Archive for: October, 2010

Repost: Something Scary

Oct 29 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It's time for Halloween again, so I thought I would dig out this post from last year about one of the scarier prospects facing many students and postdocs looking to get a TT job.

With Halloween this weekend, I thought I would post about something that recently scared the crap out of me: Coming up with my own Big Idea.

As a grad student and postdoc, it's essential that you are always coming up with your own ideas, but you have the net of working in a lab with an established theme and having lots of people around working on related things to bounce ideas off of. Then you start applying for jobs and have face the fact that you need to sell yourself on your own ideas. Some people might be able to leave their postdoc labs with projects of their own design are will continue working along those lines. That's great if you can pull it off and it will sure make your life easier. Of course, I didn't do that.

I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find a way to take advantage of my fairly diverse training in order to come up with a novel research program to pursue, but coming up with an independent and exciting research direction is a daunting task. I had lots of ideas, but either they borrowed heavily from what I was doing at the time (and I didn't want to compete with my PDF advisor in my early career) or I wasn't excited by them. This went on for a couple of weeks. Reading. Thinking. Repeat. It sucked, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I was going to end up either doing research that only slightly excited me and 6 other people in the world, or not doing research at all because no one wants to hire someone with boring ideas.

So, I took a different approach. I started thinking of it like a layered database, where the top layers were huge questions that could not be directly tackled and each successive layer below became more and more tractable from a research standpoint. You can't write a grant proposal saying you want to cure cancer, but you can say that you will use XX cell line to understand YY process with the ultimate goal of making headway towards treatments for a certain type of cancer. My problem was that I was looking at the top and bottom layer and couldn't connect them until I used this approach to think about it.

I started with a broadly-observed phenomenon that I was very familiar with from the work I was doing as a PDF and tried to figure out ways to explain how things transition between the normal and altered state. In order to do that, I decided to look outside the systems that people had used to make the observations and identify a system where the actual transition was ongoing. The search for the right system led me back to my PhD training, where I was introduced to a truly unique system that hadn't been worked on in years. With my question and system in hand, all I needed was methodology to make the observations I needed and do the experiments to test the system, much of which I had learned as a PDF.

In retrospect, it all makes sense but I can't tell you how many hours I spent trying to see how I could carve out my own scientific niche. And hell, I haven't gotten anyone to pay me to pursue these ideas yet, so they might still all be crap. But I do know for a fact that my questions and the unique system I am using to go after them had enough of a "wow factor" to make a big difference during interviews for a job.

That's just my experience, but I doubt I am alone in facing the daunting task of making a research program one's own. It's unbelievably scary to feel like you can't come up with the one original question that you will need to make your mark, but having a broad knowledge base and getting into some of the older literature is what allowed me to piece things together. It's an exciting time when you;re finally on to something that you can turn into a unique research program.

6 responses so far

Random final NSF panel thoughts

I know I have been harping on this topic too much recently and those of you who are either not in science or not NSF people are probably ready to write me off. There were a few topics from my trip to NSF, however, that I would like to address and haven't gotten to, then I'll shut up about this and move on.

- One of the major issues that NSF is trying to tackle right now is finding ways to lighten the reviewer load. They have a hard time getting enough ad hoc reviewers in some cases to make the review process go the way it was meant to. There are several ways to deal with this, including shortening the proposals (10-12 pages from the current 15) or doing pre-proposals. I don't think I would have any problem with a shorter proposal (NIH is down to 12 pages), but pre-proposals are a horrible idea, IMO. In any case, there was strong sentiment in our panel that A) ad hoc reviews are important, especially if no experts in a particular field are on the panel, and B) going to either an all panel (no ad hocs) or all mail in (no panel) system would not be nearly as effective.

I guess there is a lot of pushback from the community about 'reviewer burn out', but I have to kinda call bullshit on this one. Everytime a person sends in a manuscript or proposal, they expect roughly three reviews back. Shouldn't that mean you should expect to review roughly three proposals or papers for every one you submit? Seems only fair, no? How many people are reviewing significantly more (on average) than that?

- Another thing that came up, of course, was budgets and so frustration over the small percentage of proposals that would be funded. One panelist asked why NSF didn't cap the overhead rate so that the money saved could go into the science, rather than the black box of overhead. I know that NSF does not control O/H rates, but another interesting point was raised. If NSF caps overhead, how will that effect hiring at schools that depend on the current O/H rates? Say NSF caps O/H at 30%, wouldn't there be a strong preference for hiring scientists with NIH potential over anyone who would be funded by NSF?

I hadn't really thought about it that way before, so I found this point really interesting. Beyond just creating a 'gradient of significance' within departments and colleges that would pit the NSF-funded against the NIH-funded scientists, it could wipe out NSF from science from many R1 institutions in a generation or two. So yeah, bad idea.

- Be careful what you call 'transformative' these days. Why? Because NSF is starting to track proposals that have had this label applied to them in review to see what happens with them and whether they end up being a big deal. There has been some focus on the idea of seeking out these transformative proposals and now NSF wants to see whether it has been worth it. It will be interesting to hear what the results are.

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Let's get this done

Alright folks, all this time I've been pushing you to donate to my Donors Choose page, but this time I'm going to be more specific. There is 43 days left to fund "Looking At The World Through A Different Lens" and only $238 separates kids in DC from having a digital projection microscope. The details of the project are below, direct from the Donors Choose page.

$238. Even five bucks will push us towards our goal! If you've been waiting to donate, now is the time. Let's fully fund this project and give these kids some resources they need. Don't make me borrow Odyssey's shirt again, that thing has been around.

My Students: Can you imagine being in a Biology classroom that cannot offer the students microscopes? Unfortunately this is a challenge that my students are facing. It is very difficult to invest my students and get them to understand content that involves organisms that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

I am a Biology teacher for ninth and tenth grade students in Washington, D.C. The demographics of my school consist mostly of African American students of middle to low SES. As a high school Biology teacher in Washington, D.C., I have been exposed to a lack of resources district-wide. My school in particular, though considered a STEM school, does not even have a classroom set of microscopes in the science department. Being a STEM school, the science component of education is stressed greatly, yet we are unable to supply our students with the necessary resources to be able to best understand science content. I realize the possibility of receiving a classroom set of microscopes is very small at this point, so I am determined to share the wonders of the microscopic world with my students by projecting the images from my microscope onto a projection screen. It is my hope that seeing these things in real life will serve to offer true meaning behind the content.

My Project: This digital projection microscope will be used first as a means to teach students about the various parts of the microscope. This is especially important for students who choose to take higher level science classes in the future. The digital projection microscope will also be used throughout the Cellular Biology unit. This microscope will be especially useful as it includes the necessary computer software to project images from the microscope onto a large screen. I can physically show my students cell organelles, and I can also take real-time recordings to demonstrate the reproduction rate of bacteria! The use of the microscope will allow for classroom discussion, as a visual image of the specific parts or processes of the cell will be available for all students to see. As many students are visual learners, this will greatly enhance their understanding of what happens in the microscopic world.

Digital microscopes have revolutionized the way in which information is presented to students in the classroom. Yogi Tripathi, a leading creator of projectors, wrote, “digital microscopes are transformational. . . they allow a group to share images that inform.” He explains that since the digital age developed, the possibilities are endless when it comes to presenting information. Today, with the help of digital projecting microscopes, students are offered a means of collaboration and cooperation.

My students need a digital projection microscope so I can display images of various cell parts in order to collaboratively understand Cellular Biology.

3 responses so far

The title that kills

Oct 27 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

There has to be a term for the phenomenon whereby shortly after sending in a title for a talk that is months away, all progress on that research in the lab grinds to a halt so that you have to awkwardly explain to your audience why you are presenting very preliminary data on the topic they came to see, but a bunch of related data from a different system.

Titleus hexus?

Data anchor?

Title noose?

I'm sure you can think of more creative terms. I have to finish my talk.

11 responses so far

Time flies

Oct 26 2010 Published by under [Et Al]

I'm late by a couple of days, just like everything else right now, but Oct 23rd marked two years and almost 450 posts since I started writing this blog. What a two year stint it has been. It seems like forever ago and just yesterday that I was in my old office in a crumbling building, trying to order everything I needed to start doing the work I was hired to do. Two years later, the lab is rolling along in a new building and things look very different now than they did then. I almost feel, after two years, like I know what the hell I am doing... almost.

We've also bought a house and watched a helpless infant grow into a energetic little girl who has more opinions than a room full of politicians (or scientists). We've made friends with neighbors and done home improvements. We even own a lawn mower.

All along I've tried to use this space to give and ask for advice, sometimes more successfully than others. I appreciate those of you who have followed along, whether you've been reading for a while or picked it up just recently. Writing the blog has been an unexpectedly fulfilling experience for me, and I owe that to the readership.


6 responses so far

It's that time of year again!

Oct 25 2010 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

In every semester there comes a time where things just get stupid. I am currently at that point.

I'm used to balancing all of the big things that come with this job and trying to keep all of that from leaking into my time outside of work. For the most part, I'm pretty good at that. I can stand there with one finger in the dyke while using the other hand to color with my daughter. I know when my deadlines are, I can get my teaching done, I can push science forward in my lab and I can get my writing and reading in.

Rather, it is the little shit that threatens to tear me apart in minor pulls in a gazillion different directions. Dealing with my 50 undergraduate advisees who suddenly all need to meet right now, writing reference letters for everyone who has ever walked into my office and a few who haven't, chasing down IT to fix an issue which has been lingering for a month, dealing with collaborators who seem unconcerned with the upcoming deadlines, performing my departmental, university and society service duties and the tens of other minor things that crop up every day. Slowly but surely, it grinds me down until I want to spend a weekday sitting at home in my underwear watching B rate action movies with the phone unplugged. The only problem with that plan, of course, is that the work doesn't get done when I'm not there, meaning there will be same shit to do, now with less time to do it in.

I also can't help but compare myself to those who have supervised me in the past and wonder how they never seemed to be overwhelmed or unable to just get things done at a rapid pace, no matter what else was going on. I'm sure they were at times, but they were always able to meet deadlines and turn things around faster then I expected. How? I have no idea. I'm struggling to meet all of my obligations and do the things I need to do to get where I need to be. There is no true balance, only things that take priority one day over the next, to the detriment of everything else. I know I'm not the only one feeling this way, but commiseration only gets me so far. I'll work through this just like I have in the past, but anyone who pretends like there are never days they think what it would be like to walk away from this job is either lying or a better person than I.

12 responses so far

So you want to be a grad student...

Maybe I'm a little cranky tonight after a lot of advising this week.

Blame Odyssey for starting this, with his Syphilis mochas.

13 responses so far

Magnifying Science

Yesterday one of the projects on the PLS Donors Choose project page, Magnifying Science, was fully funded, mostly by science blog readers, including Jenny from California, who got there through this site. I just wanted to post the letter that the teacher wrote in response to the purchase of microscopes for her 5th grade class. Thanks to Jenny and the other donors who made this happen and thanks to the donors who have given to this cause so far. There's still time to give and make another teacher and another classroom as happy as Mrs. S.

I am astounded by the generosity and support that has been showered upon my classroom. When I first drafted this project over the summer I figured it was a long shot, but decided to shoot for the stars! You all have made this dream a reality. I just got off the phone with a colleague of mine and we were literally shrieking with excitement!
These microscopes are going into the hands of some phenomenal 5th graders! I can't wait to tell them tomorrow that we are going to get our microscopes! This gift will affect my two classes this year, the other teachers on my team, as well as students for years to come. Thank you!

I've held off on our Life Science unit with the hopes that I could plan lessons with our new microscopes, and now I can!! Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support. You have given me the tools to be a better teacher to these children. I promise that I will give them every opportunity I can. THANK YOU!!

With gratitude,
Mrs. S.

2 responses so far


Oct 21 2010 Published by under [Et Al]

Please go welcome the newest Scientopia blog to the block, though many of you will be familiar with the blog from its prior venue.

Welcome Science Professor!

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I have been remiss

Alright ladies and gentlemen, I have been remiss in not pushing the Donors Choose drive a little harder over the last little bit, but this is kinda a big deal. Granted, I don't have a nipple-shirted avatar to persuade you, but I do think it is important that we get some more people interested in this drive.

Clearly, there are a few of you reading and I would guess that many of y'all have a few bucks you could live without so that school kids can be provided with what were likely staple items when you went to school. Sadly, some of the projects on the Donor's Choose site are things like a rug so that kids can sit for story time. Whether you think it is up to the private citizen to make up for the ridiculous shortcomings of the state or town is not the point. What is, is not letting children suffer for the funding decisions that are out of their control.

To sweeten the pot, several corporations have agreed to double contributions over the next few weeks, notably HP, who have committed to match every contribution from the Science Blogger Challenge, up to $50,000. So your $5 contributed today can me $10 for a classroom. It all adds up and pretty soon these classrooms will be able to buy supplies for biology labs, projects and yes, even a rug.

Even if everyone who read this post donated $1, it would make a major difference to schools across the US. Even if it seems ridiculous to you, pull the change out of your pocket today and give that. Like I said, it all adds up.

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