From a biology PhD to data science

 A little over a year ago I saw this telling info-graphic that reveals only 15% of postdocs get tenure-track faculty positions within 6 years of receiving a biology PhD. Rather than take my chances on the postdoc carousel I decided to convince potential employers that I could do more than study genomes and evolution. It’s been almost a year since I left academics and I absolutely love my job as a data scientist. I realize everyone has a different experience, but since a few of my former classmates have asked how I made the transition, here are a few tips:

  1. Learn how to use R.
    • Learn to use R packages that aren’t specific to your research. A good start is dplyr to manipulate data and ggplot2 to visualize it. If you want to get fancy, start coding PowerPoint presentations with ReporteRs.
  2. Talk about your research, but don’t go overboard.
    • Employers are primarily interested in who you are and what you might be able to do for them.
    • Seek to make connections between the role you are applying for and the research you have completed, even if it is behavioral traits like flexibility and perseverance.
  3. Join user groups and network.
    • Get outside the academic bubble and meet people who work in the field(s) in which you might be interested.
    • is a great way to get to know people and find mentors.


Moving on

Today is my final day of school in the Life Sciences Building at UT Arlington! I have spent the last six years as a graduate researcher and instructor in the quantitative biology program.

UT Arlington Life Science bldg

As I look back on the time I’ve spent here I am filled with a buffet of feelings and thoughts. I want to briefly write about a single topic that was the subject of an interesting debate in an evolution discussion group I participated in a few years ago: altruism.

Wikipedia provides a good definition and discussion:

Pure altruism consists of sacrificing something for someone other than the self (e.g. sacrificing time, energy or possessions) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (e.g., receiving recognition for the act of giving).

Much debate exists as to whether “true” altruism is possible. The theory of psychological egoism suggests that no act of sharing, helping or sacrificing can be described as truly altruistic, as the actor may receive an intrinsic reward in the form of personal gratification. The validity of this argument depends on whether intrinsic rewards qualify as “benefits.”

While it is true that personal gratification can be an outcome of altruism, I reject the notion that pure altruism is impossible. I think that pure altruism exists for two reasons:

  1. Acts of altruism do not always result in personal gratification.
  2. Even if personal gratification is often an outcome of altruistic behavior, what matters is the incentive or motivation for performing the act. In my personal experience, and from observing others, I have learned that many acts of altruism are indeed pure because the motivation entirely excludes consideration for intrinsic or extrinsic benefits.

I am grateful for the pure altruism that has been shown to me and my family while we have lived in Arlington, particularly those who came to our aid emotionally and financially when our son unexpectedly passed away in October.

It have been fun, it has been real. Goodbye Arlington, hello Austin.

Accidentally misleading visualizations

Today I saw a figure posted on Nate Silver’s website that is a good example of an accidentally misleading visualization. The intended point of the chart is that most men in Glamour Magazine have some form of facial hair.

Instead, what immediately comes across is that most men in Glamour Magazine are clean-shaven. The figure forces the reader to first group facial hair categories before it becomes obvious that most men maintain some form of facial hair.

Here are a couple of different approaches I think are better. By listing the facial hair categories first and using color to help the reader group them, figure A requires minimal changes to the original visualization. Figure B groups the facial hair categories to show that clean-shaven is in fact in the minority. Figure C adds color to really emphasize that the comparison is between facial hair and clean-shaven. In figures B and C I think that the numbers are optional.

facial hair-01


Facilitating feedback and improving learning

This is an app idea I came up with to improve student learning.

Students, who are the customers of education, have little input. Teachers, who heavily influence student learning, lack the data to improve teaching. Administrators, who can promote change, have little information.

The auris app is designed to facilitate feedback and serve as a powerful tool to empower students, enable teachers, and inform administrators.

What do you think? Anyone want to help me build the app?

Kevin Durant’s Wingspan in Perspective

In light of Magic Johnson’s recent prediction about Kevin Durant, I decided to objectively evaluate the physical characteristic that sports commentators most often mention in regards to Durant: his wingspan.

Since height has a large impact on wingspan, I evaluated Durant’s wingspan relative to NBA prospects since 1989 who are his height within an eighth of an inch. The wingspans of these players range from 6′ 8” to 7′ 6.25”, and sure enough Durant is near the top of the distribution.

Obviously a long wingspan is not the only thing that contributes to Durant’s basketball prowess, but I’m sure it helps. Thanks to DraftExpress for the data!

Durant wingspan

Leadership lessons from Pop

Gregg-Popovich-507433-1-402By any metric you’d like to use, Gregg Popovich is one of the most successful NBA coaches of all time. He has won 4 NBA championships and keeps the San Antonio Spurs competitive and in the hunt for a title every year. I think some recent comments to the San Antonio Express-News reveals a little bit of the secret to how he has been so successful:

Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out, and I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.


I have observed that sometimes people in leadership positions fail to put people in situations where they can succeed, and then put the blame on the individual who ultimately fails. The reality is that there has been a failure in leadership. In basketball terms, the play was drawn up poorly, so why blame the player who sought to execute the poor play? What Coach Popovich is pointing out is that the leader isn’t always the one who can come up with the best play, and that he allows his players to take an active role in planning for success. Clearly Coach Popovich understands that leadership isn’t about power, it is about empowering.

I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people.

More than anything, leaders are facilitators. This is why leaders who fall into the trap of flexing muscles and seeking to manipulate ultimately fail, they destroy the very people who can bring success to the organization. Coach Popovich sums this point up beautifully:

It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs. Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.

With true leadership the battle becomes personal because it isn’t about the coach, it is about the team.

Scaling fences

IMG_20140208_154942Today my daughter Sophie decided to climb a chain-link backstop at the nearby school. I knew she loved to climb things on the playground, but I had never seen her attempt something like this. I was a bit apprehensive as she started to scale the backstop and so I ran over and told her I would catch her if she fell. Shortly thereafter, and about two-thirds of the way up, she panicked and decided she needed help coming down. As I thought about it later, I helped her fail because I gave her an easy way out.

After a few minutes I saw her back at it and this time I didn’t let her know I was there in case she fell. She smoothly navigated to the top and proudly looked around to take in the glory of her accomplishment.


Of course, not to be outdone by her older sister, my darling Ellie did some fence scaling of her own. Next time I’ll have to make sure she has better shoes for the climbing.

How often do we go two-thirds of the way up our individual challenges and then allow ourselves to panic and turn back? How often do we undermine the growth of others because we talk more about how it’s okay if they fail than about how they can succeed?

The friendship of a grandma

DSCF1721wA year ago my sister sent me an email with the subject: Grandma made it to her real home…6:41am.

Pauline Goodwin passed away at the grand age of 99. I always felt a special bond with Grandma Goodwin because we shared a love of sports, particularly basketball. As a boy and on into adulthood I spent many evenings watching basketball with her. Grandma’s favorite team was the San Antonio Spurs and so one year I bought her a Tim Duncan jersey that she proudly displayed on her wall during basketball season.

Although I’d like to think I had a unique relationship with Grandma Goodwin, the reality is she found a way to make everyone she met feel special. This doesn’t mean Grandma was a pushover by any means, in fact, she was known to speak her mind. For example, once when one of my brothers grew a bit of a beard she remarked, “grow it out, and then shave it off.”


A short blog post can’t begin to describe this great woman and the influence she has had on my life. In October when my unborn son unexpectedly passed away a few days before his due date it didn’t take long for my wife and I to choose Goodwin as his name.

The other night I asked my three year old Elinor where baby brother was, she replied, “baby brother is with Grandma Goodwin.” If my son is anything like his dad he probably is with Grandma Goodwin, watching basketball.

Basketball, dunks, and the game of life

vince-carter-olympic-dunkIn the 2000 Olympics Vince Carter (6′ 6″) posterized Frédéric Weis (7′ 2″) in one of the classic dunks of all time.

Posterizing opposing players by dunking over them is kind of like a home run in baseball, it is guaranteed to show up on SportsCenter. Unfortunately, the stigma of being dunked on has led many players to frequently turn down opportunities to defend dunk attempts. This attitude is essentially the idea that “If I can’t win, I won’t play”.

One of my favorite basketball players is Nate Robinson because he welcomes the opportunity to challenge others at the rim, despite the fact that he is only 5′ 9″. The list of players he has challenged at the rim, and won, includes LeBron James (6′ 8″), Yao Ming (7′ 6″), and of course Shaquille O’Neal (7′ 1″). Check out this clip of Nate Robinson getting blocked by the intimidating Shaq, only to come back and return the favor.

Perhaps the most meaningful battles we fight in life are the ones where we aren’t favored to win. As a Texan I naturally think of the Alamo and the bravery of the men who refused to surrender, even though they knew they had no chance of victory. Life is too short to turn down opportunities to block a dunk, even if it means you might get posterized. I’d rather be posterized in the game of life than sulk on the sideline wondering what could have been.


He was an average student, but was a bold child

AitazazI am touched by the story of Aitazaz Hassan Bangash who sacrificed his life to prevent a terrorist attack at his school in Pakistan. Here is an excerpt from the story on CNN:

A 14-year-old boy is being hailed as a hero in Pakistan for tackling a suicide bomber — dying at the main gate of his school and saving schoolmates gathered for their morning assembly.

Ninth-grader Aitazaz Hassan Bangash was on his way to the Ibrahimzai School on Monday in the Hangu district of northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province when the bomber, dressed in a school uniform, asked him where the school was, the teen’s cousin told CNN.

Aitazaz and his cousin, Musadiq Ali Bangash, became suspicious, Musadiq said. “The other students backed off, but Aitazaz challenged the bomber and tried to catch him. During the scuffle, the bomber panicked and detonated his bomb,” he said.

I find it interesting what Aitazaz’s teacher said of him:

He was an average student, but was a bold child.

Why must Aitazaz’s boldness be prefaced with the revelation that he was an average student? Are only above average students expected to be extraordinary? Let me clarify that I am not blaming his teacher; I am merely illustrating how ingrained academic achievement is in our assessment of people.

In the moment of crisis Aitazaz proved that he was not an average individual. Aitazaz was bold, and it was his boldness that saved the lives of over 400 of his peers.

As a society we are obsessed with smart people. In our love affair with being smart, have we overlooked other traits that are arguably more valuable than dominating a standardized test?

Perhaps part of the legacy of Aitazaz can be that it prompts us to reconsider the merit of using academic achievement to define and predict future success.