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.

Ronin Public Seminar: Foundations & Examples for how to tackle (Geo)ethical Dilemmas

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.

PresenterMartin Bohle

Date/time: September 16 at 10:00 AM US ET / 2:00 PM GMT (in your local time) (add event to your calendar)

Summary: This essay is about less-than-satisfying circumstances, and imperfect solutions. To that end it presents some theory, experiences and examples for how to tackle ‘geoethical dilemmas’. Geosciences co-shape the human niche, that is, the planetary network of twinned natural and cultural landscapes. Bundled by global supply chains, humans restlessly alter it through engineering, production and consumption. In turn, human agents face counter-intuitive system-behaviour, irreversible path-dependency, and multi-facet values and interests, including ‘ethical dilemmas’. 

Facing such premises, geoethics explores cultural substrates to nurture the skills of agents when facing suchlike ‘wicked’ system-features. Initially, geoethics was conceived for geoscientists, that is, their professional functions in various societal contexts. Subsequently, geoethics evolved into an epistemic, moral hybrid for citizens interacting with the Earth system. Geoethics amended by Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral adequacy and Jonas’s imperative of responsibility results in a ‘geoethical rational’, namely, to act: ‘actor-centric, virtue-ethics focused, responsibility focused, knowledge-based, all-actor-inclusive, and universal-rights based’. Less-than-perfect guidance, such as the geoethical rational offers, can support agents to navigate the human niche, that is coping with ‘ethical dilemmas’.

Re-visiting Our Goals at the Ronin Institute

At the Ronin Institute, we’ve been thinking a lot about our institutional purpose, and how we can make sure that we stay on track. Here are some things that we try to keep in mind: 

Our Vision

The Ronin Institute is reinventing academia, but without the academy.

The key word there is “reinventing”. It’s actually harder than you might think to try to stay out of the same rut that the conventional academy has taught us is the norm. We remind ourselves constantly that “that’s how others do it” is not good enough. 

Our Mission

To create a new model for scholarly research that recognizes that the world outside of traditional academia is filled with smart, educated, passionate people who have a lot to offer to the world of scholarship. We want anyone who is interested in pursuing high-quality scholarly research to be able to do so. Moreover, we want these people to be able to pursue their research in a way that is consistent with all of their life’s priorities.

Our mission highlights equity in scholarship (for more on this, read Jon’s blog post from 2012). This is where it gets tricky in regards to “staying on track”. There are no easy solutions here–not least of all because so many sectors in our society fail tremendously at this. Some specific ways that we’ve been trying to tackle this at Ronin include our: Code of Conduct, volunteer leadership approach, membership model, and virtual infrastructure plan. The equity question really does permeate every major decision we make at Ronin. Rather than aiming for equity as a destination, we seek to embed it within the Institute. Ronin Research Scholars can help us all stay the course by sharing their diverse perspectives and challenging our (own) world views. 

Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Michele Battle-Fisher

Welcome back to our occasional “Better Know a Ronin Scholar” series, where we learn more about the research and other activities of our Research Scholars. Earlier this month, I talked to Research Scholar Michele Battle-Fisher (pronoun: she/her). Michele’s interdisciplinary research spans public health, complex systems and bioethics. Michele wears many hats. In addition to being a scholar at the Ronin Institute, she is an Assistant Adjunct Professor at Wright State University in Ohio, a member of the Bertalanffy Center for the Study of System Science, and the author of Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics. She was a TEDxDartmouth speaker and a participant in the MIT Press Pitchfest.

Welcome Michele!  2020 has been a bit of a doozy of a year thus far. How are you holding up?

Thanks for having me today. This is kind of cataclysmic for me. Between Black Lives Matter and COVID, I’m kind of in overload. But I think it also brings to the point why I do the work that I do in public health: looking at the ethics and complexity of health care systems. So right now, the ethics are: “why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?” We have an ethical issue of where we’re allocating our money–whether it needs to be on the clinical end or it needs to be on the preventative end. In addition, public health does well in expressing the overarching social determinants that make staying healthy individually and as a population overwhelmingly difficult. Yet, public health continues that fight. As a true Ronin, I use a new angle to add to the social complexity afoot.

Why do we have a horrible public health system when it’s obvious we were in need of one? And when we were in need of one, why were we not prepared?

COVID-19 is showing that we act in–at least in the United States–very much from a reactionary position. We deal with our problems when they happen. With this pandemic, I hope we will have a larger discussion of the pre-existing health disparities of people of color, LGBTQ, plus disability. The list could go on and on. It illuminates the holes we have in society and how some of us are falling into those holes. And they’re not throwing a rope in order for us to get us out of that well. So I really dedicate myself to that work and I hope that it’s doing some good.

You published your book, the Applications of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics by Springer back in 2016. It seems to have even more relevance now that public health is front and center.  Is there more interest in that scholarship?

In 2012, I took part in a research program with the National Institutes of Health, it was called ISSH (Institute on Systems Science and Health), that brought together 45 competitively selected  researchers in the areas of agent based modelling, social networks and system dynamics. I reaffirmed my love for systems there. 

I started writing the book back in 2015.  And it started out from a blog that I had run for about two years previously – called Orgcomplexity.  I started trying to connect this whole idea of systems thinking, which came from general systems theory and systems biology – and also the world of physics with chaos and emergence and attractors. I worked very publicly through those ideas, which to some may be foolish because I was doing something that wasn’t within the norm. I was able to actually work out ideas, have people react to my ideas and work on this framework.  

Is a systems approach always the best approach to public health?

Yes and no: it may surprise some who say: “well, isn’t everything complex?” And do we always look at it from that complex lens? We don’t always do that because it also depends on the question you’re asking. Some questions are best answered from a very linear reductionist standpoint: biostatistics measures for example. Those methods are appropriate for those questions. I am just asking that if the question is divergent in nature that we do not jump to using convergent solutions. We are all susceptible to mental models which is the first step for making sense of our world. Ecological framing is not new to public health and explains well the nested, concentric elements that make up health as we live it. Systems thinking calls us to rely on a more dynamic, time-based understanding of nested interdependent elemental systems when appropriate.   

Why did you write a book, rather than publishing journal articles?

I chose not to do journal articles, because number one, I couldn’t get past the reviewers. Because they said: “well, we had other methods and those work, so why do something new?” And then because I wasn’t doing strictly analytical work, that would just get lost by the next journal article. I wanted there to be some type of salience, the ability for me to have a bigger footprint over a longer period of time. So I thought, “Okay, let’s be foolish and write a book”. And so that’s what I did. The second thing was that I was selected as a scholar at a place called the Hastings Center, which is located just north of New York City. And I was brought there as a specialist, as a visiting scholar. And I brought this really kooky idea saying that ethics are complex and they’re like “that is new”. And they just let me do it. That was the first time I felt freedom to actually push the envelope and try to do something that wasn’t expected. 

Were there others working with this perspective?

I don’t want to say that there was nobody else in ethics doing this, but it wasn’t apparent to me that there was a large cluster who were using this perspective.  Sometimes in academia, people follow each other like sheep. And I just decided to be a cow and not a sheep: I’m chewing cud and they’re just following each other – being herded. But in all fairness, I’m still in the academic world and to be published to have any success in that field. I certainly see the worth and the need for academia, but I also know that academics can be very smothering at times. Innovation is not something that they take to readily. So taking different perspectives just takes time, effort and patience. When you’re going up for tenure, there’s little room or time to be innovative. But I love what I do. I really cannot see myself doing anything else. 

Continue reading Better Know a Ronin Scholar: Michele Battle-Fisher

Measuring the right one thing

By Ronin Research Scholar Emily Lankau. This first appeared in July 2020 on LinkedIn.

City Slickers was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It was released during 1991 when I was just on the brink of adolescence. For some odd reason, the story resonated with me then and still does today.

The movie tells the story of Mitch Robbins, a burned-out businessman who gets dragged along on a cattle drive through the southwestern US. At the start of the film, Mitch is going through a premature mid-life crisis at 38 years old.

Mitch manages to befriend the crotchety old cowpoke, Curly, who is leading the sorry expedition of “city slickers”. Riding along on horseback, Curly and Mitch have a deep conversation about the individual choices we make as we try to make sense of our lives.

Curly holds up his index finger and says to Mitch “The secret of life is this. One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

“What’s the one thing?” asks Mitch.

“That’s what you gotta figure out.” Curly replies.

Mitch spends the rest of the movie trying to figure out what that one thing is. He eventually becomes a pretty decent cowboy and certainly a better man.

*****

A few months ago, I was considering leaving a traditional job with benefits to return to full-time consulting – possibly as a long-term career decision or maybe as a shorter-term place to land to sort some things out. Either way, there were some really good reasons to go; there were also some good reasons to stay.

While contemplating this decision, this scene from City Slickers got stuck in my head. Ruminating on this scene then led me back to another favorite, a book that I read in a freshman literature class during college – Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse.

It all seemed a little random, but the subconscious makes interesting connections sometimes. How is a 90’s Billy Crystal comedy related to an early 20th century philosophical novel? It’s like the set up to a bad joke.

But it turns out that the connection is simple – both offer lessons about how we find and define meaning in life. Both meant something to me as I navigated previous transitions in my life and now were converging as I navigated the current one.

The meaning of life is a common theme in art for good reason – it is the central thing we all grapple with from cradle to grave.

What is my purpose? How can I leave something of value behind in the world?

Work, what we do to earn a living, can be central to answering these questions.

Steeped in careerism throughout my academic education, work and career success had become a load-bearing beam of my self-worth. So much so, that I became paralyzed in a work situation that was not healthy for me or for my family.

For the longest time, I couldn’t make the decision to leave because the job and the mission I served in that role had become central to my identity in a way that made it impossible to walk away unscathed.

I stayed too long in a situation that, for reasons that were beyond my control, simply wasn’t for me. I had worked so hard to get there, and I could not accept that it was not what I wanted it to be, that it was damaging me.

My career has been decidedly non-linear because I am the spouse of a tenure-track professor. Like the tail of a comet, I have trailed behind my partner, simultaneously propelled forward and constrained by the trajectory and momentum of his success. I have watched opportunities pass by – green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach due to the orbital velocity that takes me near, but never quite to, a destination that I would choose if I were free to chart my own course.

I am highly trained in a relatively specialized field where job openings are rare and competitive. Even under the best of circumstances, not everyone finds a stable place at the table. Without geographic mobility, the odds of successfully landing one of these prized opportunities are negligible.

I have had to learn to translate and transfer my skills and training into areas far outside of my original career goals for the sake of my family. I have turned myself into a pretzel, time and time again, to fit the available jobs that happen to coincide with our physical location. I have learned to serve and to love the missions that are available to me, to embrace them as my own, even as I mourn the missions I cannot access.

It has been uncomfortable and frustrating, but these contortions have also taught me a remarkable agility and open-mindedness that makes me an asset to clients who are looking for new insights on their systems. I bring a rather unique, outsider’s perspective to nearly everything I do.

Measuring and managing performance is one of the services I offer as a consultant. Because I am the daughter of my remarkably efficient mother, I am innately good at making processes work more smoothly and defining how to measure those improvements. I have had some formal training in program evaluation and performance management to compliment this aptitude. It is a powerful skill to have.

And despite this talent for helping others fix problems and document successes, I have failed to find a satisfying way to steer and mark my own career progress as a trailing spouse. I have walked a Seussean path, all the while celebrating my partner and friends as they make clear, measurable strides forward in their own careers. Perpetually unable to see beyond the next bend in the road, I have often wondered if I am going anywhere at all.

During March, my career had hit an impasse. Nothing was working. I felt stuck. So, I did what I would recommend to a client whose program was not having the effects that they intended. I stood at a white board and drew a massive logic model of my life.

Then I stepped back and stared at it for a while, hoping a pattern would emerge that would point the way forward. I squinted and blinked, trying to find the right plane of focus where the magic eye picture suddenly emerges from the noisy cacophony of colors and shapes.

If a client hired me to do a program evaluation of me, how would we measure success?

What are the right performance metrics for measuring the meaning in one’s life and career?

What’s the one thing?

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

In To the Lighthouse, Lily Brisco is a painter who struggles with fear of failure and procrastination. She has great aspirations, yet doubts her abilities. She sees painting as a way to create a bulwark against the chaos of passing time and the detachment of the human experience.

Lily seeks to capture reality on her canvas to “make of the moment something permanent”. She wants to create something tangible to leave in the world. Lily finds meaning in producing something of value, in the identity of being a painter.

Lily spends the whole book trying to find the just-right way to start a painting. Lily is afraid to begin because a wrong decision at the start could spell disaster: “At what point to make the first mark? One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions… Still the risk must be run; the mark made.”

I read To the Lighthouse for the first time on the brink of adulthood. I identified with Lily. Not knowing where to begin, I chased what others ordained as markers of a productive scientific life: publications, presentations, book chapters, reports, awards, job titles.

Young scientists are generally taught, both explicitly and implicitly, that their publication counts, journal impact factors, citation indices, and academic titles are concrete measures of their worth. All you have to do to be successful is jump over the bar; publish enough, get tenure.

Young scientists are rarely told that the publish-enough bar is comparative; success in academia is graded on an ever-rising curve and only a small percentage of doctoral-degree holders achieve tenure. Clearing the perpetually-moving bar is an unattainable goal for many scientists and there is no shame in that. The deck is stacked.

Now, nearing 40, staring at the bizarre logic model of my life, I noticed that the concrete products of my scientific efforts were notably absent. The missions I had served and the values that brought me to those missions were there, but the papers, presentations, and job titles held were not. That I had forgotten to list them seemed to mean something.

I realized that this white board was my version of going on a cattle drive. I was having an early mid-life crisis. That realization made me laugh so hard it brought tears to my eyes.

*****

“What is the meaning of life? That was all – a simple question”.

Mrs. Ramsey, another central character in the novel, offers a very different solution to finding meaning in a world of impermanence. “Life stand still here,” she said, knowing the whole time that the stockings would always be too short and the children always growing older. Mrs. Ramsay finds meaning in the moments that pass between people, in relationships.

When Mrs. Ramsey throws a dinner party, she looks around and sees that human connection does not happen spontaneously. It takes effort. Someone has to begin. “Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her… for if she did not do it nobody would do it.”

Mrs. Ramsey knew how to make of the moment something permanent. All it takes is the courage to risk all happiness on the success of a single small interaction. Like a painter facing a blank canvas, Mrs. Ramsey looks at her dinner party gathering and then makes a sweeping brush stroke, a beginning, an attempt. She encourages others to be open, to connect, and to find meaning in the smallest things, like having a meal together.

When I was 18, I dismissed Mrs. Ramsey’s answer. Finding meaning in relationships felt too domestic, too stereotypically feminine to be the right way to navigate in a world that was and is still quite dominated by male standards of success. There is no resume section for documenting how nice you are*. Kindness does not get you a tenure-track or executive-level job. Those, I had been taught, were decided on cut-throat productivity.

But nearing 40, I realized that I would be solidly identified as a “Mrs. Ramsey” if Buzzfeed ever did a “Which character from To the Lighthouse are you?” quiz. I felt so daft when I finally figured out something that should have been so obvious.

Every career decision I have ever made was about my family, the people I work with, and the missions I serve. I have never made a decision based on salary, productivity, or clout.

Some of my career choices have involved sacrificing all three of the latter at the same time to make space for the former. To have the security to be able to consistently choose based on these values has been a privilege afforded to me by my partner’s success – the thing that holds me back has also, in some ways, liberated me.

Trailing along on my partner’s orbit, I have struggled to feel like I have fully “arrived” in my career for years. We decided together, for very practical reasons, to prioritize his job. I am innately more flexible in my ambitions, so it seemed like the right choice when we made it. I fully own the decisions that have made my career challenging – they are not his to feel guilty about, although he does some days.

I wish I never had to make a choice between a fulfilling job in my area of expertise or my family. I do not, however, regret putting them first.

Staring at the white board, lightning struck, and I realized that I did not feel out of sync because I was making bad decisions, but rather because I was measuring my performance with the wrong metrics. Then I wrote a list down the left side of the diagram – the name of every person who I have ever taught, mentored, supported, opened doors for, or defended against injustice during my career. Often, none of this was in my actual job description at the time. Sometimes, I have even stepped out in front of others with little regard to my own safety and I have borne the consequence of those choices willingly. For if I did not do it, it was possible that nobody would.

Being available to my family and giving other people a leg up on their own journeys – these are things that I have always prioritized over publishing papers or making my own next big career move. Those decisions have shaped my life in so many ways that I failed to take note of because they were not on the list of performance metrics that I was taught to value.

Because their successes are their own, not mine, I had not thought to include all of these people on my own logic model. Yet, I was there to cheer them on, witness their tears and frustration, or protect them when they needed a shield. As they each ran their own races, I was one of the people manning a water table along their marathon routes.

Passing out proverbial cups of water isn’t a contribution that can be quantified or listed on a resume, yet each person on this list is a living measure of my career success.

Trapped by an unfair choice in the tail of a comet, I have found small ways to use the stability and privilege of my partner’s orbit as traction for pushing others towards those green, fresh habitatable planets that are just out of my reach. And I am so proud of each of them and their successes, especially the ones who now work in the jobs I dreamed about during graduate school.

It was only then, with that list of names added to the messy diagram of my life, that I could see the pattern in the noise. Only then, did I fully realize how I should always have been measuring success in my own career all along.

This is the one thing. My one thing. The thing that has always been there as the measure of meaning in my life, even when I failed to see it.

*Note that this sentence is not strictly true. There is actually one line on my resume that is entirely about being nice. It is the scientific equivalent of being awarded the title of Miss Congeniality and I cherish that award more than anything else.

The value of independent scholarship in a time of upheaval

By Ronin Research Scholar Jonathan Walter.  It first appeared as an editorial in the June 2020 issue of Kitsune

“We know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.”

Our lives and institutions have been radically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. This applies too, to scholarly institutions. The consequences for both individual scholars and the systems of academia are likely to be far-reaching. From my perspective as a US-based, early career scientist, I share some observations and reflect on the value of independent scholarship to the scholarly community, particularly at a time when the pandemic is straining traditional academic careers and institutions.

One source of insight into impacts of the pandemic is its effect on the livelihoods and careers of scholars. As an early-career scientist I’m especially attuned to the job market for new hires. This year, 2020, and likely beyond, will feature a horrible academic job market. This spring, colleges and universities froze hiring while many faculty searches were incomplete; those positions remain unfilled and their long-term fate in limbo. As long as student revenue, endowments, and state budgets are depressed, faculty hiring will be scant. New hiring won’t be all that’s affected. My tenure-track colleagues are concerned about lost productivity and inequities in who can still do research at a time when children are home, and while labs and field sites are closed. As we have already begun to see, colleges and universities, especially those whose budgets depend heavily on tuition and fees, will make more radical cuts—including to tenured and tenure-track faculty—in the name of financial stability. Some institutions already in financial peril will close their doors permanently.

These events play out on top of existing flaws in the system. I made the choice to leave a traditional academic path pre-covid for a constellation of reasons. Most importantly, I face limits on my career growth at my current institution that I find untenable. At the same time, I am unwilling to pay the personal costs of moving to a different part of the country, even for a “dream” tenure-track job. For me, these costs would include disrupting my spouse’s career, leaving a community we love, and the inability to support a disabled family member living nearby. Others experience different barriers to and strains on traditional academic careers, but the outcome is similar: many scholars are considering whether to leave this path. The pandemic fallout in academia suggests that many also will soon be pushed off, less than willingly.

In this environment, I believe independent scholarship may be more important than ever. I study ecology, in which a key principle is that biological diversity makes ecosystems more stable, and even more productive. Analogously, independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole by enabling more paths through scholarly careers, and expanding who is actively engaged in scholarship at any time. As the pandemic exacerbates academia’s shortcomings, I see potential for the number of independent scholars to grow. This, I think, can be a good thing, even if the events leading to a scholar’s independence might be traumatic and unjust. Extending a bit further the metaphor on biological diversity, we know that adding a single rare species to an ecosystem does little to enhance its aggregate properties, but if that species is more common, its positive effects on the system as a whole grow. So too can growth in the number of independent scholars enhance scholarship as a whole.

One thing standing in the way of this vision is that relatively few recognize that independent scholarship is an option, or that groups like the Ronin Institute exist to mitigate some major pitfalls of independent scholarship. The costs of independent scholarship’s low visibility are two-fold. On one hand, scholars who don’t realize it’s an option can’t ask whether it’s right for them. On the other, structural factors hindering independent scholarship might be ameliorated if our position were better known. Understanding that not all who leave academia will become independent scholars, nor should all independent scholars be Ronin Scholars, I hope that Ronin Scholars and friends of the Institute will spread the word.

Jon Walter is an ecologist and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Virginia. He is also affiliated with the Ronin Institute as a research scholar. He is the founder and lead scientist of Athenys Research, a research and consulting firm and co-hosts a podcast called “Major Revisions” that comments on topics in ecology and academia from the perspective of three early-career scientists. You can read more about Jon and his research on his website.

An academic Strike For Black Lives being held Wednesday June 10, 2020

As part of the ongoing protests and calls for action to address systemic racism in our institutions and our society following the murder of George Floyd, the group Particles for Justice is calling for all academics to pledge to suspend their academic duties for the entirety of today, Wednesday June 10:

We will stop all usual academic work for the day, including teaching, research, and service responsibilities. All ordinary meetings of classes, research groups, and seminars should be cancelled or replaced with discussions with colleagues about anti-black bias in the world and in academia.

We will also stop activities that advance our own scholarship, including performing research, reading and submitting papers, or sending e-mails about research.

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Many scientific organizations, including arXiv, some publishers, and many other academics, including some Ronin Research Scholars are taking part in this day. You can pledge here:

https://www.particlesforjustice.org/strike-details

Statement on the Protests in Response to the Murder of George Floyd

By now, you have probably read statements from various organizations addressing the protests currently happening across the United States. It is hard to know what an appropriate institutional response is. I am skeptical of the artifice of a legal corporate entity expressing an opinion. Plus, these institutional statements tend to be bland and hedging, denouncing racism and violence in very general terms, while carefully avoiding any commitment to real structural change. 

So here is an attempt at a personal and imperfect statement. I can not speak on behalf of all of the diverse members of this community, although I hope that most of the Research Scholars will agree with most of what I say here. I am not an expert on police violence, racial discrimination, or the violent history of white supremacy in this country. What I can do is speak briefly about the current moment through the lens of the two core values of the Ronin Institute: truth and empathy.

Here are some of the things I know to be true. George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police department due, in no small part, to the fact that he was a Black man. This was not simply an isolated incident involving one, or a few, bad cops. This was one manifestation of systemic problems in law enforcement, including a lack of accountability and a disregard for human life, particularly the lives of racial minorities, and even more particularly the lives of Black people. And the systemic problems in law enforcement are only one manifestation of the society-wide systemic racism rooted in a centuries-long history of colonization and white supremacy, and the legacies of slavery and genocide.

Empathy means demanding better from our police and our political leaders. It means holding ourselves and each other accountable for the consequences of our words and actions, both intentional and unintentional. It means fighting against injustice, even when you are not personally the one suffering that injustice. It means not simply denouncing racism, but working to be anti-racist. And most importantly, empathy means looking out for each other, listening to those most affected by our unjust system, and responding with generosity, kindness, and courage.

The Ronin Institute was founded on the understanding that people have different interests and goals, and that we all face different challenges. If you are pursuing knowledge in good faith, we want to support you and provide you with the tools and resources that you need to succeed on your own terms. The problems we are typically focused on solving exist at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This year, the pandemic, the protests, and the events that have prompted them are reminders that some of the more basic needs are not as secure as we often assume. And the basic need for physical safety is much less secure for some of us than for others.

The most important benefit that the Ronin Institute has to offer is each other. We are at our best when we are asking for the resources we need and offering the resources we have. Usually, those resources are expertise, time, and kindness. And I have been continually amazed over the past eight years at the generosity with which you are willing to share them. I would encourage you all to consider another resource: privilege. The ability to pursue our scholarship, even on a part-time basis, is a privilege available to few people in the world. I believe that implies a responsibility to use that privilege for the benefit of others, and I know that many of you are committed to doing just that. Also think about the other privileges you have, based on your education, race, gender, or class, and how you can use that privilege to help those with less, both within our community and outside it.

All of you joined the Ronin Institute because you wanted to help build a more just and inclusive alternative to academia, for the benefit of all scholars. This is a moment to remember that while we are scholars, we are people first, and the struggle for a just system of scholarship is inextricably linked to the struggle for a just society.

Be safe and take care of each other.

Black Lives Matter.

Scientiam Consecemus.

Jon F Wilkins
President and Research Scholar

Living in a world of Covid-19

Covid-19 has had a drastic impact on people everywhere. Over the past few weeks, we collected stories from Ronin Research Scholars about what their life has been like in different parts of the world. The Scholars here present their stories from Pakistan, United Kingdom, Dubai, and Germany.


Dr. Tamseela Hussain, Pakistan — April 5, 2020

My husband is an ICU doctor and I am a consultant of medical informatics. 

Pakistan has approx 2600 cases thus far since Feb 2020 and we expect more as we continue testing. Pakistan continues to struggle with food for daily wagers as they suffer the most during lockdowns. Medical staff and general public are struggling with PPE and masks etc.

I would like to share with Ronin that I have created an Informatics form for Covid-19 management with basic clinically relevant Covid parameters. This form can be used for research purposes as secondary use of data but I created it for primary use of data for monitoring disease progression and regression.

It is mandated by the government of Pakistan that whomever tests positive “must “be admitted in a hospital until negative. Whereas other parts of the world, self quarantine can be done at home.

My Covid-19 form has clinically relevant data fiends eg signs symptoms monitoring, labs, imaging and sofa scores/ vent / ICU management for morbidity and mortality. 


Keith Tse, York, United Kingdom—March 31, 2020

UK universities and cities on lockdown. All events and classes cancelled and all premises closed indefinitely, apart from those that sell basic and essential amenities. The weather has been good (clear and increasingly warm) but the atmosphere is quite eerie. 


Yasmina Jraissati, Dubai—March 29, 2020

I don’t know if it’s the warm and sunny weather, or if it’s a childhood spent in war time Lebanon (and so many things today remind me of that part of my life), but on a personal level, I feel things are going rather smoothly over here. Confinement is recommended, but for the moment not imposed. We get to go for a short walk in the park every couple of days. Our 4 year old seems to have developed an unexpected capacity to play on his own for several hours in a row – thank god for Legos! Things seem to be under control (but things always seem under control here, so we’re not very certain), in the sense where interesting measures have been recently put in place and/or announced for the near future: Isolating people in redesigned hotel rooms even when their symptoms are only mild; disinfecting the streets at night; screening people in their houses starting with more densely populated areas; drive through testing facilities for those who feel they need a test. 

I keep thinking about how the post-covid world will look like. Part of me wants to think it will be back to how it was. But another part of me deep down worries that the world will change drastically, like it has after the 9/11 attacks. I can see how no government will want to risk another similar pandemic. A perfect reason (excuse?) to have more controls on borders, to increase surveillance on people’s movements, and now even health situation. So many opportunities for abuse… Maybe with the way the world has become (increased interaction and quick travel) something like that is needed? This is a painful thought for people like me who have believed all of their lives in a certain concept of freedom and respect for privacy.


Martin Bohle (Ukko), Germany— March 27, 2020

I am part of the semi-public relief structure (Red Cross) in my town in rural Germany. We are in structured ‘close-down’, that is a three-tier choice as to what kind of business is maintained or closed. Local number of infected are high for Germany, but not extreme. 

The activity in the relief structure keeps me busy. 

Aside from that, I follow-up on my science (publications & review). Combining both I’m drafting a piece explaining exponential growth – a kind of fairy-tale about the ‘exponential soap maker’. Once it is ready, I’m happy to share it. Also, I did build a tool to extrapolate numbers of infected people. It can be shared.

p.s. https://www.salzburgglobal.org/news/latest-news/article/martin-bohle-the-smile-of-the-imaginator.html

Empowering the Ronin Community

by Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, and Jon Wilkins

It’s been a while between posts on the Ronin Institute Blog, and in between this post and the last one, the Covid-19 crisis has touched the lives of every one of us across the Ronin Institute and beyond. As a largely remotely-based community, we hope to help fill in those physical distancing gaps by providing a social and intellectual space for all Research Scholars to stay in touch and continue working toward building a resilient scholarly community. Ultimately this will allow us to connect, support and strengthen all the other communities in which we are embedded, as we collectively grapple with this crisis.

Well before this crisis had started, we had launched a process to create a new governance structure for the Ronin Institute to accommodate the increased scale and scope of the Institute. We have now come so far in that process that it’s hard to believe that we only started it 6 months ago, in September 2019. Our main achievements to date include:

  • A new governance structure for the Ronin Institute that was developed through a community-informed, iterative process
  • Arika Virapongse as our new (and first!) Community Director for Ronin 
  • Five active Working Groups: Governance, Communication, Infrastructure, Membership, and Research

In the rest of this post, we’d like to outline the philosophy guiding that process, what the new governance structure looks like, and specific new outcomes and initiatives that have been created.

Values and principles that guide our process

Ronin’s two core values have guided our development of the governance structure: 

Truth & Empathy

The ultimate goal of the Ronin Institute is to help scholars “Seek truth.” As Jon Wilkins says, “If you are doing scholarship, your job boils down to this: say things that you believe to be true.” Through the governance structure, we want to help support scholars in reaching this goal. 

Empathy underlies how we do things. The governance structure relies on people to make things work, so we want to constantly ask ourselves: Are we treating people fairly? For example, our volunteer structure emphasizes that volunteers should not be spending more than about 2 hours a week on Institutional activities, and they should only be doing things that they like and want to do. 

Two other principles also inform our decision-making: 

Minimal Viable Bureaucracy & Everybody Drives a Truck

  • Minimal Viable Bureaucracy” is aimed at keeping things as simple as possible for our current size and scale. What this bureaucracy looks like is different for 10 scholars, compared with 200. This also implies that we aim for resilience in our Institute by planning for periods of “richness” and “poverty”–in other words, enabling expansion when we have the resources for it, but also being willing (and able) to scale back when we need to. This concept, for example, informs our approach to adding new technological infrastructure to the Institute, as well as hiring help. 
  • Everybody drives a truck” (first introduced in Kitsune #3) is the idea that a community only thrives if everyone actively helps to advance our shared goals as an Institute. Importantly, it means that all decision-makers (and leadership) are also scholars. This concept informed our development of the Working Groups, as well as how we think about leadership across the Institute.

Because we want to create a governance structure that is right for Ronin–while being careful NOT to create top-heavy structures that emulate what has always been done (in traditional academic institutions)–we look towards our Research Scholars for help. We’ve been holding Governance WG meetings every month since September 2019, asking people to share their input, ideas, and people-power to create and implement this new governance structure for Ronin. 

The Ronin Institute: Grants Program & Community Program

After 6 months of community-informed governance development, enough momentum has been gathered to distinguish between two main programs within the Ronin Institute: 

  1. Grants and financial administration (led by Jon Wilkins)
  2. Community (led by Arika Virapongse). 

Grants and financial administration consists of all the fiduciary responsibilities related to accepting grants, disbursing funds to researchers, making financial decisions, and meeting the IRS legal requirements of a US-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization. 

The Community program consists of all the activities related to supporting Ronin Research Scholars’ participation in the community, as well as their scholarship activities within and outside of the Institute. This consists of things like bringing on new members to the Institute, Ronin seminars, the Kitsune newsletter, helping Scholars identify grant opportunities, Slack interaction, and developing new infrastructure to support Scholar interaction—-activities that are now all led by Ronin Working Groups (previously all of these activities were led by Jon). To push the Community program to the next level, a commitment to the coordination and implementation of this program is needed that goes beyond the several volunteer hours per week threshold. As a result, Arika recently accepted the new role of Community Director, a part time position that may ebb and grow as the Ronin community does. 

Working groups (WGs)

Today, we now have five working groups that each focus on a key element of the Ronin Institute Community:

Governance WG: 

  • Scope: Organizes the overall governance structure for Ronin, coordinates across all Working Groups, and creates decision-making structure for the Ronin Community.
  • Example activity: Structuring, activating, and enabling Working Groups 
  • WG leads: Arika Virapongse, Alex Lancaster, Jon Wilkins

Communication WG: 

  • Scope: Develops the approach and structure for how Ronin publicizes and disseminates information about the institute, both internally and externally
  • Example activity: Ronin Newsletter Kitsune
  • WG lead: Emily Monosson

Infrastructure WG: 

  • Scope: Coordinating, maintaining, and administering the technical aspects of Ronin. 
  • Example activity: Auditing existing platforms used by Ronin today, and helping to develop a system that allows these platforms to be used by multiple individuals (as opposed to one person using and managing them all, aka Jon)
  • WG lead: Alex Lancaster and Victoria Costa

Membership WG: 

  • Scope: Developing membership criteria and helping scholars participate as members.
  • Example activity: Coordinating the Ronin Seminar series. 
  • WG lead: Victoria Costa

Research WG: 

  • Scope: Helping scholars conduct research through Ronin
  • Example activity: Developing an IRB for Ronin
  • WG lead: Michelle Susberry Hill

If you are a Ronin Research Scholar and want to learn more about these WGs, join the Ronin Slack and check out the channels for the WGs, or contact arika.virapongse@ronininstitute.org for more info. The Ronin calendar also lists the meetings for WGs, and you are welcome to join them. 

What’s next? 

Expect to hear a lot more soon about how the Ronin Institute is growing. We’ll have an All Hands meeting scheduled in late April 2020 to get everyone caught up on what’s going on. Ronin seminars will be activated again within the next couple of months.

We are also just beginning to launch our Interest Groups (IG), which are groups of Ronin Scholars that self-organize around specific topics. For example, to help spark overlooked or unconventional research angles and collaborations in biology and public health for the Covid-19 crisis, the Covid19-biology IG was just recently formed (Ronin Slack channel #ig-covid19-biology). In the future, we hope to have more IGs that bring together our scholars in biological and physical sciences with those from social sciences and humanities to address the truly transdisciplinary nature of crises and contexts that are often missed in traditional academic silos.

You may have also come by this blog post via reading the first community-led Kitsune newsletter put together by Research Scholars Emily Monosson and Yasmina Jraissati.

Many thanks to all the Ronin Research Scholars who have made all of this happen! 

Scientiam Consecemus!