2020 Week 3: Acceptance

This week I celebrated both two years with ONI and twenty seven years of life in general. I felt particularly cared for by the people around me, and appreciated both that this is the case, and that I am aware and able to enjoy the feeling. It is one thing to accept someone into a community, but it is even more difficult to make them feel accepted.

Things I wrote this week:

Training Fasted, a spontaneous experiment I conducted, noting how my physical performance shifted in response to not eating over a 30 hour period.

Things to share this week:

A team from the University of Vermont, Tufts, and Harvard published the dryly titled paper A scalable pipeline for designing reconfigurable organisms. As the video from the Supplementary Information shows, the team have actually grown (or built) working biological machines based on computer aided designs. The resemblance to headcrabs is eerie, but the work is very impressive.

I came across this Zombie Simulation coded in R, while looking for help with my own R code. It reminds me of people who hack Doom onto TI-83 calculators.

I played two games of Captain Sonar, a chaotic submarine-warfare themed board game between two teams who must work cooperatively to out maneuver their opponents. Not an easy game to learn, but a lot of fun.

2019 Week 28: Notes, Hours, Kids

Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.

Long version:

Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper

I started a molecular biology MOOC. The beginning of the course suggested note taking on paper is more effective, and cited this study. It was persuasive, but I will continue to mostly work digitally. I justify this by the ease of carrying, organising, and searching digital notes being more convenient than paper systems. This reminds me of the observation that smart-phone-toting-always-online-humans are effectively cyborgs, with tremendous capabilities for memory, problem solving, and long distance communication. That said, I do find scrap paper to sketch diagrams very helpful in the initial learning.

Working Long Hours

There are many professions that are associated with working long hours; truck drivers, doctors, bankers, and the whole culture of Japanese salarymen. Of scientists, organic chemists seem to work particularly long hours, and anecdotally there is life in the Chemistry Research Laboratory no matter when I pass by. Working in an ambitious startup can involve challenging schedules; Elon Musk suggested in a tweet 80-100 hours are needed to “change the world”.

This week I performed some long experiments, and was complimented by colleagues on being able to sustain energy and remain positive throughout. On reflection I think maintaining good physical health (via exercise and diet) plays a significant part. Avoiding insulin spikes from binging sugar helps, even though appetite will increase during the small hours from sleep deprivation. Knowing how long you need to keep going and spacing caffeinated drinks across that time helps too. Importantly I have learned that some sleep is better than none. To prevent a heavy workload from becoming impossible; minimise unnecessary tasks and focus on completing only what is needed, then recovering (sleeping). Finally it is important to account for a diminished capacity when planning. As you tire speed of work decreases and rate of mistakes increases. Thankfully I am part of a very dedicated and supportive team, and so we are able to work together to ensure the experiments run to plan.

Flood of Children

The University of Oxford has prestige which, beyond the university itself, is used by businesses to create demand and profit. Tutoring school aged students is such a business. Summer programs run by groups unaffiliated with the university (but often using holiday vacated undergraduate accommodation) bring hundreds of teenagers to Oxford for courses costing thousands of pounds. The associated walking tours lead to pedestrian congestion as the children are shepherded around the city center (pictured below).

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 18: Allotments

Short version: This week ONI volunteered around Oxford to celebrate 3 years since being founded, and as part of that I worked on an allotment for the first time.

Long version:

The Children’s Allotment

On the 1st of May ONI celebrated its third “Oniversary”, and with corporate social responsibility in mind we decided to volunteer our time on projects around Oxford that could use some extra hands. I was tasked with leading a team to help The Children’s Allotment clear an abandoned plant nursery on the site of Oxford’s East Ward Allotments. My first response to the exercise was sceptical, but the result was an inspiring and enjoyable day, with some satisfyingly useful results. Together we worked up a sweat, collected a few scrapes and scratches, and had our shoes filled with earth, but ultimately managed to clear the entire area of rubbish and overgrown brambles. The surprise and joy of the Children’s Allotment team, and their heartfelt thanks, left us all feeling proud at what we had achieved.

When working with a group of people every day, it becomes easy to take for granted their consistently positive qualities, and I come to take for granted the work ethic of my incredible colleagues. “ONIees” are quick to get into their work and see it through with discipline and vigour. Old and young, tall and short, experienced gardeners and those who had never kept a houseplant, all promptly donned a pair of gardening gloves and got to digging, cutting, clearing, and moving ceaselessly until the job was done.

Photos from the Week

2018 Week 3: What is nano

Career
I’ve answered the “So what do you do?” question a couple times this week, and the answer I’ve been giving has been “I do research for a start-up that makes microscopes”. More specifically, they are super-resolution microscopes, the development of which won Eric Betzig, Stefan W. Hell, and William E. Moerner the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. If you’re feeling confident about science their lecture  is a good place to gain an understanding, and if not perhaps the next few paragraphs will help out.

Nano
There is a joke amongst academics that the difference between micro and nano is more funding. The joke plays on the prefixes we use to describe units being somewhat arbitrary. We know we could just as easily refer to 100 nm as 0.1 μm, but they don’t. If you didn’t feel part of the “we”, let me try and include you:
Intuition of scale is limited to what we experience. We can demonstrate this with a thought experiment. Imagine an object (I’ll pick apples) and it is easy to visualise the difference between one, two, and ten. Similarly slicing the imaginary apple we see that a whole, half, and tenth are increasingly smaller portions. Our imagination starts to struggle as we keep adding 0s (changing the order of magnitude) to the quantity. You might picture 100 apples as a rather large pile, but not be quite so sure what 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 apples would look like, beyond “lots”. Similarly it becomes harder to imagine how small 0.01 or 0.001 or 0.0001 of an apple is, beyond “a speck”. Unless you are really familiar with large or small quantities of apples, your intuition, like mine, probably goes from about 1/100 (a tiny bit of apple) to 1,000 (a rather large amount of apples), or 5 orders of magnitude. We could express this with the typical metric prefixes by saying 1 centiapple to 1 kiloapple.
Generally we do better with length: a human hair has a width of about 100 micrometres (sometimes called microns, the same micro that gives us microscopes), which is 0.000100 metres. The height of the world’s tallest building (the Burj Khalifa) is 830 metres, and we can probably push a little further: looking from the top of it the furthest we could see would be about 100,000 metres away. This translates into an intuition spanning 9 orders of magnitude, which is convenient as the prefix “nano” expresses being 9 orders of magnitude smaller than the unit length. In this example the number of hairs you could fit side-by-side along 100 km is the number of nanometres in one metre. This number is more commonly called a billion, which Neil deGrasse Tyson plays with in this video. So “nano” is just a shorthand used to quickly get us down to a very small scale. You can explore that more in these two visualisations (I highly recommend you do).
The reason that nano is so exciting is that two important processes happen on that scale, and both allow you to be reading this blog. The first is that the fundamental building block of the computer, the transistor, can be fabricated on the nanometre scale. The second is the fundamental building block of you, cells and their constituent proteins and DNA, exist on the nanometer scale. We typically measure the width of individual atoms in the unit “ångströms”, which is 0.1 nanometers, and so an understanding at the nanoscale is an understanding of physical space at the smallest scale that “structure” (as we typically mean it) make sense. Smaller than the nanometer, we enter the entirely unintutive world of quantum. So, a complete mastery over the nano-scale would translate into a mastery over biology and materials science, going well beyond what current science fiction and futurism could suggest. To work at that scale requires a way to see what is going on, and super-resolution microscopy is one such way of looking.

Lessons from Failing: Potential vs Effort
Last week I wrote a little about failing. It would be painful and unhelpful to revisit my failures every week, but I do hope sharing might prevent someone repeating the mistakes. At a minimum, by consolidating my thoughts publicly I prevent my tendency to avoid asking for help.
Working through my own failing, Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit”  was particularly helpful. A major theme is that our culture celebrates talent instead of the hard work that goes into achievement, when the effort is more significant. I suspect I was particularly vulnerable to glorifying potential (in my case I called it intelligence) because as a child I was told I was intelligent, and that became core to my identity. In turn I came to believe I shouldn’t need to work hard, because “innate” intelligence should be effortless. In fact if you hear “young Nick works really hard”, you might quietly assume focus is being drawn to effort because of a lack of talent which would be needed to achieve. It is very satisfying to think about all the opportunities talent might bring, but all the opportunities in the world are meaningless if there is no application towards any one of them.
In defeating this belief as a mathematics tutor I used the example of genetic potential for athletic feats. Often you hear children (and adults) proclaim (sadly with pride) that they are “bad at maths”. As if they somehow lack the biological machinery to do sums. The problem is they experience a false comparison, between themselves and those who have been consistently applying effort over time. It is easy to assume talent is what explains achievement when the effort is so rarely public and further hidden by being spread little by little over a long time. Compare the more intuitive idea that an obese person is not necessarily “bad at running”, but severely under-trained. They may have the genetics to set a world record, but if they turn up to the track as they are the results would suggest they are incapable of performing. Moreover if they try and perform at the level of those who turn up week in, week out, it will be a physically painful and socially humiliating experience. It is only through consistent training, gradually moving through incremental progress, that we can see underlying talent. More than that, outside of the most competitive arenas it is training rather than genetic talent that makes all the difference to performance. I feel it is also worth noting here, though it doesn’t fit quite so well, that it is setting out to make small amounts of progress and achieving it that snowballs into love of an activity. If the bar is set unattainably high, the positive reinforcement, and pleasure, from succeeding does not occur and motivation eventually collapses.
In short, in a culture where we celebrate the smartest, the fastest, or your other superlative of choice, it is important to realise that actual success in life is not about having the most potential, but it is about what you do with however much you have.

Structure
It was pointed out that this blog lacks structure and/or cohesion. At the moment the main “goal” is to create content, largely to refine my own thinking and share it with friends, family, and colleagues. To that end the unifying theme has been merely “what have I been thinking about this week”. Eventually a more meaningful structure may evolve, or I may consolidate topics spread over several weeks into a more structured format or section, but for now take it as the digital equivalent to sitting down with me over a beverage of choice and having a chat.

Writing from the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford

2018 Week 2: What is your biggest failure?

Career
This was my first week at ONI and it was great. The team is brilliant, and represents almost as many countries as it has people. In my previous job, as in this one, a personal blog is not the place to discuss the specifics of work (that might be commercially sensitive), but it is an exciting and satisfying environment to be in.

Languages
I’m on a 14 day streak for Chinese on duolingo. I first heard about duolingo from the TED talk of Luis von Ahn, which is probably a little dated, but certainly interesting from a “history of crowd sourcing” perspective. Notably it seems to have grown to be much more about learning languages than translating the entire internet, which is not to say crowd-sourcing has been unsuccessful (see Niantic and PokemonGO). Freakonomics did a podcast about how (financially) valuable it is to learn a second language,  talking with Albert Saiz who wrote a paper. In short, it’s not particularly valuable, unless the second language you’re learning is English.

Reading
Before we get serious I’ve discovered a guy here called Chris McIntyre writes a weekly email called “Interesting Things I Come Across” and it lives up to its name.

Failing
There are some questions that seem to come up in interviews no matter the position or experience. Having a concise answer to “Tell us about yourself” or “why do want the position”.  One I found difficult is “What is your biggest failure”, and in answering it over and over I’ve started to make sense of it. My failure is quite literal. I failed a number of subjects during my studies at University. Specifically 8 discontinues, 6 absent fails, and 3 fails, from 2014 to 2016. It still stings to look that up, and look at a rather large hole in an otherwise reasonably good transcript. I’m still afraid to admit it.

For most of my life I held the foolish belief that it was impossible for me to burn out. I thought that I was intelligent, but lazy. I relied on the “Panic Monster” to push through days without sleep so I could start a term’s project a couple days before the deadline. I remember explaining the reason I had so overwhelmingly over-committed myself was that “I could never have the discipline to do things gradually over time, but I always managed to scrape through, so the best way to be efficient  was to do lots and lots of things”. These beliefs were so core to how I saw myself that eventually when I did burn out, it was took me 3 years to finally accept and change these unhealthy views.

Thankfully I’ve since learned that I, like most, do not have an unlimited capacity for pressure. That I do need rest. That being smart is not all that matters. That talent is important, but consistent application of effort over time counts twice as much. Perhaps most important of all, that it is OK to ask for help.

That’s an imperfect summary, but it is certainly a good place to start.

Written (mostly) from the Oxford Hackerspace.

2018 Week 1: Production Scientist to Nano-image-r

It has been an excitingly busy start to the year

Career updates
On Friday I had my last day as a Production Scientist. On Monday I start at Oxford Nanoimaging. I’ve enjoyed my time with Alere Toxicology UK (which became part of Abbott) but I want tougher problems to solve. I was fortunate to have good colleagues; I’m coming to the belief that who you work  with matters more than what work you do, though the two are linked. The next project will be with a company three orders of magnitude smaller (~100,000 to <100), and the work is likely to be much more challenging. That is very exciting, but also a little daunting.

Catching up with old friends
I have been consistently terrible at keeping in touch with friends. This is in part due to a strong proximity bias favouring interacting with people physically closer to me over interactions I might enjoy more. It is also due to setting unrealistic expectations about how those long overdue catch ups ought to go, i.e. that they somehow have to “make up” for the gap, even though it has never been clear how that might occur. The result is procrastination. This week I was successfully prompted by circumstance, and it was lovely. Two great discussions were on how magnets can affect moral judgements and how positive and negative feedback can shape preferences and identities.

New years day
I stood on Lambeth Bridge in London to see the New Year’s Eve fireworks. It was extremely crowded, but jovial. London’s transport system impressed by coping incredibly well with the flood of people leaving central London.

Writing from home.

Focus and LaTeX

Job Hunting Update
My primary goal is still finding work. So far that looks like:

   Positions Considered          200
   Applications             50
   Rejections               7
   Recruiter Calls       Many
   Interviews               6
   Offers               0

Unfortunately still no offers. Progress is accelerating, having found clarity in my own goals.

CV and Resume
In this job application period, I’ve used 3 CV/Resumes:
CV Version 1:   Simple bullet point list.
CV Version 2:  Google docs template, better design but less content.
CV Version 3: LaTeX template, content dense whilst still fairly clean.
I am happy with the result of Version 3, and hopefully it impresses some employers. The process of formatting content was itself an act of introspection, a useful reminder that presentation is intertwined with content in transferring meaning. Also it is hard to send a message if you are not sure of the content yourself.

Personal Aims
In preparing my latest CV, I felt the need to include my personal aim in this job search, which I’ve distilled to the following:

Find a career solving complex and rewarding problems, with opportunities to develop skills and knowledge. Work with a diverse and experienced team, aspiring to one day lead investigative research and development.

I want to find work where I can grow, and while education and finance are interesting fields, it is the application of scientific and logical tools, rather than the content itself that interests me. Career progression in scientific research seems to require a PhD. The fastest path would be to do honours at the University of Sydney, but having spent nearly 7 years in and around USyd I feel it is time to diversify my experience. Additionally maintaining a relationship over the longest possible distance can be quite tedious.

LaTeX
Last weekend I finally familiarised myself with the document preparation system LaTeX. I had played with it a little before, but hadn’t taken the time to go through a tutorial in its entirety. I’m using the editor texmaker and have been happy with it.

Writing from the Oxford Hacker-space.

July 2017: Job Hunting and Rock Climbing

I left Sydney for Oxford in early July, so a month having elapsed, this is what I’ve been up to:

Job Hunting
My primary goal has been finding work. So far that looks like:

   Positions Considered             81
   Applications             16
   Rejections               6
   Recruiter Calls               4
   Interviews               3
   Offers               0

Unfortunately no offers. I’ve focused on jobs in Oxford, so have applied to positions from the university. In a wider search, reed has seemed more relevant to me than indeed,  and making a profile there has been the main source of calls from recruiters, which seems promising. It’s probably time to extend the search to include London, though I’m still hoping to find something here in Oxford.

Reading
Aside from many job descriptions, I’ve been reading Huffington’s The Sleep RevolutionThe Economist, and reddit.

Hackerspace
Having become a member of the Oxford hackerspace, I’ve been helping out a little with the 3D printing service. Producing tangible objects is very satisfying in contrast to job hunting.

Fitness
I’ve tried two new activities: squash and rock-climbing/bouldering. My staples of running/cycling and weightlifting leave a gap over hand-eye coordination, which squash fills in well. After about 8 hours I think I’m starting to develop muscle memory for basic play. I was surprised to find climbing has a huge mental component; planning and executing the correct strategy seems just as important as strength. It’s certainly fun, and much more mentally involved than lifting weights or running, but for pure fitness training not as effective.

Chess
I’ve played 207 games of chess. I haven’t improved much, so should add structured training rather than just blundering repetitively through similar openings. It’s probably also been more procrastination than relaxation this month.

Berglabs
And, of course, I’ve resuscitated this domain and updated it with a WordPress theme.

Travel
Life has taken me to London (by train) and Eyam (by car).

Writing from the Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford.

CVs and Résumés

I’ve been tinkering a little with this website, and so far it’s essentially becoming a curriculum vitae (CV). That’s probably a useful thing for potential employers to get to know me (and see that I have basic web/IT/media skills), but once I find a job that might be less useful as a front page/home page for my personal website.

Currently my actual CV is just a google doc bullet point list of various things I’ve done. As a document it could definitely be formatted better, and likely ought be tailored specifically to each role I apply for.

I thought I’d share some CV’s I’ve seen that I’ve enjoyed.

I’ve noticed in interviews so far in Oxford that interviewers will “discover” something in my CV and ask about it during the interview. This highlights the short amount of time that prospective employers will spend skimming the CV, so it’s probably sensible to cut mine down to one page, and try to better highlight the major achievements, and relevant experience. That reformat is probably this afternoon’s task (as well as doing a little re-wiring of some networking cable here)

Writing from the Oxford Hacker-space.