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.

Continue reading


Many biologists grew up liking animals. That’s why they became biologists. Not me. I never had a particular interest in animals, never had pets, never brought in animals from outdoors. My interest in the local wildlife only emerged after I had been working as a (molecular and computational) biologist for some time. Walking to and from the lab, you start to notice things.

Continue reading

What I learnt from my first reading challenge

So, in August, I participated in my first tadoku (extensive reading) challenge. This is a brief update on what I learnt and why I am doing it again in October.

The aim of the challenge is to read and read and read (and record your reading) in a language that you are learning.The more you read, the more you win Points on the Internet, which is obviously awesome. On top of that, you learn the language. On top of that, you learn other things. Here are five things I learnt:

Continue reading

Ice Cream Day

So, apparently the Japan Ice Cream Association has declared 9 May to be Ice Cream Day. Or, as they say in Japan, アイスクリームの日. I am not even making this up, you can read about this here. It’s even mentioned on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

Let me take this opportunity to tell you about my own little Ice Cream Day tradition. It is to do with publishing scientific papers and originated in collaboration with my former fellow PhD student, the Most Delightful Lu Li.

Our job as scientists is to find stuff out. But once we have found something out, our job is also to let the world know about it, so that other scientists can build on it. Now, you would think that the “finding stuff out” part is long and tedious and that the “telling the world about it” part is easy. Well, it’s not. It’s long and tedious as well.

Here is how it usually works: After having found stuff out, the scientists involved in this particular project get together and start drafting a paper. The paper describes what they have found out, how they did it, why it’s important and how it fits into the bigger picture. This in itself can take a while, especially if several authors are involved. At this “writing up” stage, it might turn out that further analysis is needed, or that some experiments need to be repeated or that additional data might have to be collected in order to make the scientific argument stronger. Once the final paper draft is ready and approved by all co-authors (including agreement on where all the commas and semicola should be, which can take weeks), it is submitted to a scientific journal. At this point, I think it’s time for ice cream.

At the journal, an editor will send the paper to other scientists working in your field to review it. This is called “peer review” and typically has one of two outcomes: a) your peers reject the paper or b) they accept it, pending a few changes (e.g. doing further analysis, repeating some experiments, collecting more data, or removing the second comma on page 3). If most reviewers think the paper is acceptable, the editor will get back to you with a list of required or suggested changes. You make these changes (which, again, can take a while) and re-submit the paper. At this point, it’s time for ice cream.

There can be a bit of back and forth between the editor and reviewers and the authors (e.g. reviewers get to review the revised version of the manuscript to check that the changes have been made to their satisfaction), and this … can take a while. But if all goes well, the paper is finally accepted for publication in the journal. At this point, it’s time for ice cream.

Once a paper is accepted, the journal has to publish it, which includes correct typesetting, sending copies to authors for final proof-reading and all sorts of whatever else it is journals do, which – you guessed it – can take a while. But one fine day, the paper will be published, at which point, it’s time for ice cream.

All in all, the process can take a considerable amount of time. For instance, a recent paper I worked on with the Most Delightful Lu Li took more than three years to go from initial draft to publication. So, a couple of Ice Cream Days along the road are probably in order.

To recap, here are the rules:
1. You submit a paper: it’s Ice Cream Day
2. You submit revisions: it’s Ice Cream Day
3. The paper is accepted: it’s Ice Cream Day
4. The paper is published: it’s Ice Cream Day
5. (Extra bonus rule courtesy of the Japan Ice Cream Association) It’s 9 May: it’s Ice Cream Day