S3E9 - Cracking Conversation & Academia Vs. Industry With Eugene Fletcher (PhD)
Timestamps, References & Transcript
Buzzsprout Affiliate Link
- 00:00 - Introduction
- 00:49 - Segment 1: Search & Romance (Short Story)
- 09:33 - Segment 2: The Origin of "Breaking The Ice" (Metaphor History)
- 19:15 - Segment 3: Academia Vs. Industry (Communication Topic)
- 29:17 - Segment 4: Talk With Eugene Fletcher (Guest Interview)
- Connect with Eugene Fletcher via Twitter: @eufletch
- Metaphorigins Instagram Page - https://www.instagram.com/metaphorigins/
- McMurdo Station - https://www.nsf.gov/geo/opp/support/mcmurdo.jsp
Cambridge Dictionary - https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/break-the-ice
- Better Human - https://betterhumans.pub/the-completely-audacious-guide-to-breaking-the-ice-3f6ea9bbac8d
- Hubspot - https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/conversation-starters-networking-events
- Brightside - https://brightside.me/inspiration-psychology/the-13-best-ways-to-break-the-ice-340210/
- Grammarphobia - https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2017/01/breaking-the-ice.html
- Writing Explained - https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/break-the-ice
- Phrase Finder - https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/break-the-ice.html
- Know Your Phrase - https://knowyourphrase.com/break-the-ice
- No Sweat Shakespeare - https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/quotes/famous/break-the-ice/
- World Histories - https://wordhistories.net/2017/08/05/break-the-ice-origin/
- PhDs in Academia vs. Private Sector - Science Magazine - https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/03/first-us-private-sector-employs-nearly-many-phds-schools-do
- XKCD - https://xkcd.com/664/
- Riddhiman Ras - Medium - https://medium.com/@rdasxy/programming-in-academia-vs-industry-5fb52852ea39
- PLOS Computation Biology - Scientific Article - https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000388
- Sci.Bio - https://www.sci.bio/the-budding-scientists-dilemma-academia-vs-industry/
- John Meade - Harvard Business Review - https://hbr.org/2009/03/academia-vs-industry-the-diffe
- Urzula Czerwinska - GitHub - https://urszulaczerwinska.github.io/thoughts/businesslang
- Clinical Microbiology and Infection - Scientific Article - https://www.clinicalmicrobiologyandinfection.com/article/S1198-743X(15)00720-X/fulltext
- Dr. Yumeng Mao - Science Magazine - https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/09/three-lessons-industry-i-m-taking-back-academia
- Flying High by jantrax | https://soundcloud.com/jantr4x
- Music promoted by Switxwrhttps://www.free-stock-music.com
- Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License | https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en_US
To my tremendous family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the 29th episode of the Metaphorigins podcast.
Now, to show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or Spotify or Google Podcasts or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, that’s @metaphorigins, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Remember, I will be holding a draw on my 30th episode for the cute, butterfly-printed, custom Metaphorigins shirt, so do follow the instagram page to be placed into the draw!
Okay. So for today’s episode, I will be talking about an expression that brings such anxiety and nervousness to introverts around the world, like most academics or entrepreneurs looking to network at specialized events.
Let’s get this show on the road. You are the first to wake up at your command post and start the coffee machine for you and your team. You walk towards the window in the common area and open the insulated curtains. Gazing out the window, it’s yet another blizzard outside. How typical, you think to yourself.
You are the leader of the search and rescue team situated at the largest research station in Antarctica, the McMurdo Station, built on the bare volcanic rock of Hut Point Peninsula on Ross Island. The station itself was first established all the way back in 1955 as the logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program, holding 85 buildings ranging from repair facilities, dormitories, administrative buildings, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, warehouses and even stores. Despite being the busiest research station on the continent, environment conditions are as expected for such a hostile region. The range of temperature extremes have been as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius and as high as plus 8 degrees Celsius, disregarding wind chill. However, it has been noted that temperature highs have been broken in recent years.
Today, is a big day. You and your team are to brief new researchers who arrived at the station. Scientists from around the world have travelled here to conduct research in aeronomy, astrophysics, geospace sciences, biology, geology, glaciology, geomorphology, ice cores, as well as ocean and climate systems. Today will be their first time out in the field, collecting samples to analyze back at the their base labs.
After breakfast, you head to the large meeting room and setup your presentation. You decide to put together a few slides about you, the historical context of McMurdo Station, and the Antarctic environmental conditions scientists will face while out in the field.
As you’re setting up the computer and projector, one of the researchers walks into the room. After locking eye contact with you, they immediately stop dead in their tracks, eyes wide open.
“Hello there,” you say, taken aback a bit by their unusual demeanour.
The researcher blinks a few times, smiles shyly and walks to the farthest chair on the opposite side of the room. They sit down, take out a stack of files and begin going through them with feigned concentration. Seems a bit odd, you say to yourself.
The rest of your team and the other researchers enter the meeting room and populate the seating in front of you. After a few minutes of chit-chat, you begin the briefing. You talk about your position as the leader of a team of six search and rescue operatives working at the McMurdo Station. Before this, to everyone’s surprise, you were an olympic athlete, winning various swimming events in the last decade, before realizing the superficiality of the global sports scene. You then began training in the US Navy before being deployed to head the Search and Rescue team as well as being the station’s lead diver.
Scanning the audience, almost everyone is glanced towards you, or your slides, with the exception of the researcher, who is frantically writing in their notebook on the desk in front of them. To ensure that everyone is listening intently, you pause to say, “Please note that all this information will be provided in a briefing document for you to review before heading out this afternoon. Therefore, there is no need for note taking at this time.”
The researcher, realizing they were the only one doing any note taking, slowly closes their notebook. Still, they continue to glance down at the desk, fidgeting in nervousness. You ignore the researcher and continue finishing the briefing presentation. At the end, you dismiss the audience. The fidgeting researcher jumps up and practically runs out of the meeting room, towards the dormitories. Seems a bit weird, you think to yourself.
After some downtime and further preparation for your team, it’s time for them to accompany the researchers as they head out and collect samples. During the break, you did some reconnaissance on that anxiety-ridden researcher. They are an ecologist studying life in the frozen lakes of Antarctica, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. As your team and the other researchers step out of the station’s main hub, you take the ecologist to the side and ask, “Is everything alright?”
Again, the researcher is apprehensive and tense. They nod their head signalling an affirmative response, and quickly walk out the building. You weren’t sure whether that was truly a head nod or their body trembling. You make note to radio the team member accompanying the ecologist to keep a close eye while out on the field.
After a few hours just outside the vicinity of the station, you return with the researchers that you had assigned to yourself. More team members arrive with their assigned researchers. After a couple more hours, there is only one team left who hasn’t returned, the one which included the ecologist.
You radio to your team member, “You should have arrived back at base two hours ago. Where are you? Over.”
Your team member responds immediately, ”Roger that. Most of the researchers are done with their sampling. We are waiting on just one to complete their tasks. Actually, it’s the one you told me to keep a close eye on. Over.”
“Roger that. Tell them to pack it in. Over.”
“Roger. They just said they’re almost done. They’ve been trying to break the ice on this lake for the entire afternoon. Oh no.”
“What’s going on? Over.”
“We have an emergency, the ecologist has fallen into the ice. I repeat, the ecologist has fallen into the ice. Over.”
Still in your emergency diving attire, you rush to the automotive warehouse and drive to their location. Within a few minutes, you see the group of researchers along with your team member struggling to pull the ecologist out of the frozen lake. As you step out of the vehicle, the ecologist looks to you and then disappears under the ice.
You run towards the large hole, assessing that it spanned about six meters wide. Your team member indicates exactly where the ecologist was last seen. You plunge into the frigid waters, grab the ecologist, thrust them out of the water and back onto the thick ice covering the lake. Your team member wraps a thermal blanket around them. With half the group in your vehicle, you lead the entire group back to the station’s main hub.
After a few hours at the station, you notice the ecologist finishing the debriefing with your own supervisor about the situation, and is now sitting alone in the eating area with a hot cup of tea. You could see that they were still shaking due to the mild hypothermia they had experienced. You sit across from them on the table and ask, “Okay. Tell me. What happened?”
“I was collecting samples and suddenly fell in the lake,” they say.
“Why were you creating such a large hole? Why were you breaking the ice to such a large extent?”
They stopped shaking and smiled. “Actually, I had finished collecting my samples well before that incident. You know, when I first saw you in the meeting room, I couldn’t believe how beautiful you looked. I was so nervous to say anything to you that I thought if I started breaking the ice and fell into the lake, you’d have to rescue me.”
You look at the ecologist in pathetic disgust. Who would do such a stupid thing, risk their life just to have a simple conversation with you. Yet, for some weird reason, you start thinking about your past, and the fake nature of the elite athletic world that you left behind. The honesty of their admittance surprised you, and actually made you feel happy and flattered, emotions you don’t really feel on this lonely, icy continent.
The ecologist laughs and asks, “Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?”
“Sure, a coffee please” you say, smiling, as they get up and turn on the coffee machine.
D’awww, look at you, getting so much imaginative love and attention! Much needed during times like these, I suppose. Hopefully you caught the expression that dipped itself towards the end of that story, one used in all sorts of settings, romantically or professionally. But why did the act of cracking condensed water become interlaced with easing social anxiety and initiating conversation?
What’s the origin to the expression, “breaking the ice”?
Most of this information was obtained from many articles discussing its usage and the potential origins to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.
During the short duration of my professional life, including my experiences in academia, government and industry positions, I’ve realized one of the most important skills to master is the art of networking, creating this list of contacts of various backgrounds, expertise and interests that you can communicate with at some point in the future. At the heart of networking is the ability to communicate effectively. Extending on what we’ve learned from last week’s episode, we need to be aware of the elements of dialogue that two people will encounter when meeting up, in-person or through some virtual means.
When I was working for Global Affairs Canada, I travelled to a conference that was about digital healthcare, with stakeholders from every professional point along the spectrum. Every evening they hosted a cocktail night in which attendees could end each day with alcohol in one hand and several business cards in the other. And these events were no joke. In a crowded, upscale bar, over the sound of music on the speakers and conversations happening in every direction, one was practically forced to engage in dialogue with the person in front of you, to determine whether this relationship was beneficial to both parties and clink glasses together while exchanging contact information, all in the span of 5 or 10 minutes before moving on to the next lucky soul. For a 24 year old at the time with a more prestigious title than should have been given to the work that was actually done, I had to learn the art of networking as fast as possible.
Most people have attended a conference, work outing, birthday party or some large gathering in which you were presented the opportunity to meet someone new. The professor who wrote that landmark paper in your field back in 80s. Karen from Accounting who, to your surprise, is liked by everybody,. Hell, even that guy who just hammered down 10 jagerbombs before cannonballing in the outdoor pool. All of these people have insight to which you could benefit from, or alternatively perhaps you have some perspective that may benefit them, both of which could be determined by a brief conversation. Although, sometimes its best to just check up on the guy in the pool and make sure he’s okay.
It is this initial encounter tied with today’s expression that makes a lot of people feel… uneasy. The idiomatic activity of “breaking the ice”, defined by Cambridge Dictionary as, “to make people who have not met before feel more relaxed with each other”. In fact, its a common problem for people to feel nervous or anxious during a first encounter, that there are many resources available for people to “break the ice” and feel more relaxed. One blog post published on Better Humans by writer Michael Thompson categorizes conversation starters based on the situation he finds himself in. Among them are “What one quality is mandatory to be an effective leader?” at a professional networking sware, or “If you did not have to sleep, how would you spend the extra 8 hours?” at a school event, or “Is it even possible to get six-pack abs if you have a soft spot for booze?” at the gym (though I personally wouldn’t try and network at the gym, unless you’re really committed to the craft).
A lot of these “icebreakers”, a related term for modes of action or dialogue that allow one to “break the ice” are extremely cliche. Would you really start a conversation by asking about a mandatory quality to be an effective leader? Perhaps you could be more coy then that. In a blog post published n Hubspot by writer Amanda Zantal-Wiener, she suggests more realistic questions to commence the initial exchange. Questions such as “Are you having issues with the wifi?” Or “That [food or beverage] looks great. Where did you find it?" Or for some subtle flattery, “Are you speaking at this event?”. Perhaps you don’t already know the answers to these questions, or perhaps you do, and thus can steer the conversation in whichever way seems the most natural. But do avoid what news outlet Brightside has called the RAPE rule (yes this is what they labelled it as), which is “never talk about religion, abortion, politics, or economics”. I also highly recommend not to talk about rape either.
Okay, let’s pull back to the goal of this podcast, why do we break the ice to engage in more relaxed conversation with others? To start off, the original meaning of “breaking the ice” was not about social communication at all, but about undertaking something new. Grammarphobia mentions the expression is, “an Anglicized version of the medieval Latin expression scindere glaciem (shin-dere-ay gla-ki-em), which [scholar Desiderius] Erasmus added in 1528 to his Adagia (ah-did-gia), Greek and Latin adages that he collected from 1500 to his death in 1538 […] He says this sense is derived from sending a crewman of a boat ahead to break up the ice and open the way on a frozen river.”
This is also the position taken by Writing Explained, in which they suggest that “This idiom most likely developed from the practice of boats at sea breaking the ice in a body of water in order to pass through it and clear a path for other boats to also travel through.” Yes, as mentioned by Phrase Finder “These ships, known as ice-breakers, were equipped with strengthened hulls and powerful engines and were employed in the exploration of polar regions.”
Yet that doesn’t seem to make sense with the meaning we have for breaking the ice today. For the metaphorical meaning, we go even further into the past. Phrase Finder and Know Your Phrase suggest that the idea of breaking down social stiffness comes from a 17th century poem written by English novelist Samual Butler called Hudibras, “To give himself a first audience, After he had a while look’d wise, At last broken silence, and the ice”. Yet, we can go even earlier than that. Written in William Shakespeare’s 16th century play The Taming of the Shrew, in which Tranio says the following verse,
“If it be so, sir, that you are the man
Must stead us all, and me amongst the rest,
And if you break the ice and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free
For our access, whose hap shall be to have her
Will not so graceless be to be ingrate.”
Mentioned by blog site No Sweat Shakespeare, “[Tranio] is suggesting approaching [Katherine] by getting to know her father first, which will break the ice. Being Shakespeare, though, and never letting us off with a single meaning, he is also talking about cracking the ice cold demeanour of the feisty Katherine.”
We can even go earlier than that, folks. Mentioned in worldhistories.net, “there is a passage from A pleasant conceited comedie, wherein is shewed, how a man may chuse a good wife from a bad, by the English playwright and poet Thomas Heywood [who] shows the transition to the current sense, i.e. to relieve reserve, stiffness or shyness in a social setting, [where he writes]: And I will breake this Ice of curtesie.”
Therefore, it seems that this is the earliest writing in which “break the ice” is used in the metaphorical meaning we hold today. The irony is apparent in this expression with an action most are so intimidated by, sprung into existence from a comedic play. Perhaps that seems to be the key to easing the thick tension between two strangers, that by breaking the ice one (or both) can share a laugh together over some alcoholic beverages and exchange ideas and business cards. Now that’s something I can cheers to.
For my communications segment, I would like to talk about a comparison frequently discussed by people looking towards higher education, whether they’re early in their professional careers, like myself, or in the final year of their programs or work in post-doctoral fellowships. And that comparison is that of academia vs. industry.
When choosing to undertake an advanced degree, one is often asked, “What do you want to do after?” A question that triggers a nerve in the brains of PhD and Masters students alike, just like the shunned question “How’s the thesis writing doing?”. Yet, it’s a fair question. Most advanced degrees require a significant time commitment, along with some sort of financial plan that can sustain the student for the time it takes to complete the degree program. It would be impractical to squander these finite resources solely because there is nothing better to do and this path seems like the only possible route forward.
In effect, there is, an answer that seems self-evident, to which by obtaining an advanced degree, one can be distinguished within the candidacy conglomerate. This is not necessarily true, as there are many examples of high school dropouts becoming bootstrap entrepreneurs leading Fortune 500 industries, if that’s the measure of success society chooses to use. But at the very least, in the land of academia, where intellect roams free so long as grant applications are approved, or tenures are achieved, it is in this professional environment that advanced degrees are mandatory above all else.
Therefore, it seems rather natural for one striving to obtain the most expensive piece of paper in one’s life to remain in academia. Yet, in a 2019 Science Magazine article, there has been a drop in the amount of PhD’s holding tenured or tenured track positions in academia across many disciplines, while the number of PhDs given out continues to rise each year. In fact, it is now the first time, at least in the US, “private sector employment is now nearly on par with educational institutions” in regards to PhD employment.
What are the differences between these two research environments, one of academia and one of industry? You can probably contemplate some stark differences off the top of your head right now. Certainly there’s a contrast in overall mindset, which might be hard to explain. There’s a great example by XKCD author Randall Munroe (link in the description) where a computer programmer writes a code to solve a seemingly impossible problem, in which the comic splits into to panes where in academia, the programmer’s supervisor says, “My God… This will mean a half dozen papers, a thesis or two, and a paragraph in every textbook on queuing theory!”; where in business, the programmer’s superior says, “You got the programming to stop jamming up? Great, while you’re fixing stuff, can you get outlook to sync with our new phones?”.
Generally speaking, it’s the focus that is recognizably different. In one case, you have legacy, and in the other, you have utility, both of which have many differences that may incentivize one with an advanced degree to think about this deeply. For example, in the field of computer programming, Medium blogger Riddhiman Das mentions, “Academia is mainly focused on the “science of programming” thus studying the way to make efficient particular algorithms or developing languages tailored to make certain paradigms more expressive. Industry is mainly focused in producing things that have to be sold. It has to rely on “tools” that are not only the languages and the algorithms, but also the libraries, the frameworks, etc…”. With legacy comes knowledge outputs, with utility comes consistent profits.
The decision to choose between academic or industry careers remains more difficult than just scientific advancement or quarterly revenues. Like the countless advisories on how to “break the ice”, there are many opinions shared by those who have experienced both sides of the coin. In one 2009 paper published in PLOS Computational Biology, Dr. David Searis lists 10 assessments when making this all important decision, 1) Your qualifications, 2) your needs, 3) your desires, 4) your personality, 5) possible career alternatives, 6) job market timing, 7) your long-term goals, 8) opening your options, 9) gut feelings and 10) honesty towards yourself. If anything, remember the final assessment, for in order to be honest with oneself, one must first truly know oneself.
Now, what about the research itself? The scientific method of rigorous testing will surely remain the same, but its motivation behind the science is entirely different. In an article by life science recruitment company Sci.Bio, they juxtapose the pros and cons of the two cultures. To summarize: in academia, one will have more freedom and flexibility in regards to research endeavours and working hours, with more stable job security after a certain period of employment and a general focus on long term goals; while in industry, one will have immediate impact-driven results, increased flexibility and variability in career opportunities, with a strong emphasis on teamwork. For disadvantages, it is often cited that in academia, one must follow the “publish or perish” mantra and disregard the fact that academics get paid 30% less than company counterparts; while in industry, there is solidified working hours and less credit given to individual work. That might not be so bad, however if you need malleable schedules and believe that people should be recognized for the effort they put forth, this may be a problem for you (then again, this may also be argued in academia as well, seeing as the majority of research is not conducted by faculty members themselves).
Then there’s the vernacular within the two cultures, obviously something I find quite fascinating. Stated in a 2009 article published in the Harvard Business Review by president of the Rhode Island School of Design Dr. John Maede, there are certain characteristics thrown around in the culture. For example, “In academia there is the luxury of time. Thus when a thought might start, it doesn’t necessarily have to finish. You can begin … and not necessarily end. It is this kind of open-endedness that makes academia a necessary space of free thought in the world.” While conversely, “In industry we like to hear the virtues of “execution” and “getting things done.” Got an idea? Set a target deadline. When you’re done, package the result and move onto the next task. Don’t think. Just do. And keep on doing”. To further this, there are terms that are often used to illustrate these concepts of open-mindedness and execution. Summarized by GitHub blogger and PhD Student in Bio-Mathematics Urzula Czerwinska, academics will use words like “novel, insight, paradigm, extremely, elucidate and robust […] There is usually a hypothesis somewhere on the line, uncertainty that needs to be acknowledged to avoid the critics with putative, respectively, potentially.” And for industry scientists, terms like prioritize, takeaways, repurpose, leverage, added value, and “opportunities for improvement used instead of phrases like pitfalls. When something is not working, it would be said that it is in development, with growth potential.” It is this phraseology the practically foreshadows the expectations of these tribes.
Though often juxtaposed, that does not mean that one side could not learn from the other, and vice versa. In a 2015 article published in the Clinical Microbiology and Infection Journal titled, “Strengths and limitations of industry vs. academic randomized controlled trials”, academia could learn more from industry about improving data monitoring quality, regulatory authorities’ polices and expectations, and multi centre rather than single-centre studies, while industry could learn more from academia about supporting quality recruitment versus volume, and provide access to databanks once studies are completed. Expanding to the more general, mentioned in a 2019 Science magazine article by Dr. Yumeng Mao, who exemplifies one of the rare instances of an industry professional transitioning back into academia, three values that should be at the forefront of both cultures are 1) interdisciplinary perspectives, 2) maintaining work-life balance and 3) prioritizing career development.
The intermingling between the two worlds is becoming more and more apparent, even necessary. In my own experience, the two are not black and white. You can have academic faculty members begin a university start-up with partnered business incubators or accelerators, and chief company executives returning to their roots as adjunct professors, positions that they created for themselves, like bootstrap entrepreneurs. And thus to come full circle, this makes it extremely difficult for one to choose whether academia or industry suits them best, whether legacy or practicality, intellectual independence or interdisciplinary teamwork, hours, salary, and everything in between is important or not. By conducting the background research for this segment, what’s striking is that without being open to experience these two worlds, its impossible to fulfil the essential goal of being honest with yourself. Send applications to both. Reach out to friends and acquaintances working in various fields. But most importantly, realize that the answer to the question “What do you want to do after?” may be an academic or industry position that doesn’t even exist yet.
For today’s episode, I’ll be interviewing someone who has not only mentored me as an academic researcher, as well as someone I’ve published scientific papers with, but has just recently experienced that shift towards an industry career.
He has a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he developed synthetic biology tools to study microbial stress. Following his PhD, he received postdoctoral training at the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the Technical University of Denmark and the University of Ottawa in Canada. Currently, he is the Research and Development Lead at Escarpment Laboratories, a yeast company based in Guelph, Ontario. There, he brings together his expertise in data analysis, biochemistry and microbial physiology to run an active research program aimed at developing yeast strains for the competitive craft brewing industry in Canada and abroad.
Please welcome the multi-talented phenom, Eugene Fletcher.
And thank you for listening to this episode of the Metaphorigins podcast. My only personal update is mainly that I’ve been working on some other side projects that include the other side of me (in other words check out ScaleneWriting on Instagram, shameless self-promo there). If all goes well, you may hear a bit more about that and other projects I’m working on like my volunteering extracurriculars. Do remember to follow the Instagram page for visual updates as well as to be entered into the draw for the custom, butterfly-printed Metaphorigins shirt which will be given out on the NEXT episode. Note that I will be taking the rest of the month off and will return to the mic for the Metaphorigins Season 3 finale in June. So until then, stay skeptical but curious.