It has been an unusual year, one filled with new challenges and opportunities to learn and grow. I enjoyed a friend’s suggestion to use Year Compass to direct some personal reflection. A few things to share:
Building things other people use is very satisfying. 2020 was the most productive year I have had in terms of programming, oddly brought about by moving into a People Team role. Compared with cutting edge research, the smaller challenges of automating office applications provided an opportunity for me to see a project from start to finish, and learn a lot along the way.
Overcoming hesitation is a way to get more done. Trying to keep pace with ONI’s founder has been a wonderfully challenging growth opportunity. One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away is that hesitation is a barrier to getting more done. I’ve tried to push harder to overcome my activation energy and been rewarded with more productive days.
People will talk if you ask nicely Thank you to the people who spoke with me this year. Working in Talent Acquisition led me to (virtually) meet many people over the last few months, and it has been a pleasure to gain insights from people across the world with a diverse range of experiences.
Last week I was reflecting (incoherently) on success, and I continue this week with some more examples of what I think success could look like as I try and understand what it should mean for me.
Zanny Minton Beddoes
Editor in chief of The Economist since February 2015, Beddoes is an established economist and one of the most influential voices in financial journalism. In the video above Beddoes describes that at The Economist she leads “some of the smartest people in the world who could almost all be either more famous or a lot richer if they work somewhere else, but yet they choose to work at The Economist.”. Success for me includes a workplace with such a “collegiate spirt” and getting “to think about the most important issues at the moment.”
As Chancellor of Germany for the last 15 years, leading Europe’s largest economy has occasionally made Merkel the de facto leader of the European Union. Along with her political success, Merkel is also a published scientist, receiving a doctorate for work on quantum chemistry.
Alex Ferguson combined an incredible work ethic with an obsession for football to become the most decorated football manager of all time, having won more trophies managing Manchester United from 1986 to 2013 than any other manager in the history of football. ONI is not a particularly football focused work place: I rarely hear the game discussed around the coffee machine, but Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz is recommended reading here. The lessons shared on leadership can be generalised; perhaps best explained in the extended epilogue by Michael Moritz, who states Ferguson would have been a successful founder “if for some reason Silicon Valley had developed between Glasgow and Edinburgh”.
Leadership in brief
In 3 words: Preparation. Perseverance. Patience. In 1 word: Consistency.
Throughout the book, anecdotes about travelling to distant fixtures, taking little holiday, waking up in the night to watch games, and being the first and last at the office, emphasise the amount of effort expended by Ferguson to achieve. He describes the need to work very hard as “baked into [his] marrow” (p. 38), and gives the examples of playing football on his wedding day and the day his first son was born. Pointing out that “an hour … squandered is time you will never recapture” (p. 164) Ferguson explains that he “cannot imagine how, if you aspire to be better than everyone else, you can have balance in your life” (p. 167).
In the first chapter titled “Becoming Yourself”, Ferguson begins his guide to leadership by emphasising the importance of observation. Listen to others, detach and watch, and read. He guides this by suggesting the test of being surprised: “When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised” (p. 17).
Ferguson’s partner Cathy, married since the age of 24, has supported his obsession throughout his career. Ultimately it was the death of Cathy’s sister that drove Alex to retire. He writes: “It is hard to conjure up a more tangible reminder of mortality, and I felt that, after all those years during which Cathy had put me first, it was time that I took care of her needs” (p. 335). The singular focus on work that Ferguson demonstrates often comes at the expense of an enduring relationship, but in this case that relationship seems to not only have survived, but thrived.
As scientific research on SARS-CoV-2 is published, the general public is becoming more aware of preprint servers, redaction, and the messy side of science. I have not kept up with the deluge of publications, but a few friends have been asking for my opinion on some headlines. I shared the following observation:
As universities shut down, scientists saw the opportunity to return to doing research (which they enjoy) by studying SARS-CoV-2 in their field. Hypothetically, a group that studies kidney disease, might look into the effect of COVID-19 on the kidney. It’s improbable that a respiratory disease improves kidney function, so if an effect is observed it is probably detrimental. The likely result will be a publication linking SARS-CoV-2 and kidney deterioration. It may well be the case that common strains of corona-virus or influenza (or any illness) have a similar negative effect on the kidney that, under normal circumstances, would not be of a sufficient magnitude or interest to investigate. In this way, scientific publications and the resulting mainstream media headlines might cause undue alarm simply due to the unusual focus of the entire scientific community on a single disease.
By a similar mechanism to over-policing, intensive research focus can make a disease seem worse than similar, less investigated diseases. Be careful what you look for, you might actually find it.
Quote I’m Pondering
You cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individuals. To that end each of us must work for his own improvement, and at the same time share a general responsibility for all humanity, our particular duty being to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful.
As a People Growth Engineer, my personal interest in self improvement is now linked to my professional responsibilities. ONI, through democratising life science research, is building a better world, but for us to achieve this we need to improve as a company, and therefore as individuals. Personal development and self improvement can feel selfish, but along with observing Curie’s duty “to aid those to whom we think we can be most useful”, individual improvements do lead to a better world for all.
This week I have had more autonomy in how I allocate my time at work. While I enjoyed the freedom, it also created expectations to perform. I might aspire to a stoic determination around ideas of “never complain, never give excuses”, but having actual excuses be removed increases the pressure I feel to deliver.
Caterpillars in Shotover
On the recommendation of a friend I ran in Shotover Country Park this weekend (see Photos from the Week below). The trails are well kept and soft under foot. There is a good variety of long steady climbs, short punchy climbs, and beautiful flat sections, great for all manner of training. There were also thousands of small (1 cm or so) caterpillars hanging from trees which I was inevitably coated in. Curious, I turned to the scientific literature and found a comprehensive description of this behaviour in the appropriately named journal Animal Behaviour. As it turns out, this is a defence mechanism to avoid predators (stink bugs and wasps). When the caterpillars detect the vibrations their predators make when hunting nearby, they dangle themselves from silk threads to escape being eaten. Interestingly they can differentiate the vibrations of wasps and stink bugs (two predators), and dangle further (30 cm) for wasps than the less adept stink bugs (only 10 cm of dangling). Not only did the study record and artificially replicate the vibrations caused by the predators to confirm this, they also measured that the extra dangling significantly increased survival in response to the wasps, but was not needed for the stink bugs. Science is awesome. Unfortunately for these caterpillars, the extra dangling also made them much more likely to become unwilling passengers on my run. Good pictures of them in this tweet.
Short Observations on Social Pressure
I remember being taught about peer pressure at school. Usually the intention was that if children are aware of what is motivating them to do something the teacher or parent thinks is negative, that they will be less likely to behave in that way. I would like to think that I’ve become more aware since I was a child, and yet peer pressure still nudges me to make bad choices. I was tagged in a run by a friend as part of a “5k for the NHS challenge”. He ran under 20 minutes and, being competitive, I wanted to beat that time. It is something that I feels possible, but would require a more intense change of pace than what seems reasonable given my current training. I really felt pressure, for about 10 days, to go out and try and run a sub 20 5k, which would have been a mistake. With other more significant pressures in my life at the moment, it is interesting to note that such a trivial (and well meaning) nudge to perform can cause such an emotional burden.
Of course the other side of this is that I was motivated to give £5 to the NHS. I have often been cynical about runners raising money for charity: the run seems so unnecessary, even costly, as the event costs could also go to the charitable cause. Fun runs do align with some causes, as exercise reduces susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, but in general it seems contrived to me. I must concede though, that had I not been nudged to donate via Strava, I would not have donated that £5. From this single point of data, it has been effective.
Stuff I’m reading at the moment
Measure What Matters by John Doerr, and Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz. I am hoping to get some summarised thoughts out soon.
This has been another week of excitement, exhilaration, and exhaustion while working on SARS-CoV-2 projects at ONI. Doing experiments directly related to the pandemic is motivating, and I have noted that I find it easier to work 80-100 hour weeks on this project than 60-70 hours weeks on previous projects. I am very thankful to work with such an inspiring team, as well as to live with supportive friends. In the fourth week of this project, the sustained effort is also made possible by prioritising good diet, regular exercise, and making time for reflection and meditation.
While my week is dominated by the pandemic, I’ll share three moments unrelated to COVID-19. As I was drafting this post, I had a failure of discipline and did not get it out on time. I shared my new job title on LinkedIn. I attended an online interactive performance of The Tempest.
Practise Finishing or Practise Failing
The problem: This post is a day late. I am disappointed, having managed to deliver on time for the past several weeks, and I felt the resulting introspection was worth sharing. I had enough time to write when I returned home on Sunday evening, but found myself falling into bad habits of procrastination I had hoped were gone. Surprisingly, the lack of resolve came not after a day of exhaustion, but one of relaxation. A day of Easter feasting, an absence of physical training, and only minimal experimental accomplishments left me lacking confidence to express my thoughts. When I could have been writing, I squandered time to distractions like YouTube and chess, sacrificing both a timely post and precious sleep.
A potential solution: I have noticed a psychological benefit from completing 30-60 minutes of intensive indoor rowing. There are several points (usually at around 7 minutes and 20 minutes in) during these efforts where the temptation is to give up and stop rowing. The spartan rhythm of the exercise, and the absence of visual stimulation, are a backdrop for a battle between falling to weakness of will or building strength of discipline. I have found that days where I see the piece to the end, I am not only rewarded with exercise-induced endorphins and the satisfaction of completing the session, but also I find it is easier to see other tasks in my day to completion. Likewise, if I quit before finishing, it makes failing other tasks more likely. Either practising pushing through pain, or practising giving up when things are hard, reinforces the behaviour. Knowing this, I can focus on succeeding in the present moment, spurred on by recognising it will make the right choice easier in future. This knowledge also feeds into setting appropriate goals: goals which are impossible guarantee falling into a negative feedback loop.
Where else I want to apply this: There are many brief moments through the day when I could learn a little, or train a little, or communicate better, or help someone. Sometimes I make the right choice, but often I throw that moment away in favour of consuming easy content (e.g. checking sales at an online store) or narcissistically checking for “likes” on social media. I should recognise that by building better habits around these moments, I will find it easier to do the better things. A little discomfort now is worth the behavioural change in the end.
People Growth Engineer
This week I announced my new job title as “People Growth Engineer”. Given the current pandemic related work, I am still applying my skills in the laboratory, but eventually the role will see me focus on the people of ONI rather than wet bench experiments. I am excited at the opportunity to contribute in a new way, driving growth throughout the organisation. I like that the unique title reflects my own passion for a scientific approach to continual learning and personal development. Specifically, the growth I will be engineering for ONI exists in three overlapping areas: 1. Growing the team through identifying the right people to join ONI. 2. Growing existing ONIees (ONIemployees) through individual skill development. 3. Cultivating a culture and fostering a common mindset that allow us to achieve our mission. More detail to come as I transition into the role.
Over the long weekend I attended Creation Theatre’s performance of The Tempest via Zoom. I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the audience and actors, and the fun retelling through modern technology. Initially I was sceptical about setting aside time in this busy period for a play, but the life and laughter I took away from it gave me more joy than I would have expected from any other down-time. The actors involved the audience as Ariel’s spirits, acting out Prospero’s magic. Seeing other audience members on their web-cameras provided a good substitute for in person socialising in this time of social distancing. The humour could be a little cringe worthy at times, but taking Shakespeare playfully feels both authentic to the spirit of the comedy and makes supposedly high culture more accessible.
It has been an intense week. I am in the lab most waking hours working on COVID-19 projects. To make consecutive long days viable, I prioritise hard exercise in down time as I find it helps keep my health (physical and mental) in a good place. My efforts are only possible because the team at ONI is so supportive, be they working beside me at the bench, in the machine shop on the other side of the building, or coordinating supplies from home. It has been exhilarating to be part of a sudden surge in scientific effort, and I have found the wider scientific community to be universally selfless in their willingness to help.
Things to share this week
COVID-19 Again the media is dominated by discussion of the pandemic. I feel torn about adding to that noise, but my thoughts are now focused on that topic and primarily this blog is where I share what I am thinking about. I continue to be concerned that major media outlets, driven by the need to sell advertising clicks, are tasking journalists without the right medical literacy to create content without much consideration for how useful that content is. My suggestion remains: read from sources that specialise in the area, ignore conventional news coverage of the pandemic. A starting point: WHO Coronavirus Homepage Check with your local health services: US CDC, European CDC, UK NHS, Australia Department of Health. Journals for in depth scientific content: The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, BMJ, and Nature.
My (uninformed) thoughts In Week 11 I was not worried. In Week 12 I was hit by exponential whiplash. My resolve is being tested as governments take economies into lock down and hospitals become overrun. In my note on death I commented that although only 5000 had died at the time of writing, the final toll would likely be in the millions. I take no joy in that prospect and I hope I will be proven wrong. That said, I also feel that stating “millions will die” without the context of the millions who already die each year incites fear beyond the reality of the situation. I stand by the importance of seeing this crisis in the context of others happening simultaneously, e.g. climate change, tropical disease, and obesity. We humans have an incredible power to see into the future, but such a limited desire to take the actions the future tasks us with. This pandemic makes me feel that only when the danger is close in space and time are we spurred to act, and this is something I wish I could change.
Collaboration Nature is running a podcast “Coronapod” and the sentiments from the start of this week’s post are echoed about 15 minutes in; scientists are coming together to help each other.
Hoarding There are reports that the UK is holding £1bn in food that was purchased as the COVID-19 situation became serious. While that is enough to leave me seeing shortages of flour and dry pasta on shelves, a quick division makes that number £15 per person, which means only a little extra spending over a week of “stocking up” can push the complex supply chain of fast moving consumer goods beyond its limits. This small change in perspective makes me feel less frustrated; an average family doubling up on their weekly shop seems foolish but understandable, compared with imagining panicked people filling their cars with pasta and toilet paper. Especially in Britain (where baking is a hobby as much as a source of nutrition) flour stocks could easily sell out as people newly working from home find the opportunity to bake. Furthermore, knowing that the system is tuned so finely to match regular demand makes me feel there is less waste than I had previously intuited. (Side note; in googling for articles on this I came across this guide to how supermarkets nudge you to spend more).
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.
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.
Short version: This week I returned to studying, worked some long hours, and had my usual running routes blocked by some very wealthy children.
Taking Notes on Laptop vs Paper
I started a molecular biologyMOOC. 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.
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).
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.
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.