Extracurricular Failures

Years ago, I wrote a little column about how in academia, we tend to speak only about our successes and remain very silent about our failures, and I suggested that people compile and publish their “CV of Failures”. I was delighted to see the idea taken up by Princeton Professor Johannes Haushofer, who published his CV of failures and thereby sparked a discussion on the topic on social media.

For myself, I haven’t been brave enough to publish my own CV of Failures, but I thought I could make a start by compiling the “Extracurricular Activities” section of it. Or at least, the top five.

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The Invisible Woman

It’s International Women’s Day, and like on so many other days, I have been thinking about superpowers (one of my favourite topics). In particular, about invisibility. Because it can be an awesome superpower, and it can also be devastating, and all this has a lot to do with women in science. But let me explain.  Continue reading

What’s in a name?

When I was a postdoc, my university had a biology reading course for undergraduates. It was structured as a small seminar, and any postdoc or faculty member could choose a topic and lead a discussion group, provided enough students showed up. Excited, I wrote up a proposal on one of my favourite topics and handed it in. Time passed. Zero undergraduates signed up. Zero. I talked to the professor overseeing the course about possible reasons. “Maybe,” she said, “you should have chosen a sexier title.” I was astonished. How is “Computational Models in Biology and Biochemistry” not sexy enough?

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For the sake of honour

Last month my Alma Mater, the University of Salzburg in Austria did something remarkable: They revoked the Honorary Doctorate they had awarded to Konrad Lorenz in 1983.

For those who don’t  know, Konrad Lorenz was a scientist who studied animal behaviour, especially in greylag geese. He is particularly famous for studying how their young form attachments to the first moving thing they encounter in their lives. This is why you will find a lot  of pictures of Lorenz followed around by a gaggle of adorable goslings.

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Gamifying the PhD

Over the past weeks, I have taken an awesome MOOC called “How to survive your PhD” on EdX (thank you Simone for pointing me to this!) Of course, I did survive my own PhD a while ago, but as I am crossing over to the dark supervisor side of things, I want to learn as much as I can about the general PhD experience and about what we can do to support our students.

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Unskilled and unaware of it

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s an interesting psychological insight about how people’s actual knowledge and skill aligns with their perceived knowledge and skill.

People who are not very skilled at a particular task find it very hard to understand the level of skill needed to do that task well. As a consequence, they fail to recognise a truly skilled practitioner when they see one, and they tend to overestimate their own skill. As a people get better at a particular skill, they also get better at accurately estimating how good they are at it. This is true for a wide range of skills and knowledge areas, including grammar, logical thinking, and even humour. It was first described in a 1999 paper by Kruger and Dunning entitled Unskilled and Unaware of it.

Now, here is the problem.

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People with stories

One of my favourite authors is Thomas Mann. Reading his novel Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), I once completely lost track of all my surroundings. I was reading the book while riding the tram. Not only did I miss my stop, I missed the following stop, and the stop after that. I missed the last stop. When I looked up from the book, I found myself in an empty car in the tram depot. No other book has ever done anything like that to me. Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. A few years later, he fled Germany after the Nazis rose to power and went on to live in Switzerland and the United States. He was a refugee.

One of my favourite scientists is Carl Djerassi, who died earlier this year. He received his PhD in Chemistry at 22, and went on to develop the first version of the contraceptive pill. Later, he became a professor of chemistry at Stanford University. He also had a whole additional career as a novelist and playwright, often exploring the complicated relationship between science and society. His amazing career unfolded in the United States, where he had arrived as a teenager in 1939. He was a refugee.

One of my favourite social scientists is Marie Jahoda. Her 1933 study about the long-term unemployed in the Austrian village of Marienthal explored in great depth the psychological consequences of economic hardship. It also set new standards in research methodology, combining a range of qualitative and quantitative methods to generate a dense and rich picture of the situation. A political activist as well as a scientist, she was jailed for nine months by the Austro-fascist regime in 1937, after which she fled to the UK. She was a refugee.

Here is a book by Sir Karl Popper (a refugee): The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Here is a picture by Marc Chagall (a refugee):

Fiddler by Marc Chagall

Here is a song by Kurt Weill (a refugee) and Bert Brecht (a refugee), sung by Lotte Lenya (a refugee):

I could go on, of course. All those people, all their stories, their talents, their contributions to the world. But where am I going with this?

Hundreds of thousands of people have come to Europe as refugees over the last weeks and months. They have fled a war-torn country, they have left their houses and their riches and their friends and their jobs behind, they have risked their lives marching overland or crossing the sea in flimsy boats. They are facing obstacles and walls and fences and bureaucracy, and hate-speech by politicians who, frankly, should know better.

Now, am I saying that each and every one of them is going to be a Nobel-winning novelist, or a brilliant scholar or a fantastic artist? Of course not.

But I think it would help us, in thinking and speaking about those hundreds of thousands of refugees, to recall the stories of other refugees. Refugees whose life stories we know. Most often, the stories of refugees that we know are those passed down in families, and those of famous people who also happened to be famous people. They make us understand that each and every refugee has interests and talents and things to offer to the world, is not only a refugee, but a daughter, a father, a science enthusiast, an avid reader, a lover of plants, a soccer fan, is, in short, a person with a story to tell. And we should find ways to listen to those stories.

Play the lottery day

A few weeks ago, I submitted a grant proposal, the first since starting my new job at the University of Edinburgh. This is how research works: You have a great idea for a project, but in order to do that project, you need co-workers and lab space and equipment. So you apply for a grant where you explain what you need the money for.

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