influence is a bit futile; though my point was valid that I couldn’t find a single plant scientist/organization with over 50k followers compared to other fields).

That also lead to me doing some blog coverage and twitter coverage of the ASPB annual meeting and espousing the great uses of social media for scientists. While being far from an internet celebrity myself, I’d like to think I see it’s value, and I know I’m far from alone as it seemed everywhere I turned this year articles were being written about scientists doing online stuff and winning all the awards and things or something like that. Though that may be confirmation bias at work. Regardless, it’s a world I like being in/around and hopefully I can contribute in bigger ways going forward.

Mental health & self-awareness

I got to talk about my struggles with depression to fantastic science writer Carrie Arnold and what some of my solutions were/are to dealing with it and I still would love to have a job where I got to help academics/scientists improve their mental health as well as improve the system that can impinge upon it. Because I can’t change the system (or at least don’t quite know how/not currently in a position to affect change), I focused on what I can do myself while recognizing it is not fully sufficient to address the systemic pressures that academic scientists face these days (Nature ran a series called ‘ending the doom and gloom’ that I thought was interesting, and tried to at least offer a different narrative even if it’s one I don’t fully agree with). I got to talk about it in a webinar for Bitesize Bio, which was a great experience, though I don’t know if I did the best job addressing what the audience wanted. And I think I may have ignored the webinar software chat box if anyone was trying to get a hold of me during it…oops. I am still quick to criticize myself and note things I need to work on, perhaps hypercritically.

Another thing I learned a lot about this year is privilege (I am still learning); I know I am fortunate in many, many ways and benefit from being white and male in ways I don’t see most of the time. Depression, however, is something that can fully stop anyone and is a factor in ending too many promising careers and lives– Stefan Grimm being a recent example in the STEM world (I wondered here if my experiences with depression informs reasins why I am a feminist). Even one is too many. So tragic and it always drives me to tears whenever I hear a story where a person takes their own life. And though it hasn’t happened so far as I know, I still worry that being open about depression will negatively affect my career.

Learning, trials, and errors

I worked on a sequel to my first ASPB essay (linked above) that I can’t seem to get down on paper well; it’s about how we need diverse voices and communicators in STEM fields (that is an obvious statement it seems to me). And somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers (cross pollination of ideas is a good thing, in fact it’s often where innovation seems to come from: take an idea from one domain and apply it in another). It may not be as dire as that, certainly, but that’s the fear, that without a network of dedicated communicators that knowledge, science, and ideas, will just not get out into the world. Speaking as a scientist that is working on bettering my communication skills, it can’t be left up to pure researchers all the time. Different people have different skill sets and even interests that certainly can overlap (i.e. scientist and communicator of that science). Maybe I’ll keep working on it.

…somehow linking that to teaching, writing, and mentoring— the marginalized skills academics need to have but aren’t really counted need to be valued more. If not for the writers, teachers, communicators, we wouldn’t all have the knowledge we have today. It would remain locked up in the Ivory tower, and even worse within each sub-discipline in those towers.

In the domain of wanting to upgrade my skills, I attended WiNGS (Workshop in Next Generation Sequencing) at UNC-Charlotte which was good as far as it went, but too short to really get any mastery over the software and techniques involved in next-generation sequence analyses (but several fantastic talks). I also took a MOOC in social network analysis that was interesting, but still feels a bit beyond me at this point. I am still trying to ‘get’ software that is now standard use in academia.

All of this feels like movement though it feels uncertain that it really is. I am gradually learning new things, or at least exposing myself to some new horizons. I even bought into the Adobe Creative Cloud and been using that for various projects both work and non-work related. Mostly teaching myself how to use a few of the software packages; they’re probably do far more powerful things than I will likely ever use them for, but getting into some photoshop/graphic design is fun for me, even if I’m not great at it (yet). More learning.

I also participated in a lot of the Finch and Pea (specifically Josh Witten’s) twitter hash tag games putting science into popular culture. I mention this because it’s just one of the most fun things I have contributed to. And I suppose I can claim it was practice in honing my wit. Though other people are amazingly witty.

What’s next?

That brings me to where I am now. Working on my science in the lab still, though science is not something I see myself doing in the long term or even being a full time academic. However, the skills required of an academic are still the ones I naturally gravitate toward liking/using. I like to teach (though I haven’t had opportunity to do it lately), to communicate— via keyboard mostly, but have gotten a lot better in person. Hopefully my writing has improved and my point gets across better than in the past.

Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.

My new mission is to start a blog to talk about the science more than the culture of science (who knows if that new project will go anywhere). I’ll likely never fully abandon speaking about the people that do science and how we can improve the enterprise of doing science.

And of course, I’ve maintained this blog throughout the year and that’s still a fun activity for me even though I worry about sharing my thoughts with the world sometimes. Two of my favorite posts this year are the tour of NEB I got to take (fantastic place and people there— seriously consider using their products) and reviewing a book on the academia-industry transition.

I know I get things wrong. I am not so sure that my voice is even needed in the world. Other people say similar things to bigger audiences than I do. And for all the connecting I’ve done this year, I still feel disconnected. Like I don’t know how the world works. I still feel like I’m on an island, not deeply connected. Just where do I go from here? I am still not sure. Am I even ‘enough’ to do anything in this world? And what projects will be both help me grow? These are still questions and I still need to explore.

Final Meditations

I had the pleasure of seeing John Hodgman perform live. The last few years, he’s had a theme of post apocalypse existence and meditating on just what existence means, why we’re here anyway and just who we are and what our value is as humans. First, he was very entertaining and fun. And it made me think about my value, just what’s important to me and how I can best do it as we all have limited time to do things and accomplish them. Other than what’s cited above, I’m not sure I have a good answer and still struggle to define what value I bring to the world. While I don’t feel embarrassed to exist anymore (as I really did when I was deeply depressed), I also haven’t gotten to a point where I can confidently say ‘I am a valuable person and here’s what I am about, here’s my contribution that I am making’. Ideally that contribution is some sort of work I can get paid to do (whether a passion of mine or not, but something that I am engaged with).

Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.

The You are no so smart podcast (YANSS) reminded me about the Dunning Kruger effect that says the skills to evaluate how your doing at something are the same ones that make you an expert at something. So we’re not all that good at evaluating ourselves, basically. So that means seeking useful external feedback that I have tried to do more, but probably not enough. It’s part of networking; put ideas out there and see what comes back or better, ask specifically for what you’d like to get feedback on. Most often, if I ask for feedback, I get no response, which I still take to mean ‘nothing about what you wrote makes sense’.

Even when I do get feedback, I worry that people are just being friendly/nice…I want to get better, but do understand that feedback can be hard to give. It’s a part of the growth mindset I have been trying to adopt. It’s hard to put my work out into the world when I grew up (far into adulthood too) with a perfectionist/fixed mindset that stops you from doing anything until perfection happens. I am trying to say “Done is better than perfect” more now. From where I am, I feel like I have years of negative feedback ahead before someone might genuinely say ‘this is OK’. Partly, it’s being smart enough to know when to be confident and when being humble is appropriate– probably the latter occurs more often than the former (this according to Dr. Dunning on YANSS).

I did a lot this year (not all of it is in this post). I’m not sure how much was meaningful or productive (again, I fear confirmation bias, I should look into my blog analytics perhaps). Or how much of what I have done is genuinely moving me forward. Getting moving again was important. Getting exploring was important. Starting to use the resources available to me was important— much more of the same needs to happen. Perhaps I’ve started a spark that can grow into a small fire.

Cat yoga, Millenium Falcon pose.
Cat yoga, Millenium Falcon pose.

I adopted a cat (see photo). He’s 10. And friendly. And has no front teeth. And he’s a cat. He serves no real function other than being a cat. He and I share that we are both, on the surface, probably not that useful (at least that’s my feeling about myself too often). But I have opened up more with people because of my cat, if only to find someone to take care of him when I travel and that has made me more willing to ask for things in other areas of my life too.

There are still things on my list that are really important to accomplish. Getting more on top of my organization schemes, getting rid of old things, deciding faster, finding a job, publishing my work some how, learning more and better data analysis techniques (writing scripts, using R to analyze data, making figures within R, maybe even getting to gene expression analyses from published data sets). And of course, measuring my goals better than I do currently and going in with an idea for what I might get out of an experience. At some point, though, the ‘always be improving’ mantra is exhausting and I need to feel like ‘enough’ where I am now.

And of course, I need to be wary about my depression and hope it truly is mostly in the past. I had a scary few days last month where I was back in a horribly depressive mood, but I have since come out of it and that’s a good sign that it was a temporary state. Before, it wasn’t or didn’t seem to be. Some of this is a feeling of burn out from pushing myself this year and still lacking enough restorative activities in life. Building resilience is really important too and some of that begins with what I’ve been doing the last few years— getting to know myself a lot better.

I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones

Here’s to an even better 2015. Not just for me, but for all of you readers too (this blog may not be far reaching, but I am grateful for anyone that does read/stop by). I look around and see the many amazing things everyone else is engaged in doing (Some of that can be seen in the links above), and as much as I celebrate other’s accomplishments or even sometimes support them directly (e.g. investing via crowd funding of science like Paige Brown’s analysis of science bloggers or Jaquelyn Gill’s student’s project on The Falkland Islands), I still long to be that generator myself, making something someone else finds useful. Success tends to build on itself and I hope I am connected enough to keep building.

I am working on it, on my voice, actions, and making them good ones,

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Final exam.

It’s getting to be the end of the year. All projects must get done. And it’s a time to reflect back and see what it is I’ve done this year.

I’ll write more about that as the month goes on, but I’m starting the month out asking you, any readers I have or friends who read. I am looking to break out of the isolation chamber I too often feel I’m in.

With that in mind, from where you sit, looking in at what I’ve written this year:

what have I done well this year?

How  can I improve going forward?

Is there something you think I should pursue more of? Less of?

You can leave an answer in the comments, tweet at me, or DM me, or even good old fashioned email.

Seeking feedback routinely is relatively new for me, but I hope to do it more regularly in the future and I’m starting by doing it on this blog.

I hope you all have had a win this year, especially a big one. You can let me know how your year has gone in the comments too if you wish. I am happy to listen,

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