Archive for: May, 2009

Double dippin'

May 29 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Who ever came up with the accounting system for grants was either a genius or a crook. Maybe both. I spent a lot of yesterday deal with the budget I am putting together for one of my grant proposals. In said grant, I am budgeting a sub-contract so that a student can live at a tropical field station for a year (any takers?). The field station, as a place of research, has an overhead rate that gets charged to any subcontract. Their rate is 55.01% (why the .01, I have no clue). So, the breakdown of costs there goes something like this.

Room 575/month = $6900
food 30/day = $10950
Total = $17850

Field station overhead (55.01%) = $9820
Total with O/H = $27,670

Fair enough, but wait! It gets better. Because the money is being paid as a sub-contract through Employment U, they want their cut too. Do you think that they take O/H on just the cost of room and board? No way. They take O/H on the whole amount, including the field station O/H. Well, because it's a sub-contract only $25K is eligible for O/H, but they are still taking overhead on another institution's overhead. If we do the math on that, it looks like this:

Employment U O/H (49%, but only on the first $25K of a subcontract) = $12,250
GRAND total = $39,920

So, in order to spend $17850 of fed money to pay for room and board, we have to spend $39,920, or 124% more than the original cost. Gotta love academic finances.

8 responses so far

This is why I have students!

May 28 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

As a lab, we have been banging our heads against a basic technique for a couple of months. This is a method I have successfully used countless times over the past 4 years and based a substantial part of my post-doc around. Both of my students are using this method in their respective projects and it has been a major roadblock because we cannot seem to get results. Positive controls work just fine, as if mocking us, but the data we care about defies our grasp. In one case we thought we would have to troubleshoot a bit to get publishable data, but in the other the technique is so routine that there is no conceivable reason why it would not work, even if we had to tweak it here or there.

Why no data? How are we treating the positive controls and the sample differently? Normally they are treated identically, but because of the multi-step sample prep, we tend to take a short cut with the positive controls for the final step, but there are controls along the way to indicate that the early steps are working. All the controls were fine, and so around and around we went, looking for the problem. What is the fucking difference?

We have a conference coming up next week, and this last piece of data would really demonstrate that we're not blowing smoke here. We've changed every variable we could think of and started from scratch multiple times and yesterday afternoon we were met with the same result. Nothing. One of my students and I were sitting in my office wracking our brains to figure this out and the student blurted out "What about substance X, that we take for granted because it is such a basic part of every procedure we do in the lab? It works for everything else, but it might be affecting this procedure because it's different in Y way. Were you using substance X in your old lab or an alternative?" All I could think was "holy fucking cannoli, I bet they're right. Why didn't I think of that?"

I didn't think of it because I've done this a gazillion times and there is no reason to think that substance X would be a problem because it works in everything else we do. But we don't use substance X on the final step positive controls and there is a distinct possibility that the difference between substance X and the one I was using in Post-doc lab could be blocking what we are trying to do. I will know tomorrow for sure.

Oddly enough, I am not arguing for having a positive control that is taken through the whole process, because if the positive in the final step was not working we would still be scratching our heads as to what is going on. It's the fact that we had a difference between out final step positive and the sample that made it possible to figure this out. While I'm still not sure this is the problem, it might be the only rock we haven't turned over and I'm not sure I would have thought to do so without talking it over with my students a dozen times until one of them tossed the idea out there. If this works, I owe this student some beer next week.

3 responses so far

Actual Conversation:Health and Safety Version

May 27 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

PLS: "Hey, I'm just calling to find out what you guys suggest doing with large plastic tubes that have had phenol and chloroform in them."

Health and Safety Officer: "Hmmmm, can you hold on for a second?"

PLS: "Sure." *Mentally humming the theme to Final Jeopardy while listening to the muffled conversation behind the hand over the receiver at the other end of the line.*

HaSO: "Just put them in a clear plastic bag, autoclave them and throw them out."

PLS: "Wait, they're volatile chemicals. You want me to heat them under high pressure? How will that make them less hazardous?" *Imagining finding an unconscious undergrad in front of an open autoclave with organic fumes everywhere.*

HaSO: "Well, it should make the tubes unrecognizable."

PLS: "So you want to melt the tubes and plastic together with the volatile chemicals and then throw them in the garbage."

HaSO: "As long as the tubes are destroyed it should be fine."

PLS: "...Um, for who?"

HaSO: "Was that your only question?"

PLS: "Yes." *Thinking: Until I have to call and ask about the treatment for hot phenol vapor inhalation, yes.*

So, uh, yeah. That's not what we did with those tubes. At least now I know that the office is interested in the safety of the university.

9 responses so far

Dear NSF

May 26 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

Just me, checking in to see how things are going. I know we haven't talked much lately, but I've been thinking about you. Remember all of the fun we had in January, when I submitted that grant? Well, I saw on your website that you sent it out for external review in mid-March, and well, I thought it might be nice for me to write you and see how things are going and whether two months is enough time for you to pick it over? You know the summer submission deadline is looming and that I am already working on two grants for July. Do you think you could make a decision before the last possible second so I'll know whether I'm going to be submitting three grants? I know it's a lot to ask and all, but it really would be nice to hear one way or another. See, this summer is already jamming up and I stupidly just agreed to write a book chapter that I now know needs to be about 20,000 words long. I'm just curious if I'm going to get to see my family this summer or if I should fully commit to going feral and convert my office window into a urinal. Once the pizza guy has my credit card on the rolodex and I move a cot in, I should be pretty set. So, drop me a line to let me know if I need to head to Home Depot. Hugs.

12 responses so far

Taking the plunge

May 26 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

We moved here on August 1st, 2008, having visited prior to that only once as a family to look for a place to live. We did not have long to look and decided it would be best to find a place to rent for our first year while we figured out the area and where we would like to buy a house. Well, the time is upon us to start the house hunt. We have a meeting with the bank tomorrow to figure out what we would be pre-approved at before we start searching, but it's a process that I am viewing with a mix of excitement and dread. Even though it is a good time to buy in terms of prices, we have also heard (from people here in almost our exact situation) that the houses on the market that we would be interested in are mostly being held be people who are not under huge pressure to sell. Those that HAD to sell have already done so at reduced prices and those that can afford to wait for an offer they deem acceptable are now in the majority, leaving either run down places that need a lot of work or houses just out of our range. As if the summer weren't already jammed enough, we will now be searching far and wide for a place to live once our lease runs out Sept. 1. Not sure how this is going to go.

9 responses so far

Exercise can be dangerous

May 22 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

As I have mentioned before, I've started doing a bit of exercise recently. I'm not exactly on pace to run a marathon, but I'm getting out and doing some cardio and weights so that I don't have to add hydraulic fluid to my desk chair. One of the nice features of our new building is a locker room downstairs where I can change before a run and shower when I get back. It's a small room through an unmarked door in the bathroom on the bottom floor, so not a lot of people know it's there.

This morning I was changing into my running clothes and just as I had reached a critical point in the transition from one pair of shorts to another, the door swings open. While this did not bother me much, the man who had opened the door did clearly not expect to find someone without pants on behind door number one. He apologized, but rather than going on his merry way he felt it necessary to explain that he was here with his son (standing behind him looking embarrassed) checking out the new building because his son was enrolled for the fall, etc.

This is where I have to admit that I have a problem. It's not a physical thing, but in fact my issue is I sometimes blurt things out before thinking it through. I grew up in a family where the speed at which you could verbally assault your relatives with sarcastic humor determined your spot in the hierarchy, and as the eldest grandchild, I learned without training wheels. In the right circumstances this has been a very good thing for me, but for the unsuspecting there have been occasions when I have come off a bit harsh.

Nevertheless, standing in a small room with no pants on and listening to a parent explain to me the rationale for barging through unmarked bathroom doors is apparently a situation where I talk faster than I think. Rather than saying "If you don't mind...", or something socially acceptable, out came "Well, are you finished checking out this facility or do you want me to take my shirt off too?" I believe the shade of red the man turned would be classified in catalogue-speak as "hot salmon".

And why haven't I been asked to be a faculty ambassador for recruitment yet?

18 responses so far

Reader Poll: Professional Development

May 21 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

As part of my Exec Committee duties for a society I am heavily involved in, I am planning some professional development sessions geared toward graduate students and post-docs. I am doing this for a 2010 meeting, so there's a is plenty of time to hash out the details, but these things sneak up on you and I want to put a proposal together for the rest of the committee to follow on the heels of this year's meeting. I have a few ideas, but I thought this might be an excellent forum to gather suggestions from. Ideally, the sessions would occur on one day over a couple of hours. They could be partitioned into a few topics or it could be one big "This is what you need to know" kinda thing. What I would like to know from you is A) What topics should be covered, and B) What do you feel would be the most helpful way to cover the topics (straight lecture, interactive exercise, interpretive dance performance, etc.)?

So, if you are a grad student of post-doc, let me know the things you wish you knew more about. If you're a PI, what topics would have helped you in your transition? If you are neither and just want to throw in your two cents, have at it.

12 responses so far

Incremental Successes

May 20 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

As grainy and out of focus as this picture is, it's still the best thing I've seen in months. It's a beautiful thing when lab stuff actually works like it is supposed to. One more giant hurdle out of the way!

13 responses so far

Contrasting Evolution

May 19 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

There are many different ways to engage kids and the general public in discussions about evolution, and some are more successful than others. Whereas I previously brought up one strategy that I did not think was very effective, this set of videos does a much better job at getting across some interesting examples of and stories about evolution. The "O as Origin" video is a bit whacky, but their ant video is great, which I think is an excellent example of different evolutionary strategies for kids. You can find more videos and more about the project here.

No responses yet

Appreciating what you had

May 18 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

When I left my post-doc I somehow managed to put to bed everything that I was the primary researcher on. At the time it was great because it allowed me to focus entirely on my new ventures, which are more or less distantly related to what I was doing as a post-doc. The downside of the situation is that I haven't written a manuscript in what is getting dangerously close to a year. Between writing grants and getting the lab going I have managed to keep this fact in the back of my head, but the little bastard gnawed it's way through with the end of the semester.

I think we're getting really close to having enough data on one project in the lab which will lead to a nice publication, but I've decided I've had enough waiting for a writing project to come to me and rather that I should get back on the saddle in a different way. So, I have been batting around an idea for an opinion piece for a while and have been putting it off for various reasons, but mainly because I'm lacking he final piece to the puzzle. Without that it has just been an idea that had potential.

Over the weekend I had a visitor from Europe who I had significantly overlapped with as a post-doc in post-doc city. European Visitor is one of these people who likes to talk a lot of science and has always been a good sounding board, even if their ideas are sometimes from left field. We were chatting about projects we were doing and those which we have been kicking around ideas for and I started explaining my ideas on this opinion piece. EV pointed out a couple of areas I was aware of where the argument might be weak, but then mentioned one way to tie the theories together that made a shit-ton of sense. Why hadn't I seen this when it was right in front of me? Why hadn't it come up in my conversations with others on the topic? Because EV is one of those people who thinks more broadly than everyone else, that's why.

More than most things, I miss the people from post-doc university. The community there was so strong and so thoughtful on a variety of topics that it kept pushing me to be better without me even realizing it. I have good colleagues here, but there is no quiet and friendly competition for excellence that I was used to. I miss that constant pulse that you can't help but get caught up in. I miss being able to walk down the hall and get insight through conversation on something you have been wrestling with for a couple of weeks. It's taken me a while to put my finger on this or even really appreciate what I had.

Now it's time to gather some literature and dig in.

9 responses so far

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