All posts by Arika Virapongse

Artwork by Koola Adams

Ronin Institute Principle: Art of Hosting

This series of blog posts introduces some of the guiding principles that we use at the Ronin Institute to help the community be its best. Our last post was on Pay it Forward.

In our Code of Conduct, we emphasize an individual’s right to their “peaceful enjoyment” of participating in the Ronin Institute. Here’s one key thing that we all can do to enhance this for everyone: Practice the art of hosting

In a world of getting things done, facilitation is emphasized as the best way to achieve successful and productive meetings. It’s where specific and skilled individuals are tasked with helping a group work through an agenda and toward specific goals. But is that the only way to get the most out of our meetings?

At the Ronin Institute, we consider the importance of hosting, which “draws less on technical proficiency and more on simple warmth and hospitality; less on lecturing and more on listening; less on facilitation and more on curiosity and open inquiry.” Importantly, it doesn’t depend on specific people to make an event a success.

For instance, when you (pre-2020) hosted a dinner party, what did you do to make your guests feel comfortable? Likewise, when you attended such a dinner party, what did you do to be a gracious attendee? I bet you practiced some of those “hosting” skills by listening openly and encouragingly to other guests, as well as helping them feel engaged and connected.

Being a great host doesn’t require many learned skills. It takes empathy and a willingness to make people feel welcome. It may not specifically keep us on the agenda, but it can deepen the quality of our interactions and experiences. Hosting is something that we can all embody and take charge of. When attending another event at the Ronin Institute, try asking yourself: What can I do to help others feel more comfortable, included, and valued? 

[Artwork by: Koola Adams]

Not quite quit lit

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter

I’ve decided to leave traditional academia and pursue different ways to be a scientist. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share about why, and what I’m doing next.

Let’s be real, this wasn’t my first choice. Being a professor had long been my dream, and I spent more than a decade working with purpose to make that a reality. However, family considerations made my job search geographically narrow, and that limited my opportunities. For a while, I maintained optimism that I’d find a suitable position, either at my current institution or one within reasonable driving distance. Meanwhile, my career grew in other ways, and as it did, remaining by rank a postdoc became untenable. I felt this way despite working with fantastic collaborators and mentors who are supportive of me, and working with whom I have had intellectual freedom and responsibility beyond what many postdocs experience. Nonetheless, institutional policies put too low a ceiling on what I could do while off the tenure track, and I reached a point where continuing to wait for a faculty job to materialize would diminish my happiness with my work and limit opportunities in my career and personal life.

After considering jobs in government, NGOs, and industry, I decided on something a bit different. Earlier this year, I joined the Ronin Institute, a multidisciplinary community of scholars working largely outside traditional academic institutions. I also started a statistical consulting and quantitative research business called Athenys Research (pronounced “uh-THEEN-iss”). In addition, a colleague and I are in the early stages of co-founding a nonprofit organization for environmental sciences research. I’ll share more about these initiatives in the future, but briefly I will continue pursuing grant-funded research through the Ronin Institute and eventually the nascent non-profit, and pursue consulting and contract work through Athenys Research.

I want to note that I don’t harbor much bitterness over leaving. That doesn’t mean I think all is well in the academy. For one, its hiring practices exclude a considerable number of talented scholars who are dedicated to their fields of study, students, and communities. I just don’t take it personally not to get what had been my dream job, nor do I feel entitled to it, and I am happy with my life choices that had the side effect of limiting my opportunities for tenure-track faculty jobs.

I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good.

If you think being a soft-money scientist and entrepreneur—beginning coincidentally amidst a pandemic—seems risky, I agree with you, so I want to write a bit about my reasons for pursuing this path.

I love few things more than being a scientist, and I place enormous value on the freedom to pursue my own research interests, to collaborate with whomever I choose, and to strive that research innovations support public good. I want to continue centering my career on doing quantitative research that advances knowledge of the world around us and serves the public interest, and I think these initiatives will keep me engaged in this work and facilitate new opportunities. Academia can offer amazing intellectual freedoms, but as an early-career scientist off the tenure track I experienced them only in somewhat limited ways. Science jobs in other organizations rarely offer such self-determination, even if the work is stimulating and meaningful.

My new path also enables me to earn full credit and a market rate for my work. As is not uncommon for early-career academics, institutional policies and practices prevented me from accruing the full benefits of my efforts. Since finishing my PhD six years ago, I’ve been the primary or a major contributing author of several funded grant and fellowship proposals. This has, naturally, been a boon to my career: I have picked my research projects, collaborators, and where I live; these projects have produced a lot of exciting science; and they have supported excellent students and postdocs. Yet, it underscores a degree of unfairness in the system. Despite these successes, I remained a postdoc with a middle-of-the-road salary, I’ve worked countless unpaid hours to manage multiple projects, and a meaningful degree of my leadership of these projects flies under the radar because institutional policies hindering postdocs from being a PI meant I “ghost wrote” some of them.

So, while leaving behind established institutions has costs, so too would remaining, and for me the risks of this path are outweighed by the opportunity to continue work I love and believe is important, to be better compensated for it, and to build organizations that—if successful—will help others do the same.

In an odd sort of way, I feel like my career thus far has prepared me well for this.

My approach to science is largely that of a broadly analytical thinker with skills in statistics and mathematical modelling, which I bring to many problems and study systems, collaborating with a variety of groups. My new career model consciously takes advantage of this. I have a wide network of fantastic collaborators, and I’m excited to establish relationships with new people and organizations. My breadth of research, which has sometimes come across as atypical and unfocused, can be made a strength when I can benefit from multiple concurrent projects, with different groups, with diverse sources of support.

I started Athenys Research to have another means of finding interesting work, because it would be unrealistic to believe I can continuously support myself through research grants, given funding rates and award sizes in my field. I see substantial parallels between developing a funded research program and entrepreneurship, which makes me confident that—with effort and learning—I can make this model work for me. Experience tells me that working with non-profits, government agencies, and industry will be intellectually stimulating, and that there’s a lot of good, impactful work to do in these settings.

I want to be real that one of my greatest misgivings about this career path is whether I can handle supporting my salary entirely through grants and contacts over the long run. I’m extremely privileged that I can withstand some short-term failures, and if those become too great I’ll re-evaluate my path. In the near term, I’ve been fortunate to smooth the transition through part-time gigs at two universities. I’ll complete ongoing research projects with some terrific people and continue putting things in place for this new phase in my career.

So, there’s the story, in broad strokes. I titled this “not quite quit lit” because in many ways I haven’t “quit.” I continue to pursue many ideals espoused by academia (such as intellectual freedom and the production of knowledge for public good), through some conventional means (such as grants and journal publications), often in collaboration with scientists at established institutions. I’ll just be doing it on different terms.


Jonathan Walter is an ecologist and statistical consultant. Jonathan is a Research Scholar at the Ronin Institute and the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research.

Ronin Public Seminar: Open Science, Culture Change, and You

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Bruce Caron, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date:  Jan 29, 2021
Time: 1:00-2:00 PM  US Eastern Time / 18:00-19:00 UTC (in your local time)
Add to your calendar
Hosted by: John Paulas, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary:
For open science to transform the academy, technology is not sufficient. Culture changes in hundreds (thousands) of academy organizations will need to be contemplated, discussed, argued, and implemented. But how do you, as a working scientist, become an open science culture change agent? Where do you start? What do you need to know? You already know that culture can work against your interests, and against the interests of scientific work (perverse incentives, etc.). How can you make culture work to nourish the new, transparent, open, generous, abundant, and kind outcomes that are the promise of open science.? Take a look at the Open Science Handbook.  It’s a reference work you can use to become an open science change agent in your department, laboratory, college, learned society, or research agency. The next step is to work together to build “play books” that capture the actual culture change experiments from organizations around the globe.  I’m looking for culture change agents who want to create collective intelligence around the work of culture change for open science!

Fun fact from Bruce: 
My database for this book has 3500 items with 24 million words.


Questions about the seminar? Contact seminars@ronininstitute.org. See the list of past seminars, as well as some recordings on the Ronin Institute YouTube.

Ronin Institute in Numbers

At our Ronin Institute Holiday Party in December 2020, we had a trivia game asking attendees to guess the quantity of some of our accomplishments for 2020. Here are the questions and answers.

How many Kitsune Newsletters did the Ronin Institute Communication Working Group publish this year? 
5 (in 2019: 0)

How many new Research Scholars joined the Ronin Institute in 2020? 
111 (in 2019: 76)

How many Interest Groups do we have? 
19 (in 2019: a few existed but they weren’t called Interest Groups)

How many blog posts did we publish? 
15 (in 2019: 2) 

How many weekly Updates were sent to the Ronin Research Scholar community? 
37 (in 2019: 11)

How many Working Groups do we have at the Ronin Institute? 
6 (in 2019: 0)

How many peer-reviewed articles did Research Scholars publish in 2020 (according to our Kitsune Newsletter)? 
46

How many Ronin Institute seminars (both internal and public) did we have? 
8 internal & 5 public   (in 2019: 5 internal & no public seminars)

How many followers do we have on Twitter (as of Dec 14th, 2020)? 
1235

A Year in Review for the Ronin Institute community: 2020

It’s safe to say that this is a year that will not easily be forgotten. Let me count the ways: COVID-19 (!!), waking up to the reality of racism, political exhaustion by the one who shall not be named, and about a decade of economic breakdown all happening in one year. But there is a shining light here! The Ronin Institute. 🙂 

This is a summary of what WE have collectively accomplished  this year. 

At the end of 2019, we established a new governance structure for the Ronin Institute. It was based on lots of community input, and marked the start of a whole new era for our Institute. In one of our working documents used to plan our new Governance structure, we described our status at the time as: 

[The Ronin Institute] governance model consists of Jon doing most of the bureaucratic work of running the institute in conjunction with a few other Research Scholars helping out from time to time on specific tasks… (Sept 2019)

That is pretty much how it used to work: Jon Wilkins did almost 99% of everything at Ronin. 

It’s certainly not like that anymore. Arika Virapongse is now around to share the weight by helping to structure and be responsive to the community. Importantly, there are 6 Working Groups (WGs: Governance, Communications, Infrastructure, Events, Membership, and Research) with committed leadership and members, an Advisory Board composed of WG leads, activity leads within the working groups, and a good number of volunteers for one-off activities (e.g., seminar hosts, planning special events). 

We have 18 interest groups, ranging from Math-Physics to Book Admirers to Open Science, and each one of these has a lead. In addition to these folks, we have had 17 Research Scholar seminar speakers, and innumerable Scholars who have participated in events and on our weekly #watercooler on Slack and Coffee Chats on Remo. There are also many Ronin Research Scholars who use the Ronin Institute as an affiliation on their papers and presentations, and apply for grants to be administered by the Institute. We are proud to say that we welcome and are grateful for the contributions of everyone in our community–in any way that feels most right for them. 

Here are other wins for us this year: 

Our institutional values of  Truth and Empathy have proven themselves to be the bedrock of every decision that we make at the Ronin Institute. We also continue to develop the principles that help to guide how we function as an institute and community and who we are. Here are the ones that we’ve figured out so far, and we look forward to sharing others with you in the coming year: 

We are a thriving community of about 375 Research Scholars representing 47 countries, and we continue to grow. We pretty evenly represent the life sciences (31%), math & computational sciences (30%), and social sciences (26%), while we have a little more catching up to do in arts & humanities (13%).  

We are a far-flung communicative bunch thanks to Slack. Just take a look at our trend line for 2020!

Our first Code of Conduct was developed through thoughtful community input over several months and rounds of feedback from the whole Ronin Institute community via the Membership WG.

The action the Membership WG has taken towards inclusion, equity, and care in the Code of Conduct and in member on-boarding and development has made me happiest. Foremost in our minds has been the idea that all who need and want to join the Ronin Institute are welcomed into the community and have an environment in which to thrive.John Paulas, Membership WG lead

We’ve developed so many events this year to help our community interact and share, including unconferences, speed networking, and public seminars. We’ve also stood up some regular community spaces for interacting, like our #watercooler chat on Slack and Coffee Chat on Remo that both meet every Tuesday (via the Events WG). 

We have laid the groundwork for more scholars to participate in the Ronin Institute through communication opportunities, from contributing to the newsletter and the blog, Community Journalism, and welcoming our first Community Journalist this year. We also have exciting plans for our landing page, updating it with videos of scholars, so we can let the world know who we are, what we do, and why Ronin!  Emily Monosson, Communication WG lead

Our institutional communications have been busy this year producing 5 newsletters, weekly Updates since March 2020, blog posts almost every month, developing guidelines for Ronin Institute communications, and a coordinated effort at leveraging our social media (via the Communication WG).  

As a virtual institute, we’ve been staying on top of our infrastructure by continuing to fine-tune our use of tools. Importantly, we’ve created better processes for solving tech issues, updating our website, trying new tools, and planning our next improvements (via the Infrastructure WG).

We’re happy that we’ve managed to keep the Ronin website, our conferencing tools (Zoom), and communication platforms (Slack) operational through COVID-19. We’re also having fun experimenting with new virtual platforms like Remo, Gather, Omniscope, and Discord. We’re making more baby steps towards distributing tasks across more Research Scholars — we would love to get more folks involved, so please reach out. — Alex Lancaster & Vesta Korniakova, Infrastructure WG leads

We continue to make progress on our Research support for Research Scholars. We’re developing structures to help support peer-to-peer review of proposals, and next year we hope to have our Research Ethics Guidelines hammered out (via the Research WG).

We’ve been collaboratively working hard on development of an Institutional Research Board (IRB) that will help many of our members overcome at least one obstacle in their research. — Michelle Susberry Hill, Research WG lead

Most importantly, Ronin Institute Research Scholars have had numerous publications, speaking events, interviews, spotlights, and more. Scholars have published more than 40 peer reviewed publications this year, and those are just the ones that we know about (via all of you!)

So that is it for 2020. Despite the challenges in the world as we have known it, it has been pretty exciting times for the Ronin Institute. We’ve really hit our stride. Next year, we hope to have lots more to show for all our hard work in laying the foundation for the Institute to grow in all the right ways. Our goal is to reinvent academia so that is equitable, accessible, and inclusive. I’d say that we are well on our way! 

Scientiam Consecemus!
 
– Arika Virapongse, Research Scholar & Community Director of the Ronin Institute

Ronin Institute Principle: Pay it Forward

This series of blog posts introduces some of the guiding principles that we use at the Ronin Institute to help the community be its best.

We build long-term sustainability into the Ronin Institute by planning our activities and their maintenance so that they can be done as easily as possible by us, and with the least amount of everything (bureaucracy, infrastructure, work, outside expertise etc). We try to keep things simple, while focusing our energy on creating the right structures that people can work within on their own. With this strategy, community volunteers can easily step into discrete roles, and channel their good will to help out in small ways–without the burden of trying to figure out how to do it.

Our Pay it Forward principle is based on creating a chain reaction of good will. After “seeding” a new initiative (e.g., helping support a community member’s activity), we hope that the member(s) who benefits will consider paying it forward to the next Ronin Research Scholar who could also benefit. Here are some examples of how this works: 

  • A Scholar has given a seminar at Ronin => In the future, they volunteer as a seminar host
  • A Scholar has had a great experience at one of our events => They help plan a future event
  • A Scholar got some useful feedback on their research proposal => In the future, they give feedback on someone else’s proposal
  • A Scholar has been featured in a Ronin Institute blog post or in our Newsletter => In the future, they contribute some writing or social media posts in Ronin Institute spaces to help highlight other Scholars

In this way, heavy loads become a lot lighter and we all benefit, while also building and strengthening our community along the way. 

Ronin Public Seminar: Biolinguistics and Language Evolution: What is Linguistic Simplicity?

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Keith Tse, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: Nov 6, 2020 at 12:00 PM US Eastern Time / 16:00 UTC (local time)(add to your calendar)
Hosted by: Varsha Dani, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Abstract. Modern linguistic theory goes one step further than standard scientific conventions of formal simplicity (‘Occam’s Razor’) in denoting the simplest formalisations for language structures not only for theory-internal reasons but also for empirical reasons (Martin and Uriagereka (2000)), since it has been established human infants acquire their first language at such an exceptionally high rate that, in accordance with Plato’s Problem, there may be an innate component in the human mind which is species-specific and genetically designed for human language. This is Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG), and formal metrics of ‘simplicity’ are a hot topic in contemporary syntactic debates as numerous definitions have been proposed throughout the development of Chomskyan models of language whose latest version known as the Minimalist Program (MP) (Chomsky (1995)) provides a backdrop to language variation and change. While assumptions such as Plato’s Problem and formal simplicity are widely agreed upon, consensus with regards to technical details remains elusive, since Chomsky (2004) radically revises his earliest definitions of formal simplicity (Chomsky (1995, 2000, 2001)) which has given rise to lively debates in modern syntactic theory. This presentation critically examines the history and evolution of modern syntactic theory from a Chomskyan perspective and compares the various principles of ‘simplicity’ proposed which drives us to the conclusion that extraneous elements in language may indeed be eliminated in favour of the simplest structures.

Ronin Public Seminar: Messaging Matters: A Checklist to Enhance Buy-in for Your Ideas

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Thomas J. Buckholtz, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Date/time: October 23 at 2:00 PM ET/ 6:00 PM GMT (local time)(add event to your calendar)
Hosted by: Vesselin Gueorguiev, Ronin Institute Research Scholar

Summary: Gain a checklist and perspective to use when marketing your endeavors to would-be clientele, colleagues, funders, or other entities. Consider using the checklist for many other activities throughout your life. I developed this and some other checklists, based on perspective from a diverse career. (I have worked with large and small enterprises in aerospace, agricultural research, biotech, business services, computing, defense, education, energy utilities, government, healthcare, high technology, innovation, insurance, Internet, law enforcement, politics, research and development, telecommunications, and venture capital. One role included leading a 2,000-person business unit.) The checklists are broadly applicable, semi-rigorous, and hopefully not overly prescriptive.

Here’s a preview into the seminar:

If you’d like to get ahead of the curve, you can take a look at the recorded presentation (below) ahead of time and be ready with your questions & discussion points at the seminar.

Ronin Institute Working Groups vs Interest Groups: What’s the Difference?

Working Groups (WG) focus on key elements of the Ronin Institute. They are an important part of the Governance structure for our Institute, because they offer one way (but not the only way!) for Ronin Research Scholars to participate in the running of the Institute (part of our “Everybody drives a truck” philosophy). Each WG has a lead, who also participates in the Ronin Institute Advisory Board. WGs meet once a month, and are open to all Ronin Institute Research Scholars. 

Our WGs and the current leads: 

Interest Groups (IG) are self-organized groups of Scholars that focus on specific topics. Their goal is to stimulate discussion and enhance collaboration. The general idea behind IGs is to convene Scholars in organized groups–much like departments in a conventional university, but much more fluid and community-based. Sub-groups within IGs could also form around specific projects and goals (e.g., leading a seminar or writing a paper). In particular, we welcome IGs that address cross-disciplinary topics (e.g., storms, sustainability). Currently, our IGs have a presence on our Slack workspace through specific channels (using the prefix “IG-” in the channel name), and are only open to Ronin Institute Research Scholars. Some IGs also meet weekly on Remo, which is a platform that allows participants to easily move around to different discussions. 

These are our current IGs, their scope, and the contact/lead: 

[Illustration by Karolin Schnoor]

Ronin Public Seminar: COVID19 and Cutting Edge Technologies You Can Deploy from Home Yourself!

This seminar is part of the Ronin Institute Public Seminar Series, featuring our Research Scholars. We welcome members of the public, but please register ahead of time to get the meeting link.

Presenter: Vesselin Gueorguiev

Date/time: September 25 at 1:00 pm US ET/ 5:00 PM GMT (local time)(add to your calendar)

Summary: Have you considered using a Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools to understand COVID19? How about a chatbot that can answer some of your friends’ questions about COVID19? Do you think that applications for a Quantum Computer are too far in the future? You can access and play with all these cutting edge technology tools today! In this talk, freely available resources will be used to demonstrate the utilization of all these cutting edge technologies to understand and inform the public about COVID19. The speaker will demo a Slack and Facebook integrated ChatBot that can answer questions about COVID19, a focused NLP and NLU COVID19 based search collection, and finally a quantum computer GDP-sick people optimization for informed reopening decisions.