Archive for June, 2013

Luckily it’s not all up to luck

June 30, 2013 Leave a comment

SuccessResearch requires a special kind of patience, the kind that will tolerate heavy doses of frustration.

The best thing about science is that it does not lie. If your hypothesis is wrong, it has the balls to tell you that you’re wrong without any of the “A+ for effort” fluff. On the other hand, if you are correct, science will very subtly hint to you that you are somewhat clever in finding a solution to your question. In rare situations, the answer will be right in front of your face. Most of the time, science will tease you with hints of the next step. And always, an answer to your question will pave the way for a hundred new questions. In the end, real answers require not only a lot of work, but also a lot of luck.

Chances are that you will die of heart disease, cancer, or a stroke. But that’s just probability. After all, it was by a marvelous stroke of luck that the monkeys shipped to the US carried Reston ebolavirus rather than any of the agents that cause Ebola hemmorhagic fever. Life is a lot about luck. Science is a lot about luck.

Science is a lot like sports in a way; talent can only take you so far. The thing that separates the good from the excellent is practice. Good baseball players hit the ball well. To be a good hitter, you have to hit, and you have to hit a lot. The same goes with science. If you want to be a scientist it takes a lot of practice and repetition. If you swing the bat enough times, you’ll eventually learn the best way to hit the ball.

In sports, you hear a lot of “I do it because I love the game.” Remember, these athletes are not out there playing the game because they fell into it. They practice and play because they genuinely love the game. Sure it’s nice to make millions of dollars a year to do the thing you love doing, but is money really the driving force here? We could argue about incentives and how they’ve driven society to where it is today. We would go back and forth, and I would agree that incentives are an excellent motivator, however there is one thing I find more motivational than any incentive you can give me. And that one motivator is dopamine.

KfQstXFCocaine is one helluva drug. Kidding. The cliche is as follows: “Do what you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life.”  If you love getting paid to sit in a dugout for half of your salary and bake in the sun for the other half, then baseball might be for you. Of course I’m joking. Who doesn’t love a game where 11 minutes of action are injected 5 seconds at a time throughout a 3 hour period?

The takeaway is this: it’s a lot about luck. frustration is common and failure should be a giddyup. if you enjoy being wrong a lot, science and graduate school are for you.


More Bloody Efficient

June 17, 2013 Leave a comment

EfficiencyMost researchers would be absolutely thrilled with a paper in Cell, Nature, PNAS, or Molecular Micro. Here at Oxford, those journals are the standard. The competition here is fierce, and that breeds better science. A combination of fear and prestige has lead to the University of Oxford becoming one of the best research institutes in the world. The fear of losing funding is an excellent motivator, and the title of the university means that if you don’t produce, your ass is getting kicked out the door.

While not everybody’s research will yield groundbreaking results, the general productivity of a lab can be measured by its impact factor. Of course, impact is a poor measure of scientific success. Like the SAT, GRE, and GPA, impact factor is just a number. But let’s work with the assumption that higher impact means better work. The impact factor of the labs here is incredible. Of course, there are labs around the world that are definitely comparable with respect to scientific productivity, but there’s one difference I note. These people work smarter, not harder.

I am a part of a lab where the PI routinely comes to work at around 6am, and leaves at 2pm. Perhaps it’s the balance between “work” and “play” that makes him so productive. Maybe because he knows he has a strict 8 hour work day, he does more during those hours. Maybe it’s just because he’s more intelligent. But ultimately, he has achieved a higher impact factor per hour than most researchers. He’s more efficient.

If your PI has to push you to come into the lab, or you complain about staying late, maybe you need to adopt a new philosophy. You may be more productive if you stick to a schedule. I am still under the impression that more hours in the lab mean more opportunity for success, but 12 hours/day, 7 days/week in the lab is not for everyone. To paraphrase Bill Gates, give the job to the laziest person because he/she will find the easiest way to get it done.

Take it with a giant tub of salt as I’m the last person to offer advice about life balance. If you find a job you enjoy you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Sorry, that was a lie. Every job has something you will hate doing. But you get the idea. Be efficient.

The Fountainhead: Success and Ego

June 16, 2013 Leave a comment

The Fountainhead is novel about a talented architect, Howard Roark, who believes so strongly in his convictions that he is unwilling to yield to the wants of his clients, regardless of the cost. At one point, Roark is recruited to build a temple. In his disregard for tradition, he chooses to put the statue of a naked woman as the centerpiece of the building. It’s no doubt, the world hates Roark. And Roark is Ayn Rand.

Looking for some reviews on The Fountainhead, this was most prevalent: “I hate lessons from Ayn Rand and disagree with her views.” I’m not sure if  this irony, but The Fountainhead is about how the public will hate you for defying the trend and for being selfish. Ayn Rand, in writing The Fountainhead, broke the altruistic mold and praised ego, and people hate her for it.  She was also a strong advocate for individualism, and a philosophy she coined as objectivism. Rand probably loved to hear her critics.

We have come to see how great is the unexplored, and many lifetimes will not bring us to the end of our quest. But we wish no end to our quest. We wish nothing, save to be alone and to learn, and to feel as if with each day our sight were growing sharper than the hawk’s and clearer than rock crystal” – Anthem, Ayn Rand

Humans place so much weight on feelings. In contrast, Ayn Rand believed in reason, logic, and knowledge. The novel turns relationships into transactions, but is still more near reality than any of Nicholas Sparks’ work. The Fountainhead may seem impersonal and droll as it disregards emotion, where the main character is blunt and direct, but I find Roark to be relatable.  The best description of Roark comes early in the book in a conversation with fellow architect Peter Keating who asks “Can’t you be human for once in your life?” The following interaction transpires:

Roark interaction

Roark is brief, honest, witty, and self centered. The characters are well developed, with pasts that haunt, and personalities that you can find all around. Your cubicle neighbor is likely another Peter Keating. Keating is an ass-kisser and climbs the social ladder through “playing the game” rather than actually making contributions and advancements to architecture. The Fountainhead hits on what it actually means to be successful, something our society obviously needs (see the “success” of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo).

I hope that adventure for the sake of adventure is not lost. The CV has become a safe to hold the currency that is accomplishment. Because graduate admissions and academic positions are based primarily on your achievements, I frequently see that students join clubs and do things just to say that they’ve done it. Science is supposed to stem from intrigue, and the drive to want to understand the unknown. Rand demonstrates that striving for recognition rather than scientific contribution can be the ultimate cause of failure.

So, if you want 750 pages of wit, and insight into the egos of “successful” individuals give The Fountainhead a read.

Glassy, yet classy.

June 13, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve decided to catalog a few things while here at the University of Oxford.

I’ll probably note some of the differences between the US and UK.


Everything is made of brick or glass. Almost every house looks something like this. Just do a street view of almost any street in north Oxford.

Glassy Heathrow

Or they look like this:

To the right is Heathrow airport, and below is the New Biochemistry building at Oxford. Glassy.

And yes, they wear their Oxford shirts here quite often. There’s even a guy downstairs playing the piano in the common area of the building as I write. Classy.New Biochemistry