On Becoming a Scientist
When it comes to science, my strategy has been: Fake it, until you make it
Every month, my friends over at INFORMS, blog about our field, Operations Research and Management Science. I decided to join them for this month and write a blog post about “Science, and Holidays”. By now you may already know that as a Muslim born atheist, I do not celebrate Christmas. I mean I have nothing against Santa or Baby Jesus or any type of fictional character. I would like to celebrate it. I just don’t have any relatives here to celebrate Christmas with. My girlfriend is Canadian, so for the last 4 years she has left me alone for Christmas to see her mom! This has developed a deep seeded hatred in me towards Christmas, Canada and quite possibly mothers! (Now that I am thinking about it I hate not only mothers but also fathers. At this point in life I hate everybody)
For this post I thought I’d write about how I want to leave my hacker life and become a scientist. Not necessarily an uptight professor but more like someone who has principles to lead his life. One who refuses to blindly accept anything without scientific bases. After all I am a PhD student in an institution that trained top scientists like Ted Kaczynski (unibomber) and Robert Oppenheimer (remember atomic bomb?) so at some point I will become a top scientist like them even if I don’t want to. Below are my new year’s resolution written on a lonely Christmas eve in San Fransisco airport.
1- Use less hacks, More science (or act like a real scientist not an engineer)
I was raised an engineer. Got a degree in aerospace eng and a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. This was enough to spoil me for life and make me incapable of using science instead of shitty hacks. I confess, I am addicted to metahuristic methods, I use logistic regression for everything. I use off-the-shelf software to solve my problems in a quick and dirty way. And this habit sickens me. The one that contaminates science with illegitimate hacks is me. But I am quitting. This year I will use more science and less hack. More blackboard and less computer. More brain, less ant colonies.
The more I stay in university the more I realize that those days that a lonely researcher could solve problems in his dark and humid basement office is over. Problems are becoming more and more multidisciplinary. We either come out of our shells and start moving and talking together or we will die in our own bubble, alone and stupid.
Fight for Modern Operations Research (OR)
There are two school of thoughts in OR. Classic OR that focuses on Optimization, Stochastic Processes and those things. And Modern OR that is more focused on using more modern tools to solve problems in Management Science. These new tools include Machine Learning, Analytics and Data Visualization, Human Computation, Quantitative Psychology and so on. This year I want to join those brave scientists who fight to change the rusty definition of OR and still believe that OR is beautiful and young.
Read less, Do more
I spend a good amount of my time reading papers than actually generating papers. I am trying to reverse this trend this year. I feel I have read enough and haven’t written much.
Be more respectful to those who devote their lives to theory and don’t even give a crap about application
There are serious OR questions in real life that can benefit many human lives. AIDS in Africa can be a very challenging graph theoretical question. Middle East conflicts is an interesting game theoretical problem. World hunger is a logistic problem. Yet many of smartest people in OR spend their lives on questions that have no clear application in the real world. I used to think that these scientist are ignoring real humans for their fantasies. After all there is no honor in saving one person’s life with science but you get shit load of publicity if you solve P=NP (I still don’t know whether or not it translates to advancements in real applications) But I am starting to believe we should respect and honor those who chose to ignore real OR problems and decide to immerse themselves in the pool of imaginary problems and solutions.
Partake in scientific activities
I have found out that scientific challenges can teach me a lot of stuff and dramatically deepen my current shallow knowledge. I am planning to participate more in online scientific challenges and science meetups (things like AI meetups, Kaggle challenges, and even more consulting projects). Last year I benefited from these activities and this year I will overdose on these.
Document more precisely
I believe I document my work well but I am trying to push for more. I have been using a personal wiki for my academic work and been very happy with it. LaTEX is also good but is hard to keep track of.
Put up with abuse if you love to learn
Here at Berkeley we have been lucky to have some of the smartest scientists in the world. Unfortunately a great scientist does not necessarily need to be a great teacher. Nowhere in tenure applications scientists need to prove that they are not total morons or are familiar with basic human social protocols [example] . I have learned to put up with the verbal abuse and humiliation when I want to learn something. My advice for younger generation is that never fear to ask even if the other person is an absolute jerk. The verbal abuse will end but the knowledge you gain will last for ever.
Use smart drugs
Provigil is shown to enhance brain performance with almost no permanent side effects. I have recently realized that it is widely used among my friends who are working on their PhDs. It is also legal. I’m planning to expand my Provigil use this year.
Stop giving a shit about politics, economy and people
I used to spend a lot of time on political and economy news. Specifically I used to believe we should not be neutral about issues that endanger human lives. Issues like human rights and freedom especially women and gay rights are important issues. Recently, I have realized that the more you develop opinions about these issues the more you endanger your future career as a researcher. Other academics like to think you are a sharp person in your own field and a potato in every other serious issue. Screw people, I am planning to spend no time in politics.
[Disclaimer: this post is written by Mark S Alen for fun on a Christmas eve in the SFO airport. If you use this post against him on any case especially but not limited to job interviews you automatically agree to donate a fine of $100K to UN world food program]