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Jan 14, 2016

Up and down, but always forward

How much of an academic career is down to planning, or simply luck? Does taking risk pay off? These are recurrent questions, and it is always nice to get the perspective of a more senior colleague. Jenny Martin's latest blog post is particularly interesting, as she has just accepted the role of Director of the Eskitis Drug Discovery Institute at Griffith University. Many of us could do a lot worse than having the same career.

Jenny suggested on Twitter that I blog about the topic, so let's have a look at how I got my current Lecturer position (equivalent to Assistant Professor if you are reading from North America), which is not a bad position to be in if you consider the overall numbers. A lot has happened since my 'tightrope' analogy for postdoctoral life, but let's start even further than that.

As a kid, I was fascinated by weather and climate. I would collect and analyse my own data, read any book I could find on the topic, etc. I even spent a week as a 16 year old intern at my local weather station in 1998. Despite coming from a relatively low SES background, I was attending an excellent high school, thanks to a number of factors (family commitment, partial fee waiving, etc.). I was having good marks, so nothing seemed impossible. I looked up how to become an engineer at the French national meteorological service. Less than a handful of positions every year? No problem! Very difficult entrance exam for their school? Not afraid! After all, I was already reading the book used in the classroom I would hopefully attend 3-4 years later, so I knew I would enjoy it.

Classes préparatoires being extremely competitive (worse than some grants I am applying for these days), things did not turn out as planned. I ended up going for my second choice of "grande école", an engineering school specialising in Computer Science and Mathematics. Weather forecasts rely on computational models, so the idea was still to eventually work in that field. The French system is quite complex, but because these schools recruit after 2-3 years of classes préparatoires, you spend 3 years studying there and graduate with the equivalent of a 5-year M.Eng. degree elsewhere. In each of the last two years, students undertake a 6-month work placement, and are encouraged to consider gaining some international experience. It is not easy to convince a foreign company that having a French "stagiaire" has many benefits, so I mostly targeted universities (which seemed more likely to have interesting, short-term projects I could really take ownership of). I focused on Ireland (including Northern Ireland), as I was hoping to spend some time there at some point anyway.

Only one university replied with real interest (and some funding!), so in April 2004 I started my six-month project with Martin Crane at Dublin City University, working on computational fluid dynamics. It went very well. As expected from a previous trip, I loved the country, and research was great too. The project led to my first conference presentation, and some time later we even got a paper out of it. Becoming an academic was my new goal. The plan was to come back to this group for my second placement, work on a new project, get some preliminary results, and apply for a PhD scholarship to work with Heather Ruskin and Martin. In my head, it was fairly straight-forward. Later on, I realised it involved a fair amount of luck as well: the success rate for the scholarship I was awarded was about 20%.

As I was starting my PhD, Microsoft Research had a workshop, and later a report, called Towards 2020 Science. It highlighted the need to "produce ‘new kinds’ of scientists now urgently needed (computationally and mathematically highly literate)". I thought that being at the interface between computing and biomedical sciences would be really fitting for me. A great match for my research goals and my interests in data analysis, modelling, etc. from the early days. My career goal became a little more refined.

My PhD was fairly uneventful, with a few conferences and papers, except for one detail. At a conference in Italy, I met a Japanese researcher, Hiroyuki Ohsaki, who at the time was working at Osaka University. His focus on communication networks was quite far from my work on the immune response to HIV, but we realised there was a nice overlap in the modelling approaches we were using, and decided to keep in touch.

This, and a new project on epigenetics, brought a focus on Japan. I started to collaborate with a few labs there, and it looked like I would spend some time either there or in the USA (I even interviewed for a postdoctoral position in Chicago). At that point, just under two years after my PhD, I was awarded an IRCSET Marie Curie fellowship to spend 18 months in Hiroyuki's group in Osaka (followed by a year back in Ireland for the "return phase"). It was great news. The move was supposed to bring me one step closer to a faculty position: a competitive and well-regarded fellowship, some additional international experience, and hopefully a couple of nice papers. The Global Financial Crisis changed all that. The situation degraded fairly quickly in Ireland, and the government imposed a recruitment ban. Some positions I applied for were withdrawn before any interview took place. For the single position that came through, I was shortlisted for interview but not offered the job.

It was time to take a big risk. I applied for a 3-year fellowship to work with Hiroki Ueda at RIKEN. It was a risk on multiple levels. The success rate is typically about 10-15%, but more importantly, I would be working directly in a biology lab, rather than in collaboration with one. This could be a great career boost, or a dead end, depending on how it went.

Thankfully, it paid off. I got the fellowship, moved back to Japan, and worked on great projects. We made a brain transparent, and later even a whole mouse. We also had a nice study using CRIPSR, and a number of other projects that are not published yet but have produced some very interesting results as well.

Soon enough, it was time to prepare applications again, especially as recruitments can start months before the scheduled start date (due to visas, etc.), and because not all countries operate on the same university calendar. At that point, I had decided to only apply for faculty positions. I was not interested in being a perpetual postdoc so, with a few good results behind me, it was make-or-break time. My wife and I prepared a shortlist of countries where we could see ourselves live. In no particular order: Japan, Canada, USA, Australia, and a few European countries (not including France, ironically). I quickly began to find a few suitable positions advertised in these countries. The number of PhD graduates means that there is fierce competition for each position, though.

I received a few rejection letters, and some universities never bothered to share an outcome (isn't that annoying!), but I also got good news. Within five months of starting that process, I called the search off and accepted a position at QUT in Brisbane, Australia. New country, new challenges, but it is nice to have the ability to establish my own line of research.

Looking back to 2004-2005, it has not been a straight path, but I managed to bounce back when needed. I am a Lecturer in Data Science, and I work on biomedical systems. Of course, rather than an end goal, this is only the beginning. There are more challenges ahead (more funding please!), but I can also see a number of very exciting opportunities.