Archive for: May, 2010

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

May 28 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

12 responses so far

HBHM (4 of 5): Getting pushed

May 27 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

10 responses so far

HBHM (3 of 5): Connecting the dots

May 26 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

3 responses so far

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

May 24 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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. 

11 responses so far

How blogging helps me (1 of 5)

May 24 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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. 

12 responses so far

The third circle of hell

May 21 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

17 responses so far

Is professional commenting worth the risk?

May 20 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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?

12 responses so far

Making craptastic lemonade

May 19 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

4 responses so far

Really, NIH? Seriously?

May 18 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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.

14 responses so far

One year left

May 13 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

A recent check of lab finances brought home an important point. At the pace we are going, the lab has about a year left of operating funds. This comes on the heels of getting another proposal declined this week. I have two others pending, but her are the facts:

1) There are two more NSF deadlines before we run out of gas.

2) Counting an additional opportunity I will apply for, that means I can realistically submit 7 more federal proposals on projects we have on-going that will catch us before we hit the ground.

3) Based on a conversation with Major Data Producing Center, recent problems may mean they can't deliver critical data before the July deadline, which would effectively sink one proposal and severely wound another.

Seven proposals sounds like a lot until you realize that I have already put in more than twice that number with nothing to show for it. If I don't have new data for two in the July round, I'm down to 5. One can argue that the later proposals are, by definition, better and more likely to be funded than the earlier ones and, while true, is hardly assurance of actually getting funding in this climate. I had a very productive talk with my PO after getting the results back, but he also let me know that NSf's Bio directorate is funding in the single digits across the board. Although the numbers they release look better, they also count each PI on a collaborative proposal as "successful", inflating those figures.

When I was negotiating the terms of my position I figured that planning for three years of lab support and equipment was sufficient buffer to get things going and bring in funding, but if I knew someone negotiating a job right now I would tell them to ask for 5 and settle for 4 if they have to. As has been repeatedly brought up by others, it is critical to have the resources to get enough data to get funded and it may take longer than you think.

We have until the January deadline to collect enough data to move our proposals into the "high priority" category. That's the moral of the story.

6 responses so far

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