Archive for: June, 2010

Can junior PIs make decent mentors?

Jun 13 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 responses so far

Good golly! The System done been broke!

Jun 11 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

19 responses so far

Survivor gifts

Jun 10 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

Surely there are more innovative ideas out there.

31 responses so far

My daughter and the ShamWOW

Jun 08 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

9 responses so far

Repost: The Impotence of bad writing.

Jun 07 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

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

5 responses so far

Conference stratigery

Jun 04 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

14 responses so far

The mark some places leave

Jun 03 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

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

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

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

3 responses so far

« Newer posts