I have always been a problem solver. When I was around ten years old, one of my obsessions was logic puzzles; those games in which you are given a few pieces of information and you have to work out everything else just by reasoning through the constraints. I found them endlessly stimulating and felt so happy when I solved one. In a sense, the joy that I find in my work today is still tied to solving problems or at least gaining insight into them, and the methods that I use aren’t terribly different from logical deduction. Of course, now I know how to use computation and statistics to help explore the space of possible solutions, the solutions are perhaps more sophisticated than “Colonel Mustard with the Candlestick in the Library”, and the problems themselves are no longer artificial childhood games, but I have to admit that I have simply found a way to turn my childhood play into my career. This was never conscious; computer programming and, more broadly, science have always just felt right for me, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to pursue those interests without many detours along the way.
Because my work reflects my deep interests, because I believe my work matters, and undoubtedly because of the role models I had in my parents growing up, I am unashamedly a workaholic. I know that “work/life balance” is the mantra these days, and as a wife and the mother of three daughters I do enjoy and value spending time with my family, but I have also realized that there is no single formula for perfect work/life balance, and “balance” doesn’t necessarily mean a 40-hour work week. The right balance for me may not be the right balance for someone else; what feels right for me may not satisfy another. Yes, I want to be there to help my kids with their homework and give them life advice; yes, I want to hear about my husband’s day and to be there for him. I enjoy our regular Friday family movie nights with home-made pizza and exploring our adopted country. But I also derive fulfillment from my research work, and I invest substantial time and energy into professional relationships, my responsibilities as an educator, and being a role model for the next generation of women in STEMM (including, perhaps, my own girls). If that means I’m not there for every school social event, I’m okay with that. Nobody can do everything; we make choices. I at least feel that I have control over the balance and that I’m mostly making choices that keep me happy. When that’s not true, and I feel that things are out of whack, I make changes to try to get me back on track. Life is a work in progress.
I spend much of my time reading and learning. I find so many things interesting; reading about the ideas and investigations that others are pursuing stimulates new ideas of my own. I aim to follow Newton’s principle of “See[ing] further … by standing upon the shoulders of giants”, but acknowledge that we don’t always know who the giants are, or what direction to look in. These days, my readings are increasingly interdisciplinary and primarily focused on applications in biology and medicine. I therefore also spend a lot of time talking to domain experts in those disciplines and hope that this will help to orient my thinking better. Along the way, I have tried to learn the language of these specialized communities and am working to “translate” their information needs and their most pressing problems into the language of computation and analytics.
I feel that the computational and analytical skills I possess are critical for addressing humanity’s biggest challenges, such as improving our health: science and medicine are increasingly data-based, and integration of data sources, innovative methods, and diverse interdisciplinary knowledge are required to build effective solutions. There are big problems looming that demand big problem solvers.
Meet Karin Verspoor: Analytics Problem Solver, Biomedical Informatics Professor, and Tech Diversity Advocate.