Thursday, September 2, 2010

The grad student totem pole

There are certain things about grad school that you kinda forget about once you move on. It's been roughly 6 years since left my grad lab and a lot has happened since then. With the new grad students filtering in around now, I was reminded of one absolute: new students get what's left.

For whatever reason, there is always a known ranking of resources in a grad office. A best desk space, best chair, best coffee cup, best whatever, and every other similar item fits into the hierarchy.  Grad student B has the third best chair, for instance. At times of personnel flux, the perturbation sets off a wave of resource shuffle.

Senior grad students get first choice and will scarf up anything that is higher in the ranking than they already have. The next in line than devour their refuse and so the grad student food chain re-arranges itself with the n00bs getting the scraps.

This, of course, is unbeknownst to the noob, because they are just happy to be starting something new and everything takes some adjusting to. Research, all the reading, the other students, a new place, new surroundings. While they find their bearings they don't notice that their chair has one arm duct taped on and their mouse only scrolls in one direction. The other students, of course, assure them that the chair is the most comfortable one and the loose arm staves off carpel-tunnel. Besides, who ever scrolls up in a document or webpage? All the good stuff is down!

Before long, the noob realizes the deal and starts counting down to the next resource shuffle.    

Monday, August 2, 2010

Opening a new shop

To borrow a phrase from one of the most narcissistic public displays in recent memory, I'm taking my talents to Scientopia. My new blog, called The Spandrel Shop*, is part of roughly 25 either new or moved blogs that have assembled in this new collective.

In the wake of the blogger shuffle that been going, a group of us have been working to put together a community of bloggers that approach science from a number of different angles. From that start point and largely on the back of Mark Chu-Carroll's technical chops, Scientopia has come into being.

So why are you still reading this? Go over and check it out!

*h/t to CPP for helping with the name.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Substantial transition

And just when you thought all the moving around and updating your links was done...

I wanted to write today and let people know that this blog will be moving on Monday and hopefully my readers will come along as well. It's a bit odd for me because this spot has been 'home' since the start, so I have mixed emotions about moving to a new place and letting this space go dormant. I'll be leaving it up on the off chance that I don't fit in the new neighborhood or the movers break all my shit on the way over, but my posting activity will relocate for the foreseeable future.

I wouldn't be moving, however, if it wasn't for something really exciting. I'll be posting a link on Monday, but my guess is that come Monday you'll know where to find me...

Thursday, July 29, 2010

My application to Nature Network... or blogs?

As has been covered ad nauseam, with all the flux at ScienceBlogs recently there has been a lot of movement of voices to new places. One of the consequences of that is a number of open blog spots at ScienceBlogs, and some people see this as a great time to try and join the SB collective. I guess one has to pick a good time to move up in the world.

In other news, it would appear that things are not so happy inside the garden walls of Nature Blogs, either. Perhaps this is the perfect time for me to apply there?

In that spirit, I would like to use this as my application to Nature Network... er, Nature Blogs (it seems unclear even to their bloggers). I even already made the banner!

I would make a good NN blogger for a number of reasons.

First, I don't care about knowing information like how many hits I get for which posts or who my audience is. I mean, why would that be helpful? And who needs a blogroll?

Second, I like talking to only a select group of other bloggers and to avoid engaging anyone else at any time, using barriers to said engagement when possible. It keeps the riff raff out, ya know, like we've been doing for centuries.

Third, I have an iphone. `Nuff said, amiright?

Fourth, I am totally cool with a non-functional front page that does nothing to promote my blog in any way and is completely impossible to navigate.

Finally, I am totes in love with LOL cats and like to fill entire comment threads with their hilariosity.

If that isn't enough to make my application get rubber stamped, there's a case of watercress on it's way to London as we speak.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Don't forget the staff

The employee structure in academic institutions tends to be an odd mix. Odd in that there are essentially three components, all with very different goals. The most familiar is likely the faculty, who are there to teach and do research in varying proportions. There is also the administration, which I would define as former academics who have taken an administrative, rather than research-oriented career trajectory. Finally, the staff are there to make sure everything gets done.

The relationships between these groups can range form outright adversarial to synergistic (administration buzzword!) and I think it is most common to hear about the interactions that go badly. It's true that we tend to write more about the frustrations we face than the small victories thought the day. But at the end of the day there are those outside of our peer group we have to place our trust in to do the tasks we are not equipped to do.

From my perspective, and especially as I was first learning* how this place works, having a couple of dependable staff members in my college who just get things done has been one of the most important and useful things I could ask for. Their jobs are critical to my success and their willingness to go out of their way to be helpful has made my life infinitely easier as a result.

I think most people reading probably know or work with at least one person like this and all I would ask is that you not take them for granted and recognize their efforts in any way you can. It is easy to lose sight of the difference helpful staff can make when you get used to it, but as someone who has faced their share of clock-punchers, I will always find the time to thank someone for doing their job well.

*This process continues, but I'm less stupid these days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Name that blog

It is a time of flux in the science bloggoshpere and here will be no different. There are blogs and bloggers moving all over the place (several to Labspaces, including Dr. Becca's new blog and Biochem Belle's new location) and more likely to move soon in the wake of the ScienceBlogs meltdown. With the biggest tree in the forest significantly reduced, the light is allowing for new growth of smaller networks. I knew I should have paid more attention in Ecology class.

I've got some things planned for the next week or so to shake things up here as well. The first order of business is changing the name of the blog. I have a few things kicking around in my head, but I've gotten lots of great ideas on a variety of topics from you readers, so I'm throwing the opportunity to name the blog out there for anyone who would like to give it a shot.

One factor that may make a difference is that I would like to move this blog in the direction of adding more content related to evolution. I'm not sold on including that in the name, but I'm leaning that way.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Slaves to a walnut-sized sack

The difference between having a kid in diapers and one not in diapers is pretty big. Diapers are a pain in the ass (sometimes literally) and generate a lot of garbage, but there is also a certain amount of freedom that accompanies wrapping your kid in an absorbent layer. Often they will let you know when that layer is pushing its capacity, but the urgency in dealing with the situation is usually not ridiculous.

Once potty trained, everything changes. I should say that I couldn't be happier to be free of diapers and the associated paraphernalia that comes with having to extricate one's offspring from a saturated layer of human waste. However, now the dreaded cry of "PEE PEE!!!!" (or worse) has taken on a new threat level. In the car, this means find the nearest bathroom, even if you would previously never have considered using that particular facility. I have spent more time in public restrooms in the last few months than the previous two years, and I can tell you that not all are created equal. Generally the Wee One is pretty good about holding it together, but that doesn't mean that I'm not taking a mental inventory of every available bathroom in my vicinity at all times, in case.

The same principal is true for bedtime as well. Too much liquid before bed and we end up with the situation we had this morning at 5:00am. Imagine not waking up to an alarm with familiar music, but instead to the crackly screams of "PEE PEE COMING!!!" through the monitor a room away. Never prior have I needed the ability to transition from REM sleep to a full sprint in a second's time quite like the past few months.

I'm sure this will improve soon, but for the moment it's hard not to feel like a hostage to another person's bladder.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Job data in ecology and evolution fields

There tends to be a lot of hearsay and rumors in the academic job market and much of what gets spread around is based on N=1, as in, a friend of mine was on a search committee and told me....

For this reason a paper that just came out in the Israel Journal of Ecology & Evolution might be of interest. Marshall et al. used a survey-based approach via the EvolDir and ECOLOG-L listserves to obtain data from individuals recently hired into TT positions. Their disclaimers are as follows:

We recognize several limitations of data gathered from online, anonymous, voluntary surveys. We were explicit in our instructions that participants only take the survey if they had been offered their first tenure-track job or equivalent position within the last four years and that they answer the questions as they applied at time of hire, but we are fully aware that confusion with regard to either of these instructions could inflate the numbers. Additionally, we cannot account for the bias of surveying principally from subscribers to EvolDir and ECOLOG-L email directories, as subscribers as these directories tend to be geared towards research rather than teaching issues. Persons employed at institutions requiring heavy teaching loads and lighter research requirements may have been less likely to participate. Therefore, the surveyed faculty may not represent a true cross section of successful first-time academics.

What they ended up with was a data set of 181 participants from countries all over the world. They asked pretty basic questions, including number of years as a postdoc, number of pubs (total & 1st author) at hire, etc. On the publication front, they found that:

...first-time hires had, on average, two first-author publications in journals with impact factors between 2 and 10... and one first or co-authorship paper in a higher impact journal like Science, Nature, PLoS Biology, or Trends in Ecology and Evolution...

For many of the categories, the variance was high. For instance the average age of hire for people at PhD-granting institutions was 33.1 +/- 4.1 and the average time spent as a postdoc was 3.08 +/- 2.15. The average number of pubs for that same group was 12.75, but with a whopping SD of +/- 7.63.

Most of the data are pretty much summed up in the first paragraph of the discussion, where the authors state:

Although significant variation exists in all categories and within all categorical groups, the qualitative message of this study is that prospective ecologists and evolutionary biologists are required to dedicate significant resources to publishing high quality papers,
applying for grants, and teaching courses if they want a reasonable chance of eventually landing a permanent position at a college or university. This will not come as a surprise to most, but what is striking are the qualification of the average successful candidate regardless of level of institution, region of the world, or gender. The successful candidate will most likely be in their early 30s, will have spent several years as a postdoc, taught multiple courses, received several grants, and will have published more than ten articles, with the majority of these articles appearing in high impact journals (Table 1, Table 2). These statistics suggest that all students considering careers in ecology or evolutionary biology should expect a highly competitive market that most likely will require substantial time investment.

I found it interesting that they found some different trends, based on gender and between the US and Europe / UK.

On average, successful applicants from the UK and Europe were younger at age of hire, spent more time as postdocs, had more publications, and received more large grants than individuals from the US (Table 1, Table 2). This could possibly be accounted for in part by the fact that many European Ph.D.s take only 3 years to complete rather than the typical 4–6 years in the US. Female applicants from doctoral institutions in the US generally had lower averages than males in these same categories, but this pattern did not exist in comparisons between genders within the UK category. However, it should be strongly noted that these differences between genders for doctoral institutions in the US are qualitative and not statistically significant.

The Marshal et al. paper was also followed by two responses, one by Roy Turkington, a faculty member in the Botnay Department at the University of British Columbia, and the second by Douglas W. Morris, who is a faculty member at Lakehead University. The Turkington article focused on a resent faculty search at UBC, where two positions were available. Dr. Turkington breaks down the candidate pool for those searches and reports much the same story as the Marshall et al. article. The Morris paper, entitled "Life History and Multi-level Selection in Academe" is at least worth a read for such gems as:

Euphemisms called “labs” coexist in structured universal aggregations where they compete with one another for scarce resources. Labs cooperate to produce copious numbers of zygotes, most of which disperse synchronously each year. The strongest find their way into the protective brood pouches of crusty adults who shed soft-shelled offspring at regular intervals (slowly developing zygotes die by the incompletely understood process of academic apoptosis). Juveniles develop a hard external carapace by intermittently joining and extracting themselves from other labs. The hardened but vulnerable sub-adults then join a common pool where they compete for space and position on rapidly eroding substrate in the universal aggregation. Many become dormant and fail to contribute to the gene (meme) pool. Some return to the lab as brood-rearing helpers. Few survive the rampant competition and frenzied cannibalism in the pool. Not all of the survivors are safe on the fragile substrate. A second apoptosis-like event eliminates the weak and meek. Only the most persistent or aggressive remain.

All in all, it's worth a read, even if you are not in the fields included. Data from early TT faculty don't often surface easily, and despite the inherent biases of the study, there is something tangible here to look at. It may not be what many are looking to hear right now, but it's data.

Panel call

I've been trying to get invited for a review panel at NSF for some time now. The biggest problem has been that the proposals I have been submitting tend to land in a broad set of programs, often making me ineligible to serve on the panels related to my proposals. To make matters worse, my proposals often get co-reviewed between two different panels, doubling the number of panels I can not sit on. This actually scuttled my participation last round.

This round is different, however, because the two collaborative proposals I was intending to submit did not end up going in for a few reasons, meaning only one proposal went in to NSF this round. Before I read that again and start to feel sick, there is a silver lining.

I've been invited to serve on a review panel in this round for a program that I intend to submit a proposal to in January. Although I know it's going to be a decent amount of work and I'll have to juggle it with teaching, I couldn't be more excited. I've met the program officer in charge of the program and think the whole experience will be really positive for me. I'm hoping to also find an excuse to talk to the POs of the other programs I regularly submit to while I'm in DC.

Who knows whether meeting the people in charge will help, but it certainly can't hurt. And the opportunity to see the review proses from the inside has me pretty pumped. Whatever insight I can get from the visit will certainly help me craft the January proposal.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Interesting times to be a science blogger. I have been blogging here for nearly 2 years and when I first started typing blather that got posted here, it wasn't long before I started reading You couldn't not read some of the blogs on that site and still have an idea what was going on in this corner of the bloggosphere. I first started reading Drugmonkey, then Isis and through them got to know many more blogs on SB that I now regularly read.

SB was a bit of a gateway for me to the science blogging community as a whole and facilitated my getting familiar with the people out there doing similar things - whether through blog comments, linked posts or even the regular blog warz. From that perspective, I will add my voice to the many that are disappointed with how Seed Media Group (SMG) has basically blown up a really good thing through sheer ineptitude.

At this point the demise of the site as a whole appears only a matter of time. Bora's departure appears to be the shot across the bow that signals the end to a great community. Even PZ is gearing up for an exit, and he pulls in nearly half the SB traffic (according to Bora's post). All the while there is no response from SMG, either publicly, or apparently privately either (according to PZ's post). Why should anyone else stay when the powers that be don't appear to care one way or another? It's a fucking shame, but I guess there will be one blogger to hold down the fort.

The silver lining here is that this meltdown has caused a shake up in the science bloggosphere that may be unprecedented and it will be very interesting to see the lay of the land in another 1 - 3 months. Will it be better? I don't know, but it will be different. Perhaps the move away from a corporate entity will change the community in a good way and reinvest energy into communities. Perhaps other blog networks will decide now is the time to expand in a big way. Whatever happens, there will be a monumental shift in our meta community as SB bloggers find new homes and bloggers from the larger community migrate to networks that pop up, but in the long run I think it will be for the better.

For now, however, R.I.P. ScienceBlogs.

Now PalMD is leaving and Zuska is as well. PZ is on strike and the talent drain continues, unacknowledged.

Dude, Fuck. Sigh.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Time to reassess

The summer is officially more than halfway over and the specter of the academic year is looming. For the last 3 weeks I have essentially been out of the office, between traveling and a 'vacation' that turned into "let's do every home improvement project we've been putting off for the last year all in less than a week". The break from my desk has been good, however, even if has not been a time of relaxation.

The break also provides an opportunity to sit back and look things over now that I've had some distance. Grants have been submitted, so that deadline is no longer an issue for a little while. An enormous amount of data has come back as well, and suddenly we have a much more comprehensive dataset than we had originally thought we would. These data and others have been gathering for a while and now that the lab is back from traveling, we will finally be able to sink our teeth in and churn out the papers from them.

We also have two new members joining the lab within the next 6 weeks and one graduating, so there will be a time of change to deal with as we incorporate the new people into the mix and figure out where they best fit and what new they can bring to the work we are doing. It also means saying goodbye to the lab's first student, which will be a landmark event in itself.

Inescapably, it's also time to assess our financial situation. The conference season was excellent for the students and myself, but dude, we spent money like a drunken bachelor in Vegas for the first time. There were flights, there was accommodation and there was food (some which I still know the identity of). I don't regret it, but we took a good hit to the account. This week it will be time to look over everything and figure out what we can and can not do in the next 6 - 12 months without outside funding. I'm hoping the answer isn't terrifying, but at least we have a sea of data to wade through.

Finally, I have been thinking a lot about this blog and where to go next. I have figured a few things out and have some changes planned. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 16, 2010

If professor big shot can't land funding, am I screwed?

One of the recent conferences I was at was a bit sobering - not for the data or for all the cool shit people are doing, but for the fact that several really big names in my field are all having funding issues. These are people who have averaged at least 2 or 3 CNS papers a year for the last 5 or so years and beyond. These are people who have set the pace for the field for years. These are the people who give talks that everyone discusses afterwards at the break.

Holy shit.

One individual who is at a prestigious UK uni has been without funding for two rounds now, and they are making him move to a smaller office! Talk about tough love. I would be in a broom closet with two other people right now if those rules were applied to n00bs at my uni.

But the reality remains. These giants in the field are getting the $$. Granted, many of those I talked to were not from North America, so it may be a reflection of the economic realities of certain countries, but it's still a scary prospect. My hope is that funding agencies are making the move towards putting their dollars into the younger crowd, but if they are not willing to fund the people who are still VERY active and have a long history of innovation, it makes me concerned about the chances of my proposals.

We will see, I suppose.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Geek tattoos

For a long while I have been thinking about getting another tattoo. I've been waffling on what to get for the past two years or so, based mainly on the fact that I have juggled three ideas without one completely grabbing me. It took me quite a while to decision on my first one, but I ended up happy with it, probably because I really thought it through. If something doesn't grab me I'm not going to get it stuck into my skin.

But based on some recent thinking, I may have a new idea. I am strongly considering one of Ernst Haeckel's radiolarian drawings from his book on the group.

This is appealing to me, not only because Haeckel was an incredible artist and an important player in the history of biology*, but because radiolarians are a really interesting group that very little is known about. Exploring the odd-balls of the world has always had more draw for me than studying the effect of one amino acid in one protein in humice. They also actively engage in dozens of different symbioses, which I find particularly interesting.

This brings up some questions for my readers, however, because I'm curious. Perhaps I'll get inspired from someone else's vison for themselves.

1) If you were forced to get a tattoo tomorrow, what would it be and why?

2) Where would you get it and why?

*Yes, I also know that he was a proponent of scientific racism and had some political views that would raise eyebrows in today's context. However, the good he did in promoting science has lasted far longer than his pseudo-Lamarckian ideas of human evolution.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Home agin, home again, jigidy jig

Whew, long couple of weeks. Feels like about a month. A lot happened while I was away, both at home and in the bloggosphere, both with lasting implications and neither of which I am prepared to get into now.

Got back late last night and got a few hours of sleep before getting up for a full day at work today in order to get a grant submitted today. That looks like it's on track and now I am waiting for the final approval from the grants office, so I have a few minutes of downtime. This whole month (real, not just perceived) has been crazy, and I know I'm not the only one feeling it.

I'm happy to be home though. As I dragged my ass out of bed with some pretty massive jet-punch-in-the-nose jet-lag this morning, I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I was going to get from the Wee One. Previously when I have been gone for a week or more, I've gotten the cold shoulder routine for a few days. But not today. No, I got a big hug and some father daughter time first thing this morning, then it was all daddy-do-it all morning. I have to say, that made it a lot easier to get going this morning.

I need a break though. Despite the fact that we got a ton of cool data back last night and are suddenly sitting on the material for a couple of manuscripts, they are going to have to wait. I'm taking most of next week off to relax, get shit done around the house and spend time with my family. I have just a couple of weeks before I leave again for two separate trips in August and then the semester will no doubt attack like a bear fresh out of hibernation. I have papers to submit and data to analyze, but I also feel like if I don't take a small break now I'm going to pay for it in a big way in a month or two. Sometimes it's good to let things wait for just a little while.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Blog meme (take 2): Who are you, what are you doing and why do you keep looking at me!!??!

It has basically been a year since this meme went around, including here, and DrugMonkey is reviving it (see additional links at DM). Since I'm traveling and writing a couple of grants in my "spare" time, I thought it might be a good opportunity to post something and get some feedback. In addition, there has been quite a lot of change in the readership since a year ago, so this might be particularly interesting to get a feel for who is here these days. In any case, Ed Yong (Not Exactly Rocket Science) asked the following round about two years ago:

1) Tell me about you. Who are you? Do you have a background in science? If so, what draws you here as opposed to meatier, more academic fare? And if not, what brought you here and why have you stayed? Let loose with those comments.

2) Tell someone else about this blog and in particular, try and choose someone who's not a scientist but who you think might be interested in the type of stuff found in this blog. Ever had family members or groups of friends who've been giving you strange, pitying looks when you try to wax scientific on them? Send 'em here and let's see what they say.

So, who are you (in as general terms as you like) and why are you spending what little time we all have reading this blog? If you generally read but don't comment, what would encourage you to join in the discussion more?

Friday, July 2, 2010

Bathroom humor

I've done a decent amount of traveling in my life - certainly less than many, but I've hit some odd places. One thing it is easy to take for granted is the different styles and ways society has come up with to drop a deuce. There is far more variety than one might expect and you get to see a few prominent versions as you travel around.

The hole-in-floor model is just a bad idea. I've spent an unfortunate evening after some bad calamari in Greece with one of these models, and the results were not good. Why anyone would decide that balance should be a critical feature of using the bathroom, I will never understand.

I'm also not a fan of the bidet. I'm sure if you're used to it everything works out fine, but seriously, I'm good without a cold stream of water on my ass in the morning.

However, never have I seen the toilet take to the heights it is here in Japan. Call me old fashion, but if I'm in the bathroom I'm not looking for a conversation, so why does the toilet talk? These fucking things have more buttons than my home entertainment system. This morning I accidentally got a frontal bidet (don't hit the pink button!) and I'm not looking to repeat that situation any time soon. When did the toilet become the most technologically advanced item in a hotel room. There is no wireless internet here, the TV is the size of the Apple II and the shower is plugged into the sink, but I can have a conversation with my toilet? I don't think I like where this is going.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Increasing your academic visibility

One of the key things every new PI has to do when you start a new lab is to get the word out. You gotta let people know where you are and what you are working on, which is why doing the conference circus circuit is really important early on. But, there is a lot more one can do and I'm really starting to see the benefit of one major thing.

When I first got to Employment University, my department asked me to take on the seminar series. At the time it was a bit hodgepoged and disjunct so I think they expected me to invite a couple of people here and there and call it a day. I had, however, been in charge of a seminar series as a grad student, so the task wasn't particularly daunting and I quickly realized I could use it to my advantage.

I sent out a request within the department for suggested speakers, and as per expectation I only got a few. That gave me freedom to pretty much ask anyone I wanted to see give a talk. I made a list of all the heavy hitters in my field within my geographic "sphere of invitation" and started working through it. I knew I was going to do the seminar series for at least two years, so I was able to spread these talks out so it wasn't blatantly obvious what I was doing.

In the process of hosting some big name folks to the department I have had the opportunity to not only increase interest in my filed within my department, but also get on the radar of some key people from other institutions. This is paying dividends both at conferences when I get the opportunity to catch up with these people and meet friends of theirs, but also because people tend to return the favor and invite you for a seminar at their institution.

More recognition + more invited talks + more interesting (for me) talks in my department = win. It can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but coordinating the seminar series can have huge up side if you use it to your advantage.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Big meeting, small meeting

As a scientist, I can wear a lot of hats depending on how I want to sell the work I am doing. Like most labs, I can self identify with my study subjects, the phenomenon that we work on, the tools we use or how we approach our questions. That leaves me a pretty broad spectrum of conferences to go to, some of which I have been attending for years and others which I have only recently started to go to. I have my "must attend" list, but I try and mix it up with the other conferences I attend to both expand my exposure and to see what some of the other meetings are like.

One thing that is rapidly becoming a law for me is "Over 4 parallel sessions = far less time spent attending talks". It doesn't seem to matter what the conference is or how many people I know there, I just can't get excited about a meeting with a shit-ton of parallel sessions. Rather than seeing it as a smorgasbord of tasty science, it feels like a firehouse of information that I would rather not put my face in front of. Maybe I'm just getting lazy in my old age, but running through the maze of rooms to switch between several of the 15 parallel sessions during an afternoon just doesn't do it for me these days. And how do the organizers know to pick the two talks I really want to see and schedule them simultaneously?

I go to big meetings sometimes for a change and it's a good way to catch up with people I haven't seen in a while, but I find that I spend less time in the talks and more time chatting with people during the day. I'm not sure why that is, but big meetings get to be less about the presentations and more about socializing.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Travelers remorse

Part of the job is traveling. Whether it is for conferences or field work or collaboration, there is little way to avoid it. In general, this is something I really enjoy. Through my work I have traveled to numerous places I wouldn't have gotten to another way. As enjoyable as it is, however, there is a cost.

Even on a good day, leaving my family at home adds strain to their lives and forces an accommodation of a single-parent household. It's not devastating, but it is an imposed weight that I am very aware of. To make matters worse, there is a history of bad things happening at home while I travel, and this trip is no different. Both my wife and daughter are quite sick, resulting in a double admit to the ER at 4:30 this morning. Both are doing better now and I am hoping that we have hit the point where it can't get much worse, but it's early in the trip and I will be switching continents in a few days.

I don't know that there is much point to this post other than continuing the discussion on balancing work / life demands. Whereas the travel part of the job can be a lot of fun for those of us doing the traveling, every decision to go away carries with it an implicit demand that one's partner will pick up the slack at home. Sometimes that's a lot to ask.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hellz Yeah

Why did it take so long to get internet on planes? Thank you whoever solved this issue.

That is all.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Unfriendly departments

I have had the good fortune during most of my career to either be in departments that are generally very friendly or ones where battles between the different egos were kept between said egos and were not projected onto the trainees of each lab. This has been a good thing. However, in one of my training stops I landed in a fragmented department that was odd from an outsider's perspective.

Several core groups co-existed within the department, and while there was never any open hostility between them, the different groups just didn't interact. Within groups = lots of great interaction; between groups = as if each group was their own continent when the world was believed to be flat.

I am an outgoing person who likes to get to know the people I see every day. I can't help it. A silent elevator ride with the person who works in the next lab over drives me nuts. Especially when we likely have much in common.

So what's a guy to do to break through these barriers of stupidity? Borrow shit.

That's right, start asking for stuff. Doesn't matter if you need it or not. After about 4 months of lab-to-lab silence I decided that I was going to march into the other labs and start asking for the lab equivalent of a cup of sugar. Who cares that I had a pound of sugar on my bench, no one minds giving out a bit of sugar and the real mission wasn't to get reagents anyway. No, it was ninja ice breaking with the added benefit of the return visit to replenish the sugar once ours "came in".

It's easy to put on blinders when you work a lot in a lab. Maybe you have all the friends that you need either in your group or outside the work environment, but nothing bad has ever become of a sincere effort to get to know those around you and my efforts ended up paying off when I actually did need to borrow something.

Give it a try and tell me I'm wrong.

Actual conversation: Time warp

PLS: I think we should get everyone together on Wednesday to look through talks for the conference. That way there will be time to fix stuff before we go.

Grad Student: Well... we're leaving at 6:20am the next day.

PLS: We're leaving Friday.

GS: No, Thursday. We spending Thursday night at that collecting site you had us book.


GS: I can go get the itinerary.

PLS: Are you shitting me?


PLS: Dude! Fuck. Sigh.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Can I get a Land's End catalog, STAT?

I think I need to start buying pleated Land's End khakis and wrinkle-free dress shirts. It may be the only way that I can start to look professorial enough to stop people from assuming I'm a student.

In only the latest example, I was asked to give a 5 minute dog and pony show research explanation to a political candidate for some district somethingorother. She brought along a contingent of people, including two interns who appeared to think their job of making sure the schedule was adhered to was a life or death posting, and toured the lab. I talked about what we do, including how our science is both good for the state from a job and application perspective. She took this all in as I described the cool equipment we use and how state infrastructure is blah blah blah. A few questions were asked, suggesting the candidate had at least listened. And then... "So, are you a student here?"

I'm not sure why this flusters me every time, I should be used to it. All I could work out of my suddenly-frozen brain was, "Uh, no I'm the PI in the lab." Of course, this meant nothing to them, and the Dean had to pipe in "Principal Investigator" in the awkward seconds of blank stares following the communication logjam. Being a politician, the candidate quickly managed a backtracking two-step, claiming to be impressed by someone with my youthful appearance being in such a position and all I could do was make an awkward joke about growing up wanting to be a Magnum PI and having to settle for this instead. They laughed politely, an intern glanced at their watch while writing something down and I changed the subject.

I need a better way to deal with this question. At the age of 33, until the ravages of the job and parenthood prematurely age me, I think I'm going to be dealing with this question for a bit unless I start wearing the professor uniform. Unfortunately, pleats are my mortal enemy.

I do have the advantage of age being the single factor keeping me from fitting the prof mold in people's mind, so I am sure that many readers have had to deal with this for far longer than I. Perhaps there are effective strategies to head this shit off?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What exactly is a teaching moment in the bloggosphere?

GeekMommyProf started a blog about a month ago, which burst onto the scene in a hurry. Most blogs (including this one) toil in obscurity for a while, eventually gain some steam and get enough readers coming back to get talked about a bit here and there. In the process of earning your blog chops, you make mistakes and write some stupid shit, but no really notices because, again, there are like 6 people who read it. But GMP started off with an uncharacteristically large readership for an independent blog when she hit the ground running and so when she made a mistake people noticed.

At her one month mark, she has written a post in which she suggests that the response from Isis and others to one of her early posts has left her a bit disillusioned with blogging. Specifically, she would prefer if disagreements over content were handled more discretely, rather than on a big stage. GMP suggests that her mistake was an opportunity for a "teaching moment", whereby anyone who read what she wrote and found it offensive could have contacted her by email to explain their position and she would have rewritten the post.

Fair enough, no one likes to be de-panted in front of a large audience, nor does anyone appreciate hordes of angry commenters (weel, maybe some people do). But, if your intent as a blogger is to reach a broad audience, even if mainly for the interaction between your writing and that of the commenters, occasionally you are going to step in shit. This is the nature of the beast and it is a good idea to know this going in, or at least come to this realization rather quickly once people start to read what you write. The internet is a big place and even if you have a regular group of readers who you are comfortable with, there is nothing keeping the world from reading what you write and interpreting it based on their own experiences, not your's.

If a reader gets offended by something you write, it is in your best interest to have them contact you off-blog, but not theirs, and probably not the reader's. As much as it sucks to be called out, what is important to remember is that just because something doesn't look like a teaching moment in your shoes doesn't mean that others aren't learning something. Less than 10% of people that read most blogs take the time to comment even on a good day, IME. Hell, there are many blogs that I read that I rarely comment on, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in the the discussion or learning something from it. Even (especially?) a feisty discussion about topics that people are passionate about gives both those watching and those participating a window into the different experiences and backgrounds that the combatants come from and how that colors their views. You can agree or disagree, but the point is it makes people think about the fact that their own view is not necessarily right or the only view out there. Don't underestimate how important this is.

So, despite the contention of many that the "civil bloggosphere" is their preferred pasture in which to graze, I would argue that far more is learned in places where the discussion roams to where some get uncomfortable. Sometimes as bloggers we make mistakes in our writing and sometimes we have to defend or apologize. But a combination of a thick skin and a willingness to learn from even the heated discussions that occur will end up serving most bloggers and readers very well.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Blogger Rec Letters

Many of us are writing grants this time of year because both NIH and NSF have deadlines around now, as do several foundations. Friend of the blog, Professor in Training, finds herself applying to an agency that requires recommendation letters. Not only is this annoying, but it means annoying your colleagues to do something they thought they were done with after you got a job.

But in the comments section of PiT's post, Dr. No volunteered to write a letter for PiT that she could send along and I think this is a brilliant idea. So, to keep PiT from having to bother her colleagues, I offer this letter:

Dear Important Granting Agency For Stuff I Know Nothing About,

I am writing this letter in support of the proposal entitled "Cool Shit I Want To Do" being proposed by Professor in Training. Frankly, I know nothing about the science being proposed, but PiT really loves your agency and wants to work with you. She does really cool shit in the lab, so this proposal is a natural extension of that effort. Plus, I hear she has agreed to hold off on any major surgeries to repair both old and new injuries for the duration of the proposed funding period, ensuring that she will mostly be in one piece for this work and probably won't run off with any hot doctors. An additional benefit of funding this proposal would be lighting a small candle of hope for a broad audience of us junior PIs who are starting to wonder if agencies actually give out money to anyone in their first couple of years. Finally, because PiT has a super cool accent, you will be able to read her proposal in the accent of your choice, kinda like changing the voice on your GPS to find the least condescending version of "recalculating". I know the proposal is hot shit, but with all of the reasons I have listed above, I can't imagine there is any reason not to double the budget and just send the money.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The balance

There has been quite the discussion recently about work / life balance and how it relates to gender issues. Things started with Isis' commentary on a ScienceCareers piece on balancing the chores with work, that was aimed specifically at women. After a bit of a scuffle, mostly on Isis's blog, Jim Austin had this to say at ScienceCareers. Despite the "special announcement" (which ends with the dismissive Thanks for your attention. You may go back to whatever you were doing.), I'm not sure Jim ever really heard Isis and Zuska's complaint that the implicit assumption in ALL of the ScienceCareer articles aimed at work / life balance was that the target audience was women and only women.

Based on the discussion, ScientistMother called out the men, and specifically Drug Monkey, to write more about how they deal with the balance between work and life. I think that's a fair thing to ask, because by not addressing this it appears is if it isn't a problem for us and I can assure you, at least in my case, that is not true.

Most of you will know that I am married and have a daughter who is just over two. While I am not in a two body academic relationship, my wife works close enough to where I do that we own one car. I mention this because it is critical to how our lives are scheduled. Basically, our hours are daycare's hours. We drop the Wee One off at 7:30 when it opens and we pick her up at the end of the day (though not when daycare closes), usually between 4:30 and 5:00. Those are my weekday in office hours, whether I like it or not because I have no other option to get home.

At first I found this difficult because I was used to working later in the day, but now I actually appreciate the restriction. Why? Because it means that no matter what I go home with my family and we play, eat dinner and have bath/bed time with our daughter together. I can go back to the office afterwards if I want, though more often than not I work in the evenings from home. But during the week we don't see the Wee One for that long each day and this schedule means that I see her all the time she is not in daycare. It means I have to be a bit more organized and that I have to get everything I can done during the day, but it also means that I spend more time with my daughter and, importantly, that the parenting burden is not skewed. For the same reasons, I try hard not to work much on weekends, but when I have to, I pick one day to get things done and spend the other day with my family or just with my daughter if my wife has to work.

As far as chores go, we have essentially reached a balance where the overall work is split evenly without both of us doing every task equally. I do more of the cooking and dish washing, whereas my wife does more laundry and yard work. We both clean the house when it needs it, which usually either happens in concentrated bursts or in fragmented pieces (just the bathroom gets done, or just the kitchen gets cleaned) during the Wee One's naps or after dinner. We take turns giving the Wee One a bath and putting her to bed. For the most part it works.

The tough part is travel. At the moment I travel more for work than my wife and that places an enormous burden on her during those times to single parent while I am away. For some reason, when I travel is also the time when random catastrophe strikes the household, making my time away that much more difficult on my family. There have even been times when my travel and changes around the house have caused anxiety in the Wee One, which was a bit scary. Travel times are stressful times and I've tried to make careful decisions about travel to get the most out of the time I am away. Sometimes it means missing a relevant meeting. It is what it is.

Kids are a lot of work. Relationships are a lot of work. Work is a lot of work. Everyone finds their balance and what makes the most sense in their relationship to get 26 hours worth of stuff done in 24 hours. There is no one right way to make it happen but allowing home duties fluctuate between us depending on each other's work burden at the time allows us to manage.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Can junior PIs make decent mentors?

Following from a discussion on last weeks' post about the new NSF is borked forum, the comments moved towards the topic of junior PIs and whether they should be postdoc mentors. The start of the discussion was sparked by Dr. Girlfriend, who made the comment:

I honestly do not believe the average new PI has the experience to qualify as a suitable postdoc mentor.

I took issue with this being an unsuitably broad statement to make and then we were off on a tangent of no return. So, I thought it might make for an interesting broader discussion. Do you, dear readers, believe that a pre-tenure faculty member can make a good postdoc mentor?

As full disclosure, I obviously have a horse in this race and may or may not be currently in this role. But certainly my comments can be interpreted from the position of someone who feels they can be an effective mentor at this stage of their career.

Most importantly, however, I think it is key to recognize that effective mentorship does not only mean one-on-one activities. As I stated in the previous thread:

We are also making the assumption here that the lab PI is the only person to whom a postdoc can go for guidance, and IME, that is also far from true. As a postdoc I consulted several PIs, both at my home institution and elsewhere, on a variety of different issues from applications, to funding and taking a position. I'm not sure how that would change based on the experience of the primary PI.

It is ridiculous to impose a requirement of tenure on anyone who wants to mentor a postdoc (as Dr. Girlfriend seems to want to do), because every mentor is going to have strengths and weaknesses. A postdoc and supervisor need to be able to recognize these 'holes' and find other mentors to compensate for weaknesses of the PI. This is no different from the situation where a postdoc wants to go into an 'alternative' career and must find mentors that will be able to guide them through that process.

As I have stated before, mentoring is about facilitating the transition from trainee to whatever career, for your peeps. If I am mentoring someone who wants to go into industry, I'm going to make sure they find someone in that field to talk to. Why is that any different when it comes to being a faculty member? Why can't junior PIs encourage their postdocs to solicit other information on being a faculty member from people at different stages of their careers? All of us do this all the time and it wouldn't make any sense to not suggest that to our trainees.

So, I guess I'm confused or maybe just used to ensuring that I have a broad base of mentorship and that my trainees do as well. Perhaps I just didn't realize that I need to be a Swiss Army knife of mentorship, when I probably see myself, at best, as a spork.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Good golly! The System done been broke!

Funding for science is tight right now. No one knows that more than I and the stack of rejected grant proposals I have on my desk. For a lot of people the shifting climate sucks and for new people it can be be painful to get one's foot in the door. But, is this in itself proof positive that The System is broken? Aureliano Buendia* thinks so.

This morning I was sent a link to a new forum for discussing the "problems" with NSF and what can be done to fix it. Specifically, the creator of the forum states its purpose as discussing "What problems have you had with NSF? What creative solutions have you come up with to these problems? The forum is designed to address such issues. Let's bring out our best ideas, and hope that NSF pays attention."

In one of the inaugural forum posts Aureliano Buendia wonders whether going to the "Canadian system" is really what NSF should migrate towards - Smaller grants ($30 - $50K/year direct for 5 years) with a high rate of funding (~50%). Perhaps this would work for some researchers but I think if you ask your Canadian colleagues whether this is an ideal system you might come away thinking that it is not quite Nirvana on Earth. For a whole host of reasons being stuck with a $30K / year (normal first time grant) lab budget for 5 years (because you can only have one NSERC grant at a time) stifles research progress during a critical time for lab growth. Don't get me wrong, there is some tremendous work being done in Canada, but if you can't apply to other agencies to support your work there is no hope of hiring a postdoc in the first 5 years of the lab unless you attract someone with their own funding. Zoinks, Scoob.

With his cat-like reflexes to perturbations in the interwebs, Drug Monkey has already weighed in on the forum and brings up a good point.

In addition I would encourage everyone to consider closely an issue that comes up over and over again in the NIH-focused discussion. We are all subject to a certain myopia*. The first symptom is that we interpret changes in our personal success rate (if we are relatively senior) or a lack of personal success as being unambiguous evidence that TheSystemIsBroken!. The second symptom is promotion of "solutions" that benefit our own personal career, laboratory, research programme, etc. At the expense of others of course ("Do it to Julia, not me, Julia!")

To me, there appears to be a lot of concern over the size of many grants these days and a lot o'"back in the day, we did science for A NICKLE! And we liked it!" goin' on over at the new forum, but I encourage my readers to go take a look and weigh in if you think you have something to offer. I will be curious to see how the comments develop and whether the consensus opinion is that a small grant mechanism would be a good thing or whether people feel this is just a public foot stomping by an aging scientist having trouble getting funds.

*I have no idea if this person is real or a Pseud.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Survivor gifts

In my experience, there is a sort of tradition in science that a supervisor gives a gift to a trainee leaving the lab. I think it's a nice gesture and I know I appreciated it when I left the various stops in my academic life. Of course, now being on the supervisor side of things, I've got to be the one coming up with the gift ideas.

I bring this up because I have a student graduating by the end of the summer and since my summer is a vortex of deadlines and travel it occurred to me that I should consider what I would get as a gift now rather than picking something up at the local convenience store 10 minutes before the defense. I mean, every likes fudgesicles, but they may not make the best going away gift.

The fall back for almost every supervisor is books. We all like books and there is an essentially endless number from which to choose, but unless you know what the person leaving is moving on to, picking the books that will be useful to them in the future is not all that easy. Plus, at the rate people move in most academic fields, you might as well be giving someone lead bricks.

Surely there are more innovative ideas out there.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My daughter and the ShamWOW

Having kids is sometimes like living with "carnies" - every day is different and you never know what you're going to get when you wake up in the morning. The good days are really good and the bad days really suck. I'm not one of those parents who will tell everyone I know that having a child is the best thing I've ever done with my life. It is very fulfilling and I love the Wee One in indescribable ways, but having a kid is a crazy roller coaster ride that might actually go off the tracks at any point. If nothing else, it gives you a tremendous amount of retrospective respect for your own parents.

One of the best things about having a child, however, is the funny and crazy shit they do. They constantly challenge your perceptions about what you think they should be/care about/do/enjoy/get scared by, and they change so quickly that you are always on your toes. The Wee One is now 2 years and 3 months old (27 months for all of you crazy parents who insist on doing everything in months. After a year it's time to get over it people) and I am constantly amazed by what she understands or says. Last week on the way home in the care she started yelling "I want Lady Gaga!", and my wife and I looked at each other and said "who?" I think the Wee One has been reading Isis' blog.

But I digress.

Recently I was in a Dollar Store to pick up some trinkets for a kid's party and saw that they had a display of ShamWOWs, the highly absorbent towels. I'm not much of one for infomertials, but I had some use for such a towel to dry dishes, so I picked one up by the register. I brought the thing home and as soon as the Wee One found it she thought it was the Best Thing Ever! She's drawn to the damn thing like a moth to a light and anytime she sees it she grabs it and either wants to play with it (apparently it makes a hilarious tail if held behind the back), wants to clean something with it or decides it is her new blanket. Of course, I'm imagining her going to sleep with it and waking up all dehydrated, but that wouldn't probably happen, right? Right?

But she doesn't care that it's a $1 piece of fabric with unusual absorbing properties - it's soft, flexible and brightly colored. What more does a kid need? I can tell her "Honey, that's just a towel, can you put it back on the stove", and she'll say "No daddy, it's a tail!" I guess the point of this random and rambling anecdote, other than the fact that my tolerance for writing about science is being devoured by grants, is that we often make assumptions about what is desirable to others without taking into account how they see things. If you pay attention, sometimes you find out that there can be many interpretations of what you see as a single thing. And sometimes a dish towel is a tail if it makes a kid squeal with laughter.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Repost: The Impotence of bad writing.

Things are a little crazy now that I'm back in the office, but I just received something to review that made me essentially want to write this post over again, so here it is from May 11, 2009.

There have to be a hundred posts out there about how important it is to write well in science, but here's 101. I can't tell you how many students I had as a TA tell me they didn't care about writing because they wanted to be a scientist and how many more were shocked and appalled when I took off points from an assignment for atrocious grammar or spelling. I wasn't crazy about it, but I have my limits that were constantly pushed by the students. Ironically, I'm a horrible speller. However, I know this and make sure to spell-check everything I am writing that might be seen by others. I consider myself a decent writer who is always looking for ways to improve and most often I do that through reading and noticing when someone really gets their point across effectively. I look at how they have structured their point or argument and keep it in the back of my head. What did they say that convinced me and how did they get there? If you can lead the reader along so that they reach your conclusion about a sentence before you spell it out, you've done a good job.

When it comes to manuscripts, I always remark on grammar and spelling though I don't take the time to mark up everything as that is not necessarily the job of the reviewer. The gray area is when it comes to grants. In theory we are supposed to be evaluating the science (and broader impacts in the case of NSF) and not necessarily the ability of the writer to actually write, but they are inseparable. Maybe I get hung up on the writing a bit too much, but I find nothing more distracting than a poorly written grant. I have on my desk a proposal for a project including 6 PIs with a budget in excess of a million dollars and I had to put it down after reading the first two pages because the writing just sucks and it was pissing me off. Is that how you want a reviewer reading through your grant? No. Angry reviewers are bad and if they are angry because your writing is the equivalent of nails on a chalk board how likely are they to think your science is kick ass? Like it or not, your writing is a direct reflection of you as an academic and as much as I try to see through the grammatical train-wreck and missing words in the back of my head I am thinking that if this proposal wasn't worth your time to edit and clarify, why is it worth my time to read and thoughtfully respond to.

So, dear readers, repeat after me - "Both verbal and written communication are essential facets of science and should be skills that are constantly honed, just like the techniques you use in the lab or field (or PLS will send you back the charred and shredded remains of your crappy grant)."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Conference stratigery

What does an early-career scientist have to do at conferences besides give a good talk? In my mind, it may even be more important to make a friend. Yeah, sounds stupid but hear me out.

Whenever I go to a science gathering (workshop, conference, etc.) I always make it a mission to get to know at least two people in my field more senior than me, who did not know me personally before. Maybe this sounds ridiculous to decide consciously, but it is really easy to just hang out with the people you already know at meetings. Rather than taking the comfortable route, I ensure that I seek out people so that they can put a face to a name they may have seen in the literature, and numerous good things have resulted from making this effort. I've twice been invited for departmental seminars, started a collaboration, been given useful data as well as feedback on my grant proposals that people had reviewed, all based on conversations that happened or started at a meeting.

Does it sometimes mean that I get stuck in awkward conversations or some painful social interactions? Yup. But I consider it a huge waste if I leave a meeting without having gotten at least a couple of senior people to remember my name and in many little ways this pays off. I'll take an edge I can get right now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The mark some places leave

Busy week, my friends. This week kicks off the summer travel schedule for me, which is going to be taking me out of town a lot. I am back in postdoc city for a workshop that has been non-stop since I got here. It's been almost two years since I've been here and not much has changed - a few shops and restaurants have closed or been reinvented, but nothing compared with the changes that I have gone through. In some ways it is centering to be back and in others disorienting.

It's odd being back as a visitor in a place where so much happened in my life when I lived here. I've met up with many friends, both academic and otherwise, who I haven't seen since leaving. This morning I walked by the hospital where my daughter was born. Tomorrow I will be spending some time in the lab of my postdoc advisor in between running a few local errands to pick some items up to bring home. I didn't expect it to feel quite like it has turned out being back, but I'm not sure what I expected.

I do miss this place. I miss the city, the people, hell, I miss this country where I lived for so long. But such is the nature of the transient academic life, where multiple stops all over the world is not unusual for many of us. I know when I mentioned before that postdocs should embrace the opportunity to travel and live in new places, some got a little bent out of shape over the idea. To each their own, I suppose, but I know that my experience and my life were enriched by being here and this place will always be one I consider a home.

Friday, May 28, 2010

HBHM (5 of 5): I wish I had Zuska's balls

I have learned a lot from the community of bloggers whom I interact with, but what has been the most important education for me, bar none, has come from the feminist posts of women bloggers reminding me how privlidged I have it. I should say that I have always considered myself supportive of diversity in science and have gone out of my way to find ways to foster it whenever I have had the opportunity. But in my effort to do what I thought was important for helping underrepresented groups in science, I was missing something right in front of me.

Being a white guy is pretty easy, especially in science. Pretty much everything is geared for our success, since the people making the rules for so long were other white dudes. When I have mentioned this to people IRL, about 50% of the time the person responds with something like, "but what about all the special programs for women and minorities? Where are the special programs for white doods?" Almost everyone will be familiar with this response, as it is one of several Standard Stock Responses to Diversity Issues and it is easy to get tired of saying "you mean the rest of science?".

In my mind, supporting diversity programs and recruiting initiatives was one of the more effective ways to bring others into the fold. But what was staring me in the face, even though I was looking straight through it, was that my inability to put myself in the shoes of the people I was trying to recruit made success far more difficult than I appreciated. Assuming that others have similar motivations, constraints and goals as I did as a trainee is a lazy and ill-conceived way to approach recruiting anyone, but particularly people from backgrounds very different from my own. It seems very simple when I write it out, but success in broadening diversity in science is far more dependent on changing the way we do things than on changing others to fit the way things are done. It took me a while to get that, but this change in mindset has had a major impact on how I see and think about my field of science, where I would like to see it head in the next 5, 10, 20 years and what I can do to push things in that direction.

So, where does Zuska come into all this? Because her blog has been a really important resource in my continued effort stop thinking like a white dude.

I will reluctantly admit that when I first came across Zuska's blog it didn't grab me. For a while I would go check it out now and again to see what she was ranting about but I didn't think about the posts or how they applied to me. Yes, I can admit to being an idiot, it happens. But then a series of posts (the exact topic, unfortunately, is escaping me) between a few different bloggers (including Isis and DrugMonkey) brought me back to Zuska ready to think about what she writes.

I have been reading Zuska's blog for a number of months just trying to get my appreciation of the feminist viewpoint up to speed and I am amazed by Zuska's strength. Blogging for me has almost always been a fun experience with positive interactions and I'm not sure if I would continue with it if I had to put up with the trolls and asshats she deals with constantly. The comments alone on a post like this epic thread make me not only weep for my gender, but might just make me walk away from blogging in frustration. But despite all of it Zuska carries on, and like my ironically tongue-in-cheek title suggests, I think that takes a lot of courage.

I for one am thankful she does and would like to take this opportunity to say so. Thanks for bringing numerous important issues up and providing insightful posts about them; for being the person who lets others know it is not just them; for delivering your message in the face attacking stupidity and ignorance; and for allowing someone like me to learn in the wings and make important realizations while thinking about your writing.

Stay angry Zuska and thanks for having a huge set of ovaries.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

HBHM (4 of 5): Getting pushed

In a lot of ways, this is an extension of yesterday's post, though an important one.

Many of us are self-motivated. This ability to push oneself even in the absence of an immediate boss figure looming is probably a factor in drawing people to academia. "Academic Freedom" (in both its good and bad connotations) is supposed to allow faculty to do their work without people getting in the way. Whether this happens in reality can be debated, but I would argue that most PIs have a day-to-day freedom that many professionals don't. Because of that, the ability to push oneself is important to long-term success.

As the new member of the department I hit the ground running. I was filling the lab with stuff, writing grants training students, etc. I didn't need anyone to tell me that this stuff had to happen, I wanted it done more than anyone else. I worked like hell to get a functioning lab together and had shit up and running in a couple of months. We produced our first bits of data in less than 6 weeks from me opening the door to an empty room. It was good.

I haven't stopped working with that same intensity, but how many times have I looked around at all of the stuff I have to do while holding some form of rejection (grant, paper, request for an autographed picture of Alan Thicke, whathaveyou) and said to myself "Fuck. This."? More than you might think. I am not saying that I'm going to walk away one day and fulfill my life-long desire to become a trapeze artist, only that maintaining a decent level of motivation in the face of consistent rejection is not an easy thing.

But it is critical.

Everyone's experience will differ depending on who is around them, but my experience has been that the people in my department are quick to say "you're doing all the right things. Don't worry, something will come through!", which is nice... Maybe too nice at times. The reality, at least for me, is that I don't want to be too comfortable with how I am doing until I get some money in the door and papers out the door. I'm working on that, but it doesn't hurt to have people around to say "Dude, sack the fuck up. No one cares that Reviewer 3 was an know-nothing blowhard. Fix it, submit again." Just as effective is seeing others going through just as (or more) difficult a time and still getting up every time they are knocked down.

A tolerance for being told "no" is important, but the drive to keep knocking until someone says "yes" is the only way to get things moving. When you are balancing things at home, teaching, travel, trainees, and keeping your research going, it is incredibly easy to say "I'll just submit one proposal this round instead of two." Honestly, most people in my department either would be fine with me doing that or not know or care one way or another, but I know I need to submit the two (or three in the case of this July) and so do the many people I have met through blogging who I never would have met in another way.

Directly or indirectly, the people who I interact with through blogging keep me motivated when I want to let up a bit. This has been really important for me, particularly in the last 6 months and is the second biggest way in which blogging has helped me. Tune in tomorrow for what has, to me at least, been the most surprising and important effect of blogging.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

HBHM (3 of 5): Connecting the dots

Departments can vary enormously in their make-up and stratification. When you first get hired into a department this isn't something that most people think about, but it can become an issue for you before you know it. I was the first hire into my department in a couple of years and it will be another year from now before we hire the next person (I will have been here 3 years when they start). This is actually not a bad spread between hires, in some places the gaps are much larger, and conversely, there are those that hire multiple people in a year.

I recognized fairly early on that the pool of "new" people who I could go to with questions about getting started as a new PI was very small. Particularly since I was coming in from a different country and wasn't already in step with funding agencies here, my transition wasn't as smooth as it could have been. Although my department is very supportive in a lot of ways, I don't really have a strong cohort here who are reaching the same milestones when I am.

My way of dealing with this was to write everything down in the hopes that those coming a year or two later might benefit from a non-revisionist history of the stuff I went through. It's all well and good to say "Oh, yeah. I remember going through that, it'll get better." but leaving a written archive of when I actually went through something and my at the time reaction to it made a lot of sense to me, both to remember what it was like and to hopefully benefit others.

What I did not expect, in my naivety about blogging and this community, was that thousands of others had a similar thought. And not only were there numerous examples of other blogs written by people in my situation, but there are 10x that number of readers who struggle through the same situations. Suddenly my cohort was huge. Suddenly I had access to an enormous range of perspectives and advice. I felt like I looked under my chair and found the Poll The Audience lifeline from Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and without having to tolerate Regis.

And so the dynamic of this blog has changed for me as I make more connections and find a network where I once saw a chaotic arrangement of dots. And for every helpful conversation that occurs in a comment section there is another happening by email or IRL - each one drawing upon the collective experience of many great people. Whether it is things that come up in my family life, teaching or research there are others who are walking the same path as I am, have tread down this path recently or at least remember what it was like and have some great advice that makes me consider new things.

I do hope that post-docs and grad students who read this blog find the snippets of advice that will be useful for them or at least get a sense of what they will be facing if they make the jump to PI. I'm not sure there's any way to be completely prepared for what lies ahead, but at least some heads up will have you more ready. For me, however, this forum has become more of a sounding board / support group ("Hi, my name is PLS and I... am a... a junior PI) / muse for me to kick around ideas. It has made a lot of the stages of early PI life a lot easier to handle knowing that I'm not the only one facing certain challenges and hearing the advice of others. In turn I have tried to provide advice, for better or for worse, where I think I can add to the conversation.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go sing "The Circle of Life" at the top of my lungs.

Monday, May 24, 2010

HBHM (2 of 5): Work like a butterfly, focus like a goldfish

One of my earliest childhood memories is spending time at the Children's Hospital taking these funky tests. I didn't really know why I was there or why people kept asking me what seemed like odd questions, but I answered them the best I could. After that, I never went back and nothing really changed for me, so it was just a blip on the childhood radar - nothing of particular note.

What I didn't know then, and later found out, was that the whole purpose of the trip was to figure out if I had ADD. And this was in the early 80's, before it was popular! Turns out the doctors thought I did and my parents didn't want to put me on meds, so that was that and I don't really remember it coming up again. I guess I did well enough in school where no urgent action seemed to be needed.

I also remember very vividly a time in high school when I was writing a term paper and one of my friends gave me a ritalin from his prescription assuring me that it would help me get the work done. Did it ever. Suddenly I had the ability to block everything else out and work on just one thing. It was odd. It was a bit scary. But man, did I write. It also back-fired when I eventually did get distracted and proceeded to play Sega's NHL 95 until about 5am. Win some, lose some.

I don't know a whole lot about ADD or ADHD and how it should be dealt with the best, but I do know that uninterrupted focus is rare in my life. My PhD advisor (especially) and my postdoc advisor both have the ability to zone in on something and Get Shit Done in remarkably efficient ways. I don't. Apparently I hide it fairly well (not intentionally) because to my knowledge, no one else really seems to notice; nor would they unless they watched me work and that would just be creepy. It's not like this has derailed me or anything, my gerbil-like attention span is something I am used to. I just work very differently and had a hard time using "Dr. Focus, PI" as a model. In a lot of ways it can be a good thing in this job, where my day is often sliced in a zillion pieces of time doing different things. It is also probably a reason why we have so many projects going on in the lab right now or why I needed to be juggling several projects all the time as a student and postdoc. However, if I work on one thing for 2 hours straight it either means I am under huge deadline pressure or plague and pestilence are coming shortly, followed by a bunch of guys on horses.

Since my one experience, I haven't tried any other drugs to treat ADD. Who knows, maybe it would help, but I've found other ways to deal with my scatteredness. And since I only found out somewhat recently that I was "dealing" with anything, I guess I've just done what works for me. Typically I take a lot of breaks when I am working on something and spend 5-10 minutes doing something else. It's not particularly efficient, but it means I get the most out of the time I am spending working. Pre-blogging, a lot of my breaks were spent reading about sports, catching up on news or doing some of the random little things that everyone has to do in a day. Then, for some reason, I started a blog.

Blogging, for me, has become a productive way to reign in my inability to focus for long periods of time and turn my breaks into something more valuable than reading another opinion on the pre-season moves in the AFC-East. Whether you believe it or not, many of the posts I regularly write don't take longer than a few minutes to compose. If you are one who pays close attention to spelling and grammar, my time spent per post likely doesn't surprise you, but people often assume that this stuff takes longer than it actually does.

So, instead of broadening the scope of my NFL knowledge*, I have allocated my "non-work" time to writing about inane snippets of academic life and interacting with others doing the same. What I never anticipated, however, was how useful this would become for my development as a researcher, teacher and person. But more on that over the next couple of days.

*The Jets still suck, though. 

How blogging helps me (1 of 5)

I'm going to try something a little different this week and actually do something organized, rather than just toss out anything that happens to be on my mind. I often get comments, here or IRL, to the effect of "how do you have time to blog?" or "Do you feel like blogging is a waste of time when you have so many other things going on?" Obviously, my answer is no, I don't think it is a waste of time, but over the next few days I would like to articulate that a little more clearly in a series of four posts, entitled:

Work like a butterfly, focus like a goldfish.

Connecting the dots.

Getting pushed.

I wish I had Zuska's balls.

Unlike the majority of stuff I write, these posts are all ones I've been thinking about for a while and this is a way (albeit possibly an odd way) to bring them all together into something bordering on coherent. This may or may not work, but at least it'll get these out of my head, where they have been clamoring and making a racket.

I have been blogging here for basically a year and a half and as things here continue to evolve for me, so do me interactions within this medium. There is much I never anticipated when I started doing this and probably about as much that I thought would come out of it that never did. However you look at it, blogging has changed the way I think and provided new opportunities and challenges. I'll see what I can do this week to put words around why and how this has happened for me.

And if this series turns into a fiery train wreck, you can all bask in the virtual warmth. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

The third circle of hell

I think if Dante were alive today his third circle of hell would be an endless graduation ceremony. There would be speaker after speaker trotted up to deliver an endless monologue of crappy metaphors for life. It would be conducted outside in the blazing heat and everyone would be wearing black polyester from head to toe.

Boy, do I love graduation.

For the students this is a big deal. I get that. When I was graduating from university it was a big deal to me too. And although I was massively hung over, sitting in the rain and listening to an interminably bad speech, it was still a good day. I got to make sarcastic comments the whole time (a la Mystery Science Theater 3000) and got to spend one last day with a lot of friends together before we dispersed.

As a grad student I was gone. By the time graduation rolled around I was already doing a postdoc in a different location and wasn't interested in going back to have someone place a hood on my head. Thanks, but send the diploma. The graduation novelty wears off pretty quickly.

These days I am "encouraged" to go to graduation at least once a year! We normally get a pass on the smaller winter graduation, but for the spring one we are actively "reminded" to be there. Last year I was traveling over the graduation weekend, but this year I didn't arrange my schedule well and I will be here to attend my first professorial graduation. Yay....

I understand how bad it would look if none of the faculty showed up and I will begrudgingly take my place in the procession, but I can't say I am looking forward to it. There will be students graduating who took my class (although a couple who expected to won't be, unfortunately), which will add some familiarity to the proceedings, but the undergrads who have worked in my lab and whom I have gotten to know better, still have more time here. To make thing more exciting, the President has added another half hour to the schedule this year. Thanks big guy!

I may have to employ some academic version of slipping a comic book into a text book. I wonder if the graduation handout will be thick enough to disguise a couple of articles I need to read. Will people wonder why I am so intent on examining the schedule of events and the list of graduates? Can I figure out how to put movies on my Iphone and arrange my goofy hat to hide the earpiece?

There has to be some way to make the graduation ceremony tolerable.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Is professional commenting worth the risk?

Journal articles are the basis for the advancement of science and the discussion of novel data and analyses as they are published is one feature that unites all fields. Between journal clubs, informal discussions, conferences, emails, phone calls, Morse code, etc., we all engage in debate over our results and those of others. But other than in the memories of those involved, these discussions are largely "off the record" and invisible to anyone new entering a particular field.

To foster this type of discussion in a more open and accessible format, some journals have added the option to comment on published papers online. Notably, the BMC and PLoS journals were at the forefront of this movement and Nature has recently enabled this as well. There are others, but you get the point - some high profile papers are available for individuals to comment on and for everyone else to see what those people said.

In an ideal world, this is a great option. It allows for the compilation of people's reaction to certain studies in a publicly accessible way. It brings the water cooler to the source and can provide insight to those who are new to the field. Which papers have which potential flaws? Who are the major players in the debate on this work? It could all be right there.

In practice, how does this work? Well, if you've looked through these journals you will probably note that there are not many comments. An occasional paper will spark some debate, but the mechanism is widely underutilized and the community has not really embraced it. Why?

Well, one reason might be the concern about the repercussions of publicly attacking (even nicely) someone's work. Maybe one of the authors doesn't appreciate the "debate" and consciously or unconsciously holds that against you as a reviewer of your paper/proposal/tenure review package down the road. Maybe it's not even an author on the paper, but someone who reads your comment but will never be known to you. Is the benefit of public debate to the community more important than possible repercussions to your personal work?

I bring this up because I came across a paper just the other day that has what I believe to be fundamental flaws in its approach. The paper's conclusions are interesting, but inherently problematic based on the author's assumptions stemming from their apparent lack of familiarity of the pertinent literature. Knowing that the results might get picked up upon, but the assumptions underlying those results might not be obvious to those interested in the final outcome, I considered commenting on the paper. Thus, I asked some colleagues whether it was important to point this out and the reaction ranged from "This is important for science" to "You would be stupid to risk it".

I know there are plenty of studies on people's interest in public literature commenting (I'm just too lazy to look them up right now), but doesn't it just come down to risk? If there is any perception that one's comments could have negative consequences for one's research, what is the motivation to participate? Do science martyrs get tenure?

This is basically the same debate that goes on in the blogosphere between those who prefer to blog under a pseudonym and those who think that any comment or blog without a "real" name associated with it isn't worth a damn. PLoS, for instance, makes it very clear that all comments must be obviously attributable to an identifiable individual (although they with keep your email address secret, because no one can find that out).

I wonder how commenting would be affected by allowing pseudonyms to comment on professional journal articles. Would early career scientists feel emboldened to engage in public "on the record" debate? Would it empower those who refuse to open themselves to any additional risk to their livelihood? Would the debate improve or devolve into a hotbed of uncivil behavior?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Making craptastic lemonade

A while ago I talked a bit about getting some key data done for free. Well, that didn't turn out so well. We did eventually get the data, but they were about a week late for our grant deadline and it turned out that the Data Producers left out one really essential step that meant we got data of far less use than we had anticipated given the instructions we sent. But again, free.

So after an initial scan of those data and a limited amount of time playing with them, I put them on the back-burner for a while because of teaching and other commitments. Then we got a new toy and all of a sudden these data can be manipulated in a very different way.

It turns out that, while not entirely useful for the question we had in mind, the data are incredibly useful for providing some proof of concept stuff for a proposal that is in the works. I never would have done it this way given the choice, but with a little thought and an enormous amount of CPU time, we may actually be making lemonade out of crap. Mmmmmm.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Really, NIH? Seriously?

If you're reading this blog, chances are you are likely aware of the NIH. It happens to be the biggest single funding source for biomedical research in the U.S. and has a 2010 budget of nearly $31 Billion. If you do biomed science in the U.S., NIH is kinda a big deal.

NIH walks around town.

For those of us who do more "basic" science (meaning stuff that doesn't directly cure cancer), sending a proposal to the NIH is something people talk about, but rarely do. Afterall, I'm not interested in what my work can do for people because little of what I do is directly relevant to the NIH mission. At the same time, I would be stupid to ignore a potential funding source and so, at the behest of some colleagues, I've been poking around to figure out if I can identify a mechanism for NIH support. My plan all along had been to try and get an NSF grant or two under the belt and then see what I could do about sending something to NIH, but plans have changed. If often read the NIH-related posts at DrugMonkey, but more out of passing interest that a need to learn.

So, over the last few days I have waded waist deep into the NIH swamp and holy shit is it murky. First off, the good news. NIH RePORTER is pretty fucking awesome. Having the direct link between the funded grant and the resulting publications is tremendously useful. On top of that, NIH provides the roster of its study sections! This allows an applicant to not only find a relevant section, but also see whether there is anyone on that section who might be sympathetic to their application. Maybe that helps and maybe it doesn't, but it's an interesting bit of transparency that you don't find in many other places.

BUT, as a new investigator with no NIH experience, trying to find the right program to apply to is a serious rabbit hole. First, wade through all the institutes and centers. Think you've found one that'll work? Might want to check again, because there are random programs stuck all over the place that might be relevant to the work you are proposing. I found a relevant program in the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and I can assure you the closest I come to dental work is my annual visit to the tooth scraper. To make the process much more fun, none of the institute websites are set up the same (compare this to this). Don't impose website standards on MY institute, we do it the best way! It's like journals and their damn citation formatting.

Alright, so you found a program. You read to apply? Well, check which institutes take which grants as "unsolicited requests", because if you want to apply for an R21 (which some think you should not), R15 or R03, for instance, you can only send it in to certain institutes unless it is a response to a specific RFA. Is there any rhyme or reason to which take unsolicited proposals and which don't? Maybe, but I can't figure it out.

But here the best part! Even though you have to apply through an institute and a program within that institute, it is the study section that ranks your grant. Is there a study section for each program? Of course not! The study sections are decoupled from the institutes and programs. Therefore, even if you send in a proposal to a certain program, it may go to the study section to get ranked and then another program (possibly in another institute) may pick it up. So, do you target the institute, the study section or both? Can you make sure your proposal makes it to the right study section? How that works in terms of unsolicited proposals or specific RFAs, I have no clue.

Maybe the system is perfect and my complaints are based on my naive misunderstanding of how all this works. Since I didn't grow up in an NIH lab and have never worked on an NIH project, trying to learn the system from scratch has been a bit crazy. I'm sure I have misinterpreted some things here as well and I welcome corrections because I'm trying to work this all out. I may not be the sharpest tack around, but the labyrinth of NIH seems ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated from the perspective of an outsider. But maybe that's the point.