Friday, January 29, 2010

Notes from an advisor's desk

My undergraduate advising duties have picked up quite a bit over the last few months. I've had a bunch of meetings with students in their second through forth year and every meeting is different. I didn't expect that a group of people all going through the same (or similar) training would have such completely different experiences, but perhaps that's a simplistic view.

In about five minutes I can tell whether the student is just there for affirmation that they are on the right track or if they came because they don't know how to get to the end game. Initially I was surprised how many students are in the latter category (the major requirements and spelled out in multiple places, with worksheets to help students schedule their classes), but then I remember that most of the students I see are younger than 20 and are choosing their own path for really the first time. In high school their schedule is predetermined for them, for the most part, but now they are free to follow guidelines or not, with no consequences to those choices until after the fact. From my position now it seems crazy that students can't stay on track to meet the major requirements in 4 years, but I was a wide-eyed student once too and many don't know exactly what they want to do from day 1.

In my capacity as an advisor I try and get to know what they want to do post-university, and within reason, put them on a path to succeed. But I have been surprised at my reaction to the various students who walk in my office. In most cases the meeting is straight-forward and I give them a plan for a year or two of classes. In about 40 minutes I can work them through what they need to do and we can agree on a course of action. What intrigues me, however, are the students at the extremes of my reaction spectrum. Some walk in and I find a pretty limited desire to help them. I'm not saying I don't work with them, but something about our interaction keeps me focused more on how to get them done with the major rather than tailoring it to their specific interests. In other cases I have gone out my way to come up with a ideal schedule for students, including finding lab work for a student who didn't even know that option existed. I only recently realized that there was a bell curve to my advisee interactions and I haven't been able to pin down what the factors are that influence it, because it is not related to GPA, the engagement of the student, or other potentially obvious factors and I'm meeting them all for the first time. Some students are just more helpable than others and I guess sometimes I'm just a sucker for a good story.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Inviting Chaos

No, this is not an overt attempt to get Prof. Chaos to let us know how things are going in her world of babies and tenure decisions (as far as you know...), but the continuation of an on-going saga for me. Back when I first started the lab and the blog I posted (here and here) about my quest to have some old data sent to me by a PI who never published them and no longer was in a position to complete the work. My initial contact with Frustrating Potential Collaborator was positive, but without warning FPC fell off the map. I tried to re-initiate contact. Oh, I tried. To no avail.

Late last year a friend of FPC told me that FPC was now interested in talking to me about the data gathering dust. At the time I blew that off because I had already duplicated some of the work and didn't feel like another round of get-screwed-by-the-old-gaurd. But we got some data back recently that just screams to be compared to the data gathering dust that we haven't already duplicated, so I had to chose between contacting FPC again or blowing many thousands of dollars and lots of time for the same results. I thought I should try the "easier" route first.

Well, so far so good. I had an email conversation last night with FPC and they have agreed to release the data to me. It's not clear how much they have (it appears to be far more than I had originally suspected), but so far we have the green light. BUT, twice already I have asked about what would be expected when it comes to authorship and involvement in the final product and twice those questions have been ignored. FPC is now retired and appears not to care what we do with the data, but there were students involved in those projects who have gone on to other things and who might like to see those data published. None of the people in question are still in academia, so tracking them down is difficult.

As excited as I am to get the data and start to work with them, there are alarm bells going off in my head that there may be far more strings attached to the data than I can see right now. But if FPC gives us the okay to go forward, what is my responsibility to FPC's former students from more than a decade ago? I will try and pin FPC down in terms of getting their consent, but if that doesn't happen does it blow up the whole thing? I'm not particularly comfortable with going forward without the consent of the other potential authors. I'll have to see how this plays out of FPC's end. I know that one student has been contacted, but I'm not sure about the others. The last thing I want is a bunch of interesting data that are stuck in limbo, but the possibility of getting a bunch of people who have been out of the game for a while involved in the writing or editing makes my head hurt even more.

Best case scenario is that the data are given to us with a list of a couple of people who should be included on the resulting papers, but who want nothing to do with the process. But best case scenario is usually as likely as riding to work on a unicorn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Not exactly what I thought

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but my first day of class went differently than I had imagined. I got there early to set my computer up and of course found a closed cabinet that held the AV hook-up. Before warming up for my interpretive dance that was my back-up in case the slides didn't work, I checked with the desk at the nearby computer lab. Yes, they had a key. Yes, they would open it. As the Guy With the Key went to unlock the cabinet, he pulled the handle to reveal that it was unlocked and that I am a dumbass. Luckily, I am used to that.

The classroom is set up in the most awkward arrangement possible, with the closest desk only feet from the screen and the computer not even close (thanks for the 3 foot cord!). The result is that any hope of using "presenter tools" to see what is coming up next is completely lost. Yet another drawback to modifying someone else's slides for a lecture.

For some reason, the students waited outside and almost all came in at once about 3 minutes prior to the class's start. All but one of them completely ignored me standing two feet from the door and telling them to pick up a syllabus. They grabbed the paper but regarded me in the same way that most walk by someone asking for change on the NY subway.

That trend continued into the lecture, where questions for them to answer were greeted with a zombie-movie-just-before-someone-gets-attacked kinda quiet. If I hadn't forced them to introduce themselves part way through the class I would have been wondering whether I had the statistically-impossible fortune to preside over a class of people entirely mute. I tried to toss a couple of off-hand jokes out there - nothing. I asked questions - nothing. If there were crickets in the room it would have been a full blown cliche. I really had to pin them down to get any response. I'm thinking of releasing a slightly shaken ferret into the class on Thursday.

Other than that, it was fine. I kept it fairly brief, talked about what I expect of them and what they can expect of the class. I introduced myself and the subject and they were out of there 30 minutes early. Three showed up late, but only one was really late. I only had one person obviously texting in class and I'll try and find a way to address that.

They seem like a decent group, hopefully I just need them to warm up a little.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Having to do most of your Tuesday lecture on Monday morning: likely to be typical.

Being a little nervous about getting the first class right to set the semester off: not surprising.

Having the car not start on Monday morning: my life.

I guess I should be glad that it's not tomorrow before class, but seriously. I just blew more than half my day waiting for a tow truck and going to the dealer only to have them tell me they can't find anything wrong with it. Why don't we start with the fact that the engine sounds like I filled it with buck shot instead of gas once we finally did get it to start. The car is less than a year and a half old and never given us any hint of a problem. This morning it's dead in the driveway?

Now I have to finish my lecture, make sure the syllabus is coherent and probably find some time to visit the room I am teaching in, which is clear across campus, all in less than half the time I had planned. Shit just never gets boring around here. Why do I feel like we're in for some projectile vomiting tomorrow morning as we're dropping the Wee One off? Nothing like teaching the first class covered in vomit.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Friday Finale

We just got back some really important data and immediately found what we were looking for. With my luck I'm sure there is something wrong with it, but for right now it's the first solid piece of data we've gotten back from our dependable Major Data Producing Center. These same data in another system have taken one of my students almost a year to produce in another way, so this is a welcomed turn of events and gets us damn close to having everything we need to write a paper.

The first piece of good news we've had in a while. A good way to go into the weekend. In which I will be here analyzing these data.

Brought to you by the letter M

WTF is up with the states that start with M this week? First Massachusetts goes out in a election of artificial national importance and elects a complete jackass of a senator who announced in his victory speech "My daughters are available, but if I have my way, health care won't be." Stay classy, senator! Since one of his daughters in engaged (and clearly weighing that fallout of punching her dad on national television in this video of the speech), I'm not sure what that means for the future son-in-law or health care.

Next up is a tandem of Mississippi and Missouri, both of which have introduced anti-evolution bills jam packed with the same tired old language that has been knocked down by the courts time and time again. The Mississippi bill tries "To require that the lesson have equal instruction from educational materials that present arguments from both protagonists and antagonists of the theory of evolution." Hmmmm, never heard that one before. Way to get creative Mississippi.

Missouri takes a more indirect approach by couching the bill's language to make it seem like they are all about the science by saying

"teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution"

and following it with

"This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and this section shall not be construed to promote philosophical naturalism or biblical theology, promote natural cause or intelligent cause, promote undirected change or purposeful design, promote atheistic or theistic belief, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or ideas, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. Scientific information includes physical evidence and logical inferences based upon evidence." as a really nice disclaimer.

But, dear Missouri, if your teachers are teaching science, they should already be giving students the idea that scientific hypotheses and theories are always being tested by evidence-based research. Some, like evolution, hold up to everything we throw at it, even if we are occasionally surprised at our lack of understanding of the processes involved. Why would you need a House Bill to affirm this, and why specifically bring up evolution? Oh, maybe this little gem:

"Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, or school system administrator, nor any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule."

Oooo, an immunity idol for anyone who wants teach delusional drivel! How convenient. I have to admit that this bill is well crafted to try and side-step as many bullshit alarms as possible, but the intent couldn't be more clear. This is not a bill to protect that biology teachers who are trying to teach evolution in a hostile environment. The bill's sponsor, Robert Cooper (R*) has put forward over half a dozen previous anti-evolution bills, but luckily his success rate is about as good as mine with grant proposals.

The bar has been set high Montana? Whachugot?

*I know, total shocker. I would never have guessed that this was a Republican-sponsored bill.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not even wet yet

Here I am finishing up my Syllabus for teaching this semester and I am already being hassled about teaching in the fall. I don't have anything that I am responsible for in the fall, so my options are either to design my own course or teach an existing one. By "teach an existing one" I mostly likely mean teach a section or part of a section of the mega intro course. There's pros ad cons to both.

Teaching my own course would mean that I could control all the content and teach only what I want to. It would also mean that I would take on fewer students (probably 30ish). BUT, there is a push right now avoid developing specialized advanced course, and instead target new courses at hooking freshman into science. Therefore, I would be building a course that would be taking research from my field and applying to what freshmen understand. On the surface this sounds easy, but in practice it might completely suck.

Being propped up in front of 300 or so students to teach an intro course is not my idea of fun, but the material is all laid out already and it would require 1/10 the preparation. I also wouldn't have the grading to deal with that would result from a smaller course and it would tick the "taught a big class" box in the departmental mindset of what people need to do before tenure. This is not something I feel I have to check off at this point, so this is a minor advantage.

Having not taught either type of course, I don't know what the time commitment is for each, but I would assume that the larger course that is already laid out would be less. Thus, I am tempted by the path of least resistance on the teaching front. OTOH, a smaller course of my design would clearly be more fulfilling and make the Dean happy because it fills the New Teaching Mandate that is being pushed.

Maybe I'll flip a coin.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

NFL Challenge OT

I've let the NFL playoffs and the cage match between DGT and Nat (Who tied during the regular season of the SciBlog NFL challenge) slip through the cracks a bit. That may be a good thing since their picks for round one were fairly dismal, with each guessing just a single game of the four played. Prior to last weekend I asked them both to pick straight through the Super Bowl to determine that end-all champion. The picks are as follows, winning team in CAPS:

Divisional Round

Chargers over JETS (0)
COLTS over Ravens (1)

SAINTS over Zona (1)
Dallas over VIKINGS (Traitor!) (0)

Confrence Round

Colts Win

Dallas Win

Divisional Round

Chargers over JETS (0)
COLTS over Ravens (1)

SAINTS over Zona (1)
Dallas over VIKINGS (0)

Confrence Round

Chargers Win

Saints Win

Interesting that the picks from last weekend cancel out put the picks for this weekend are completely different. Super Bowl picks to be announced closer to the game.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Burnt or fried?

I have been, more or less, writing for the last four months. Book chapters, grants, pieces of manuscripts and pieces of other grants. It's been pretty non-stop and I've kept chugging along. The past month, in particular has been a really good time to finish up a lot of things because there's so few people to bother me at work until next week, when the semester comes crashing down again. But I have two more small pieces of writing left to do before then and all I can do is just stare at my computer. It's like I accidentally shifted into neutral while driving and now the gas pedal doesn't do anything but rev the engine.

I am also supposed to be planning for my course that starts next week, but I have no sweet clue how to do that because this is all new to me. I'm going to go through all the materials that were given to me and make changes where I see fit, but otherwise I'm at a loss as to what to do in order to "prepare". It's like asking someone who has never really cooked to prepare to make a meal for 40. I'll just start by washing the vegetables and then...

Remember when the concept of the holidays meant that you had time away from work to recharge? Now it feels like a flurry of getting work done during the time when fewer people are around to suck your time away. I'm now heading into the new semester when I am teaching undergrads for the first time, already feeling like I've been run over. I still have 8 days until my first class, I'm sure I'll get myself sorted before then.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Phylomon project: Biodiversity or Megafawning?

In a post last night, the venerable Dr. Isis brought the Phylomon project to the attention of her readers. As an individual interested in biodiversity, I thought I would check it out. In principal I like the idea and the creators described it as such:

“What is this?” you ask? Well, it's an online initiative aimed at creating a Pokemon card type resource but with real creatures on display in full “character design” wonder. Not only that - but we plan to have the scientific community weigh in to determine the content on such cards (note that the cards above are only a mock-up of what that content might be), as well as folks who love gaming to try and design interesting ways to use the cards. Then to top it all off, members of the teacher community will participate to see whether these cards have educational merit. Best of all, the hope is that this will all occur in a non-commercial-open-access-open-source-because-basically-this-is-good-for-you-your-children-and-your-planet sort of way.

But, besides just bringing attention to the project, I would like to encourage readers with some artistic talent* and familiarity with non-animal creatures to get involved. My issue with 99.5% of "biodiversity" projects is that they are anything but. Most are exclusively devoted to animals, or if they really get crazy, metazoans (including insects and squishy creatures mostly in the sea). There may be some value in showing people all the charismatic megafauna that Must Be Saved, but it does not serve the greater purpose of introducing people to biodiversity in the real sense. The Discovery Channelization of nature has value, but it's kinda like reading People magazine to get all your news.

Figure 1. A slightly dated classification of eukaryotic biodiversity. Animals are bit players in the grand scheme. It's a big world out there folks, if you really want to understand biodiversity look up a few of the subgroups on this tree.

I bring this up because people associate the need to conserve biodiversity with warming polar bears or Madagascar lemures with no trees to climb, but the reality is that biodiversity is lost under your very nose no matter where you live - it just happens without much fanfare. No one cares when runoff from a golf course obliterates the diatom community in a local pond or a fish farm wipes out a coastal community of organisms. As long as there are no turtles to go belly up, we're good.

So artistic readers, find an unusual bug to add to the phylomon project. Draw a dinnoflagellate, ciliate, apicomplexan or trypanosome. If it's for the gaming community (which they suggest is a target audience), then what could be nastier than the dinoflagellate saxitoxin, a neurotoxin 100000x more potent than cocaine? Apicomplexans cause malaria and toxoplasmosis, just to name a few diseases they are responsible for. Trypanosomes are responsible for African Sleeping Sickness and Chagas disease, and ciliates are voracious predators and parasites. Do an image search for any of them and you'll be shocked at the diversity in form and function.

The unicells of the world control where and how multicellular organisms live. Maybe more people should be aware that they are out there.

*My lack of artistic ability is so great that I make others around me less artistic. My daughter won't even acknowledge the likeness of Elmo when I try and draw him for her, and he's just a couple of circles and a mouth.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Actual conversations: My Day Yesterday

Me: Hi, I would just like to set up an appointment to go over my grant budgets
Grant Submission "Facilitator": Sure, can you send the budget to me ahead of time?
Me: Yeah, no problem. I can send it as soon as it's done which should give you a day or so to look it over.
GS"F": Would you send it in Excel.
Me: Uuuummmmm, you want the budget in Excel?
GS"F": It makes it easier for me to check through.
Me: *blink, blink*
Me: I'll see what I can do...
GS"F": K, thx. *Click*
Me: Wait, wait, wait. I need to create a whole new budget in a format that makes it easier to do your job while I'm in the midst of finishing two proposals? Hello? Fuck!

In the car
Wife: Wee One, did you get your medicine at day care today?
Wee One: Yes.
Wife: Who gave it to you?
Wee One: Um, Santa!
Wife: Santa gave you your medicine?
Wee One: Yes!
Me: What about Day Care Manager? Did she help?
Wee One: *Stares out window*
Me: Did she help with the medicine or did someone else give it to you?
Wee One: Snowman!
Wife: A snowman gave you the medicine?
Wee One: Yes!
Wife: Sigh.
Me: Alrighty then.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Need.... tunes.....

These grants are almost tucked in and put to bed, but I'm running low on writing / editing music after being glued to my desk for this long. I need suggestions people. The only rules are that the music has to have some edge to it (I can't write to singer/song writer or acoustic), it can't be top 40 crap and no country... unless it involves Neko Case. Current examples on my playlist are Rise Against, Hot Springs, Mother Mother, NOFX (for nostalgia), Propagandhi, Wintersleep and Against me! with a dash of K'naan and Metric.

Any suggestions are welcome for the final push.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

An Open Letter

Dear Major Data Producing Centers,

You thought your machine were well protected, didn't you? Deep in your big fancy buildings with secured access for only a few trusted employees - a virtual fortress, only ever violated by the emails you decide to reply to. Otherwise unassailable, no?

Maybe you shouldn't have accepted samples from my lab. Do you think it's coincidence that machines in two MDPCs in two different countries have gone down while processing our samples in the last month? Do you? Maybe it's worth considering the possibility that what at first seemed like an innocent sample delivered to your door was actually anything but. Once you let it in the door, placed it on your machine and left it alone to run, it was all over. While your technicians slept soundly, our samples were working away. Be afraid, your machines are no longer safe.

PLS Lab samples come in innovative packaging.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The best and worst of times

When I started this blog I wanted to provide an honest description of what a starting faculty member goes through. I know that my experiences are probably representative of only a small percentage of TT faculty, but at least it's one honest and real-time perspective that isn't the revisionist history of more senior colleagues who offer advice. I've tried to stick to that as best I can without getting myself into trouble and hopefully it's been helpful to some who are on a similar path. As more readers have shown up, several of whom know who I am, it's gotten a bit harder for me to discuss certain things in a public forum. I'll be honest, there have been times when I've had to make myself talk about my failures. No one likes to air their dirty laundry, but I've convinced myself that letting other junior faculty who are running into the same roadblocks know that others are going through the same thing is valuable. As a postdoc I wouldn't have expected to go through as many proposals as I have to try and get funding, but here I am. The perils of starting a completely new line of research to start one's career.

In any case, last night I got to thinking about all the data we have coming in a few days and realized that I both love and hate these times. The waiting sucks but before the data arrive there are infinite possibilities. Everything could work as we hope and we could turn these data right around to high impact papers... or it could be crap and I would have been better off lighting a wad of cash on fire to warm my office. To make the stakes even higher, we're expecting critical data for the two major projects in the lab. If they turn out to not be very useful then I have some serious re-thinking to do, two student's with flailing projects and a lot less money to fix the problem with.

Yes, this is what the job is and I realize that. I know that if I always take the safe route we'll never make the big jumps we need to in order to push the edge of the field. However, my safety net isn't huge, so my margin for error is slimmer than some. The reality of huge datasets is almost always something in the middle of what you expect - useful but incomplete and needing some follow-up to make a full story. In this case, I would happily settle for just a small indication that we are not chasing a unicorn and that I haven't picked the wrong page in this chose-your-own-adventure story.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writing an annual report

Yesterday I talked about getting my departmental annual reviews back and one commenter asked:

"Maybe you can enlighten us about how you wrote the review."

I started to write a comment, but then decided to turn it into a post. Basically, an excellent piece of advice that one of my colleagues has given me is to keep a simple Word file that tracks all of the little things that you do. Why is this important? Well, when you go to write an annual report it's easy to remember the big things like papers and grants, etc, but all the little stuff really adds up and is much harder to recall.

For example, every time I get a paper to review, I write down the date and what journal it was for. Same for grants. Represent the department at some university-wide meeting? Write it down. Receive some small recognition? Again, put it on paper. It's amazing how quickly things get forgotten when you have so much to do and getting it all on paper saves you buckets of time when it comes to writing the annual report. As another example, I gave four invited seminars last year at university around the area and because I wrote down all the details when they happened, it was easy to slot them into the review file. Rather than going through your calendar and emails looking for dates, it's all in one place.

Other than that, I asked for a template from someone a few years ahead of me whom I respect. I simply switched out their information for mine and I was off and running. Once you establish the document the first time it can just be added to in subsequent years, with the new information bolded. If you keep that sort of document up it can be the basis for your tenure package and make that process a whole lot easier as well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Annual reviews

No, I'm not going to nostalgically go through the last year of the blog, feel free to do that yourself if you like. Instead, I'm going to take a second to breathe and realize that despite my growing sense of urgency regarding funding and publications, I haven't exactly crashed and burned in this job... yet.

I got my annual reviews back from my department covering the July 08-09 period, and it doesn't seem that anyone in my department wants me kicked out just yet. Granted, it's hard to take issue with someone's progress in the first year, but there were some genuinely nice things said. Like most places we are judged in three categories - Teaching, Research and Service. Each member under review has to put together a summary of what they did in the previous year and all of the faculty weigh in on it. The Chair then gathers up what was written and summarizes it for the Dean. We have the opportunity to see the summary before it gets sent to the Dean and can decide whether to write a response of any kind or add clarification.

In the area of teaching, despite only teaching one grad class to seven students, I still scored highly in the department's eyes, with 60% of the faculty saying I met their expectations and the other 40% claiming I somehow exceeded expectations. As the first faculty member to basically be given their first three semester off from undergraduate teaching, I wasn't sure whether some sour grapes might shine through, but no one held me accountable for an ability to negotiate.

For research, it seems I have fooled people into thinking everything is going swimmingly. In reality, things are going well but it can be easy to feel like we're running in molasses. 70% of the department responded that I am exceeding expectations for research, which is good. Looking back, we have done a lot. We also had to set up a brand new lab - twice. Once we moved to the new building there was a decent amount of time spent just getting everything right again. Anyway, I'll plan to be able to put federal funding into my next review.

My scores for service were the same as research, and maybe that's a bad thing. Looking at it all on paper, I did end up doing a lot of shit for others last year that may have been better spent focused on my lab. At the same time, it is part of the job and I tried to pick things that helped me too. I think what put me over the top was working on the big institutional grant and I have to say that I would do it again. The probably that it will get funded in this round is very high (from the history of the program it was submitted to), which puts me in a good position. We should hear in a couple of months and it it does get funded I may find myself in the driver's seat for a lot of resources I wouldn't have had access to otherwise. I think you have to take the high percentage bets when they come your way.

The whole thing concludes with some nice quotes from what people wrote, suggesting that I am on the right track and people are happy with my progress. Overall, I can't say that there was anything I was concerned about or felt I should be wary of this year and based on the reviews, neither do my colleagues. I suppose that's all I can really hope for in the first year of a TT job.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

OF COURSE it won't be here until next week!

Regular readers may know that I've been working on getting a lot of data recently for two projects. I am submitting grant proposals to fund both of these projects in the next week, one on Friday and the other on Tuesday. In order to strengthen these proposals, I set a couple of things in motion from weeks to months ago so that I would have data to add. I have samples being processed for both projects in two different locations right now. One set has been a continuous problem for months and the other was submitted a little later than I would have liked because of some lab issues.

I've been in contact with both over the last month and yesterday I talked directly with the people running the samples in each place. I got the same answer from both: we'll send you data next week.

Oh, you mean right after I've submitted both grants?

Yes, I know I can submit an update to the grant but there's no guarantee that it will be given to the reviewers since it is up to the PO to make a call on that. Having the data in the actual proposal is kinda a big deal. I should have known that the data would miss the deadline by mere days, that's just how things have been going for the last few months.

Dude. Fuck! sigh.

Monday, January 4, 2010

NFL Challenge: Um, now what?

After 17 weeks of the NFL regular season, we're now in the playoffs. It was a strange week 17 with some teams keeping starters out to try and avoid the types of injuries that may have blown the Patriots' season yesterday. Even Candid Engineer pulled her picks this week to avoid an injury that could have left her rehabbing to get back on the field before the fall job season starts. But at the top of the board, the pool has ended slightly anti-climatically... with a tie.

Alyssa made a solid effort this week and one the week with 10 points, giving her sole possession of fourth place. I had 9 points this week, which was good for third, but left me two points out of the winner's circle. Tied with 131 total points are Nat and Damn Good Technician.

So, after toying with the idea of some sort of cage match to the death, I've decided to step in and have a playoff for the two of them. No one likes ties and there is still football left to be played. Plus, Skype apparently has rules against death matches on their service, so that was a non-starter.

Here are the rules. Both Nat and DGT will pick all rounds of the playoffs this week, from the wild card to the Super Bowl. I will post their picks and the one with the most correct picks wins. No spreads, just outright wins. The tiebreaker will be the total points in the Super Bowl using Price Is Right rules (closest without going over). If there is still a tie after that, then we'll have to find a cage.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New year, new strategy

I guess this is the post where I admit to being a little naive when I first stated this job. See, I didn't do my PhD or a postdoc in the US, so applying to US funding agencies wasn't something I had a chance to get involved in during my training. I wrote my fair share of proposals and read dozens more, but not for NSF. I did get my hands on some successful proposals from friends in the US when I got my job, but all of them were from people a few years ahead of me and who already had a funding track record, so in retrospect they may not have been the best choices.

Nevertheless, I made a number of classic rookie mistakes in writing my first proposals. I had people read them over and tried to make adjustments based on their feedback, but there were still issues that I didn't have a proper feel for. Scope, methodological details, proper sell, "preliminary" data, etc. But honestly, the only way to learn this stuff is to bang your head against the funding agency wall for a while.

The biggest mistake I made (so far) was in the last round. I had gotten the reviews back from one of my grants and the issue that the panel had fixated on was completely absurd and a non-factor that I would not even have imagined that the someone might dream up. I talked to the PO and he basically told me if I could explain that away I should send the proposal back in. And so I did, with minor changes. Big Mistake.

The proposal needed more than that, but I didn't look closely enough or think about it hard enough because I had too much going on and I got the false impression from the PO that the proposal was solid except for the issue in question. Although I think the science is solid, the proposal needed help before being thrown back in the ring and instead I patched it up and sent it back out there to get the shit kicked out of it again. While I'm not happy about that, it's forced me to take a good hard look at the proposal for the first time in a year and I don't like what I see. I should have done this last round, but I thought there was an easy fix and that if I changed too much I would open it up to new criticisms. Even though that may have been true, the proposal needed a serious overhaul and I didn't do it justice last round.

This time I know better. I think. I have more data, but more importantly, I have a new spin. And truthfully, it's a better project now. I went through all the reviews from two rounds and thought hard about the changes I could make. I also read through the whole thing and slashed and burned in a big way. I got rid of unnecessary background and expanded the project in one way while removing a couple major elements that I now think are weak. If I can get it done in the next day or so I might even have the time to get some feedback on it. If I get the data I am waiting on this week, this thing is going to have more hooks than a grade school coat rack.

I'm excited about the revamped proposal and it's chances. I'm sending it to a new program this time and hoping for a fresh start for the whole thing. It took me a while, but I'm finally feeling comfortable with what I need to do to get projects funded and 2010 is the year it'll happen.