How I Fail S01E19: Emanuele Trucco (PhD’90, Computer Vision)

For this How I Fail post I have the pleasure of interviewing Emanuele (Manuel) Trucco, MSc, PhD, FRSA, FIAPR. He is the NRP Chair of Computational Vision in Computing, School of Science and Engineering, at the University of Dundee, and an Honorary Clinical Researcher of NHS Tayside. He has been active since 1984 in computer vision and since 2002 in medical image analysis, resulting in more than 250 refereed papers and 2 textbooks (one of which an international standard in his days, with >3,000, Google Scholar Jan 2017).He directs VAMPIRE (Vessel Assessment and Measurement Platform for Images of the Retina), an international research initiative led by the Universities of Dundee and Edinburgh, and several large EPSRC and NIHR projects on retinal biomarkers and diabetes precision medicine. Recent projects have focused on robotic hydrocolonoscopy and whole-body MR angiographic data. Manuel’s hobbies (too many to do any well enough) include playing music (guitar, Scottish bagpipes), reading (avidly), drawing cartoons (not often enough), cooking (often) and running half-marathons (not every week, thank you).

1. Hi Manuel, thanks for joining the How I Fail series! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Genova, Italy, birthplace of Cristoforo Colombo who discovered America and is therefore indirectly responsible for consequences like Donald Trump. I live in Edinburgh, deemed the “Athens of the North” during the XVIII-century Scottish Enlightenment, and still a wonderful place to be for academics (three universities, various colleges), lawyers, tourist operators and, well, tourists. I work in Dundee, home of two universities and of the Tay Bridge immortalized by the unbelievably terrible poem by William MacGonagall “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (if you think you cannot write poetry, take a look). I have three children, now old enough to accept my many idiosyncrasies without being openly embarrassed; or perhaps they have learnt to disguise embarrassment effectively. I like people more than roles, and the well-known quote “it is incredible how much you can achieve when nobody claims the credit”. I try to organize my research group, and any group I am involved with, accordingly.

2. Could you share some of your own memorable failures with us?

I imagine you are asking about failures in my work career. The first thing which springs to mind is not grasping occasions immediately when they appear. I recall the very good reviews we got when my and Alessandro Verri’s book appeared in 1998 (yes, I am that old). That created a number of opportunities that we never embraced, including a second edition; we could have done several, thinking about it. Another thing, and a very important one, is recognizing the border between being realistic and undervaluing yourself. I think many of us can do more than we think ourselves capable of. Par contre, there seem to be people who think they have done much more than they have actually. We are all different, and clusters of people and collaborations form accordingly.

3. Do you in general keep track of your failures somewhere? If yes – how and if yet, why not?

I do not keep a written track or anything of the sort, but try to learn from mistakes. I think significant failures stay with us anyway, and we must learn to cope with them. I cannot help thinking of “significant” as meaning “having an influence on our feelings”. That to me does not include a paper rejected by an important conference, normally, but (for instance) being disappointed by a friend – or by myself – in something serious.

4. What do you think about the “CV of Failures”?

I think two things are important. One is to learn from failures so that we avoid similar mistakes in the future. The second is not to obsess about failures, which may lead to depression and underestimating ourselves. That is a very serious risk. We all fail every now and then. We must always look at the bright side of life (yes, this is a citation).

5. Do you have some process/ritual of dealing with failure? Has this process changed throughout your career?

Of course: I wait for the next full moon, I climb the nearest hill and dance waiving a ritual wooden stick. Not really. I cannot say I have a process or ritual. I have realized that the way we deal with failures depend on many parameters, including the kind of failure, your age, your experience, the people who support you, and so on. I can see that time plays an important role: you do change, and there are ways of controlling this change, but not all of it. A good thing is that you get a higher-level view of the world, and you should be able to contextualize better whatever happens. A bad thing is that you have to stop eating a lot of cheese.

6. What about when you receive good news?

I am a natural collaborator, so good news at work often involve other people, directly or indirectly. I love to share good news and normally organize little or big celebrations.

7. Do you think there are differences between how failure is perceived between different countries, different fields, or perhaps across different career stages?

Goodness! Definitely, all of it. Age makes a difference as the kind of things which may fail and the way you face failure both change. The farther you go in your career, the larger the initiatives you get involved with, be that money or impact or intellectual magnitude of your work. So failure may be larger and more impactful later in your career, and affect more people: if you have a team of contract-paid people working with you, procuring money to keep them employed is your responsibility, for instance. It is difficult to generalize, but it looks like work ethos does change across countries and institutions within a single country. I think a significant amount depends on personal temperament: some of us are truly driven by their work (and normally ipso facto excel at it: recall the 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration adage), some prefer a balance between work and other parts of life; some are born leaders, some born followers (which does not means they are less important: no leader would achieve anything without capable followers). And so on.

8. Would finding somebody’s CV of failures online affect how you assess them, for example if you are a reviewer for a grant?

This is a complex and indeed delicate matter. I think I would not personally look actively for a CV of failures, and suspect that, in the UK at least, one would have to be very careful with what information is considered to employ people. Then there is unbalance: it takes some self-confidence to air one’s failures in public, so some people would do it, some would not, creating probably a bias. So I would not look for a CV of failures unless it were made mandatory for everybody (alas, unlikely).

As to grants, I believe they should be (and are, I hope) assessed both for the value of the work proposed and for the track record of the proposers. In this sense failures do affect decisions, although a track record includes what one has done more than where one has failed. You can always think that a proposer should have done more than they declare, of course, but this is different.

9. Are there any opportunities you didn’t take that you wish you had (even if you would probably add them to your hypothetical failure CV)?

Yes indeed. I feel I have missed serious opportunities in my life, both at work and elsewhere. I could never forget a line in Italo Calvino’s Mister Palomar: “his life looked to him like an uninterrupted series of missed occasions” (my translation from Italian). My life does not look to me like that, fortunately, but there were several big occasions missed. I think it is hugely important to have good advisors, especially in the early stages of your life. “Early stages” depend on what you do, so they extend much longer than we imagine. And open, good-humoured friends are invaluable – always.

10. Can you think of something you did that felt like a success, but you wouldn’t find in a “success” CV?

All successes you achieve in your non-work life qualify. Seeing my children starting to achieve their own success in their lives, independent of me, is one of the best experiences I can recall. I hope there will be much more if it. I also believe that maintaining a strong sense of humour in life is a huge asset. If I have one, of course, is not for me to say (unless I develop a split personality).

11. What is the best piece of advice you could give to your past self?

Stop! Think. Take time. Is this really the best course of action? Have you considered the consequences for you, and for others?

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