Monday, 30 March 2015

Fallingwater: on excellence and mediocrity

Coming back from a weekend with friends two weeks ago I had the opportunity to fulfill a long time wish: I managed to visit Fallingwater. I've been in love with Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece of integrated design since I first found out about it. Finally, I was about to see it in person. It provoked the same response in me that the Taj Mahal did: no matter how many photographs of it I'd seen, the experience of being in its presence was overwhelming. Much like the Taj, Fallingwater is exquisite craft expressing conceptual genius at almost every level of analysis.

As we left Fallingwater, we drove through miles of countryside scattered with new builds. Within minutes of one of the most inspiring houses ever built, we were back in standard, prefabricated MacMansions that stuck out on hills, with terraces and balconies jutting out at odd angles. It was disappointing. So little of Lloyd Wright's careful thought about the integration of architecture and landscape, about the use of light and space, heck even about using cantilevered concrete rather than wooden post and plasterboard to deal with steep inclines, has made it into the bulk of modern architecture. 
Going further, if we look at the glass-and-steel monoliths that increasingly dot cities and university campuses, which of them really display anything like the intricate thought of Fallingwater, or the Guggenheim in New York? I remember in London, before I left, my first encounter with the base of the Shard. I was wondering how the architect has sought to integrate this glass and steel behemoth with the ramshackle brick buildings around it? The answer: not at all. The glass and steel cladding simply descended into a canopied atrium, as if the starship of a spectacularly aesthetically unsophisticated alien species had crash landed on south London. 
When confronted the reality of how little brilliance like Fallingwater affects day to day construction, how little careful ideas about the spaces we live in seems to have affected the practice of how and what we build, one is tempted to get depressed. And I would hazard that similar things happen in science. How often do we get frustrated that ideas that were soundly and brilliantly rejected years ago continue to have a zombie life in the literature? How often do we complain that the nuance and subtlety in the source materials of innovative ideas is lost in the work of those who pursue those ideas? My recent experience at the clinical meeting highlighted how little people were thinking about new ideas and new directions, and how much time was being devoted to flogging dead horses. And in my old field of paleontology, many of the scientist doing the most interesting and subtle work get ignored in favor of self promoters doing the same old thing, with newer analyses tacked on for flashiness (much like modern house building in fact). 
If in architecture, as in science, brilliant, thoughtful ideas and approaches get so diluted in the mass, how do we, as individuals, keep doing good work? The best I can come up with is to think critically about the bad stuff, regularly engage with the good, and shoot for an architect designed house. 
I am not Frank Lloyd Wright of experimental biology, evolutionary biology or paleontology. But I have had the good fortune to work with people who think about science like he thought about buildings: carefully, yet radically, questioning all the tools we use, how we use them, and our approaches. And ultimately, the reward of working like that is to assemble something complete, integrated, beautiful, inspiring, and good.  

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Defying gravity, finding balance

I'm just done with a three day meeting in Chicago. It's been thought provoking, and has jump started my thinking about the next phase of my life and career. This postdoc, wonderful and intellectually enriching as it is, won't last forever. And if there's one thing my PhD taught me the hard way, it's that you can never start planning too early for the next move.
This conference was unlike any I've been to before. It was a clinical research conference at which Ph.D.s probably were a minority. Most of the paper presentations consisted of retrospective analysis of patient case studies, and one of the major keynotes was essentially grand rounds. The neurophysiology lectures were few, and only two labs presented work on animal models. My PI left frustrated at the state of the basic science in the field. I left... unenergised. I took notes on maybe three talks, and these are people whose work I'm already aware of. This meeting was also the first one I've ever been to where every session ended with several minutes of rambling interventions by questioners from the audience that added almost nothing to the presentation. In my own talk (generally well received) the dominant question was simply an attempt to invalidate the clinical relevance of the research based on something that, well (yes I'm biased) totally missed the forest for the trees.
I'm from a basic science background in a field with relatively little translational potential. Yes, people turn to paleo to understand the potential effects of climate change on faunal transitions, but the immediate applications of such knowledge are limited. And although I will defend with every inch of my being the notion that any useful knowledge on human biology cannot be derived without some understanding of mammalian evolution, again, there are several steps between this, and clinical research. I have, from the beginning, been somewhat apprehensive about working in a more clinical focus. At 18 and again at 21 I turned down the opportunity to become a physician to pursue science. I don't think like a physician. There is mutual frustration in the clinician/basic science researcher relationship, as there is between any two groups with a narrow area of collaborative interest but broadly different focuses and approaches. And I have a lot of sympathy for the clinical perspective. We may harp on about lack of mechanistic and physiological understanding of the symptoms we're studying, but clinicians still have patients that need care here and now and cannot wait for a new, physiology driven paradigm to emerge. Yet, to me, the frustration remains, and I have to decide if the potential benefits (increased opportunities for research and funding yes, but also the knowledge my research has a measurable impact on people's wellbeing) are worth coming to terms with that frustration, and learning to build a dialogue with the clinicians willing to take the field forward. Professionally, this postdoc is a crossroads with two very different paths out of it, and this meeting has re-emphasised that some commitment on my part will become necessary soon.
Related was my reaction to being back in a big city. I am a city boy at heart, and after over a year in rural North East Ohio the effect of being in Chicago was electric. Riding the blue line from O'Hare was exciting enough, but walking through downtown Chicago to the hotel, my heart rate doubled, my pace accelerated. For the next three days I was like a kid in a candy store. I went shopping with pleasure for the first time since I left London. We explored secret hipster bars and sang karaoke and went to wonderful, innovative restaurants. I miss that, so much. I miss there being a world of excitement and delight and pleasure on my doorstep. And so I am reminded that, next time I move, I don't want to end up at another great job in a place that bores me. And yes, I know that sounds snobbish and privileged. And I am aware that living in a place like Chicago is challenging on an academic salary (I turned down a postdoc there in part for that reason). But I am also now sure of what I want in terms of quality of life from where I live. It will be difficult to get a professor gig I enjoy. It will be harder still to get it in a place I enjoy. But for myself, I need to try and do both. And if I can't do both, I will have to choose (or, as my mother would put it, life is more likely to choose for me). On the one hand, compromise and choices from imperfect options are the essence of life. On the other, life is lived only once, and I intend to get as much out of it as I can. It's a dynamic, unstable equilibrium at best, but I am still young enough that I want to at least try to have it all.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Human assets

I have a lot a of friends who are academics, but I think that, on balance, most of my friends are not. I like this. It allows me to escape from the navel gazing that permeates many academic discussions. It allows me to put the problems of junior scientists in perspective, to learn that they are, in the words of Elrond to Gimli, "only part of the troubles of the world". This does not mean that I don't think that junior academics have problems, far from it. It merely reminds me that our problems are similar to those in other careers, and (more often than not) have similar root causes.
My brother recently got a new job. He works in strategic marketing, that is, the data driven part of marketing, not the shiny ads bit. He aggregates and crunches data concerning the products his company sells, and makes recommendation on where the company should be targeting its existing products, and where it should be focusing new product development.
For the past several years, he's worked for a major multinational whose entire product line exists in a mature market, that is a market where almost all possible consumers already buy either the company's product or a rival's similar one. In a mature market, growth is marginal, innovation is incremental, and strategy primarily trench warfare. My brother hated it. It played to none of his strengths, and the company had no interest in branching out into new markets. Thankfully, he recently switched to a company that is positioned in a non market leader position in a dynamic, changing market. A company that hired him precisely because he is excellent at 6,000 ft, broad picture of things strategy recommendations backed by a thorough understanding of the data.
A comment from my brother's exit interview with company number one struck me when talking about this. His soon to be ex-boss said to him "you've been under used and poorly used". To me, that seemed an explicit recognition that his talents were ill suited to the company yes, but also that the company had failed to find a way to make use of what it recognised as potential assets. What a waste. While we can probably justify this from an actuarial perspective, one cannot help but feel that, well, it is a sub-optimal way to deal with resources, and a pretty shitty way to deal with people.
This problem, "under used and poorly used" is surely one that affects academia. And there is no such thing as a mature market in academia. We should always be able to make use of the assets people bring to our labs. We can always develop our products into new markets. Heck, in the current funding environment, spinning out new products is all we do. What is more, academia, I think, has the potential to forge a different way of managing human assets because, historically, mentorship is built into the very structure of the profession. I know that it often, in this day and age, doesn't seem that way, and I know that many people fail to live up to that ideal.  But the American research university is based on the XIXth century German research university model. And mentorship, the nurturing and guiding of talented young scientists, was and remains a key ingredient in that vision.
That norm of mentoring is an important one, and one that can inject humanity and compassion in what can often be difficult times (especially for ECRs). But, I think that today, we need to reconsider what constitutes good mentoring. It is, I think, no longer merely about developing the student or postdoc as a scientist. It is about being honest with them about the job market and expectations. It is about guiding them, or pointing them towards others who may guide them, if they decide to transition out of academia. It is about using your status to advocate on their behalf. It is about supporting them when they advocate for themselves. If mentorship as a value in science as a social endeavor is to remain meaningful, then it requires that mentors engage at least somewhat with the reality of what their trainees face. A discussion about what mentorship means in this context is long overdue.
There has been much talk on the internet lately of the ubiquity and unavoidability of cost benefit analysis in life, particularly as they relate to the difficult choices of young scientists, and the older scientists who sometimes support them. My brother's situation at his old company may have been the result of such a cost benefit analysis: developing him as asset would have been too expensive to be worth it. In the midst of such discussions, it is worth remembering that cost benefit analysis is not the only decision making framework which exists. In fact, it has often been explicitly rejected in determining how we should interact with other people. Kant's categorical imperative (always treat another human as an end in itself, not as the means to an end), for example, argues that utilitarian analysis of human interactions is unethical. The 'golden rule' (treat others as you would they would treat you) similarly cannot be reduced to cost benefit analysis. In the tension between cost benefit analysis of human assets, and the necessary human interactions of work, lies the difficult path of academic mentorship.