Sunday, January 29, 2012

First month back in NL...

Moving country is exhausting. Living in a house full of boxes for a few weeks. Finding a house. Changing culture. Maybe it's a linguistic thing, but EU countries do not share the same culture. OK, we too have a McDonalds on every corner, but that's about it. But returning to The Netherlands was a cultural shock. A shock? Yes. I thought I knew the country I lived in most of my life.

Then, switching position. Posthopping (=post-doc here and there, attempting to find some local optimum where you both work on exiting things and try to set up a research group) around Europe (I have pension in four EU states now), while trying to keep writing papers and on top of that try to do something that in fact has impact on our science, means that every three months before the end of a post-doc position, and three months after you started the next, it's double work: finding your way around at the new university, while finishing those studies that almost were finished, in random, unpredictable order.

And, of course, being annoyed if your prime minister then claims he sometimes cannot get his work done in 40 hours. Well, one would actually think that a country in an economic crisis, with people eating up all their hard-worked-for saving just to get around, would do all his best to turn the future of the country around... oh well...

Sometimes I really wonder what I'm doing.

And then, in a spare hour here and there do something for myself. Like writing up this post, in an attempt to give all a place. Or finishing up a further paragraph of my book(let), or working on my contributions to the Pharmaceutical Bioinformatics book (molecular representation, semantic web for the life sciences). For my own Groovy Cheminformatics book(let): seventy more pages, and it's a book. Hard-cover, and I can start touring around Europe. BTW, I enjoy and can recommend reading Reinventing Discovery. Done the first 30 pages or so, and keep wondering how those examples can be scaled down to cheminformatics.

Sometime I really wonder why I keep working in an area that everyone just takes for granted and hardly cares about.

I'm tired, and this is slowly becoming a really boring and depressing blog post. That's a shame, because I have had a really great time in Roland Grafstr√∂m and Bengt Fadeel, working among and with one of the greatest, enthusiastic research teams I have seen around Europe. Having to leave that makes me sad too. In fact, I have never ever been homesick, and now going back to the country I grew up, I am homesick. Well, it's a feeling I don't like.

Weirdly, I have many really exciting ideas, research-wise, and my exciting daily work at BiGCaT, which is now in Open PHACTS, the network in The Netherlands, I have much to enjoy here. Yes, it is again hopping to another application area of cheminformatics, after interaction of cheminformatics and chemometrics (my thesis), more fundamental cheminformatics, metabolite identification, pharmaceutical research, toxicity, and now back to drug discovery but also the metabolome. But I love the complexity of the metabolome, and have so much detailed insight in the other fields now... oh, the endless possibilities!

And then I remember why I am doing this to myself.

All the endless possibilities! All the research we can do so much better than now is done! The more accurate answers we get, and actually be in a situation where we can start identifying limitations of cheminformatics! Ha, and you know I love to look beyond the edge of the world.

But, then I realize again that I need funding, and wonder how I can live my dream, if no one believes in it.

Not that I have been completely unsuccessful. Au contraire. I did get funding, for travel on many occasions, and recently small bits for research too. But I am really eager to get some funding to have research the ideas I have, rather than working on them myself. And eager to get a fixed position. Though I am grateful to Chris Evelo for offering the three-year position I am in now.

Next time someone starts talking about interdisciplinary research, get a trout out of your bag. Interdisciplinary research is a buzz word that only works when you already have a single-disciplinary fixed position. Advice to students: never start an interdisciplinary research topic. You will never be the expert people will want to fund, because interdisciplinary research can simply be done by single-discipline experts in a collaboration, and much better than you could, with your years of experience (n=1).

I also now realize that strengthening another project is also no good for your own career. Your hard work will just go to that project. You can contribute as much to some project as you like, but the corresponding Dr. Who will get the fame. No wonder people rename, brand, and use rather than collaborate. We desperately need #altmetrics.

Yes, I realize this applies to the CDK too. I am trying hard to get recognition with those who deserve it. But who reads a copyright statement. Who remembers blog posts with change logs and statistics on who did the work. Scientists in charge of funding remember only the top person.

Ha, you see that pattern applies the publishing too, right? Scientists only too often care more about the JIF of the top concept, the journal, than the actual work, your actual damn paper.

Oh well, fortunately it's almost Monday again, so that I can focus on science again, and don't have to think about these things.

And, I am deeply grateful to all that publicly support my output. A citation to one of my papers, a public review of my book, a new tool that makes stands on the shoulders of your work! That makes a difference!

Then I remember again why I am doing all this. I can make a difference.


  1. Egon,

    think of Bob Langer, Institute professor at MIT, and most cited chemical engineer ever. he started with 9 turned down grants for his "interdisciplinary drug delivery". just saying, don't give up. :)

  2. Make that an N=2 for the interdisciplinary research...

  3. Hey Egon,

    Yes, moving countries is exhausting, with a family even more so. Although I have superannuation / retirement funds in "only" 3 countries now (one non-EU) moving is still tough, making friends even more so when the next move is only a question of a few yrs. Why do we do it? It's better than a boring 9-5 job with no inspiration and believe it or not less stressful than consultancy. Not to mention the research is just too interesting.
    I really enjoy reading your blog - you are the first site I come to after checking mails, we ordered your book a week or so ago (hasn't arrived yet) and we did a lot of cool stuff with the CDK in recent weeks which we just haven't manage to tell you about yet (mainly cos we're still unpacking boxes too :D)
    You can make a difference...if you doubt it, take a look at the "views per week", thats pretty amazing. And I'm still looking for chances for you to come & show off your work...once the unpacking's done ;)
    Just in case the google login still doesn't work: schymane here.

  4. Hi Egon, thanks for posting this it is great to see someone with some similar frustrations out there. I think you know how much many of us value your work, and I hope you get the recognition and funding you deserve. I feel your pain with moving countries, and was shocked how hard moving states was in the US (I really thought it would have been pretty simple after moving continents).

    After spending the day doing tax returns for a country I haven't lived in for quite some years, and getting fingerprinted for background checks so that I can get access to systems and celebrating another birthday I was having similar mixed feelings. Add to that giving up a nice home we owned for an OK home we rent in a place where we don't know many people with a wildly different culture that we are still learning to adjust to with an immigration system that moves at a snails pace...

    Keep doing cool work, keep telling us all about it. Hopefully one of these days we can share a beer and compare notes, my postdoc wouldn't even let me join the pension scheme!

    1. Likewise! Avogadro and VTK are really interesting projects. It's a shame it's in the wrong programming language :) Then again, we now have Jace [0], so there is no reason not to make CDK functionality available in Avogadro :)

      BTW, it was great to see Gerrit used by Avogadro/VTK! Good learning opportunity!


  5. Hi Egon. First of all, welcome back to Holland! :) It seems that I'm kind of in a similar situation, but in a different field and doing my first postdoc now. I'm not working in cheminformatics at the moment, but if you organize an event in Maastricht, I'd be happy to come over and attend.

  6. BTW, Iain has mentioned you in the latest Panton discussion.

  7. Your comment about interdisciplinary work strikes a chord. The flip side is that a good collaboration requires the collaborators to be interdisciplinary. The quality of the work will be determined by the collaborator who actually understands all of the aspects of the work.

    1. Michael Nielsen's book actually suggest the opposite... it's just a matter of getting the experts together with online tools... (well, in the first 30 pages or so).

  8. Karol, finally got around to the video you pointed to. I had not seen it before, and it's a really interesting story on innovation in scientific communication. Recommended, ummm, reading :)

    Also, way cool to be quoted! That feels very rewarding indeed! To know that ideas I spread are being picked up!

  9. Great video. Nice quote too. (For others, Egon is quoted just after 26:35)

    1. And the quote was something like:

      "Open Data is not the goal; it is the means to achieve better science."