Science with Angela

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Spotlight on Olivia Rissland


"On Jan 1, 2018, I decided to read more papers and started trying to read a paper a day. As of today, I have read 899 papers in 899 days. I never would have imagined 2.5 years ago how much I would learn through this and how this would make me a better scientist and human." - Olivia Rissland, Twitter, June 17 2020


I remember reading this tweet with complete awe and admiration - as did many others - it garnered 600 retweets, 217 quote tweets and 7251 likes. 


I was already a huge fan of Olivia's - her lab studies fundamental problems of RNA biology, outlined on this gorgeous and engaging website, and she is is an ultrarunner. I think it was when I was training for my first (and only) ultra and letting everyone know about it on Twitter that Eric Lai directed me to Olivia, who I now also follow on Strava.


The parallels between ultrarunning and reading a paper a day were obvious. Both required unrelenting dedication, consistent effort through changing moods and circumstances, and unwavering endurance. Both are long term goals that involve forming new habits, that ultimately change you as a person.


When I was creating this website, I went back to Olivia's tweet, and the lovely story it inpired Natalie Parletta to write for Nature Index. Olivia mentioned that, at that time, her favourite paper was “The Mundanity of Excellence” by Daniel Chambliss, a sociology paper about what makes swimmers excel. Given that this one was chosen from almost 900 papers, I went to read it for myself. It was published in Sociological Theory in 1989, and has the font and feel of a great, old paper. And of a classic paper that stands the test of time.


The conclusions of The Mundanity of Excellence are so simple and also - to some extent - blasphemous: 1) Excellence is qualitative: doing more does not equal doing better. Instead, different levels of achievement reflect different habits, values and goals. 2) Talent is a useless concept (I love this one): this concept mystifies excellence, which could in fact be explained by logic and examined empirically. 3) Excellence is mundane (love this one too!): excellence is accomplished by doing ordinary actions consistently and carefully, actions that culminate over time to yield excellence. 


Rereading Olivia's tweet, Natalie's news feature, and Daniel's paper together redoubled my committment to launch Science With Angela, and Abstract Watch - reading just an abstract a day (and today I read the first abstract - technically not 'due' until Nov 1 - which was glorious!). 


So with that I give huge thanks to Olivia - for her amazing inspiration in science, in running, and in life.


And here's to developing a new, realistic and ordinary habit that will make us all excellent!


"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step." Lao Tzu


"Little by little, one walks far." Peruvian proverb


Chat soon! Happy Reading!


- Angela


"The woods are lovely, dark and deep"

Robert Frost