Vita sine litteris mors.
Life without learning [is] death.
~Epistle 82, Letters from a Stoic
I quite like to think that modern science is somewhat based upon the philosophies of Stoicism, which emphasized knowledge as a product of reason. Not only do we know what we know through logical inductions and deductions, but scientists often seek to understand the deeper natural causes of phenomena, what the Stoic philosophers referred to as “Fate”. In modern terms, we prefer to call this “high-level theory”.
Seneca’s Letters, or the Epistulae, to Lucilius in Ancient Rome contain deep philosophical advice on a wide number and variety of topics. While this blog post will certainly not attempt a discussion of a similar magnitude, I do want to highlight a few pieces of advice I’ve learned this month.
1) Working up the courage to network with people outside of your field can be difficult, but when you’re in Venice, it’s a little easier.
Left: Me in my hotel balcony, photo credit to Maurits.
Right: The view from where I was standing!
At the beginning of the month, six of the INTREPID gang flew to beautiful Venice, Italy, for the Marie Curie Alumni Association Conference. I was quite eager to see what kind of research projects were funded, so I made my rounds around the posters. On one hand, it was great to see so many versatile projects in many different fields. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed that none of the projects were in my own area – this made it much harder for me to approach people and talk about their research. The nice thing about the conference, however, was the fact that we had a gorgeous backdrop (see the photo below) which was useful to use as an opening line.
One of the workshops took place in this room, and although the topic was quite interesting, it was hard not to look out the window occasionally…
2) Never underestimate how tiring data collection can be.
Especially when you are working abroad and don’t have the comforts of home! Right after coming back from Venice, I took the train to London where I began my first stage of data collection. My work involves assessing and documenting skulls with a very cool piece of 3D imaging technology called a Structured Light Scanner (SLS), and since I am interested in how cranial traits used for identification vary between populations, I will be travelling all over the world to look at skulls.
Practicing with the SLS (consisting of a projector and a camera) by scanning my LEGO model of WALL-E. Photo credit: Etienne.
In London, I was working at the St. Bride’s church on Fleet Street, which sounds like an amazing place to be – and it is, I just don’t get to see the sun since I’m underground in the crypts all day. I basically had to work with a giant clock on my screen to remind myself of the time, since I didn’t get any visual cues from the outside world. It can get very repetitive and tiring if one is concentrating for the entire day without these types of visual cues, especially if data collection goes on for weeks, as was the case for me. It’s important to remember to go for a walk and explore the surroundings in order to break the monotony of data collection!
A very dramatic angle of St. Bride’s church, taken from The Daily Mail.co.uk
3) Timing is important, but prioritizing is, well, the priority.
Having my scanner arrive a week later than I’d hoped forced me to figure out another way to proceed with my data collection – I had to optimize efficiency in terms of time, and quality of results. At the beginning, I became obsessed with timing how long it took me to get through a single sample, then creating an estimate for how many I should get through in an hour, and then setting a goal for how many I should finish in a day. Any kind of setbacks due to technical issues frustrated me since I would worry about not reaching my daily quota.
A fairly accurate representation of me during data collection. Source: xkcd.com
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to time yourself, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. If you have a set amount of time to do data collection, prioritize. Even if the order of events may not be the most efficient in terms of timing, it’s important to remember that data collection may be interrupted unexpectedly due to a number of issues – and if that is the case, what subset of data would you want to have?
For example, during my Master’s I was working on a side project in which I wanted to document about 90 hip bones, each belonging into one of 3 different categories. I fell seriously ill during the time I was supposed to collect my data, and as a result, my data collection period was severely shortened. Instead of documenting everything in one category before moving to the next, which was easiest and most efficient for me to do, I decided to rotate between the 3 categories so that I would always have an equal amount of samples in each category. This was a very good idea since I was not able to get through all 90 samples. Had I stuck to my original plan to go through each category at a time, I would have had an extremely limited dataset, albeit probably with slightly more samples. As it was, I ended up with something very balanced and useable, even though it took a bit more time analyzing samples in this order. Prioritizing trumps timing, although both are quite important!
Life without learning, as Seneca puts it, is death. What is life but a series of lessons; and if we learn nothing from them, then there is nothing to life either. Learning – from ourselves and from others – is such an important ability. We had a special celebration this month which honoured just that – International Women’s Day, which recognizes the achievements of women. I saw many articles and posts about lessons from and to women, and I thought it was just amazing how a single day can cultivate wisdom and the desire to share it. We really should be making every day about learning and exchanging life lessons!
And on that note, I’m happy to end this post by saying that I, too, have been able to share my experiences – specifically to young girls, in an attempt to inspire a new generation of female scientists. Last year, Anita Yasuda interviewed me for her book, Forensics: Cool Women Who Investigate. I’m very pleased to say that it has now been published!
Anita included stories about Christine Gabig-Prebyl (Douglas County Sheriff’s Office), Krishna Patel (Torrance Police Department), and myself due to my work through the INTREPID Forensics Programme.