Monday, March 30, 2009

The most terrifying sound...

Is the sound of high-speed crawling when you thought you could sneak away long enough to pee. This is because high-speed crawling = getting into something I know is bad. After a week of day care the inevitable cold struck yesterday with a vengeance. The Wee One woke up this morning even sicker than she went to bed, which is saying something. So, with Wife-like Substance establishing herself in a new office, we decided to split the day at home with the Wee One. The good news is that I got to spend all morning with her, even if she isn't feeling all that well. The bad news is that I now know what it's like to be a Kleenex. The poor kid must have lost 3 pounds of body weight in snot this morning. I can't wait until this catches up with WLS and myself. Looks like I'm not planning anything big for the end of the week.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reducing the grant review burden

An interesting news item came up in today's Science (p. 1657) regarding a controversial new policy being put into place by the U.K.'s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

"After rejecting options such as charging for proposal submissions or placing quotas on institutions, on 12 March the council announced a new policy to ban from any EPSRC funding consideration, for a year or even longer, any principal investigators who have "Three or more proposals within a 2-year period ranked in the bottom half of a funding prioritisation list or rejected before panel [without review]; AND An overall personal success rate of less than 25%." EPSRC notes that this policy should exclude about 200 to 250 people and is retroactive: Letters to those excluded go out on 1 April, and their proposals won't be considered after 1 June."

Now I have to confess that I don't know much about EPSRC and the number of grants that one might be expected to submit there in a two year period, but if NSF were to put this policy in place it would completely change the way I apply for funding. As of right now, I have two different grants under consideration at NSF and I plan to submit another in July. I submitted my first one last July, before I arrived here, and that one was not funded and did not receive very high ratings because of the lack of preliminary data. If the resubmitted version of this grant (submitted in January) and the most recent grant that just went in (two weeks ago) were to be similarly ranked, I would essentially be shut out from funding for the following two years. Rather than getting feedback on different proposals that as a new investigator, I would instead either have to change my research focus and apply to a different agency (a scenario where having preliminary data would be unlikely) or be looking at shutting down the lab and finding work elsewhere.

I can understand that certain researchers might be frustrating the panels with poorly written proposals, but there is a very high chance of new investigators getting caught in the cross-fire here, unless the "overall personal success rate of less than 25%." protects new investigators. This seems like a dangerous precedent to start.

OMG! Employment U might be taking research seriously!

A major complaint from researchers here at Employment U. has been the cost of grad students on our grant budgets. The reason for this is that Employment U. charges an absurd rate for out-of-state tuition, which must be budgeted for if one is including an RA in a grant budget. Last night I got an emailed memo from the Provost's Office letting the university know that they are creating a "Graduate Research Tuition Differential Fellowship", which will basically make up the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for anyone on an externally funded RA.

Why is this the best news I've gotten in a few weeks?

- Taking this year's tuition as an example, the new initiative would save my budget more than $58K over a three year grant... PER STUDENT!

- This makes our grants more competitive from a $ per unit effort standpoint.

- In past proposals I have had to put in full RAs only for one year or split them between students in order to keep my budget under control. This would effectively eliminate the need to do this.

- While I have nothing against having students TA a bit, making RAs more affordable to grants means that students will be able to spend more time in the lab during their careers here.

- Finally, it suggests that the new Provost is actually going to act on his promises to make it easier to do research here and gives me hope that our proposal to reduce the number of course credits our students have to take might not be roundly ignored.

New building, new focus on research, proposals to reduce research-active faculty teaching. I think I got here at the right time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Actual Conversation

Dazed & Confused Student - "Um, excuse me... Do you know if Dr. X is around?"

PLS - "Have you checked her office?"

DCS - "Um, yeah. It's dark. Do you know where she is?"

PLS - "No, I don't typically stalk my colleagues."

DCS - "What?"

PLS - "Nevermind. I don't know where she is."

DCS - "Do you know if she will be in this after lunch?"

PLS - *suppressing building rage* "I don't know her schedule."

DCS - "I have a question about the test this afternoon in her class."

PLS - *blank stare*

DCS - "uh, do you know genetics?"

PLS - *brain combing through a battery of possible responses, including:
"Sorry, never met him."
"I'm just the IT guy setting this computer up."
"Can you hold on, I'm just about to win this Ebay auction for the ball gag my boyfriend wants."
"Oh, I think I had that once. The itch wasn't as bad as the open sores"
"Could you close my door?"
"I think the real question here is why you would wear a full sweat suit outside of either your house or the gym."*
Actual response: "I think Dr. X would be the best person to answer your question since she is writing the exam. I would try politely emailing her."

Some days I wonder how soon I will lose my brain-to-mouth filter and get myself fired....

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fixing it after the fact

The grant I had been working on prior to leaving for the week was due last Monday. As predicted, there were a bunch of issues in submitting the grant, but it went in well before the deadline. On Wednesday, I got the final copy of the grant from my Senior Colleague (SC), through whose university the grant was submitted and in whose hands I had left the final stages of grant prep. Essentially, I provided all of my documents, some of SC's documents (because I'm good like that) and about 95% of the text to SC with the understanding that SC would add in the final pieces of the puzzle (as per previous agreement) and get it in. What I got back surprised me. I opened the document to find the following "oversights":

1) SC used the project summary I had thrown together for my finance people to get the grant signed off on here, rather than the one that he had "almost done" on Friday. If i had know it was going to be used, I would have put more time into it.

2) There were several formatting issues, including some text I had highlighted in red for SC to recognize and deal with, still in red.

3) The spacing is totally fucked up in parts, making it look awkward. I know this isn't a huge deal, but I like to make the text look good in the end because it suggests that I care. When I review grants that look like they have been put together in a hurry or are sloppy, I notice. I don't like to be that guy.

4) The text ends halfway through the last page. Again, I know this is aesthetic, but I fix this stuff when I submit a grant. Now it looks like we didn't have enough to say to fill the space. I would have changed the spacing or enlarged figures to make the text "just" fit.

5) Most importantly, SC did not add my "pending support" form, nor the one I had almost entirely filled out for him in the format that wanted, but instead used a written out one that simply listed me as "new investigator". I have two other grants submitted, and now they are not listed at all. I think I'm going to have to call the PO about this one and see if I can get that fixed. Suggestions?

I keep telling myself that if the grant gets funded my lab will be fairly autonomous in the grant structure and I won't have to deal with some of SC's "issues", but I know that this is going to be a problem for a while. I think this project is important enough to deal with this, but I'm not looking forward to it. Now to look up the PO's number so I can see what to do about the pending support form.

Back in the mix

Got back on Saturday night and had yesterday to hang out with WLS and the Wee One and generally prep for this week. Not only am I playing catch-up today, but this is Day 1 of full-time day care for the Wee One and Day 1 of new job for WLS. I also had a PhD candidate accept today for a September start (which will give me three students in the lab this fall) and I have to straighten out some "situations" with the grant that got submitted in my absence (more on that latter). Let's just say I'll be looking forward to a beer this evening.

I also wanted to offer my congratulations to Prof. Chaos on her pregnancy and hopefully her more regular return to blogging after a difficult couple of weeks. We'll be looking forward to her updates.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

More notes from the field.

>To the guy who helps us tremendously while we are here - Thanks for everything you do above and beyond what is in your job description. You could easily blow us off and not provide the tremendous help that you do, but instead you give us as much time as we need and facilitate all the work we do. Without your help we would get half the amount of stuff done that we do.

>To the customs officer you searched all my stuff - Based on the fact that I have been searched on 11 of my 13 trips to your country, we disagree on the definition of "random". I could work out the probability of me being the only person from my plane chosen for "random" screening on 84.6% of my visits, but I didn't think you were in the mood for that and I wasn't in the mood to end up in the "little room". Nevertheless, you handled the proceedings with the good nature and humor of the majority of the populace here, and I appreciate that.

>To my colleague who I make these trips with - We've been working together for a long time and we know each other very well. At the same time, certain barriers are not a bad thing. For instance, I don't know during which meeting the open door pooping got approved, but I do not support public or semi-public deification. Perhaps our wives are not here, but we don't need to completely turn the room into a high school locker room. I'm sure we can co-exist just fine with a closed-door bathroom policy.

>To my wife - I appreciate everything you've had to put up with this week so that I can be here to do this. As if the vomiting child weren't enough in the single-parenting week before you start your new job, the fish tank that decided to blow a hole this week was probably unnecessary. I know it's been a tough week and I will make it up to you when I get back.

>To the bee that stung me while I was riding my scooter (the PLS conveyance of choice for these trips) - I don't know where you came from or how you got on my leg, but was it necessary to sting me on my knee for no particular reason. It's not real easy to pull out a stinger from one's leg while driving a scooter and the swelling has kinda sucked, though I guess it was better than your fate.

>To the moth that lodged into my helmet 5 minutes after the bee sting - I thought the impact killed you. It didn't. Crawling on my ear was kinda creepy though, sorry I pulled of my helmet and crushed you.

>To the gale force wind and rain. You tried to blow my scooter over several times. You succeeded in moving me all over the road, but I stayed vertical. Barely. The driving rain stinging my face was a nice touch, but to no avail. The days are packed with trips and we don't have the time for your shit.

After all, we're here for samples. Pain is temporary, publication is forever.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Work, travel and family

Why do work trips always seem to fall at the worst time? There always seems to be a nice slot on the calendar when you are planning the trip, then when life approaches that same spot on the same calendar, the situation has changed. I will be leaving all of next week for a research trip where I will have limited phone access and even more limited internet access. It's never fun to be away from my wife and the wee one for a week, but sometimes it's part of the job and the lab work I do is a direct result of trips like this. When it was panned, this was just another trip, but Murphy has his way of sticking a finger in your eye.

WLS recently got a job at Employment University, which is good but means that the wee one has to go to daycare. Obviously we would prefer to be able to take care of her during the day, but I'm not exactly getting paid enough for us to subsist on my salary alone indefinitely and WLS also wants to return to the workforce and realizes that the longer we wait, the harder it is going to be. That doesn't make it any easier to embrace the idea of daycare after a year of having the wee one home. And with all this going on, what day do you think WLS starts work? Luckily it's not this Monday, but it is the Monday right after I get home.

So, if you're keeping score at home, I am leaving for a sub-tropical location for the last full week that the wee one is home all day, which is the same week that my wife is prepping to go back to work after being home with the wee one for a year. I guess it's better than last year when I left WLS in a very snowy Postdoc City for a week, before we had a car, and while she was 7.5 months pregnant... over Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, that kind of improvement is not winning me any points.

The large burden I am placing on WLS for the week aside, the whole day care experience just underscores how quickly the wee one is growing (how long can I continue to use "wee one"?). Every parent says how quickly their kids grow up and it's a bit cliche, but it's a universal feeling for a reason. Seeing your child slowly becoming more independent is bitter-sweet and working the hours required in this job makes it even more poignant because of the precious hours we have to spend with our kids. I don't like working weekends when I could be playing with the wee one or going for a family hike, etc., but sometimes there just is no choice. I do everything I can to get home for dinner and bath time, as well as be around on the weekends, and most days I succeed. Will I regret my choices someday when the wee one is old enough to ask why I'm not there? I don't know. Striking a balance between getting things done at work and being happy with the time I have at home has been far and away the most difficult thing to deal with in this job so far. We're trained to write the grant and do the science and we can figure out the teaching because it's a topic we know and love. But time is the most precious commodity and I always seem to be running in the red.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Actual conversation

3:26 pm, March 11th.

PLS - So, I've united the two disjunct sections you sent me, cleared out redundancies, made two figures, written several sections and gotten the support letter from the organization we would like to have host the workshop we are proposing. I also moved all of the budget numbers out of FastLane and populated the cluster-fuck from with all the numbers, modified the budget to fit the scope of the program and put in as much information as I could. I haven't heard from you in 4 days since sending you the form and the instructions, have you had a chance to look it over.

Senior Colleague - No, not yet. I've been doing some thing around the house since it's spring break here.

PLS - okaaaaay, you realize that the grant is due Monday and I am leaving the country on Saturday, right?

SC - Yeah, no problem man, I'll just look over everything and get up to speed over the weekend. I'll fill in anything you don't finish and smooth it all out.

PLS - Smooth it all out? We're submitting a grant, not a table cloth, right?

SC - You know, I'll make it all flow.

PLS - How about your finance people? Are they all set to deal with this on Monday? Do they send many things in to

SC - They're registered, but they've never done it before. I'm sure it won't be a problem.

PLS - The form is pretty ugly man, I don't know how straight-forward it'll all be.

SC - Well, if I get it to them around noon, they'll have plenty of time to figure it out.

PLS - *pausing to keep head from exploding* SC, we really need to get this in. I can't wait until July to submit this thing in a different program. You wanted to be the lead institution (even though more money in the grant is going to my institution), so I'm depending on you getting this in while I am out of the country without email contact.

SC - No problem.

PLS *feeling storm clouds gathering overhead* Alrighty. Can you get me your section that you are working on by lunch tomorrow?

SC - Sure, it'll be there.

It's now 3:45 and I have no section, no email and no phone call. One day left before I leave the country and 85% of a grant done with little control over the final 15%. Dude. Fuck! sigh.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yes Please.

Time is growing short with this grant due very soon and a week long trip into the field starting on Saturday, but there has been some good news this week, seemingly out of the blue. Regular readers may recall that I have been on the hunt for a particular piece of equipment recently since the unit we were using went down a while back. That hunt has led me off campus and to places one shouldn't have to go to find a fairly normal piece of equipment. After two failed attempts to use external equipment and a torrent of emails I had resigned to waiting until ass-wipe sous chef tech could get off his ass and get the on campus equipment functional again (Note: When sous chef tech says that a piece of equipment is going to be down for "a while", don't for any reason think of calling back after three weeks to get an update. This will only provoke yet another sarcastic, condescension-filled, response in which you learn that the term "a while" can mean just about any length of time and that your time line is really not a concern to the Powers That Be at Core Facility.).

However, just the other day I happened to corner the mini-dean in charge of the building project and asked him what the status was of the piece of equipment that I need that was supposed to be bought for the new building. His response was that it was in the building on the loading dock and has been for three weeks! Would I like to be in charge of finding a home for it? Ah, I'll have to thi... Yes! After a couple of phone calls I was able to determine that no one else wanted it in their space and everyone was happy to have me be responsible for said equipment. So, it is now sitting in my lab and almost ready to go. We have to wait on the electrician to get the plug it needs into the wall, but that will be done this week. After that, I never have to wander over to Core Facility again! Yeah to being handed over $100K worth of equipment without question.

Monday, March 9, 2009 forms suck chapped baboon ass!

The grant I am in the process of applying for had a bit of an identity crisis about a month ago and some changes were made in how it is now being handled at the federal level. Instead of submitting through NSF, the program is under joint custody and therefore must be sent in via I never thought I would come across a system that would have me longing for NSF's Fastlane, but, you make pine for Fastlane with a deep, unsatisfied yearning that I had previously never known for an online submission tool. I can't believe that this Adobe form is the solution our government has come up with for the problem of receiving grants from labs across the country. This is how all you NIHers have to submit things? I realize that many of you have "peeps" to fill this crap out for you, but this form is still ridiculous.

I spent the weekend trying to figure out how everything fits in and the modifications in content we will have to make in order for everything to translate from the previous format to the new one. I also contacted both my grants office here and my collaborator on Sunday morning to make sure that everyone is on the same page since the budgeting is a bit of a nightmare. It's now 11:00, just as I am about to be consumed in meetings for the rest of the day, and I haven't heard back from either one. Apparently I am the only one who wants to get this sorted out before the last minute.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I guess I'm a "systems biologist"

The term "systems biology" has always been one of the amorphous buzz word categories that could be applied to just about anything, in my mind. For the longest time, I had no sweet clue what it actually meant, never meant anyone who could succinctly define it or knew who would raise their hand if you yelled out at a meeting "WHO HERE IS A SYSTEMS BIOLOGIST?" Imagine my surprise then when I recently came to the realization that if you ask nine colleagues and none of them are systems biologists, the systems biologist in the room must be you... er me.

I can't figure out if I'm an idiot for not knowing the broad category that some of research can be classified as or if NSF pulled some ninja shit on me and threw a box over my head when I was looking the other way. Part of the problem is that much of what we do doesn't fit neatly into one category, but instead leaves a smear through a neat classification scheme like a slug in an immaculate garden. I've written a bit about the kinds of research done in my lab, but we more chase down questions using whatever (usually obscure) organism(s) we think will be most suitable. I guess that means we work with "systems", but I never meant to, I swear. Well, I guess it's good to know that I should stop rolling my eyes every time I see a systems biology conference ad.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Day so Far (UPDATE)

It's 9:30am and I have already had what seems like a full day. I woke up this morning at 5:45 because the wee one was up and she lets no one sleep if she's not. My wife went downstairs to mix up a morning bottle for the wee one while I pulled her out of the crib. From downstairs I hear "the heat is not working". Something is wrong with our furnace and the house was cold and getting colder. Nice way to get things started.

At 6:00 I was in the bathroom and getting in the shower when our cat appeared carrying a mouse from the basement. I don't mind mice in the basement as long as they stay down there and don't get into our stuff. We haven't really had a problem as of yet and the cat seems to keep them honest. As most cats do, ours wanted a prominent display location and at my feet in bathroom seemed like the ideal spot. The only catch was that the mouse was still alive and bolted once dropped. With the cat in rapid pursuit, my wife and I spent 10 minutes running around the house with a bucket and broom like some deranged cleaning crew, trying to re-capture the rodent. We managed to get the scurrying beast outside and I finally got my shower in.

By 7:00 everyone was fed and I was in the car. I turned the key and the car started, but the tire pressure light is on now. Normally this wouldn't be a big deal because my drive to and from work is not all that far, but I have to give a seminar at a college about 45 minutes away this afternoon. Again, not a huge problem but unneeded.

At my desk by 7:20 because I was sick yesterday and wasn't sure if it was going it get better or worse and therefore did not finish my talk for today. I'm feeling better (yeah), but still had half a talk to put together (boo) and all with a my wife and child in a freezing house with no where to go since I took the car.

After 9:00 the furnace guy had been to the house and temporarily gotten the heat working. The fan is shot but we're renting so as long as it gets fixed today, I don't care. My wife also got offered a job at Employment University (yeah) but at a (non-negotiable) salary that was lower than she had been led to believe (boo). In this economy, it's better than a kick in the teeth, but now comes the reality of taking the wee one into day care, etc. We have all that set up, but now we have to brace for a disease pipeline directly to our house and the emotion of having someone else take care of the wee one after a year of being home. We'll also have to figure out a new daily and weekly routine to accommodate two of us working full time, etc, etc. Oh yeah, finish your talk.

9:30 and the talk is done and hopefully coherent. An hour until I leave to get there (on low tires) and I have four faculty meetings and a student lunch to go before I talk for an hour on a throat that is just coming back from feeling like I just got back from sword swallowing summer camp. How many hours until I can open a beer? A student lunch is probably an inappropriate venue for that...

I guess that furnace was a bigger issue than it looked. After getting back from the seminar I gave I got a call from WLS saying that the furnace guy told her that it would not be fixed until the next day and we would have to go to a hotel for the night. Some might see that as a nice opportunity to get away (at least that's how our landlord tried to sell it - "they have a pool at the hotel!") but when it is getting close to the wee one's bed time, we are scrambling to pack and figure out where we are being sent, haven't eaten ourselves and need to prep the house to survive the cold overnight, it is less fun than it sounds. Luckily we finagled a suite so that we could set up the pack n' play in an area that was not right next to our bed. We got take out sushi, bathed the wee one and were settling in. I fed her her goodnight bottle and was burping a very tired wee one when she let out a loud and squishy-ish burp. In parenting, this is known as the "oh shit" burp. I have heard this many times and despite being fully aware of what it indicates, the long day had worn my reactions down to a gnarled nub. As WLS yelled "bathroom!" from across the room I too slowly made my way to the tiled floor and two steps from an easy to clean surface, the wee one let lose with a foul combination of formula, pasta with marinara sauce and strawberries. The rug took the major damage but the tile was not spared, nor was my shirt, pants or socks. I managed to get to the sink for rounds two and three of purgefest, but the damage was already done. No one told me that parenthood would involve more puke than a year of college frat parties, but it does. We got everything cleaned up and the wee one back to bed, but the smell of that stuff sticks and the poor hotel staff has their work cut out for them. Hopefully we are back in our place tonight and can soil our own space.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Gratuitous self-citation guy

I am in the process of reviewing a review paper from a large lab in my field. They have given it a catchy title, but what it should really be called is "Stuff we have done in the last 10 years, with a tiny bit of new data thrown in because we didn't know what else to do with it". The paper endlessly cites previous lab publications without remorse and blatantly under-sells work by non-lab-affiliated people. Even as a review, the manuscript re-hashes points made in two papers already published in 2009 in high-profile journals, which of course, go uncited. I'm not surprised since it seems like this lab publishes 4 reviews for every data paper it churns out, but over 20% of their references are papers published in the lab. In a field where they were solely working that might no seem too bad, but in this case it is a little over the top. It's not the sheer quantity of self-citation, but also the placement. In any area of the paper where they have lab papers, it is those that are cited as examples, whereas papers of equal impact to the discussion, but from "competing" groups, are mentioned almost as an after-thought - as though they recoginize that a reviewer will call them on not citing those papers so they have them in there on their terms. Is this a blatant attempt to de-emphasize the contribution of others to the questions at hand or simply a case of knowing your own data better than that of other labs? While I want to believe the latter, the former seems to be jumping up and down, waving it's hands like a first-grader who wants permission to leave the class and go pee.