Monday, November 30, 2009

Note to travelers

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

All advice hypothetical, of course.

Round 2

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving and see you on the other side

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

NFL Week 11: surging to the finish

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

Alternative Science Careers Webinar

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

EAGERly waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mmmm, tasty

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Make my day

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

The anticipation

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel bugging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Burn baby, burn

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

NFL Week 10: Reputation Repair

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Discovery Channel Facade

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Can you change the culture?

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dear Colleagues

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

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

Hello? Is this thing on? Anyone out there?

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


Dude. Fuck! sigh.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Recruiting teachers for grad students

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Science uniform

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

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


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

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

NFL Week 9: Change of an era

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

The two week sprint

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2009

Time Out

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Conference observations

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Swimming in unfamiliar waters

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

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

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

2.5 days left before the weekend...

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stick Sharpening

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

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

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