SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 4

SMU-logo2 I realized I never got around to writing about the rest of the events I attended during Commencement weekend (after writing Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), so here is a summary.

I started the "weekend", which started on Thursday, with a public event unrelated to the Honorary Degree Recipients Symposium. It was a talk about creating technology for social change, or how to make change by creating and sharing media, by MIT's Ethan Zuckerman. He mentioned, among many good points he made, Christopher Hayer's distinction between institutionalists and insurrectionists, with institutionalists believing that institutions are reformable and insurrectionists arguing that we need to fundamentally question those institutions. It is hard to motivate young people to vote if they identify as insurrectionists precisely because they don't trust institutions. Protest becomes a hard sell too. Zuckerman mentioned the book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci. Zuckerman also talked about laws, software code, social norms and markets as effective tools for social change. An example of norms was the "Black Lives Matter" movement and which type of photographs were at first selected by the media to depict Michael Brown. A fascinating part of Zuckerman's talk focused on "landscape mappers", visual tools to highlight what communities and media outlets were talking about. For instance, he had a slide about Ebola as a political issue, "Obama's fault", etc, and CDC was unwilling to talk about quarantine but it turned out to be central to the conversation. Another tidbit was that Zuckerman explained that people who think there's a link between autism and vaccines are very interested in science, but it turns out that they do science very badly. 

The next event I attended was the "Ice Fishing for Neutrinos" talk by UW-Madison Professor Francis Halzen, who received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU during Commencement Weekend. I loved this talk because Halzen made such an excellent presentation tailored to a lay audience that I could follow all the key concepts and understand why the work was important, although obviously the physics completely eluded me. I took a lot of notes but I'll spare myself the embarrassment of posting something wrong if I misread what I wrote, so I'll just say the idea is to create reactions in ultra-pure ice - the kind of ice that exists at the Amundsen Scott South Pole station - rather than water to observe neutrinos, which can't be seen directly and have no charge. The only way to "see" them is to have them crash into the nucleus of an atom to initiate a reaction. The IceCube experiment was awarded PhysicsWorld's "Breakthrough of the Year 2013", after the researchers published in Science the first evidence for a very high-energy astrophysical neutrino flux. Funnily enough, Halzen was hosted by two SMU profs with whom I share a good friend (no Texas connection), and we had only met in person earlier that same week. 

The next day, I went to the Q&A with Dallas philanthropy powerhouse Nancy Nasher, who also received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU that weekend. She is well known locally for the Nasher Sculpture Center, which was started by her parents and helped revitalize the Dallas arts district (she is also known nationally for her philanthropy to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), and she is a co-owner of NorthPark Center, one of the largest malls in America. She worked on it as a lawyer in the late 1970s, writing and negotiating leases. In the mid-1990s, Nasher and her husband acquired NorthPark and then the ground lease, and then they planned and oversaw the extension of the center. It is the 4th highest-grossing shopping center in the U.S. and the 2nd tourist attraction in Texas (1st in North Texas). What I love most about NorthPark Center is the abundance of top quality art on display in the public spaces. NorthPark is also a performing arts venue with 300 performing groups per year, including 200 in the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. Nasher has been deliberate in her intent to use NorthPark as a venue to support performing arts organizations vital to Texas. 

In her opinion, the most pressing need in Dallas for arts is that Dallas needs more corporate support. Arts education is also vitally important, and needs more funding too. NorthPark has also launched "50 days of giving", about giving back to 50 nonprofits in the Dallas area. It also has a program where it provides transportation from Uplift schools to NorthPark to teach schoolteachers more about arts education, and help teachers decide how best to teach the material. She also mentioned the Business Council for the Arts, which was launched by her father and which develops support for the arts from business.

Nasher also talked about her career path - at Princeton she wanted to be a Russian literature major (I would've wanted to be one too!), was an English major, took a lot of courses in art history, her father suggested she would be a good lawyer, which is how she went to Duke for law school, where she was one of only 20 women, out of a class of 125. She was also in one of the first classes of women at Princeton. She interned at a law firm that put her on the NorthPark project from day one. Later that firm offered her a job. She only stopped when her mother became very ill and she went into business to help. Nancy Nasher is a very inspiring figure in Dallas and in hindsight, it stuns me that SMU didn't give her a Honorary Doctorate a long time ago. One thing I love about Dallas is how the most successful people so generously give back to the communities where they grew up. 

I can't wait to hear who next year's Commencement speaker and Honorary Degree recipients are going to be!

Congratulations, Dr. Denoyel!

Congratulations to my PhD student Victoire Denoyel of ESSEC Business School in Paris, France (co-advised with Laurent Alfandari) for successfully defending her dissertation a few days ago! Her dissertation is entitled "Towards an efficient embedding of logit choice models into 0-1 selection problems". Our first paper was recently published online in EJOR, the European Journal of Operational Research. 

I hadn't attended a French PhD defense since that of Nabila Remli in 2011 on robustness in linear programming, and I have to say that I like the French system a lot. It is a lot more formalized than the American way, and as a result I feel that the PhD candidate gets more out of it. For instance, France uses a formal system of reviewers and examiners in the jury. The reviewers must receive the dissertation about 8 weeks early to submit a written evaluation before the PhD defense, and after the presentation, reviewers and examiners ask questions to the PhD candidate in the "debate" part of the defense. The questions can be quite specific and in-depth. In Victoire's case, her presentation was about one hour long and the debate lasted close to two hours. I was very impressed by the quality of the questions, and in Victoire's poise in answering all of them with flying colors. We have also had great suggestions from the jury to finalize our other two papers, for which I am very grateful. Victoire's committee consisted of Professors Ivana Ljubic (jury president) of ESSEC, Knut Haase from Hamburg University, Cecile Murat of Paris Dauphine University, Andre de Palma from ENS Cachan and Nathalie Picard from the University of Cergy, in addition to Laurent Alfandari and myself. Many thanks to the jury members! 

I started working with Victoire in 2013 and it's great to see her complete this stage of her career. From a personal standpoint, she is the first French PhD student I have advised and I've greatly enjoyed our research discussions. I tend to prefer working with students who think on the spot about the ideas I suggest and won't hesitate telling me if they don't understand or disagree, because it helps weed out the bad ideas faster and make the viable ones stronger. While I haven't worked with many such PhD students (certainly there are cultural norms at play: we French people like to debate more than most, and in certain foreign countries it is viewed as disrespectful to debate ideas with one's professor), Victoire showed outstanding independent research skills from the start, great follow-through, and superior ability to derive actionable insights for decision makers. She is going to make a great professor. She is currently a lecturer in Operations Management at Brooklyn College and will be on the job market for a tenure track position this fall. 

Congratulations, Victoire!

HBR on The Talent Curse

HBRMayJune2017The May-June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review also has an article about The Talent Curse: Why High Potentials Struggle and How They Can Grow Through It. I felt the article had glaring weaknesses quite a few times, so here comes my analysis of it. The idea behind the article is that some people, when they are "groomed as future leaders," "feel trapped by others' expectations and fixate on proving themselves worthy", either "blandly conforming" or leaving altogether. The solution is for them to accept help, bring "all facets of themselves to the job" (I had to laugh at the inanity of that comment - Zadie Smith, who probably will never be cited in a business magazine unless I do the writing, mentioned when she was in Dallas promoting her latest book Swing Time how the quest for belonging and finding one's tribe was a very American pursuit, and I think the quest of bringing one's whole self to the job is archetypically American too) and, perhaps the one drop of wisdom here, to treat "the present like a final destination."

First of all, I find the name "Talent Curse", while catchy, incredibly inaccurate. In other words, I don't think there is a talent curse. I think talent management is like the R&D drug pipeline: you've got to launch some projects to get at least one to work down the road. You select multiple employees to be on the talent track, knowing that not everybody will turn out to be leadership material, but you can't say who it is until you've put them on the track. Saying that their talent was some sort of curse will make them feel good in retrospect after their careers failed to take off, but many similar employees with the same talent did succeed and, o surprise, didn't fall victims to the same curse. It is a little easy to say you failed because your talent was a curse. Maybe those people failed precisely because their reaction to the honor (either conforming blandly or leaving) showed that they were not leadership material after all. Culling out such people is part of the process of identifying the true future leaders. 

The article also suffers from the absence of context given to the examples' stories. We don't know their age, their country, their background - how long have they have been out of school? in that company? in that position? how have they reacted to high-pressure assignments before? were they the first people in their families to go to college or did every relative go to the Ivy League?  

It also suffers from some quite ridiculous examples, such as the one of "Laura", who left a PhD program in artificial intelligence to become a consultant and then "a role in the strategy function of a consumer goods company." When given a high-profile assignment, she floundered, falling "into a spiral of overwork, anxious to show others - and herself - that she could handle the challenge." Although sales grew, she feared people didn't dare tell her what they really thought of her performance and her bosses, "accustomed to her competent and composed demeanor", didn't realize she needed some sort of help from them, although they did praise her for her independence and initiative. In other words, Laura needed a cheerleading battalion. Well, Laura, the obstacles are in your head, my dear. It's not other people's job to read your mind. Maybe there would be a case to give such employees a career coach, but again I'm not sure if it makes sense to actually rescue people like Laura from herself. There are more talented employees than there are high-impact managerial positions. Perhaps a career coach would be more useful once the employee has made it higher up in the hierarchy.

Then other employees, when put on the high-potential track, stopped striving to develop their skills and focused only on where their talent shone, losing their edge and spoke of "paralysis" to the HBR authors. If the idea of succeeding gives you a deer-in-the-headlights look, just imagine when you face a major high-stakes decision, like a major product recall. I don't feel sorry for those people not making it to the next promotion.

Then, the involuntarily funny moment: the 2nd sign of trouble, "A preoccupation with image despite a yearning for authenticity." Apparently some employees feel inauthentic when they can't bring their whole selves to work. Good Lord. You know your colleagues aren't your friends, right? You're not supposed to bare your soul with them. I guess it's easier for people from Europe to understand, since over there it is more acceptable to have a life outside work. The famous Laura from above fantasized about quitting and getting a job where she could be "true to herself". This is one of the surest signs of professional immaturity that I've seen in a long time. No wonder she didn't do so well on the talent track. The HBR authors also point out this often happens to business school students, who go to business school for the same reason: to find "a space where they could discover and recover who they really were." This is why I said above it would have been helpful to know the age and work history of people like Laura. If she's, say, 27, then I can chalk up her immaturity to her age. If she's 37, then it becomes a different problem. 

Even better: the authors cite psychologist Alice Miller and her work on "the drama of the gifted child." Her idea is that "inquisitive and intelligent children often learn to hide their feelings and needs to meet their doting parents' expectations." Well, if adult employees on the talent track are reduced to the role of children and managers are supposed to play the role of doting parents, I can see why companies are going to have a problem. Your manager is not your parent. I'm not even going to try to explain that.

Then there is another story at the end of the 3rd sign, "the postponement of meaningful work" (as a sign of trouble), that suggests some of those employees profiled are very young. That one took the most prestigious job offer in his class after graduating without questioning whether that was really what he wanted to do, and then hoped to transition out, somehow, without really knowing where. But there was no mention of the company actually putting him on a talent track after hiring him. And the dear Laura also had contradictory dreams, talking both of returning to get her PhD and to become a COO some day. Maybe she's too young to be put on any sort of talent track. 

The authors' advice to break the talent curse is rather silly ("bring your whole self, not just your best self, to work") except for the last part, which is to treat your current work as a destination rather than a stepping-stone. Laura, though, seems past the redeeming point. When she said she was considering leaving, she was offered a bigger role, but "six months into the new role, she had not yet negotiated her package." Didn't that raise any red flag at her company that she wasn't actually competent to do the job? Weren't alarm bells blaring? For whatever reason, Laura is self-sabotaging. She has some pretty excuses to explain it: "What would they think if I worried about the contract, the salary and things like that?" Well, Laura, they'd think you're a professional, that's what they'd think. Right now you've disappointed your sponsor and perhaps he is in denial that he so misjudged you, giving you a second chance long past the point where you deserved it.

The authors write: "The best way to develop leaders, in the end, is to help them lead." That is not the same thing as enabling people who clearly are not ready for leadership positions. Sponsors should be aware of their blind spots, know when to admit a protege has underperformed and move on. You did your best. Cut your losses. You can find someone else more deserving of the opportunity. That is, sadly, not the message of this not-so-great HBR article.  

HBR: State Street and Social Responsibility

HBRMayJune2017I enjoyed this article about State Street's innovative approach to create employment for at-risk youths, in the May-June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review. (The result is called Boston WINs, which stands for "workforce investment network.") The key, the article explains, is a system to support kids as they move through school and into the workforce. State Street has developed a highly original process where it has enlisted five nonprofits to support at-risk youths in a manner akin to a relay race: each nonprofit focuses on what it does best, for instance teaching study skills or finding a good fit for college or applying to university, and then passes off the student to another nonprofit to fulfill different needs. It allows each nonprofit to focus on what it does best and create meaningful impact for the students.

In the words of State Street CEO Joseph Hooley: "Getting students through schools, into college, and then into good jobs requires managing a series of handoffs and transitions, just as runners in a relay race have to pass the baton."

The five partners ultimately selected to be part of the experiment were: Year Up, which provides "intensive skills training for low-income young adults", UAspire, which helps students "find ways to finance college, The Boston Private Industry Council, which helps "students obtain workplace experience and find a path from school to work", College Advising Corps, which "assists students with the college search and application process", and Bottom Line, which "helps low-income and first-generation students get to and through college." 

In its first year, Boston WINs served close to 20,000 youth and State Street hired over 200 of the Boston WINs graduates (note that not all 20,000 graduated in their first year.) 20 schools are participating this year, and the students have a list of 12 milestones they much reach by certain dates. State Street "opened a facility at the University of Massachusetts that allows students to work part-time, gaining job experience and giving us a look at how they work." It also has "more than 50 interns from Bunker Hill Community College in any given time." The program launched in June 2015 and State Street has committed to four years of funding, so the program is at its halfway mark now, but it seems highly promising, if two years can ever be enough to judge such things.

In some ways, it reminded me of recent approaches to innovation, especially for pharma, where big pharmaceutical companies have developed agreements with universities where the universities, funded by big pharma, focus on early-stage innovation and big pharma gets first look for commercialization. Obviously there are many differences too but it touches upon specializing, focusing on what one does best. I wonder if we'll see a continuation of this trend toward more segmentation of the R&D pipeline, with different companies becoming responsible for different stages. The difficulty would be to work out the monetary compensation aspects. But maybe a time will come where this makes business sense.

Here's to hoping Boston WINs continues for many more years!

SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 3 - Commencement Address

SMU was fortunate to have NIH Director Francis S. Collins as its 2017 Commencement Speaker. And if you only have 3 minutes to spend on this post, then use them watching this hilarious YouTube video of Dr. Collins's guitar serenade to the graduates at the end of his address. 

If you have more time, you can watch his entire Commencement speech below. (This was before the latest federal budget was known, with its proposed 20% cut to the NIH budget, so don't expect any allusion to that.) It was thoughtful of Dr. Collins to acknowledge Congressman Pete Sessions in the audience and his support for biomedical research. I loved his point about SMU as a place where ideas are freely debated and civil discourse is part of the fabric of the institution - so true! 

One thing I loved about the speech is that Collins (I'll drop the Dr. for the rest of this post) didn't take himself too seriously, and not just because he played the guitar at the end. He admitted, for instance, that he didn't recall what the Commencement speaker said at his own graduation from the University of Virginia in 1970 with a degree in chemistry. 

I enjoyed how he talked about his meandering path to his present situation: at first he thought he was going to be an academic, then he discovered biology and went to medical school (UNC), and in 1992 he was asked to lead the Human Genome Project. This was, he was quick to add, before people thought it would work. He was appointed NIH Director by President Obama in August 2009 and expected to resign under the new President, but his resignation letter was rejected. (It is customary for people who have been appointed by the previous president to prepare their resignation letter, since the new president usually wants to make fresh selections.) This all seems a bit dry when I write about it now, but Collins was a wonderful speaker so his account of how he got to where he is now after graduation was a lot more engaging than it reads. 

He had three main messages for the graduates: 

  1. Be prepared for dramatic changes, whatever field you're in. Embrace it, and embrace that other doors are going to close.
  2. Your path is not always going to be smooth. Are you prepared for that? Collins's darkest hour was twenty years ago, when it turned out that a talented graduate student in his lab had been fabricating data. This became a New York Times front page story that required retractions of several scientific papers. Collins also talked about the heartbreak of seeing kids afflicted with progeria (premature aging) die, such as Sam Berns. 
  3. Clarify your definition of success, making the difference between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. (He mentioned The Road to Character by David Brooks.) Discover your True North and don't forget to have some fun! This made a great transition for his moment at the guitar. ("Music has a way of ruining otherwise dignified experiences.")

This Commencement speech will be hard to beat. I can't wait to learn who will be the 2018 SMU Commencement speaker.

SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 2 - Panel Discussion

Francis-S-CollinsIn the symposium given at SMU in honor of NIH Director Francis S. Collins, our 2017 Commencement Speaker and honorary degree recipient, Dr. Collins discussed 10 exceptional opportunities in biomedical research that might come to fruition within ten years.

Before going over his top 10 list, he pointed out that N.I.H.'s mission is to both "seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems" as well as "the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability, and remarked that Texas received over $1bn in FY16. He also discussed statistics that suggest N.I.H. money has been rather well spent: (a) cancer death rates are now falling more than 1% per year, while each 1% drop saves $500bn. (b) cardiovascular disease death rates have fallen more than 70% in the last 60 years, and (c) HIV therapies now enable people in their 20s to live to age 70+.

On to his list of 10 exceptional opportunities. In ten years, we might have:

  1. advanced our analysis of individual human cells, which will help understand many disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis,
  2. developed tools to identify new brain cell types and circuits, to help diagnosis, treatment and prevention of autism,
  3. identified those at risk for Alzheimer's before signs appear. Dr. Collins showed brain cells of six members of a family in South America known to be at risk of hereditary Alzheimer's, 4 with the amyloid gene carriers and 2 without, the six members are in the 35-39 range and Alzheimer's in their family has tended to have onset when people reached their 40s, and those brain scans showing the amyloid build-up in the 4 people at risk were breathtaking - Dr. Collins also mentioned that a possible reason why Alzheimer's treatments may not have been successful so far is that such treatments may have targeted people whose disease was too far advanced, but there is real hope if we are able to take action before the onset of symptoms. This is critical because the amount of money required to take care of the growing Alzheimer's population by 2050 will be equivalent to two Department of Defense budgets if we don't do anything.
  4. developed effective treatment for spinal cord injuries.
  5. optimized and widely distributed an artificial pancreas for diabetes. This is actually not that far in the distance since the FDA approved in September 2016 the first hybrid closed-loop system to track changes in blood glucose levels and provide precise doses of insulin.
  6. generated new organs from induced pluripotent stem cells.
  7. created a universal influenza vaccine. The idea is to teach the immune system to attack the invariant stem of the virus (instead of the head, which varies from year to year), in order to provide immunity to all flu viruses. We are overdue for a worldwide flu pandemic, so a universal influenza vaccine would be critical in mitigating such a pandemic's consequences. 
  8. deployed genomics, neuroscience, structural biology to uncover new targets for treatment of pain. The U.S. are in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic, and 80% of people who ODed got started with a legitimate prescription for pain treatment, and some of those then switched to heroin, which apparently is very cheap, when OxyContin or similar was no longer readily available. (The prescription for the pain medication may be for 30 days, but people might feel very lousy when they stop, so they try to continue a little while longer, and when they really can't get a prescription renewal, those who are addicted switch to heroin.) There is a critical need to develop non-addictive pain medicine.   
  9. accelerated immunotherapy and other advances through the Cancer Moonshot. Dr. Collins discussed the case of Emily Whitehead in PA, who had a type of childhood cancer for whom traditional treatments had not worked, and who was saved thanks to immunotherapy.  
  10. actualized the potential of precision medicine through the "All of Us" research program, which aims at enrolling 1m Americans for a long-term research study combining data science, genomics, Electronic Health Records, technologies and patient partnerships. You can learn more about it at

Gene editing, which could have made the top 10 list, was discussed in the Q&A. 

Additional topics discussed in the Q&A were (I wish I could provide details on all of them, but this post is already long enough):

  • the WaPo op-ed by Eric Lander of the Broad Institute and Eric Schmidt of Google "America's "Miracle Machine" is in desperate need of a miracle"
  • Dr. Collins's meeting at the White House two weeks ago with senior WH officials and heads of industry and academia to discuss how to best foster a productive relationship between government agencies, corporations and universities regarding scientific research (following by a short meeting with the President afterward), and especially NIH's Accelerating Medicines Partnership, which was launched in February 2014 with the goal to "transform the current model for developing new diagnostics and treatments by jointly identifying and validating promising biological targets for therapeutics" in 3 disease areas: Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune disorders (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis). Dr. Collins also mentioned Parkinson's as a current focus, and said that cancer might get added soon. 
  • the need for an interdisciplinary approach to many of those problems, and the potential of computational biology. 
  • the issue that over 60% of drugs now coming on the market first originated from academic research - why should N.I.H. fund this work if big pharma reaps the rewards? Dr. Collins talked about the National Center for Advancing Translational Science established in 2012 and the role of the Bayh-Dole Act in encouraging universities to file for patents, which also means that the N.I.H. holds no claims to those discoveries. 
  • drug pricing, which the N.I.H. has no role in.
  • the issue of drug-resistant bacteria, when a drug can take 12 years to be developed and a bacteria can take 2 years to become drug-resistant, the related need to limit the prescription of antibiotics, and the fact that biopharma can make a lot more money developing, say, cancer drugs.
  • Dr. Collins's book on "The Language of God" and his personal faith. He said he still gets emails almost every week, especially from young Christian students, who have been homeschooled and then are presented with the evidence for evolution in their first biology course in college and suddenly put their faith back in question. He said he wasn't a believer in college, only became at 27 in medical school, and insisted that science and faith aren't mutually exclusive.
  • diabetes. 80m people in the U.S. are pre-diabetic, but diet and exercise with a coach has been proved to lead to a 58% reduction in transition rates to the diabetic stage. There are data privacy issues because it is generally agreed that you should not have your genome used against you for jobs and health insurance. Interestingly, a bill about wellness programs currently under consideration could threaten that because some of those programs ask for DNA analysis and if you refuse, they're allowed to charge you a premium that is 30% higher than the premium if you had accepted.
  • the need to do healthcare more efficiently, since about 30% may be wasted now due to improper testing etc.
  • the future of healthcare, about which Dr. Collins mostly said (as a response to an audience question) that his crystal ball was rather cloudy, and that most people agree that kids who get sick should be able to get health care.       
  • The Q&A ended with the question about science funding, which was the topic of my previous post.

You can read SMU's release about N.I.H. Director Francis S. Collins being chosen as 2017 Commencement Speaker here. It is so exciting for SMU but also speaks volumes of its national reputation that we were able to attract such a high-caliber speaker to Dallas. I feel really blessed to have heard Dr. Collins give such an informative talk at the symposium and am looking forward to his Commencement speech tomorrow.  

SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 1 - Funding Scientific Research

Francis-S-CollinsNIH has some groundbreaking ideas to transform science in academia. Read more to learn why. First, the background: tomorrow is Commencement at SMU and NIH Director Francis S. Collins will deliver the Commencement address as well as receive a Honorary Doctor of Science. Three other outstanding individuals will also receive honorary degrees - astrophysicist Francis Halzen of UW-Madison, arts philanthropist Nancy Nasher and New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders (read more about them here). Yesterday and today at SMU saw several remarkable events featuring those awardees.

For this post, I want to focus on the last one, which was a panel discussion involving NIH Director Francis S. Collins, SMU Provost Steven Currall, SMU Professor Pia Vogel and UT Southwestern Medical Center President Daniel Podolsky. Dr. Collins made a presentation about science discoveries that he hopes will happen within 10 years, and then took part in the panel discussion, and finally took questions for the audience. The most interesting one was the last one, about the funding of academic research in science.

Dr. Collins cited a 2014 New York Times op-ed by Andy Harris, Young, Brilliant and Underfunded, that pointed out that most of the Nobel Prize winners and other notable scientists came up with their breakthrough ideas between the age of 35 and 39, "yet the median age of first-time recipients of R01 grants, the most common and sought-after form of N.I.H. funding is 42 while the median age of all recipients is 52. More people over 65 are funded with research grants than those under age 35." 

This was after a comment by Dr. Collins about the N.I.H. having gotten better at funding early-career researchers by putting them in their own, separate pool if they have never received N.I.H. funding before, but not better at funding mid-career researchers, who report getting "squeezed". The aging of science's principal academic investigators is also problematic for the long-term vigor of the field. 

This helps put his next remark in context: according to Dr Collins, recent data suggests the productivity of a N.I.H. principal investigator begins to drop after the third concurrent grant, and that if rules were put in place that reassign funding dollars from those 4th or more concurrent grants, N.I.H. would be able to make 900 extra grants to early- and mid-career researchers (I suppose those grant amounts would be smaller than the grants of the "big shots" but he did not discuss that). He made it clear that they would be for grant proposals that fell just short of funding under the present rules - grant proposals that deserved funding but could not be funded due to insufficient funds.

The other transformative concept Dr. Collins talked about was of "early-independence awards" to help young PhDs skip post-docs and get them "unleashed" earlier, so that they can be creative and make independent groundbreaking discoveries earlier. Not everybody needs a post-doc. What I found most staggering about it is that the fields of engineering and management, where you did not use to need a post-doc to get a faculty position, have slowly become so risk-averse (reluctant to hire just-graduated PhDs in case they don't manage to become independent) that they have aligned themselves more and more on science and now it is quite usual to do a post-doc before obtaining a faculty position, and now that science has led us into a three-stage academic model of PhD/post-doc/faculty position, it is moving away from that. So maybe engineering and management will return to their old ways too.

I think it is particularly welcome for science to develop ways to bypass postdocs because faculty members in science often have lower pay than their colleagues in management or engineering, in addition to often having longer time-to-completion in the PhD program, so they can't easily make up for their lost wages once they are on the faculty. Some even take 1 or 2 years before they apply to PhD programs to work as lab techs (when they plan to go into experimental fields). Others take 2 postdocs before they go on to faculty positions.

All in all we are looking at talented scientists who, in the current model, first become independent Assistant Professors around the age of 35, which is (1) really late to start giving some stability to scientists, and can help explain why many prefer careers outside academia, (2) the low end of the 35-39 age window for the breakthrough discoveries by Nobel Prize winners or equivalent discussed above. You can't really expect brand new Assistant Professors to make that level of discoveries within months of their first faculty position. And of course not everyone will end up a Nobel Prize winner or equivalent, but that's not a reason to needlessly discourage people from staying in academia. There is a case to be made that the thinkers most capable of transformative innovation aren't necessarily always the ones well-established research behemoths but may well be, sometimes, researchers at less well-established institutions. Their ideas deserve to be given a chance too.

My next post will summarize the rest of the panel discussion.

SMU Maguire Center Commemorative Coin

MaguireCoin I recently joined the Faculty Advisory Committee of the SMU Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, and was thrilled to receive a gorgeous commemorative coin for the 20th anniversary of the center (pictured left), on my very first meeting with the committee to boot. I also have an active research grant from the SMU Maguire Center, about which I hope to write more soon.

While ethical issues have become prevalent today, they were not nearly as important in 1997, and it is exciting to be part of an organization that saw the writing on the wall before anyone else did. We had an amazing conservation about topics for the next SMU Maguire conference, all related to ethics (obviously), and I can't wait to see which ones are selected to be part of the conference in a few months. The SMU Maguire Center is quite a unique place to belong to. 

Cary M. Maguire is a SMU trustee emeritus. You can find out more about him here.

The Problem is Not With the Graduates (Beware of the Sirens)

Commencement season is upon us, which means that the "You're not special" book, authored by the son and namesake of historian David McCullough (son who probably would never have been asked to deliver any Commencement speech if he hadn't had such an illustrious father) is once again gracing the displays at most bookstores. It's apparently not a popular book, although I suppose it is more popular with the buyers than with the intended recipients of the book. I once read somewhere that TV series about high school aren't aimed at high school students but people whose high school years weren't as happy or successful as they had hoped, and I suppose a lot of the Commencement literature at Barnes & Noble is really aimed at older adults who wish they'd been given better advice when they graduated. 

It seems like people love to complain about Millenials' entitlement these days. I've had many Millenials in my classes, both at Lehigh and at SMU, and they all cared about learning material that would help them distinguish themselves in the workforce. That was our unspoken contract, at least in an engineering college: I'm going to do my best to teach you things that will help you set you apart once you're in the workforce, and you'll do your best answering my homework problems. I've never found my students entitled, and by now we're talking about several hundreds of undergraduates and Master's students. 

But I also moved to Dallas last summer and it didn't take me long to realize there were plenty of entitled young adults in the world (at least in the U.S.) In Uptown Dallas, you see (which is a feeder for the University Park neighborhood where SMU is located, with an excellent public school system separate from the Dallas schools), the dream of just about every 25-year-old native Dallasite seems to find a man who will earn a good living so that she can spend her life getting blowouts and manicures. Those 25-year-olds are the Americans non-Americans think about when they imagine Americans to be shallow and self-centered. I also attend public events at SMU where the local community (meaning University Park, for the most part, but with views expressed by elderly people who are more thoughtful and eloquent than average, and very outspoken American patriots) spoke powerfully about the sort of America they wanted to live in, which is not aligned with the degradation of civil discourse we have observed under President Trump. Dallas might be a conservative city (although that's open to debate), but it knows what it stands for, and degradation of women and immigrants isn't part of the plan.  

The problem, I think, is really with the 25-year-olds. At the "100 days of the Trump presidency" event, the audience (largely elderly, except for a few outliers like me) came out quite vocally in favor of a principled America whose President shows profound respect for the office. I was surprised audience members were not more willing to rubber-stamp  all the policies coming out of the Oval Office at the moment. If it doesn't happen in Dallas, in which big city is it going to happen? But the elderly people in Dallas show respect and have manners. The 25-year-olds behave as if they are owed success or (for the women) at least a good husband impressed by the beauty of their curls, courtesy of the local hair salon. 

I could go on the topic forever, but to keep the post of manageable length, I'll stick to the 25-year-olds in Dallas, who once were 20-year-olds, probably at SMU, where they were thoughtful and kind and held the door open for their professors with an assiduity I've never found elsewhere. The problem, as I see it, is really with what happens after graduation, when young adults slip away from the mentoring of their parents and teachers old enough to be their parents, and focus on impressing their friends with non-existing job status or prestige. Young adults don't want to wait to come up through the ranks anymore because their friends boast fancy titles, whether deserved or not, and they want the same. They become very shallow individuals, living in apartments co-signed by their parents so that they can impress their friends, driving leased cars so that they can show off in front of their fellow drivers. Maybe they were shallow all along, I don't kn0w - I suppose the most likely victims were the people who were most susceptible to it, the ones worried about not wearing the right clothes, not getting the right job offer.

Many young adults these days don't really want to feel successful. They do when they graduate from college, but it doesn't last long. Many young adults these days, in fact, want to feel envied. That's what happens when they lose the connection with their elders (parents, teachers and mentors) and focus only on the other young adults around them. And I don't think it's an issue with the students politely listening to graduation speeches, although it is always entertaining to listen to people who haven't accomplished anything in life debate about the worthiness of this or that Commencement speaker, when the school has to deviate from household names. (This is not the case at SMU's Commencement this year. The NIH Director will deliver the address. This is not a read on SMU specifically. SMU, in fact, has gone out of its way to instill a strong sense of ethics into its graduates.)

So what message is appropriate for most graduates, knowing how their peers turned out when they were just a little older? Beware of the sirens. That will perhaps be the title of my book, if I write a book about this. They don't want to wait anymore. They don't want to learn in the shadows. But sometimes the siren song of who they (we?) hope they are meant to become does them more harm than good. It's as if 25-year-olds had been told too often they should behave "as if" (meaning: as if they'd already become successful), and then they wonder why they seem so offputting to everyone. Although perhaps they are not off putting to the native Dallasites, since that's how they've been conditioned to be.

But if I were to offer some words of advice to the graduates, I would say: keep track of how you are behaving. Make sure you're not annoying the person you mean to impress. Anyone with a bit of experience in the workforce has learned to distinguish the "real deal" from the hot air. You can curl your hair just right and sport a designer's brand of aviator sunglasses, but that still doesn't mean you're going to get the life you want - even if your daddy threatens to sue the awful people who don't do your bidding.

And the real problem is why so many parents in America these days feel the need to live vicariously through their children - why their life wasn't enough, why they need to see their kids' lives as an extension of their own to feel vindicated - but that has no place in Commencement speeches.