Within my direct team I am the only mathematician. The rest of my colleagues have come from biological backgrounds and have spent a lot of their careers in lab generating data. While they have lots of experience in analysing this data, they have fully embraced the addition of a statistical mind to expand their skill set. One of the benefits of this is that I get to work across the group and am involved in a wide variety of projects.
The level of my involvement varies from getting stuck in and doing some of the analysis, explaining particular methodologies, making suggestions or providing a sounding board for other people’s ideas. Our office is a very open, social environment where we can discuss problems and ask questions as and when they occur.
Having the confidence to ask questions is very important. If you work in academia it is presumed that you are very intelligent and therefore know everything about everything. It can therefore be a daunting environment for a student, as you feel that any question you ask may inadvertently expose your weaknesses. However, not asking for help when you need it is a weakness in itself and will only hold you back.
The breakthrough for me came when biologists started asking me maths questions. It made me realise that we all had different skill sets and most importantly we were here to learn from each other, in return the maths student could ask the biologist biology questions! What you start to realise that everyone has gaps in their knowledge, it just may be hidden behind a good poker face.
I really enjoy sharing my knowledge and the challenge of trying the explain a concept clearly. It also gives me confidence that I do know what I’m doing, if someone goes away understanding something that boggled them previously. However, as the resident statistician, initially I felt a lot of responsibility to answer every question about statistics completely, correctly and succinctly. What’s more I also felt that I should be able to answer any question posed. But as with asking questions, you shouldn’t be ashamed to admit you don’t know something when answering them too. Many of my answers are prefixed with ‘I am not an expert in this but if it was me I would …’ Sometimes my offering is that I know where to find the answer (using every Bioinformaticians best friend – the internet) and then help explain what it means.
It can be reassuring when someone else acknowledges that they are not 100% sure about something, as it helps remove any unrealistic expectations of perfection. On top of that – and as I have to constantly remind myself – it wouldn’t be science, and we wouldn’t be here doing this job if we knew all the answers…