I resume writing after a while and just for a ‘short’ update. The last two-three years have been quite tough. Yes of course there was the pandemic. As tough as it was for most of us, I was lucky enough to have a relatively stable job and not feel the financial pressure of the pandemic in 2020.
Here is the point, ‘relatevly stable’ and 2020. Because of funding cycles, in academia we experience crises often with a delay. This is my experience, my story, my views, but there are many learnt lessons that could be useful for junior academics, post-doctoral scientists and students. I will thus share these with you but I needed time to move on, strip these lessons of emotional components and personal biases, simply to provide those couple of you who read this blog with some genuine advice.
Hence, this is a transition post, the only one that I will allow myself to share with more emotions, not just the passion with which I usually speak or write. I avoided sharing negative thoughts, and soon – very soon – I will share new positive experiences at my new job. But let me, give me, just this post…
While the pandemic was developing, our institute’s quinquennial review took place. While I was submitting documents under the philosophy of ‘business as usual‘, I was tracking students rushing home, who in the UK, who abroad. While I was revising documents apparently one page too long, I was seeing tragic scenes in my dear Italy, trying to keep in touch with friends and family who lived in the Asian and European epicentres of the pandemic. I was hearing about the first deaths in Cambridge, a nearby institute, someone in the neighbourhood.
While I was responding to referees, I was updating safety procedures and devices, trying to plan logistics for managing, procuring, trying to contribute to the community response, making sure my colleagues were safe and looking after my family.
Then the car rack that was the closure (no, not the lockdown, the actual closure, complete defunding) of our department with no certainty, little information, and deep anxiety in the second half of 2020. Eventually, we got a one-year extension, a rather standard support measure in a very non-standard period of historic proportions.
While the closure of a research institute, like the closure of a company, is absolutely legitimate, the measures that organizations deploy to mitigate the impact of their choices on their employees, speak a lot about the working culture of institutions. While the closure of a research institute is absolutely legitimate, it is much more difficult to think that that the closure of a publicly funded research institute during a global pandemic and without special mechanisms in place to mitigate the effects on employees could be done… honorably*.
A moment of crisis permits us to stress-test systems and to really distinguish between the fluff, the hypocrisy, the inefficiency, and tangible support for people. Of course, there is another side to the story. A moment of crisis permits us also to see how many good people there are, from your neighbour to your colleagues. Many helped, even just with a listening ear; a very few who should have helped, in all practical terms did not. Some that I would never have expected to help, even people that at the time I did not know well if at all, did help within the limit of what was possible.
Please avoid guessing who was bad and who was good because your guess will probably be wrong. People and organizations involved have reasons, have mostly good intentions. Unfortunatly, now and then, we slam against walls built of institutional bad habits, fatalism, and disconnect.
Although in this post I let myself to reveal a bit of the emotional rollercoaster that the last few years were, eventually my intent – my ambition – is to nudge a bit all of us to be better, our institutions to improve, and our working culture to progress. Think about an aircrash investigation** where assigning blame has modest consequences compared to the industry-wide safety benefits to avoid similar accidents to happen again. Eventually for the benefit of everyone.
Sadly, my repeated offer to analyse what has happened, not in public but as an internal procedure to improve in the future, has been so far dismissed.
My search for a new host organization was hindered by a job market affected by the pandemic, some risk-aversion in recruiting a physicist that does biology, or a scientist that does not have a formal track record in teaching undergraduate courses. And of course, by the psychological impact of living through this chaos which took its toll on the mental wellbeing of me and colleagues at any level. All of this is compounded by the shortcoming that I certainly have, like anyone else, of character and curriculum.
Despite the huge setbacks that my colleagues and I experienced, the delays in research productivity and the money virtually wasted in the process, I anchor myself to the understanding that most people in society and academia are good people, amazing and well-intentioned. I am indebted with those many colleagues in companies and academia who supported me. I will be forever grateful to the many kind-souls out there, that irrespective of their roles, position or means, did what they could to help.
I have one regret. I could not shield my team from all of that, as I did not have the power to. The only thing I could do is to to my best, including all my students and researchers, sharing information in real-time, discussing, listening, advising and supporting them within the limited resources I could tap into.
And now? Time to move on. Time to move to Brunel University London, where I found amazing people – soon to be new colleagues with whom we will do amazing things. But I will dedicate to Brunel ample space in the near future, focusing in what I predict to be an extremely positive experience in the making.
Time to move on. Well, I did move on in many respects, and left behind the worst emotions, the worst memories. I will however use these incredible experiences*** I passed through, to dig deeper into the mechanisms of academic life, as usual, trying to have a positive impact on younger scientists and students who might accidentally land on these boring, sometimes nerdy, pages.
I hope I will soon have time to write about the difference between power, leadership and management, the role of human resources in academia, the institutional bad habits that we should eliminate to ensure the good that is in most of us percolates up to our organization (yes, we need an antigravity machine of sorts), how careers between a research institute and University should be structured, or how openly speaking with colleagues in industry about career can be extremely positive.
I’ll have much less time with my new job starting, but I will have the right mental attitude to discuss those ideas without the shadows of the last few years.
Transition-post completed, the future is waiting.
*) I have been inspired by another event, another person, in the use of this sentence. And although only very few people will know, I still feel obliged to disclose this. **) Not my philosophy, I hear this often in the Mentour Pilot Youtube channel. Inspiration can come from everything! ***) To be clear, other people in the UK and around the world experience much more tragic issues. I do not want to offend anyone sounding overdrammatic. Still, I can’t do anything else then telling my stories, lucky in a broader sense, hoping to be of use within my trade.
Our organization is committed to equality, diversity and inclusiveness. For example, Dr Clara Madeup benefitted from our ‘return to work’ programme that permitted her to come back to work after an extended 2 years maternity break. Clara is now a tenure track associate professor leading in the field of biotechnology.
How many Claras and Johns showcase success stories across our industry? More often than ever, we need to submit case studies during assessment processes, so much so that it is not unlikely to receive negative feedback if we describe our actions and outcomes carefully but without illustrating case studies.
Which is the likelihood that an organization does not have good case studies to showcase? And how likely is it that an organization decided to illustrate a failure in a case study? How representative success stories are of an organization, particularly organizations that are based on high staff turnover and competition? In fact, a few handpicked case studies can conceal otherwise worrisome statistics available within a document right alongside nice case studies.
Of course, the exclusive use of positive case studies in our websites, the brochures we use to describe how great we are, or at least we want to be, is absolutely obvious and legitimate.
I have seen case studies related to negative events within my organization only in two cases. First, introductory courses for health&safety that often provides plenty of examples of incidents with few cases discussed in detail. They are very informative because in the utter boredom of a long H&S course they actually tell you the story of not what can go wrong but what did go wrong in a lab like yours, maybe next door. Second, I had volunteered for a course designed to inform how to help victims of rape and sexual harassment. Instead of dwelling on how good our organization is, we went deep in describing which problems we have to deal with, how problematic communication can be, and how both academic and justice systems can easily fail victims. Very different situations but the illustration of what CAN and what DOES go wrong was absolutely instructive and helped focus on what we should do to prevent incidents.
During management meetings, we usually discuss what we can improve. Obviously, we do not speak about positive things only, quite the contrary. However, we do this often through rather unevocative statistics and get excited when we see progress compared to the past, or we are better than other organizations in the same area. I wished, however, organizations would focus more on the investigation of negative case studies during management meetings, of course, anonymized and taking any necessary precautions or even with the consent of colleagues involved, so that we could understand more deeply the consequences of our failures and identify better strategies to eliminate or mitigate our shortcomings.
I think we should bring a bit of the scientific method we experimentalists are so accustomed to deal with. We often learn a lot from experiments that fail for no apparent reason, and we showcase our failures to colleagues to get help and to teach less experienced how to identify solutions.
I am not really sure about how often ‘negative’ case studies are used in academic management to inform executive decisions in the broader community. In my experience not enough, probably, because the ‘negative’ case studies we should analyze are often just simply buried, swiped under the carpet, a topic for more specialist discussions reserved for those that make issues disappear.
I hope organizations will adopt more the use of ‘negative’ case studies as a tool to improve and fully understand the suffering of those who find themself in challenging situations. And I hope we are asked to produce case studies to illustrate success stories and good practices less frequently during an assessment, reserving these to public brochures.
In early 2016, I was asked if I wished to speak at the discussion meeting “Conflict and Competition in Cellular Populations” in Bangalore, India organized by Dr Sandeep Krishna and Dr Sunil Laxman (NCBS). The title sounded so intriguing that I accepted without even checking the actual topic of the meeting. Then an adventure begun, that now concluded (did it?) in 2021 with a small paper entitled “Cooperation of partially transformed clones:an invisible force behind the early stages of carcinogenesis” published in the journal of the Royal Society, Open Science (10.1098/rsos.201532). Let me tell you the story of this journey that, perhaps, might inspire you to adventure outside of your field.
For brevity, I’ll skip the details about the actual trip. It was of course exciting to experience a culture I am often exposed but I never lived. The food, the people, the contrasts of India, a small glimpse into a complex galaxy of humanity. My short trip to India started with a sleep-deprived-me trying to explain to the border police that the conference Conflict and Competition in Cellular Populations, nicknamed CCCP, which poster was written in pseudo-Cyrillic, was not a political conference (I would have needed a different visa in that case!) and concluded back in Cambridge a week later with a slightly embellished bedtime story for my 3 years old daughter about the animals I saw in the park that hosts NCBS, a story that I am still telling now and then to her.
But of course, here I focus on the science. The conference hosted a good number of great speakers (referring to others) on the topic of ecology (er, yes, the title made sense). Suddenly it dawned on me I was ‘a bit’ off-topic. However, I loved talk after talk learning a bit about ecology, including its mathematical foundations. I really enjoyed the meeting, so much so I could not stop thinking about its relevance for my work that back then was focused on non-genetic heterogeneity in cell decisions, carcinogenesis and the DNA damage response.
The study of cancer as an ecological problem is not new, of course. Something very specific started to bug me though, something I could not find literature about. We know that different clones of cancer cells cooperate and compete in tumours but what happens during the very early steps of carcinogenesis? I was queuing to board the airplane when I succeeded to download the paper “Evolution of cooperation among tumor cells” published ten years earlier by Axelrod and colleagues in PNAS. It was a nice in-flight read, but the flight from Bangalore to London is long and I started to obsess about a very simple mathematical fact.
For a moment, let’s imagine you dream of establishing a business but you need £1M to start it. However, you are a bit of an odd person and decide to do it only if you win the lottery which jackpot is £500k. You clearly make strange decisions but I am not here to judge… the oddest thing is, however, that you bet on winning the lottery not just once but twice. Then you have an idea You agree with your village of similarly odd-minded people that if anyone wins the lottery, you will pool the money together to invest in this start-up. This is still an unlikely strategy, and certainly one that has a tiny probability to succeed, but it is definitely more likely to work out than waiting to win the jackpot twice alone.
Back to carcinogenesis. Every day, each cell has a certain probability to mutate because of exposure to radiation, chemicals or simply the chance of errors of biochemical machineries. Mutation after mutation in the right genes, a cell might grow into cancer. A very unlikely series of events that, however, with trillion of cells in our bodies, over one’s lifespan is likely to happen. We know that certain mutations occurs in cells that eventually lead to cancer. We know that one cell wins the macabre lottery of disease multiple times before leading to cancer. We then know that many cells will get mutations within an otherwise healthy tissue.
We usually consider that all these other mutant cells will either accrue neutral mutations (i.e., mutations that will not change the fitness of the cell, nor confer a cancer phenotype), or deleterious mutations that will be purged by tumour suppressive mechanisms. However, cells within a tissue communicate and mutations occurs also in genes responsible of cell-to-cell communication. In my recent work I propose a ‘toy model’ with which I explore the possibility that the gene- and cell- centric mutational process should be reconsidered in the context of an overall tissue where cell-to-cell communication might reshape the early steps of carcinogenesis. I am not the first one doing so, but I try to emphasize with simple modelling how the mutational process should be seen in the context of a collective of cells rather than in a gene- or cell- centric fashion.
What did I learn beyond what I have written in the paper (i.e. in addition to the science)?
First I had really fun, something that over time does not happen with every paper, even those more important ones where we invest major resources in. I even had fun during the revision process. As many of us experience, I often got half of the referees very supportive of my work and half rather dismissive. But those very supportive have been often extraordinary kind and helpful, either defining the manuscript ‘a refreshing read different from what I usually read in this field‘ (earlier submission in a different journal) to ‘the models presented here make the point in a clear and dramatic manner‘. The last referee of the last submission now published was particularly helpful. Not only they critically review the manuscript but also invested time to describe a discrete time Markov chain model that I could have integrated in the manuscript. This suggestion permitted me to learn a bit of maths I did not practise before, and to improve the work… this is what refereeing should be.
Second, alongside the enthusiasm of adventuring in a rather different field from my already eclectic research interests, I also felt the pain of being an outsider; a pain I feel often but that it was made sharper by the fact I was a single author. This was really a ‘pet project’. I got convinced to shape my notes in a manuscript only after I attended a seminar by Prof. Allan Balmain in 2018 related to the Nat Cell Biol article “Multicolour lineage tracing reveals clonal dynamics of squamous carcinoma evolution from initiation to metastasis“. It was a great talk and somehow relevant to the notes I had written since my trip to India. I decided to try to publish my ideas after reading the commentary by Prof. Kornelia Polyak and Prof. Michalina Janiszewska where they state: “One possible explanation is that there is a cooperative interaction between the streak and bulk tumour cell populations; an intriguing hypothesis that warrants further investigation but was not tested by Reeves et al.5. The streak pattern observed by Reeves et al. is reminiscent of the streaks generated by non-mutualistic budding yeast analysed by Muller et al.13.” Eventually, I am not sure the work I had put in this manuscript was worth the pain.
Then, do I advise others to adventure so wildly in other territories? As I have written before, it is rarely rewarding career-wise and never easy. But, once in a while, let’s just follow the passion and enthusiasm for something new, with no regrets. Any adventure comes with some pain but the fun of exploring, eventually, makes the experience worth living overall.
I wish that this small new paper can really provoke some thoughts, or inspire some young scientist to adventure… perhaps not too much and not alone as exploring comes with its perils.
I more excited than other times for a talk I will deliver next week. When invited, I read the list of speakers and I noticed so many names of people whose science I follow very closely. This time something is different though. I read their papers since I am a student, papers they published perhaps when they were students or young postdocs, in fact many of them are my generation. I grew with their science as if they were well-established academics as I never paid attention to affiliations or titles. Some of those I had recognised early in my career disappeared from the field or academia, others are fully established by now. This made me thing about my attitude towards generational change… a great contradiction of thoughts.
Missing the Old Guard. Several scientists I really respect have retired or are about to. I have been privileged to meet so many, particularly in the area of biochemical/biophysical imaging. Scientists who contributed so much, inspiring figures who shaped contemporary science, often without hype or even recognition in the broader community. Wait, am I missing the Old Guard? This feeling contrast so much with another one. In time, old ideas become an obstacle to progress and a generational change is desirable. You might indeed know the popular concept that ‘science advance one funeral at a time’. I do think there is an element of truth in it. So, why do I have such profound contradiction in my feelings?
Loving the New Guard. I am active in the area of biophotonics since an undergrad student, and having swapped discipline a few times, it is simpler for me to use microscopy as an example. The super-resolution revolution has been inspirational although I have observed it from the outside. In a few years, a new generation of stars begun to shine and a constellation of younger scientists who broke with the past was born alongside. Also in biochemical imaging I see great changes, the consolidation of certain ideas that once were considered heresy or simply very very niche. And yes, this get me rather excited. Wait, do I really love the New Guard? I see so much I do not like in science, and this is not just something imposed or inherited by previous generations. There are so many colleagues* with whom I might disagree about science and often on how Academia should be run. Disagreement is ok but sometime this is a much more profound divide.
OK, I got it wrong. Today, I have suddenly realised how wrong I was in interpreting my own feelings about generational change in Academia. While the majority of us would agree that generational change is necessary to avoid science stagnating, perhaps we do not really understand why**.
I love challenging established ideas on the basis of logic and experiment, I love discussing alternative interpretations that are not mainstream (but still scientific!), I love risk-taking in science (not in life although sometimes it is difficult to keep them separate), I love intellectual change (not so much change in my everyday life). Generational change might help the things I like to emerge but old generations do not have exclusivity in being dogmatic or risk-adverse, indeed those I admire are not. The issue is that too often also the younger generations accept dogmas (not just critically incorporating established theories and models in their thinking), they would guard an old ‘truth’ no matter what. But when they lose their authority of reference because of generational change, somehow their confidence or power is weakened, leaving space for positive change.
Hence, I now realise I am merely recognising a new generation of scientists with whom I might share a vision and I am excited that new people now replace those who retire for whom I had the same affinity and respect. Generational divides are much less important than an open attitude to change.
So, perhaps, I do not like guards in science at all because in science the fewer cages or palaces we have the better it is.
And after this lucubration, I will thoroughly enjoy my next talk in any case 🙂
* I use the term colleague very loosely to refer scientists in related fields.
** I just had a glance to this paper by Azoulay et al., interesting concepts
I guess that if you landed here, you know what I am referring to, but let me clarify the subject of this post for the benefit of the youngest scientists. During peer-review, we get good and bad feedback, either deserved or not. We can then respond and revise our work. However, it is not rare to get the reports from the mythological reviewer 3 (also known by a different number), one that dismisses your hard work in ways that you will find particularly unfair and difficult – if possible at all – to rebut. There are various flavours of Reviewer 3, but common traits – not necessarily all present in an individual report – might be the condescending tone, vague unreferenced criticisms, the request of impossible experiments, a deep misunderstanding of the manuscript, accusations of various type. The important aspect of referee 3 is that, generally, responding to their critique is either factually impossible or would not improve the quality of your work. Of course, there is a lot of subjective interpretation here, and some of referee 3’s suggestions might be proper, or some report that at first glance are good (negative but well done) might be written by reviewer 3 in incognito. In any case, most scientists agree that Reviewer 3 does exist and, some of us asked for an independent assessment of a controversial refereeing report, might even know the identity of some of them, however ever-shifting they are.
Why Reviewer 3? Well, this is very anecdotal and indeed people might do the same ‘joke’ but changing the numbering. The argumentation I am going to elaborate on (I beg you, Reviewer 3, if you are reading, please remember this is not a completely serious discussion), does not depend on precise numbers, certainly not by the cardinality of the referee. In any profession, there are very skilled and bad professionals; this applies also to the academic world, of course. However, referee 3 does not have to be particularly bad scientifically, they might be the smartest of all, but for the scope of the refereeing process, referee 3 is doing this particular job and at that particular time, particularly badly, perhaps for lack of time, hubris, a particular emotional state, ignorance or for a genuine misunderstanding: it does not matter. It exists. Then, let’s take the anecdotal report of Referee 3, for a moment, at face value.
Let’s say that each time an editor nominates a reviewer, it is like the toss of an unfair coin (i.e., the probability of heads is different from the probability of tails) – either we get a Referee 3 or we do not. The probability to get at least one referee 3, is then the complement of the probability to not get one at all, i.e. p1=1-(1-p0)^n, with n the number of referees nominated by an editor. Which is the probability p0 for referee to be referee 3?
There might be some data out there, but as data is relatively unimportant both to make my point and to reviewer 3, I will assume that as Reviewer 3 is often called Reviewer… THREE, it is a frequent occurrence to observe one out of three referees been, well you got it, referee three. Then, after ‘careful consideration’, I assumed that one out of three is the most frequent occurrence. The mode of a binomial distribution is floor((n+1)p0)=1 or ceil((n+1)p0-1=1. We can thus infer that between 1/4 to 1/2 of all referees could provide a Reviewer3-like response. Hence, which is the probability to get at least one Referee 3 for your submission? Well, although a rare occurrence, if the editor asks the opinion of just one expert (perhaps as a preliminary inquiry) this probability is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2, of course, identical to p0. For two referees, we will get a 43-75% probability and for three (the most common case), almost a 60-90% probability. Therefore, getting a Referee 3 report might be a rather obvious outcome of the peer-review process.
Now, let’s do another outrageous assumption. Let’s assume that also the editor, when handling a manuscript, could make the same mistakes as a referee 3 and that the journal has a very high bar for a manuscript to be accepted, i.e. any substantial negative feedback causes a rejection. In this case, the probability that the Referee 3 syndrome might negatively affect your submission is between 70-95%. Unrealistic? Maybe.
Now that several weeks passed, the referees’ reports are back in the hand of the editor. This is a very complex stage where so many objective and subjective factors might change how referee 3 is handled.
One possible outcome is that you get two Referee 3s… a rare outcome… isn’t it? If three referees have sent reports in, the probability to get at least two Referee 3s is actually between 15-50% Let’s say that – on average – a quarter of papers could be rejected because of Referee 3s, as if you get at least two of them any editor would, legitimately, dismiss the idea that those are ‘bad’ referees.
Let’s assume now you got just one referee 3 report. Again, with no intention to be accurate, these are the possible outcomes I can think about:
The Editor considers Referee 3’s points valid and the paper is rejected. Unexperienced authors will give up this submission at this stage, address any valid point raised during the refereeing and move to a second journal. Keep in mind now, that at the next journal, you will get the same probability of getting a Referee 3. However, if Referees one and two were positive with a few criticisms that could be addressed with new data, the experienced author would appeal. Until recently, I did not realize that Editors are quite open to this option assuming they find the manuscript interesting and that you get only a single problematic referee. Unfortunately, journals have mechanisms to discourage this path. However, if you can disregard emotions and humbly reassess your work on the basis of the Referees’ critique and you still find that the main issue is a Referee 3, engage – positively – the Editor. In most cases, you will find nice people trying to help out.
The Editor considers Referee 3’s points invalid and in one way or another, you will be allowed to address only the solid scientific point of Referee 3. It is very rare this will be written to you explicitly. I still find difficult to handle this situation. In most cases, this is the more likely situation you will get published even with a Referee 3 in the cohorts of referees. My suggestion is to speak with a senior colleague to decide how to proceed, or again to engage in a polite and proactive way the Editor.
The Editor considers Referee 3’s points invalid and asks for the opinion of Referee 4. This is the most sympathetic and proactive response that an Editor can have. However, this is also a situation that does not protect you from Referee 3, as the shapeshifting nature of Referee 3 might make them reappear with a differently numbered T-shirt. You will have between 25-50% to get another Referee 3 and being rejected not on merit. On a positive side, you might have up to 75% probability to replace a Referee 3 with a more objective peer.
Which is the point of this post? As I stated in the title, this is not a serious and quantitative analysis of peer-review. But I wished to address with outrageous simplifications a basic issue. Does the attitude of Referee 3 play an important role in peer-review? There are several reports showing how peer-review, despite its importance and the several mechanisms to establish a formal and objective process, give rise to a high degree of randomness in the outcome. Here, I just wished to point out that the probability to get a random and unfair report might be high. I leave to others the study of how high this value really is. However, while very experienced Editors and Authors might know how to handle the situation, there are two issues that concern me:
We are accustomed to harsh criticism. Often, a solid scientific debate is confused with been tough, and assertiveness is confused with freedom to not be polite. Who manage peer-review, academic or professional Editors, or managers in funding agencies, might consider this the natural and obvious rules of the game. Being a scientist has become something of a high-pressure job and it seems everyone has to accept this. Most of us are good and well-intentioned people, but the gears of this heavy machinery that is science are difficult to change, at least while the machine is in action.
The authors, or grant applicants, should have a very balanced approach. On the one hand, they should always make an effort to learn from criticism, even unfair criticism. This is a bit tricky with Referee 3. However, we always have to dissect Referee 3 to identify any useful critique. This is the trivial advise, trivial as it should be obvious. There is something more about this, that if you are a younger scientist with no proper mentoring, you might not know. Referee 3s can have a huge psychological impact on you. I’ve seen this happening to group leaders, and I have experienced this on my own.
*** UPDATE ***
After the publication of this blog-post, Reviewer 3 contacted me privately with the following message.
The assumptions the author does are all wrong and WordPress should not have allowed the submission of this article
The conclusions of the authors are clearly impossible as they conflict with a large body of literature
The authors do not cite any literature, but particularly the papers I published in 1965 that clearly and unequivocally demonstrate the opposite finding or the same findings.
The article is written in English, Latin would be the preferred choice for this field
Even if the authors could address these shortcomings with a major revision, this article should not be even posted on LinkedIn
Moreover, the article is poorly written, for instance, for instance ‘my own’ is not Korektly PhrammatiKalleee
In the UK, we are waiting for good news to reopen our laboratories. Well, not ‘waiting’ but getting ready. It might be in two weeks or two months but we have to be ready because if we will be ‘back to normal’, we will have new outbreaks. In science, we are lucky as we are already trained to manage risk. However, most scientists in the UK have a conflictual relationship with health and safety procedures that are often perceived (probably rightly) as overly bureaucratic and can drive people away from good practice. I am lucky as I deal with wonderful people both locally at the Cancer Unit and centrally at University on the regard to safety, at least in those areas I have responsibilities.
In my opinion, this is the moment to restructure how we handle safety. On the one hand, formal risk assessment is very important to identify the source of hazards. It is easy to imagine we can work safely but there are some topics that are very tricky. For example, we are discussing how to deal with fire doors… we can’t keep them wedged open because of fire safety but it would be better to not close them to avoid touching surfaces unnecessarily. There are perhaps solutions that avoid any risk, for example providing hand sanitizers on either side of the door or reverting previous rules and enforce the use of gloves in any area of the labs, or install automatic (fire) doors as soon as possible. What about air conditioning? We need it in a modern building with sensitive equipment but should we do any change? Are they safe? What about cell culture? The other day I joked about infected cell cultures in CL1 laboratories? Wait… it was a joke but then – out of curiosity – I realized that coronaviruses, this included, can propagate in several mammalian cell lines (they express ACE2 and most of them are not killed by the virus). Is this an issue? I assume it is not as it is unlikely we contaminate cultures (we work in aseptic conditions) and cells do not generate aerosols we can breathe. But I wished to mention this just to make a point: it is worth thinking deeply about how work will be when we return in the laboratories to identify possible issues, without paranoia and without panicking, but proactively and scientifically.
However, paperwork never protected us. It helps to identify issues and to protect us legally. There is a set of rules that have been gradually abandoned in favour of PPEs and engineering measures to manage risk and I believe we have to retrain people using those rules. It will be impossible to make the world 100% safe from coronavirus, certainly in the short term. We can, however, manage risk by changing behaviours to make it negligible but we need to be prepared and everyone has to comply.
Let me do two examples, not specific to viral work. Even just twenty years ago, for some of us laser safety was just removing any reflecting surfaces from your body and the environment (no rings, badges, other jewellery, no wall mirrors in an optics lab etc) and changing your behaviour: never align your eyes with the likely direction of the laser. This meant, for example, that a researcher would mature the instinct of turning the head always away from the optical table when picking something from the floor. Those were the times when accidents would still happen at a certain frequency because good laboratory practises without PPE relies on a person never do a mistake. PPEs should protect us from our mistakes but once you wear protective gear, once you feel shielded from the hazards, behaviour will change back to normal.
Another example is tissue culture. It is a fair amount of years I do not do TC work in person but, sometimes, when I get a coffee at the Hutch canteen and I pay, I pass on top of my mug and my brain signal me not to do it. Under hood, we avoid to pass over open flasks to minimize the risk of contamination (of the cultures). Again, some of us might have worked perfectly aseptically and safely with no PPE in the past.
I DO NOT advise to drop PPEs or risk assessments, do not misunderstand. The only point I want to make is that changes in behaviour such as social distancing and enhanced hand hygiene will be very important, more important than anything else to come back to work safely. We need to be careful in retraining ourselves. Again, without paranoia or panic. Other than doing ridiculous elbow bumps to replace shaking hands, a smile and a greeting will do. Giving way to people to maintain distance in close environments, planning how to move around cramped laboratories, how to reach instrumentation, when and how to clean hands or use PPE, but also very practical and trivial things such as the use of toilets or where and when to have a lunch or a break, how to reach the workplace might be more challenging. Challenging – not impossible, at least in most cases.
I have been very supportive of lockdowns. Among other things, this period is permitting us to exercise social distancing and train on how to handle materials we buy or we get delivered at home. This is valuable time if and only if you are actually using this opportunity to actively prepare for a life with COVID. We all hope that this virus will burn itself out soon. However, at the moment it seems unlikely and therefore the keyword is one: preparedness.
Do not do the mistakes that several people in leadership have done. They were not prepared to manage this pandemic despite they knew it would happen soon or late. They were not prepared to instruct us for timely societal changes. Are they now really prepared for the next phase, i.e. the management of life with SARS-CoV-2 endemic? I hope in more clarity and transparency. However, to be fair, it would have been difficult not to do mistakes.
If you did not do this already, brainstorm with your team and communicate to your managers what you might want to plan. I also advise having clear and shared rules. As safety will be based quite significantly on behavioural changes, conflicts at the workplace are also likely. Although we are all feeling closer to each other and more helpful, there are always the zealots and the neglectful. Those that are worried about anything and those that are worried about nothing. We need to reassure the former and letting them perhaps working only off the lab (whenever possible) if they cannot handle the situation. We should dialogue with the latter to explain we have to abide by a set of shared rules and, if they do not comply, we should get them off the lab. And in any case, help categories at risk and colleagues that might struggle with mental health.
If you did not do this already, it is time to prepare. Not business as usual but with a new norm as soon as the government will permit us to resume work until this virus will be defeated or at least tamed. For the same reason that most of us are staying at home, helping keyworkers to do their job, we’ll soon be called back to work. Not just for ourselves but again for those amazing people who have kept working in difficult situations in the streets, hospitals, care homes, shops. In fact, it is our duty to share the burden of a society that cannot remain on the shoulders of only a fraction of us. However, we shall do this not in irresponsible ways, but with absolute preparedness. This applies to governments and public institutions but it does apply also to each of us.
I am publishing here the recommendations I circulated to my colleagues, as this might help others to formulate their strategies or me to receive suggestions on how to improve. At the bottom of the post I also share my opinion about the situation, just to explain why we are taking action. Disclosure: I am no expert in this area, therefore I analysed data just to form my own opinion and to organize our work. Please check institutional guidance and reports.
While we can still hope that no major disruption will occur, it is increasingly likely that the epidemic will not stop any longer. What is concerning, from a logistics point of view, is that this might last for several months as the responses of the public authorities will focus, rightly, in slowing down the epidemics. I would like to invite you to observe some basic rules, but also reflect on issues you might have not considered:
The most important thing is to address the upcoming months with a scientific mind and no panic. Please follow the indications provided by the NHS, WHO, and the University. While I do not doubt that all of us already wash their hands! Please do so also when you come in from outside, something we might usually not do.
I am happy for you to work from home when you can. Most of you will have to carry out experiments, but I am happy for you to cluster reading and to write in specific days and to work from home. Would you need access to your computers from home, just organize this with IT but the Unit will provide appropriate IT arrangements soon.
Some experiments could be rather expensive. Please let me know when this is happening so we could plan them properly. I would like not to delay important work though, so we might take some risks (on funds not on safety) but we could manage these risks proactively. For example ensuring that very expensive steps are executed in the shortest period of time and with sufficient people being aware of the experiment. For example, we have several commercial and in house developed cell lines that have not been archived yet.
I can foresee two situations where we need to help each other. First, the case where a single individual will self isolate and they need help to store, throw materials, or shut down a microscope. I think Slack will suffice, but we should have also a ‘buddy system’. For example, if I started an experiment on a microscope that would last two days, I can inform someone else who would have the expertise to safely terminate the experiment.
The second case is a bit more extreme but not really unlikely as other university campuses around the world have been closed. The Unit will soon provide specific guidance. Please think about which element would be critical, for example we will have to shut lasers down, air compressors to avoid them running out of oil etc.
Do consider if you travel, even just within the UK, you might get stuck somewhere. Please check the University policies that are updated daily. I will not recommend specific actions related to personal trips, except to comply with public health guidelines and to think about the possible consequences to get stuck at home in one or another town.
There is no indication – at the moment – that we will experience disruption to the supply chain. However, this might happen. Have a thought if we will run out of some consumables in a couple of weeks and perhaps order now.
Also, very important. There are people coming from areas that are quarantined. Unless you are sure they are breaching rules, be supportive and do not make too many jokes. Some people are more sensitive than others.
To conclude, please do not allow the situation to make you anxious or too worried. For the general population, the main issue in not health but arranging life around likely restrictions of movement to permit the NHS to cope with the extra workload. For us, provided we will put first safety of ourselves, colleagues and family, we have opportunity to keep reasonably productive even in this situation simply organizing.
Feel free to propose ideas or to have a chat with me in private if you have any specific concern.
My opinion on the situation and on what is happening
I am growing of the opinion that the Italian situation is happening only earlier than in other European countries, not that is a special situation. Spain, France and Germany might be already on that path (10-14 days of delay compared to others). UK is probably an extra week late, meaning that by the beginning of April, or earlier, we will experience similar disruptions we are observing in Italy (hopefully not). Also, I had a look at mortality rates. Once taken into account the demographic and that in Italy we are experiencing a situation similar to Hubei (health systems overwhelmed) and not to the rest of China (managed containment of the disease), the stats of Italy do not seem odd to me any longer.
At this point, all other European countries will experience the same unless they enact strong preventive measures. To me it seems governments in Europe and USA have preferred to shield economy first rather than people, or they are simply incompetent, to then get caught off-guard and inflicting to the economy the same level of damage they would have got intervening earlier. We can organize, minimize disruptions and deaths. Not eliminate them but we can do better we are doing. If only politicians would exert leadership, at local and national level, and – of course – people would comply with the indications…
Last word of caution. People might be complacent also thinking they have the best health systems. This is not the issue, the UK system will be as easily overwhelmed as the Italian one. In fact, there are fewer ICU beds in the UK than in most EU countries, including Italy. The point is to slow down the spread of the disease to keep our health system working within certain operational margins.
Bottom line. Am I writing to get your more worried or anxious? NO. The large majority of us will have minor health issues. However, the public health policies that will be necessary to minimize the negative impact on the NHS will cause major disruptions. Therefore, organize not by panic buying, but thinking ahead… how to work, look after family, etc, etc, when restrictions will be imposed.
Last thing. There is a tendency to minimize the situation as people dying is elderly affected by other pathologies. In Germany, it seems that they do not even consider those patients as CoV-related. The large majority of those people could have lived a much longer life, they are not (all) terminal patients. Moreover, with patients piling up in dedicated wards and ICU, everyone risks more because they will not receive adequate treatment, irrespective if they have been infected or not.
So… the apocalypse is not coming, but just the time to work together to get pass this.
Until not so long time ago, desk-rejections (the editor decision not to proceed with peer-review of a submitted manuscript) or even rejections of a manuscript after peer-review with very little substance for that decision, could get me angry, at least in private. These emotions can motivate to do better, but most of the time – if we try too hard to get published in very selective journals – they can take a toll.
After speaking to several editors, I tried to focus on the fact that most of us (editors, authors, referees – sometimes the same people wearing different hats) are good and well-motivated people. That did not work. The sense of unfairness outranks that thought.
I tried to not care, and that did not work either. Until…
*** I believe that the large majority of scientists and editors do their job also for a clear vocation, to advance human knowledge for the benefit of society. For this reason, we often invest a lot more in our jobs that we should, emotionally and time-wise. This is why it might be difficult to have a detached view of what publishing is nowadays. Let’s make an effort together, watching the problem as a scientific one, analyze it, reducing its complexity to its components and mechanisms.
*** If you have a donkey and you want to sell the donkey, you go to the market. You might first go to a trader who pays very well as they have good contacts with wealthy farmers. However, they may not like your donkey even if you dropped the price. They do not like your donkey, why do you want to sell your donkey to them? Then you go to a different trader, they like your donkey and you settle for a fair price. But if your donkey is very old, you might come back to your farm with your old donkey. Perhaps you need the money and you get frustrated, maybe even angry, but which is the point? Business is business and the trader is simply doing their job.
Wait… what? D-D-D-Donkeys?
*** When you submit a paper to a journal, you try to initiate a business transaction. The editor is an expert trader, highly invested in their business and committed to maintaining their operations, legitimately, financially sustainable and profitable. The author trades-in two commodities, their manuscript and their reputation, and – additionally – pays a lump of money for the service. In return, the editor provides two commodities, their readership and their reputation, and – additionally – provides editorial services. I will perhaps elaborate in the future on the traded commodities and services, but for now, I keep this post to the bare essential.
The editor-trader first judges the quality of the product you want to trade-in. They are entitled to act discretionally applying their in-depth knowledge of their business to assess if they are about to initiate a potentially good deal. Can your donkey carry weight? Er, I mean, can your paper attract many citations and media coverage? If they do not want to do business with you, it is not a matter of fairness, even not of science, certainly nothing personal. It is the author’s responsibility to make their business pitch, and it is the editor’s responsibility to not lose good assets or not invest in bad ones.
*** If I read what I have just written ten years ago, I would have recoiled in disgust. Then I expect many scientists being horrified by what I have written and perhaps editors offended. I hope this is not the case, but if it happened, please let me clarify one point.
We (authors and editors) do what we do to advance human knowledge for the benefit of society. Boiling down everything to a mere business transaction feels perhaps bad. However, let’s keep in mind that scientific publishing is business. If it has to be or not, it is the subject of a different post and to the analysis of the nature of the commodities and services we trade.
For now, I just wished to share with you the trick I use to cope with the stress of rejections, particularly desk-rejections. That part of our job is just a business transaction. This thought helps me a bit more than anything else I tried before.
“I have worked hard for three years and now that I
believe I understand the mechanism, the funding is over”. “I am at
the third referee round in five different submissions and I am always getting
different requests”. “My grant was not funded because of insufficient
preliminary results”. “I do not understand why they got a promotion
and I am struggling to keep my job with a similar track record”. “I
worked days and nights and the panel dismissed me with meaningless
questions”. “My friend never recovered from a mental breakdown”.
“I have written the proposal for a month and it was rejected with one
sentence, on subjective grounds”. “The referees were very positive
but the panel was unimpressed”. “I did not get funding but those in
the panels did”. “I got bullied but a committee found that nothing
“Yes, I understand you. It is unfair but this is how
*** No… it is not me moaning but a collection of whispers, complaints and shouts you can hear in the corridors of Academia. Along with comforting words, the response to a colleague in a temporary moment of discomfort or a prolonged stage of distress are often two. One might be an explanation of what a colleague might have done objectively wrong or how to avoid typical traps in the various stages of academic assessment. The other is just the acknowledgement that at least in many, if not all, cases… well… this is how Academia works and we have to be resilient and keep going*. However, this post is not about complaining but more about the human factor often lost in Academia.
In the last few days, twice I heard or read appeals of ‘being king’ to people in the academic context. Once, in a speech by our Director, Prof. Ashok Venkitaraman, opening our retreat on Friday. His speech did mention academic excellence but it was particularly focused on people as described by our colleague Dr Ben Hall.
His words resonated with most of us as kindness is far too
often forgotten in Academia, probably because in very competitive environments,
people are supposed to be all so full of themselves and thick-skinned that
everything goes. In truth, like in any work environment, the large majority of
people treat each other with respect and just a few then spoil it for everyone
Just a day later on Saturday, in a private conversation completely unrelated, a friend pointed out that the Teichmann laboratory at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, adopted as a lab motto the words “Be bold. Be brilliant. Be kind.“
These two almost trivial observations (from our Director and another successful Academic) made me think. Why do we need to make such appeals for kindness? After two decades of living a life within Universities, my experience of the Academic environment is of a very tolerant, liberal and progressive environment. Of course, there are plenty of issues to be fixed, common to other sections of society, but the general attitude and ethos – in my experience** – was mostly positive. Then why do we eventually feel the need to appeal to kindness?
*** My opinion is that the obsession for ‘independent’ academic assessment and competition is in part selecting for certain characters. Being ruthless and selfish helps in any competitive environment, as it increases the likelihood to seize resources. However, I do not think this is just the issue. Most academic assessment is either performed anonymously or by panels that often have no knowledge of the person they have to judge. Various forms of peer-review (either for publishing or funding) are designed to be objective and independent. While peer-review is the best system I can also think of, its issue is that – eventually – it is not objective and it is not independent but in trying to be, it loses any human touch. Even when interviews are at the core of assessment, these are brief (5-20mins) and very focused, in any case preceded by anonymous reviews. The lack of human connection and two-way personal dialogue, I think, dehumanize the process of assessment and triggers ‘unkind’ behaviours. The problem, perhaps, we focus too much on projects and not enough on people.
I might be still naive, but in my opinion, the most important resource in any work environment, and also in Academia, is people. Recently, we prepared a leaflet for outreach with the motto “Our superpower is you”, meaning that science main resource is one: people. Unfortunately, the structure of academic assessment and a highly tapered career pyramid with huge turn-overs at its base, create rent-seeking behaviours and an environment that can be harsh in general, or at least in key moments of one’s career. We should think about people investing in people for the benefit of people, not just in projects.
I know that this is perhaps a tiny bit too idealistic and any type of assessment has flows. Probably, we cannot really solve this problem, maybe it is not a problem in itself. But I would like to leave you, my friend, with a provocation. I dare you not just being kind (if you read until here you might agree with the general concept) but challenge everyone that is not, be kind when you review a paper or a grant, particularly when you have strong criticisms to share. If you are an Editor, the head of a panel, academic or not, I dare you challenging unkind behaviour and disqualifying any critique that is not delivered with respect. I dare you all speaking publicly about the need to be excellent in science, but also in our humanity. Because if we wait longer for a top-down change, even though many at the top are wonderful people agreeing with the ‘be kind’ concept, we will keep losing our human capital. I dare you last, to use this or any other badge of your choice in your website or public communication. The large majority of people is good people, in any environment, we just need to remind everyone that it is not acceptable to be otherwise:
* to avoid misunderstandings, I should clarify that I might also respond in this way, it is not a criticism on trying to be helpful explaining how the system might work. ** VERY IMPORTANT TO ME, this is my own experience. I am fully aware of other very different experiences, and structural problems. Here I am speaking about a general attitude and – as I am committed in Equality Diversity and Inclusiveness in Academia, I am fully aware that there are plenty of problems to be solved. I do not want that this specific statement about Academia being generally a liberal and progressive environment (which is what I think) will be misunderstood as if Academia is perfect, indeed my post would suggest otherwise.
There are grants, there are great words written, there seems to be strong support, but how working between disciplines really work? Let me tell you at least how this has worked for me. This is a long read, but if you do not wish to go at the bottom of it, my advice (sadly) is the advice I once received and did not follow (with no regrets): consolidate your career in one discipline/department/subject (silo?), then you will be free to roam between disciplines at a later stage.
A very early choice to work across discipline*| As a young boy, alongside sports, I picked-up electronics and computers as hobbies leading me to select scientific studies at high school. I then matured a keen interest in physics and biology. When the time came to decide which courses to follow at University, I wanted to combine these interests, applying Physics to understand Life. However, I was undecided if to pursue this growing passion through studies in medicine, engineering, physics or biology. In a very uncharacteristic move for me, as a shy youngster from a family of non-academics and from a town without a university, I found myself sneaking into the Department of Physics at the not-too-far University of Genoa asking to speak with a scientist to get advice. I still remember that a Dr Rossi at the CNR in Genoa explained to me how I could approach my interest following different paths. While I never met again Dr Rossi and I do not recall the details of my visit, on that day and after speaking with him, I decided to study Physics and to become a researcher in biophysics.
Here I got into the first silo | Genoa was an excellent place where to study biophysics as it was one of the towns where biophysics started in Italyand it had a mature and vibrant biophysical community. However, I got an early warning about what meant to work across disciplines. Having opted for Physics, I first had to become a proper physicist, well-grounded in mathematics and theoretical physics. As I generally did well at high school with not too much studying, investing most of my spare time in tinkering with computers, electronics and doing athletics, University was a shock. With no tutoring and no advice (today things have changed), the first two years at University were brutal for me, incapable to cope with the workload and seeing around me, not only friends that were doing well but many who were dropping out (I believe we had a 50% drop-out). Until one day, seating on the floor of the library at Physics… studying maths from a book grabbed from the shelves… breathing pages of old books… when I finally got it. I found my way to study maths, my way to study 24/7. After that mountain was climbed, I picked the few – very formative – courses related to biophysics I could and I finally completed my studies. Although University could have been simpler for me with the tutoring and help that nowadays are available, I am grateful that I was forced to have a very strong theoretical background – no compromise allowed – and I am happy for that first choice of doing Physics at Genoa. However, the first warning was there, unnoticed at the time. To study Life with the tools of Physics, I had studied quantum mechanics, advanced mathematics, particle physics, but I had not a single course in biology or biochemistry. This, despite the fact that what you would nowadays call my master thesis was a year-long experimental work in neurosciences. The fact that I was doing biophysics in a very interdisciplinary environment, partially concealed the fact that science (still) works in silos.
Training at the interface | My choice for a PhD was a bit more random. At the time, I knew I wanted to work with proteins (very vaguely) and I had strong training in fluorescence microscopy. While the search for a laboratory where to do a PhD should be done differently, once again without guidance except for Altavista and Lycos (read as ‘Google’ back then) I identified the first batch of laboratories working with proteins and optics. As my first initial and unplanned search landed me immediate job offers, I was attracted by a very charismatic scientist, Prof. Fred Wouters at the European Neuroscience Institute in Goettingen. My duty was to develop biochemical imaging tools (FRET/FLIM) to study protein-protein interactions relevant to neurodegeneration. At the same time, I enrolled at the University of Utrecht, under the supervision of Prof. Hans Gerritsen, with whom I later obtained my PhD in Physics. Thanks to my struggles at Genoa, I was able to fly, build microscopes, write theory, apply imaging tools to solve biological problems and I completed a successful and productive PhD, by the end of which I was able to do tissue culture and molecular biology as well. Finishing up, on a long train journey to visit my partner who was working in Bonn (also a scientist), I asked myself what I wanted to do and the answer, since then unchanged, became clear: study how cells process information to take decisions by advancing microscopy tools dedicated to the study of biochemical pathways. At that moment, I committed to work at the interface and to do both physics and biology.
Swapping disciplines and subjects, the untold dangers| The move for my first real post-doctoral experience was once again insufficiently planned career-wise. At the time, I started to be introduced at talks or in conversations as “one of the top experts in FRET” or “one of the few scientists who can handle biology and physics equally well”. Young experts working across disciplines, particularly with a background in physics and – I suppose today – in Mathematics and Computing, do not have problems to find a job at the post-doctoral level. I sent two applications, got two job offers, opted for the one in Cambridge as my wife wished to apply to a lab there. The science (despite not my focus that was still neuroscience) and the environment were very interesting. My work was the attempt to falsify a homeostatic model of red blood cell infected by P. falciparum (the pathogen causing malaria). Once again I was working between disciplines, affiliated to the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology supervised by Prof. Clemens Kaminski and to the Dept. of Physiology, Development and Neurosciences supervised by Dr Virgilio Lew. Once again, grateful for the training received in Genoa, I flew and I had a very successful and productive post-doctoral experience with my colleagues. However, I started to notice a few more issues.
First, despite the interest and the success, the move to malaria research was not strategic for my final goal and had potentially weakened my profile in the neurosciences. Second, the more senior you become, the more politics counts to seize a position, and without the shelter of a chosen silo (either physics or biology), one might be a bit more at risk. I looked after the former issue seizing an EPSRC Life Science Interface fellowship that I wrote to develop biophotonics tools to investigate the physiological role and interaction of some proteins involved in neurodegeneration.
An unexpected and exciting switch to cancer research | A few months into the fellowship, I was offered to move my fellowship at the MRC Cancer Unit (back then known as the MRC Cancer Cell Unit) where I became, in all effects, a staff scientist. The request was clear, refocus my work to cancer research. EPSRC agreed, and I welcomed the requests as this was strategic to achieve exactly what I planned a few years before, i.e. to study cell decisions by advancing biochemical imaging technologies. My third change of disease model, this time cancer or, more specifically, early oncogenesis, was both very good and bad for me. Very good, scientifically, as it permitted me to align perfectly my scientific ambitions to a disease model where it made perfect sense (cell decisions in cancer are very important and relevant to study). Bad, career-wise, as I once again changed subject therefore further weakening my profile. However, the offer seemed good also in terms of career progression and therefore I accepted. For the third time in a row, my fellowship was a success and productive, achieving my set goals which were, however, more related to advancing technologies while I was getting retrained in cancer biology.
The paradox of the praise of inter-disciplinary research and the silos-like organization of academia | Science works in silos, it still does. These silos communicate, exchange expertise, and they do contribute to beautiful cross-disciplinary work but they are still silos, particularly career-wise. This more or less strongly compartmentalized operation is reflected in the difficulties to review grants, papers, career progression of interdisciplinary work or people at the interface, as discussed in the many articles published on this topic. For now, let me just report a couple of specific events that describes one aspect of the problem.
One day I was at a funding workshop during which several colleagues delivered talks about inter-disciplinary science. One stated that there are excellent people who can do both biology and physics, referring to them as ‘hybrids’. He expressed his support for these hybrids and stated that, as they are rare, we have to fund collaboration between departments. After this comment – delivered by a scientist I have a lot of respect for – I was simply feeling great. Then other speakers clarified how they do not believe in individuals working interdisciplinary but they expressed the need to just collaborate across departments. This – of course – was quite a shock for me. So accustomed to read and hear praises for interdisciplinary work and striving at the interface despite the occasional hic-up and emerging ‘career frictions’, the pieces of the puzzle came together after that event.
The large majority of the Universities, as far as I can tell, are still organized in mono-disciplinary Departments. Even when individual Departments or Institutes are very inter-disciplinary, with biologists, clinicians, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians working shoulder-to-shoulder, you should ask how much disciplinary diversity exists amongst the principal investigators, particularly the tenured academics. If the spread of disciplines suddenly shrinks to a few very related backgrounds, you would have a clearer picture of how interdisciplinary work is rewarded.
This is summarized by a comment I once heard at a conference. After a number of talks about magnetic resonance imaging at the university hospital, and the praise of mathematicians (PhDs and post-docs) who contributed so much to the progress, one person from the audience popped the magic question: “which career perspective do you offer to these young mathematicians without whom this progress could not have been achieved?”. The response was delivered bluntly, honestly and respectfully: “None. We do not have possibilities for career advancement for mathematicians but most of our PhDs and post-docs after working with us do well in industry”.
I am absolutely sure there are plenty of exceptions to what I am describing. However, I do not think I would be too wrong to warn you, perhaps a younger-me, of the risks in leaving the shelter provided by a well-established silo, at least from a career perspective. A silo where career structures might be clearer and career progression might be still very difficult but more ‘natural’.
Am I in the wrong silo? | The last chapter of my story (for the time being) is still writing itself. More importantly for those two of you young readers landing on this page, I should clarify that it is a story were many plots get entangled. I wished to answer questions such as “how was your experience working at the interface of life and physical sciences?” or “how was for you swapping between different disciplines”. However, the longer you stay in academia, other issues arise such as reaching job security, finding a good balance between family and work, maintaining/finding/expanding resources (people, funds, space, instrumentation,…), supervising/mentoring people, finding a balance between research and other academic duties, etcetera. These and other important aspects of our work are common to any scientist, irrespective of how many disciplines or subjects they touch. However, working at the interface between disciplines adds – in my opinion – a little bit of friction to most of these processes.
I am doing biomedical research in a cancer research institute, I love it and I enjoy working with my colleagues. However, I am a biophysicist with a strong track record in biophotonics, not much track record in cancer biology. After the successful completion of my EPSRC fellowship, I was expecting to get into a tenure track position with dedicated resources. However, the new (however obvious it might appear writing it down now) condition I had to confront was to have a track record in cancer research possibly with high impact factor journals. Retreat to the ‘shelter’ of Physics departments or competing on this new ground of biomedical research on the game (that I do not even like nor endorse***) of impact factors? While the choice should be obvious, I personally focused only on the scientific ambitions, trying to establish what I like to call a “single-cell systems biology of cellular decisions” and I opted, somehow reluctantly, to play the game. I am sure that others would have handled the situation better. Personally, I enslaved all my physics/engineering/mathematics to the solution of biological questions and stopped publishing specialist work. At the same time, caving-in to peer pressure, I focused on preparing manuscripts that, potentially, might be published in high impact factor journals entering a very long cycle of ‘stashing’ data seeking to have the most solid work and the most interesting narrative (I shiver spelling it out, and I corrected this by using pre-print servers and resuming publishing specialist work).
Not only the work I excel into is invisible to most biomedical colleagues, erroneously tagging it ‘just technology or methodological’. I mistakenly reinforced this trend by starting to bury a large part of my work in the supporting information of would-be high impact-factor journal papers. Somehow, the need to fit in my environment, the expectation of peers in cancer biology, referees and panels, made me behave as if I should be ashamed of the work I am actually best known for. The issue is not my institution, certainly not the very supportive colleagues. Perhaps I am simply in the wrong silo in an academic environment that works as communicating silos. By now, however, I would be in the wrong silo in most academic silos and I shall continue attempting to prove there is a reason to have some ‘hybrids’ working at the interface between disciplines.
A war of attritions| I shall conclude with a comment on something I believe is important for anyone that is ‘different’ in an academic environment, something I will expand upon in the future in a different context. In any very competitive environment, and Academia as I know it is highly competitive, the best might emerge. However, people of the same quality will experience different frictions. For example, even in the absence of outright discrimination, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, physical ability or even regional accent might each result in additional friction while climbing up in career depending on the environment**. Working at the interface between disciplines, or swapping discipline, will help to make you unique but, at the same time, it might add significant friction to your walk through Academia. While I have no regrets and I love – as a physicist – working on cancer biology in a biomedical research campus, I wished to warn those scientists willing to do the same of the possible hidden risks. Of course, this is just my story, but there is plenty of research out there showing how difficult is to work across disciplines for both individuals and teams.
You will love breaking free from the cages of disciplines. You will feel strained by the absence of a safe shelter.
So, perhaps, the solution is one I was advised a decade ago, the advice I neglected as I assumed was given for self-interest. You might want to first establish yourself within a single discipline, be either physics or biology for example. Once you will have a well-established career, you will be able to use resources across disciplines.
That was not for me, I am a ‘hybrid’ after all.
* Be aware that in this blog-post I use various terms to refer to working across disciplines (inter, cross, multi, etcetera) I do this in a very colloquial way.
** I do not intend to compare the issue of inter-disciplinary research to the struggle of asserting civil rights! My point here is simply that in the absence of outright discrimination (for those environments where this might be applicable) unconscious bias might remain thus adding some friction to the career of people. Bias against multi-disciplinary research is well-characterized in the literature and, I argue, this bias is yet another friction that adds on to the normal challenges in academic progression.
*** I should clarify that I do not have anything against high impact factor journals. They are a business and they do it well. Moreover, they often provide great editorial input and production assistance. However, I am critical on the use of such journals in Academia that, in practice and in many cases, slows down the discovery process.