Archive for: July, 2010

My application to Nature Network... or blogs?

Jul 29 2010 Published by under Etc

As has been covered ad nauseam, with all the flux at ScienceBlogs recently there has been a lot of movement of voices to new places. One of the consequences of that is a number of open blog spots at ScienceBlogs, and some people see this as a great time to try and join the SB collective. I guess one has to pick a good time to move up in the world.

In other news, it would appear that things are not so happy inside the garden walls of Nature Blogs, either. Perhaps this is the perfect time for me to apply there?

In that spirit, I would like to use this as my application to Nature Network... er, Nature Blogs (it seems unclear even to their bloggers). I even already made the banner!

I would make a good NN blogger for a number of reasons.

First, I don't care about knowing information like how many hits I get for which posts or who my audience is. I mean, why would that be helpful? And who needs a blogroll?

Second, I like talking to only a select group of other bloggers and to avoid engaging anyone else at any time, using barriers to said engagement when possible. It keeps the riff raff out, ya know, like we've been doing for centuries.

Third, I have an iphone. `Nuff said, amiright?

Fourth, I am totally cool with a non-functional front page that does nothing to promote my blog in any way and is completely impossible to navigate.

Finally, I am totes in love with LOL cats and like to fill entire comment threads with their hilariosity.

If that isn't enough to make my application get rubber stamped, there's a case of watercress on it's way to London as we speak.

17 responses so far

Don't forget the staff

Jul 28 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The employee structure in academic institutions tends to be an odd mix. Odd in that there are essentially three components, all with very different goals. The most familiar is likely the faculty, who are there to teach and do research in varying proportions. There is also the administration, which I would define as former academics who have taken an administrative, rather than research-oriented career trajectory. Finally, the staff are there to make sure everything gets done.

The relationships between these groups can range form outright adversarial to synergistic (administration buzzword!) and I think it is most common to hear about the interactions that go badly. It's true that we tend to write more about the frustrations we face than the small victories thought the day. But at the end of the day there are those outside of our peer group we have to place our trust in to do the tasks we are not equipped to do.

From my perspective, and especially as I was first learning* how this place works, having a couple of dependable staff members in my college who just get things done has been one of the most important and useful things I could ask for. Their jobs are critical to my success and their willingness to go out of their way to be helpful has made my life infinitely easier as a result.

I think most people reading probably know or work with at least one person like this and all I would ask is that you not take them for granted and recognize their efforts in any way you can. It is easy to lose sight of the difference helpful staff can make when you get used to it, but as someone who has faced their share of clock-punchers, I will always find the time to thank someone for doing their job well.

*This process continues, but I'm less stupid these days.

8 responses so far

Slaves to a walnut-sized sack

Jul 23 2010 Published by under Etc, LifeTrajectories

The difference between having a kid in diapers and one not in diapers is pretty big. Diapers are a pain in the ass (sometimes literally) and generate a lot of garbage, but there is also a certain amount of freedom that accompanies wrapping your kid in an absorbent layer. Often they will let you know when that layer is pushing its capacity, but the urgency in dealing with the situation is usually not ridiculous.

Once potty trained, everything changes. I should say that I couldn't be happier to be free of diapers and the associated paraphernalia that comes with having to extricate one's offspring from a saturated layer of human waste. However, now the dreaded cry of "PEE PEE!!!!" (or worse) has taken on a new threat level. In the car, this means find the nearest bathroom, even if you would previously never have considered using that particular facility. I have spent more time in public restrooms in the last few months than the previous two years, and I can tell you that not all are created equal. Generally the Wee One is pretty good about holding it together, but that doesn't mean that I'm not taking a mental inventory of every available bathroom in my vicinity at all times, in case.

The same principal is true for bedtime as well. Too much liquid before bed and we end up with the situation we had this morning at 5:00am. Imagine not waking up to an alarm with familiar music, but instead to the crackly screams of "PEE PEE COMING!!!" through the monitor a room away. Never prior have I needed the ability to transition from REM sleep to a full sprint in a second's time quite like the past few months.

I'm sure this will improve soon, but for the moment it's hard not to feel like a hostage to another person's bladder.

16 responses so far

Job data in ecology and evolution fields

Jul 21 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

There tends to be a lot of hearsay and rumors in the academic job market and much of what gets spread around is based on N=1, as in, a friend of mine was on a search committee and told me....

For this reason a paper that just came out in the Israel Journal of Ecology & Evolution might be of interest. Marshall et al. used a survey-based approach via the EvolDir and ECOLOG-L listserves to obtain data from individuals recently hired into TT positions. Their disclaimers are as follows:

We recognize several limitations of data gathered from online, anonymous, voluntary surveys. We were explicit in our instructions that participants only take the survey if they had been offered their first tenure-track job or equivalent position within the last four years and that they answer the questions as they applied at time of hire, but we are fully aware that confusion with regard to either of these instructions could inflate the numbers. Additionally, we cannot account for the bias of surveying principally from subscribers to EvolDir and ECOLOG-L email directories, as subscribers as these directories tend to be geared towards research rather than teaching issues. Persons employed at institutions requiring heavy teaching loads and lighter research requirements may have been less likely to participate. Therefore, the surveyed faculty may not represent a true cross section of successful first-time academics.

What they ended up with was a data set of 181 participants from countries all over the world. They asked pretty basic questions, including number of years as a postdoc, number of pubs (total & 1st author) at hire, etc. On the publication front, they found that:

...first-time hires had, on average, two first-author publications in journals with impact factors between 2 and 10... and one first or co-authorship paper in a higher impact journal like Science, Nature, PLoS Biology, or Trends in Ecology and Evolution...

For many of the categories, the variance was high. For instance the average age of hire for people at PhD-granting institutions was 33.1 +/- 4.1 and the average time spent as a postdoc was 3.08 +/- 2.15. The average number of pubs for that same group was 12.75, but with a whopping SD of +/- 7.63.

Most of the data are pretty much summed up in the first paragraph of the discussion, where the authors state:

Although significant variation exists in all categories and within all categorical groups, the qualitative message of this study is that prospective ecologists and evolutionary biologists are required to dedicate significant resources to publishing high quality papers,
applying for grants, and teaching courses if they want a reasonable chance of eventually landing a permanent position at a college or university. This will not come as a surprise to most, but what is striking are the qualification of the average successful candidate regardless of level of institution, region of the world, or gender. The successful candidate will most likely be in their early 30s, will have spent several years as a postdoc, taught multiple courses, received several grants, and will have published more than ten articles, with the majority of these articles appearing in high impact journals (Table 1, Table 2). These statistics suggest that all students considering careers in ecology or evolutionary biology should expect a highly competitive market that most likely will require substantial time investment.

I found it interesting that they found some different trends, based on gender and between the US and Europe / UK.

On average, successful applicants from the UK and Europe were younger at age of hire, spent more time as postdocs, had more publications, and received more large grants than individuals from the US (Table 1, Table 2). This could possibly be accounted for in part by the fact that many European Ph.D.s take only 3 years to complete rather than the typical 4–6 years in the US. Female applicants from doctoral institutions in the US generally had lower averages than males in these same categories, but this pattern did not exist in comparisons between genders within the UK category. However, it should be strongly noted that these differences between genders for doctoral institutions in the US are qualitative and not statistically significant.

The Marshal et al. paper was also followed by two responses, one by Roy Turkington, a faculty member in the Botnay Department at the University of British Columbia, and the second by Douglas W. Morris, who is a faculty member at Lakehead University. The Turkington article focused on a resent faculty search at UBC, where two positions were available. Dr. Turkington breaks down the candidate pool for those searches and reports much the same story as the Marshall et al. article. The Morris paper, entitled "Life History and Multi-level Selection in Academe" is at least worth a read for such gems as:

Euphemisms called “labs” coexist in structured universal aggregations where they compete with one another for scarce resources. Labs cooperate to produce copious numbers of zygotes, most of which disperse synchronously each year. The strongest find their way into the protective brood pouches of crusty adults who shed soft-shelled offspring at regular intervals (slowly developing zygotes die by the incompletely understood process of academic apoptosis). Juveniles develop a hard external carapace by intermittently joining and extracting themselves from other labs. The hardened but vulnerable sub-adults then join a common pool where they compete for space and position on rapidly eroding substrate in the universal aggregation. Many become dormant and fail to contribute to the gene (meme) pool. Some return to the lab as brood-rearing helpers. Few survive the rampant competition and frenzied cannibalism in the pool. Not all of the survivors are safe on the fragile substrate. A second apoptosis-like event eliminates the weak and meek. Only the most persistent or aggressive remain.

All in all, it's worth a read, even if you are not in the fields included. Data from early TT faculty don't often surface easily, and despite the inherent biases of the study, there is something tangible here to look at. It may not be what many are looking to hear right now, but it's data.

10 responses so far

Panel call

Jul 21 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I've been trying to get invited for a review panel at NSF for some time now. The biggest problem has been that the proposals I have been submitting tend to land in a broad set of programs, often making me ineligible to serve on the panels related to my proposals. To make matters worse, my proposals often get co-reviewed between two different panels, doubling the number of panels I can not sit on. This actually scuttled my participation last round.

This round is different, however, because the two collaborative proposals I was intending to submit did not end up going in for a few reasons, meaning only one proposal went in to NSF this round. Before I read that again and start to feel sick, there is a silver lining.

I've been invited to serve on a review panel in this round for a program that I intend to submit a proposal to in January. Although I know it's going to be a decent amount of work and I'll have to juggle it with teaching, I couldn't be more excited. I've met the program officer in charge of the program and think the whole experience will be really positive for me. I'm hoping to also find an excuse to talk to the POs of the other programs I regularly submit to while I'm in DC.

Who knows whether meeting the people in charge will help, but it certainly can't hurt. And the opportunity to see the review proses from the inside has me pretty pumped. Whatever insight I can get from the visit will certainly help me craft the January proposal.

5 responses so far


Jul 20 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Interesting times to be a science blogger. I have been blogging here for nearly 2 years and when I first started typing blather that got posted here, it wasn't long before I started reading You couldn't not read some of the blogs on that site and still have an idea what was going on in this corner of the bloggosphere. I first started reading Drugmonkey, then Isis and through them got to know many more blogs on SB that I now regularly read.

SB was a bit of a gateway for me to the science blogging community as a whole and facilitated my getting familiar with the people out there doing similar things - whether through blog comments, linked posts or even the regular blog warz. From that perspective, I will add my voice to the many that are disappointed with how Seed Media Group (SMG) has basically blown up a really good thing through sheer ineptitude.

At this point the demise of the site as a whole appears only a matter of time. Bora's departure appears to be the shot across the bow that signals the end to a great community. Even PZ is gearing up for an exit, and he pulls in nearly half the SB traffic (according to Bora's post). All the while there is no response from SMG, either publicly, or apparently privately either (according to PZ's post). Why should anyone else stay when the powers that be don't appear to care one way or another? It's a fucking shame, but I guess there will be one blogger to hold down the fort.

The silver lining here is that this meltdown has caused a shake up in the science bloggosphere that may be unprecedented and it will be very interesting to see the lay of the land in another 1 - 3 months. Will it be better? I don't know, but it will be different. Perhaps the move away from a corporate entity will change the community in a good way and reinvest energy into communities. Perhaps other blog networks will decide now is the time to expand in a big way. Whatever happens, there will be a monumental shift in our meta community as SB bloggers find new homes and bloggers from the larger community migrate to networks that pop up, but in the long run I think it will be for the better.

For now, however, R.I.P. ScienceBlogs.

Now PalMD is leaving and Zuska is as well. PZ is on strike and the talent drain continues, unacknowledged.

Dude, Fuck. Sigh.

10 responses so far

Time to reassess

Jul 19 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

The summer is officially more than halfway over and the specter of the academic year is looming. For the last 3 weeks I have essentially been out of the office, between traveling and a 'vacation' that turned into "let's do every home improvement project we've been putting off for the last year all in less than a week". The break from my desk has been good, however, even if has not been a time of relaxation.

The break also provides an opportunity to sit back and look things over now that I've had some distance. Grants have been submitted, so that deadline is no longer an issue for a little while. An enormous amount of data has come back as well, and suddenly we have a much more comprehensive dataset than we had originally thought we would. These data and others have been gathering for a while and now that the lab is back from traveling, we will finally be able to sink our teeth in and churn out the papers from them.

We also have two new members joining the lab within the next 6 weeks and one graduating, so there will be a time of change to deal with as we incorporate the new people into the mix and figure out where they best fit and what new they can bring to the work we are doing. It also means saying goodbye to the lab's first student, which will be a landmark event in itself.

Inescapably, it's also time to assess our financial situation. The conference season was excellent for the students and myself, but dude, we spent money like a drunken bachelor in Vegas for the first time. There were flights, there was accommodation and there was food (some which I still know the identity of). I don't regret it, but we took a good hit to the account. This week it will be time to look over everything and figure out what we can and can not do in the next 6 - 12 months without outside funding. I'm hoping the answer isn't terrifying, but at least we have a sea of data to wade through.

Finally, I have been thinking a lot about this blog and where to go next. I have figured a few things out and have some changes planned. Stay tuned.

2 responses so far

If professor big shot can't land funding, am I screwed?

Jul 16 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the recent conferences I was at was a bit sobering - not for the data or for all the cool shit people are doing, but for the fact that several really big names in my field are all having funding issues. These are people who have averaged at least 2 or 3 CNS papers a year for the last 5 or so years and beyond. These are people who have set the pace for the field for years. These are the people who give talks that everyone discusses afterwards at the break.

Holy shit.

One individual who is at a prestigious UK uni has been without funding for two rounds now, and they are making him move to a smaller office! Talk about tough love. I would be in a broom closet with two other people right now if those rules were applied to n00bs at my uni.

But the reality remains. These giants in the field are getting the $$. Granted, many of those I talked to were not from North America, so it may be a reflection of the economic realities of certain countries, but it's still a scary prospect. My hope is that funding agencies are making the move towards putting their dollars into the younger crowd, but if they are not willing to fund the people who are still VERY active and have a long history of innovation, it makes me concerned about the chances of my proposals.

We will see, I suppose.

13 responses so far

Geek tattoos

Jul 12 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

For a long while I have been thinking about getting another tattoo. I've been waffling on what to get for the past two years or so, based mainly on the fact that I have juggled three ideas without one completely grabbing me. It took me quite a while to decision on my first one, but I ended up happy with it, probably because I really thought it through. If something doesn't grab me I'm not going to get it stuck into my skin.

But based on some recent thinking, I may have a new idea. I am strongly considering one of Ernst Haeckel's radiolarian drawings from his book on the group.

This is appealing to me, not only because Haeckel was an incredible artist and an important player in the history of biology*, but because radiolarians are a really interesting group that very little is known about. Exploring the odd-balls of the world has always had more draw for me than studying the effect of one amino acid in one protein in humice. They also actively engage in dozens of different symbioses, which I find particularly interesting.

This brings up some questions for my readers, however, because I'm curious. Perhaps I'll get inspired from someone else's vison for themselves.

1) If you were forced to get a tattoo tomorrow, what would it be and why?

2) Where would you get it and why?

*Yes, I also know that he was a proponent of scientific racism and had some political views that would raise eyebrows in today's context. However, the good he did in promoting science has lasted far longer than his pseudo-Lamarckian ideas of human evolution.

23 responses so far

Home agin, home again, jigidy jig

Jul 09 2010 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

Whew, long couple of weeks. Feels like about a month. A lot happened while I was away, both at home and in the bloggosphere, both with lasting implications and neither of which I am prepared to get into now.

Got back late last night and got a few hours of sleep before getting up for a full day at work today in order to get a grant submitted today. That looks like it's on track and now I am waiting for the final approval from the grants office, so I have a few minutes of downtime. This whole month (real, not just perceived) has been crazy, and I know I'm not the only one feeling it.

I'm happy to be home though. As I dragged my ass out of bed with some pretty massive jet-punch-in-the-nose jet-lag this morning, I wasn't sure what kind of reaction I was going to get from the Wee One. Previously when I have been gone for a week or more, I've gotten the cold shoulder routine for a few days. But not today. No, I got a big hug and some father daughter time first thing this morning, then it was all daddy-do-it all morning. I have to say, that made it a lot easier to get going this morning.

I need a break though. Despite the fact that we got a ton of cool data back last night and are suddenly sitting on the material for a couple of manuscripts, they are going to have to wait. I'm taking most of next week off to relax, get shit done around the house and spend time with my family. I have just a couple of weeks before I leave again for two separate trips in August and then the semester will no doubt attack like a bear fresh out of hibernation. I have papers to submit and data to analyze, but I also feel like if I don't take a small break now I'm going to pay for it in a big way in a month or two. Sometimes it's good to let things wait for just a little while.

6 responses so far

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