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.