2020: State and Transition

It’s been some time since I’ve shared what I’ve been up to on this blog. Time for an update. Strap yourself in.

TLDR: I’ve developed a more stable motivational approach for myself, and this is the first iteration. We’re boldly going in a select few directions this year. Skip to the numbered lists for details without all the context.

Where we’ve been

2019 was a good year. In roughly chronological order, here is a list of some highlights:

  1. I snowboarded for the first time in over ten years…twice. The first time was on New Year’s Eve (technically 2018) in Flagstaff, AZ. The second time was in the French Alps; I made it down my first black piste without any crazy wipeouts.
  2. I made my first trip to Asia by way of Thailand. Although it’s a pretty heavy tourist destination these days, I challenged myself by going it alone, with only a backpack as my companion. I had friends in Bangkok to show me around and spend time with, but I did quite a bit of the trip on my own. Also experienced my first food poisoning in a foreign country—in the airport right before my flight home.
  3. While on Kho Phi Phi, in the spirit of Arthur Less, I took some time to reflect and write. My goal was to develop a 20-year plan for myself, starting at age 50 and working back to where I sit now, at age 30. I came away from that trip with a sense of direction and purpose I hadn’t felt in a long time. More on that later in this post.
  4. I turned 30. :D
  5. I celebrated my fifth SciPy in Austin, and came away with some new means to execute on my 20-year plan in the near term. More on this below.
  6. I traveled to Seattle to attend the International Space Elevator Consortium annual meeting. More on this below.
  7. I took my Dad on his first trip outside of North America. We spent time in Paris, ate amazing food, and enjoyed so much of the culture the city has to offer. We made a pilgrimage to the American cemetery in Normandy as well; my Dad never thought he’d be standing in it himself.
  8. Last but certainly not least: I developed a closer connection with my partner, whose presence I’m incredibly grateful for. He challenges me out of my comfort zone, and I do the same for him. He makes me a better version of myself with each passing day. It’s the kind of relationship I’ve always wanted, but thought I’d never find.

There’s certainly more to this list, but some things I cannot share…yet. Perhaps in a future post.

Where we are

2019 is over. 2020 is about to begin.

In 2019, I drafted a 20-year plan, starting at age 50 and working back to where I sit now, at age 30. Although it has some specific milestones I’m interested in hitting, emerging from this plan are three threads for my professional interests and efforts. These are:

  1. Health and Medicine
  2. Molecules and Materials
  3. Space

I spent 2019 laying out this plan and performing some of the groundwork for execution. In 2020, I will begin execution in earnest, while continuing to clear the path forward for subsequent phases. Although they appear unrelated, these threads possess some useful cross-synergies, which I plan to take advantage of to speed them all along.

Health and Medicine

My efforts in thread (1), health and medicine, are tied together with my current employment. I will be able to share more of this at a later time. However, in vague terms, at this time I am focused on problems in operations and systems efficiencies. More soon.

Molecules and Materials

My central thread (2) is a continuation of the path I started on in my Ph.D work, but focused on pushing forward the state of the field using my atypical positioning. As an independent researcher not seeking a faculty position in academia, I do not operate under the same incentive structures as many of my peers working in the field. I can therefore do work that is of high-value but under-incentivized, such as software engineering, and I can do so without being as dependent on funding cycles and publication demands.

In 2020, my energy is going into the following projects:

  • The Open Force Field Initiative - an effort that is poised to reshape the landscape of forcefield development, providing a needed refresh of the approaches we take developing this foundational layer of biomolecular simulation and enabling the rapid advancement of this layer into the future.
  • The MolSSI Quantum Chemistry Archive - a key enabler of the Open Force Field Initiative, this effort is building a massive archive of quantum chemistry data, working to cover large swaths of chemical space with chemical property calculations.
  • alchemlyb - a library for performing (alchemical) free energy calculations using data from a variety of simulation (and experimental) sources, with an API similar to that of scikit-learn.

These projects operate at the core of drug design and materials development, likely revealing opportunities in threads (1) and (3).


My last thread (3) is the most pie-in-the sky, literally and otherwise. When I was a teenager, I developed an obsession with the concept of a space elevator. It was the mid-2000s, and this idea was experiencing a surge of popular science interest from Brad Edwards’ 2003 book The Space Elevator: A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System.

Like most things from childhood, when I went on to college, and subsequently grad school, other priorities demanded my attention. I forgot about orbital elevators for about a decade. But this year, an unlikely conversation with a friend brought these thoughts rushing back into the foreground. Mental pathways I hadn’t traversed in years were once more the center of my attention.

This thread, a ribbon to the stars, forms the pillar on which the other two derive meaning for me. By the time I am 50 years old, I intend to be working full-time on an orbital elevator, assuming it is not realized already by then (in which case I may still be involved, or doing other things).

There are two components needed for this effort that I intend to push on:

  • A manufacturing process for a tether with the required material properties has yet to be fully realized. There is excitement around graphene and boron nitride as candidate materials, as well as some manufacturing processes with real potential. Adrian Nixon’s work and thoughts on this topic are particularly enticing. I want to assist with computational approaches where feasible.

  • Simulation software for architectural design and failure analysis. This software may also evolve into key components to control systems for a real orbital elevator. The ISEC 2017 Study lays out many of the high-value requirements of a simulation engine. I want to lead or contribute software engineering effort.

Where we’re going

Passion and consistency are required. I have not had either in the past several years as I wandered the desert, looking for meaningful things to direct my limited time and energy into. This year made clear to me why I struggled for so long: I was too concerned with identifying things to do (“what”), but had no clear supporting reason for doing those things (“why”). Without a visceral, motivating foundation, a list of things to do quickly becomes a list of chores, and without any other incentives (income, career progression, joy, etc.), they are deprioritized easily in the presence of other options.

My 20-year plan is a living document, and functions as a catalyst for progression and continued evolution. It’s less of a document and more of an ongoing process, which happens to have shape and content at each slice of time. It’s a wind for my sail, and it can change with time and circumstance, but its timescale of change is years, not days or weeks. It is insensitive to swings in mood and short-term whims. Its direction and consistency arise from deeper yearnings for meaning. It doesn’t matter so much where my boat ends up from this wind; what matters is that my boat is moving, and not in complete circles.

The threads that emerge from this process speak to areas I have excitement about, are core to my personality. I will be doing less travel this year, instead applying focused and sustained effort on them. These threads map downward into specific goals and action. Here is a list of concrete goals for this year, stated here for the record:

  1. Re-take the reigns of alchemlyb, which has been a project in hibernation for some time. We will establish a regular release schedule, and I will make responding quickly and consistently on the issue tracker a personal priority.
  2. Publish a JOSS article for alchemlyb, promoting its purpose and use. This will provide a citeable reference for academics putting the library to work.
  3. Collaborate on and contribute to this year’s ISEC study.
  4. Draft a computational material development pathway for an orbital elevator tether. This will require some correspondence with those working in this area, and at least one literature review.
  5. Draft a design document for an orbital elevator simulation engine. This will map from the requirements listed in the ISEC 2017 Study. We will use this document to guide implementation and recruit interested open source developers. This document will be developed in the open.
  6. Draft the manuscript for the final project from my Ph.D. work. It’s taken some time for that work to gestate, and there is now additional context to meaningfully place it in. This will be my first exercise in scientific publishing in many years, so it will be…interesting.

I will be pushing forward issues on the Open Force Field and QCArchive fronts as well, but those efforts are driven by others full time, with me operating in an at-will supporting role. I also have goals aligning with thread (1), but these are tied to my employment and cannot be shared at this time.

Some fun distractions

Although I intend to focus my energies as much as possible into my threads this year, I also intend on the following distractions:

  1. I plan to buy my first motorcycle this year, after some proper training to avoid injury or death.
  2. While it’s still winter, I plan to snowboard at least once. It’s too fun not to take the opportunity.
  3. My partner and I are planning a trip to Portugal, probably in the fall. It will be our first international trip together.
  4. Once the Democratic presidential nominee is selected, I will participate as a volunteer in the campaign for Arizona with my roommate.
  5. I’ve been working to build muscle mass since 2017, and have made significant progress since then. I will continue on this path with my partner’s help. This is a key component to our lifestyle and our plans for the future.

I intend to be pretty ruthless about the distractions I allow into my headspace this year, so this list probably won’t grow (much), barring major unexpected life events.

Sound fun?

I’m always interested in meeting others whose interests align with mine. If you’re committed to action on threads similar to my own, please reach out. I’ve been fortunate to have many fruitful collaborations over the years, and they usually come unexpectedly.

— david

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