my blog

Embrace your public speaking anxiety

About a decade ago, I went to a PI during a retreat to ask a question. Nervously, but politely, he asked me to be left alone as he was rather anxious for a talk he was about to deliver.  A few hours later, a PhD student at the time, I was freaking out for my own talk, but it was comforting, in a way, to see that an established scientist I highly regarded and I had considered rather self-confident was in a similar state-of-mind.

Comforting? Why not scary? Would you never get rid of public speaking anxiety? I am no anxiety coach and, for that, browse around. However, I wished to share my own experience as it might be useful for students. I now noticed I am that ‘senior’ scientist at that retreat (or something similar) and that junior colleagues might misunderstand my confident speaking in public as evidence of no-stress, no-shyness, a gift from birth. So, even though your solution might be a different one, here I tell you which was mine.

Be prepared! Be prepared? (take 1)

Trivial, isn’t it? I am not going to give practical suggestions here, except set yourself comfortable deadlines. With experience, you will be able to work on a talk until a few minutes before delivery, but earlier in carrier, you have to prepare all your material far in advance. However, even very experienced academics and businessmen when facing more unique scenarios work hard to prep a meeting and give this enough time and resources.

Be prepared! Be prepared? (take 2)

Perhaps, the most difficult thing you might find, it is to commit to a deadline, after which you have to be ready. But, here the challenging bit, even if you feel still unprepared (and some people may never be able to shred off that feeling) or if you are actually unprepared because you miscalculated something, you have anyway to commit to the next difficult bit, be mentally and physically prepared, something you might be completing neglecting. Deadlines are deadlines and the starting time of your talk is unmovable. Therefore, start to mature a process and to understand how long you need to be ready before a talk. Some people is a natural and need no or little preparation. Other people need time: never underestimate how long time you need. Most of my following comments are about this stage of preparation. The bottom line, when the deadline strikes, be sure you are ready and if you are not, do not allow doubts to undermine the next phase of preparation.

Commit physically: water and energy

During a stressful moment, your physiology will be heavily altered and you might lose control. So, think how not to. Personally, before a talk I try to drink lots of water to ensure I will be properly hydrated, and I also make sure I have water available during the talk. Once I didn’t, and I was not well. I coughed though all my talk and it was not a very ideal situation. Also, be sure you have energy, so a bar of chocolate or a juice, can help. Ah… ok, is this obvious?… pay attention – water in > water out. As basic as it seems, be sure you went to the toilet at the latest opportunity before the event. You do not want to be dehydrated, but even not to be distracted by your bladder while on stage.

Mind you that this is even more true when you have very long days, such as more articulated interviews or conference commitments.

Commit physically: oxygen

Breathing, for me, is the next most important issue. You might find yourself in need of oxygen after a few slides and attempting to do the world record in apnoea while speaking in public. You could pass through an entire 20 minutes presentation incapable to breath properly, increasing your level of anxiety at each slide. You are in front of an audience, it could be two people at an interview, or a thousand people in a theatre, if not a million in TV. However, giving a good breath permitting your lungs to be completely emptied and filled with fresh air takes a few seconds. This can be easily concealed in a transition between two slides, or during a question. And… if you cannot conceal it… do it anyway, 5 seconds spent silently breathing properly will be immediately forgotten by your audience, but a poorly delivered 20 minutes talk will be remembered.

Once again, get ready for it. First of all reflect on your breathing habits, far away from a talk. If you give enough thoughts about the issue, whenever you will struggle, a mental trigger will snap and make you aware of the occurring issue for you to take action. More importantly, if issues in breathing are recurrent for you, just do exercises in the 5 minutes preceding your talk. Breath in deeply and breath out slowly. This will decrease your anxiety and will prepare your breathing for the talk. You can do it while seating in the audience or even while speaking with others.

Commit physically: avoid distractions

Personally, I have a routine. Before a talk, I remove everything from my pockets, or even the badge, anything superfluous. After a few talks delivered with my pockets inside-out dangling from my trousers, I also double-check that I am generally presentable! So, on stage or seating in front of a panel, I have no distractions from the badge hitting the microphone, the phone vibrating, the keys stuck in my thigh. Well, the phone: switch it off well in advance of your talk and dump everything in you bag.

Commit mentally: have fun

Those were a few suggestions, and more or different tricks will work for you, to ensure your physical state will be ready to support the potential stress you might experience while speaking in public. Of course, your state of mind will play an equally important role. Perhaps, I should advise to not care, to convince yourself that the event you are preparing does not matter. This is probably key, more in general, to achieve the resilience necessary in the academic world. For me that does not work very well, as I tend to be heavily invested in everything I do. So, what it works for me is to repeat myself I need to have fun speaking about science, my work, or the work of others – otherwise is really not worth. A bit of self-couching targeted to focus your mood towards excitement, how great can be to speak or debate science.

I did receive my dose of criticisms in my career, but let me tell you which is one of the best compliment I ever got. Do you remember the talk I was freaking out during my PhD? Well, after my talk, which might not have been even an excellent one, I overheard the head of a department advising two junior PIs to speak with the energy and enthusiasm I was speaking with. I guess you should remind yourself of how exciting the work you do is and if you disagree with this, change job or lie to yourself for a couple of hours.

Commit mentally: focus

You would not run the athletics world final 100m, physically unprepared and with no excitement. You would also not run it thinking about random stuff or worrying not to win it. Watch athletes on their blocks, the intensity of their eyes, the deep focus they concentrate on the start gun and those few seconds after. Focusing might take a fraction of a second if you were a natural or simply experienced. Also, keep your focus during the talk, try to nurture that unconscious little voice that can warn you everytime you are going off-track.

The top right-hand corner syndrome (TRiHCS) is a risky issue in our business. TRiHCS happen when your mind wonders off, but you keep speaking. TRiHCS happen when you zone out and speak for 2 minutes about an irrelevant detail being fixated on a corner of a room, while you are not engaging with the audience and perhaps even with the main topic of the talk. If you get TRiHCSed, your timing and narrative will derail. But, do not worry, if you notice it in time, you can easily recover.

OK, ok… TRiHCS? I just made this up, but I promise you, it is something that does happen!

Look after yourself…

Pay attention to yourself. It is easy to get anxiety compromise your health in the long term, or your performance in the short term. In an ideal world, you can sleep, eat, drink, meditate as a Yogi. In the real world, assaulted by too many things to do, it is likely you will experience periods of stress and long hours. However, you will have to know your limits and try to stay far from the edge and arrive to an event in good physical and mental conditions. Your institution and funders will offer you a provision of well-being courses, advice and activities. However, your institution and funders will implicitly ask you to neglect completely their own advice and deliver huge returns for them at any cost (for you). Like for any job, the day will come that you cannot run any longer over the edge. Then, manage anxiety, either it is just for public speaking, or for anything else… embrace it, as in ‘do not ignore it’, ‘do not fight it’ as it fights back, but manage it and if you can’t, ask for help.

Look after yourself… plan your cool-off stage

I did some crazy things aiming to present data still warm from the microscope (yes, it is a thing if you use high power lasers), consciously cutting sleeping times down (within reason) and working over the edge. Even if you do not, but public speaking really takes a toll on you, look after yourself after the main event. You need to consider two phases. One, which might be short or very long, depending on the event, is the immediate aftermath. I used to be a runner, and I used to give everything until the end of the race, which made it very likely for me to fall on the ground exhausted after the line… but you learn to immediately stand-up, walk, then do a run at slow space and hydrate.

Somehow, after a peak of stress you need to do something similar, often quietly and in public. This may have to happen in a few seconds before taking further questions. So, regain mental and physical composure, re-gather your focus and energy, again consider drinking water or a juice.  You will need this, particularly, in a day-long event full of meetings. It can really take just one minute, but if you do not do it, you might crash and underperform in the aftermath of a public speaking event. Do not underestimate the task you will have to follow after the main event and the energy you will need for them.

Then, at last, all is over. Really look after yourself because if the event you prepared took really a lot of energy from you, there might be consequences. You will discover what is best for you, if to completely relax and instruct yourself, or to simply take it easy for a few hours or a few days.

Conclusions

Keep in mind that what I have written here it is not an expert-opinion, but a personal experience. My suggestion to embrace your public speaking anxiety comes from trying to advise junior colleagues and realizing I did not wish to give the same suggestion a GP once gave to me: ‘you should avoid stress’. This is the wrong suggestion, in my opinion, as most of us, certainly in the ultra-competitive academic world, will have to manage plenty of stressful situation. Thus, the keyword is ‘manage’ not ‘avoid’, be the master or mistress of your stress-responses and, yes, avoid only those things that might push you too far beyond what you can manage. So, embrace your public anxiety speaking, mould your response to it in time and you will eventually grow out of it, or if not, at least you will manage.

Of course, whatever I described here is not something I usually think about, even during big talks. I made an effort to catalogue the various ‘tricks’ I – sometimes unconsciously -matured in 15 years of presenting scientific work in public. But recently, I had noticed that – either as a natural predisposition or by training – delivering a talk is more than just speaking in public. It is a process that requires physical and psychological strengths, like an actor preparing for a play or an athlete for a race. Scientists, noticing it or not, need to nurture these strengths, even not for their audience, but at least for looking after their health.

[TALK] Goldilocks and the two ERKs; signalling in the ‘sweet spot’ underpins resistance to ERK pathway inhibitors

Friday 14/09 at 14.30 | Dr. Simon Cook (Signalling Laboratory, The Babraham Institute) will present the following talk, at the Clifford Allbutt Lecture Theatre, Clifford Allbutt Building (former LMB building). All welcome to attend.

 Goldilocks and the two ERKs; signalling in the ‘sweet spot’ underpins resistance to ERK pathway inhibitors

Simon Cook, Signalling Laboratory, The Babraham Institute

Tumour cells with BRAF or RAS mutations are ‘addicted’ to ERK1/2 signalling for proliferation and RAFi and/or MEKi are now approved for use in the clinic.  However, despite some striking clinical responses, resistance emerges within 9-12 months resulting in disease progression. Acquired resistance to MEKi often occurs through amplification of BRAFV600E or KRASG13D which act to reinstate ERK1/2 signalling.

Here we show that BRAFV600E amplification and MEKi resistance are fully reversible following drug withdrawal.  Resistant cells with BRAFV600E amplification become addicted to MEKi to clamp ERK1/2 signalling at a level optimal for cell survival and proliferation (2-3% of total ERK1/2 active, quantified by mass spectrometry).  This is seen in cell culture and in vivo where growth of resistant cells with BRAFV600E amplification as tumour xenografts is inhibited in mice that do not receive MEKi.  ERK1/2 hyperactivation (~20% active) following MEKi withdrawal drives expression of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor (CDKI) p57KIP2, which promotes G1 cell cycle arrest and senescence, or expression of NOXA and cell death; these ‘terminal’ responses select against those cells with amplified BRAFV600E.  ERK1/2-dependent p57KIP2 expression is required for loss of BRAFV600E amplification and determines the rate of reversal of MEKi resistance.  Thus, BRAFV600E amplification confers a fitness deficit during drug withdrawal, providing a rationale for intermittent dosing (‘drug holidays’) to forestall resistance.

Remarkably, MEKi resistance driven by KRASG13D amplification is not reversible. ERK1/2 reactivation in the context of amplified KRASG13D does not inhibit proliferation but drives a ZEB1-dependent epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition that increases cell motility and promotes resistance to chemotherapy agents, arguing strongly against the use of ‘drug holidays’ in cases of resistance to MEKi driven by KRASG13D amplification.

 

 

1984 – A BREXIT tale

British people are lucky, as they have a wealth of literature to read from, a rich history to learn from and a great number of world-leading experts to listen to. They also have a lot of selfish, ideologically-biased and intellectually dishonest politicians to listen to. Not that all politicians are dishonest, but many – if not all – have the need to survive elections and when facts do not support their bid for a seat in the parliament, many politicians are simply keen to alter the facts. And in this era of non-accountability, this strategy works perfectly. So, why do many people decide to ignore facts and live in a fantasy world narrated by politicians? Spoiler alert: no answer to this question.

In the dystopian world beautifully described by Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,  the government alters recorded facts to make them fit with their policies and propaganda. For example, when the price of chocolate increases, the historical record of the price of chocolate is altered with higher prices; then people will have to take note that the price of chocolate has actually decreased in recent times. More importantly, in a society that respond with violence to those (‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs’) that do not conform with the ruler-engineered representation of reality, people will accept this contradiction between their own memory and what reality appears to be. But, importantly, they will eat less chocolate as the hard facts are… hard facts, even when they are ‘white, red and blue’.

Next year, the NHS will get an increased budget of £4 billions. Which is a great and greatly overdue news of course. The Tory MP and minister Andrea Leadsom commented “As we leave the European Union and stop paying significant annual subscriptions to Brussels, we will have more to spend on priorities such as the NHS”. Well, at least they spared us a new red bus at this round. Let’s be clear, NHS spending has nothing to do with the EU, it was a government decision to not increase budgets when needed, and it is a government decision to increase funding now. There is no money that was saved so far from the EU contributions and there will be no money for a while longer (facts). Even when funds will be released from EU commitments, people should be reminded that this will be just £8 billions a year, the net contribution of the UK to the EU budget, or ~1%  for the UK government budget. This saving will be partially reabsorbed by investments in administrating functions currently devolved to the EU, including a custom infrastructure. Who can do sums know that the ‘EU dividend’ will be real but down to very little money. Moreover, notwithstanding the fact that the UK economy might flourish outside the EU, even with bright and smart politicians steering us in the right direction, all predictions are for short-term economical pain in the near future.

While the political debate will now focus on an imaginary ‘EU dividend’, I wished to remind myself and those two people that read this blog a few simple facts. If we neglected for a moment the bright imagination of Boris Johnson about EU policies, and the hatred of Nigel Farage for everything European, we might still remember that the UK did very well within the EU, growing economically more than others. We will never know if the UK could have done better, but we certainly know that the UK had a prosperous time within the EU.

Then the financial crisis struck. Make a long breath and repeat – slowly: ‘the financial crisis struck in 2008’. It was a decade ago and very little was done to improve how our economies work, meaning that other financial crises like the 2008 are possible (or likely?). Private debt is again massive, very little was done to reform the financial sector, almost nothing was done to recoup the huge financial resources legally hidden away or simply moved around by wealthy people and organizations. All this money that is syphoned away from the UK, it is money that does not go into public services. It is the lack of funds that get your surgery rescheduled several times, get you wait six hours at the emergency, or four hours for an ambulance, get you pay a lot of money to travel on slow trains, get schools struggling or your prospect for a decent pension low. All these ‘little’ things we ‘normal’ people we actually experience.

So, now repeat – calmly: ‘the financial crisis struck one decade ago’. Also repeat with me, quietly: ‘wealthy hedge fund managers such as Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg told me that the EU is evil and I forgot that the financial crisis even happened’. Repeat that a few times. If you do not get angry or feel fooled, it is ok. The Farages, the Rees-Moggs, the inept politicians and the smart financers we do not actually know publically, swept under the carpet, a blue and yellow carpet called the EU, all the damage they have done.

When the financial crisis was unfolding, I feared an increase in xenophobia, tensions between states, the formation of new blocks of countries and seeding new wars. I grew-up and I was educated in Italy, another country with a rich history and literature. And, although I was never the perfect student and I can barely remember what I ate yesterday, I do know what happens from an historical perspective. We are on that horrifying trajectory. Social and political tension is increasing, and if there will be hints to more significant financial stress, I am afraid politicians and those powerful people that have access to them will need to burn the carpet and its hidden secrets.

Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in a perpetual war to conquer the disputed regions in Africa and Asia (1984), a tool of propaganda to distract people and resources, that is what politicians need next to cover-up the major fuck-ups that are engineering around the world.

People have a choice. People can choose right, left or centre governments. People can choose to be pro or against Brexit. But people have also a choice to speak about war or pretend that it is not a possibility. Perhaps not tomorrow, perhaps not next year, but people’s political choices, carefully influenced by seemingly inept and bizarre characters with somehow huge resources, are directing several Western-countries towards discord and tension. People have a choice, the choice between peace and war, the choice between selecting their representatives or been lead like sheep. So, sometimes, let’s forget about Brexit and the little sit-com characters it delivered. Let’s just focus on the bigger picture.

Within the EU or outside the EU, people in the UK will be responsible for their own decisions. Our political system, trying to survive, created one extremely dangerous  situation. Soon or late, changing the record on the price of chocolate will work no longer. There will be two possibilities. The first is the one I would welcome, the one thought by an ‘optimist-me’ that prosperity for all of us is around the corner. That would be great. The second is that politicians will lose control, they will get us into another more powerful crisis, this time with no financial reserves, no political capital, no patience to leverage from people.

They will have only one way ahead, enflaming people souls, even more than now, and getting a big nice war to hide their pettiness. Now repeat calmly, after me: “I want no war, I want a life as a free man or woman”. Imagine yourself in the 1920s, in Germany, Italy, or any other European country of that period. Would you hail politicians on nationalist platforms to get your country first, to get back control, to reclaim sovereignty and prosperity for your people? Or would you warn people about the perils of populism and lack of cooperation among nations? Would you be an ‘innocent spectator’ not just of crimes ‘committed by a few’, but also of all the run-up to those more horrid years, that period during which everything got in motion? Then, repeat with me, with a bit of humility: ‘we need to fix the real problems, in our own country’ and shout this aloud to any politician that tells you that the price of chocolate has decreased, again.

P.S. These are just a few thoughts, clearly not a technical analysis. Of course, my opinion is largely shaped by the British political landscape and events, where I live for longer than a decade. However, I am equally critical of most of the events and politicians I follow, from Italy to USA passing through Germany and Turkey. All opinions expressed on this website are my own, even those more confined to my academic activities. I do not and I will not use this platform to share my political opinions too often. However, even though not known to the masses, because of my work I am somehow a public figure and – with no expectation that my words will make any difference – I could not refrain to declare publicly my worries about our society and our future. If we do not speak out against war, violence of any type, if we do not speak in favour of civil and human right, or against threats to our freedom, perhaps it is not worth speaking at all.

 

Volume rendering: is this localization-based super-resolution?

Project outcome published in Biophysical Journal in 2010.

  • Esposito A*, Choimet JB, Skepper JN, Mauritz JMA, Lew VL, Kaminski CF, Tiffert T, “Quantitative imaging of human red blood cells infected with Plasmodium falciparum“, Biophys. J., 99(3):953-960

Most papers have an untold backstory that we cannot reveal in it so to focus on a main message and the most relevant discoveries. This one has a little one I wish to share. Volumetric imaging of red blood cells is not the most difficult thing I have ever done. However, accurate morphological and volumetric imaging of red blood cells infected by Plasmodium falciparum, the causative pathogen of malaria, caused me a few headaches. Let’s forget the time spent waiting for the cultures growing at the right speed to deliver bugs at the right stage of development, undecided if to sleep before or after the experiment, and always getting the decision wrong. Let’s not speak for now about the optimization of the sample preparation that that by trying and failing lead to other interesting observations. And here we focus on the very simple concept of accurate volume rendering.

In one way or another, volume rendering and estimation will require some sort of thresholding on the data so to discriminate the object from the background. As imaging conditions change even slightly from experiment to experiment, setting this threshold might confound the final outcomes. When you deal also with a sample that undergoes major morphological transitions, a simple problem soon became one for which I spent a lot of time to identify a solution for. As it happens, one perhaps does not find the best, most elegant or even the simplest solution, but the solution that they can find with their skills and tools. Mine was a brute-force solution of isosurface volume rendering, iteratively deformed by local refitting of a random sample of vertices in order to respect a specific model set for the transition of object to background. This was a method that permitted us to preserve high resolution morphological descriptions, at high accuracy and reproducibility for volume rendering.

This work was carried out while many of my colleagues were focusing on super-resolution, e.g. maximizing the spatial resolution in optical microscopy. Then, it was simple to notice that fitting a surface onto volumetric data delivers volume estimates at higher precisions than what the optical resolution of a microscope should permit. Indeed, whenever you have a model for an object, in my case the boundary of a red blood cell, in single-molecule super-resolution methods the point-spread-function of an emitter, it is possible to fit this model with a precision that is not (fully) constrained by diffraction, but – in the right conditions – only by the signal-to-noise ratio, the analytical tools and the adequacy of the model for the object.

In this Biophysical Journal paper, we focused on the biological application and, together with other published work, on the modelling of homeostasis of infected red blood cells. Also to avoid criticisms from referees, probably legitimate ones, I decided not to mention the concept of super-resolution. As my research focus is on biochemical resolution and its utilization to understand cellular decisions in cancer, I will not pursue this work any further, but I thought to write this little story.

While writing this brief story, I recalled my friend Alberto Diaspro often citing Toraldo di Francia on resolving power and information. I believe that my work was far from being breakthrough from an optical standpoint, but I wished to use it as a reminder of a fundamental issue that, often in biomedical applications, get forgotten. The resolution at which we can observe a phenomenon, irrespective of the tools used, depends both on the qualities of the instrument used and the quality of prior information we can utilize to interpret the data. Once technology permitted to image single emitters in fluorescence microscopy, the prior of point-like sources could be use to analyse images so to reveal the fullness of the information content of an image that is carried by photons.

In an experiment, information content is the most precious thing. Irrespective of the methodologies used, our protocols are designed to maximize signal-to-noise ratios and, thus, maximize information content, precision and resolution. However, as trivial as these statements are, in the biomedical sciences we often do not follow through the process of maximizing information content. Significant information can be provided by our a priori constrains and models. Moreover, a thorough understanding of information theory related to a specific assay can provide levels of precision and resolution that go beyond what we assume, at first, possible. However, priors and information theory are far too often neglected. This happens out of necessity as most people do not have the training and understanding of both biological and physical processes, and even those that might, have to invest their limited resources carefully. I wish that in the future there will be more collaborative work between the life sciences, physicists and mathematicians, aimed to better understand how to extract maximum information from experiments in the biomedical areas.

So… was our volumetric imaging super-resolution? I am not sure I care to really answer, but I wished to provoke some thoughts and make you think a little bit about the relevance of information theory in biomedical research.

Photon partitioning theorem and biochemical resolving power

Project outcome published in PLoS ONE in 2013.

  • Esposito A*, Popleteeva M, Venkitaraman AR, “Maximizing the biochemical resolving power in fluorescence microscopy”, PLOS ONE, 8(10):e77392

After my 2007 theoretical work on photon-economy and acquisition throughput, I occasionally worked on a more general framework attempting to falsify my hypothesis that multi-channel or multi-parametric imaging techniques can deliver better results than other simpler techniques.

My proposal to develop instrumentation to achieve spectrally and polarization resolved lifetime imaging (later defined as HDIM) was met with scepticism by many. The recurrent question was: if you struggle to do a double exponential fit with the small photon budget we have available in biological applications, how could you possibly dilute these photons over several channels and analyse them with more complex algorithms?

Here, there are a few fundamental misunderstandings. First, the analysis should not be carried out on each “detection channel” independently, but the entire dataset should be used to exploit all information at once. Second, the use of dispersive optics rather than filters permits to acquire a higher number of useful photons. Third, limitations in current technologies (e.g., speed or photon-collection efficiency) should not be an obstacle to the development of these techniques because these are not conceptual flaws, but simply technology obstacles that can be removed.

Although I have a lot of (unpublished) work I used to describe performances of multi-channel systems, I achieved a breakthrough only when I understood I had to focus my efforts on the description of the general properties of the Fisher information content in fluorescence detection rather than the Fisher information in a specific experiment. Fisher information is the information content that an experiment provides about an unknown we wish to estimate. Its inverse is the smallest variance ever attainable within an experiment, or what is called the Rao-Cramer limit. In other words, by maximizing Fisher information, we maximize the precision of our experiments.

Photon-partitioning theorem

The second breakthrough was the understanding that the best description of precision in biophysical imaging techniques was possible only defining the concept of biochemical resolving power that is a generalization of the resolving power of a spectrograph to any measured photophysical parameter and then to its application to biochemistry. The biochemical resolving power is proportional to the square root of the photon-efficiency of a microscopy technique and the number of detected photons. Maximization of Fisher information leads to the maximization of photon-efficiency and, therefore, net improvements in biochemical resolving power. This definition complements the definition of spatial resolution in microscopy and allows to define when two objects are spatially and/or biochemically distinct. It is worth to mention that this is equivalent to stating that two objects are spatially and photo-physically distinct, but we use the photophysics of fluorophores to do biochemistry, hence my nomenclature. I see possible implications for other techniques, including super-resolution and, perhaps, this will be the subject of a future work.

The third breakthrough was the utilization of numerical computation of Fisher information rather than the analytical solutions of equations that are not always available. This process is very common in engineering but not in our field. Therefore, we can now optimize the properties of any detection scheme in order to attain the highest performance.

This work is a very specialist one and I assume there will be not many people interested in it, although the implications of this piece of theory for everyone’s experiment are significant. I believe that this is my most elegant theoretical work, but I guess it is a matter of opinion. The paper in itself had to be expanded well beyond what I wished to publish during the refereeing process and it is now including examples, software, etc. I think the theoretical introduction and the mathematical demonstrations are the best part and the description of the numerical optimization of Fisher information the most useful.

NOTE: there are two typographical errors in the published manuscript within the definitions of photon economy and separability. These are described in a comment on PLOS ONE

Women in science (Cambridge Science Festival 2018)

This is one of the initiatives we have prepared for the Cambridge Science Festival 2018. Credit: Dr Suzan Ber.

We are committed to the best quality of scientific research and to facilitate the translation of scientific knowledge into improvements in healthcare. To improve people lives, we need the brightest minds and the most skilled individuals to team up and work together. This is why we see no distinction of nationality, gender, ethnicity or faith, we simply look for skills.

Our SCRATCH whack-an-oncogene game is aimed to engage young girls and boys in programming, because we need biomedical researchers to be quantitatively-minded, computationally skilled and working with tools from diverse disciplines. However, too often we lose talented young girls somewhere along the way to becoming a scientist, engineer or mathematician. We think that, sometimes, this is caused by a perceived lack of female role models.

Do you know the many bright female physicists, mathematicians, chemists, biologists and clinicians that made wonderful discoveries? If not, play our women in science puzzle [see here copy for printing, or copy for display on screen]! Does this mean we wish to motivate only young girls to be the great scientists of the future? Not at all. We want the Albert Einsteins and Maria Goeppert Mayers of the future to work together as equals, because then we can be more efficient and improve people’s lives more profoundly and positively.

Cambridge Science Festival 2018
Khushali and Pablo are testing one of the activities we designed for the Cambridge Science Festival 2018

 

The dysfunctional digital office (emails)

January 2018 has been a watershed moment for me for something very simple and important such as… emails. Back from Christmas Holidays after visiting family and friends in sunny Italy, I was confronted with a wall of emails like many other professionals and colleagues. I had experienced this every year for many years, but this time was different. I simply could not cope with it, I avoided responding emails for a while and I became ridiculously inefficient. I gather that this was some type of ‘dysfunctional digital office’ syndrome, that caused to me that extra level of anxiety that made me hopeless.

Most of you will understand the basic elements of what I am describing, but only those of you that have a very strong digital presence (or is famous, but that is not my case), no personal assistant, nor a every good method might have experienced this digital black-out.

I have always rejected advice on how to organize my emails, abhorred the concept of using random passwords (I’ll come to that), inbox rules (I like to see all emails I have to respond in the same place), split my personal and work emails (I have difficulties to separate my personal and work life anyway), etc. etc.

However, now that I have experienced this black-out and I had to invest weeks of work to re-emerge from this mess, I wish to not just give you some practical advice (there are plenty of websites for this), but to explain what others did not explain to me before: without an articulated strategy, if your digital presence is significant, soon or late you will not function. Better investing now, proactively, then later.

SPAM SPAM SPAM

Let me do a step back. The first symptom that something was going wrong is when I’ve lost a PhD student about one year ago. She wrote to me an email, but it went straight to the Junk e-mails folder and I noticed this only a month or so later, when it was too late to confirm my willingness to host her. A few false positives later, I disabled the SPAM filter. Flooded by SPAM, I simply deleted emails as fast as possible and started to complain with our IT Department (sorry guys! you have been great in helping me out). However, this was not the issue. I never had identify the root cause of he problem.

Moving again forward between January and February 2018, I discovered the problem, in the hard way. It was not just SPAM, which was about accounting to a third of my email traffic, but also the various mailing lists I subscribed for work (another third of emails), and various accounts of private use (TV, electricity company etc) making another significant fraction of the rest. Fixing this mess was going to be hard work, but one key element changed: the realization that the issue was not SPAM, but was just, er, … me.

Password management

One issue I faced immediately is that I could not look after all the tens of account I had created over the years. I use strong passwords, but all with a certain meaning to me and pattern. However, each website has different rules and my well-thought system included too many exceptions to remain memorable.

Eventually, I gave up and I really advise you, if you did not do it yet, to surrender. Get a password management system.

Yes, when I login to an account now I am slower than before as I need to open a digital password management system with a very strong password, and copy&paste a completely random and long password to each specific account. Of course, now my digital presence is secure, the time I used to waste resetting passwords is recovered and, very important, I have a constant overview of all accounts. This was a very important step to reorganize all that followed.

Rules, rules, rules

Next, I had identified the main problem (too much email traffic that did not require response) and secured all my accounts. Rather than focusing on getting rid of SPAM, for once, I decided to clear my inbox from emails I did not need for work (but were not unsolicited emails), or that at least did not require immediate response, if at all. I created various rules, one that captures most traffic from our procurement system and deliver the emails to a procurement folder. One that capture all emails from professional mailing lists, one for literature alerts, one for private emails and so on. The trick is to have the fewest possible set of rules and sub-folders. Pay attention, you will need to maintain these folders and rules on a weekly basis, or every day. This reorganization took several days (may be weeks) of full-time work. However, I have now got rid of a large majority of emails that are likely to never require response. Once a day, I check the lists and, in less than a minute, I clear several tens of emails and, occasionally, I respond or archive for follow-up a very few of them. This time-consuming, but trivial trick, saved my sanity (probably).

Private emails

I cannot deal with one InBox, why should I deal with two? It seemed a smart thing to redirect all my emails to my work account. Yes, for many years this worked, but finally it stopped to. With a password management system and with inbox rules, I got to have a clear picture of what could go away. Do I need to keep my electricity bill in my University email InBox? I have reviewed all my forty-something accounts, log in into each of them, reviewed alert (read SPAM) options for each of them, used my gmail account for anything that is private. The decision on most accounts is trivial, some is more challenging. Some of my social media accounts (LinkedIn and Twitter) and my website are private, but I use them for work. However, do a bit of work on your social media accounts to reduce notifications, or even add them into your SPAM filters. After all, Twitter users will contact you by twitter! Now, with the number of private emails minimized, there is even more clarity in front of your computer when you login in the morning. Do I wish to check private emails? Sure, I can do it once a week, not every day.

SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, and SPAM again

Who am I kidding? Of course SPAM is a huge problem, but now I have those few tens of emails that counts in the right place on screen and I need to get rid of the evil SPAM emails only, the rest is secured away. Unfortunately, the SPAM filters are rather ineffective, at least for me. SPAMmers (may they get Norovirus infections on a weekly basis) tend to be smarter than SPAM filters. When SPAM filters are tight, you lose emails as false positives. I am unsure if I got it right, but my strategy was to download an up-to-date list of known SPAM servers. This cuts a significant amount of SPAM, others can be flagged daily as Junk emails. However, these filters are still inefficient and what I do is to update my SPAM rules daily. I have just two. They scan for words in the headers or email addresses. All together, very effective and, after the initial work, time-efficient to maintain.

SPAM, SPAM, SPAM, still SPAM

In my case, at this stage of re-organization, my tens of good emails were the majority of emails in my InBox. Those few false negative are simple to handle. However, some colleagues at University of Cambridge and suppliers decided (you criminals!) to setup legitimate mailing lists utilizing commercial email re-distributions systems. Well, yes, they are SPAMmers and I have a few false positives. What I do is to add exceptions for the very few mailing lists or email addresses I consider important. The rest can get lost and colleagues or suppliers that use third-party services will not be able to reach me, which is the minimum they deserve considering they are giving my email address away. Most importantly, I give a fast check to the Junk email folder every morning, I rescue the now rare false positive and purge the rest straight away.

Professional chats

Now that SPAM is minimized and emails that do not require a response are dealt with, in my mailbox, I have mostly work-related emails that requires a response in my mailbox. However, several of them are brief messages from colleagues asking something, often cc-ed to many. These emails clutter the mailbox. They might be useful to keep for a while, and some contain important files and links that could be useful even after a long time. So, why not re-diverting all this email traffic to a specialized application?  For me, Slack was the solution, at least for the team of people I manage. I always thought that Slack was merely a glorified chat. Technically speaking it is true. However, Slack (or similar tools) can really help to avoid missing that very important emails that you really need to reply. Slack might even be a platform useful as a team-building experience, where employees may feel more as part of a team. Just be patient at the beginning. Some people experience insufficient uptake, and this will require proper management. I have experienced madness, with a Giphy storm that made me question the usefulness of Slack at first. However, after the first few days, my team started to use Slack efficiently. The occasional jokes, animated gifs, or ludicrous channels (e.g. SporeTrek), just help enjoying the working day, without accumulating rubbish in the mail inbox.

A new dawn at the office

I know, most of you, well, those two people that arrived to read my post until here, will consider what I have written an exaggeration. However, if you are a professional with a digital presence, I really advise you to take action before it is too late. Now, I come in the morning to the office and I do not dread opening Outlook. I feel like a ‘winner’, despite the occasional setbacks, and I spend a couple of minutes checking the self-archiving folders I have created, purge them and flag the rare email I wish to follow up. Then I move to the main mailbox, archive everything not important but worth archiving, delete what does not need to be remembered and immediately reply (and archive) everything that is simple (‘thank you for your assistance’, ‘we’ll meet later at 10’, etc etc). After that I have only a very few emails that requires significant amount of time to respond.

It is a few weeks that I have my main InBox with fewer than ten emails at the end of the working day. Now, I can keep track of what is important, I have still an archive of everything else, but – most important then everything else – I feel in control.

A lot of work is still ahead. I am a techie, but so low tech when comes to management. Now that my digital communications are sorted (mostly), with my public digital presence already looked after, I would have to roll-out digital project management solutions and digital laboratory notebooks. Lots to do, but after the madness I had experienced with something as simple as emails, I want to find the time, and invite you to if you still did not, to identify appropriate solutions to your digital problems. Otherwise, when your business will grow, you will experience outages of some sort and you will be surprised to find out that the main issue was, well, … you.