How I Fail S02E10: Charles T. Gray (PhD’21, Interdisciplinary Computational Metascience)

Charles T. Gray is a reformed musicologist, one-time fire twirler, former inter-library loans officer, and intermittent typist. She spent the nineties immersed in Melbourne’s vibrant street-punk scene, and it was every bit as fun, confronting, and political as it sounds. She is currently a postdoctoral scholar with Newcastle University’s Evidence Synthesis Lab, where she specialises in Bayesian network meta-analysis for Cochrane intervention reviews. She has three bachelor degrees: music, arts, and mathematics. None of these prepared her formally for her current occupation. Nevertheless, she believes that working in the performing arts is the perfect precursor to academia.

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

It shouldn’t be shameful or taboo that I had a shitty childhood, nor that this continues to shape my adult life today. I manage with a variety of practices: medication, yoga, VR fitness, therapy, literature, bullet journalling, and peer support groups. 

We need to change the dichotomised understanding of people as broken or crazy and others as normal. We’re all capable of being irrational, overwhelmed by past feelings. 

No one is irreparably broken, and having experienced hardship, even rape and physical abuse, does not mean we cannot contribute meaningfully to society. Indeed, if we listened to survivors more, I believe we’d all learn a great deal. 

Everyone experiences trauma; people with my past simply have a masterclass in it.  

What’s a memorable failure for you?

Getting through high school was a huge effort, finding myself homeless and on the streets at fifteen after life with my parents became untenable. Despite dropping out for half of school, I got myself into a top university.

I supported myself through my degrees by working as a piano accompanist and teacher, enduring gruelling hours, and when I finally finished with a double degree and a thesis, I thought my fortunes would change. Instead, I graduated into the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and discovered that society didn’t much value my music degree, nor my arts degree. 

I cast wider and wider nets trying to find work; a low point was not even getting an interview for a two-hour a week cleaning job. I applied for everything and couldn’t seem to get interviews. I found myself careening towards the age of thirty feeling as if I’d completely failed in adulting.

At this point, to make things worse, I finally accepted that I didn’t enjoy practicing music anymore. Indeed, my passion was theory, not performance, but there was no work in music theory. My only source of income was something that I was not only bad at, but lacked the drive to become good at it. At this point, I’d been practicing music for twenty years, and I was fatally bored. 

I wasn’t sure I’d ever find the strength to get myself out of that situation, after struggling so hard to get myself into those courses in the first place. It is, however, astonishing what inner resources one can muster when the alternatives are so much worse. I took action, beginning studies in mathematics at thirty, when I began to suffer insomnia so badly that I was struggling with the basics of life.  

You’ve had a major career change, that people have told you would not be possible – how does that affect you going forward? What would be the advice you would give others in a similar situation?

There are widely-held beliefs about fixed and innate skills, but most skills are learnt through hard work and perseverance. There will always be outliers with amazing abilities: five-year olds who can play Mozart piano concertos or solve complex equations. However, this does not mean that one shouldn’t try. 

To combat the gnawing, ever-present anxiety surrounding being good enough in my ten years of mathematics study, spanning my thirties, I reminded myself constantly that my goals are modest. All I want is to work in mathematical science, ideally research. There’s a reason research isn’t performed by five-year old prodigies; it wasn’t a requirement that I be gifted, merely competent

Working long hours meant I was forced to accept my marks would be lower, that I wouldn’t be top of the class. Rather than comparing myself to others, I ask myself over and over, is what I’m achieving good enough for the next step toward my goal of working in mathematical science?

Code like a girl poster with Charles Gray

You will soon give a talk on failing at reproducibility at the R-Ladies Toolbox Series, can you say something more about that?

Reproducibility is a hot topic right now. If the twittersphere is anything to go by, psychology seems to be consumed by flame wars surrounding replication of results and preregistration. 

Computational reproducibility is analogous in statistical science. We are witnessing a dizzying proliferation of software tools and methodological standards of best practice. 

I tried and consummately failed at creating a reproducible doctoral project. I want to save others from the internal agony of feeling they’re failing at keeping up with the Joneses of reproducible science

Why is reproducibility important in science? We wish to provide both means of validating our scientific results and extending on the work we’ve done. My thesis is a hot mess of TeX, .Rmd, .R, and data files. I doubt, even in the unimaginable event someone was inclined to reproduce that work, they could. However, by trying and failing, I learnt many skills and workflows that make my life so much easier now in my current research. 

I believe even so-called good enough scientific practice is unattainable. There’ll always be a tool or workflow one hasn’t mastered, let alone heard of. But by trying and failing, we inch all scientific practice toward better standards, and we learn beneficial skills. 

You have a bullet journal featured on your Twitter profile- what types of things do you track there, and how does it relate to success/failure for you?

My bullet journal is an integral part of my daily workflow to help me centre in the moment. I manage complex post-traumatic stress disorder, experiencing visceral flashbacks; my time on the streets as an adolescent, and the circumstances that brought me there, will always shape my adult life in large and small ways. Bullet journalling helps me to focus on setting daily, small-scale goals; and to somewhat mitigate the past distorting my feelings of success and failure. 

Paper bullet journal with a pen and a ruler

Keep putting one paw in front of the other, it’s all any of us can do. 

Practice diaries are common in music. We don’t need them for the flow-state days where we play Scriabin’s Etude in C# minor for 6 hours straight because we simply cannot get enough of the feel of keys under our fingers conjuring such transcendent music. 

Anything we have to do every day begins to feel like a chore, and it’s hard to stay motivated day to day, even if we do appreciate it when we achieve flow state. Practice diaries and schedules are for the uninspired, overwhelmed, and tired days.  

What’s a recent success, and one thing you are “successfully failing” at 🙂 

Last year I decided to take things easy. My scholarship had run out, but I had data engineering work on a large open science project. I ignored the hyperventilating from others about my timeline and decided I’d work part time and complete my doctorate in a relaxed manner. 

In part, the pandemic helped make this decision easy; if I had rushed, I would have graduated into a time where research was being slashed and few positions advertised. I decided it would take as long as it would take, provided I kept writing my dissertation fairly consistently, albeit part-time. 

My advisors noted how polished it was, and provided very few comments. Indeed, only one examiner had two small amendments. I was waiting until I submitted for examination before looking for work, but managed to obtain a postdoctoral position before this, that is, before I’d begun the job hunt. 

In some ways, this feels like the greatest achievement of all: a stress-free submission and avoiding the ontological angst of reimagining oneself for position after position, only to have those hopes dashed.  

The inspiration for this talk on failing at reproducibility is my newfound calm in the face of a torrent of scientific tools, workflows, and theory, that I’ll never possibly master sufficiently to all standards. As I try in earnest to be a good scientist, I know I’ll fail, but I also know the next attempt will be a bit easier. 

As I used to tell my piano students, you have to hit the wrong notes to learn to hit the right ones; what holds us back is fear of trying. 

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