How I Fail: Melanie Stefan (PhD’09, Computational Biology)

Photo by Chris Coe
For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Stefan, a lecturer at the Edinburgh Medical School: Biomedical Sciences. Melanie wrote the original “CV of Failures” Nature article in 2010 and since then has inspired many scientists to share their failures as well. You can find more about Melanie on her website, blog and Twitter.

 

 

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1. Hi Melanie, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am interested in how we can use computer models to understand what happens in the brain when we learn. My research group is based in Edinburgh, Scotland at the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences and the Patrick Wild Centre for Research into Autism, Fragile X Syndrome and Intellectual Disabilities. But I also spend 12 weeks a year in Haining, China, where I teach on the joint Edinburgh-Zhejiang BSc in Biomedical Sciences.

Originally, I am from Austria. I studied Genetics and Mathematics (because I couldn’t decide), and then did a PhD in computational biology with Nicolas Le Novère at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge. After my PhD, I went to Japan for six months for a short-term fellowship, and then moved to the US to do a postdoc at Caltech. After that, I took up a postdoctoral higher education teaching fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where I worked on incorporating quantitative skills into the life sciences graduate curriculum. I moved to Edinburgh to start my own research group in 2015.

 

2. Can you share any of your own memorable failures? Is the fellowship you wrote about in the Nature article still an important one, or have others overshadowed it since then?

There is one memorable early failure though, that I still think about: When I was working on my MSc project (in Developmental Genetics), my supervising postdoc sat me down one day and asked me to seriously reconsider whether science was right for me. Of course, my scientific career since then has turned out OK, but this still sometimes comes back to haunt me (especially when I fail at something or have a flash of impostor syndrome!)

The postdoc fellowship I wrote about for the Nature article was very important at the time, because I was getting to the end of my PhD contract, and I did not know where to go from there. I had a great idea for a project, and had identified the lab I wanted to work with at Caltech, but there was no money, so getting a fellowship was really essential. And because this project was what I really wanted to do, I hadn’t applied for other postdoc jobs, so I really had nothing else lined up. Looking back now, it’s easy to say it wasn’t so bad after all, because I did end up getting another fellowship (thank you EMBO!) and things worked out. But of course, when you are in the middle of it, you do not know that it will work out in the end.

Failures since then have not been so bad (though of course I have had my share), because I now know to put them into perspective.

 

3. When you wrote the article, did you also share your CV of failures? Is it a conscious choice not to share it right now?

I did not share it publicly, although I had one and showed it to people who asked to see it. To be honest, I was a bit afraid to do it before I had a faculty job. Indeed, when I was applying for jobs out of my first postdoc, I googled my name and the first thing that came up was “A CV of failures”. It’s not necessarily the first thing you want associated with your name, especially when you are on the job market!

Now, it’s a bit different. I like to think I am a bit braver (and also in a more secure position), but now the problem is more that I haven’t kept up with my failures systematically enough, so a CV would necessarily be incomplete.

 

4. Johannes Haushofer has called his CV of failures a “meta-failure” because it attracted more attention than his research – is this similar for you?

In some ways, yes. I joke about having become “the poster child of failures”, because often that is what people know about me (rather than the awesome and really interesting science I do). On the other hand, I think the attention that the topic of failure gets speaks to how universal an experience it is, and how important it is to many people. It’s nice to see that something you write resonates with people (and frankly, I don’t get that a lot with my work on theoretical neuronal biochemistry!)

 

5. Has the CV of failure changed the way you approach different opportunities, for example applying for more/less things?

It has made me aware that failure is a normal part of the process. A friend of mine said “If you never fail, you are not trying hard enough”, and I think that is absolutely true. So, I have a more detached view of failure, and I am more ready to take risks and go for opportunities, even if I might fail.

 

6. Do you keep track of failures in a different way? Does the list contain only “traditional” rejections (jobs/grants/papers) or also other non-successes?

I keep track of failures differently in different domains. When I was applying for jobs, I had a spreadsheet that listed every application I had sent with its status (open, rejected, second round etc.) I also have a spreadsheet with all my grant applications, including reviewer feedback, so I can go back and improve on future rounds. Similar for rejected papers.

In recent years, I have also become more interested in the idea of “gamifying failure”, in a way. It started when I was applying for faculty positions and complaining to my mum about how many candidates there were for each job. My mum suggested a deal: If I got to 30 rejection letters, we would open a bottle of champagne and celebrate. It made it a bit easier to deal with rejections, because now at least, they counted towards the champagne party.

I also buy a lottery ticket every time I apply for a grant. As long as I manage to bring in more grant money than lottery money, I feel like I am winning.

Those are maybe silly things, but they make it easier to cope with failure, and in particular, to go out and try again.

 

7. Is there a difference between what “rejection” and “failure” mean to you? Should we / should we not be using these interchangeably and why?

I use them interchangeably a lot, because in my working life, this is often the shape that failure takes (e.g. grants or papers being rejected). Those types of failures are also quite clear-cut, easy to quantify and quite closely linked to our career progression.

But I start to worry more about other forms of failure that are maybe less easy to quantify, less clear-cut and more internal. Taking too long to reply to an e-mail. Not giving a student the support they need. Neglecting a project. These are harder to assess, because it depends on one’s own standards, and often we don’t take time to check whether what we do is well aligned with our goals. They also vary in importance and consequence.

 

8. Do you think there are differences in how different groups of people (based on for example gender, nationality, type of academic position) approach failure? Is there a bias in the CV of failures we are seeing?

 

https://xkcd.com/license.html

Privilege plays a role. There is that thing where when a person from the majority in-group fails, it’s their own failure. But if a person from a minority fails, their failure becomes exemplary of everyone else belonging to the same group (like in this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/385/

There is also research that women are more likely to be hired on the basis of their track record, but men are likely to be hired on the basis of their potential. I am sure that people of colour, disabled people or other minorities face similar challenges.

So, there are definitely groups that have a higher in-built resilience to failure, because it does not affect them in the same way.

 

9. If you are in a position of evaluating a CV for a job or grant application and you find the applicant has a CV of failures – does that influence your decisions?

It would certainly make me take interest in the candidate. Compiling a list of one’s failures is an exercise in self-reflection. Having that level of self-insight is something I value, as is having the confidence to be open about their failures and start a conversation. I think it would make me look on the candidate more favourably.

10. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Everybody else is going through similar experiences. Talk to people. Learn from failures. It’s all going to be OK.

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