2018: A Year of Small Transitions

It’s been a while! I last posted a blog post in February 2018, and I’ve more or less gone silent on social media in that time as well. As I’ll explain shortly, it’s been a bit of an uncertain and transitional period in my life, but I think that has settled down now. As one of my New Years’ Resolutions, I’m expecting to blog on a weekly basis once again, and given the circumstances, I figured that a good first post would be a simple update on my life.

Here’s the short version, if you don’t want to read all of my personal details: I left my church of five years to join a church plant / merger in March, defended my PhD thesis in August, and got a job, through a seven-week Insight Data Science fellowship, at a small startup named Kebotix in November.

In the grand scale of things, these are certainly small transitions. Most of my life is the same entering 2019 as it was entering 2018: I live in the same high-rise in Kendall Square with my wife Grace, work in Cambridge, play Dominion and other board games and read about politics as my hobbies, and grow and serve in City on a Hill Church. But I have a strong personal aversion to change, and none of these transitions was particularly self-driven, so to me, these were significant.

A New Church

The first of those transitions was the one I was least expecting. Coming into 2018, I was anticipating finishing up my PhD and getting a job, so I knew something was going to have to change on a professional front. On a spiritual front, though, I loved my church, City on a Hill Church in Brookline, MA, where I’d been attending and serving for the previous 5+ years. I had just written a warm reflection on this blog over those five years in September 2017.

I still love that church. But at a members’ meeting in March, the pastors announced that they were taking the first steps to transitioning from a single church which helps to plant other independent churches into a network of neighborhood churches. My church would become City on a Hill Brookline, and as the second member of the network, a similarly-minded and slightly younger church plant in Somerville called Redeemer would be rebranding as City on a Hill Somerville. As Somerville is north of Boston, beyond Cambridge, they encouraged the two community groups at CoaH Brookline in that direction, including mine, to consider checking them out.

As I was hearing this, I really liked the vision. Boston is a major city, but not one where people are willing to travel really far. I remember thinking of CoaH Brookline as “really far away” when that distance was just 3-4 miles. In Colorado, my parents go to a church double that distance and we don’t even think twice about it. In that context, smallish neighborhood churches are much better suited to the culture than slowly growing into a megachurch.

However, while I was on board with the overall vision, I wasn’t sure this would change anything for me. After all, we were in Cambridge, and as Grace looked up the location in northern Somerville, it actually wouldn’t end up being any closer, or easier to get to, for us. The Charles River was the natural dividing line the pastors suggested, but Google Maps’ driving directions actually suggested the quickest route to Redeemer from our apartment would cross the river twice!

But I knew this wasn’t my decision to make alone. Immediately after the meeting, those two community groups that had just been singled out naturally huddled up as our friends asked us, “So?” The other community group, something of a sister group to us, was pretty much already sold; it would be much closer to them. Our group was hesitantly optimistic — we wanted to check it out together and decide as a group.

I quickly realized that this was a rare opportunity to discover a new church not just on my own or with Grace, but as a close-knit community. In today’s individualistic age, when does that ever happen? In this way, our community group became a bit more like a family, and that was special to me.

Fortunately, we loved it. Pastor Claude, an African-American dude from Seattle, was funny, insightful, and passionate, and the people we met were warm and excited to be joining our two families together. The church is crazy blessed to be able to rent a church building on Sunday mornings, from a Spanish-speaking church that moved out to the suburbs when they outgrew the space. Seriously, if you’ve been to church in Boston or any other city, you know that that sort of thing never happens; CoaH Brookline still meets in a school. The one downside is that it isn’t very T-accessible, but we’re fortunate enough to have friends to give us rides as well as relatively cheap Uber (Express) Pools for when that isn’t an option.

In all, it reminded me a lot of CoaH (Brookline) when I had first started attending in 2012. I hadn’t noticed the annual 20% growth of the church from Sunday to Sunday, but over five years, it definitely had a different feel. CoaH Somerville, with 50-70 on a given Sunday, ended up coming in between the ~100 at the morning and ~30 at the evening services that CoaH Brookline had when I first attended back in 2012.

Coming along with our two community groups were two of the people I met at that very first evening service, Pastor Fletcher Lang and his wife Megan. As Fletcher explained, CoaH Somerville needed a boost in both regular attendees and servants in order to reach a critical self-sustaining mass given Boston’s transience, and he was going to help lead that effort. Fletcher had been instrumental in setting up most of the systems that kept us organized in Brookline, and he’d be filling a similar role in Somerville.

Initially, though, he encouraged us just to attend CoaH Somerville, rather than jumping straight into serving, for a couple months. This was a refreshing break for me, as I had been serving in a myriad of capacities in CoaH Brookline. In Somerville, I would jump into children’s ministry and setup/teardown (much more minimal than in Brookline!) before deciding, with Fletcher’s encouragement, to take the responsibility of preparing the slides off of our worship leader Joanna’s plate. After preparing and manning the slides week in and week out for a couple months, I’ve finally started to build up a team to handle it on a rotating basis as we enter the new year. In that time, I’ve become quite competent at ProPresenter, but also acutely aware of its many failings — if anyone else wants some tips or merely to commiserate, feel free to reach out! 🙂

Of course, I was super sad to leave behind my friends in Brookline, and particularly the kids whom I’d started getting to know in the Children’s Ministry at CoaH Brookline. Since leaving, I’ve been blessed to see most of them at our Good Friday service, CoaH softball team games over the summer, and/or our annual network-wide fall retreat, but it’s not the same.

In early July, just as we were getting settled in and started serving, we went through another unexpected transition. Claude announced, with tears in his eyes, that he and his family would be moving to Memphis at the end of the month to work at a church there focused on racial reconciliation. As he explained, it was an opportunity well-suited to his skills and calling, which was bittersweet. He felt that he was leaving us in good hands with Fletcher taking over as lead pastor.

This hadn’t been the initial plan at all — Fletcher was originally going to serve as more of an administrative network pastor to all of the churches with a temporary focus on Somerville. He and Megan had always dreamed of planting a church, but had decided after five years of working at CoaH Brookline that God was calling them to this sort of supporting role. And then here they were, sort of planting a church but skipping the most difficult early years. Sometimes God surprises us like that, giving us more than we prayed for.

We’ve spent 2018 growing together as the two churches have melded into one. There have been a number of intentional gatherings (e.g. a church-wide Labor Day party), but I feel like I’ve bonded the most with former members of Redeemer through serving on Sundays and playing softball together. It’s been a remarkably smooth transition from my perspective. While the seams are definitely still visible — our community group remains entirely CoaH Brookline transplants — we’ve made a lot of close connections in less than a year.

Thankfully, those changes in my spiritual home settled down by the end of the summer, when I started to transition professionally.

Defending My PhD and My Initial Job Search

PhD’s tend to finish in one of two ways: Either you, the student, finally convince your advisor, committee, or department to let you graduate, or they finally make you graduate. I was definitely in the latter category. I was enjoying myself!

That said, my research wasn’t exactly taking off, so I also knew pretty early on that I’d be looking to jump into industry after graduating. I first heard about Insight Data Science through a department e-mail in March 2015, while in my third year of graduate school, and I signed up for their mailing list. At the time, they only had programs in NYC and Silicon Valley, but I hoped, given the reputation of the city, that some day they would open a Boston program.

My hope would be rewarded. A month later, I found out that they were opening a Health Data Science program in Boston starting in the summer of 2015. Then in January 2017, they announced that the Boston program was expanding to a general Data Science program as well, which was exactly what I was looking for. Once I had settled on a general graduation timeline of summer 2018, I applied to Insight through their early application round in May, and after an interview, heard back that I was accepted a couple of weeks later!

In the meantime, I had done a bit of a half-hearted job search by attending career fairs, sending in my resume on a couple job postings, and talking to friends who had connections at a couple companies I was interested in. Nothing had really panned out, and I had this offer from Insight, so I was ready to take it.

First, though, just to be sure, I asked my advisors what they knew about the program, and one of my advisors turned out to have something like a half dozen grad school friends who’d gone through the program in its first few years in Silicon Valley. They came back with glowing reviews, so I felt even better about it all.

That lifted a bit of a weight off of my shoulders. I loathe that sort of medium-term planning; I put off both college and graduate school applications until the last day, and only applied to three each. It also gave me another two months until my thesis defense to focus on graduating. I planned to spend the first month getting to a good stopping point in my latest work, and the last month writing everything up coherently. Of course, the former ended up bleeding into the latter, so in the end, I spent about two weeks on the actual writing process. This turned out to be just enough time.

On Tuesday, August 7th, 2018, I successfully defended my PhD. My thesis is titled “Reliable Validation: New Perspectives on Adaptive Data Analysis and Cross Validation.” If you’re interested in the content of my talk, I recorded a practice run of my thesis on my laptop that I’d be happy to share. (At some point, I will probably host it somewhere publicly, but it isn’t up yet.)

Defended my thesis! My committee, from left to right, consisted of Jon Kelner, Philippe Rigollet, and Tamara Broderick.

I proceeded to spend the next month relaxing, playing a good amount of Dominion Online. I started a YouTube channel where I post videos of myself playing, from matches against top opponents in the Dominion League to trying out new cards the newest expansion, Renaissance. Like and subscribe!

Insight Data Science: Getting a job!

In September, I finally started Insight. Since this update post is getting long enough already, I’m going to save most of my thoughts about the Insight program for a future post (spoiler: I loved it). Here, I’ll just give a brief summary.

The program runs 7 weeks, the first four of which are spent on a data science project, which we then presented to a half-dozen or so companies that Insight introduces to us. Interviews follow the program, which hopefully get you a job! If you’re lucky…

I was one of the lucky ones, landing a job at a small startup in Central Square in Cambridge called Kebotix. At Kebotix, we’re taking some of the academic work of the Aspuru-Guzik lab at Harvard in applying machine learning to problems in chemistry to build a fully automated materials discovery pipeline. You can read more about the company in MIT Technology Review.

As one of my friends put it, this seemed like a company perfectly matched to my background. Despite the fact that I pursued applied math into machine learning in grad school, I still enjoy chemistry, my second major at Caltech. And as I pitched them at the end of my demo, I love that they’re trying to take the manual labor out of chemistry, to allow chemistry research to proceed at the speed of thought.

I’ve now been working there for over a month, starting the week of Thanksgiving. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the work environment so far; it hasn’t involved crazy “startup hours” at all. It’s been fun to get back into the chemistry and approach it from a different perspective. And while setting up our automated software systems has been a bit of a pain, it’s also valuable experience. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to say about my job in later weeks.

In the interest of keeping this blog post short and focused on those transitions, let me briefly mention some of the other things that happened this year:

  • In February, I applied the spreadsheet skills I’ve built to the online Dominion League and grew it four-fold, building an array of automated systems on top of a Google Sheets core. Yep, that’ll probably be another blog post.
  • In order to stay in our married graduate student dorm, Grace and I became Social Chairs, organizing several big events for our community throughout the year. We’ve had a lot of fun with that, especially Grace.
  • After becoming officers, we had the opportunity to transfer to a slightly bigger corner apartment within the building, which we did. Of course, since I hate transitions, I was initially sad about leaving the apartment we’d called home for two years, but I eventually came around. Now we have more space for hosting people!
  • Sadly, though, our regular opportunity to do so, the funandgames board game group where Grace and I met, finally lost critical mass to graduation and more or less dissolved. I’ve had a few other opportunities to play board games with various communities, but nothing quite as regular.
  • Over the summer, I continued to both manage the CoaH softball team (now joint between Brookline and Somerville!) and also serve as the scheduler for our league, the Boston Metro Church Softball League. As I alluded to above, I’ve really appreciated how the softball team allows people across the church — and now churches — to bond together, and I’m happy to apply my skills to help the league continue to function well.

And that was my 2018 in a nutshell! I’m excited to be back blogging again. Look for posts here at 5pm every Friday!

One response to “2018: A Year of Small Transitions

  1. Pingback: My Goal for 2019: Focus on Quality over Quantity | The Christian Rationalist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: