2019: a year in review

As the New Year just passed, I thought I’d give a go at a general life update and some personal reflections.

TL;DR: it was a busy year.

This past year and a half has been an important transition for me. I arrived back in Paris mid-2018 with a new position at the CRI (Center for Research and Interdisciplinarity) that would allow me to create my own research team as well as develop our young nonprofit JOGL – Just One Giant Lab with Leo Blondel and Thomas Landrain. With CRI being a young organization itself, this period has been placed under the sign of new beginnings and open-ended possibilities. Here’s a little summary of how these possibilities have shaped up, and what’s coming for 2020 and beyond.

In May 2018, the CRI had just started its research fellowship program, providing resources for a diverse array of researchers to build their team and conduct long-term (1 to 3 years) projects, as well as provide support for short term (3 to 6 months) stays. I entered as the first long term fellow, a few months before the CRI would move to the city center, and was slowly joined over the next few months by other long-term fellows and successive waves of short term ones – totaling today around ~30 researchers in the program. Faithful to the CRI’s ideals of interdisciplinarity, the backgrounds are incredibly diverse, from physics and mathematics to biology and neurosciences, from archaeology and paleontology to philosophy and learning sciences, all with a shared interest in Open and Citizen Science. Beyond local researchers, visitors are constantly flowing through the institute, bringing innovative ideas around core topics of health sciences, systems/synthetic biology, learning sciences/education technologies and AI. One key component shared across these topics is how network science and complex systems underlie our ability to think, describe and model the various research questions that come out. Along with Liubov Tupikina, network scientist and mathematician who came as a short term fellow before joining Bell Labs, we decided to formally address this need over the past year by organizing a local network science community through various activities: a weekly network seminar, various network art and visualization workshops (a resulting booklet is in preparation), as well as a more recent network science course for the institute’s “Digital Master”. We gathered a growing crowd at the Seminar over the course of the year: from local Parisian researchers to foreign visitors, from epidemiologists to social scientists, neuroscientists to mathematicians, etc. Next year’s focus of the CRI in AI will surely provide new grounds and interfaces for explorations.

As a junior scientist in such a novel institution, building a team has been an incredible challenge. While the concept of having the funding to do your research make it seem like implementation will immediately follow, there’s nothing further from truth. There are many similarities between a young research team and a start-up. An infinite arrays of unforeseen responsibilities come up and require permanent attention. You are suddenly drawn into a world where you need to wear an ever-increasing number of hats: executive, administrative, hiring processes, operational, managerial, strategic, coordination, communication (both written and oral), building collaborations and partnerships, ensuring their prolonged existence through steady funding… A strong implication of this “funded lab” model (as opposed to a more traditional “hands-on” approach) is the permanent need for synchronization between involved parties through regular (omnipresent) meetings, which become a constitutive part of work days and dramatically impact the ability to produce operational work (coding, modeling, writing, answering emails, reviewing/editing papers, reading or even just creatively thinking) that are the actual foundations of the research duties, pushing them to evenings and weekends – the well-known curse of the academic system. This leads to imposing a strict agenda to yourself and others as the only gateway to a healthy lifestyle. This also requires to switch from a PhD-Postdoc tradition of saying “yes” to any potential project (building the CV with more publications and opportunities to learn) and learn to wisely say “no” (picking your fights to focus your energy on the items you deem most important). Honestly, I’m not the best at the latter.

My experience has been shaped by several shortcomings that rendered the process even harder. Only a few months after creating my team, it suffered from the departure of its two first members for unforeseen health and administrative reasons, making me start back from square one, one year after landing the job. Several interesting projects and collaborations had been started up, which I decided to continue regardless, generating a surge in operational duties that has voraciously eaten most of my already limited time. After almost a year past, I am soon to have reconstituted a fully functional team to tackle the challenges at hand. Even better, a continuous stream of grant writing has ensured the gathering of sufficient funding for a scale up of the team over next year – if all goes well, we should triple in size! 

The CRI has offered me a remarkable freedom to work on topics I was passionate about but constituted an important risk-taking for my career, as they significantly departed from my previous investigations. This led to a burgeoning of projects I am very proud about, and that I can’t wait to share in 2020: exploring community organization (small to massive), collaborative learning, innovation and knowledge exploration. They also brought me closer to my original Physics background, hunting for general scaling properties that seem to underlie a large variety of empirical cases (what we love to call “laws”).

At the origin of this novel research direction was the project that spawn out of various discussions we had with two of my most valued and oldest friends, Thomas Landrain and Leo Blondel, between Boston and Paris late 2015. Thomas had spent the past decade building community labs and experimenting how research can be done out of academic systems. Leo had been exploring how novel digital architectures can reshape collaborations. I was envisioning how network science and complex systems could be used for improved project management and more fluid distributed team work (in particular nurtured by some 2013 discussions with Christos Ellinas) – with the idea of someday being able to build a nomad lab that would rely on pure digitized interactions. 

When joining forces with Leo and Thomas, we created an ambitious vision of a distributed open research institute operating as a platform – what would later become Just One Giant Lab. Using smart recommendations and matchmaking algorithm, could we create more effective and more massive collaborations? This question required us to tackle the underlying question of what allows people to work together efficiently. This has since driven a large part of my research interests, be it through studying localized scientific teams and distributed open-source teams, studying the factors underlying innovation in science, or understanding dynamics of learners on digital platforms. 

We ran our first program Co-Immune in the second half of 2019, with a hard-working coordinating team running the show. Aimed at generating open projects around topics of vaccination hesitancy and coverage, it resulted in international, interdisciplinary projects developed in only a few months, reaching beyond academic borders and surprising us by their creativity. We tested many formats of group interactions, from open webinars to local hackathons with mentors, and still have loads to learn. More programs and partnerships are planned in 2020, with the long term goal to integrate as much as possible insights on team dynamics on the design of the platform – as well as study and understand the dynamics on the platform itself.

Finally, the past two years have also seen a transition on a more personal level, as I have been having since early 2017 chronic thyroid issues that have rendered all of the above a real challenge. Thyroid produces a hormone regulating metabolic activity, which underlies physical and mental energy. Once deregulated, it can take months to regulate it back, with high variations ranging from weeks of insomnias to others of intense physical and mental fatigue. Deregulation is unfortu-nately pretty frequent, happening 2 to 3 times a year. Learning to live with the unpredictability of their occurrence and outcomes has probably been the hardest challenge of these past years, forcing to integrate in any routine its potential disruption. While western medicines are quite powerless to treat symptoms of this system-wide deregulation, holistic interventions such as diet or escapes from stress (as simple as working at distance, or regular meditation / yoga) have been fundamental to improving the quality of life. I also discovered the world of chronic diseases and their related Facebook support groups, with their trove of expertise and tacit knowledge unknown to most in the medical world. We are currently shaping up projects with CRI fellow Bastian Greshake Tzovaras to develop new ways to empower research projects generated by patient communities using their own data (such as journaling symptoms and recording blood test levels). This might be an opportunity to mix my own experience with my research interests, as well as someday apply it to the case of thyroid diseases. Hopefully, this will get funded next year! 

There are many other things that could not fit in there. There has been beautiful collaborations started, from our many joint (net)works at CRI with Liubov Tupikina, to international ones with Stefani Crabtree teaching me archaeological and ecological networks at the Santa Fe Institute (the soon-to-be-famous “Crabtolini” project), the more recent study of online learning networks with Sasha Poquet (University of South Australia), or the scientific teams study with Megan Palmer at Stanford. The CRI has been a place for building strong scientific ties and friendships, and I am immensely grateful to be part of it for the upcoming two years! What is next, only time will tell.

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