Monday, October 23, 2006

Advice to a young non-scientist

[Apologies to Peter Medawar]

With our impending departure from Boston, I've been thinking a lot about what I would change if I were to get the chance for a do-over. Below are the conclusions I've come to.

Making friends is hard: We didn't fully realize before we left Seattle how lucky we were to have so many friends and family close by, and how difficult it is to rebuild that sort of network in a new city.

The core of the problem was that neither Christina nor I had much exposure to people our age. Before starting classes, I hadn't fully internalized that I'd be surrounded by people who had, for the most part, just finished college, and were about eight years younger than me. An eight-year post-college difference is a pretty big gap in life experiences and expectations, one that made it hard for me to make many new friends. Christina's job was also pretty limiting in that respect in that it was, in some ways, tantamount to solitary confinement. And, since she worked at MIT, most of the few interactions she had were with students as well. Compounding these difficulties was the fact that most people in their early thirties have their social network in place and aren't necessarily actively trying to expand it, and so it's not easy to "break into" an existing circle of friends.

All this is not to say that we didn't make any new friends, but there were few enough of them, and we saw them so infrequently, that being in Boston was a pretty lonely experience. All that said, short of joining some sort of social club [*shudder*], it's not clear to me how we could have changed this bit of our stay here.

The high activation energy of mobility: When we moved here, we decided not to buy a car, but instead use Zipcars as necessary. On one hand, that worked out reasonably well, in that we didn't have to think about insurance, parking etc, but still had access to a car when necessary. On the other hand, it also stopped us from doing things that would have made our stay in Boston more pleasant, because there was always a very definite cost associated with using the Zipcar: for any activity, the question became "Do we want/need to do this enough that we're willing to pay the Zipcar fee for the necessary period of time ?". At $7-$8/hour, that sort of calculus brought with it the pressure to make every trip extra-worthwhile, which made us much less willing to try trips with uncertain payoff, like, say, exploring Massachusetts. It also made it hard to be spontaneous, because each trip required reserving the car a few days in advance, and we needed to plan our trips down to the hour to stay within our reservation window.

All in all, the delta between what we paid for Zipcar rentals on a monthly basis and what it would have cost to own a car was probably small enough that the additional freedom would have been worth it.

Going big sometimes considered harmful: I had two conflicting impulses when I started graduate school. One was to take the safe route to getting the necessary credentials: pick a research area that played to my strengths [ie purely computational work], pick an interesting but reasonably safe project, do a solid job on it, and get out quickly. The other impulse, based on the reasoning that since I was making such a large switch anyway, I might as well do it properly, was to become equally at home doing experimental biology and computational work, and pick a thesis project based purely on being the coolest thing I could think of, with little or no regard to safety. In other words, choosing the "go big" option of the "Go big or go home" philosophy espoused by a friend of mine.

I tried to chart a path through the middle, by looking for a thesis topic that would allow me to develop the computational skills that I figured would make me the most employable in industry [namely, machine learning/data mining] and applying them to the area of biology I find the most interesting [synthetic biology]. That took about a year, and still wasn't totally satisfactory, as is usually the case when you try to force a compromise between two incompatible bedfellows. In the meantime, I also figured out that I really don't like experimental work -- the slow, repetitive, everything-takes-forever-to-do, debug-by-semi-randomly-trying-stuff nature of it drives me crazy. In other words, I realized that I really should have taken the safe route; unfortunately, 2 years in and with a new addition to the family, doing that sort of a reset really wasn't in the cards.

I wish somebody had sidled up to me a couple of years ago, gently tapped me on the shoulder, and quietly said "Uhm, dude ? You already went big by going back to school; there's no need to get even crazier. Play it safe." Or, as a professor who switched over from "pure" computer science to CS applied to biology put it recently: re-orienting your vector takes time, and the important part is getting pointed in the right direction, not trying to get to the endpoint as fast as possible.

The lesson: sometimes you go big and you go home ;-)

There are probably a couple of other little bits and pieces that could have gone better, but I think the stuff above covers the biggest chunks. Now all I need to do is build a time machine so I can go back a couple of years and give myself the benefit of all this experience, thereby creating an alternate universe in which I become a mad scientist and destroy the earth via my green goo run amuck. Wait, maybe that's not such a great alternative...

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