Why I Suck at Doing Scientific Research – Day 161

Friday 17:17, Ballards Lane, London

It’s finally time for the research project! Yay! No more exotic sounding surnames, theories and years of publication, or number crunching for that matter. For the next few weeks we will be scoping out a research proposal on which I will base my research project that will complete my first year of the MBA.

Although we must not call it a ‘project’. The online literature and our virtual tutor insist on calling it an evidence-based initiative (EBI). I’m still trying to work out what the difference is. I think it has something to do with the fact that the ‘initiative’ is on such a small scale (6-7 weeks) that it hardly can be classified as a research project.

Once the scoping proposal is submitted, we have until early summer to organise our thoughts and approach before starting analysing our chosen topic. I haven’t finished the scoping part yet, but I’d like to cover an aspect of lead generation, perhaps how effective marketing activities are in relation to cold calling. We’ll see.

I’m really looking forward to this part and I guess it will highlight if I’m any good at social science research and if I like it. I know that I’m awful at medical research, having dropped out from my DPhil, mid-way. If I think back at my relatively short-lived life as a research scientist I can identify three top research failures.

I once decapitated a pregnant mouse. For context I was extracting embryos from pregnant mice to study polydactyly and tibial hemimelia, a congenital malformation where the hand has too many digits and part of the lower leg is absent. The most humane way of killing mice is to break their fragile necks using your bare hands, and although I had been trained to do this during the animal husbandry course, I couldn’t stand it. It used to freak me out every time I had to pick up the poor little buggers. One day I decided that I needed an alternative and instead of using my fingers to break the necks of these unsuspecting rodents I found a blunt metal blade. It didn’t look at all sharp, but of course, I was wrong. Swoosh! The head of the mouse was instantly separated from the body and it rolled off the lab bench as the body itself remained twitching for a second. Blood came gushing out of the severed neck like a mini sprinkler. Luckily mice only have about 150 ml of blood so the mess I created wasn’t catastrophic. Yet, it was a very unpleasant experience and I do not wish to repeat it.

I once lost a test tube full of radioactive material. Hopefully nobody from the Karolinska Institute is reading this but when I was doing a summer internship at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research I lost a test tube full of radioactive material. As it so happened, I didn’t close the lid of the centrifuge properly and as the test tubes started to spin around at increasing speed, the lid of the centrifuge flung open and out came hurtling the test tubes. To say that I panicked is an understatement! With the help of a gamma detector device, I quickly found and collected as many test tubes as I could and found all but one. I’ve never confessed this laboratory mishap to anyone, so apologies to whomever found it. I’m sure the quantity of radioactivity was so small that it’s completely harmless!

I was never meant to work as a research scientist. Last but certainly not least and in many ways my biggest research failure of all was my last three months at the Department of Human Anatomy & Genetics at Oxford. When I started my DPhil I was certain that I was destined to live the life of a research scientist. I loved the science, I was absolutely fascinated and intrigued by the inner workings of cells (I still am, by the way). But what I hadn’t quite grasped was that as a scientist you spend 90% of your time in the lab, mixing colourless liquids with colourless liquids, over and over again. Hundreds of times. No, thousands of times. Constantly separating DNA, constantly amplifying it through the polymerase chain reaction so that ultimately it could be run through the gel electrophoresis overnight. Nobody told me that it would take ages to master the skills of doing research. In the beginning I totally sucked at it. I used to forget to put the DNA back on ice, which meant it was immediately rendered completely useless. But I would only find out two days later when the experiment yielded results – or no results in my case. I learnt that I sucked at getting the gel out of the electrophoresis machine too, and I can’t remember how many times that damn gel broke and disintegrated before my very eyes. I struggled, but I persevered and eventually, after a few months, I got better at it. But boy did I hate it… When I told my tutor that I wanted to quit she said ‘I think you have the brains to do this, but you’re heart wants something else‘.


A Morning with Angelina Jolie – Day 154

Saturday, 8:26am, Los Feliz, Hollywood, California

A few weeks ago I received a call from Angelina Jolie who invited me over to her humble abode in Los Feliz. I guess she must have remembered me from the reception following her War Child lecture late last year that Marc interpreted. Anyway, to cut a long story short, before I knew it, I was whisked away on a private jet to find myself sitting in the back garden of Angelina’s house, sipping a homemade Detox Intensifier juice carefully crafted by her abundance of helping hands.

So what brought this on, you may be asking yourselves? Well, following her health ordeals Angelina developed an interest and an appetite for management studies, and what better way to delve into this topic that interviewing the blogger behind The Executive Kitchen.

Yes, moi.

Angelina JolieWhat is it about management that really interests you?
Me: Well Angelina, my interest in management originates from not having any formal management teaching, yet be in a position of management with significant responsibilities. If I can do what I did in my previous career without any management training, I cannot help to think what can I do in my current job with management training? Of the modules we’ve covered so far, I’ve been fascinated by power and politics, organisational change and motivation. From a work perspective, I’m interested in developing as a knowledgeable, thoughtful and passionate leader.

AJAre there specific issues that you want to develop or change about management?
MeI’d like everyone who is a line manager to go through some kind of management training. I think it’s absolutely necessary, as responsible employers, to equip our staff with the adequate skills and tools to be successful in their jobs. Line management is generally just thrown at you and if you’re good you’ll earn the respect of your team. If you’re terrible at it, your team will suffer for as long as you’re their manager. And believe me, I’ve seen and experienced both.

AJ: What is the fascination of managing for you?
MeI guess now that I’m in a senior management position what fascinates me about management is the fact that I’m not only responsible for the commercial success of the organisation I work for, but I’m also responsible for a large team of individuals. I feel that if I make the wrong decision and take us down blind alley, the consequences could be catastrophic. Actually, this happened to the Creative Director of my previous company – and he lost his job, despite being one of the founders and shareholders! So it’s even more important for me to make the right strategic decisions. I want us to be successful and I want everyone I work with to do well. A key aspect of management is to get all these things right, and I’ll tell you, it’s not an easy task. Sometimes you have to keep doing what you believe is right, even if the money isn’t instantly materialising.

AJIs it just a matter of your job or are there wider factors at play?
MePrimarily it’s just a matter of my job. But one of the curiosities about learning is that, for me, it opens up the appetite for more learning. When something interests me to the point of fascination my brain going into warp speed and I find myself looking at things I would never consider before. Like doing a PhD in organisational behaviour or power.

AJ: Are there some things relevant to management which you’re already good at that you’d like to build on?
MeThe thing about management Angelina is that if you reach a senior management position it’s generally an indication (but not always) that you are good at what you do and that you have at least basic leadership qualities. I guess in my case I’d like to think that I’m a good listener, I tend to think about things for a while before acting, I’m good at analysing complex situations and can communicate them in clear and simple terms. I also like to think that I’m a people’s person, which generally means that other people enjoy working with me. Although I have been described as blunt and demanding in the past! Not in the same sentence and by two different people, though!

AJ: Is there a career move that you would like to make?
MeNo, I just started my new job 8 months ago and I love it. I have no desire to try something else, in fact, my hands are pretty full at the moment just doing what I’m currently doing. We’ll see what happens in the future. If I do my job really well maybe we will be sold to some large multi-national, but what I’ll do then will have to remain unknown until the day it happens. If it ever happens.

AJDo you want to change your specialist/technical professional identity and outlook, and move more fully into general management?
Me: Well Angelina, I’m a scientist by training and throughout my career I have worked in a variety of scientific, editorial, managerial and commercial roles. I guess the final piece is general management and studying towards this MBA and working as sales and marketing director could potentially be a step in that direction. Or perhaps I’ll mix this with academia and get that coveted PhD and teach one day a week at LBS. But I’ll be honest with you, sometimes I just want to travel the world, eat out and work out! Like you!

AJWhat would you like to change about your position at work and the responsibilities you current have?
Me: Nothing. As I’m fairly new to this type of STM publishing I need to grow my industry knowledge. Publishing has been through a major change as a result of the technological drive of the internet and I’m definitely still in learning mode.

AJ: Are there some things to do with managing which you’d just like to be better at?
MeThis is a tricky question, and I’m not sure if I can answer it objectively. I guess one thing I’d like to improve is that I’d always like to be on top of things. I hate the feeling of having too many things to do, or not doing things properly. So time management, I guess. And perhaps being stricter and not allowing myself to be pulled in so many different directions! But perhaps this is a question to ask my team or boss!

Angelina Jolie

This is a fictional interview between me and Angelina Jolie. If you are reading this and are Ms Jolie’s publicist or manager or if you are Angelina Jolie, please don’t take offence. I needed a creative outlet for the reflective practice of my mini-research project (EBI) at the OU.

The Great Unacknowledgement or Poem on the Underground – Day 149

Thursday 08:47, Somewhere on the Northern Line, London

I often forget how peculiar the morning commute is. Quintessentially a big city phenomenon, most of us go through the motions of this odd ritual more out of necessity than anything else. Every morning, like clockwork. For over a decade my ‘commute’ was on a bicycle and consisted of a pleasant, leisurely ride along London’s Regents Canal and Park, although cycling through the latter was not without risk as I precariously dodged the police who were trying to fine good and honest folk trying to get to work.

Like so many other big city phenomena, the morning commute brings together complete strangers who never talk, sometimes touch (by mistake) and whose eyes tend to fleetingly meet, only to quickly and perhaps embarrassingly look away.

Every morning we go through the same motions of unacknowledgement, pretending we don’t exist beyond our preoccupied selves, keeping strangers as strangers. It’s sad if you think about it. It reminds me of my time at the Medical Research Centre’s mouse genome hub in Harwell, outside Oxford. There, busy scientists were scurrying away, looking down their microscopes, working their pipettes, breaking the boundaries of science but forgetting the very human social traits of light conversation, smiling and acknowledgement.

I don’t care if nobody says hi back to me‘, exclaimed Anna-Maria, the Argentinian DPhil student. ‘I will continue to say hi until one day, maybe one day, someone will take their eyes off the ground, look at me and say hi back‘.

Not that I profess we should do this during rush hour at Old Street, where zig zagging your way to the ticket barriers requires focus and determination, and where a polite smile would cost you your place in the queue or worse, you’d be mistaken for a freak.

More often than not it crosses my mind who my fellow commuters are, where they are going and why; what their names are, what they do for a living, if they have siblings or even a favourite colour. Most of us appear lost in thoughts. Perhaps thinking what the new day ahead will bring; perhaps not thinking at all, but daydreaming away, subconsciously contributing to the great unacknowledgment.

This week I observed seven fellow commuters, standing (she was unlucky) and sitting (they were lucky) opposite me. They probably have nothing in common, apart from sharing a ride to work and being observed by me. All in the name of talent artistique.

Poem on the Underground

Standing, casually leaning
Handbag in the fold of her elbow
Staring out into the void, blindly
He’s reading her newspaper
She doesn’t notice
Sitting, ankled crossed
Listening to music, tapping away
Like her own silent disco
Putting on make up, lipstick, mascara 
Curling her eyelashes with what looks like
A medieval torture instrument
Arms crossed, feet together
Looking down at his phone,
Glasses sliding down his nose
Catching up on work, playing games
Some wearing shoes, some wearing boots
Some carrying a rucksack, some with a designer hand bag
Or carrying a brown paper bag with an empty cup of coffee and a half eaten brioche roll
Yawning, eyes closed
Picking his nose
Getting sleep out of his eyes

Morning commute

The End Is Nigh – Day 140

Friday 18:58, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

No, we’re not about to witness a biblical apocalypse, with its revelation of Christ and the Throne of God, and those horsemen of death who will unleash an earthquake so terrible it turns the sun black and the moon like blood, pulling the stars out of the sky paving the way for the angels who bring an untimely death to us all.

Neither are we on the brink of the next cataclysmic event that with a single, devastating impact of a large rock, the size of a city and composed of iron and magnesium silicates, hurling through space at 17 km/s might one day destroy the planet we call home, annihilating most animal and plant life in one go.

We’re not at the very early stages of the next pandemic, a contagion spreading silently and slowly at first, then gaining strength as it feeds off people’s fear and ultimately becoming so virulent and devastating that it will wipe myself out together with the 7 billion other people on this planet through hemorrhagic fever and massive organ failure.

And I can’t say today’s solar eclipse is an ominous sign of imminent death and destruction caused by a coronal mass ejection which will turn the earth’s crust to goo and reverse the planet’s magnetic poles and cause all sorts of mayhem, all of which would lead to the extinction of life as we know it.

And no, we’re not about to be harvested, hung upside down and have our blood drained, skin peeled away and brains picked by horned, scaly extraterrestrials whose only aim is to advance their own über-species through galactic domination and extermination.

The end is nigh because I’m about to submit my essay Financial management this weekend, three days early.

Take that OU!


The end is nigh

COGS for Telefonica? Seriously? Day 133

Friday 14:01, Albert Place, London

Dear Open University Business School,

COGS for Telefónica? Seriously? What were you thinking?

I’ve now spent a good proportion of my non-indefinite life trying to work out the dozen or so ratios for Telefónica that you have given the MBA Nov ’14 cohort as TMA03. I understand the importance for senior (non-financial) managers like myself to grasp basic accounting jargon and principles. As a matter of fact, I believe it is crucial as it allows me as sales and marketing director to understand how costs and cash flow impacts business operations.

But here’s my problem.

The book you have given us for this unit contains three pages of errata. Seriously? I mean, three pages? How is this even possible? Who publishes your education material? Pls sack them and use the £1.5m you have cashed in from our cohort’s tuition fees to hire an experienced and responsible publisher.

Apart from the three pages of errata, your pedagogical material is fantastic. But the examples you have used are way too easy. My friend Adam, the accountant, came over for dinner and tutoring the other day and laughed at Appendix 4 that states things like ‘the higher the better’ next to the explanation of return on equity. ‘What is this? GCSE?’, he joked. I think he has a point.

The task you have given us is way more difficult that any of the examples, which means that most students are struggling with things like COGS. The online tutorials are a great help, but again, too easy. I understand that we needed the proverbial building blocks first, in order to crawl before running, but it is my honest opinion that you have asked us to sprint even before the motor nerves have developed in our little fetal legs.

Lastly, not having any contact hours with real teachers sucks big time at the moment. All the other students that I’m in contact with have been very supportive, as we’re all struggling, but those that have worked out the ratios are for obvious reasons not giving out the answers, so the need for tutors to step up is essential.

Rant over.

Your sincerely,

A very frustrated MBA student


The Perils of an Online Higher Education Program – Day 131

Wednesday 18:38, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

I’m now almost half way through year 1 of the Open University MBA program. As with everything now a days, it has flown passed. One blink, and it’s Friday already. Two blinks, it’s April. For me this could be seen as a good thing, as it means the end of year 3 will hit me before I even know it and I can go back to waking up after sunrise as opposed to two hours before it. And I’m not taking about British Summer Time.

Going back to university and in particular, doing this MBA, has so far been a mixed (but very good) experience. I think I’ve totally underestimated how much of a commitment it really is, and I’ve now realised that I’m much more of a slow learner than I’d like to admit. During my previous two degrees I was a full-time student which meant I could dedicate myself wholeheartedly to studying and learning. This time around it couldn’t have been more different. I constantly have an internal battle with myself about whether I should do something and if so when. Every hour is crucial, whether it’s work, study, writing or socialising. Indeed, I’m quickly becoming the master of time efficiency, albeit I have to admit I cherish the moments when I ‘treat myself’ and do something complete non-sensual like playing the new version of Candy Crush Soda. Pop those bottles!

As you all know, the OU MBA is a part-time online course. Not only is the subject matter completely alien to me (having studied developmental biology previously), but the part-time nature and the online element is as foreign as well. Whilst I can get my head around the part-time nature of the course, and I think I’m doing ok with the subject matter, I’m still struggling with the whole online thing.

Here’s why:

I know it’s kinda obvious but it’s incredibly lonely to do an online course. There are no teachers, no real, physical fellow students, there’s no cafe you can go to and hang out and connect and network with peers. In other words, there’s no physical human interaction. Instead there’s a virtual equivalent of almost everything: e-mail, webinars, online activities, you name it. At the OU we have it all.

Or do we?

There are around 350 students in my year. We’re scattered all over the world but the great majority are based here in the UK and in Europe. For practical reasons, we’ve been subdivided into groups of around 15-20 students and have been assigned a tutor and a tutor group forum (TGF). The tutor is a part-time associate lecturer who has a full-time job, meaning the ‘contact hours’ are greatly reduced to zero. It basically consists of a few emails every other week, and of course the marking and providing feedback on our assignments. The quality of the tutors varies greatly and I’m lucky that mine is pretty good.

The TGF is an online forum designed to facilitate interaction with our tutor but also with other students. Sadly, this has been my greatest disappointment so far. Our tutor encourages us to share insights and knowledge here but there’s only ever a few individuals who contribute. I’ve made active contributions from day 1 really, but I’ve now gotten to the stage that I’m tired of starting discussions and only get a few other people posting. Mostly I get ignored.

As there’s no requirement to engage with any of the teaching material apart from the essays, I can only assume that people are either not interested in participating or simply don’t have time. This is where the OU could improve. A friend of mine used to lament whilst we were both students at Oxford that the bar set by her tutor was very high. Here, students were given a topic to read up on and all of them were asked to prepare a presentation for next week’s tutorial. However only one student was selected to present and they were only told who at the tutorial itself. While this method is definitely hard core it ensured that students get the maximum of their education and it’s not surprising and a bit of an understatement to say that Oxford graduates are a successful bunch of people.

Anyway, back to the OU’s TGF.

What’s interesting is that as a result to the lack of engagement and interaction and also for just gauging the interest, a fellow student set up a closed Facebook group a few months ago. Not surprisingly it pretty quickly filled up with a selection of individuals who were keen on creating a network that.. well, worked. Coincidentally it was the same individuals who were actively participating in the TGF.

This group has proven to be a life saver. Everyone is open to discussion and we all support each other, both academically and morally. I’ve learnt lots by chatting with other students and feel that this group has indeed replaced the need for physical interaction and the OU’s non-functioning TGF. I may never meet the 50 odd individuals knowns as ‘For anyone studying B716 with the OUBS from November 2014’, but they sure are making a difference in my life.

Candy Crush Soda

Why Accountancy Isn’t Fun But Perhaps Should Be – Day 128

Sunday 08:46, Svampstigen, Salem, Stockholm

I recently started the unit on accountancy and finance for managers. I know, yawn.

Initially, I was excited to work with numbers but I’m finding it extremely challenging to stay focused and motivated. I’m having a hard time understanding why anyone in their right mind would want to be accountants. I can only assume it is a passion for numbers and business. And if there are any accountants readying this, no offence meant.

Friends have been sending me encouraging words of support upon hearing that I’ve started this unit. My motivation is practically zero, but I continue to wake up at 5.15am every morning, but instead of studying I find myself transferring photos to iCloud, checking work e-mail and browse the net. Even other MBA students are struggling too, which is comforting for no other reason than knowing I’m not alone.

But really, accountancy should be fun. Or at least not dry and boring.

Here why:

  1. The maths isn’t difficult and accountancy is basically applied maths. I was looking forward to working with numbers in this unit, as I find it way easier than memorizing who said what when.
  2. Accountancy is like learning a new language and once you have mastered the basics you will be able to communicate.
  3. As a senior manager, if you remain unaware of your organisation’s proft and loss and cash flow, and if you don’t understand concepts of all financial statements and a decent amount of ratios, you’re basically flying blind.

And here’s why it isn’t:

  1. I’ve never had the opportunity to work on balance sheets, income statements nor profit and loss accounts, hence while it should be relevant it isn’t. Even now in my current position, I only have access to my organisation’s proft and loss, but not anything else (due to confidential information).
  2. It’s challenging to write a pedagogical piece on accountancy that isn’t dry and the module team at the OU hasn’t succeeded. They have actually failed abysmally, as this unit contains three pages of errata. Seriously? As if this unit wasn’t challenging enough.
  3. Self-motivation is particularly hard due to 1 and 2.

I need to find out what the pass mark is for the next tutor-marked assignment (TMA), which is due in on March 25. The assignment consists of working out a dozen ratios for Telefonica and then writing a 2,000-word essay on whether Telefonica should be worried about competition from Deutche Telekom.

As I’ve done ok on my other TMAs (cumulative mark of 62), I can ‘afford’ to do extremely badly on this unit.

Or, I get my shit together.

This weekend in Sweden and a work trip to Abu Dhabi coming up before the TMA is due, I honestly think it won’t be the latter.