Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The PI's role as psychiatrist

I suspect that over the course of one's career a PI becomes less involved with the personal lives of their grad students. In the beginning, one works fairly closely with the students in the lab because the lab is small and everyone must pitch in to get a new lab up and running. I think that this fosters a closer relationship between all lab members because the structure of the group less defined. Once the lab grows, a hierarchy has to be established and the PI (in most cases) spends less day-to-day time with the trainees and therefore gets to know them less personally than professionally.

However, as a new PI, I do know quite a bit about the personal lives of my students. I have spent time traveling with them, shared hotel rooms and many meals with them as well as countless hours in the lab and in my office, going over experiments and troubleshooting things. My students have been to my house for dinner with my family. In those circumstances, you get to know people. You find out about their lives, just as they find out about mine. I think the trick is figuring out the boundary between know about the personal lives of your students and being involved in said lives. It's a trickier distinction than it looks, as I have recently found out when one of my students had something of significance happen in their lives. I'm not the kind of person who tells someone to go to counseling services when they come into my office in tears, it's just not how I roll. At the same time, I'm only willing to advise on personal matters in a very limited sense - as in let someone know if they are doing something totally irrational, but that's about it.

So far the strategy I've taken is being supportive in ways I can, listen if the person needs to talk and encourage them to work on things that will serve as a good distraction but that aren't particularly demanding of a distracted mind. More established PIs may scoff at the notion of taking the time to address personal matters of grad students, but for me I would rather know there is an issue and help the person along than wonder why someone hasn't progressed in a month. Perhaps my view on this will change over time, but with a small group it seems like a good investment to ensure that personal set backs are addressed in a reasonable way so we can all move forward rather than have one person sink into an abyss and take their project with them.

Headless Decision Making

As administration goes, our college is better than most places I have been previously. For the most part, I know who to talk to when I have various issues and they are even decent about getting back to me. There are not too many layers between the faculty and the Dean and the tasks of those in leadership roles are fairly well defined.

For this reason, it has been puzzling why some of the decisions regarding our new building seem to come from thin air and without thought. On my floor, for example, there were three offices open once all of the PIs with labs on the floor claimed one. We all figured it would be good space for post-docs and an office for the two finance people for the department. This was communicated to the higher-ups along with the necessary furniture change we would need to accommodate two or three post-docs per office, rather than a single desk. Without hearing a "no" from the administration postdoc began moving in to the offices with the understanding that they would have to be reconfigured soon (the offices, not the post-docs).

Three weeks later one of the instructors came by to claim "her" office, only to find it was occupied. Without any input from the faculty and without letting anyone know, two instructors were assigned offices on our floor in the research wing of the building. I have no problem with the instructors, but the question is whether the office space on this side of the building is better used by those doing and supporting research or those doing strictly teaching and who won't even be around for the summer? The big question that no one can seem to answer though, is who made this decision? Unfortunately, our chair is in foreign country for another week, so our best conduit to unravel the mystery is not around.

We retained an office for postdocs, but it's not going to fit them all. Also, the finance person who I need to regularly interact with is now across campus. I can either walk the 10 minutes each way to sign the mountain of paperwork I regularly have to deal with, or wait three days (yes, three) for it to get here by campus carrier-pigeon mail. How is this efficient if I want to order a reagent or submit a travel request? But at least I can go next door and ask questions about the first-year lab. Oh wait, the final labs were last week...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In the past week it has gotten unseasonably warm around these parts and it's finally pushed me to get off my ass and get some exercise. We used to go to the gym often after work in Post-doc city, but around the 7-months-pregger point it just wasn't happening for WLS anymore and I started slowly trailing off when it came to going to the gym myself or spending time with my pregnant wife. Once the Wee One was born I wanted to come home and spend time with her and WLS after work, rather than a bunch of sweaty strangers. The Wee One is about to be 14 months old and even I can do the math and figure out that I haven't been to the gym in basically 16 months.

After spending far too long figuring out the best way to fit some exercise into my schedule I realized that I have to concentrate less on minimizing the time I am away from my desk and more on getting the hell outside. I managed to pull it off this morning and plan to start out with a Tuesday / Thursday schedule for now and see how we go.

The good news - I'm not as out of shape as I had feared. I guess running after a year-old is good for something.

The bad news - I expect this to catch up with me tomorrow and whomp my ass.

Exercise catches up with PLS.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Come major in hoboism!

In our new building the architects incorporated a number of seating areas for students. Some of the furniture is large pleather chairs, but a good number of hideously orange couches are sprinkled around the building. Despite the fact that they are aesthetically appalling, there is another unfortunate consequence to them. Anytime I have to walk around the building and pass by a few of these couches, without fail, about 1/3 of them are occupied by sleeping students. Now I understand being a bit tired during the day and maybe seeking out a quiet spot to catch a quick nap, but these couches are located in main corridors and gathering areas outside lecture halls. Like every university in North America, we currently have prospective students visiting en masse, following the backward-walking students around the campus and our building (being new) is hit by every one of these tours. I wouldn't be surprised if the perspective students (and parents) walk out of here wondering if we do a lot of research on narcolepsy, based on the hordes of students passed out in awkward positions all over the place. I walked by a guy yesterday who had turned into the couch, revealing about 5 inches of ass crack to greet anyone coming in the front door of the building. Welcome to Employment U! Come join our team of crack students!

Thesis committee or graduation advisors?

My previous experience with thesis committees and proposal defenses have all been from the vantage point of the student. When I was in grad school our committee was established once we figured out what our project was going to be on and we had regular meetings (twice a year or so) in order for the committee to get an idea of how we were progressing. They were generally informal, with a written summary circulated prior to the meeting and then an oral update at the meeting with comments. I found it helpful to have an outside perspective on my work weigh in once in a while and I got to know my committee members fairly well. The University where I did my post-doc had a similar organization and despite having spent that time in another country, I thought that type of committee set-up was more or less standard.

I have been surprised to learn that thesis committees at Employment U. function very differently, and in my mind, defeat the purpose. Here, the Ph.D. committee is established closer to when the student is ready to graduate. I think the intention is for the committee to get together earlier and guide the student along, but the reality is that people often push the "proposal" defense back so long that it is seen as a hurdle to jump a year or so before one defends their thesis. If the committee only comes on board in the last 12-18 months, what is the point? You can find people for an exam committee anytime, but the thesis committee should be there to make suggestions along the way.

This all comes up because I have been asked to serve on the committee of a Ph.D. student and I am reading their "proposal" document now in preparation for their defense of this in two weeks. The proposal defense is also odd here and a topic for another time, but this student is looking to submit their thesis in a year or less and graduate within the next 8-12 months. Other than the proposal document (which is on a topic different from the student's direct research, by design) I have not seen anything about the student's research, nor have we sat down as a committee to discuss progress or direction and the student will likely graduate in less than a year! Again, what's the point of having a committee if not to be an outside voice? Even if the official rules allow for doing things this way, why aren't the supervisors taking it on themselves to do it differently? Yes, it requires more meetings, etc., but there are some meetings worth having and I think this qualifies. I'm sure it's just one more thing that falls through the cracks when people get busy, but we're not doing our students any favors by letting it happen.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Book chapters

I have just been asked to write a book chapter on a topic that I worked on extensively as a post-doc and that I remain interested in. Though I think it might be a good opportunity, I have always tried to avoid book chapters like Don Cherry avoids good taste in clothing. They tend to take more time that they are worth and often are out of date before they even hit the press because of delays in the publishing process. I have two grants I am going to write from scratch due in July, so I would not be able to start the chapter until after that. At the same time, it would not be due until the end of September and I don't currently have any writing projects on the go that are not directly related to funding, but I'm hoping that changes with the new data we are gathering. What I don't have a good handle on is how a book chapter is viewed in the grand scheme of tenure evaluation. There seem to be conflicting views on chapters in general, but a quick survey of my hallway indicates that it would be viewed positively in my department. I guess that means I should probably say yes, but I'm feeling a bit like I should should stick with my priority scheme for this year of 1) Grants, 1a) Data papers, 2) Opinion / review pieces, 3) My grocery list, 4) Book chapters.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


After nearly 8 months in this job, three critical things have happened in the last week.

1) The lab attended a small regional conference last weekend and both of my students gave talks that were well received. They were surprised and excited by the amount of positive feedback they got based on the fact that their projects are in the formative stages. I think that gave them a boost just we're heading into the summer and they have more clearly defined short and long term objectives in their heads as a result.I can tell them what the steps are, but everyone needs to see it for themselves before they buy in and get excited.

2) After months of playing with several techniques to get some critical data, things finally seem to be starting to work. I don't know what is different or whether it has to do with the students being more comfortable or confident, but I have already seen some really promising results this morning and it's giving me hope that we might have broken through a log jam.

3) The final touches are being done to the new lab space so that it should be almost complete by the end of the week. You know it's getting close to being finished when they are hanging the white board and asking about the aesthetic details. As soon as that is done we'll actually feel like we have a finished home rather than a construction site.

I can't think of a better way to move into the summer, with my last class to teach tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Another port in a storm?

As I have mentioned in the past, our college is in a structural upheaval. The current economy pushed the Board of Governors to re-examine the efficiency of Employment U and word came down from on high to eliminate all majors that graduate under a certain number of students in a year. That trickled down to the provost who has developed a metric to assess whether or not we meet these standards. Our dean, to his credit, decided that being the first college to deal with the mandate gave us an advantage of leading the way, rather than being forced to follow the path forged by others. Accordingly, he has led the college-wide effort to dramatically change the structure of our programs. Details aside, many faculty members have worked many hours to hammer out the beginnings of a new plan to approach the structure of our undergrad programs, our grad programs and a new administrative structure to deal with all of the changes. This has been met with various reaction from different faculty, ranging from applause to fear or anger. It has not been an easy process and countless hours of effort have gone into putting a proposal on the table for us to vote on this Friday, which will just be the start of the new structure. All of this has been done under the encouragement of the dean, who has been making promises of resources along the way to allay the largest of faculty fears.

That's why it was a shock last week when rumors circulated that the dean is in final negotiations with another university to become their provost. Just as our collective wagon was getting up to speed, the wheels have fallen off. Despite all of the work and good ideas of the faculty committees, the nay-sayers are screaming that we should all vote down the plan because we won't have a leader. Of course, these people would vote to send their parents to prison camps if it meant avoiding any sort of change, but they are a vocal lot and like to play the fear card adored by the Republican right. "Sure everything points to the fact that we can't keep doing things like we are, but progressive change is bad.... because it's change!" So, the vote that we were all charging to on Friday is now being held with an uncertain future and with a deflated purpose that has given hope to the fear-mongering asshats. The worst possible outcome will be to send the committees back to the drawing board with a revised mandate of "less change", given the circumstances. That will quash any forward progress we have made, especially as we head into the summer.

As much as I would like to be pissed at the dean for pulling this vanishing act at the worst possible juncture, the University has screwed him over recently. He has been a very good dean for the college for almost a decade and is generally respected (which cannot be said for most deans). In the past 18 months he has applied for two positions at the university which would be higher profile gigs, and despite being qualified, he did not make the short list for either. Maybe the administration doesn't like him or it's a case of the grass being greener in another pasture, but I think he got the loud and clear picture that if he wants to move up it'll have to be somewhere else. Yeah, the timing sucks, but if I were him would I take the opportunity to take a better job somewhere else while simultaneously leaving a vacuum behind me that lets the university know just how important I was to my college? I can't say that I wouldn't. He hasn't been one of these folks that changes universities every two years, climbing the ladder as fast as possible. Instead, he stuck it out here and put in the time in the hopes of moving up with his hard work - you know, like most people do. Instead of being promoted internally, he was hung out to dry by the university so why wouldn't he want to squat in the corner on his way out? You won't catch me lauding administrators very often, but in this case I can't take issue with the dean's decision despite it's ramifications for the process in which we are currently embroiled.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Opportunity or millstone?

I just received an email last night from the Senior Collaborator (SC) who I recently submitted a grant with, inviting me to co-PI a second grant for the July round. I think the grant we submitted already is a really solid, but the process of submitting it was not exactly smooth and SC's slow movement on several fronts caused some issues for me. Now SC is proposing a project on a group of organisms I have never worked on and have never been interest in previously. SC has worked extensively in this group and the combination of SC's work and the approach that I take in my research would produce some interesting results.

With that said, I am already committed to submitting a grant with a different collaborator in July to a different program. If by some miracle the grants I have out now and the one I am committed to all get funded (just work with me here for a second) I would have three unrelated projects going on in the lab. If I add in the one SC is proposing that would make four, with only two of those central to where I see the lab going in the long term.

One approach would be to jump on with any opportunity and try and make the most of it, knowing that the success rate is low and I need to build up the lab with whatever projects fly in the short term. I understand that side, but an alternative is that spreading the lab all over the map is not the best strategy, particularly through collaborative projects with a senior co-PI. In the tenure process one might argue that I needed a senior colleague to get the grants funded and ended up chasing the money rather than the stated theme of the lab. This is not like saying you are going to work on X in chimps and end up doing Y in apes - more like Y in jellyfish. Nevertheless, it would be productive and using an approach that is central to the lab.

It could all be justified depending on the hat I am wearing since my work bridges several disciplines, but the combination of spreading the lab thin and dragging SC through another episode of grant writing has me weary of this project. But do I have the luxury of saying no to a current collaborator and a project with potential? My magic 8 ball keeps coming up "Cannot predict now".

Monday, April 20, 2009


Standing on the corner, all alone with that look of desperation in their eyes. If you make eye contact they see the opportunity to start talking and it can be awkward to just keep walking. "No, thanks. I'm not interested. Really, I'm on my way to a meeting." If you look over your shoulder as you walk away you can see that disappointment and it's easy to think, "Man, they are just so young." I hate poster sessions.

I know that they are an important part of a conference to allow people who were not selected to give a talk the opportunity to share their work, but is really worth the amount of time spent making the poster to stand in front of it for a couple of hours in a busy room and have a couple of people actually read it and interact with you? I say no. I have had the good fortune to have been given the opportunity to talk at all of the meetings I have attended (many of the early ones were small meetings) and have only made a single poster, in a year in which I wanted to present on two separate topics at the same meeting. From that point I vowed to avoid the poster in the future. I would rather give a talk with six people in the audience - which I have done at a giant meeting in which my session was a bit outside the main theme - than stand alone in a crowded room.

On the flip side, I don't enjoy going to poster sessions either. If it's a small meeting and under 100 posters it can be done, but larger meetings with hundreds of posters just make it a game of finding a needle in a haystack. Do I want to browse 400 abstracts to find a couple I might be interested in? Hmmmm, no. The alternative is going to each section (if the meeting is well organized) you might be interested in and browsing through the crowded maze of audience members and poster presenters who are over-eager to spill their spiel all over you. Maybe there are one or two posters that are exciting and you have the opportunity to talk with the students and see what direction their work is going, but more likely you end up hearing a dozen stories that you do not want to, simply because you get trapped near a poster and your eyes linger too long on the title. I still go to the poster sessions in the hopes that I'll find it to be worthwhile one day, but invariable end up walking out covered in regurgitated information all over my good conference jeans.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rental cars: Reality vs. University

1) "Oh, my travel arrangements for this weekend's conference have fallen through? I guess I'll rent a car."
2) Look up closest rental agency, dial, reserve.
3) Um, done.

1) "Oh, my travel arrangements for this weekend's conference have fallen through? I guess I'll rent a car."
2) Call purchasing to inquire about changing my documented travel plans.
3) Get referred to a website to download a form.
4) Get form, fill it out.
5) Track down three people in two buildings for signatures.
6) Call Uni approved travel agent who wants to book with a rental company who's nearest office is 40 minutes away.
7) Fill out form to be exempt from having to book with said company.
8) Get form approved, return to #6.
9) Spend 20 minutes on phone providing inane details to a travel company in a different time zone to book the car.
10) Argue with purchasing regarding insurance for the rental car because of #7.
11) Lose.
12) Call rental car company to adjust original booking because the travel agent forgot to include a second driver.
13) Eye the three forms to be filled out after the trip in order to justify the use of a rental car, including answering questions such as "Why was public transportation not used as an alternative to renting a vehicle?"
14) Done. For Now. Sigh.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NSF Broader Impacts

I am continually amazed by how many people completely blow this section off. In theory, NSF weighs this portion of the grant on equal footing with the science. I know that this doesn't happen in practice, but they do actually care about it. I finally got the last of my grant reviews off my desk for this round and I saw nothing but the bare minimum of effort put into this section, and you know what? I called people on it in my review. Since there has been some recent advice about grant writing around here, I thought I would put together my thoughts on the broader impacts section for those of you writing NSF grants out there (and other agencies might have similar requirements).

Read the guidelines on what NSF is looking for and make an effort to meet their requirements! This may seem really obvious, but almost every grant I read this round did not do this. The criteria are as follows:
•How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?

•How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?

•To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?

•Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?

•What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

If your proposal details science that blows my socks off, I'm not going to care if you don't put in much effort to your BI section because it should hold up great science. But the other 98% of us, make a fucking effort. You need to at least touch on most, if not all, of the above points. Some of the points can be addressed quickly - for instance, saying that all sequence data will be deposited in GenBank - but it is a good idea to deal with each one.

Do not use the BI section to talk about how much your science will affect other fields! This is not what NSF means by broad (see above). You should bring this up, but in the intellectual merit section.

Commit more than a few sentences to this section, preferably a page or more. When turning in one's review, there is a separate section to comment on the BI merits. Give your reviewer something more to talk about than a paragraph.

If possible, it is a really good idea to include some money in your budget for your BI goals. I know it seems odd the NSF would want you to add money into a budget, but money = accountability. If you put money for a workshop into the grant and it is left over at the end, they can ask you why you didn't follow through on the BI. If you promise to organize a symposium at some conference (which screams no BI effort, BTW), there is no way for NSF to know whether or not you followed through.

Partner with existing programs at your institution. This makes your life easier because the existing program will likely write part of the BI section and help organize whatever it is that you are proposing. Also, NSF like to see cross-talk between researchers and on-going programs that they have already put money into. Even better is if you can say that you will provide half the money for XXX and have the existing program kick in half. Again, there is a financial commitment from both sides, indicating a willingness to partner.

Make it viable. There is a delicate balance between doing something worth doing and proposing something that will suck up more time than it should. This is where leaning on infrastructure already in place will allow you to get more done for your time "buck".

It takes a bit of creativity and some talking to some of the centers or programs at your institution, but it is really not difficult to come up with a BI section that will make reviewers say "that'll work". So few applications actually put in any effort, that those which do stand out.

Commitment follow-up

While I do appreciate everyone's encouragement with regard to moving forward with mentoring UgS, I think the real point of my post (and what I want to emphasize) was the fact that it took me so long to figure out the difference between "knowing" something and putting it into practice. I should have realized when UgS first started that I would need to take some extra time to ensure that they succeeded early and that not doing so was likely dooming UgS to fail. In fact, my knee-jerk reaction when UgS did not flourish after being tossed into the mix was that they had no interest or did not get it, in the same way that someone can have really good grades and be a travesty in the lab. The reality was (I think) that this student was not going to react the same way as an undergrad student who sought out the research opportunity through more conventional means. So, despite my claim of support for the program, I wasn't actually doing it or the student their deserved justice because I didn't take the time to think about the differences. I want to spell this out in case someone else finds themselves in the same position.

Does this mean that I plan to hold hands with every undergrad that comes into the lab through this program? No. But what it does mean is that I need to be in communication with these students from the very beginning, find out what their strengths and weaknesses are early and come up with a plan that allows them to succeed that takes advantages of their strengths while shoring up some of their weaknesses. As much as that sounds like a decent amount of work, I believe it can be done relatively easily with a short meeting each week. Also, the time it takes to troubleshoot things when someone in the lab has screwed something up in a big way is probably greater. This way the student does well and gains confidence while producing useful data.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What does it mean to be committed?

I've been thinking hard about the situation I described last week with an undergrad student (UgS) who is looking to work in the lab over the summer. The fact is, I think I jumped too quickly to a decision based on my immediate goals, without stepping back a bit. Obviously, as a new faculty member my main focus is getting things DONE in the lab and writing grants. From this perspective it is easy to say that anything that does not specifically lead to producing data that can be used for publications and grants is not worth my time right now. I'm stretched thin enough as it is and as such, should strive to minimize any more distractions at all costs. Right?

Well, the situation with UgS is not so cut and dry. As I mentioned earlier, UgS came to the lab as part of a specific diversity program and would be supported over the summer by this program. This same program is one that I have started a relationship with and written into grants as something I am committed to supporting. Grants aside, I am committed to the goals of the program and want to see it succeed, both as a whole and in my own lab. What I had not taken into consideration was that these students require more work from me than typical undergrad researchers and it is unreasonable for me to hold them up to the same light that I do some of the other students in the lab. I think I realized this on some level, but did not fully appreciate it until I sat down to think about the situation with UgS. This is the point of the program. This is what I have committed to.

Sure, there are flaws in the program in terms of interaction between the coordinators and the mentors and there has to be more support for the mentors in terms of being prepared for the various students who we are sent, but I still think my expectations were in the wrong place. Unfortunately, with everything that has been going on this semester I did not take the time to reflect on this until now, which is entirely my fault. Having spoken to several people in the program and UgS directly, I now feel that I need to be more involved with this student than other undergrads and very carefully set up a plan so that UgS will succeed, despite their limitations. If it means that I need to spend a bit more of my time working with UgS and that one of my grad students needs to watch UgS for longer than they would normally monitor an undergrad in the lab, that's the price I am willing to pay for the goals of the program. After all, what is commitment without being willing to shoulder some cost?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Confessions of a day care survivor

It's taken three weeks, but we're finally into a day care groove. The first week was a bit of a disaster and the Wee One had no idea why we kept abandoning her in the care of strangers. Wife-like Substance started crying each morning just about as soon as we got in the door, so it was up to me to do the dirty work of handing the Wee One over. As soon as the exchange was made she realized that we were leaving and would start to howl. It's no fun leaving your screaming child in the hands of someone you don't even know, but I knew it was something that we needed to do. By week two, the Wee One would initially cry, but be over it even before we left the building, which was encouraging. At the same time, WLS was starting to be able to keep her composure at least until getting back in the car. Fewer tears all around!

Last week was totally different. We did all of the normal routine, but when I put the Wee One down she didn't cry. Instead, she looked up at me with a sad expression, waved and said "bye". I thought "this is great, I think she's finally okay with all this and I won't have to deal with anyone crying in the morning!" Then, as I was walking out the door, she turned to me and blew me a kiss (which she rarely does) and damnit if one of us didn't have tears in their eyes. Unfazed, she went to play.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reader Poll: teaching evolution

Last week I criticized a video put together in an effort to get people talking about evolution. The makers of the video have contacted me to take issue with my comments and contend that it is an effective tool to get kids to think about evolution in it's native language, German. While that may be so, they have tried to internationalize the video with the English translation I previously embedded and I feel as though they may need to add more content to their English site in order to get their points across. So, if you have three minutes, (re)watch the video and answer the following to questions with one sentence each:

1) What is the main lesson about evolution you take away from the video?

2) What would be the one thing (in the form of an accompanying explanation) that would help you better understand what the creators of the video want to get across?

3) If you were a kid watching this video, what would it make you think science was like?

I have deliberately not included the link to the site here because I am interested to see what the reaction is to the video on it's own. They would appreciate the feedback on the English version of the video, but if you know German it would be interesting to hear whether you think there is a distinct difference between the two. Once you answer the questions, you can search for "Darwin Rocks" to read more about the project and see whether or not you are understanding what they would like to get across. So far, the video makers and I are not seeing eye-to-eye, but I'm just one guy with an opinion.

Teaching evolution to the public is a critical issue for anyone working in life science and if we can help those trying to accomplish this goal, let's try to do so.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Pain. For Free

It's the time of year where undergrad summer fellowships are being announced and I was contacted by an Employment U foundation yesterday to let me know that one of the undergraduates working in my lab has made their list of students to fund for the summer. Ordinarily this would be a good thing, but I was shocked that the student had applied to continue working in the lab because, A) Undergrad Student (UgS) appears to be going through the motions every day and seems to have no interest in what is going on in the lab, B) UgS never even told me they were applying, and C) UgS is an unmitigated disaster in the lab.

For these reasons, I have no idea what to do with this student. The complications are that this student originally came to the lab when I partnered with a diversity mentoring program in an effort to recruit diverse students to the lab and provide research experience to those who might not otherwise get it, which makes me feel a certain obligation to try harder with this student. At the same time, this is not just a case of inexperience in the lab. Everyone has mentored a student who just can't do lab work, for whatever reason and UgS is just the kind of person who doesn't get it. If one of my grad students spent a substantial amount of time with UgS for half of the summer, it might mean that UgS could perform mundane tasks in the lab unsupervised, but do we have 40 hours a week of mundane tasks and is it worth the loss of the grad student's time?

I haven't made a call on whether to take on UgS for the summer yet, but I need to by noon tomorrow. If I thought UgS really wanted to go to grad school and just needed training, I would take them in a second. However, it is pretty clear that they are just applying for the things that they are being told to apply for and not because they see it as a career-advancing opportunity. The flip side is also that the opportunity will not be available to another student who really does want it if I take UgS on for the summer. I can argue myself in circles, but in the end it comes down to whether I want to invite a giant time-sucking vacuum into the lab in the name of making every effort to promote science diversity, even if I think this particular student will not continue in science in the long-run. On this, I am conflicted.

Virtual social ineptitude

A couple of months back I had a promising PhD candidate contact me about joining the lab just when I was looking for someone. I corresponded with them for a bit, but they never sent in an application, nor sent any references despite saying that they would. Randomly, the potential student dropped off the face of the Earth for a while and I heard nothing back after sending two emails. I figured that the person was no longer interested.

Yesterday the person added me as a friend over FaceBook, out of the blue. WTF? Uh, how the hell am I supposed to take that Student That Never Was? Why did you never send me anything, then get the idea that we should be chums? We've never met in person, never spoken over the phone and the last time we communicated you were ignoring my emails. I don't even add my own students as friends, but I am supposed to add you? Your social ineptness and inability to follow through on anything make me glad that you are not starting in my lab in September. This is also why I hate FaceBook sometimes.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

You have GOT to be kidding me!

I just got an email that started thusly:

Dear all,

A small team of evolutionary ecologists from Tuebingen, Germany, just finished a rock music clip about evolution which is called "Struggle for love", together with a computer program that allows the user to "select and evolve" music tunes following biological principles. This program was also used to generate the underlying tunes for the song.

Both the clip and the program are meant to attract the attention from non-biologists and make them think and talk about evolution. Hence, if you like it, please feel free to share it with your friends, relatives and students.

Okay, I thought, I'll check it out and see what those crazy Germans have been up to. Here's the clip.

Where to even fucking begin? I think my favorite moment is when the lab gathers to watching hyenas having sex on TV (though I don't know what your lab meetings are like), but a close second is the absurdity that a bunch of white people (with all men in charge) get together to engineer something involving mice, bacteria and soccer players, eventually get what they want then drink in the lab. Seriously? This is how we want kids to think of science and evolution? That it's a cross between video games, playing God, soccer, awkward German expressions of emotion and beards? I've watched it three times now and it upsets me more each time. It's like that Alanis Morissette song that is called "ironic", but all of the examples in the song have nothing to do with irony... maybe that was the irony, I don't know. In any case, I can't believe that 4 evolution professors had a major hand in putting this together and it is the worst travesty I've seen since Subaru put out the Baja. Dude! Fuck. Sigh....

p.s. I am TOTALLY having my whole lab gather around to watch my back, in green light, the next time I work at the microscope.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reader Poll - Tattoos in Science

I am thinking about getting another tattoo these days and I am seriously considering getting something that would be visible when wearing short sleeved shirts, so it probably wouldn't be long before it was noticed in my department. I'm not exactly the type to get something offensive, so I'm not worried about that, but I do wonder a bit whether it would change the opinions of some people. Certainly tattoos are on the rise and plenty of scientists have them, but there remains a generational difference in opinion on them. Therefore, recognizing that this audience is a skewed sample, I have two questions for you today and over the weekend:

A) If a colleague in your department had a visible tattoo (which would be covered for classes, etc.) would you think of them differently?

B) If YOU got a visible tattoo, how do you think it would be perceived in your department?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ecological Succession of PANs

Ecological Succession is a process by which organisms move into an "empty" environment. It might be observed after a large-scale disturbance, such as a fire, which leaves a landscape stripped of it's previous inhabitants, or when an agricultural field is abandoned and goes "wild". Very rarely in nature is there a truly new environment, but these cleared environments happen regularly. The movement of organisms (particularly vegetation) into these areas is well documented and happens in a logical order from fast growing and high-dispersal weedy species to slow-growing hardwood forests.

At a university, the same type of process can occur when a new building is built and inhabited, but it's not the vegetation that gives it away. You can tell the stage of succession a building is at by the number of passive-aggressive notes (PANs) that are attached to anything communal. It starts with weeds - gently phrased notes in sentence case, all in black type and simple fonts, like Times or Helvetica. Eventually, the weeds create enough soil for the shrubs to take root and Bold type starts to appear and exclamation points sprout and grow. The colored text and underlines are the softwoods - they take a little longer to develop, but they have a longer run than the weeds and shrubs.

Post-doc Department was the PAN succession equivalent of a hardwood forest. Notes in all caps that threatened the very well-being of the reader. Exclamation points were the punctuation of choice and there was no roman font, only bold. The signs exclaimed WARNING! and READ THIS FIRST! and were written by people who had studied the art of condescension under gurus that lived on mountain tops in Nepal.

Fig. 1. A magnificent elm of a PAN. Apparently people were slipping on a regular basis because this note was present for the entire 4 year tenure of PLS's post-doc. The use of "further" AND "furthermore" makes this a wonderful specimen.

Now, I have a confession. I LOVE the unintentional comedy of PANs and I would be lying to you if I said that I don't appreciate a good PAN. The fact that I have had bookmarked for years should be some indication of this. Though I have enjoyed moving into a new building, the new environment is virgin territory for PANs, which is disappointing on several levels.

So, I have taken it upon myself to start the early stages of succession. The autoclave on our floor consistently does not close all the way, causing the alarm to go off after about 5 minutes. My office is close to the machine and it appears that the alarm only bothers me enough to do anything about it. I took the opportunity to cast the first seed into the new environment today, with a carefully crafted "weedy" PAN - Sentence case black Helvetica, no bold font, no threats and relatively pleasant. A simple note letting people know that pushing the door up once it closes will create a tight seal. With time and a little TLC, I hope that my little seed will flourish and nature will take it's course.

Too funny

Yesterday alone, people hit this blog for the following searches:
"how to make my ass look good"
"birthday note for a guy"
" sucks"
"long hair lab"

I get the one, but I'm pretty sure I don't have any advice about making one's ass look good on here. My wife tells me I don't have an ass, so the advice would be useless anyway. I guess you can count my happy birthday Darwin post for number two on the list, but I haven't discussed the hair length of people in my lab. Oh Google, thanks for the love.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

30 min healthy meal

This is something my wife and I like to whip up for a quick Sunday meal that feeds us and the Wee One for a few days. As long as you have a few meats on hand, it comes together quickly and since everything is already cured, it only needs to cook for about half an hour. Take ham sausage, ham slices, smoked pork sausage and wrap them in a roasted pork belly. Surround that with ground sausage shaped into a pig, wrap it in bacon and roast for 30 minutes at 400F. Garnished with chili ears and tail. Kids love it and you can leave it on the counter for a few days and pick at it when you want to.