Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Open the fuckin' doors already!

We are probably about 2 or 3 weeks from moving into the big fancy new building that will house the lab for the foreseeable future and it can't come soon enough. Everyday I pass by the new building and gaze lovingly at my new lab space before retreating to my current hovel with it's state issued furniture, assembled (and delivered) by prison inmates. So, so unfortunate.

But I can deal with the furniture. I can deal with the numerous water shutdowns in the past couple of months. I can deal with the flooding. I was even okay with the fact that we didn't have heat until around Thanksgiving in a climate where that is not a good thing. What I can't handle anymore is the way my lab is set up. You see, in the new building there will be a bunch of shared equipment and some shiny new toys to play with, so there is no reason for me to use my start-up funds to buy these things when I will have access to them all for free in only a few weeks. But a few weeks is not now and the holidays (backed by a big-ass grant deadline Jan 12th) have only served to underscore how much time I currently spend running around using equipment in other labs - in some cases across campus. I'm having to take some low-tech options suddenly because I can't get into some labs in other buildings and everything is taking twice as long as it should.

In theory, I still have time to get everything done... assuming that Mother Nature stops kicking me in the nads with one snow storm after another.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Holiday weight loss program

I finally managed to figure out a good way to drop a few pounds following the holidays and a way to incorporate the whole family in the fun. It's actually really easy, all you need to do is find a virulent strain of the Norwalk Virus and let things take their course.

So, what worked really well for us was to have my wife wake up in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve and have to make a B-line for the bathroom. After she spent a couple hours retching, we all went downstairs in my parent's place to a nice egg breakfast, which sent her directly back upstairs. She suffered through opening presents before napping while I packed the car and the baby. At this point, we thought it might be food poisoning from the party the night before, so no precautions were being taken to avoid contaminating others. We drove the hour to her parent's place, while she managed to hold it together in the car. A second round of present opening ensued, during which she felt a bit better and even tried some liquids that stayed down. Maybe it was food poisoning and she was pulling through. That night disproved that theory, as it was a reenactment of the previous one.

The next morning we left for our own home, with me playing single parent to try and keep the baby from getting steamrolled by the virus, but to no avail. The day after, as my wife was finally feeling better, the baby began to vomit in ways that would make a Hollywood FX director jealous they couldn't duplicate. Following that, she filled her diaper (and clothes and chair) with the most horrible smelling semi-liquid I have ever encountered, and as I ran her directly to the tub, fully clothed, I was trying to figure out if my stomach was feeling ill because of the virus or what I was dealing with at the time. It turned out that I was still not infected... yet.

By Sunday the worst had passed and we had managed to keep the baby hydrated. Feeling fine and like I had dodged the bullet, I watched some of the last regular season NFL games and had a couple of beers. I don't know if that was a tipping point or not, but by 10:30 Monday morning I knew something was not right and I headed back home. By yesterday afternoon I was relegated to sitting on the toilet puking into a bucket in my hands because there was no right answer to the question "which end of my body is more explosive right now?" Luckily for me, it seems to have passed as quickly as it came and I even got a decent lunch down before coming in today.

So, nothing shaves off the pounds like not eating for 24-72 hours and purging everything from your body in a violent way. Just a suggestion for kicking those New Year's resolutions into high gear.

Monday, December 29, 2008

How anonymous is anonymous blogging?

Last night I had my 1000th visitor, which is about 995 more than I ever thought would read anything here, so I thought I would take the occasion to write about something that has been in the back of my head to post for a while.
I walked into this all a bit naive about the blogging community and it has taken me a while to get settled in and feel a bit like I know what the hell I am doing. What I'm doing here is still all a bit amateur-hour compared to the more committed out there, but I'm stumbling along, happy to do what I can. I wanted to do this blog as a way to discuss my experiences as a new faculty member in the hopes that it would help others anticipate some of the challenges they would face if they have the good fortune to find themselves in a similar situation.
One thing I did not anticipate was the variety of tools available for bloggers to monitor who visits their site when and for how long. Even creepier, I can easily figure out details of a visitor, including their server, location, even the platform, OS and browser used to access my blog. Whereas this information really does me no good, an interested blogger could easily determine, at the very least, the university home of anyone who left a comment on their blog. Initially, I had set out to introduce as little information about myself and my university into the blog but over time I have gotten lazier about details. Armed with the knowledge of my university, a couple of details gleaned from what I have written and a little bit of curiosity, one could quite easily figure out who I am. I'm not saying this happens, just that it could. For my own part, I assume that anyone else doing this is less interested in who other bloggers are in person than what they have to say in this odd little community. Plus, as someone who would prefer to remain nameless here, I extend that courtesy to others and hope they do the same. Nevertheless, I already mentioned that I came here like a country boy to the city....
So, that got me thinking whether or not I would care if someone took the time to track down who I am and I don't really have an answer yet. I know that, in an effort not to be too obvious about what I do, I have avoid writing about some things that I would really like to. Perhaps that is the sacrifice for taking this approach, but I have decided to post a bit more about science in 2009 even if it means reducing the pool of scientists to hide in. After all, what's the point of discussing a science job if you can't pepper in a bit of the science you love along the way?

Monday, December 22, 2008

The importance of The Post-doc

There has been a lot written about getting jobs on blogs recently, so I am not going to further that discussion here other than to recommend the jobs wiki as a resource to anyone in the market. It's not a comprehensive list of jobs, but if you get involved it is a tremendous way to get insight into the progress of searches. Waiting is the most maddening part of the process, especially when some schools (about half) never take the time to bother writing you back about your application. The community there can let you know when others have heard anything back from the same search committees you have applications into, reducing some of the wait. There is also a good discussion forum there.
However, what I would like to talk about in my final post before a brief break is the importance of getting a good post-doc position. I can only speak from my experience, but this is where many careers either float or end up timbers on the rocks. There are more than enough PhDs out there for the various tt positions that come up in the annual feeding frenzy, so if that is your ultimate goal it is essential to differentiate yourself from the rest as a post-doc. The following are a list of factors I would strongly recommend considering when looking for a post-doc position. Take it or leave it.

1) Do something different!
This varies between fields and some of the BioMed folks may take issue with this idea, but I think it is a massive mistake to stay within your comfort zone as a post-doc and pursue research that is very similar to your PhD work. By exploring a new field for a few years you can bring expertise from your PhD while continuing to learn new techniques and approaches to problems. Though it may not be obvious from the beginning, this will give you an advantage when starting your own research program. By combining diverse training you are more likely to come up with novel and innovative research questions that a peer who has spent their time in only one field may not think of.

2) Look for an interactive group.
Even though you will be working in one lab, it will be to your benefit if your lab is part of a collaborative group or center that regularly brings together (through lab meetings, or even socially) several different labs working in a particular sub-field rather than being isolated in a department. Not only does this open you up to new ideas and collaborations, but these types of groups tend to have more equipment and techniques available to their members, which is helpful when you want to chase something down that is out of your lab's expertise. Also, if the group is made up of PIs at different points in their careers (the established head honchos and a couple of rising stars), this is ideal.

3) Don't be a number.
Again, this may be different in BioMed, but IME, being in a lab that is not the size of a small corporation means that you can actually interact with the PI and regularly bounce ideas off them. This can be important if you follow #1 and speed your development. Also, enormous labs tend to just buy anything they need, which is great from a productivity stand-point, but sucks for your development as a researcher and thinker. Personally, I would rather be the scrappy motherfucker who knows where his meat comes from because he grew up on a farm and not the guy who sees steak as just something that is in every grocery store, as though delivered in the middle of the night by meat fairies.

4) Write, write, write.
I know this is hardly novel, but a bit too important to leave off the list. I have often heard the unsubstantiated rumor of The Rule of 20. Essentially, if you don't have 20 pubs on your CV (not all first author), SCs are going to file your application in the big round file that gets taken out by the janitorial staff. If you have a bunch of first author C/N/S papers and only 10 pubs, I'm sure this would not apply. But for the human among us who publish some in specialty journals, get the papers on your CV. My goal was to average 5 pubs a year as a post-doc. Seek out opportunities to write reviews and opinions whenever appropriate.

5) Review, review, review.
Grants, manuscripts, cake recipes - whatever anyone will send you. It may not make for the most productive of times in the short-term, but it will make you a better writer, editor and grantsmith (which is an art). Once your name gets on a few lists, and don't hesitate to mention to senior colleagues that you would be willing to review, quantity should not be a problem.

I'm sure I will think of other things as soon as a post this, but my point is that you have to view a post-doc as a transition between being a student and being a mentor. This is a developmental process and it is critical that you chose a place where you can develop the necessary skills and be selfish about the importance of this stage of your career. A good mentor will see a post-doc as more than a skilled set of hands and it is up to you make the most of the situation you are in by taking advantage of the resources available to you.

Happy holidays all.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What I've learned in four months

Arlenna at Chemical BiLOLogy recently posted a first semster roundup, which got me thinking about what I have learned in my first semester as a tt assistant prof. As lame as Top Ten Lists are, here is my Top Ten Things I Learned About Being an Assistant Prof in the Last Four Months.

10. As willing as I was to take any job where I felt comfortable, I am glad I ended up in a department where I am treated well and have colleagues that respect each other. Many of my friends have not been so lucky.

9. Having a semester off from teaching is essential. This experience has been overwhelming enough without teaching responsibilities this semester. If I had to add teaching on top, I would be seriously behind with my research.

8. A lot of the people around me have been telling me not to be as ambitious with my attempts at funding, to build slowly, etc. As DrugMonkey discussed yesterday, fuck. That. Apply for everything that fits.

7. Hiring people is both a lot harder and a lot more important that I had first thought, and it was something that I considered key before starting.

6. I count more on the people at Post-doc U than I thought I would.

5. Spend money fast and furious in the begining to get things in the lab as fast as possible, because every day counts. I filled the lab with almost everything I needed in two months and I still feel behind.

4. My wife kicks ass and I wouldn't be able to be doing nearly as much as I have without her support and effort.

3. Hire your first students based on the recommendations of people you trust. The first few people in the lab can make or break the most important time you have.

2. Get to know the grad students in other labs, they will tell you what is really going on in the department.

1. Have I mentioned that my wife rocks my shit? This job will test your relationship, especially if you have kids. It takes two to make it work, but it helps a lot if your partner is understanding and constantly encouraging.

I should move to Russia because...

All I've been doing lately is rushin'. Alright, that's a horrible pun, but better than the two I thought up before that, so there's something to be thankful for. However, there is a point here.

For the last three weeks I have been constantly up against some kind of looming deadline. I had to hurry to get ready for back-to-back trips. During the trips I had to work quickly enough to get the things I was there to do, done. I got back Thursday night and had Friday to finish up everything that needed to be dealt with before Employment University essentially shuts down for the holiday. Not to be out-done by the calendar, Mother Nature though it wold be fun to throw in another deadline by shortening the day with a massive snow storm that sent everyone scurrying out of here like rats from a sinking ship.

On the way into work this morning I had one of those moments where something I was thinking about played out in front of me, at least in a metaphorical sense. Thanks to a horrible job of plowing, the stretch of highway I have to drive was a death trap. I was preoccupied with my thoughts about the shit job I had done with a few important tasks at the end of the previous day when a car about 100 meters in front of me started to do the "oh shit" swerve about halfway up a hill. I slowed while watching the car perform as almost graceful sideways slide and catch it's front bumper on the snow bank before spinning into the opposite bank. The car lodged itself into/on a shelf of snow at an awkward angle and by the time I pulled up the driver was stepping out to survey the damage. Prior to leaving my house I had thrown a shovel in my car in case a plow buried my parked car in at work and I offered to help dig the guy out. He readily accepted, adding "I just tried to push it a little harder to get up the hill when the wheels slipped out."

As I pulled my car up to a safe spot where I could get out it occurred to me how apt the metaphor (simile?) was for me right now. There's only so fast I can go and so many things I can get done. If I try and push things out faster, I make mistakes or do sub-par work and I'm going to find myself in a heap on the side of the road. It's a bit ironic that when I need it most, my time management goes to hell, but I need to keep reminding myself to take the time that each task needs to be done right rather than rush through important things and later regret it. This should be self-evident, and yet...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An under-appreciated factor

I am not an ecologist, but everything in my lab starts in the field. It may be a small portion of the overall project, but is nevertheless essential. Because of this aspect, trips into the field are a common feature of what I do and I am just about to complete the first such trip as a faculty member, directing all of the details of a week-long quest to find very specific things in the wild. Everything worked out better than I had hoped and we should be working with the fruits of our labor for a while now.
One thing I did not really consider before the trip, however, was the impact that the student I brought with me could have on the whole week. Having been on many such trips before, I have had experiences at all points on the spectrum, from unmitigated disaster to unbridled success. For some reason I never attributed the differences specifically to the people on the trip, perhaps because they were always a complex mix of personalities who were my peers. As an advisor and planner of this trip, I have a very different perspective.
I can not understate how important it is, at least in the early stages, to have people to travel with who you are happy to spend time with. In the last 5 days I have pretty much spent every waking minute with the grad student who came along with me, in a variety of situations. Amazingly, we had a great time, had plenty to talk about and never spent awkward minutes between forced conversation. That alone made the trip infinitely more enjoyable and easy. I don't think it will be the lead criterion for selecting students in the future, but I also underestimated how important it can be. The long hours we put in are hard enough without having to look forward to time alone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ethical Dilemma

As I have chronicled, I am having a bit of an issue with a potential collaborator, but the situation is a bit more tricky than what I have written about so far. The reason I have been trying so hard to contact this person is not only because they have old (10 yrs!) data I would like to analyze and publish, but because I want to avoid an ethical dilemma that I will have to deal with, should I never get in touch with this person.

The backstory: when these data were new, “Data Producer” collaborated with another individual who had far more experience analyzing these types of data. “Collaborator” put a substantial amount of time and effort into the project and then it never got written up. Collaborator has (and had) plenty of other projects on the go and never pushed very hard to get the thing out, so the data have languished. Amazingly, these data are still relevant to the field and have a very interesting story to tell.

So, fast forward ten years to a conference over the summer where I had some time to talk with Collaborator. We got talking about a number of things and I asked Collaborator if they had any knowledge of the data that never got published, not knowing that Collaborator had worked on the project. This got Collaborator a bit steamed thinking about the time invested and the fact that nothing ever happened with the data. I discussed my inability to get much communication from Data Producer and Collaborator suggested the following: We both try and get Data Producer to resurface and participate in whatever capacity they feel like towards getting the data published. BUT, the kicker is that Collaborator still has the data and suggested that they would give it to me to analyze and publish, should Data Producer ignore our communication and fade into retirement. I would then be free to use the data as if I had produced it – and herein lays the dilemma.

On the one hand, it seems silly for me to spend the time and money to reproduce the data from scratch. It’s already done and there is nothing tricky about the process, it would just take time and money. Rather than have data lost to science, it makes more sense to use the data set already completed.

On the other hand, these data are not mine, nor will they ever be. I feel extremely uncomfortable (maybe fraudulent) using data I did not produce, without the knowledge of the person who did. I’m actually not sure I could do it. Despite Collaborator’s insistence that it would be the best thing for science for the data to be available, I don’t think it would be the best thing for me.

Collaborator did get an email back from Data Producer (just as I had originally) saying that they were interested in getting the data out and that we should work it up, but nothing has happened since. Data Producer even had the gall to ask Collaborator for my email address (apparently the 10 emails I sent in the last 5 months didn’t include my address on them), but that was two months ago and I have yet to hear anything.

So, the data sit on a hard drive and will never be published unless I either get Data Producer to agree to let me deal with them or I ignore my conscience. As hard as it has been to get in touch with Data Producer, it will be far more difficult to do the alternative.

Collaboration with Frustration: Part II

I posted earlier about a problem with a particular researcher who had agreed to work on a project together months ago, then never responded to any follow-up. Well, now I'm in their backyard. I tried today to drop by the person's office, but to no avail. I did, however, check out the departmental office and notice that this person was not on the vacation list, and thus, is probably around. The good news is that their office is between where we have to park and where we have lab space, so it's an easy drop-by every time we are on campus. But, with classes out, there is no assurance that the door will ever be open when we get there. Maybe I will try and call their cell number one more time tomorrow, but I just don't think there is much else worth doing. After this trip it is time to move on.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Gearing up and getting out

Tomorrow I embark on the second of back-to-back research trips, this time to California. This one is different. Last week's trip was to work with a collaborator, flesh out the base of a grant and produce some more data by combining the techniques we each bring to the party. This week's trip is all me, and it's the first such trip for the lab. My grad student and I are heading across the country to get the preliminary data which will from the basis for me to be able to say "See, I told you I could do it" to the NSF reviewers who demanded more preliminary data (As a side note, I know that the current funding situation demands that reviewers find ways to not fund things, but complaining that someone might not be able to complete a technique only marginally different from the ones they have been doing for the last ten years is really weak). So, in a lot of ways, the results of this trip will largely determine the success of one of my January grants. If you don't think that has me wracking my brain to remember every last thing we need to bring and pretty much assuming I am going to remember a key item about halfway over Indiana, you would be very wrong. I have a pile of things in the middle of the lab and like Santa on meth, I've checked the list about 30 times, unable to trust the there won't be one undeserving child who found themselves on the "bad" list. I don't need a box full of coal from NSF next year. Alright, I have to stop listening to Christmas music.

Everything is good so far. We got some good work done right off the plane and worked things up until now, when we're both ready to crash. The only downside has been that there is some derranged Christmas train that keeps going slowly by where we are staying, as if mocking me for my earlier mentioned disdain for Christmas music. It's full of people badly singing Christmas carols to no one in particular and a Santa yelling HO HO HO. Did I mention that there is no one on the street watching, but that it goes by every hour? If it wakes me up in another hour I swear I'm derailing the fucker.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Damn the girl scouts

Is it alright to hate teenage girls for selling crack tasty cookies? What about grad students for bringing them in? I need someone to blame for my lack of self-control around those damn chocolate/caramel/coconut things.

If I had known y'all were coming, I would have worn something nicer

Well, thanks to Drug Monkey for highlighting this site yesterday and basically increasing the traffic here ten-fold. Unfortunately, I don't have a ton of time today to be insightful or witty because the list of things I need to finish in the one day I am in the office is ridiculous and our "building that is about to be demolished so they won't fix anything in it" flooded in several places last night, leaving me with a mess to clean up as well. Instead I'll leave you with my first picture post of the blog as a figure "Dr. Isis style".

Fig. 1. I like traveling to the south and enjoy the people and culture, but I am glad not to live there because of the need to put up a sign like this. One hopes to live in a place where it is taken for granted that people know not to bring guns to airports. I don't ask much.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thank effing goodness

Two days ago it looked like this trip could be a bust and that I was going to go home empty-handed, which would have made the grant we are working on significantly more difficult to "sell". Yesterday we had some major breaks, both in terms of data and realizations about how to explain some very nagging problems with our arguments regarding our data. The whole thing is still a massive mind-fuck, but at least we have a plan and a way to explain it now. Over some beers last night we worked out some details, and if I could just find that placemat we scribbled all over, I think we can pull it all together. I leave in three hours so I can be home for two days in which I get to order about a dozen things that I will need before the Uni goes on holiday, attend the departmental holiday party, remind the wee one that she still has a daddy and spend some time with my wife before I fly across the country for a whole different escapde. As crazy as it all is, I wouldn't give it up for anything.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Keeping up

This week and next week I am on the road, in North Carolina then California. It's a hectic schedule, but I'm getting a lot done... except here. It's been hard enough just staying on top of the flurry of posts from others, let alone posting anything myself. At the moment, it's taking all of limited mental energy to solve the lab and grant writing issues we are confronting this week, while preparing for a completely different trip next week. Perhaps there will be time to breath on the plane.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Excitement over teaching intro courses?

Intro courses are typically to be survived (from the UG perspective) or avoided (From the Fac perspective). They are not the type of course that anyone looks forward to enduring, wether you are teaching or attending them. Junior faculty can be loathe to be saddled with a semester (or, shudder, a year) of a first year course because of the breadth of topics one can only cover in a shallow manor and the inevitable fact that one is forced to teach at least some topics they are not comfortable with. The result of this is that these courses are often taught by non-tenure track faculty, grad students or in rare cases a movie (yes, it happens).
The problem, of course, is that this course is the foundation for all of the higher level courses in any department. When we complain that the students are not prepared for their third-year courses, why do we think that is? While there are many competent non-tenure track lecturers and many incompetent tenured (track) teachers, one can hardly argue that it makes sense to put the department's best foot forward in the first-year classroom. If only for the fact that it is the first chance to hook your future majors with the exciting stuff happening in your field. However, in my experience this is rarely the case, and I am not in a position to be upset, because I have not raised my hand to be a part of the first-year class in my department. But, that may be changing.
Employment university is going through a massive overhaul in light of the economy and that fact that the new provost wants to wear a cape to work. Our college wants to be at the forefront of this movement and is hurrying to have a reorganization plan to the provost by mid-January. In short, about 13 different departments are about to become 2. The reason I mention all this is that the ciriculum is being modified as well and there was a long discussion in a meeting I was in today about re-vamping the first-year course and team teaching it. I know there is data to suggest that students don't like team teaching because they have to adjust to different styles during the semester. I can understand that, but how is it bad that you get people in front of the classroom who know all of the details of every subject they are covering? How much easier and more fun is it to make lectures on topics you know interesting, compared to those you need to review a bit before you teach? I was surprised to see that several of the junior faculty were excited at the prospect of having a 3 or 4 week section of the intro course to really get into and the more I think about it, the more I think it could be a lot of fun. Additionally, that intensive stint of teaching (there are back-to-back sections) would count as a full course for the semester, leaving a lot more free time outside of that period. If there was a group of faculty that could work well together and coordinate their sections, I think it would really transform the class and the way the students respond to it... but maybe I'm just being optimistic.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

To PhD or not to PhD

How do you know, when you are first starting out, which students you should have graduate with a MSc and which you should try and keep on for a PhD? That is a question I have been wrestling with for a little bit now and still don't have a clear answer. There are obviously cases where it is clear, but it is the borderline situations that make it a tough call. I realize that it depends heavily on the student being willing to stick around and interested in take the project to the next step, but even when that is the case there will be students that probably shouldn't take on a PhD or are doing it for the wrong reasons. I initially enrolled as a MSc student as a grad student, then switched into the PhD program after a year. My supervisor was willing to let me do that and we had discussed it at the onset. Now I am in the position of having students and considering whether to suggest they make the same switch... or not. I am perfectly happy with my students, but is there a clear difference in the first year of grad school between those who will be successful as PhDs and those who will just get some stuff done? That I don't know yet. It is particularly difficult to tell when the lab is going through the growing pains of starting from scratch. How much of a student's progress is hindered by having to battle with new or missing equipment and reagents? It is proposal writing time, so perhaps I will get a better feel for where my students are at once we work through that process and we can sit down next semester and talk about possibilities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sometimes I hate our society

My wife and I bank at a large financial institution, which we have consistently thought about switching from but after weighing the pros and cons of switching all of our banking needs and re-setting everything up, decided to stay with. This bank recently started a promo where they would give you ten cents for every paperless transaction under the auspices that it is good for the environment, and that is something they support. Since we do most of our banking online anyway, we signed up. And then something odd happened. The bank sent us new ATM cards that they excitedly announced were made from recycled plastic, which was sure to get out environmentalist juices going. BUT THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH OUR OLD CARDS! They were not about to expire, they worked fine and we already had them. So, to recap, we now have recycled plastic cards that required energy (and plastic) to produce and resources to get them to us just so we could throw out perfectly good plastic cards already in our possesion. Dude! Fuck. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Most shocking conference experience?

Since I just got back, dealt with the things that had built up and am not quite ready to fully commit my head to work this morning (still waiting for coffee to set in) I thought I would follow up on something I posted in response to Professor Chaos' blog posting on scientific dress. I got thinking about some of the more interesting things that have happened at conferences and decided I would post two of the more memorable conference moments for me in the hopes of getting others to share theirs. The first I covered in abbreviated form in the above mentioned post but thought it worth elaborating on here. The second is from a massive conference a couple of years ago.
1. As a grad student I had the opportunity to go to a small conference, which is typically attended by a large number of heavy hitters in my field. As I read through the program it was like a who's who list of all the people who wrote the books, papers and programs I used the most. I was honored to have the opportunity to give a talk to this group, but felt rather strongly that my project was hardly worth their time. I am not the type that has a problem getting up and talking about my work, but this was a slightly more intimidating audience than I was used to. I was talking in the morning of the second day and spent the first day feeling even more inadequate after listening to talk after talk on some of the most significant research happening in my field. By the day of my talk all I wanted to do was get it over with.
The day started off with an hour-long talk by a renowned research from the UK giving a key note talk on his views of a particular subject on which he had written a book and many papers. The man looks VERY much like an elder Darwin, with one key exception - he wears a kilt and Doc Martin boots. No problem, I thought, not so unusual and scientists can be an odd lot sometimes. So, Darwin gets up to give his talk using overheads (again, not unusual at the time. Fuck, that makes me feel old), but I don't remember anything he spoke about because of one peculiarity that held my attention the entire talk. Every time Darwin approached the O/H projector the light revealed something odd through his white shirt. Specifically, he was wearing what appeared to be a lacy camisole under his shirt. On first glance I didn't believe that's what it could be, but every time he approached the glaring light I became more convinced that indeed, Darwin likes wearing ladies undergarments. By the time that it was my turn to speak I was a bit less nervous, having spent a decent amount of the morning having an internal debate as to whether I was correct in my observation. Nevertheless, I had a far more shocking discovery to make.
The auditorium was stadium seating with a decently steep incline and I stood in front of the room looking up at the audience and feeling a new wave of anxiety kick in. I got a couple of slides in before I scanned the crowd and got an unexpected sight. It turns out that Darwin conforms to tradition when it comes to kilt wearing and in panning the audience I found more than eyes staring down at me. I don't even remember going through the two slides subsequent to the sight of Darwin and his "boys" observing my talk and am still unclear whether I even said anything or just numbly flipped through, but no one mentioned it to me afterwards, so I assume that I was at least minimally coherent. However, I am pretty sure that I will forever remember that talk, not for the significance of the data, but because I now shiver whenever anyone gives the advice "picture the audience naked", because it aint pretty! As if to quell debate, this same man has now taken to wearing skirts, abandoning the ambiguity of the kilt, and what can really only be described as blouses. The Doc Martins remain, however.

2. My second memorable conference experience is a bit more tame. I was invited to speak at an enormous conference in Chicago when I was a post-doc. It was the kind of conference I would never normally attend because the abstract book was as big as the Chicago yellow pages and there were 15 parallel session running on most days. That kind of meeting is just not conducive to meeting anyone and not at all the kind of thing I look forward to, but they were paying my expenses so I thought, what the hell. The conference was being held at the downtown Hilton, which is a place I will never stay again. To my amazement, the hotel did it's very best to nickel and dime people staying there for every little amenity possible, whereas the Econo Lodge on the same block provided the same services for free, at a lower per night cost. One could argue that the rooms would be nicer in a Hilton, but these rooms were nothing special and barely fit the bed and a desk. In addition, the hotel was so massive that the line to check in was longer than those at the airport. It took 45 minutes to navigate the maze of velvet ropes to the front desk.
As if the over 3000 conference participants were not enough to make every common space in the hotel seem like a bee hive, on the second day of the conference group after group of middle-aged women started showing up. Apparently there was a "Pampered Chef" conference running concurrently with the one I was attending. It wasn't the added number of bodies that was a problem, however. Descending on the Hilton was about 1000 housewives who were out on the town without the husband or kids. Individually this might not be a problem, but in packs... Like some bizzaro Mardi Gras, after about 6:00 pm any young male had to move around the hotel quickly and without making eye contact, lest he hesitate long enough to be surrounded. I watched as the overwhelmed bar tender fended of multiple requests for him to remove various articles of clothing, a flurry of sexual innuendo and more offerings or "body shots" than anyone should have to endure. I even had my ass slapped walking through a crowded hallway as a group of giggling women scurried off behind me. The whole week was one of the more unusual conference experiences I have ever had, and memorable in many ways.

Annnnnnd, we're back

Absolutely needed that break and happy to be back at things this week before being gone next week and the week after on two separate trips. It was nice to have a break before this push over the next couple of weeks to the January NSF deadline. I have two grants I am submitting (one with a Co-PI) and some data to gather before they will be ready, which is why it was great to spend a few days in another country, on the beach and in the water. Even Baby-like Substance traveled pretty well, despite a slightly upset stomach for part of the trip and the purging of mashed pear all over me and the floor while waiting for the plane home. I felt the same way leaving though, so I could really blame BLS for that. Plus, the pear had only been interned for a few minutes, so it was basically like spilling all over myself, which I am fairly used to. In any case, one trip down and two to go.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Crashing head-long into vacation

I need the up-coming vacation. We have had what I like to refer to as a "shit-streak" in the lab as of late. Nothing seems to work and on the off chance that something does, the product is lost in the next step. All of that was highlighted today when I tried to run something just before the break to figure out why the experiment from yesterday did not work. The only explanation I can come up with is degradation of the starting material from the sample so that nothing appears after an experiment. I set out to test this and found something I didn't expect - not only is the material not degraded, it's not even there. When I set out to visualized degraded material, I see absolutely nothing, just like when I had tried to visualize intact material. So, that means that I never got anything out of my starting sample, despite doing everything I have done in the past, and more, to produce intact material. There is no conceivable way to me that nothing would show up under either condition, but yet.... I have no idea what this means or what to do differently that would produce a different result that would still be useable. I am not sure which is more annoying right now, being ignored by a colleague who can help me or being taunted by my samples. Right now I think it's a tie. In any case, I'm going to spend the next few days on a tropical island, I'm not bringing any work and I'm not going to think about any of this. Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels.

You mean OTHER people use the internet too?

I did a little bit of blog browsing recently and it turns out that there are a number of pages by other people in my position. I have posted a few in a box on the right. No surprise there, but the odd thing is that almost all of the blogs I came across in my admittedly shallow search were by women in science. I don't know why the early-career faculty blog market seems to be cornered by the feminine set, but as a guy, I found it interesting. Maybe it is simply a function of browsing linked pages, but something to ponder.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

procedure = fail

Back to the drawing board....

Those who have the money set the rules

I applied for a grant through a private foundation that funds, in a broad sense, the kinds of things I do. The format of the application was ridiculous and they required that it be sent by email as well as sending three hard copies by mail (automatic disqualification for the use of staples, I'm not kidding) and the full application on a CD with the hard copies. So, I jumped through their hoops and sent the whole package in before the Oct 1 deadline. Did I hear anything back? No. Only last night, Nov 24th, did they get around to sending m an email acknowledging that they received my application. They also took the opportunity to inform me that they would make the funding announcement in April. It is not something that I expect to get funded, but it looks like I have another 4 months until I know for sure. Say what you want about federal funding agencies, but at least they have a process to get the results back to you fairly quickly

The Build-up

In about 3.5 hours I have something finishing up that is either going to make things a lot smoother or a lot harder in the next couple of weeks. If it looks like the procedure worked, I have a decent shot at getting some important data together for the second of my grants going in for the January deadline. If not, it is going to be very difficult to get everything done before then. What is equally exciting is that these data would go a long way towards understanding a really interesting system. If my colleague and I are correct and the data backs us up, we'll not only be putting this grant together but writing up a Brevia piece for Science. If the procedure doesn't work, then I have to start from scratch with new material that won't get here for another week or so. Considering how much trouble the sample gave me in the early stages, I am not assuming this will work, but it would make things a lot easier if it did. However, if experience has taught me anything, it's that nothing works at a critical time, only when there is a lack of looming deadlines.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Down to the wire

It's a big day for preliminary data here on the ranch. We have been testing a couple of methods the material we need from our samples and are finally getting some results back today. Additionally, we are cranking up one of our new machines today for the first time and will know how that is running in a couple of days. We're trying to provide data for two different grants and time is becoming a limiting factor. If we get even half-way decent results this week we'll have something to work with and can move forward. If not, it's back to the drawing board for a couple of things and more time gone by. With three trips in the next four weeks and the holidays in the mix, time in the lab is quickly vanishing. To make matters worse, we are getting into some new techniques (for the students), so I can't just send my students out to get the data without some training and half of what we are doing has to be done in a building half-way across campus. At least I am getting outside a bit. It'll all get done, I might just be spending far too much time in the lab over the holiday.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Collaboration with frustration

As a new faculty member I am tackling a group of organisms in my research that are somewhat new to me and asking some questions that combine the work I did as a post-doc and a PhD student. Little is known about these buggers, but what is known was almost entirely published by one individual. This person is still at a university, but not really active in research at this stage of their career. By all accounts, the person is very nice and easy to get along with but I have had an enormously frustrating experience dealing with them.
When I first decided on a system to work on as a faculty member I began writing the one person who knew more than anything about them. I never heard back. Four, maybe 5 emails over a two year period and nothing. Then, while writing a grant to pursue the work I ran across an old abstract from the same person's lab suggesting that there was unpublished data out there that would be extremely helpful to me. Again, I wrote. But this time it was different. I received an email back within an hour or two expressing an interest in working together to close out the project that desperately need to be finished up. Great, I thought, finally some contact and I will be able to ask all the questions that no one else knows the answer to. I wrote right back and got nothing. A week later, same story. A month later... etc. Now, 6 months later and a couple of emails (not stalker-level, by any means) gone by, I decided to step it up a notch because of the grant I am in the process of writing and because I am going collecting in a couple of weeks in the same place this person lives. What better time to sit and chat? The email I had received back had two number, an office # and a cell #. I started with the office, but the line goes direct to voicemail. I tried a few more times without leaving a message but never got anywhere. After a couple of days I got up the nerve to call the cell # and basically invade this person's personal space (on the advice of several senior colleagues and a former collaborator of the individual). I left a message on the cell, but the answering message gave a home number. Having already gone far enough to use the cell, I went "full Monty" and called the home number. No answer and I did not leave a message. Feeling creepy and hoping I had properly identified myself in my message, I followed that up with an email explaining when I will be in town and a bit more about the project. That was a week ago. No response.
So, when do I pull the plug and just accept that I am not going to hear back? Do I drop by this person's office when I am on the campus they work on? Thirty minutes of conversation would go a long way to helping me deal with some of the questions I need to answer very soon without re-inventing the wheel, but it seems obvious that the person is not interested in helping, despite their initial email. I am at a loss about what to do next, with only three weeks before my trip.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Guilt don't sell beakers

Sales reps are everywhere when you start a new lab. They come out of the woodwork and rapidly descend at the smell of start-up money, offering package deals and deep "new lab" discounts. In the end, you have to chose whether you go with a major company (like Fisher) or a smaller, local company. I ended up buying most of my equipment through a local company because they had decent prices and the guy I worked with took a lot of time to make sure that my lab got set up right. In contrast, some of the other companies had multiple people who presided over different product lines and it was a mess just getting a quote because any request had to filter through 3 or 4 people before I ever saw a response. I am happy with my choice and ended up filling my lab with equipment a lot faster than I thought I was going to be able to.
But I can't help and feel a little guilty when the other sales reps come by to chat, which they do regularly. I sat down with many of them in the beginning to talk about pricing and what I needed, so I know most of them on a first name basis at this point. Because my office is attached to the lab, they always find an excuse to survey where I am at. Most of them are pretty good at hiding their disappointment over the realization that I have already spent tens of thousands of dollars with a competitor, but not all of them. Like scorned lovers, they keep up a smile but are slightly deflated at the sight of a lab full of equipment with logos of other companies all over them. I'm sure I'll be jaded to this eventually, but one of the young Fisher reps is pregnant and part of me feels awful that I have bought almost nothing from her at all. I know that my account is not going to make or break anyone and it's not personal, but still.
The reps can be endlessly entertaining though, from an unintentional comedy stand-point, and I have mental nicknames for most of them. The bigger companies often send their reps in packs and one on such a team I mentally refer to as The Joker, mainly because she seems to apply lipstick with a spatula and must have failed coloring in the lines as a pre-schooler. Another rep I call The Shaker, because he visibly trembles with nervousness the entire time he is giving a spiel. I want to tell him that if I freak him out that much, it might be time to think about a career switch. On the other hand, I kinda want to bring him in for a product demo just to see if he explodes or sweats through his shirt or something.

Friday, November 14, 2008

musings on meetings

Today is the big day that we get to sit down with the Dean and talk about space in the new building. The meeting has been postponed twice, so I am anxious to get it over with and start to nail down a plan for moving. Unfortunately, the move is going to happen right in the middle of when I will be making revisions to one grant and co-writing another. The whole thing has potential disaster written all over it, but it will be nice to get it done. Only so long I can shrivel in this crappy building with virtually no windows.
What is fairly amazing to me, however, is the amount of time spent in meetings as a faculty member. I am barely involved in anything and I still have roughly 5 meetings a week. Hell, I have two today. And this is before I have any undergrad advising to do or any office hours. I have to say that seeing the amount of "other" that goes into this job, I am impressed that anyone running a lab can make time to do bench work. I have bee able to get a bit done with a very light set of commitments outside of my lab. In a year I can't imagine how I will be able to pull it off.

Talking with rich white kids

The talk I gave the other day at the undergrad institution not to far away seemed to go fine. I kept it fairly simple and gave them several examples of the phenomenon I was talking about. There was pretty good turn out, but I don't think they get a lot of seminars. It felt a bit like I was teaching a class, right down to the fact that they all took notes, one kid walked in 30 minutes late and sat in the second row, right in front of me (in case I didn't notice how late he was) and then once I finished half of them started to get up, pack their bags and start chatting while the other half either asked questions or were trying to hear them. It was bad enough that the seminar host had to get up and explain that the question and answer period was part of the whole thing and that they should sit and pay attention. Overall though, I think it went well and I felt like I got my concepts across. For throwing the slides together the way I did and never going through them in an organized way, I was happy that I got through them in 45 minutes and they were coherent. One more experience.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Grumpy old man with email

Sometimes I come off like a grumpy old man. I realize this and occasionally even aspire to it, but not on a regular basis. There are times, however, that people just do things that are so odd that I can't help it. Last night I was checking my email and I got the big red "OVER QUOTA" banner as I opened up my account. I try pretty hard to keep my inbox at around 75%, which is difficult here because of the absurdly small mailboxes they give faculty. I quickly remove all large attachments and can only keep the last 6 weeks-worth of emails in my IMAP account and have to save the earlier ones on my work computer, which is useless to me when I am at home or on the road. I know this is a relatively minor inconvenience, but it is still a pain i the ass and when I asked about having my mailbox size increased the response I got was that it could be done on a temporary basis but I should probably just have my mail forwarded to a gmail account. Really? That looks professional. Oh, and it's nice that the university decides to let google make up for it's storage shortage.
Anyway, what got me started on this was that I needed to figure out why my mailbox had blown up and it turned out to be because the IT guy for our college had forwarded an event announcement that was 10 fuckin megs in size! First of all, for a university that like to try and regulate EVERYTHING it seems ludicrous to me that there is not some internal policy on the size of attachments that get sent to everyone in the college. Second of all, one would expect that the IT guy would be sensitive to this and require that people send him reasonable files to forward. But the kicker was that it was the IT guy who had but the flier together and sent it out! I feel like Weekend Update on SNL: Seriously, you're an IT guy and don't know about file size, seriously? And you can't hit the optimize PDF button in Acrobat? Seriously? Dude. Fuck. Sigh.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Alright, I get it

Apparently grant rejection doesn't take a holiday because I checked my email over coffee yesterday morning only to find a note from NSF declining my grant proposal. Nothing worse than reading something depressing first thing in the morning. Not a big deal though, I didn't think it would get funded in the first go, but what I didn't expect was the reviews. To start off, there was a complete range of ratings; poor, good, very good and excellent across the four reviews. Basically, four different people read the same document and decided that I ether poop roses or am the poop. The one very positive review took it for granted that I could handle the basic techniques I proposed because I have ten years of experience in the field and have published using many of these skills in the past. The remaining reviews wanted more preliminary data, which is one of the more frustrating things you can get back when you submitted the grant before you even moved into your new position. So, now the push for the next submission date in January. I finally have the lab set up and people working, but we weren't focusing on getting the types of data they want, just yet. Suddenly what looked like a reasonable end to the year that would allow me to pack up the lab for moving and get my class set up for the spring has been turned upside-down and I'll be making frenzied trips to Bermuda, North Carolina and California all in the next month. I'll probably want to just wander into the woods and not come back by the time the two grants I am submitting are done in January, but this is what I signed up for and it's what I love. In retrospect, I probably should have seen it coming and planned accordingly, but there is only so much one can do in the first semester when you don't have everything figured out yet. That's what I get for not taking a ready-made project with me from my post-doc and instead, forging my own path combining my PhD and post-doc training.
Ironically, I had been a bit motivationally frozen while waiting for the grant decisions (still one more out there), but this provides some serious focus and push to get some shit done and that is often when I am most effective. I mean, already I have managed to work first, second and third person narrative into this short note. If only I didn't have this talk to give this afternoon I might be able to get things planned a bit today, but I still have a couple of slides left to put together. If I could just will things away my neighbor's dog would have chocked on that high-pitched bark months ago.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Science crush

I think I have a new science crush. The warning signs that tipped me off: 1) Checking the same lab's publication page on a monthly basis to see what else they have come out with; check. 2) Looking to figure out if I can find a way to bring this person in for a seminar; check. 3) Being overly excited when it turned out that this person had listed me as a reviewer for a paper they sent to Science, double check. And finally, revising the topic of the seminar course I plan to teach next semester based on ideas I got from reading this persons work, check. Yup, it's official.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I am not the discovery channel

Next week I am giving a seminar at a primarily undergraduate institution. After accepting the invitation I was told that I should plan on giving a "data light" talk that should be geared toward a sophomore-level understanding. At the time, I thought no problem. Now that I am putting the thing together I realize that it's a complete pain in the ass. Rather than be able to borrow heavily from a talk I had already put together, I have to build one almost from scratch. Added to that is the problem of giving a general talk on a single concept that is 50 minutes long without it feeling like a class. That isn't a problem when you can go into depth on a particular question and present data, but without that you are left having to broaden out the topic and present lots of examples of a concept without delving in to the nitty gritty. Maybe this will be good for me, but that isn't exactly a motivating factor right now. I know things are bad when I procrastinate putting a talk together by doing a review on a paper with all foreign authors who decided that they didn't need a native english speaker to deal with their grammar before they sent the paper in.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I love The Onion

Economics and politics

I was talking to my brother yesterday as the election results were coming in and it was pretty clear that Obama was going to win, which was about an hour into the coverage. We got talking about the economy and the surprising public de-panting of Alan Greenspan as an economic mastermind and we both came to the same selfish conclusion - the economic slow-down has been good for us. As a new prof without much in the way of retirement savings, very modest stock holdings and someone who is about to be looking to buy a house, the timing of a massive reduction in the cost of investments (be they house or stock) could not have come at a better time. My brother just graduated law school and is finally getting paid a real salary and felt the same way. And so it made me think a bit about how if you are in the right place at the right time, a down economy can be good. Just ask Warren Buffet, who now owns half of the fortune 500 because he had liquid assets when no one else did.
But then of course, I realized that everything about my job (at least from a research perspective) depends on federal money. The budgets of NIH and NSF have been only slightly increased under the Bush regime and there was a decent amount of political talk about significantly increasing money to both agencies in the next fiscal, particularly by the democrats. We'll have to see how that goes, but I should be hearing about two grants in the next month or so. Given the state of things, I am fully expecting to have to re-submit the NSF grant in January, but at least I will have comments back and be able to make improvements for a round of funding that might coincide with a loosening of purse-strings. A new president and a congressional majority should motivate the democrats to push through some of the campaign promises in short order.

Monday, November 3, 2008

more trick than treat

Part of taking a new faculty job is, of course, moving to a new place. The fact that we moved to a place close to the area we had grown up certainly made the adjustment easier, but we had still lived in a different place with a different culture for almost a decade. Because of this, there have been some surprises along the way. For instance, the people where we live now are happy to wave to you from a passing car or from across the street, but we have had to actively approach people to get to know those that live around us or else we would be stuck with a high-speed waving relationship with our neighbors. In talking with others who have moved here it turns out that it is not just us, but that isn't exactly good consolation. 
In any case, this weekend we were prepared for Halloween in the same way that we had experienced it in our former home, where we averaged about 150 costumed children a year. We carved our pumpkins, bought our candy, turned out lights on, made pizza and opened a bottle of wine... and waited. Six o'clock came and went, and 7 o'clock followed quickly on it's heels, with nary a knock. At that point we were like someone being stood up on a blind date - checking the time, looking out the window, do we have the time and place right? What if all the trick-or-treaters are waiting at another house because there was a miscommunication? 
A bit past 7:00, we finally heard a knock. I jumped up like a kid who might have heard Santa in the chimney on Christmas Eve, to find a ten-year-old in a black costume of some sort, that may or may not have been a poorly executed skunk. After encouraging her to take more candy than she thought was polite, I stared out onto the deserted street and noticed that we were the only ones with pumpkins out or even lights on at the door. Is our street just generally unfriendly or do others just not bother because there aren't many kids that come by? A true chicken and egg question to ponder for another time, but the single pseudoskunk was our lone visitor for the entire night. Two giant bowls of candy now sit, defeated, in the main office. 

Friday, October 31, 2008

Fine... I guess

Well, the class went fine. No one was obviously sleeping and the students actually seemed to be paying attention. 40 is not a bad number of students to start with - at least you can make eye contact with them all and try and keep them engaged. One of the students asked me afterwards which other classes I was teaching, but it wasn't clear if it was because she liked my teaching style or if she was going to cut those classes out of her course catalog and light them on fire as she fed them into a shredder. I guess I will know next semester, when I have a class of my own. 
 Since it is Halloween I was able to make a joke about the fact that I was going to dress up like their regular teacher, but that Iparty was out of Jesus wigs, foiling my plot. That seemed to go over well and they seemed to like that I printed out a couple of key slides and those that were a bit text-heavy so they didn't have to write everything down as students are often programed to. Overall, I think it was good, but I have no way of really knowing. 

The digital age

 This morning a colleague called me out of my office to witness a yearly ritual for the first-year class. On the class day closest to, or on, Halloween, the professor who teaches the course has a bunch of grad students carry him into the classroom in a coffin. Complete with musical accompaniment, he dramatically exits the coffin to teach the class about a blood-related topic in full vampire get-up and "Transylvanian" accent. It might be the only way you can have 200 18-year-olds all paying attention in a classroom at the same time.
 However, the scariest part of the whole thing had nothing to do with the paisley socks the professor was wearing under his cape, but the fact that probably half of the students immediately pulled out their phones to record his performance. Are you shitting me? 

Test-driving an old car

I'm looking forward to my first interaction with a class of undergrads for quite a while. I did not do any teaching as a post-doc, and since there are almost no training opportunities for perspective faculty members to improve their teaching unless they convince a department to let them teach all or part of a class at the expense of their real reason they are getting paid (research), I don't have a lot of experience teaching outside of TAing as a grad student. I took a few touchy-feely educations courses as a grad student and a three day teaching workshop when I got here, but does that really prepare you for standing in front of a room of 19 year olds and convincing them that what you are explaining is actually interesting to them? No. So, today will be a good test drive for me. The lecture is on a topic that I know well, so I put the slides together yesterday (well, mostly. I still have to finish it) and we'll see how it goes. Can I slow it down so that they can the main concepts? It is not like a lecture to your peers, which is what I have been doing for the last 10 years, but a completely different kind of presentation. Will they walk out feeling overwhelmed or like they got what I was telling them? Can I hold their attention or will half the class be texting their friends after 20 minutes? I guess I will know in a couple of hours....

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Buried treasure

I think the lack of sleep is getting to me. On my way into the building today I stopped and watched a squirrel for a good five minutes. What I found both fascinating and sad was that the squirrel was caching an acorn in the middle of the construction site near our building. It wasn't so much that I knew his little stash would be either ripped out of the ground or buried by the time that spring came, but rather the care with which the squirrel excavated a hole, placed the acorn in and buried it. It took more than half the time it expended on the procedure to conceal the treasure by carefully patting down all the sign of disturbance so that it blended in with its surroundings. The squirrel was meticulous about this, furiously using its little paws to shape the dirt, all the while eyeing me with rodent suspicion... which, of course, was nothing compared to the suspicious looks that the few students coming in at that hour were giving me as a stared at the little beast through a chain-link fence. No doubt they will be in the class I am teaching tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The night life

Ugh. I spent nearly all of last night checking the clock to see how little sleep I was getting. For no particular reason at all I could not stop thinking last night and pretty much stayed up until and 4:30am, at which point I dozed until our "alarm" woke up at 6:00 and needed to be fed and changed. I wish I could say that I was solving a great mystery, like how to understand the conservative right in this country, or doing something more useful than letting my mind wander through various topics and occasionally attempting to "concentrate" on getting to sleep. It doesn't help that I am trying to get over a cold that laid me up on Sunday and Monday, but it should make putting together a coherent lecture for Friday all the more interesting. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Little by little

Being the newest faculty member of the department has it's pluses and minuses. Generally you get protected from a lot of things if your Chair wants you to hit the ground running. I negotiated to be free of teaching the first semester and I have been given the freedom of teaching an advanced seminar course in the spring, which will be considerably less work than creating a full course. My Chair has so far shielded me from being put on (most) committees, having to advise undergrads and a lot of the general busy work that I will eventually become acquainted with. On the flip side, everyone wants you in for lectures because you are new. I already have two seminars scheduled at other universities and gave another earlier this semester. In addition to that, the other faculty in the department know that you don't have any teaching responsibilities at the moment and are not shy about looking for "guest lectures" for their classes on topics close to my research. I don't have a problem with this, since it will give me a bit of a feel for the students here before I have to teach my own course, but I was just asked on Saturday to give a 50 minute lecture this Friday. Again, not something I mind doing, but another obligation heaped on top of the pile and another example of how free time just doesn't exist. I do realize that there is a time to say "no" to things when you have to make your own work a priority, but all too often it is an accumulation of little things that add up, rather than one big thing that takes up your time. I guess taking a few minutes here and there to write entries to this blog would also apply, but whose counting?


It was only a week and a half ago that I was reveling in the fact that I had not been asked to review anything for quite some time. Oh, how the karma gods looked unkindly on that! I received a last-minute review request from a program officer at NSF two Fridays ago, which I agreed to do only to find out they wanted it back the following Monday. Of course, I already had plans for the weekend so it ended up being a day late, but they were fine with that. What was funny (not ha-ha, the eye-pecking bird kind) was that I got a review request from Science not 5 minutes after I agreed to the NSF one. I didn’t really feel like I could turn down Science, so I jumped on that one too. Now, in the last week, I have gotten three more review requests. Luckily I was able to turn one away because of massive conflict of interest, but this is the kind of thing that happens as soon as you think you have a few minutes to think about research.

But, one thing that really struck me while doing the Science review was that it is hard to be totally objective with papers at that level. You are asked to evaluate whether the manuscript is “Science material”, which is completely subjective. If the paper is in your field then you might find it more interesting than most would, or you may want to increase the readership of papers related to your work, which might benefit you do the road. Even if I am not submitting a paper to Science or Nature later on, it still looks good to have a bunch of high-impact papers in your citation list. At the same time, it can be hard to evaluate the novelty of a study on something you are very familiar with in the way that someone outside the field might see it. I think we are all subject to these biases, whether we acknowledge them or not. Added to this is the possibility of writing a “perspective” (in the case of Science). If the paper is published and editors like your comments, they may ask you to do a summary paper with your own insights into the field added, which is a nice bonus on the CV. So, if the paper is something that has a shot, in many ways it is to the advantage of a reviewer to advocate for it. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.  

Friday, October 24, 2008

Does this job make my ass look big?

I swear it is more predictable than the freshman 15, let's call it the new prof 10. It doesn't have the same ring as it's undergraduate counter-part, but it is no less of a force. I am referring to the fact that sitting at your desk all day long trying to keep up with the daily tasks is not very good for the waistline. When I was a post-doc I had the time to make it to the gym and go for long walks, but since making the move I get in around 7:30, leave around 5:30 (on a good day) and eat lunch at my desk. If I get outside at all during the day it is a little bit of a victory, unless I am running to get signatures on something because I am too close to a deadline to risk campus mail. 

I had a physical yesterday so I could jump the administrative hoops for a part of my research and got the news that I am less than svelte these days, so I will be making a plan starting next week to get my tubby ass back to the gym. My theory is that if I schedule it in I will work everything else around it, but we'll see how that goes. I predict poorly, but we'll see. 

Space Wars

One of the biggest issues in any department is the amount of space. No matter where you are there are always complaints about people feeling cramped in the space they have. An attractive part of this position was that the department would be moving into a new building before the end of my first year, especially since the building I am currently in is more depressing than "Requiem for a Dream". Well, that process is fully underway and we have begun to carve up space in the new building between ourselves and members of two other departments. As you might expect, everyone wants a space larger than what they currently occupy and new faculty, such as myself, are stuck trying to predict what they will need a few years down the road. When you have been at this for only a couple of months, that is not so easy, nor is it simple to defend your space needs when your lab is not up to capacity. By the time we occupy the new building I will have two graduate students working in the lab, but ideally I would like to have 4-6 students and two post-docs in there once I begin to bring some grants in. The trick is holding onto space that you can grow into before you have the personnel to fill it.

Complicating the matter is the design of the space. At it's conception, the building plan was adapted from some Ivy League school around the concept of shared space. So, each floor has 6 faculty members and 4 lab suites. For people who have run an independent lab for years, this is a major change and has made the process of allocating space a bit more difficult. I am lucky in that I have a colleague moving into the building with whom I share a number of techniques and a similar work-flow plan (i.e. we assign spaces to tasks rather than personal bench spaces). My department has actually been very supportive during the negotiations over who gets what space and I made out fairly well while several of my more senior colleagues are reducing their lab space considerably to make some space for the junior faculty. I was pleasantly surprised by this, because that is NOT how it is happening on some of the other floors being occupied by other departments. 

In fact, one of the other departments has already tried to "suggest" that my colleague and I move to another floor (and occupy half the space we are currently assigned) so that one of their big dogs can take our space. The issue is more that they want to get an enormous ego off their floor and make him someone else's problem, but that isn't the most convincing argument for moving to a smaller space from where I sit. I don't think it has any chance of happening, but I am glad to be in the department I am in and not in one where I would be pressured into that kind of move. 

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Feeling slow? You're not alone.

This recent essay should at least give you some confidence if you spend a lot of your time feeling like you have too many shortcomings for sceince.

And so it begins...

I am not sure what is motivating me to do this, but perhaps I need a place to express everything that is going on as a new faculty member and this seems like a good place to do it. I am also justifying it in my own head as a productive form of procrastination, unlike many of the less-productive activities I have used for such purpose in the past. I am choosing to do this anonymously because I want to be able to be honest about things and not have to pull any punch for fear of saying some that might turn out to be politically unwise at my university. Also, I have never been comfortable with self-praise, so when good things happen I would like to be able to express that as well, rather than downplaying my excitement. Call it academic therapy. In any case...

A bit of history. I started this job in August 2008, after 4 years of a post-doc and 5 years of grad school in places distant from here. Fortunately for me, I have managed to land a good job in a place close to where my partner and I grew up. The job market at the moment is not great, so the fact that we are close to our respective parents has worked out particularly well for us, especially since we have a child who is less than a year old. 

Starting a faculty job has been by far the most difficult professional change I have gone through. Moving your life and family to a new place is bad enough, especially with a small child, but it is the different expectations of running a lab, compared with working in one, that have made it a challenge. Suddenly, the lab "buck" stops with you. All the administrative tasks have to be done. There are committees to be dealt with and grants to be written. I am now worrying about getting people into the lab (how many can I afford? How do I recruit/decide? What types of people should I bring in?) and which types of equipment to buy. I am an accountant, a manager, a mentor, a mentee, a writer, a trainer and the "new guy". I am figuring out how the university runs at multiple levels while trying to get my research off the ground. And I don't even have to teach this semester! That's a whole other worry for a few months down the road, but I have had to design the new course and advertise it. Luckily, I am breaking into that slowly with an advanced seminar course, rather than being thrown to the freshmen (read: wolves).

I have enjoyed it so far, but balancing everything at work, let alone at home, has made the past few months interesting. I figured that keeping some type of record of this time in my life would provide humor in the future and if someone else stumbles on this who is or will be in the same position not too far down the road, maybe we can commiserate together.