Thursday, December 31, 2009


I have to make a call on whether or not to submit a grant proposal this round. This is a proposal that has been in twice already and was hit with the "needs more data" tag in the most recent round. I have a good amount of new data but am waiting on a significant bolus of data that should be arriving next week. The deadline for the proposal is Jan 12 and oh, did I mention that I'm submitting a second proposal that week?

If I do send this thing off I'm planning on significantly re-working it to streamline the presentation and change the data collection to make the study more comparative. This will be fairly straight-forward and I have some useful data in hand that should help my case, but I don't have the mother load yet and it may not come before the deadline.

If that is the case, I think I have the following options.

1) Submit the re-worked grant to the same program and then send an update when the data arrive. This is the most conservative strategy, but I run the risk of pissing off my PO if I don't have those data because I told him that I wouldn't re-submit without the data I am waiting for. This is probably a minor concern, however.

2) Submit the re-worked grant to a different panel and submit the update. This has some appeal because there is a new panel that my proposal would fit nicely under and I could get away from banging my head against the same wall.

3) Wait a round, gather everything I need to make the grant as solid as possible and then submit over the summer. Although this would probably be preferred by my PO, it makes me a bit itchy. At the same time, I don't want to kill myself over the next two weeks to submit something that's not going to have a shot. What if the data I am waiting on don't work out like I expect?

My inclination is to submit it again and make the best of it. If I don't see those data before the deadline then I may be best off going with option 2, but I think I have changed my mind between all three options about twice a day for the last couple of days.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Teaching data management?

Data management is one of the most important skills we learn as researchers. Without it we are well and truly screwed and can spend days slogging through a mess of our own making or have to re-do experiments altogether. But other than training I have seen on either databasing programs or as a small section of course in Unix, where does training in good data management come from?

In my own experience data management was something learned on the job that became more complex as the amount and breadth of data grew. Often this was a gradual process that allowed for the trainee to scale up from a base and each person came up with a system that worked well for them. An obvious issue with this is that multiple systems in a lab can become problematic for data sharing, but as long as the final product is in a "sharable" format this is not a major problem in most circumstances.

In my field however, things have changed. Yes, my students no longer have to walk to work uphill both ways in the snow like I did and nothing costs a nickel anymore. Now, the sheer volume of data we produce for a project is enormous compared with the data I dealt with as a student, so the gradual building of a database is not so gradual these days. Data management is more critical than ever, but it never occurred to me until recently that simply saying "Make sure you keep your datasets organized and well labeled." about 100 times isn't enough.

So, as part of my supervisory tasks in the coming year I'm going to start sitting down with all my students to go over their data management and ensure they have a good system in place. It may take me some time, but ultimately it'll save a lot of person-hours down the road.

I'm sure others have dealt with this in the past as either the teacher or the trainee. Any particularly effective strategies? I realize that the type of data matters, but I think it's worth discussing.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

NFL Challenge: Penultimatum

Here we sit with one week left in the Science Blog NFL Challenge and suddenly things look interesting. Much like her beloved Vikings, DGT was stumbled in the last few weeks, looking vulnerable at the wrong time of the season. Could it be that she is feeling the strain of the long season? Hard to say. But what is not hard to say is that having built a lead that looked unsurmountable a couple of weeks ago, DGT has tumbled within striking distance.

One week remains and DGT is clinging to a 1 point lead, with Nat smelling blood. Somehow I've managed to stop the bleeding and put together a solid three week stretch to pull into third place, 4 points off the lead. As your week 16 winner, all I can say is that I have my eye on the prize and not the minor victories. Trailing two point behind me is a logjam of Chall, Alyssa, PiT and last week's winner (sorry for the delayed gratification), Candid Engineer. Odyssey and Genomic Repairman are three points behind the traffic and 6 points behind them is Tom trying to drive with the "check engine" light on.

Will there be a massive upset next week or will DGT find her mojo and bury us all? Could she be toying with us just keep it interesting? The thrilling conclusion* next week....

*And the final end to these posts for those of you who have no idea what I keep going on about.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Santa Fail

One entertaining tidbit from last week, and then back to science stuff.

This year was the first year the the Wee One understood that there is a person named Santa who she could identify. I don't think she had much idea what Santa does or represents, but she knew that this dude seems important around now. We had the opportunity to take her to meet Santa last week. We kept playing up the idea and she seemed excited. Santa and cookies sound like a great idea to her.

Until this big guy dressed in red showed up bellowing and looking to grab her. On no. It didn't matter who this Santa guy was, going near this crazy man wasn't happening. She was okay to observe him from about 10 feet away, but even in Mom's arms, getting within 5 feet of that guy was a no go. We have great pictures of a screaming Wee One being held in Santa's general vicinity, but that was as close to a Santa experience as this year would bear. Maybe next year.


Holy shit. I just took a whole week off. Not a week to travel to do work or attend a conference, but a week where I traveled to a warm place and spent time with family (all 37 of them!) and didn't do work. Alright, so there was some work done and that phone call to an NSF PO, but relatively speaking it was a workless week. The first one since starting this job.

It was good. I needed it. But now the serious shit starts again. The only question is where to begin?

There's the minor matter of responding to a couple of small comments on the short piece I turned in two weeks ago. There's the bigger issues of the grants I have due, restrategizing one of them and figuring out if I need to travel over spring break for sampling for the new plan. There's the looming issue of teaching my first class starting towards the end of the month and there are the dozens of little things hanging around like trampled confetti the day after a party.

I'm not going to lie, the next few weeks are going to suck. In a major way. But it was nice to get away for a little bit, to spend time with family and to have all that time to play with the Wee One and hang out with my wife. It was a good week.

Time to clear the cobwebs and dig back in.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday delurking

After this weekend my family and I are heading out of town for a few days before the push starts to get two grants written for the Jan deadline. A few days away (including 5 flights with the Wee One!) before the madness begins. I thought I would just wish everyone a good holiday season and safe travels if you're going anywhere.

In the spirit of the holidays I thought it might be a good time to invite the many lurkers that pass through here to say hello. Roughly 1200 - 1500 clicks land here every week and yet there are probably 20 or so regular commenters, most of whom write a blog themselves. No, I'm not sick of those follks, but I would like regular readers who don't normally weigh in to say hello and describe yourself as generally as you want. At times this gig is a conversation and at others it feels a bit like performance art. I don't mean that as a complaint, but simply that on occasion it's nice to get some feedback from the silent majority.

In a way, I guess this is like an earlier post, but this blog continues to evolve for me. I'm not sure how it will change in the new year. I am considering blogging a bit more about topics closer to my research heart, but must still wrestle with the issues that come with paving an internet path to my lab door. Inevitably I will end up becoming less pseudoanonymous here, but I'm not sure when or how that will happen just yet.

So, Dear Readers, what topics would you like to see discussed more here? I'm sure there are things that I haven't even thought of that might be useful to many. Would more science be a good thing or is the process of growing into this job far more interesting than what we actually do in the lab? It's entirely possible that those who do frequent this dive come because the topics discussed here are the ones they care about, but here's a chance to weigh in.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Should I admit to being a rookie?

I'm teaching my first undergraduate course next semester. There's been recent discussion about new profs having to learn to teach on the fly and I certainly fall into that category. I've done the TAing, took a course on teaching, did the guest lectures, blah, blah, blah, but I've never been responsible for the material in an entire undergraduate course before. So, I essentially have zero experience here.

This is not a new course and it is an upper-level class in my field, so it's not like I'm teaching anything unfamiliar or being pushed in front of 700 freshmen. It'll be a lab course with roughly 30 students who will mostly be in their third year. To make things even easier on me, the person who previously taught the course gave me everything they had from the last few years. Merry Christmas.

Even with a lot going in my favor, I have no doubt that my inexperience will show to the students. There will certainly be a number of situations that I will not have thought of or be prepared for in the first go-round and I can't pretend that the course will be delivered flawlessly. Is there any situation where a person does their best work with the least experience? Probably not.

Do I pretend to be the seasoned veteran that I am clearly not in front of the students or do I acknowledge the obvious right off the bat with the them? My first reaction would be to let the students know and encourage feedback early in the semester with regard to the pace and delivery of info. In a lot of ways it seems ridiculous to try and hide my lack of teaching acumen, but some have told me that admitting that I am teaching for the first time is inviting problems. I can see how certain students would seize on such an opportunity to complain about any number of things, but likely that the class is too difficult. At the same time, I don't want to find out in the end of year evaluations that I was doing something critically wrong throughout the semester and that no one ever mentioned something that could have been easily fixed and would have improved their experience. As with all student-based evaluations, it's a fine line and I have no intention of catering to every student whim as the semester goes on but am willing to be flexible.

For those of you with teaching experience, what are your thoughts here? For the students out there, how would you react to a prof admitting to being inexperienced and offering to work with the students throughout the semester to make sure they get the most out of the class?

Shifting gears: writing

The ginormous book chapter that had been stalking me for months is official done. Just shy of 20,000 words, mostly vomited onto pages during the few blocks of time I could carve out to do the work. It wasn't a fun experience, but it's done now and I think it's a decent contribution. Will anyone ever read it? Who knows.

Not 2 hours after sending in the almost final draft of the chapter, I got an email from the coordinator of a workshop I went to over the summer. He wants a 1,500 word (incl refs) piece... by the end of the year. Although I was loath to open a fresh document and have that blank page staring me down, my first thought was that 1,500 words would be like sneezing after finishing up that mammoth book chapter. I figured I might be able to pull it off in an afternoon if I had an uninterrupted one, but it's an entirely different way of writing and my head is in 20,000 word mode.

I have to confess that I write differently than some - I'm kinda like the Colts in that I have strong first drafts. More often than not I labor over the original piece but then don't do a whole lot of editing later. That type of writing is conducive to a giant book chapter, but not so much to a tight piece that has to be written and reworked to fit into a tiny package and still get the message across. So, despite my initial reaction to this short commentary manuscript I'm suddenly finding it exceedingly difficult to completely switch my writing style to fit the new constraints. I wrote what I thought would be a brief introduction and have already used up 350 of my precious words.

It's like having to give a full seminar and a 12 minute conference talk in the same week. The short talk looks like an afterthought until you remember that those are some of the hardest talks to make cohesive and understandable. So much for my "afternoon manuscript".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

NFL week 14: The final stretch

Only three weeks left of the regular season and three more weeks of the NFL pool. It's the home stretch and the last chance to claim the glory associated with winning the prestigious Blogger NFL Pool Final Trophy.... which will totally be different from the weekly trophy... let me just google around a bit.... yes... totally different.

With the pressure increasing almost everyone had a good week this week. The scores ranged from 7 to 13, which is the highest score we've seen this season. Part of the higher scores is that there are no teams on a bye from here on out so more games are being played, but 13 is still impressive.

DGT remains the leader with 110 total points, but faltered a bit with 9 points this week. Nat made a huge move with a score of 12 and is now only 4 points out of the lead. Odyssey also had a big week with 12 points and managed to triumphantly emerge from the basement (poop deck?) to claim 99 points on the season so far. PiT remains in contention with 104 points and Alyssa's score of 11 moved her into 4th with 102 points. I also managed 11 points this week, but still lost ground because this weeks winner tied my total core of 100 with his 13 points this week.

This week's winner is Genomic Repairman. Can he make an underdog run at the title? We'll see.

Blog support

Go over and show Alyssa a little support this morning.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Recruiting turn-around

Last year was my first recruiting year and everything was a mess. No one told me that applications had to be in to our grad school by January until the day before the deadline and that just started everything off on the wrong foot. I advertised a position on several listserves and the response was lukewarm, maybe even lukecool. I corresponded with a couple of applicants, but for various reasons those discussions dissolved and I ended up taking on a student from the pool of departmental applicants, who did not get accepted to a different lab in the department that they had wanted to go to. It's worked out well, but that wasn't exactly how I expected things to go.

This year has been totally different. I have several highly qualified applicants who have already contacted me. Some have experience in exactly what we work on and others have experiences that would help them take on the data from a couple of our projects. I could easily accept a few of the students who I will have to decide between and hopefully I will have the opportunity to take on more than one.

What's changed? In many ways not a lot. The lab hasn't published much of significant impact this year, so certainly it's not that students this year are suddenly exposed to our published brilliance in ways that students last year could not have been. We had a website up last year the same way we do this year and we don't have any more of a web presence.

But perception has changed. I think it has to be that it took the community here a bit to catch up to the fact that the lab was up and running. Most of the applicants (though not all) this year know someone doing research in our field who suggested they take a look at the lab. Last year everything was just getting established and it wasn't until the conference season this year that we were fully geared up and I had students presenting data at meetings. I think that was the tipping point in terms of other researchers fully recognizing that I had moved and established my own shop that they could suggest that their students check out.

It's great not to have to work to get students interested in the lab, but have them contact me. I already had one student in mind for this application cycle, but now it looks like I'll have a bunch to chose from.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Offer Made

This week I have been looking at our finances and trying to figure out whether to roll the dice on hiring a postdoc on the funds the lab currently has in the bank. With what's left after all of our equipment purchases, summer salary for grad students and general supplies, we have enough to offer a 1 year postdoc position and still keep generating data. But, things could get a little uncomfortable next summer if we don't have federal funding by then - especially if we decide to move forward with some big projects.

I also had a meeting with the Dean this week on a completely unrelated matter, but during the meeting the Dean basically asked if there was anything I needed. I talked about my efforts to hire a postdoc and the Dean told me to look things over and let them know if I needed anything.

I didn't want to look like I'm asking for handouts, so I decide on asking for a conditional pledge. I requested about 1/3 of the postdoc's salary in the event that we do not have federal funding to cover the salary by the end of next summer. This way it was clear to the Dean that I am doing what I can to not use their money, but wouldn't mind a safety net on the off chance that we can't come up with grant money.

It seemed to me a reasonable request that is in everyone's best interest and I got confirmation today that the Dean has said yes to my proposal, so I have sent off my offer and will wait to hear what PC says. I hope that things work out, but I'll also understand if PC choses to go with their other offer, which provides more than a year of guaranteed salary. It's also nice to know that the Dean is willing to step up and help junior investigators who need a little something here or there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Soooo professional

Yesterday I agreed to review a paper for a journal I had not previously reviewed for or published in. It's a decent international journal that is marginally related to my research foci. As I set up my account to view the manuscript I've been asked to look over I noticed an optional box on the web form that I normally ignore.


I think lack of sleep and this head cold are conspiring against my better judgment because after a brief internal debate, I wrote "MoFo" in the box, finished the form and and submitted it. Not 5 minutes later I got an email that started "Dear Dr. MoFo PLS".

I think I might start working more with this journal based on the fact that I will now laugh every time I receive an email from them.

*Cue the sound of postodcs worldwide saying "This idiot has a job and I'm still on the market? Fuck!"*

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fund that crap

This week has been a bit crazy already, so if you're looking for the NFL weekly summary, I think DGT got the important points across yesterday.

Well, the reviews are back from one of my pending grants, and guess what. Our friend Preliminary Data is back to rear it's ugly head. In this high-stakes whack-a-mole game, each piece of new data we add seems to make criticism of a piece further down the process crop up. Pretty soon I will have performed about 80% of my initial proposal and that estimate might even be low. I only wish I was kidding about that.

The good news is that we have a large amount of pending data that will basically demonstrate that we can do all of this stuff (and will have done almost all of it before the next deadline) and that our predictions are demonstrated by the data. I won't rehash the stupidity of calling the required data "preliminary", because I and others have covered that pretty thoroughly. What was particularly glaring in this round was how saying something should be funded at the end of a reviews means absolutely nothing if there are criticisms in your review.

I know all the war horses will say "no shit" and talk about the need to be at the very top to get funded and blab about Care Bears and tea parties, but people who have not gone trough a few grant cycles or reviewed many grants might find it interesting to realize how tight things are between funded and not and the importance squeaky clean reviews. The break down of the 5 reviews I got back was pretty straight forward. Two listed the proposal as excellent, had reviewed it previously and actually expressed frustration that it had not already been funded. I appreciate it, you two, don't ever change. The other three reviewers had not previously seen the proposal and two rated it as "Very Good" whereas the third used the dreaded "Good". Saying a proposal is "Good" is like telling someone their haircut in "different" or "interesting". You may as well poop on the proposal and send it back, because that's essentially what you're doing. And you thought rating inflation was just for grades.

But I digress.

The frustrating thing is to read through a review that does not use the "excellent" tag but goes on at length about how good the PI's record is, how well thought out the proposal is and that it should be funded. Listen up folks, you either feel the proposal should be funded or you don't. By giving a proposal any rating below "Very Good/Excellent" (I love how NSF let's reviewers chose two categories to split their rating across. Why bother? Just go to a less coarse scale.) you are pretty much saying that you don't think it's good enough to cross the threshold of the fundable, so don't poop on something and say it's worth framing. This is the kind of stuff that drives us young people crazy. I can take the criticism and doubt. I'm getting used to having to complete something before I can get money for it. I even have no problem with someone telling me my ideas are crap if that's what they think. But saying something should be funded, but ranking it in a category that says the opposite, is just plain stupid.

Now we wait for the data that should be coming soon and analyze the shit out of it before the next deadline. Having this proposal declined is a lot less painful when heaps of data are about to arrive.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Trip leftovers

Just a couple of quick notes.

1) My trip last week really reminded me how important face-to-face meetings are. I had been corresponding with a group in the city I visited about a project of mutual interest. I have the data the need and they have the analysis chops to ask questions I can't at the moment. It makes a ton of sense for us to collaborate, but we've mostly just been sending a few emails back and forth. Having the opportunity to sit down with the group and shoot the shit made a huge difference with how we are planning to proceed and now it looks as though we'll be putting together a proposal in the New Year. I don't think that would have happened with my visit.

2) Trips like the one I went on are also tremendous for opening up new collaborations. Between the talk I gave and informal discussions, I have a whole host of new contacts both in Europe and in North America. I may also be traveling to Europe more than I expected in the coming years. I hadn't thought much about what an excellent networking trip this would be, but it turned out to be great.

3) Returning from this trip was different from many previous for one big reason: the Wee One was thrilled I was home. In the past, my return has been greeted either with indifference or with the Wee One wanting nothing to do with me for a few days. On my arrival this time, she was anxiously awaiting me and spent the ensuing hours glued to my side. Simply put, it made the trip that much better that I could come home and have her excited to see me.

4) The book chapter I have been writing for what seems like forever was severely wounded on the plane rides and should be slayed today. Getting this damn thing off my desk will be an enormous relief, especially since I've been asked to write something else (small) before the end of the year and have at least one grant proposal going in for the Jan deadline. 18,000 words and four figures. Sianara MoFo.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Personnel Dilema

One of the people I have been talking to about doing a postdoc in the lab works in a friend's lab I visited today. By all accounts Postdoc Candidate is very good at what they do and would add a new dimension to my lab that I would really like to cover. In addition to the enthusiastic recommendations from people I trust, PC also already has a strong publication record. The problem, of course, is funding. I don't have money for a postdoc at the moment, unless I take a major hit to my start-up funds. I should hear in the next couple of weeks about two potential funding sources, but PC has another offer on the table. So, what to do?

PC is going to let me know when he has to make a decision by, but PC has let me know that they would really prefer to come to my lab over the current offer. Obviously, I don't want to have them come to the lab on unstable funding (start-up funds for possibly less than a full year) and not be able to pick up PC's salary on a grant in the near future. On the other hand, I would really like to find a way to make this work and bridge the time between the first of the year and whenever a grant gets funded.

I don't think that the POs that are considering my proposals right now would care if I wrote to them explaining the situation and asking for an update. I'm sure they hear this 5 times a day. Of course, if I don't send the email then there is zero chance of them giving me any insight. People this qualified and interested in the lab's projects don't come along every day and I'm loathe to let PC go to another lab when I really need the experience PC has to help some of the lab projects and take things to another level. Damnit NSF, just let me know what the deal is so I can make some decisions here.

Trip update

There are two problems with taking a trans-Atlantic flight at 5:30 that has a stop-over in the UK. 1) the flight is too short to get any real sleep. 2) Trying to force your body to sleep, at a time you don't normally sleep and in an uncomfortable seat, isn't a recipe for success. It also doesn't help if they never turn off the cabin lights during the flight and keep coming by to offer you crappy food or the opportunity to buy something from their duty free shopping magazine. So, the result was a three flight day in which I arrived at 9:30 local time without having slept. I got a quick shower and changed in enough time to meet the examining committee for lunch (complete with wine, which I needed like I needed a kick in the gut) and head to the defense. Surprisingly, I did pretty well. There was about 5 minutes at the end of the hour talk in a non-English language I can somewhat understand where I drifted a bit and I might have actually done one of those embarrassing head nod things where you jerk yourself out of sleep and look around like someone just unexpectedly slapped you. But after that I held strong though my questions (obviously) and the 5 other questioners, only one other of which held their exchange in English. In the end it took about 3.5 hours and I only had one moment of weakness.

The candidate did well and only had a few issues with the questions, mostly related to nerves and the multiple languages. The defense was followed by a reception and then I went back to my host's house for dinner with a few of the committee members and some faculty from the local institution. It was a fun dinner, where at any given time one could hear 5 different languages being spoken. Unfortunately, by that time I was pretty spent and had a hard time following conversations in the local language, but it didn't really matter. The guests stayed until 10:00 and then I got some sleep without much concern for jet lag affecting whether I would fall asleep or not. In fact, managing to stay awake for the entire time seems to have allowed me to avoid jet lag almost entirely and reset my clock to the local time.

Today I'll be giving a talk in a pretty famous place, which should be fun. I have no idea how many people will show but this talk is a little more "data light" than I was hoping, so a smaller audience would almost be preferred. In any case, it'll be good to let people know the direction we are heading.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Note to travelers

If you ever find yourself about to jump on a plane and feeling that odd sensation in your throat that suggest you might be coming down with something, the obvious solution is to find something in an airport that might push off that sore throat for a couple of days. I have often seen Airborne Formula but have never bought it before. If you do and you expect a pill to take instead of the large disc you find, read the directions. If you don't read the directions 'cause that's not how you roll and you pop that disc in your mouth, you'll find out the hard way that it's REALLY not meant to be chewed. If you weren't a guy, you might have read that they expect you to pop that large tablet into a glass of water and you wouldn't be foaming at the mouth like a deranged and rabid raccoon in the middle of the international departure lounge. Of course, one option would be to swallow the damn thing, but then you might feel like a bottle of Diet Coke that someone dropped a Mentos into.

All advice hypothetical, of course.

Round 2

The vacation's over and I'm waiting at the airport for the European trip. Happy to report that the Wee One flew relatively well and the only issue was that she threw up all over everything when we tried to put her down for a nap right after we got to our destination. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful - in a good way. This next week should be a bit crazier and I need to try and get a couple more questions together on the flight so I can appear to be conscious tomorrow at the defense, 5 hours after I get off the red eye. I'm not so worried about the talk, but there are another 4 examiners after me, each gets 30 minutes and at least two of those will be speaking a foreign language. Hopefully European toothpicks are stronger than their US equivalents and will keep my eyes open. At least they have good coffee there, because I'll need an IV.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving and see you on the other side

So begins the week of stupid travel scheduling. We leave the house at 5:00am tomorrow morning and fly out for a family vacation. We fly back Monday with enough time for me to drop off bags at the car and say goodbye to the family before hoping on a Europe-bound red eye that arrives at 9:00am. After a shower and some food, I should be all set to sit through a 2:00 defense in a foreign language i can more or less understand and then ask questions (in English) as the external examiner. No problem.

It should be fun. I know a number of people in the area and will be staying with friends. I'll have a chance to travel locally a bit and give a talk at a prestigious institute about the work we are doing. I wish I had a bit more data from the project I chose to talk about, but I'm good with shadow puppets so I should be able to keep the audience busy.

I doubt I will have much ability to blog over the next week and a half, but for those of you in the US, have a good holiday and safe travels if you are one of the many on the roads, tracks and skies the rest of this week. Hopefully you get some down time before the final push to the end of the semester. You'll be able to find the NFL pool update over at DGT's place, where she will continue to gloat over her lead margin.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NFL Week 11: surging to the finish

Only 6 weeks left. That's all the time members of the pool have to show that they have what it takes to hoist the trophy at the end of the regular season. A few people are making a late season surge and a few (*cough* myself *cough*) are following what I like to call the Denver Broncos model. Maybe I'll have Chris Simms make my picks next week.

Another strong performance by DGT had her padding her lead, which is now at 5 points. Nat also did well this week and shares second place with PiT, dropping me to fourth, followed closely by Tom. Just behind Tom is this week's winner, Alyssa, who posted 10 points and beat Candid Engineer in the tie-breaker. Both of them are tied and 8 points out of the lead.

The race is heating up as we head into the home stretch. Congrats Alyssa!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternative Science Careers Webinar

If you are in the Biological Sciences and are interested in getting information about alternative career in science, you should check out this Webinar announcement from AIBS. I am not familiar with the content, but some details are provided on the site.

EAGERly waiting

Last year, NSF made a change to it's Grant Proposal Guide and replaced the Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGER) program with a new initiative, the EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) grants. These grants were specifically put into place in response t the criticism that NSF had gotten "too safe" and wasn't funding science that might be considered risky. My understanding is that the R21 is supposed to be NIH's equivalent, but Ive heard that the "preliminary" data hurdle there is just as bad as anyw other NIH grant, so the NSF initiative seems more progressive on the surface.

I have included the relevant section of the NSF GPG below, for those unfamiliar with it.

The EAGER funding mechanism may be used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. This work may be considered especially "high risk-high payoff" in the sense that it, for example, involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives. These exploratory proposals may also be submitted directly to an NSF program, but the EAGER mechanism should not be used for projects that are appropriate for submission as “regular” (i.e., non-EAGER) NSF proposals. PI(s) must contact the NSF program officer(s) whose expertise is most germane to the proposal topic prior to submission of an EAGER proposal. This will aid in determining the appropriateness of the work for consideration under the EAGER mechanism; this suitability must be assessed early in the process.
The Project Description is expected to be brief (five to eight pages) and include clear statements as to why this project is appropriate for EAGER funding, including why it does not “fit” into existing programs and why it is a “good fit” for EAGER. Note this proposal preparation instruction deviates from the standard proposal preparation instructions contained in this Guide; EAGER proposals must otherwise be compliant with the GPG.

Only internal merit review is required for EAGER proposals. Under rare circumstances, program officers may elect to obtain external reviews to inform their decision. If external review is to be obtained, then the PI will be so informed in the interest of maintaining the transparency of the review and recommendation process. The two standard NSB-approved merit review criteria will apply.

Requests may be for up to $300K and of up to two years duration. The award size, however, will be consistent with the project scope and of a size comparable to grants in similar areas.

No-cost extensions, and requests for supplemental funding, will be processed in accordance with standard NSF policies and procedures.

Renewed funding of EAGER awards may be requested only through submission of a proposal that will be subject to full external merit review. Such proposals would be designated as “EAGER renewals.”

I knew these grants existed, but hadn't heard much about them until I got talking to a PO at a meeting a little while back. We were discussing one of the projects we have ongoing in the lab and he suggested that I talk to the relevant PO to inquire about EAGER funding. So, I did.

After a bit of back and forth about the project, the PO asked for a one page summary so that she could present it to the other POs from the program. She highlighted to me that the criteria that they use to decide on these projects are "is it novel, timely, transformative and risky?" We are working on a project that falls into all of those categories, so I wrapped that up in a pretty little one page package and sent it along. Maybe it'll fly and maybe it won't, but I'll post about the process in case anyone else is considering this. It might be a good way to find seed money for that project that you've been thinking of for a while.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mmmm, tasty

Question: Is there anything worse than discovering that your morning bagel is moldy?

Answer: Making the discovery with only half a bagel left.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Make my day

Alright, it's the weekend and I'm working but took a break to check out my new favorite website. Seriously, this made my day. How can you not appreciate pictures like this? I'm alternately fascinated and concerned for our country's future. I'm not kidding. It did make me laugh so hard I hurt, though.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The anticipation

Aside from actually receiving a steaming pile of fresh data, my second favorite period of time is the anticipation of said data. Anything is possible and receiving back exactly what you anticipated or data that lead to conclusions you haven't even thought of, is all still in play. It's like the build up to Christmas was when you were little, or week before summer vacation. Whereas the data may or may not live up to the hype (likely not. It is science after all and she can be a cruel mistress) everything is on the table and it's a rare period when I actually want time to move faster instead of my normal feeling of always being a day or two behind.

I have confirmation from Free Data Guy that our samples are being processed and we should hear back by the end of the month. On top of that, were sending our big money samples out on Monday. The possible convergence of multiple datasets that will serve to complement one another and provide an enormous resource of "preliminary data" for grants, has me fucking giddy right now.

It may not turn out that we get everything we want out of these datasets, but the potential for a huge step forward in what we are trying to accomplish is there, and who can't get excited about that?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel bugging

By the end of this year I will have spent over 6 weeks traveling for work, between conferences, workshops and research-related trips. Most of that travel was concentrated in the summer, but not all as I will be away for the first week of December, for instance. Minor home crises while I travel aside, that's 6 weeks that my wife has to single parent, six weeks that I can only Skype with the Wee One* rather than tuck her in and six weeks that I will sleep in a bed not my own.

Even though the amount of travel time I've had this year has put a burden on the family, 6 weeks hasn't been that bad. I arranged to not be away for more than about a week at a time and avoided weekend as much as possible, when I have the most time to spend with my family. What concerns me is that everyone I know who's lab moves at the pace I aspire to travels far more than 6 weeks a year. From my informal survey, the range seems to be between 2 and 6 months of travel per year when all of the trips are considered**. Most people don't keep up a pace at the high end of that range for very long, but many seem to have years where things are clicking and everyone wants a piece of them.

I am fortunate that, at the moment, my wife's job does not require a lot of travel but am acutely aware that my travel has a wider effect than where I sleep. I know that thousands of people do it every year across all manner of professions and they seem to make do, but in talking to several successful senior colleagues recently they have all mentioned the adverse family consequences their hectic schedules have had on their families.

As my schedule slowly fills for the summer of 2010 these conversations are one more thing in the back of my head as I wrestle with what I define as "successful" at work and at home.

*She doesn't quite get the whole Skype thing yet. Half the time she keeps looking behind the laptop to see where I am and the other half she spends hitting random keys on the computer. We're working on it.

**Hats off to those of you with a two-academic-career family, or any situation where a couple both travel heavily for their work.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Burn baby, burn

Some problems just cost a lot to figure out. That's my moral of the week. I was trying to find less expensive ways to chip away at one of our research questions so that we could produce enough data to qualify as "preliminary" in a proposal and get some Fed funds to do the financial heavy lifting. We tried several different ways to get at the problem, all of which provided tantalizing clues. As a result, we have lots of suggestive data, but no smoking gun. With the January NSF deadline looming, it was time to make a call - do we step up our efforts to chip away at the question with hammer and chisel or do we get serious and blow some real cash for the experimental equivalent of some C4?

I decided it's time we get this shit done. There have been continued delays with the "free" data and I'm tired of taking baby steps on this project. I've talked to too many people about it at this point, and if we're right, this would be a project worth scooping. Plus, we're not going to get it funded until we show more results and our other ideas about how we get an answer all have the potential of still being inconclusive, even if they work.

Nope, time to burn some cash. Your safety goggles are on the right and you may want to take another step back - this fire is going to be hot.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NFL Week 10: Reputation Repair

This week was much more gentle to the blogger NFL pool. After two weeks of dismal scores, things were looking up this week... for most. DGT retained her death grip on the number one spot and PiT made a move up the ranks to wrestle the 2 spot away from me as I continue to struggle to maintain the early season pace. Chall kicked it up a notch with a solid 9 points as well, but this week's winner, and the only one to get 10 points, was Genomic Repairman, who gets to sit in the winner's circle for the first time. The past three winners all posted back-to-back wins, so watch out for GR next week. The full scoreboard can be seen below, though not everyone's team name is obvious.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Discovery Channel Facade

When I was a kid I used to watch a lot of animal shows. I mean a lot. Nova, Wild Wild World of Animals, PBS specials, whatever. I was all over those. From all of those programs there were a few themes that always struck me, both that they came up again and again, and that they seemed counter-intuitive to a kid.

One of those was the ability animals have to mask a problem - that despite having a gaping wound or broken bone, they would pretend like everything was fine. "Nothing to see here folks, move along, sorry for bleeding on you." It's one of the reasons being a vet is so tough, because once an animal shows a problem, it's almost always too late. Inevitably, the camera crew would focus on this animal and we would watch, helpless to do anything, as the animal kept up this facade. Sometimes they would keep on for quite a while, looking stoic, but the other animals could sense the problem. Maybe they even knew, but couldn't help.

Eventually, despite the best acting job around, the damage couldn't stay hidden and the result was a catastrophic failure that seemed so sudden, yet so expected. I remember as a kid wondering if the animal was still trying to pretend that everything was okay or if it was relieved that it could finally stop acting. I still don't know the answer.

Yet more proof that we're not so different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Can you change the culture?

There's a new blogger (and potential member of the Society for blogs with Damn in their name) on the webs, PhDamned. You should go over and say hi, but I wanted to talk about something that she brings up in a post about faculty participation, because it echoes something that I've had bouncing around in my head for a bit.

Is it possible to change the culture of a department and how would one go about it?

In all honesty, I'm not thrilled about the science culture where I am at. The mentality is very 9-5 and this place is a ghost town on weekends and after about 3:00 on Fridays. I'm not advocating for around the clock work or people chained to their desks, only that a few people feel passionate about their work enough to work outside of the bare minimum hours. It's also not that I care what the other faculty members are doing, but the problem that PhDamned articulates from a student perspective, is that the attitude of the faculty is reflected in the students. So, when faculty never come in on weekends, after hours or on holidays, the students assume that there is no point to doing so. The same is true for after hours events.

Obviously, just because someone is not in their office doesn't mean they are not working, but you can tell when a department has an active and vibrant community and when it doesn't. You can feel it the same way that you can go to any sporting event anywhere in the world and gauge how much the team means to the fans - how invested they are in the teams success. It's not that my department doesn't have a good research track record, only that the sense of a vibrant research community just isn't there like I have seen it elsewhere.

So, is it possible to change this? More specifically, is it possible for a junior faculty member to change this? If so, how? Doing things by example is great, unless no one is there to see it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dear Colleagues

Well, it's here. That big lecture that we've been promoting for a couple of months now and that the university gave me money to organize. Yup, that big-name speaker that we talked about is going to be here soon and all I need from y'all is to let me know the times you're available to meet the speaker.

Oh, you all want to go to the meals but don't seem to have any other available time? Well, what if I send you a second email specifically asking for times during the two days the speaker will be here that you would be willing to spend just 30 minutes conversing with our invited guest?

Hello? Is this thing on? Anyone out there?

After all of the organization and publicizing I've done around this event, not one of you has 30 minutes to spare to talk science? Hell, talk about your dog or something, I don't give a fuck, just commit to this minor task that should be enjoyable.


Dude. Fuck! sigh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recruiting teachers for grad students

We're coming to the season where potential grad students are contacting people they might like to work with and a trend is starting to develop for me. Between last year and this year, almost all of the inquiries about the lab have been from either students about to graduate from their undergrad or people who are currently (or heave recently been) teachers in high school or grad school. It has been particularly noticeable this year, but once I noticed the trend I realized that all of my current students fall under one of these categories as well. So what gives?

My guess is that the people who go into teaching and then on to grad school decide that even if they enjoy teaching at their pre-grad-career level, they eventually want to teach at the college level. On the other hand, I also know of cases where teachers find out they hate teaching and go to grad school in order to take their careers in a different direction. I'm sure there's no cookie-cutter reason, but I've been surprised by the prevalence of a teaching career on many applicant CVs.

However, my question for readers is whether they would prefer someone with teaching experience over an applicant right out of school? Obviously, this is highly candidate specific, but given roughly equal CVs and no perceptible difference in attitude, is there a preference for one over the other? I'll keep my opinions to myself for the moment.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Science uniform

On my way to the conference last week I spent some time on the same large conveyance as three other people traveling to the same destination. They were traveling together, but I had never met them, nor they I. We were all aware that we were being picked up together at the end of the trip, however.

When we met up at the place we were supposed to be picked up, I introduced myself to the three of them and we started chatting. During the conversation one of the three said, "We had you picked out on the trip." When I inquired as to what had given me away, she suggested the following items (which may differ slightly from those I actually own) that I provide for you to paste onto your own scientist paper doll.


At first I found this odd, until we got to the meeting and I was struck by the phenotype of the people (who are not in my direct field) there and how clearly I matched. It was nearly comical. Maybe I'm meant to change fields and never got the memo.

In any case, it got me wondering if there are other "uniforms" in different fields and how they might differ from the model I suggest here.

NFL Week 9: Change of an era

So, I asked DGT for a favor last week while I was away. I asked if she would host the NFL challenge and look after the place while I was away. Little did I know that she would throw out all my stuff, move in and take the place over. After posting back-to-back wins (last week by only a point, but this week by a decisive 4 points) DGT now sits atop the leader board. I have fallen three points behind to second and maintain only a one point advantage over PiT and three points over Tom and Nat. Suddenly there is some room at the top as we head into the home stretch. Luckily my absence was temporary and so will be me time in second place. Congrats DGT... for now... (insert evil laugh. My throat is a little scratchy, so you'll have to do it yourself).

Monday, November 9, 2009

The two week sprint

What a whirlwind. The Wee One survived her weekend with my parents (although my parents looked more tired than she did by Sunday) with only a minor cold and a less minor full throttle vomiting in the back of my parent's car (something she has yet to do in our car). I guess leather seats clean up alright after all.

I think the biggest thing that going away makes you appreciate is how fast kids change. I saw the Wee One briefly on Wednesday morning, but otherwise had did not see her between Tuesday morning and Sunday evening. Even during that short amount of time she has added a number of words to her burgeoning vocab (including phrases like "more juice" and "more cookies", which are a direct result of a weekend at grandma's) and is putting words together much better. We are realizing that we have to be more and more careful about what we say around her, as little ears hear all. She's even putting concepts together, like when I grabbed a beer after work last week and she immediately pointed and said "Daddy's milk".

As much as we enjoyed our weekend away and some time hanging out in Big City, one incident on Sunday morning reminded us why we are happy living where we do. We were walking on the sidewalk and approached a cab where two parents and two kids were piling out. One of the kids was crying in rather dramatic fashion and his mother was trying to sooth him. They were dressed for church and getting out of the car in front of a small yard on the church grounds where kids were running around. Rather than pointing out the playing kids to her son, the mother said to him "Look honey. Grass!"

Now back to reality, meetings and deadlines. Oh my! I have two weeks before I travel again and a mountain of things to finish between now and then and one visiting speaker I will be entertaining for two days.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Time Out

After a 12.5 hour conference day yesterday, I'm ducking out early today. I'm pretty sure if I stayed for this whole thing I would be fried anyway, but I have a better obligation. I'm meeting my wife and we're going to spend the weekend together with no Wee One and no work. I sure as hell don't have time to take a weekend off, but that matters little right now. Starting at noon today and going through to Sunday, I'm not going to be thinking about work. At all. Sorry deadlines, sorry editors, sorry giant unread thesis, but you don't make the cut this weekend. See you on Monday.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Conference observations

Seriously, I can't go through the motions of that conversation any more. The one that starts out with a backhanded joke about the science of someone who gets Moore Foundation money (or other equivalents) and proceeds into a discussion (or monolog in some cases) about how much better their science would be in they took X or Y into account. The most popular target seems to be Craig Venter, of the human genome and Global Ocean Survey fame. Sure, he's a narcissist and yes, it's a bad idea to only sample the world's oceans at 2m, but we know this and I can't take rehashing it again. The most prominent offenders are almost always people who use the massive amounts of data Venter has been a force in creating, in their own work. Could it be a better resources? Probably, but I find myself feeling like I'm talking to people who don't vote but complain about politicians. If you don't like it, do something about it and stop complaining to me.

Can we institute some sort of licensing for the use of AV projection equipment that needs to be renewed every couple of years? It could be like a diver's license, where one would have to show functionality with the equipment at first, but then occasionally re-demonstrate their ability to use said equipment safely. After the age of 55, maybe it's important to demonstrate this more regularly, so that you don't get up in front of an audience and cause some massive technology pile-up. No! Don't hit the "black screen" button and then look bewildered for 30 seconds before a grad student fixes it, again!

Like I said last night, this isn't my crowd. What has been really interesting is the importance of lineage in this group. "Who did you work with?" is a regular question if the information isn't volunteered early in conversation (often it is). I can't figure out if I'm noticing this more because I don't know a lot of these people or if this behavior is indeed, unlike the circles I normally travel in, but there is no question there is huge importance on who knows who here. If someone's supervisor is not quickly recognized, a long explanation ensues to place the person's supervisor in the greater context of the field. This is curious behavior to me, but I suspect fairly common.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Swimming in unfamiliar waters

Part of my travels this week includes attending a meeting that I have been invited to because of what I do. I realize this isn't odd, I'm not here because the meeting is on the topic I study, in fact the opposite. I'm the token researcher doing-something-everyone-else-is-not, here to provide a different perspective. It means that I know a lot of these people only by name (and vaguely in most cases), but I'm never met more than a couple of them.

I don't have a problem with this from a social perspective, but from a science perspective is fucking tiring. I find myself constantly trying to decipher the, only mildly familiar, jargon from related fields to mine. There are some big names here and I'm trying not to piss anyone off by asking "So... what do you do?" I know some of these dudes (and it's almost all dudes here) have made big contributions, but again, this ain't my field. I'm already sick of hearing about some of the typical model systems and the talks haven't even started. In any case, I'm exhausted and this has barely begun.

Day one of travel (yesterday) resulted in my wife being called by daycare at noon because the Wee One slipped on a ball and went face-first into a brick wall. She ate her lunch, but the caretaker was concerned about the swelling and didn't want to risk having her nap there! Thanks guys, lots of help. Break the kid then get rid of her in case she gets any worse. Luckily she was fine, if not a bit swollen. She woke up this morning with minimal lasting damage.

2.5 days left before the weekend...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stick Sharpening

I will be traveling the rest of the week, checking in here and there. Since travel for me = disaster at home, I'm sure I'll have something to talk about. Over this weekend, during which traditionally I get a preview of what my phone calls home will be like, the Wee One slammed her head on a rocking chair, leaving a solid welt, and may have contracted pink eye (not both at the same time). I fully expect to also have pink eye starting probably tomorrow, when I head out to give a seminar and meet a bunch of people. That always makes a good conversation starter.

And in case you would think that I have the ability to learn from previous incidents, I have even planned a weekend get-away for my wife and I in a place we can meet when my traveling is done. It'll be the first time we're away without the Wee One, which will be fun and slightly stressful. In my infinite wisdom however, I thought it would be a good idea to save some money and commit to our hotel room in a non-refundable way. It's like I'm poking fate right in the eye with a pointy stick.

In a related note, I won't be around to announce this week's winner of the NFL Challenge, so DGT has graciously agreed to host tomorrow. So, if you're looking for Week 8 results, head over yonder.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Something scary

With Halloween this weekend, I thought I would post about something that recently scared the crap out of me: Coming up with my own Big Idea.

As a grad student and postdoc, it's essential that you are always coming up with your own ideas, but you have the net of working in a lab with an established theme and having lots of people around working on related things to bounce ideas off of. Then you start applying for jobs and have face the fact that you need to sell yourself on your own ideas. Some people might be able to leave their postdoc labs with projects of their own design are will continue working along those lines. That's great if you can pull it off and it will sure make your life easier. Of course, I didn't do that.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to take advantage of my fairly diverse training in order to come up with a novel research program to pursue, but coming up with an independent and exciting research direction is a daunting task. I had lots of ideas, but either they borrowed heavily from what I was doing at the time (and I didn't want to compete with my PDF advisor in my early career) or I wasn't excited by them. This went on for a couple of weeks. Reading. Thinking. Repeat. It sucked, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was going to end up either doing research that only slightly excited me and 6 other people in the world, or not doing research at all because no one wants to hire someone with boring ideas.

So, I took a different approach. I started thinking of it like a layered database, where the top layers were huge questions that could not be directly tackled and each successive layer below became more and more tractable from a research standpoint. You can't write a grant proposal saying you want to cure cancer, but you can say that you will use XX cell line to understand YY process with the ultimate goal of making headway towards treatments for a certain type of cancer. My problem was that I was looking at the top and bottom layer and couldn't connect them until I used this approach to think about it.

I started with a broadly-observed phenomenon that I was very familiar with from the work I was doing as a PDF and tried to figure out ways to explain how things transition between the normal and altered state. In order to do that, I decided to look outside the systems that people had used to make the observations and identify a system where the actual transition was ongoing. The search for the right system led me back to my PhD training, where I was introduced to a truly unique system that hadn't been worked on in years. With my question and system in hand, all I needed was methodology to make the observations I needed and do the experiments to test the system, much of which I had learned as a PDF.

In retrospect, it all makes sense but I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to see how I could carve out my own scientific niche. And hell, I haven't gotten anyone to pay me to pursue these ideas yet, so they might still all be crap. But I do know for a fact that my questions and the unique system I am using to go after them had enough of a "wow factor" to make a big difference during interviews for a job.

That's just my experience, but I doubt I am alone in facing the daunting task of making a research program one's own. It's unbelievably scary to feel like you can't come up with the one original question that you will need to make your mark, but having a broad knowledge base and getting into some of the older literature is what allowed me to piece things together. It's an exciting time when you;re finally on to something that you can turn into a unique research program.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Range of busy

DrDrA had a post the other day about journal club and in it, voiced something that has been going through my head as of late. In it, she states:

Now don’t even tell me you were too busy to read the paper- you won’t find any sympathy from me on this one. I’ll bet you a million bucks that you and I don’t even measure busy on the same scale...

More than making me laugh, that particular point drove home something that I've been feeling for some time. That is, even when you think you're maxed out, someone will come along and drop another straw on the pile. I think over time we adjust to this (for better or worse) leading to her sentiment above. The longer you're in this gig, the more deadlines and workload you have to handle, so being "busy" becomes a sliding scale. For those of you who prefer figures, I submit this:

Figure 1. A fair warning to students who want to keep at this.

I remember when I used to complain about how busy I was to my PhD supervisor and he would just laugh and say "You don't know busy". At the time, I thought "If he only knew what I'm dealing with!" but of course, he did. And of course, I now chuckle at the complaints of being busy that I hear from trainees. It's like the circle of life... but different. And with fewer baboons.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Identity crisis; the littlest hobo

If you've been reading here for a bit, you may remember that the college my department is in is currently in the middle of a giant clusterfuck reorganization. Essentially, we're moving from a traditional departmental structure to a system that divorces the grad and undergrad curricula and organizes the faculty by their grad program affiliation. In a large and diverse college, we are going to end up with 11 undergrad degrees and 4 graduate concentrations. Faculty are being asked to self-identify with graduate groups and organize the program from the ground up and to a large extent, this process is going surprisingly well.

Some of the current departments are being absorbed, whole-hog, into the new grad groups, whereas in others, like mine, the faculty are dispersing among the four programs. From my perspective, it's nice that I don't feel any pressure to follow the rest of my department into one section, but I find my research interests (and the projects I currently have students working on) evenly split between two proposed graduate groups. This is significant because we are being asked to declare a "primary" affiliation for voting rights and resource allocation (i.e.TA support), so any students I have will have to follow the rules of my primary group. If, generally speaking, I work on "Produce", I'm essentially being asked to choose a "fruits" grad group or a "vegetables" one, and I'm kinda stuck. So I began weighing the pros and cons of each.

The fruits grad group is essentially one current department plus a number of people from other departments who are coming in. A few from my department are making this transition, but the situation inherently makes me nervous for three reasons. 1) The majority of the group have already been interacting as a department for years, and if you've ever seen Survivor, you know how that works out for the new people. 2) The untenured faulty in the current fruits department are regularly frustrated with the actions or inactions of the tenured people in fruits, which brings me to, 3) The fruits grad group will be heavily populated by tenured faculty, many of whom are in their last ten or so years before retirement (You didn't think "fruits" was an arbitrary name, did you?). The combination of these factors concerns me. A lot. However, my lab probably fits in the fruits section best, if I had to choose at gunpoint.

The vegetables grad group will be a mish-mosh of people from several departments, with a pretty even spread in age and rank. The eldest faculty are research active individuals whom I respect. However, although the group looks big in a meeting, the number of primary affiliates may end up being the smallest of the four grad groups. Maybe that's a good thing, but it will depend on how resources are meted out (which has not yet been determined) and how much influence a smaller group will have on the whole. The composition of the people in the vegetables group will likely be a better fit for me.

Obviously there are some other politics involved that I don't want to get into, but for the moment I'm left with a fairly major decision to make and feeling torn.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

NFL Week 7, threesome addition

We have some stability returning to the picks this week, with scores ranging from 5 - 9, and all but two of the scores clustered between 7 and 9. Tom is this week's winner win 9 points and a win in the tiebreaker between himself, Genomic Repairman and Damn Good Technician. That also means that Tom is the first to pull off three wins this season and the second to post a back-to-back. With the win he pulls into a tie for second place with PiT and the rest of the pack trailing closely, like hungry wolves follow an injured deer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wait, I have an idea!

I'm going to create a phone that has all the bells and whistles. It's going to look all high-tech with it's digital display and even require an ethernet port instead of a phone line. It'll will have all the features that anyone might need, except one. Even though I'm going to put a speaker on it for speaker phone, I'm not going to add a microphone. I mean, why would people actually want to talk during a conversation in which they are using speaker phone? Isn't it way more convenient to have to turn the speaker phone off and use the headset every time one wants to communicate with the person on the other end of the line? Surely, if you are using speaker phone, it's not because you have a couple people in your office who would like to participate in the conversation, it's just to listen in on a monolog being delivered by someone far away. And what better way to get close to your colleagues than a game of "Pass the Headset, Tell Me When To Hit The Button"?

Wait, what? Cisco already made that phone? Oh right, it's the one on my desk. I knew I got that fucking brilliant idea from somewhere.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Most Posting

Dr. No, has thrown down a gauntlet suggested a meme that got me thinking. Dr. No has requested the information in bold below, and since I should be writing and will take any excuse to procrastinate, I've got my answers.

Most Liked Post? (by you)
This one took me the longest to figure out, but I settled on starting the Sciblogs NFL pool, because that's been a lot of fun. That narrowly edged one of my new favorite products and the why are you reading meme, because that was interesting to get feedback from a number of people who had not previously commented.

Most Liked Post? (based on readers comments or hits)
I think my post on NSF Boarder Impacts, based on the hits. If you google that phrase, it actually shows up second, behind NSF itself, which I find hard to believe.

Most Memorable Post?
That would have to be after realizing that Drug Monkey had blog rolled me and all of a sudden my readership increased by an order of magnitude, maybe more. I never really expected many readers, but all of a sudden they were there.

Most Indicative of Your Blog Identity Post?
Maybe my early post on sales reps. I was still kinda figuring the blog out and that post helped me hit my stride.

Most Humorous Post?
Hmmm, I guess poop is always funny. This post actually gets a lot of hits from people using the search term "long hair lab hazard", which always makes me laugh when I imagine their reaction to clicking the link.
Nudity is also funny and people seemed to delight in my inability to not blurt out what I'm thinking in my locker room post.

Most Regrettable Post?
I got rid of most of the posts in which I talked about my department directly. I put a bit too much faith in the thin veil of pseudanonymity and although I didn't get burned by it, I left the door wide open.

Most Misunderstood Post?
Probably my post in reaction to anonymous commenter letting me know they had figured out who I was. It was a little too knee-jerk and not thought through well enough. It came across as angry when I actually was just more upset that the commenter hadn't gone about things differently. It wasn't meant to be an attack, although it came across that way. The commenter and I chatted by email and worked everything out. A mistake by both of us, but I handled it poorly. I guess this could go in the category above as well.

Most Satisfying to Write Post?
I'm not sure satisfying is the right word, but venting about my frustrations with a recent round of grant reviews at least gave me a venue in which to freak out without terrifying my students or colleagues. It's also the post where I was left feeling the most naked, and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

Most Likely To Never Be Posted Post?
I never leave posts on the shelf. If I think it's worth going up I send it, for better or for worse. However, you will never see criticism of my students here.

Most Important Post?
Do I have "important"posts. Probably not, but the most important to me was probably my post of my daughter's anxiety over moving because it resulted in some really helpful advice over email.

Most *Adjective of Your Choice* (I choose "Euro-angry") Post?
My post on the ridiculous evolution video put together by a European group based in Germany received an irate response from one of it's creators that required a series of back-and-forth long emails to sort out. We never really agreed that it was effective and my complaints about diversity and understandability were not really heard, but I haven't really received hate mail like that for anything else I've posted.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

1 Year + 1 Day

A year ago (+ 1 day) I started this blog. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought it might help others avoid any mistakes I've made, but in reality it's probably helped me more than anyone else. One could argue that taking time to do this is keeping me from spending my limited time doing job stuff, but I would counter that not only is this mostly job stuff, but getting feedback from all of the readers and other bloggers has probably saved me a decent amount of time figuring things out in another way. At the very least, it's a wash on the time side of things and this blog has allowed me to develop a number of great relationships with people I otherwise would likely never meet. We're an odd little community, but one that I'm glad I've joined.

Thanks for coming and thanks for letting me give and take advice, vent, celebrate and laugh with all of you.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Uncomfortable evaluation

I'll start this post out by saying that my Employment U. does Tenure and Promotion different than most. By contract the entire department is involved in the evaluation of all faculty, whether they submit an annual review (Asst. Profs), a tenure package or a semi-annual review (tenured profs). In a given year the department may have 4-6 people being reviewed, all at different stages on the ladder.

This is both a good and bad thing to me. It's certainly nice to have a better feel for the evaluation process and how things work. It turns out that there is no meeting in an underground chamber with candles and mead when it comes to tenure decisions. No conversations with hoods pulled down to obscure half the speaker's face.

I know, I'm a little bummed out that doesn't happen too. I totally thought there was a secret tenure chamber under the old lecture hall.

In any case, it's a bit odd being asked to provide comments on colleagues and their accomplishments after being here for a year. I don't really know the expectations unless I look around at who recently got tenure. Even in that case, our department is diverse enough that a candidate in one year might have a very different CV from one in the next. Some people's research costs $2000 per year and others need $800,000. Teaching expectations are different, depending on one's field, when a person joined the department and how aggressively someone negotiated to get teaching release when they were hired. There is no text book example of some who should get tenure, and I don't think my department is unique in that regard.

I'm sure the older faculty have a better feel for what does and does not fly when it comes to tenure and part of the annual review is to let untenured faculty know when they are off course. But I'm still being asked to evaluate everyone else and that makes me feel a little uneasy. They will never see my signed evaluation, but the chair does and part of me feels like I'm being evaluated on my ability to evaluate, if that makes any sense at all. Maybe it's just that untenured faculty feel like everything is a test, but not only am I thinking about each candidate, I'm also trying to figure out how my comments on each reflects back on me.

No wonder why I never get anything done.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why do I even look?

Damnit, I just looked at the NSF panel meeting dates and figured out that the panel for my solo grant met this week and the one for the collaborative grant meets within the next week. Now I get to have that split second of excitement every time the phone rings, only to realize that it's a colleague asking me to do something. Aaahhhhhhhh! I hate this part!

You have your....

Over the past couple of years I've noticed a presentation style creeping into meetings and conferences: people using second person. I don't know if that's a "style" or not, but until 3 or 4 years ago I don't recall anyone giving a presentation in the second person.

The first time I hear this was during a grad student departmental seminar. The student and I were friends and during their practice talk I pointed the second person usage out and we joked about it. During the actual presentation, the student lapsed into second person only a couple of times, correcting themselves on a couple of occasions.

Later I started hearing it in other student talks and finally, to my abject horror, I realized during a talk that I was giving that I slipped into second person while describing a figure. I think I said something to the effect of "In this figure you have your donuts here and pastries here..."

Wasn't I just joking with a student about their odd usage of second person and here I am doing the same thing? What am I doing?

Since then I have seen the same phenomenon growing in prevalence at conferences and the other night even saw it in TV show where someone was giving a presentation. What is going on?

Is there a general shift in the way people are communicating to an audience or was I just wearing second-person-cancellation-headphones for a number of years? Has anyone else noticed this?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why choose a lab?

As this semester rages on, we are drawing steadily closer to the time when grad school applications are due. Like many, I am trying to recruit students for next September and I started thinking about what makes a lab attractive to new students - in my case specifically, what makes a new lab attractive to students?

My experience was probably unusual and may not provide the best example. I was involved in research as an undergrad for a couple of years and realized that I wanted to go on and get a PhD. I asked my undergrad supervisor who he would recommend based on what he knew of the field and he gave me a list of names. I started there, made some contacts and arranged to speak to each one in person (which included some interesting road trips). I hit it off with one and the person had space in the lab and that was that.

For me, the strongest factor in my decision was the recommendation of my advisor. My personal interaction with potential grad mentors meant a lot, but the initial recommendation was really key to getting me started since the field I was joining is manageably small . I imagine, however, that most people don't go about choosing a lab in that way for a number of reasons, but how many students in their senior year know exactly what they want to go do and have the guidance to get there? If, for instance, a students likes biochemistry are they just applying to the top biochem programs that includes PIs in a field they think they want to pursue?

So, I would like to find out from you why you chose the lab you are in or got your degree from? Was it a good choice and would you do it differently now? Was it the subject or PI that got you interested? How much did suggestions from others influence you?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NFL week 6: Snake in a bag addition

Brutal week for the NFL pool and brutal week for my eyes. We'll get to the pool in a minute, but there's something that's been haunting me since last night. Did anyone else watch the first half of the MNF game last night? Well, if you were tuned in with about 7 minutes left before halftime, you would have seen a tribute to the great QB and coach, Sid Luckman. Now I have nothing against the late Sid, but I have a bone to pick with ESPNs MNF producers.

Of all the footage of Sid available out there, rather than pick some football highlights or show ways in which his coaching ideas changed the game, the decided to pull out of the archives some instructional video from the 70s that Sid filmed for aspiring young QBs. At the opening of the clip we see Sid from behind, bent down as though receiving the ball from a center. The man is wearing white knee socks (literally), a t-shirt, foam-front-mesh-back trucker hat and a pair of loose gray cotton shorts, complete with vertical sweat line in the rear center. Whatever, the man is playing sports and people sweat, fine. BUT. Then he turns and does what seems like an 87-step drop back and the man has NO underwear on. Nothing under those loose cotton shorts. And for way too long he's running sideways facing the camera with his junk just flying around like an angry snake caught in a cotton bag. I swear, if that shit were in 3D I would have tried to save the cat from getting hit.

Damnit ESPN. I have a decent size HDTV and you throw that at me? WTF? Even the booth guys were trying to hold it together after the clip, with Gruden finally acknowledging the elephant in the room by asking Jaws if he had to wear those shorts to the tribute dinner. Did they not have underwear in the 70s? I'm pretty sure it was available. Was it made of wood chips or something, because that's the only excuse I can come up with. Was the producer just trying to mess with the booth guys or was it some nefarious plot to get 90% of the audience to rush to throw Commet in their eyes? Unfortunately, not even that gritty burning can make me unsee that footage.

As for the picks, basically most people did the equivalent of throwing soap in their eyes. Tom@microworld pulled off the win with 9 points, AA came in second with 8 and then there was a three-way tie for third between myself, PiT and CE with 7 points. It gets ugly after that, where a rash of 5s breaks out and there was no Benadryl to be found. The leader board remains largely unchanged. I'm steering the ship (45pts), with PiT as first mate (44pts) and Tom as the head chef (43pts). Alyssa is working as the quartermaster (41pts) and then there's a lot of people swabbing the decks (40-33pts). Cleaning the latrines in high seas is Tideliar (31pts).

Congratulations to Tom for this week and I hope the scars fade soon for those of you watching last night.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Your thesis means nothing. Worry about the papers.

Whether it's tradition or a lack of well communicated expectations, grad students seem to be enormously focused on The Thesis. Students fixate on this document for months before writing it and then for weeks to months of actually writing it. I have to say, I've never quite understood that, because if you had to put odds on the people who will read your whole thesis it would look something like this:

2:1 Advisor
3:1 Committee/Examiners
10:1 Over-eager new student who takes on aspects of your project when you leave
1,000:1 You, after it's done.
100,000:1 Your parents
1238947692092y47nc783et687:1 Everyone else

When I got my thesis back from the binders, I opened it up and read the first sentence. In that sentence, I had a typo that made the word "three" into "tree". Seeing that, I promptly shut the thing and that was that. Never opened again.

The one caveat to this is if you never publish the papers. In that case, the community might find it and someone might crack it open, but probably not. But that's the point. Uncommunicated science might as well never have been done in the first place. Get the papers out. Don't focus on an arcane document that will gather dust for the next 50 years until the departmental office needs space and throws the old ones out. Write the papers, or at least write the chapters as papers so you can get them out quickly after the thesis. If you publish before you graduate, writing your thesis should be about as simple as slapping together a half-assed intro and conclusion (complete with typos that no one catches) and be done with it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sorry about all the hamsters

I just had a web demo with a company that I am thinking of contracting for services. The demo was the type where you connect via a web portal and their technical staff can run you through their system by showing you their desktop. When the technician got on the phone with me and superimposed his desktop onto mine he closed a few windows to clean up his menu bar. For about five seconds or so, his email was up with a message open in the inbox. It contained a single line in large text.

Sorry about all the hamsters.

I didn't ask him about it, but don't think my mind wasn't wandering during his presentation, coming up with colorful scenarios after which one might receive such an email.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Gone Fishing. Or whatever you want to believe

Like a few other young'uns out there, my To Do list is growing faster than I can actually DO anything. Recently, just being in my office is good for about 2 hours worth of random shit I don't want to do each day so I'm trying the hide out approach. Our new house has an actual office space nestled away in the finished basement. It's got everything I need, and importantly, one thing I don't - a phone. My cell phone doesn't even get reception down here and few people even have my home phone, mostly because I can't even remember the damn number. So today is for sitting with my laptop, unshowered with a pot of coffee brewing and just writing. Not emails, not evaluations or reports, not minutes of some meeting I was barely paying attention at, not a section of a grant that I won't even get money from. No. I'm writing stuff for me today. Come back tomorrow with your crap that you couldn't find someone else to do.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NFL week 5: tiebreaker addition

For the second straight week, Candid Engineer has swiped a victory by winning the tie breaker, this time besting myself and Chall for the week win with 8 points. CE becomes the first person to win two weeks and did so in back-to-back fashion. This week the trophy stays put.

The leader board has not been shaken, but certainly stirred. PiT's system is showing some cracks with only 5 wins this week, but she remains in second place trailing me by only one point. In a possibly related development, last week I received an unmarked package filled with plastic farm animals making obscene gestures.

Only 4 points separates the top 8 players. Is this the week that there's a change at the top?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Job link and education resources

I'm in an ugly stretch of vultures picking at the bony courpse of my time right now, so I'm posting two links that might be interesting to readers. The first is a job post that was sent to me from a friend and the second is a resource some might find useful for teaching.

Job Posting" Molecular Pharmacology at Purdue University

What someone in the department had to say about being a faculty member there:

"We REALLY REALLY want to reach out particularly to the women and minority scientist community to get diverse applicants The only real requirement (science-wise) we have for this position is that we need someone to pick up the torch for teaching pharmacology courses: the current course directors and lecturers on those topics are either getting tangled up in administrative positions or getting close to retirement. Other than that, we're hoping for some interesting, innovative biology-type stuff but keeping our minds open.

As monocultural as my department looks on paper, everyone here is really cool people, we have a great atmosphere and a very friendly, down-to-earth departmental community. People here TRULY COLLABORATE without fearing for their independence. I have been welcomed without hesitation into the group and feel very at home here, and our department head is really fantastic. In general people here are just straight-up folks. We have a formalized junior faculty mentorship program as well as an informal weekly lunch together that I have found totally invaluable to getting on my feet. Our tenure requirements are very rigorous, but everyone seems to be doing their best to help each other make it through (rather than trying to turf each other out). All in all, I think this is an excellent place to start a career and I couldn't be happier with my choice to join this department."

I also recently received this link to a blog for the 100 Best Open Source Apps for Educators. You may find some interesting new tools there.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

New NSF stats

NSF just released their funding stats for 2008 (now that it's almost 2010) and throughout the document they make comparisons back to 2001. If you are applying to NSF anytime soon the document is worth looking over, but there are a few trends that jump out right away.

1) It should be no surprise to anyone that overall funding rates are down from 2001, but only by 6%. The total successful funding rate in 2008 was 25% for all PI's, with women being 27% successful and a rate of 25% for men. In a stat that hits close to home, "new" PIs only had a 19% success rate. In this case, "new" refers to any investigator who has not previously had an NSF grant as a PI (meaning that Doctoral Improvement grants and Postdoc fellowships don't count). I don't know whether this is due to experience or something more along the lines of the issues at NIH that Drugmonkey has been discussing, but it is certainly not receiving the kind of attention that the similar NIH phenomenon has been.

2) There is also a large disparity between NSF's Top 100 (the 100 most funded PhD-granting programs) and everyone else. Among researchers at a Top 100 university, the success rate was 27%, whereas it was 18% everywhere else. Obviously the confounding factor here is that one can argue that the people with the most successful or promising research will end up at a Top 100 university and also be more competitive for funding, but I thought it was an interesting observation.

3) The number of funded multi-investigator grants has increased marginally, but the number of funded single-investigator proposals has dropped by nearly 25% between 2001 and 2008. One might assume that the focus on collaborative research might push the multi-investigator grants up at the expense of individual grants, but this doesn't seem to be the case unless the number of PIs per grant has gone up from two to >2, but those data are not provided.

4) One thing that I found very surprising was the number of grants per PI. In the fiscal years 2006-08, 83% of PIs had one grant! That left 13% with two grants, 3% with three and 1% with four or more. As someone who has three very different projects that they are trying to get funded and has been talking with a colleague about a fourth, I'm not sure what to make of those numbers. If nothing else, it concerns me that reviewers might balk at a proposal just based on the number of grants held by a PI. Now, I'm not thinking that everything I am submitting will eventually get funded in the next year, but if these projects weren't fundable in my opinion, I wouldn't be wasting my time. Perhaps people who have served on a couple of panels (*cough* Odyssey? *cough*) might shed some light on the perception of when someone has "too much" funding.

5) Anyone on the postdoc market also won't be surprised to hear that whereas the number of senior personnel and grad students supported has gone up by 52% and 23%, respectively, the number of postdoc positions supported on grants has actually dropped by 10% since 2001! This stat sucks for a lot of reasons, but makes it clear where the squeeze is in terms of positions right now. Congrats, here's your PhD and your Dairy Queen visor!

6) Yet another stat that might be expected: it's getting harder to get grants on the first or even second try. The average number of times a proposal gets submitted before it gets funded is up from 1.8 to 2.2. Not a massive jump, but it reflects the fact that fewer grants are being funded on the first go and more are going back in for a third round.

7) Finally, good reviews are not what they used to be. The number of declined proposals that scored very well is up in a big way. In fact 1 in 4 proposals that receive an "Excellent" rating are not being funded. 57% of proposals that are rated between very good and excellent are declined and if your proposal falls in the range of good to very good, your chances of getting money are only 12.5%. So, even if your proposal is rated in the highest category there is still a 20% chance you will get back your reviews and scratch your head to figure out how the hell you are going to make improvement for the next round.

Take it for what it's worth, but it's data that you may be able to use.