How I Fail S02E07 – Florian Dubost (PhD’20, Medical Image Analysis)

Florian Dubost is a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Quantitative Imaging and Artificial Intelligence at Stanford University, School of Medicine. His research interests include deep learning, neurology, medical image analysis, weakly supervised learning, and interpretability of neural networks. You can find out more about him on Google Scholar, LinkedIn, and on Twitter (@fpgdubost).

Hi Florian, thanks for joining How I Fail! Next to your official bio, could you say a bit more about yourself?

Hi Veronika, 

Thank you for inviting me! We know each other since a few years already, so you probably know already some of those details, but I will give a fresh reminder, at least for the rest of the audience! I am a 27 years old French man, who grew up in the suburbs of Paris, I have studied in a few places in Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands) and the US, and I am now located in the bay area. I am very interested in science and art, and I love to take up new challenges. I learnt to dance argentinian tango and recently to paint with acrylic. I really enjoy being able to focus both on science during my working time and art during some of my free time, which provides a very enjoyable balance. Many people would say that I am quite talkative. I like to tell and hear little stories, make up fun theories, debate with people, and when appropriate joke a lot! On a more serious note, it is very important to me to feel that my actions have a positive impact on the world, and trying to increase the magnitude of this impact is one of my most recurring motivations.

What are some memorable failures that stand out for you?

One of my most memorable failure was at the beginning of university, more precisely, while studying in those competitive French preparatory classes. I had just arrived home after completing a math–the most heavily weighted subject–exam. It was pretty easy, I prepared it well, and managed my time well during the exam. Though, after coming home, for a second, I had a doubt about a minus sign in the equation. I quickly checked the equation again, and realized I was wrong. Because only correct numerical results count, it turned out I had zero points, just because of a tiny mistake. I had never had a zero grade before. Before preparatory classes, I never even got lower than 10/20 (20 is the maximum in the French system). In preparatory classes, and I am going to explain that in a bit later, I was used to have 3, 4 or 5 out of 20. But 0, that was another realm I had until now not entered. You have to be pretty bad to get zero, even the worst students managed to grab one or two point here and here. I was striving hard, the hardest I had ever tried in my life, and I would get a zero grade. I think I did cry.

I have another example of a memorable failure, this time not involving intellectual abilities, at least directly. When I was teenager, I liked to do acrobatic stuff with my bike. Once, at a friend’s place, there was this sort of elevated area of the garden, which was separated from the car’s pathway by a little wall. I thought it would be fun to bike on the elevated platform until the wall, gain speed, fly a few second on my bike, and majestically fall back in the car’s pathway, concluding the whole act with a little back wheel drift. Sounds amazing, doesn’t it?! The car’s pathway was made of gravel, and I had never done something quite like this before. I hesitated a bit, but the idea was so marvelous, I had to try. I biked on the elevated platform until the wall, slowed down because I was afraid to fall, the bike did not fly, I fell with my head forward into the gravel, and the bike fell on me. Luckily I had a helmet. My friend removed the bike, sprayed alcohol in my back, where the gravels had left their marks, and I remember this being even more painful than the fall itself.

Conclusion: if you are going to try something risky, accept the negative outcome before it happens, and go full in while attempting if you want to have a chance to fly.

I could add to this my experiences with articles rejected after major revisions for factors that I could not control, and other kind of academic failures, but you probably already know the story yourself.

What is your definition of failure, and what kind of experiences do you think shaped this?

My definition of failure is when the results of my actions do not reach my expected outcome. It is personal by essence. You only fail in regards to your own objectives, so ultimately you are the one deciding for yourself what event is a failure. If you try something that has a low probability of success, and it ends up not working, I would not consider it as failure because I expected it not to work. If on the contrary, if I was sure it was going to work, invested my resource in proportion and had it not working, I would consider it a failure. But even then, a failure can be turned into a success. You can learn from it, try again and have it work. A real failure is a failure that stays a failure. Though one must also be wise, and step back on when things becomes doomed to fail. Errare humanum est, sed perseverare diabolicum.

I think my experience in preparatory classes shaped this personal definition of failure. The teachers keep trying to get more from you, you cannot satisfy the requirement completely as they are limitless. So there is only one way to be satisfied with what you accomplish: set your own threshold and objectives, and meet them. The system is here only to help you after all, not to judge you. You’re the only one allowed to judge yourself.

Can you explain more about these classes?

It is more subtle than this. Only top ambitious high school students join preparatory classes. You used to be the best of school, and you’re thrown into a class slightly bigger than that of your high school, everything is similar on the outside, but the other students are all as good as you are. They came from all French speaking countries in the world to compete against you. During two years, these classes prepare their students for national competitive exams, where only the best will be accepted in the most renown schools, which often have not much more than 200 places per year.

It does not matter how good you are, you have to be better, better than the others. Your grade on its own says nothing. There is no pass, there is only ranking of your grade in comparison to that of the others. You do not have time to lose, you must learn and be better than the others. And everyone does that. Forget staying at your parents’ place for emotional support: having more than one hour travel to the school will make you fail. Others tried before, after a few months they either moved closer or quitted. You are warned that it is difficult before you join the school. There was even a suicide once. Most high school student do not even dare to apply. The exams last sometimes 5 hours. They are not made for you to finish. Very few students manage to even read all questions. The difficulty is scaled for you to fail at some point. Your grade will measure how far you went before failing. 

Also, there are oral exams. Three hours per week, three different subject. With two other students, you go in a little room with three small blackboards. The teacher sits in the middle, make you pick a random exercise and let you solve it on the board. The exercise is designed for you to fail at some point. If you don’t, the teacher will come up with new, tougher, questions. The teacher will pick up any mistake you write on the board and lower your grade. The teacher will make you admit everything you don’t know or remember. During all this time, the teacher will judge your abilities and your commitment, which he eventually quantifies with a grade. 

For the written exam, the teacher gives back the exercises by order of ascending grades. The first one to be called is the worst. The teacher makes a comment about how the bad student was. Often this student cries. Remember, this student is a top student from a school somewhere in France. Then comes the second-to-worst and the story repeats itself.

No matter how good you are, things are programmed for you to fail, and measure how far you went. They are designed to check whether you can resist to constant pressure during two years, and still perform well.

At the beginning, I was afraid and insecure. I felt bad not being able to reach higher than 3 points out of 20 in my math exams despite working all the time and hardly sleeping.

After a while I took a different approach. I ignored the judgement of teachers and others, set my own objectives, was satisfied if I met them, and took the time to relax, spend time with friends and explore the city, Paris. I even followed theater classes. I used failures a boost. My grades went up, and I often got good ranks. After two years, I failed miserably at the exam of the school I was targeting. Luckily, I was very good at another equally good school, which I had not even considered. I joined that school and did cool stuff there. There are so many paths to success that failure may be nothing more than a mere distraction.

You mentioned moving around in academia, which many early career researchers are expected to do. Do you think this can create some inequalities further down the line?

I have moved quite a lot during my education. I left my parents’ place at 17 to join the prepary classes mentioned above. I had no friends around to support me through hardships. I made a few friends there, and had to leave them after two years, when I moved to my engineering school in the south. And the process repeated itself about every two years, joining even further places, foreign countries, which language I did not fully master. I had to build new friend groups as I moved, and tried to keep contact with my best friends via Skype.

My experience in preparatory classes had already made me very independent and resistant to stress and failure. I would even say that in comparison, normal life seems pretty easy even when dropped alone to the other side of the world. With the experience of moving, I became increasingly better at identifying potential new friends and create strong bonds rapidly. Moving may have even improved my social skills. Besides, I also like to move to new places. It feels like an new adventure awaits. I like the challenge of building things from scratch somewhere new and try to have an impact there. Though most people are not like this, and I sometimes find it hard to relate to locals.

Academia often expects young researchers to prove that they can perform well more than in one setting or institution, as it gives additional evidence that the researcher himself/herself substantially contributes to the success of the academic projects. On the other hand, I have in mind many examples of very successful researchers who stayed in the same university or only moved once to a university less that one hour away from their former institution. I guess that moving can give you a plus, but with current communication technologies, collaborations between institutions are easier to implement and one does not necessarily need to move to prove their skills. I move mostly because I like it.

Follow up question: do you think everybody is able / should do this, or maybe there are some other factors to consider? For example people with family

I do not think everyone is able move around like this. Some people are more bound to their friends and relatives, have a hard time making new connections or are simply afraid of change. I actually even think most people are. The other question is: should they move around? If it is going to negatively influence their health and productivity, I do not think they should. It is in their own best interest, that of their employer and, most importantly, that of the society they work for to be in an environment that is most comfortable. I understand that some people may not want or even be able to move around, and I do not think they should be forced to.

Often early career researchers are hesitant to join this series / share their failures, do you think there could be downsides to this?

I would assumed that some people could think about their failures as weaknesses. I do not think they are. Everybody experiences failures. There are inherent to one’s improvement process. If you show that you can handle failures well, and learn from them to become better, it actually displays strength. I assume that some people may also just not want to display their emotions online in general, I understand that.

Of course, they will always be people who disagree and think that failures are weaknesses. I would not worry too much about what those people think about me. If you want to accomplish great things, you face challenges and sometimes fail. If you never fail, it probably means that you could be trying harder.

What do you think about sharing data and code online, does it relate to experiencing or learning from failure in a way? 

I share what I am allowed to by my organization. I am for sharing code and data in general. But I also understand institutions that do not, and may need to keep monopoly on their data and code depending on their business model or research objectives. I think it is nice that both systems can coexist. As an independent researcher, I think the question is not whether you should share or not your data and code, but rather what part of it and when? I think most people do not share code, not necessarily because they are afraid of others stealing their idea, but rather because it takes time to clean your code and make it useable by peers and this investment is sometimes perceived as having a too low return by the authors.

Is there anything that you are currently failing at yourself?

Well, I am going as fast as I want in my research and I don’t have as good results as I want. But can you really consider that failure? That is simply research and that is what motivates me. Also, there is this company I did this summer. It does not work very well, or maybe even not at all. I am not worrying too much about it. I knew it was challenging and temporary. I gave it a shot, learnt a lot, and I will aim better next time. No big deal.

Do you keep track of failures and why/why not? Other than your CV, do you keep track of any positive things? 

I don’t keep track of failures. In general, I just don’t look at the past very much. I spend most of my time thinking about the future and how I can make as efficient and interesting as possible.

I like to create little portfolios of what I create or write, but I rarely keep it up to date. For example, I made an academic website to list my academic achievements, and I made an instagram account to gather my best paintings. I usually reflect back on it either when I am creating something similar, as a starting ground, or when sharing it with friends and family. But I do not spend very much time organizing that and rather spend the effort into making something new.

What is such a non-traditional, recent success for you?

I painted this, and it came out better than I had anticipated!

If you’ve been a reader of How I Fail last season, what are your favorite lessons from the series?

It is just reassuring to see that even the bests seem to fail at many things, and reinforces the idea that failure is a part of the path to success.

What would a five year younger you think of you now? What advice would you give to that person?

He would definitely be proud, maybe a bit intimidated and mostly probably curious about my path. He would probably be very impatient to ask questions. I am most of time pretty satisfied and excited with anything I do, though, I have to admit, others often do not become quite as excited as I do. So there is definitely some bias here.

My general advice would be: do what you like and what you think is interesting and fun, and do it well, put the effort in it, think strategically, use all resource you can leverage, and use failures to leverage success. And try a lot of different things, sometimes it fails, sometimes it works. Learn from the failures and move on, eventually only the successes will be written on your resume, so who cares about the failures? Just keep doing things, that’s how the boat floats.

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