Birthdays on the brother blog

Contemplating Birthdays on the Beach

Contemplating Birthdays on the Beach

This week, I reviewed Having a Birthday as part of Ant Cule’s project, (Subtitle: An Extremely Subjective View of Being A Human).

For the uninitiated, Ant and I collaborated on this blog post about giving a talk, back when I was a PhD student, more than three years ago now.

Ant welcomes requests and guest reviews, if you feel so inclined.

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MOOC review of Think Again: How to Reason and Argue

The Coursera course Think Again: How to Reason and Argue started again on Monday – there’s still time to sign up! I took the course in the second half of 2014, making me a Think Again alumnus. If you are looking to learn something new this new year, then Think Again could be the course for you. Read on for a review.

Reasoning is important, and Think Again promises to teach you how to do it well. I have blogged before about public speaking, and when I signed up for the course I had in mind that this course would help me to take my public speaking to a new level, beyond delivering information and into the realm of persuading and debating – having conviction and the courage to match. Whilst the course does indeed discuss

how to identify, analyse and evaluate arguments by other people including politicians, used car salesmen, and teachers

it stops short of turning you into one of those characters. This course was not about rhetoric per se. It was about the logic underlying arguments, about how arguments are constructed and deconstructed, and how to identify and evaluate arguments – what makes a good argument? The course had connections to linguistics, logic, and, yes, statistics.

Course teachers Walter and Ram

Course teachers Walter and Ram

The course was taught by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman Professor of Practical Ethics in the Department of Philosophy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, and Ram Neta, Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is co-author (with Robert Fogelin) of the course textbook Understanding Arguments: An Introduction to Informal Logic. Walter and Ram present the course as a humorous double-act, Walter’s clownish humour alternating with Ram’s deadpan wit.

The course textbook

The course textbook



The course was twelve weeks long, structured as four three-week long units, taught alternately by Walter and Ram. The course material was delivered each week as a series of bite-sized lectures. Students could check their understanding using multiple-choice exercises that follow each lecture, and read the accompanying chapters in the course textbook. Online discussion forums on the Coursera website enabled students to check their understanding and clear up misunderstandings – and to help fellow students to do the same. At the end of each three-week long unit was a graded quiz, and if you achieve an average grade of 70 or above on the four quizzes you will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the professors. An average grade of 85 or above will get you a Statement of Accomplishment With Distinction also signed by the professors!

An outline of the course syllabus is given on the Coursera website, and you could get a more detailed idea about what is covered in the course by looking at the table of contents for the course textbook. Key learnings from the course include one from the very first week:

An argument is not a verbal fight

Useful to remember if a difference of opinion gets heated, online or off. I studied truth tables, the difference between deductive and inductive arguments, and logical fallacies. When I was not studying, it was fun to spot, uniting and reconstruct arguments in everyday life. Or, fun for me at least – I mused out loud that this Coursera course was changing the way I think, only for my husband to retort that it was making me “really annoying”. Oops.

Some students on the course – Courserians as we are known – went further than just observing the structure of arguments in their everyday lives We were encouraged by the course teachers to upload our own arguments to the discussion forums, and to comment on the arguments uploaded by other students. Some students created their own short videos to illustrate the course material, and a few of these videos were incorporated into future editions of the course.

This was my second run at a MOOC – earlier in the year I took Statistical Learning, also starting again soon, at Stanford Online. I learned from that first MOOC experience and when I took TA:HTRAA I made more of a conscious effort to set aside the time to study. A MOOC, with its lack of lecture theatre or exam hall, requires a different sort of commitment compared to bricks-and-mortar study. It can be challenging for students to set aside the time each week. One student in the discussion forums suggested watching the videos twice to aid understanding – a great idea but of course taking twice as much time. I used the Coursera app to download the video lectures, and studied on my commute, with a few binge-studying sessions to catch up on weekends.

I would recommend Think Again: How to Reason and Argue to people working or studying in a wide range of fields. Regardless your day job, the information, tools and techniques taught in the course will help you to reason in everyday life. If you would like to stretch your mind an a different direction this year, or are considering taking a MOOC perhaps for the first time, then signing up to Think Again would be a great move! And, if you do not agree with my endorsement, I would be interested to hear your counter argument.

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Over on the sister blog

Belle Jar

Your one-stop feminist magazine

Over on the sister blog, I have written about why images of women in science are important, in reference to #thatothershirt.

About the sister blog:

Belle Jar is a collaborative feminist project, committed to smashing patriarchal norms, one day at a time.

Belle Jar has been shortlisted for the Guardian Student Media Awards 2014 – Student website of the year.

Belle Jar on FacebookBelle Jar on Twitter

The magazine was founded by Louisa Ackermann and my sister Juliette Cule.

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One of the advantages of being “Beyond the PhD” is having enough time to do all of those things I used to want to do when all of my time was taken up by writing up. After handing in my corrections, and spending a few months mostly resting, I felt the urge to learn something new. In the time since I was awarded my degree, I have learned, variously, to drive, to rock climb, to reason and argue, and to Olympic weightlift. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of these is the least plausible.

Gratuitous photograph of me on graduation day, complete with purple robe.

A London landmark, with some Imperial graduands.

One of these very things I had been meaning to go to for some time is Book Slam. Book Slam is billed as London’s first/best/only Literary Club Night. I like books, and I like London, and I even like books about London. I am more ambivalent about club nights, but Book Slam promoter Elliott Jack describes Book Slam as clubbing for grown-upsOctober’s Book Slam had an inspiring line-up so I though I would give it a go.

I had a great time – you literary types should keep an eye out for the next Book Slam! The October event was compered by Felicity Ward. Shami Chakrabarti spoke about the proposed abolition of the Human Rights Act in the UK, and her book On Liberty. Laura Bates talked about the evolution of the Everyday Sexism project, and read excerpts from the book. Both spoke with power and anger. At this performance event, though, the acts that struck me most came from two artists who were new to me. Poet Chimene Suleyman drew audible gasps and laughs from the audience when she read from her collection ‘Outside Looking On’. And author Salena Godden was a commanding presence reading from her book Springfield Road. Hundreds of literary clubbers in the Clapham Grand sat silent at she weaved a story that went from her childhood to her adulthood to her childhood again.

I thought about these powerful women, and their strong voices and the clarity of their messages, and I thought about my blog post from some years ago, about convictions and courage. In all the blog posts in between where I have blogged about public speaking, my main concerns were communicating clearly and quashing nerves. These days, I am required to go beyond that – to convince and to compromise, to reason and persuade. This requires a new set of skills – and skills that were not taught during Transferable Skills Training at Graduate School. Fortunately for me, I have lots of examples from fellow Occam’s Typists who have spoken, and continue to speak, with both passion and conviction. And fortunately for me, old habits die hard, and I like to learn new things.

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Where in the world?

Bloggers clam up!

Bloggers clam up! Bloggers clam up!

Quiz question: where were these two photos taken?

For bonus points: add a photo of yourself in the same location to this nascent collection…

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Unexpectedly transferable skills

The transferable skills developed over the course of a PhD have been a recurring theme on this blog. I have blogged both about being trained and, later, about training other students, in the skills that might be useful beyond the office, lab, and thesis. This Christmas, those very transferable skills I developed came into their own in an unexpected way on our wedding day.

Cultivating the ability to think flexibly is important during PhD study. When research is underway, plans often change, and you need to be able to think about novel solutions in order to avoid getting stuck. This was true on our wedding day too! A last-minute organisational twist meant my husband-to-be was the one to pick me up from my parents’  house and drive the two of us to our ceremony. Luckily I am not someone who sticks slavishly to tradition, because this led to one of my favourite photos of the whole day.

Off to get married!

Off to get married! Via jjcule on instagram.

In common with Frank, we had our ceremony at a registry office. I thank the registrars who made our ceremony moving and meaningful. A particular shout-out to my brother Ant, who stole the ceremony show with a reading of his poem Oh Brother! (Brother of Three Sisters).

Ant steals the show.

Ant steals the show. © DJ Norwood

Nothing in my PhD prepared me for this next bit:

What do you mean, I can’t do this in Emacs?
© DJ Norwood

The ability to adapt to unexpected findings came to the fore again as we left the registry office, when the traditional shower of confetti was replaced by a traditionally British erm, rain shower. Note the redeployment of umbrellas as a wedding archway.

The Newlyweds: Dr Cule and Mr Clark © DJ Norwood

About eighteen months ago, I collaborated with Ant on this blog post about giving a scientific talk. At the time I did not imagine the day I would apply the advice given there to my wedding speech. The night before the wedding, in a last-minute rehearsal reminiscent of those I did for my conference presentations, I practised in front of a friend who had given a speech at his own wedding less than one year earlier. He reminded me that when speaking at your wedding, the audience are on your side. This is in contrast to speaking at a scientific conference, where the audience can be bored, contrary, or, if you are unlucky, downright hostile. The guests at a wedding are more likely to support you and to laugh in the right places. With a combination of Ants’ tips in mind and my friends and family in the room, and the experience I had giving talks over the past few years, I quite enjoyed giving my speech.

“Just remember to focus on the important results…no…wait…”
© DJ Norwood

Thanks go to Guildford Registry Office (for a meaningful and touching ceremony), The Watts Gallery in Compton (for the use of their beautiful venue), Daniel J Norwood (who took the photographs), Rhubarb (who catered) and Carrie at the Topiary Tree (who did the flowers). Most of all, thanks to friends and family, and especially to my parents, who made it all possible, in more ways than one. And thanks to my Shiny New Husband, too, without whom the past eight years would have been a lot less fun.

Cheers! © DJ Norwood

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Back in 2009 the day, in a discussion on the recently archived Nature Network, I mentioned that I liked to draft blog posts the old-fashioned way. I wrote that “It is easier to get started with a pen and paper than a blank screen.” Whilst then I was talking about blogging, the same applies when I work. If you do research in the lab, you have your lab book, or increasingly these days your electronic lab book. For a desk-based or computer-based job like my PhD, record-keeping is no less important, although if you are lucky it involves fewer stains.

During my PhD I developed a few systems for keeping everything organised. On the recommendation of a successful PhD student, since my MSc days I have used version control for everything, from software development to the thesis itself. I recommend learning version control to everyone. I used Papers for, erm, papers and backed up my entire computer using Time Machine. This latter saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

Through experience, I concluded that the maxim “one line of comments for every line of code” only seems excessive at the time you are writing it. As a consequence the code I wrote early in my PhD is substantially less readable than the more recent work. But commenting your code, and version control, are no good for the random jottings, the thoughts, and the figuring things out. For that I relied on a series of notebooks, which I carried about like a talisman and made copious notes in.

My PhD in notebooks

My PhD in notebooks

To-do lists

To-do lists To-do listsTo-do lists

As Jenny found, these notebooks are a record of the unspoken PhD. I was, and remain, a fan of the to-do list, even when during the PhD my to-do list looked pitifully similar from one day to the next. Looking back on my notebooks, it is clear that progress is inversely proportional to number of doodles in the margins. Stars were a popular choice of doodle.



Athene wrote earlier this year about the wrench that is Jettisoning One’s Past, an activity often prompted by a physical move – be it moving office, house or job. However, as fast as I can turn my back on old notes and notebooks I acquire new ones. A year into my new job I am already on my third notebook there. And away from work, the boy husband, who knows of my love of notebooks, bought me a wedding-Christmas gift in which to note down those happy memories of our honeymoon and the start of married life.

Married life in notebooks

Married life in notebooks

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Paying it forward

Requirements for bound copies of the thesis

I submitted a physical, bound final copy of my thesis.

Once the corrections to my thesis had been approved by my examiners, I ordered copies bound in regulation purple and submitted one to Imperial College Library. As of March this year, a purple bound copy is no longer required – students submit their final copy electronically and their thesis is made available in Spiral instead. I submitted my thesis for examination in January, so fell under the “old” rules.

Bound thesis

Obligatory photo of the final product.

In July, I received an email awarding me my degree. I was told my degree certificate would be in the post “within three months”. So I was excited when a letter arrived from Imperial College London, addressed to Dr Erika Cule. However, the letter contained not my degree certificate but a mailshot promoting Imperial Alumni Office’s 2013 fundraising campaign.

The alumni office emailed me to apologise for this mishap, an apology I accepted. It was clear to me that it was hardly their fault! Moreover, the 2013 campaign will raise money for a Very Worthy Cause which I will be happy to support: the campaign will raise funds for the Rector’s Scholarship Fund, which gives undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships. I feel I curious affinity for my alma mater and would be proud to support the campaign. Imperial certainly gave me a great deal, even if it hasn’t given me my PhD certificate yet, and when I get the phone call I feel inclined to donate, so that other students might have the chances I had.

I had the opportunity to pay it forward in a more immediate and practical sense last week when I went back to Imperial’s South Kensington campus to attend a “Careers speed dating” evening. This event was organised by the Department of Life Sciences for current Biology and Biochemistry undergraduates. I felt nervous, being such a newly-minted graduate myself, but when I turned up on the day I was the oldest alumnus of the undergraduate degree who had volunteered – the other alumni who volunteered had graduated from the BSc between 2009 and 2012.

So many degrees, they wouldn’t all fit on the nametag.

Despite the economic downturn in the intervening years, we alumni covered a range of careers between us, from current PhD students to a teacher and a management consultant. As the name suggests, the format of the evening was modelled on speed dating (I am told, having never been speed dating). Each alumnus talked to a small group of current undergraduates, and every seven minutes a bell sounded indicating that the group should move on to the next alumnus.

It was exhausting! I don’t think I have ever talked about myself at such length. By the third or fourth group of student questioners, I found myself unable to remember whether I was repeating myself or talking to a new group of students, as naturally the students had similar questions for me. I directed a few of them to this blog to read about my PhD experience, so if you are reading, hi! I hope I was positive and encouraging even when I was recounting the difficult bits of my career journey.

At the end of the evening, alumni were given a thank-you gift.

“Don’t be a mug. Go to Imperial.”

I certainly wasn’t expecting to profit from the evening.

It was a pleasure to spend time with interested students, and to find out how the course I started back in 2005 has changed over the past few years. Hopefully I either answer the students’ questions or, where I couldn’t, pointed them in the direction of someone who might be able to. Thanks to Anita Hall for organising the event. As the evening drew to a close, I felt I had “paid it forward” in a practical way – something I would recommend and would do again. And I still feel I owe something to the alumni telephone campaign. This year, the value of an Imperial College mug, at least.

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The supporting cast

A PhD is, by definition, a lonely endeavour. My fellow students and I were taught the fundamentals of team work as part of our transferable skills training, only for one academic to comment that for a career in academia, they would have been better teaching you how to pretend to get on with each other and then turn around and stab each other in the back. You might be lucky enough to progress without any backstabbing. Nonetheless, when you pass the unofficial but significant milestone which is the moment when you come to realise that you know more about your topic than your supervisor, working life can become isolating very quickly indeed.

Because a PhD is to a large extent a solo journey, it is immensely helpful to have a support network around you. I had a great relationship with my supervisor, but for day-to-day support I remain indebted to my office-mates, with whom I shared an office with no windows for a large part of my PhD. We had this PhD comic stuck to the door.

Happening Outside

I’ve already thanked the folks at Occam’s T and beyond for their support whilst I was studying. As a computer-based researcher, sometimes social networks felt like a lifeline. I was chastised by my non-research friends for having my twitter client running in the background, and I did have to turn it off from time to time. But there is a substantial community of bioinformatics and statistics researchers on twitter, and somehow their background chat did make me feel less alone. Not to mention the more than one occasion I called on them for emergency help:

Solving problems using Twitter

Recent PhD graduates, in my own department and elsewhere, were immensely sympathetic when my motivation dwindled. The ones who smiled at the memory and reminisced oh, I quite enjoyed my PhD I found less helpful, but each to their own. Befriend the non-reserach staff, too, as they have seen it all before. One ran into me in my second year and commented

You’re in your second year now? Let me see…in the first year, you don’t have a clue what’s going on; in the second year, nothing works, and in the third year…you write up! 

Which proved remarkable prescient. I often recalled these words.

Beyond academia, I must thank my family, who were endlessly supportive, reassuring, and encouraging – and occasionally baffled: you don’t have to put yourself through this, you know. And my friends from outside of university were very patient when they asked how I was only for me to reply, for the third or fourth time in as many meetings, don’t do a PhD. When I received an invitation to our ten-years-since-we-left-school reunion, a few weeks before I submitted the thesis, I refused to buy a ticket until after the viva:

High School Reunion

At the reunion itself, I did proudly tell my old maths teacher that I was now Dr Cule. And my biology teacher was himself a PhD, so we reminisced about the trials of the process. Whilst the technologies have changed, the challenges of doctoral research seem to be remarkably robust over time.

Doing something as all-consuming as a PhD affects one’s relationships. When the boy held my hair back as I vomited into the toilet bowl of PhD depression, mopped up my tears, and passed me a glass of wine, I wondered whether any professional qualification would be this tough on a partnership. Does becoming a (medical) doctor, or a lawyer, or an accountant or an actuary or a teacher, draw its students in in such an emotional fashion? I often tell people that my doing a PhD was okay, because the boy was starting his own business, so we were both very busy. If one of us was working, the other wasn’t resentful – chances are, they were working too. It was during this time that I came up with the idea for the dedication page.

So I want to say is whilst the research is lonely, the rest of PhD life doesn’t have to be. I drew heavily on my support networks and I find it difficult to know how to thank you all.

Thanking the boy was easy though. We will marry in December. For Occam’s Typewriter, 2013 is turning out to be a good year.

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Margaret McCartney at Skeptics in the Pub

xkcd 1131

Back in 2009, Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, said in an interview

I keep saying the sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians.

More recently, his review of Nate Silver‘s The Signal and the Noise, Larry Wasserman explained

I used to tell people at parties that I am an oil-fire fighter. Now I’ll say: “I’m a statistician. You know. Like that guy Nate Silver.”

If being a statistician makes you sexy, then surely someone who takes an interest in statistics and saves peoples lives as part of her job can assume she has a certain cachet. Earlier this year, I saw Dr Margaret McCartney, Glaswegian GP and outspoken proponent of evidence-based medicine, at Skeptics in the Pub.

Margaret McCartney

Margaret McCartney

I read Dr McCartney’s book The Patient Paradox: Why sexed-up medicine is bad for your health soon after it was published last year. What impressed me about this book extended beyond eye-opening examples such as Edwina Currie’s admission that breast screening was attractive in political terms, with scant understanding of the impact of screening on the women pressured into undergoing it. Any sophisticated discussion of the benefits and costs of screening processes must incorporate some discussion of the numbers. Concepts such as sensitivity and specificity, statistical power, and false-positive and false-negative rates have the potential to confuse readers. But unlike some other popular science authors, Dr McCartney does not shy away from these ideas nor apologise to the reader for discussing them. Important concepts are presented using sometimes counter-intuitive examples to illustrate the impact on patients.
The Patient Paradox

Available from all good bookshops, or from the publisher’s website

If you have a chance to see Dr McCartney speak, then do. (If you don’t, then read the book.) Her talk at SITP included some material from the book. There were some updates that have arisen since the book was published, such as her thoughts on this emotive advertising campaign.

Importantly, Dr McCartney presented, the website she and some fellow doctors launched last October. The site was set up out of concern: the doctors view advertisements promoting private screening tests in the UK as unfair to those reading them. You can read why here. If you or anyone you know are thinking of paying for private screening tests, this website is a useful resource. The site was recently awarded a Good Thinking Society grant.

Compared to the book, the talk at SITP included somewhat more beer, and a lot more swearing. The talk was funny and engaging, and she handled insistent SITP hecklers with aplomb. An in-person explanation clarified several concepts for me, including the difference between screening and diagnostic tests, which I had not really thought about before.

In a discussion about risk with my GP, I mentioned Dr McCartney’s book. At my next visit, my GP said that they had read it, and now recommends to the trainee GPs at the practice. Doctors make decisions based on risk on a daily basis. If both doctors and their patients can become better acquainted with the harms as well as the benefits associated with screening, this knowledge will enable them to make more informed decisions about their health care.

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