Archive for: April, 2009

The PI's role as psychiatrist

Apr 29 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I suspect that over the course of one's career a PI becomes less involved with the personal lives of their grad students. In the beginning, one works fairly closely with the students in the lab because the lab is small and everyone must pitch in to get a new lab up and running. I think that this fosters a closer relationship between all lab members because the structure of the group less defined. Once the lab grows, a hierarchy has to be established and the PI (in most cases) spends less day-to-day time with the trainees and therefore gets to know them less personally than professionally.

However, as a new PI, I do know quite a bit about the personal lives of my students. I have spent time traveling with them, shared hotel rooms and many meals with them as well as countless hours in the lab and in my office, going over experiments and troubleshooting things. My students have been to my house for dinner with my family. In those circumstances, you get to know people. You find out about their lives, just as they find out about mine. I think the trick is figuring out the boundary between know about the personal lives of your students and being involved in said lives. It's a trickier distinction than it looks, as I have recently found out when one of my students had something of significance happen in their lives. I'm not the kind of person who tells someone to go to counseling services when they come into my office in tears, it's just not how I roll. At the same time, I'm only willing to advise on personal matters in a very limited sense - as in let someone know if they are doing something totally irrational, but that's about it.

So far the strategy I've taken is being supportive in ways I can, listen if the person needs to talk and encourage them to work on things that will serve as a good distraction but that aren't particularly demanding of a distracted mind. More established PIs may scoff at the notion of taking the time to address personal matters of grad students, but for me I would rather know there is an issue and help the person along than wonder why someone hasn't progressed in a month. Perhaps my view on this will change over time, but with a small group it seems like a good investment to ensure that personal set backs are addressed in a reasonable way so we can all move forward rather than have one person sink into an abyss and take their project with them.

8 responses so far


Apr 28 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

In the past week it has gotten unseasonably warm around these parts and it's finally pushed me to get off my ass and get some exercise. We used to go to the gym often after work in Post-doc city, but around the 7-months-pregger point it just wasn't happening for WLS anymore and I started slowly trailing off when it came to going to the gym myself or spending time with my pregnant wife. Once the Wee One was born I wanted to come home and spend time with her and WLS after work, rather than a bunch of sweaty strangers. The Wee One is about to be 14 months old and even I can do the math and figure out that I haven't been to the gym in basically 16 months.

After spending far too long figuring out the best way to fit some exercise into my schedule I realized that I have to concentrate less on minimizing the time I am away from my desk and more on getting the hell outside. I managed to pull it off this morning and plan to start out with a Tuesday / Thursday schedule for now and see how we go.

The good news - I'm not as out of shape as I had feared. I guess running after a year-old is good for something.

The bad news - I expect this to catch up with me tomorrow and whomp my ass.

Exercise catches up with PLS.

2 responses so far

Come major in hoboism!

Apr 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

In our new building the architects incorporated a number of seating areas for students. Some of the furniture is large pleather chairs, but a good number of hideously orange couches are sprinkled around the building. Despite the fact that they are aesthetically appalling, there is another unfortunate consequence to them. Anytime I have to walk around the building and pass by a few of these couches, without fail, about 1/3 of them are occupied by sleeping students. Now I understand being a bit tired during the day and maybe seeking out a quiet spot to catch a quick nap, but these couches are located in main corridors and gathering areas outside lecture halls. Like every university in North America, we currently have prospective students visiting en masse, following the backward-walking students around the campus and our building (being new) is hit by every one of these tours. I wouldn't be surprised if the perspective students (and parents) walk out of here wondering if we do a lot of research on narcolepsy, based on the hordes of students passed out in awkward positions all over the place. I walked by a guy yesterday who had turned into the couch, revealing about 5 inches of ass crack to greet anyone coming in the front door of the building. Welcome to Employment U! Come join our team of crack students!

8 responses so far

Thesis committee or graduation advisors?

Apr 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

My previous experience with thesis committees and proposal defenses have all been from the vantage point of the student. When I was in grad school our committee was established once we figured out what our project was going to be on and we had regular meetings (twice a year or so) in order for the committee to get an idea of how we were progressing. They were generally informal, with a written summary circulated prior to the meeting and then an oral update at the meeting with comments. I found it helpful to have an outside perspective on my work weigh in once in a while and I got to know my committee members fairly well. The University where I did my post-doc had a similar organization and despite having spent that time in another country, I thought that type of committee set-up was more or less standard.

I have been surprised to learn that thesis committees at Employment U. function very differently, and in my mind, defeat the purpose. Here, the Ph.D. committee is established closer to when the student is ready to graduate. I think the intention is for the committee to get together earlier and guide the student along, but the reality is that people often push the "proposal" defense back so long that it is seen as a hurdle to jump a year or so before one defends their thesis. If the committee only comes on board in the last 12-18 months, what is the point? You can find people for an exam committee anytime, but the thesis committee should be there to make suggestions along the way.

This all comes up because I have been asked to serve on the committee of a Ph.D. student and I am reading their "proposal" document now in preparation for their defense of this in two weeks. The proposal defense is also odd here and a topic for another time, but this student is looking to submit their thesis in a year or less and graduate within the next 8-12 months. Other than the proposal document (which is on a topic different from the student's direct research, by design) I have not seen anything about the student's research, nor have we sat down as a committee to discuss progress or direction and the student will likely graduate in less than a year! Again, what's the point of having a committee if not to be an outside voice? Even if the official rules allow for doing things this way, why aren't the supervisors taking it on themselves to do it differently? Yes, it requires more meetings, etc., but there are some meetings worth having and I think this qualifies. I'm sure it's just one more thing that falls through the cracks when people get busy, but we're not doing our students any favors by letting it happen.

5 responses so far

Book chapters

Apr 24 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I have just been asked to write a book chapter on a topic that I worked on extensively as a post-doc and that I remain interested in. Though I think it might be a good opportunity, I have always tried to avoid book chapters like Don Cherry avoids good taste in clothing. They tend to take more time that they are worth and often are out of date before they even hit the press because of delays in the publishing process. I have two grants I am going to write from scratch due in July, so I would not be able to start the chapter until after that. At the same time, it would not be due until the end of September and I don't currently have any writing projects on the go that are not directly related to funding, but I'm hoping that changes with the new data we are gathering. What I don't have a good handle on is how a book chapter is viewed in the grand scheme of tenure evaluation. There seem to be conflicting views on chapters in general, but a quick survey of my hallway indicates that it would be viewed positively in my department. I guess that means I should probably say yes, but I'm feeling a bit like I should should stick with my priority scheme for this year of 1) Grants, 1a) Data papers, 2) Opinion / review pieces, 3) My grocery list, 4) Book chapters.

9 responses so far


Apr 23 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

After nearly 8 months in this job, three critical things have happened in the last week.

1) The lab attended a small regional conference last weekend and both of my students gave talks that were well received. They were surprised and excited by the amount of positive feedback they got based on the fact that their projects are in the formative stages. I think that gave them a boost just we're heading into the summer and they have more clearly defined short and long term objectives in their heads as a result.I can tell them what the steps are, but everyone needs to see it for themselves before they buy in and get excited.

2) After months of playing with several techniques to get some critical data, things finally seem to be starting to work. I don't know what is different or whether it has to do with the students being more comfortable or confident, but I have already seen some really promising results this morning and it's giving me hope that we might have broken through a log jam.

3) The final touches are being done to the new lab space so that it should be almost complete by the end of the week. You know it's getting close to being finished when they are hanging the white board and asking about the aesthetic details. As soon as that is done we'll actually feel like we have a finished home rather than a construction site.

I can't think of a better way to move into the summer, with my last class to teach tomorrow.

8 responses so far

Opportunity or millstone?

Apr 21 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I just received an email last night from the Senior Collaborator (SC) who I recently submitted a grant with, inviting me to co-PI a second grant for the July round. I think the grant we submitted already is a really solid, but the process of submitting it was not exactly smooth and SC's slow movement on several fronts caused some issues for me. Now SC is proposing a project on a group of organisms I have never worked on and have never been interest in previously. SC has worked extensively in this group and the combination of SC's work and the approach that I take in my research would produce some interesting results.

With that said, I am already committed to submitting a grant with a different collaborator in July to a different program. If by some miracle the grants I have out now and the one I am committed to all get funded (just work with me here for a second) I would have three unrelated projects going on in the lab. If I add in the one SC is proposing that would make four, with only two of those central to where I see the lab going in the long term.

One approach would be to jump on with any opportunity and try and make the most of it, knowing that the success rate is low and I need to build up the lab with whatever projects fly in the short term. I understand that side, but an alternative is that spreading the lab all over the map is not the best strategy, particularly through collaborative projects with a senior co-PI. In the tenure process one might argue that I needed a senior colleague to get the grants funded and ended up chasing the money rather than the stated theme of the lab. This is not like saying you are going to work on X in chimps and end up doing Y in apes - more like Y in jellyfish. Nevertheless, it would be productive and using an approach that is central to the lab.

It could all be justified depending on the hat I am wearing since my work bridges several disciplines, but the combination of spreading the lab thin and dragging SC through another episode of grant writing has me weary of this project. But do I have the luxury of saying no to a current collaborator and a project with potential? My magic 8 ball keeps coming up "Cannot predict now".

3 responses so far


Apr 20 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Standing on the corner, all alone with that look of desperation in their eyes. If you make eye contact they see the opportunity to start talking and it can be awkward to just keep walking. "No, thanks. I'm not interested. Really, I'm on my way to a meeting." If you look over your shoulder as you walk away you can see that disappointment and it's easy to think, "Man, they are just so young." I hate poster sessions.

I know that they are an important part of a conference to allow people who were not selected to give a talk the opportunity to share their work, but is really worth the amount of time spent making the poster to stand in front of it for a couple of hours in a busy room and have a couple of people actually read it and interact with you? I say no. I have had the good fortune to have been given the opportunity to talk at all of the meetings I have attended (many of the early ones were small meetings) and have only made a single poster, in a year in which I wanted to present on two separate topics at the same meeting. From that point I vowed to avoid the poster in the future. I would rather give a talk with six people in the audience - which I have done at a giant meeting in which my session was a bit outside the main theme - than stand alone in a crowded room.

On the flip side, I don't enjoy going to poster sessions either. If it's a small meeting and under 100 posters it can be done, but larger meetings with hundreds of posters just make it a game of finding a needle in a haystack. Do I want to browse 400 abstracts to find a couple I might be interested in? Hmmmm, no. The alternative is going to each section (if the meeting is well organized) you might be interested in and browsing through the crowded maze of audience members and poster presenters who are over-eager to spill their spiel all over you. Maybe there are one or two posters that are exciting and you have the opportunity to talk with the students and see what direction their work is going, but more likely you end up hearing a dozen stories that you do not want to, simply because you get trapped near a poster and your eyes linger too long on the title. I still go to the poster sessions in the hopes that I'll find it to be worthwhile one day, but invariable end up walking out covered in regurgitated information all over my good conference jeans.

10 responses so far

Rental cars: Reality vs. University

Apr 16 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

1) "Oh, my travel arrangements for this weekend's conference have fallen through? I guess I'll rent a car."
2) Look up closest rental agency, dial, reserve.
3) Um, done.

1) "Oh, my travel arrangements for this weekend's conference have fallen through? I guess I'll rent a car."
2) Call purchasing to inquire about changing my documented travel plans.
3) Get referred to a website to download a form.
4) Get form, fill it out.
5) Track down three people in two buildings for signatures.
6) Call Uni approved travel agent who wants to book with a rental company who's nearest office is 40 minutes away.
7) Fill out form to be exempt from having to book with said company.
8) Get form approved, return to #6.
9) Spend 20 minutes on phone providing inane details to a travel company in a different time zone to book the car.
10) Argue with purchasing regarding insurance for the rental car because of #7.
11) Lose.
12) Call rental car company to adjust original booking because the travel agent forgot to include a second driver.
13) Eye the three forms to be filled out after the trip in order to justify the use of a rental car, including answering questions such as "Why was public transportation not used as an alternative to renting a vehicle?"
14) Done. For Now. Sigh.

7 responses so far

NSF Broader Impacts

Apr 15 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

I am continually amazed by how many people completely blow this section off. In theory, NSF weighs this portion of the grant on equal footing with the science. I know that this doesn't happen in practice, but they do actually care about it. I finally got the last of my grant reviews off my desk for this round and I saw nothing but the bare minimum of effort put into this section, and you know what? I called people on it in my review. Since there has been some recent advice about grant writing around here, I thought I would put together my thoughts on the broader impacts section for those of you writing NSF grants out there (and other agencies might have similar requirements).

Read the guidelines on what NSF is looking for and make an effort to meet their requirements! This may seem really obvious, but almost every grant I read this round did not do this. The criteria are as follows:
•How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training and learning?

•How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?

•To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks and partnerships?

•Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?

•What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?

If your proposal details science that blows my socks off, I'm not going to care if you don't put in much effort to your BI section because it should hold up great science. But the other 98% of us, make a fucking effort. You need to at least touch on most, if not all, of the above points. Some of the points can be addressed quickly - for instance, saying that all sequence data will be deposited in GenBank - but it is a good idea to deal with each one.

Do not use the BI section to talk about how much your science will affect other fields! This is not what NSF means by broad (see above). You should bring this up, but in the intellectual merit section.

Commit more than a few sentences to this section, preferably a page or more. When turning in one's review, there is a separate section to comment on the BI merits. Give your reviewer something more to talk about than a paragraph.

If possible, it is a really good idea to include some money in your budget for your BI goals. I know it seems odd the NSF would want you to add money into a budget, but money = accountability. If you put money for a workshop into the grant and it is left over at the end, they can ask you why you didn't follow through on the BI. If you promise to organize a symposium at some conference (which screams no BI effort, BTW), there is no way for NSF to know whether or not you followed through.

Partner with existing programs at your institution. This makes your life easier because the existing program will likely write part of the BI section and help organize whatever it is that you are proposing. Also, NSF like to see cross-talk between researchers and on-going programs that they have already put money into. Even better is if you can say that you will provide half the money for XXX and have the existing program kick in half. Again, there is a financial commitment from both sides, indicating a willingness to partner.

Make it viable. There is a delicate balance between doing something worth doing and proposing something that will suck up more time than it should. This is where leaning on infrastructure already in place will allow you to get more done for your time "buck".

It takes a bit of creativity and some talking to some of the centers or programs at your institution, but it is really not difficult to come up with a BI section that will make reviewers say "that'll work". So few applications actually put in any effort, that those which do stand out.

11 responses so far

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