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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

NFL Week 4: Brutal beat-down addition

Two things happen in week four that can make for ugly weeks in pools that pick against the spread. The first is that bye weeks come in and there are two fewer games to pick, so the scores look worse than the previous three weeks even if the success rate is the same. More importantly, however, is that Vegas has a couple of weeks of evidence to figure out which teams are actually good and which teams were just surrounded by hype. This usually translates to "better" lines, from the standpoint of Vegas, making it harder to pick against them. For the next 5 weeks, anyone who manages a double-digit win week will almost certainly prevail for the week.
Many of us were solidly thumped this week, with a slew of 5s and 6s on the board, but two people came oh, so close to double digits, with 9 wins. PiT continues her run of strong showing, clearly demonstrating that prior knowledge of football only clouds one's judgment when making picks and that an alternative system can do well (over at least 4 weeks). However, the tie breaker this week goes to Candid Engineer, who came back strong once she started paying attention to the spread. Congrats to CE!
Because our league drops the lowest score for each person, I was able to maintain the overall lead with 30 points. Odyssey and PiT are close behind with 29 each and there is a four-way tie for fourth place at 27 points, with Mad Hatter, Nat, Alyssa and Tom@microworld all battling it out. DGT sits alone with 26 points and CE, Chall, Tideliar and AA are tied up with 25. Driving the tiny Shriner car in the rear is Genomic Repairman with 24 points, but the spread from front to back is merely 6 points, which can be made up quickly.
Good luck to all next week and CE, come get your trophy.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Disappearing data

No, we are not having trouble in the lab with data gone missing. What we are having issues with are data reported in glamour pubs that none of a gazillion authors on said paper can seem to locate. If you spent an entire section in your paper (where real estate is expensive) to talk about how you found a whole bunch of data points that you did not expect to find, isn't it a bit fishy that when someone writes you for those data that all of a sudden a game of email hot potato beaks out and the list of cc'd "people who probably have those data" starts to stretch longer and longer? This is not a paper from the last year and if the authors were following up on the outliers, they would have done so already. No, this just seems to be a case of vanishing data.

Damn Good Technician has previously discussed the lack of detail in methods section of glamour pubs and whether or not the caginess around some critical steps is a way to publish the bare minimum while maintaining a competitive advantage over anyone interested in the work, but this is different. In the paper, a big deal is made of the outliers, but less than 5% of those data are discussed specifically. That means that 95% of these interesting data points are never mentioned specifically, only alluded to as a group. Even in the supplementary data. How are people supposed to verify the interesting outliers if they are completely obscured? If it turns out that none of the authors can even produce the data in question, then what does that mean about the results? These data are critical and heavily-cited evidence for several theories. Shouldn't they be easily located? Surely we are not the first lab to inquire about them.

I am hoping that we see some resolution shortly, because if the authors can't provide the data in question I don't know what to do about it, only that it would be a major problem.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Yeah free!

I finally broke down and couldn't take waiting for our "free" samples to be processed anymore. We have deadlines to meet and time is becoming more valuable than money with a couple of these samples. I wrote to Free Center and told them that I appreciated their help, but if they couldn't get to the samples in the next couple of weeks I would rather they send them back to me so I could find another place to do the work.

Apparently, this was motivation.

For the first time in weeks I got prompt responses to my emails and suddenly everything is ready to go. What is normally about a 4 week turn-around is going to happen in the next two weeks and we should have the data in no time. I'm cautiously optimistic, based on my phone conversation with Free Guy, that this is actually going to happen - not just for one project, but for two projects worth of samples that Free Center has in their possession. This is huge on a couple of levels because we are generating critical data for two projects and saving thousands of dollars in the process. If the timeline we talked about actually comes to pass, I will have plenty of time to analyze the data before the next round of grant deadlines and I might have something to talk about in the three invited seminars I am giving in the next couple of months, which were becoming an increasing source of concern.

A pity I spent all that time working on my shadow puppetry.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sobering summary

I found out yesterday that our annual reviews are due on Oct 15th. Not a big deal, I just need to put all the information together and see what I can do to make it look more interesting than it is. I figure I'll do it little by little over the next two weeks and dealt with the easy sections this morning. Grad students, publications and grants. All information I have readily available and sections that are more tangible than "Describe your contribution as a scholar and teacher, blah, blah, blah".

The depressing thing was putting together the grants section and looking at all the entries under Unfunded Proposals. I've been here a year and submitted 8 grants ranging from $10K to $1.2M, depending on the destination. 6 federal grants and 2 foundation grants. Of all of those, 1 minor collaborative grant has been funded and two more significant grants are pending. That means 5 "No Thank Yous" in the last 13 months and a shit-load of wasted* time and effort.

I realize that this is fairly normal, but yet frustrating to see all in one place. It also brings to mind a conversation I had with a colleague over the summer. I mentioned the number of grants that I had sent out and that I was hoping for some good news shortly (didn't happen) and she tried to cheer me up by saying "I hadn't even submitted a grant until I had been here a year, so you are well ahead of where I was!" That made me feel a little better for about 3 seconds before she followed that statement with "Luckily my first grant got funded."

Thanks for that, it was totally necessary and appreciated.

*I know that the effort is not technically wasted because the proposals are being refined with the goal of resubmitting a better and more fundable proposal, but it feels wasted at this point.

Go Donate

DrugMonkey has kicked off this year's DonorsChoose Social Media Challenge for 2009 with a post looking for donations towards this excellent cause. I would encourage everyone to head on over and donate something, even if it's just a few dollars. Your money will directly go to science education is areas where the school districts can barely afford text books, let alone the tool for teachers to demonstrate science to kids.