Tuesday, September 29, 2009

NFL week 3: Hellz Yeah addition

Week 3 is usually around when the perception of teams starts to transition from the preseason hype to the reality of the regular season. Nothing is set in stone yet and fortunes can change quickly, but time starts to expose the pretenders. The media darlings that wilt under the hot lights of the regular season (Carolina, Houston, Tennessee, Miami) begin to sag and their fan bases can feel the desperation. Then there are the teams that are winning, but have more questions than answers (Dallas, Chicago, New England) and those that look solid but have fan bases waiting for the other shoe to drop (Minnesota, San Francisco, NY Jets, Denver). Only a few teams charge out of the gate as true powerhouses that legitimately strike fear in the hearts of other teams (Ny Giants, New Orleans, Baltimore, Indy).

Is the Science Blog NFL pool mirroring the league? Well, Candid Engineer entered the pool with a lot of fan fare and was hounded by the media for weeks as they pestered her for projections on the season that quickly wound up in USA Today. Despite the hype, she has hung a pair of 8-win weeks on the board so far (the league automatically drops 1 lowest score). Equally consistent have been Ambivalent Academic, Chall and Damn Good Technician, who each have a pair of 9-win weeks. Can they keep up the pace or are they going to fall apart once injuries start to pile up? Former weekly winners Tom@Microworld and Mad Hatter are looking strong, and Genomic Repairman and Prof. in Training had a statement weeks with 11 wins. But only two sit atop the leader board with 21 wins after 3 weeks and commanding 12 win week 3s. Myself and Odyssey tied this week, but I pulled out the win on the tiebreaker. This week, you need not look any further to find the trophy.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Back to the bench!

I'm taking on something new. Well, something new to me. It's been a while since I burned a lot of money and it's making me itchy, so I'm charging ahead with a project that I have been meaning to take on for a while. But, I want to do the bench work myself (gasp!). This work dooesn't really fit under what any of my students are currently working on and it's something I have wanted to learn for a bit. I've done the reading and looked through the protocols. Hell, I even ordered the supplies today.

Those of you who have not yet taken on the mantle of being a PI are probably reading this and saying "so what?" But the dirty little secret of academia is that all of your bench work skillz eventually land you a desk job. How often is your PI in the lab? Yes, yes, yes, it's all what you make of it and many look forward to steering the ship rather than manning an oar, but that doesn't mean I don't want to stay on top of the bench work. I miss getting away from my computer and phone to spend time in the lab. I could easily delegate the project and continue doing the mountain of writing and assorted paperwork I have sitting beside me. In fact, I probably should, but damnit, I want to do this work. Since moving into our new building in March I have done almost no bench work, save for a smattering of training here and there. It's time I rolled up the sleeves and donned some gloves.

We still have gloves my size, right?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hairy guilt

Last night I had to cut off all my little girl's hair.

Just writing that makes me feel a bit sick.

She's not ill or anything particularly horrible but since the move she has started to pull out her hair, particularly when we're in the car. She seems to have adjusted fairly well to the new house, except for this bit of anxious behavior she has picked up. We mentioned this to her doctor at her last visit and she suggested that we keep an eye on it for two reasons. 1) Kids that do this for a prolonged period of time can make it habit that follows them later in life, and 2) often kids will eat the hair, which can causes blockages in their stomach and sometimes require surgery. The doctor said that if she didn't stop after a couple of weeks it might be a good idea to cut her hair off so that she can no longer pull at it and most kids forget about doing it by the time the hair grows back. It's one of those "do something little know to save yourself something more drastic later" fixes, but it still feels horrible.

The worst part of it is that the dark side of my brian is whispering that it's as much my fault as the move. My hectic schedule recently has meant that I'm not around as much when she is awake as I was a few months ago. I've had to travel here and there; I've had to work on weekends. Prior to moving this wasn't a big deal, but I wonder if the added anxiety hasn't just pushed her a little further than before. She started sucking her finer (not thumb, for some reason) as a comfort thing over the summer while I was away, which might just be coincidence or might be another reflection of anxiety. There's no way to tell, which makes it easy to assume blame.

I know a lot of parents who travel as much or far more than I do with no apparent affect on their kids, but I'm not sure how that knowledge helps. I also know that have at least two more trips this fall that I am now looking forward to like one anticipates being tasered. Maybe it doesn't matter... maybe.

Yes, it's nothing serious and I am grateful that I am not faced with a bigger issue. I'm also probably reading too much into everything as a first-time parent. But neither of those two thoughts helped me last night while blonde locks fell past a quizzical expression on my daughter's face.

I bring this up mainly because I think many of us face the dilemma of balancing the interest of our kids with that of our job, and sometimes you get thrown a curveball that you don't know how to handle. Hopefully this will be a story we will laugh about in ten years.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Student" Athletes

I have often heard people talk about athletes at large D1 football or basketball schools and how classes are secondary to everything they do. There are complaints as well that even the non-athletic students get so wrapped up in the sports mania at their university that they choose watching or attending a game over completing their scholastic obligations. It's a problem with no easy fix and because the financial stakes are so high for both the universities and the players, there is little incentive for either to make a change. Do we need our NBA or NFL players, for example, to have a good education? Would they take it even if it was offered? Who knows?

Unfortunately, I think this culture of big name programs has more diffuse side-effects than the ones most often debated. In my new capacity as an advisor, I met with a Student Athlete to go over their schedule for the spring and chose classes. SA is a bright kid who is double majoring in two sciences, earning a very respectable GPA and playing a sport that has no professional league to go into post-university. It is not clear to me whether SA is earning a scholarship for their sport, but what was obvious is the problems these "students" can face. When we began talking about different classes I was informed by SA that classes on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were bad because those are days they have games. In fact, Thursdays are bad entirely, because the team often leaves early Thursday morning for away games. Of course, Fridays were often missed as well for travel on Thursdays that extends through the weekend of a series of away games. Oh, and practice starts at 2:00, so after that any day is bad. Last spring SA took too many labs and ended up losing enough practice time to lose their starting position.

What the fucking what? So a promising student double majoring in two lab science majors is being discouraged from taking labs for half the year by their coach either directly by being told or indirectly by loss of playing time? Did I mention that this is a small sport with no professional league?

Basically, it looks to me as though the big U programs have made it okay for other sports to take up an incredible amount of scholastic time for sport. I'm sure the argument is "our sport is just as important!" but can we be realistic for a second? There are enough questions about the value of massive sports that garner enormous sums of money for universities, so let's not pretend that a small sport that no one is paying to watch should have similar claims to the sport/study balance in student's lives.

So far SA has been able to balance everything and pull off a near 4.0 GPA, but I would imagine that their success is rare. I am also concerned about the ambitious academic plan SA has before them and the chance of SA finishing in their intended time frame. Most of all, I want to find SA's coach and kick them in the shins for forcing a good student with lofty aspirations to compromise their studies

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I wasn't ready

Last year the start of the semester was a blur. Everything was new and the onslaught of things to deal with when the semester started was all part of that. I had no point of comparison, so I was ready for anything. Plus, everyone pretty much left me alone to set up my new lab. I was the new guy muttering to himself in a mostly empty room.

As the year wore on I picked up responsibilities gradually and layered them on my workload. The lab also gradually got going and each step was new success. By the time summer rolled around, things were going pretty well and I was getting ready to do a bunch of traveling. Summer was good. Lots of work got done and I finally started feeling like I knew what the hell I am doing in this job. I had the people and procedures figured out and even felt like I could stay on top of the literature without having to do it at night.

Then the summer ended.

I should have been better prepared, but I wasn't. Everything rushed in like a freight train and I saw my precious time dragged down by a feeding frenzy of obligations. Suddenly there are meetings about other meetings. I'm lucky if I get a couple of hours here or there where I can think about the work that I have to get done for me and not for everyone else who needs something. I did not plan well for the transition from summer to semester and now I'm being feasted upon.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Week 2 NFL Pool

Week 2 of the NFL season is in the books and we had a clear winner this week, no need for a tie-breaker. Mad Hatter pulled out the win from the rest of the pack by getting 10 predictions right and being the only one to take the Bungles as 9 point dogs. Shockingly, not only did they cover, they won outright which proved to be the difference. Nipping at the heels of MH were a collection of 9 win predictions by PiT, AA (both performing well using unconventional metrics for picking), Nat, Mrs. Comet Hunter and myself. So confident are Candid Engineer, Genomic Repairman and Tideliar, they decided to give the rest of us a head start and made only 1 pick combined.

Like the Stanley Cup being passed around, it's time for Mad Hatter to hoist the trophy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Advising Advice?

This year I was assigned a group of advisees. They are primarily sophomores and all majors in the degree program I am most closely associated with (I have ties to multiple degrees and departments). On Friday I started getting the first meeting requests and I have one this afternoon with a student who is double majoring and has heavy athletic commitments. My question is, who is going to have learned more by the end of this meeting?

My guess is that it will be me. I know nothing about the student's other major and little about how the student's athletic schedule is going to impact their future class selection. Quite frankly, even after being here a year, I still don't know a whole lot about the undergraduate curriculum. I am familiar with the requirements and know where to get the information I need, but I certainly don't have access to any more information than the students. It'll be interesting to see how much these kids have looked into the path they want to take or whether some just want to be told what classes they need.

The way our advising is set up, these students will be my advisees for the rest of the time they are here and majors in our degree program. I think this will be good, because I will have a chance to get to know them a little bit and not have to have them explain their whole history every time they come in my office. I am thinking of starting a file on each so that I can look it up easily before the next time I meet with each student. Other than some personal information, classes taken and those to be taken, what would people suggest including in an advisee's file?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

So that's how Science papers are made....

An Interview With Cofactor Genomics from Grant Essig on Vimeo.

It's nice to be able to see first-hand how these new genomic technologies work. If I get into this type of thing, I think I'm going to have to buy a bigger printer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Evolution of Buzzwords

Yesterday we received a draft academic plan for the next 5 years from the higher administration. It puts forward some good ideas and is fairly ambitious in terms of the implementation of new programs and improving the efficiency of current ones. All in all, it seems like a solid effort towards pushing Employment University in a progressive direction. Whether the people central to the writing of the document will stick around long enough to make it happen or if we will have a new 5 year plan in two years written by a new administration is yet to be determined, but the less cynical side of me thinks the document is a step in the right direction.

In reading The Plan, however, I found the particular wording rather striking - not because it was different but because the wording is so similar to any "Vision" document put out by any administrative group these days. The whole thing is steeped in "integrative approaches" and "interdisciplinary" or "entrepreneurial" solutions to issues of "global change" and "green economy". The document vows to "remove barriers" and "improve efficiency" for the teaching and research missions of the university (with little detail on how that will actually happen, of course). It's almost like administrative Mad Libs, the wording seems so familiar.

How do these buzzwords spread to become so ubiquitous? Who develops new buzzwords to throw out into the administrative soup to see if they become incorporated and spread like an advantageous allele in a population with high turn-over or get weeded out by selection? Is this handled by one of those amorphous "think tanks", or do they arise spontaneously in the wild and spread like wildfire once they are seen as novel? Does it start with funding agencies? Does their wording immediately get reflected by those applying for their money, affecting the way we talk about our teaching and research to satisfy the application requirements? Someone help me out here. Can we get Malcolm Gladwell to look into this? I need more of that guy's hair in my life anyway.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Week 1 in the NFL Pool

Wow, crazy week one in the NFL. Both Monday night games were supposed to be blow-outs but both were decided late in the game. In the case of the Patriots, things looked very ugly until a bone-headed play by an over-eager kick off return man resulted in them getting the ball back and a second life with about a minute left in the game. But that's week one. All we know is what the teams look like on paper until they get out on the field.

As for the forecasting abilities of scientists who blog, it turns out that we have a very narrow distribution. Picking against the spread, the highest number of games correctly predicted was 9, while the lowest was 7. Based on a set of tie-breakers, TomJoe of Micro World has been named the winner of this week, locked in a 5-way tie for most correct picks with myself, Odyssey, DGT and Chall. We'll have to get DGT to create a weekly trophy to be displayed on blogs, once she returns from her tour of the east coast. For now we can use this overly patriotic replica of the Super Bowl trophy. This week, you'll find it at MicroWorld

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dr. Handy

A lot of people have fathers who have work shops in the house that they used to fix things. I, on the other hand, do not come from a paternal line of people who fix things. My Dad is like the anti-handyman, so much so that he has paid someone to come to the house, merely to tighten a screw. Not because he wasn't willing to tighten a screw, but just because he didn't realize that was all that was needed to solve the problem. There was a tool box in my family basement, but it was rarely opened and contained only the basics.

By the age of 15, I was the one painting rooms or the outside of the house and doing most of the home repairs. At the time it was work for allowance or a bit of spending money, but I never made the connection that I was doing these chores because I was the most able one in the house to do them. My mom would lend a hand when I couldn't figure something out, as she has a more innate grasp of how things work, but simple mechanics allude my father entirely. I even distinctly remember as a kid, the reflex to back away every time my father opened the hood of anything, be it car or lawnmower. Even without provocation, I could sense a potentially dangerous situation. I don't have those memories of working on a car with my dad or even building a model airplane together. It's probably a good thing because no one looks back to trips to the Emergency Room with nostalgic affection.

Despite my lack of home-cultivated fix-it experience, I have worked several jobs that taught me the utility of power tools and their analog companions, the hammer and screw driver. Never has this experience been more useful (or used) than since owning our house. Already I have made several minor repairs that I would not have done if we were renting and my DIY cred was substantially increased yesterday when I replaced our bedroom light fixture without electrocuting myself or blowing out the neighborhood grid. I haven't torn down any walls or had to hang sheetrock, but for having grown up with a rusty flat-head screwdriver and an adjustable wrench as the only tools in the house, I consider my progress an accomplishment. Next up, plumbing. The Final Frontier.

Friday, September 11, 2009

JUST jet-lag? That's for the weak

I found out this week when the European defense is, that I will be an external examiner for. December 1. No problem, except for the fact that I am returning from a family Thanksgiving vacation on Nov 30th.

At 2:00 pm.

That means the only way for me to make this all work out is if I fly in with my family, say goodbye to my wife and daughter as they drive home and hop on a red eye to Europe. The best available flight gets into my destination just before 10:00 am on the 1st and the defense is at 2:00 pm that afternoon.

Oh, and did I mention that it's in a non-English language?

My ability to sleep on a plane is drastically hampered by my height, so I should be good and sleep deprived with a solid helping of jet lag. I'm guessing that falling asleep during a defense that one is an external for is bad form. Is there enough coffee in the world to keep me awake for this? Hard to say.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How did that happen?

Working on this multi-institutional mega-grant has been an interesting experience. I'm sure these types of grant get written in different ways all the time, but few are probably written the way the one I am working on has been. Because of the timing of the drafts we have been pumping out and the number of parties involved, the writing team that was once 8ish people has shrunk with the start of classes and the near completion of several sections. Since I have a light teaching load this semester and stand to benefit hugely from the funding of the grant, I have been able to make most meetings and do a fair share of writing and editing for the grant. Oddly enough, availability has translated into responsibility and I find myself one of two principal editors of the research portion of the grant. WTF?

I am willing to do it and believe that my input is valuable, but from the outside the situation seems absurd. I've just been here a year and even though I have written multiple grants here and have three pending with federal agencies, I can't claim to have landed federal support in this position. And yet, I have a significant role in shaping the mega-grant. It is based on work that is in my wheelhouse and there are senior people still heavily involved, but I can't help but wonder whether this would happen at many other places. At the same time, I don't really care. The funding of this proposal would provide infrastructure that would make my research substantially easier and faster, so perhaps I'm just one of the more motivated people to make sure this happens and the co-PIs want to exploit recognize that. And no, I don't think this is a case of administrators setting up a junior person as a fall guy should it not get funded.

In any case, It's been good experience to both see how something like this comes together and to be placed in a leadership role for something of this magnitude. If it flies, and there is a good chance it will based on feedback we have gotten from the agency, it will certainly provide me with some cache with people that matter. If it flops, then we'll have another go, but I'm not going to hide from the opportunity for fear of not being successful.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Last Call!

The NFl season starts tomorrow and I, for one, am giddy. It's the bright spot that tempers the start of the fall semester. But, standing on the precipice of the new season means it's the last opportunity to get involved with the Blogger Pick'em Pool. Currently there are 11 participants ready to battle it out:

Nat Blair
Damn Good Technician
Candid Engineer
Genomic Repairman
Professor in Training
Ambivalent Academic
Mad Hatter

If you think this is a group that knows jack squat about football and deserves a sound beating by your brilliance, here's your chance. Email me and I will send you the league info.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Honestly folks, I'm wiped. But rather than turn this into a crazy cat lady blog about everything going on outside of work, I would like to draw attention to two blogs that I have been checking out. I usually just add blogs to the blog roll without much hoopla, but there are two I have added recently that provide some different perspectives and I think are worth a gander from you folks.

The first one I've had up there for a little bit, is Hurricane Jill, who describes her blog thusly:
I’m actually quite boring in real life. I live in a convenient location, drive a boring car, work out less than I should, rarely drink and don’t smoke at all.

Despite that, life seems to have taken a particular interest in me, in a Chinese proverb kind of way. And I made a number of mistakes and wrong turns early on, which aren’t helping matters any.

So this blog is about me becoming a neurosurgeon, and the hilarity that ensues.

I've known a lot of pre-meds and med students in my day and always thought it was humorous that they thought getting into med school was the hard part. That's just the first hoop and Hurricane Jill provides an interesting look at what the life of a resident is like. I think I'll stick with my job.

The second blog you should go click on is PUI Prof, over at The Two Body Problem. PUI Prof is fairly new to blogging, so go over and say hello. Her blog is interesting, because many of the blogs I read describe life at research institutions, whereas I have not come across many blogs from the good folks at PUIs. On top on that, PUI Prof is dealing with the issues of early-career maternity and an academic relationship.

I am a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution. My spouse is a research professor and works two hours drive away. This blog is primarily about life at a PUI, but also about our family trying to make the most of an uncomfortable lifestyle.

PUI Prof explains her situation a bit better in her first post, so go check it out.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The perils of "free"

On the surface, free is the best price for anything. When it comes as the price tag for essential data-producing services, all the better. Right? If you could save ~$5k and have someone processing your samples who seemed to be really interested in the project, it would be a win-win, right? It would be, except for that saying "you get what you pay for". Stupid sayings.

Having work done for "free" also means "free from accountability" and "free from being required to communicate with you regularly". I should have known this already because I have dealt with it before, but when you don't have to pay for the work someone is doing, they don't feel obligated to get it done on anything other than their own time frame. Your samples are at the back of the queue and they'll get done when it's convenient. No money = no leverage. Thus, we are waiting for critical data without any ability to strong arm the center that has our sample into doing anything at all.

The good news is that we've streamlined the process to produce the samples we need to send out. The first one took us two months and has now been sitting with Free Center for another 6 weeks. The second sample took a month and was sent to Paid Center yesterday. Now we have a race. Paid center has been very good about communication thus far and expects a two week turn around on the analysis. Free Center said they were going to get to the sample two weeks ago, but nothing has been updated in their online system and I've had no response to my emails since. If I really do see data from Paid Center in two weeks, the next question will be when do we cut the chord with Free Center and just send the first sample out to Paid Center and bite the bullet? Free or not, I need the fucking data.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

New theory

If "omics" can be applied to everything to make it a cutting edge science, I propose that everything is funnier with an ending of "opotamus".

Maybe I just need sleep, you be the judge.