Jan 312012

After reading “Talent is Overrated”, I kept thinking, “What are good deliberate practices for genomics and bioinformatics research?” For things like piano and chess, every hour of practice reaps one hour of benefit, and deliberate practice over long time can really make a difference. However, because of the fast progress of genomic technologies, sequencing a gene which takes a whole PhD dissertation 30 years ago now can be done in one second with high throughput sequencing. A lot of work published in Nature and Science 30 years ago look quite trivial now. Biomedical research has always benefited from technology development, which makes it so exciting! However, does it make waiting for better technologies tomorrow preferable to doing the hard work today? It shouldn’t, but what is the hard work today that still matters tomorrow or 20 years later?

I am now convinced that reading, writing, talking, and thinking should really be the deliberate practice. Thinking naturally accompanies reading, writing, and talking, so we should always “practice with our head instead of our fingers”. As for talking, I have enough deliberate practice through numerous lecture/conference/seminar talks, as well as meetings with lab members/collaborators/other colleagues. Very often, I talk to others to help me brainstorm, reason, and prioritize. To improve, I really should talk more succinctly, control both my time (not too long) and timing (not interrupting others), and listen more.

Reading is an area I should focus on improving. I have always been a slow reader, but this is mostly due to not reading enough. “Talent is Overrated” convinced me that I could overcome it with deliberate practice. Actually I always have interesting ideas (even though most wouldn’t pan out, a few might be decent) after seriously reading some papers, so the shortcoming has its benefits. Knowledge accumulation on biological and disease mechanisms, statistical and machine learning methods, and computer algorithms and databases will always be useful in the years to come. For now, the most useful reading for me is on cancer, epigenetics, and machine learning. Persistent reading, despite my slowness, could accumulate over time.

Probably the most important area of deliberate practice is writing. In science, writing papers and grants is part of our survival skills. I have learned so much from collaborators who writes well, especially Richard Losick, Jason Lieb, and Alex Schier. From working closely on paper revisions with Kevin Struhl and Myles Brown, I also realized that even great writers like them still work very hard on their writing to improve their papers. This is encouraging to me, as it gives me hope that I might write as well as they do with practice. Actually starting this blog is one result of reading “Talent is Overrated” to practice more writing. I have also worked harder with lab members to revise their papers since 2012. So far, paper revision has been slow and painful, but I do notice that writing blog articles has become a little bit easier now.

Last week, I heard that a colleague of mine at DFCI submits one grant every month. I don’t believe that he will have good and novel ideas every month (I am lucky to have even one real good idea in a year), but I do respect his discipline for deliberate practice on grant writing. Even with his good track record and the wonderful environment at Harvard and DFCI, he probably only gets 20% of his applications under the current funding environment. But 12 applications a year will ensure that he has good funding to support the projects he is really interested in doing. At least, he will practice his writing and get some feedback from reviewers. I should start with submitting one proposal as the PI every quarter. Of course, this shouldn’t take time away from the other deliberate practices, so I will have to cut my effort at other unimportant areas.

Jan 252012

I just recently listened to the audio book “Talent is Overrate” three times back to back. There is actually a free pdf version online. From the Amazon reviews of the book, some reviewers say it is rehashing of Anders Ericsson’s HBR article. Having read the latter, I have to agree, but I still like the book version.

The basic idea is that deliberate practice over a long time with good coaching creates real experts. Even though many people choose not to pay the extremely high price for top-level achievement, the book concludes, “by understanding how a few become great, anyone can become better”.

Both the book and the article have many good examples and wise ideas, which make their point very cogently. E.g.Leopold Auer told his violin students, “If you practice with your fingers, no amount is enough. If you practice with your head, two hours is plenty.” This is so true for bioinformatics research. Just hard working in bioinformatics is not enough, you need to put your heart and mind to it.

Jan 202012

I happened to find Steve Salzberg’s blog and started reading a bit. The title of the blog was “Genomics, Evolution, and Pseudoscience”. I was particularly interested in the last one, as it resembles the Chinese scientific and academic integrity watchdog New Threads, which my dad is a big fan of.

Steve writes really well, smooth and clear. More importantly, he is hilarious, like this one on alternative medicine. I am always cautious about voicing negative opinions in public. Steve is not afraid of this, and yet he adopts Benjamin Franklin’s style of expression and pokes fun at things he disapproves. Steve’s blog will be a place to go to when I feel low in the future. It will really cheer you up. The American style of humor with clever wit is something that I really need to practice on. Previously I had a lot of respect for Steve’s work, on GLIMMER, Bowtie, and Cufflinks, etc. Reading his blog gives me a new prospective of him: What a fun person!

Jan 172012

Last Fri, I attended a one-day Dana-Farber Cancer Institute Strategic Planning Retreat. DFCI leadership, physicians, researchers, administrative staffs, as well as DFCI-affiliated leaders at neighboring Harvard schools and hospitals, totaling over 100 people, gathered at the Boston Colonnade Hotel. Although this was the 3rd strategic planning retreat (previous two in 2003 and 2007, respectively) since Ed Benz took the helm of DFCI in 2000, it was the first one I am senior enough to have the privilege of attending. I was quite surprised and moved by how visionary, effective, and great an institution DFCI is.

DFCI president Ed Benz first gave an hour-long presentation, like a prep-talk to the breakout sessions that were to follow. Since 2000, DFCI has had over 70% growth in employees and space, and has doubled, tripled, and quintupled our revenues in fundraising, research funding, and patient care, respectively. Any leadership with this growth should congratulate themselves on their achievements. Yet, Ed pointed out several potential dangerous trends that could hurt our future growth: healthcare and insurance reforms to cut cost and limit profitability, shrinking federal funding resources, competitions for patients and clinical trials from other institutions, and plateaued amount of unrestricted donations. Before the breakout discussions, Ed charged the groups to identify what we need to do to ensure the success of DFCI in the next ten years.

Three hours of breakout discussions ensued, each hour with five parallel discussion groups and shuffled group members. This turned out to be the most active and effective discussions I have experienced. Facilitated by two senior members (one faculty and one administrator), the groups went through each questions such as (discussed in my groups): in 5-10 years, what will make DFCI uniquely superior to our competitors, what are the measurable benchmarks of success, how can DFCI get more drug trials from pharmaceutical companies, how to improve our clinical efficiency for patients, what other cancer hospitals are doing better than us in certain aspect, what area can we cut to free up resources for the rest, how to be profitable when drugs are more targeted for sub-populations, how do we retain research nurses or junior clinical faculty to build a career here? Some questions spawned off from discussions in previous questions, and they all centered on the main questions: what constitutes success for DFCI in the future and how to get there. The discussion leaders really encouraged everyone’s participation, avoided monopolizing speeches, and kept good momentum and timing. The participants, at this senior level were all really smart and articulate. They did not just raise issues, but actively brainstormed potential solutions to the issues.

At the end of day, I had a much better understanding about the issues DFCI is facing, and could see a few consensus areas on how we could improve. I had so much more appreciation of the DFCI leadership and my colleagues, and I was really proud of being part of DFCI. It was a very beneficial experience, and I am thinking of having annual strategic planning retreat for my lab in the future.

Jan 122012

I got the information about Jane from John Quackenbush a while ago, and has found it to be an amazing resource.

The following quote from the Jane website succinctly summarizes the ways you could use it:

“Have you recently written a paper, but you’re not sure to which journal you should submit it? Or maybe you want to find relevant articles to cite in your paper? Or are you an editor, and do you need to find reviewers for a particular paper? Jane can help!”

I would only add, “Maybe you are a reviewer, and wonder whether the authors’ ‘novel’ approach or finding is really novel?”

Just paste the abstract of the paper in question, and click on “Find Articles”. It runs really fast and the results are quite accurate.

Jan 072012

Over the years, I have had a growing appreciation of the wisdom in Mao’s saying “Good health is the capital of revolution”. Actually “revolution” should be replaced by “career success”, “fulfilling life”, or many other good things we wish for.

My parents mentioned years ago that their colleagues and friends at Tianjin University who were healthy enough to stay active in research all ended up doing very well. I once asked lab members, “What area should we focus on now, so we can make a good contribution to science that people will remember in 25 years?” Hansen replied, “If you were still healthy and active in research 25 years later, people would remember the work you did 25 years before.”

The pace of biomedical research has accelerated in the last 30 years by technology advances. At the Cold Spring Harbor Asia High Throughput Biology Meeting last April, Jerry Rubin mentioned that his PhD dissertation of sequencing the 18S RNA now could be done in a second with high throughput sequencing. When reading “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”, I felt that technology can enable even the average researchers now to make better discoveries than the most brilliant scientists 50 years ago. I said to myself, “Wow, if only I could stay healthy and active in research until 80 years old!”

Last summer when my family went on a weeklong vacation, I slept for 7 hours every night. I never felt so great and alert, so I decided not to have too much sleep deficit. In the New Year, I plan to eat less, sleep more, exercise more, and not let deadlines kill myself. Even during World War II, FDR swam everyday and had daily cocktail hour when nobody was allowed to talk about work. I would like to believe that I am doing important work, but certainly not as important as FDR’s. I hope the one-hour borrowed from work to sleep could actually make me more productive.

Jan 062012

I have been avoiding social network for the last few years. I never go to social network websites, and always ignore invitation emails from friends and colleagues. However, after Haowei attended a social network conference last fall, he suggested me to start a blog. I talked to some friends and colleagues about it, and they were all supportive. It seems that writing a blog has a number of benefits:

  1. There are a lot of students, postdocs, and faculties interested in genomics and bioinformatics in the community. I could share my experiences with them and learn from them, in terms of both scientific research and career development. I actually chose bioinformatics as my career because I wanted to be really useful to the community. I am a believer of Benjamin Franklin’s idea of “doing well by doing good”.
  2. Writing succinctly and convincingly is the most useful and the hardest skill for me. More and regular writing practices will help me develop good writing skills. Writing my opinions for public viewing will also help me become more circumspect and positive.
  3. Writing blogs will require me to read more papers, check out more websites, and be better informed of new technologies and trends. With technologies changing so quickly, it might be easier and faster for an expert to share their expertise informally through a blog than to write formal review papers. I hope to ask colleagues to share their expertise on new technologies through this blog.
  4. High throughput sequencing has been considered as a “democratizing technology”, and I think social network is even more so. Better utilizing social network and community wisdom will accelerate scientific discovery. It can also help build reputation, and maybe help with student and postdoc recruitment.

I registered a domain name and installed the blogging software in early Nov of 2011, but decided to start by accumulating some ideas on my own computer. As 2011 drew to a close, I made a New Year Resolution to start blogging in 2012. I hope to post two blogs a week. This is a big commitment and will require some discipline and changed priorities to persist. Well, here is my first public blog post! I haven’t got a chance to configure the web interface, but will work on it later. After all, content should prevail over format.