Archive for: March, 2011

Da bomb

Mar 30 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Oh boy. I have given a lot of talks and taught a pretty good number of classes in my career, but yesterday was special. Yesterday I had a a guest lecture to give in a graduate course on a topic that I had not thought about in a while. In fact, it was really grad school when I last was immersed in this particular subject, but your past follows you and I'm still regarded as knowing my shit in this realm.

Well well. Sometimes you take for granted that you can pick up where you left off. With my own lecture to prepare for the morning and the guest lecture to prep for the afternoon, I'll admit I took some short cuts. I used some old slides and thought I would hop right back on that bike.

Epic. Fail.

It was the perfect storm. I tried to simplify the topic but found myself in that zone between not simple enough to ignore certain complexities, but not complex enough to really get into them. The first 20 minutes went fine and then the train started to derail. I started having to rely on the slides for my cues (never good when they're more than visual support) and then shit got bad. My explanation started conflicting with the text and then there was no stopping where it was headed.


PLS gives his guest lecture.

I managed to group my poop enough to eventually get something coherent across, but for about 5-10 minutes it was painful. Twelve grad students and four faculty members watched me flop about like a boated marlin and the more I tried to untangle the mess, the worse it got. I finally backed up, bagged the text on the slides and used the chalk board to save myself, but at that point I had lost my credibility and it was just an exercise in self preservation. I limped through the last half of the lecture and was mercifully put out of my misery by the clock.

It's been a long time since I bombed a talk. A really long time. But I did it spectacularly yesterday. In some ways it's a good reminder to make sure I take care of the details and not assume I can wing things when I'm short on time. And maybe the silver lining will be that people stop asking me to do guest lectures.

7 responses so far

Your lab is sinking, grab the _____?

Mar 29 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

I've been thinking a bit lately about equipment in the lab that is vital to our work and how best to increase our capacity. Whereas there is no one piece of equipment that would allow us to get the work done we need to, like any lab, there are some we rely on more than others.

That led me to a hypothetical for today. If you lab was on a boat and boat was sinking, what would be the one piece of equipment you would save? For the purposes of this, assume that your fridges and freezers (or whatever you use to store samples) all float so your samples and reagents would be fine. Also, all your data are remotely backed-up (I mean, you're lab is on a boat, ffs), so you wouldn't lose all the data on a computer, for instance. Once on land, you'll need to get your work up and running as fast as possible (proposal deadlines don't wait for you to row back!), so you need the essential piece of equipment that will allow you to do the most while you wait for the insurance company to assess the damages. General consumables are available on land.

What single piece of lab equipment occupies the precious space in the lifeboat that would otherwise be filled by the summer student who you sent to "keep bailing the lab"?

30 responses so far

How hard is being a feminist?

Mar 27 2011 Published by under LifeTrajectories

As I have discussed before, the community of bloggers I try and keep up with has been a tremendous resource for me to learn much much more about feminism than I had previously known or even considered. I'm not proud of how easy it was for me not to think about the issues women regularly face in science, academia and society, but I had the privilege of being insulated from those problems. I figured if I wasn't contributing to the problem directly, I was doing my part to help.

I like to think of myself as being less naive these days and more proactive. I've tried to address several things I can control in my work environment and made a number of concerted efforts to promote female colleagues and students. In many small ways this has paid off, but I also realize I'm hardly scratching the surface.

Nothing has brought that quite to the fore like a conversation I had while traveling not long ago. I was discussing the representation of women on a particular high-profile committee with a male colleague and in his explanation for why there were so few, he produced such a mind-numbingly sexist argument that I thought I had been instantly teleported into a bad after school special (if they had ever done one on sexism, that is, and not smoking). The more his explanation wound around the Pole of Stupidity from whence it started, the more I thought there was sure to be a punchline. There wasn't.

But in retrospect, what bothers me the most was my reaction. There I sat, basking in the sulphuric stench of a monologue that could basically be summed up as "Ya know, girls just aren't as smart as men." and the self-content look of someone thinking "I read that on the internet, so it must be true" and how did I reply? In previous conversations with women who related similar offenses they had to suffer through, I was always able to suggest a witty response to put that asshole in his place! These jerks need to be embarrassed! And here was my chance.

I had little to lose but some social awkwardness. No one was going to call me a ball busting bitch, shrew or harpy. I had little to fear in terms of career consequences or being black balled and what was my pithy retort? I managed "you can't really believe that." before changing the fucking subject. That's right, with the opportunity to dismantle a blatantly false argument taken directly from the oldest warehouse of the patriarchy, I froze and redirected the conversation. Way to help out.

Dude. Fuck. Sigh.

The benefit I see from this encounter, however, is that I am now slightly more prepared to be broad-sided by ignorance. I am a little more ready to respond in a way that lets the person know I think they are full of shit without putting them on the defensive and making an enemy. I may not have a handbook of witticism at the ready, but at least this is making me think about how I would counter the absurd in the future. Maybe it's not a silver bullet, but it's a step.

13 responses so far

The day I almost relaeased an angry hummingbird in my office

Mar 23 2011 Published by under [Biology&Environment]

Because of child-related factors, I get in to the office early - usually before anyone else on my floor and most people in the building. Perhaps related to this, I have a good relationship with the janitorial staff in my building, but it also means that I am often the point person for things that come up in the early morning in the building.

One morning a member of the janitorial staff came by with a heap of paper towels and asked me "can you do anything with this?" Unsure what "this" was, I opened the towels to find a dead humming bird.

As another important part of the story, our building has a lot of glass and in the middle it is possible to see through the building. This, of course, is like creating a giant bird neck breaker because birds think they can fly straight through. Despite multiple requests from myself and others to place some sort of marker on the glass, this has yet to happen. So, it is common for me to hear the thud of bird-on-glass from my office.

Alright, back to the story. This bird was like grilled bread - toast. I gracious accepted the carcass from the distraught janitor and promised to make some calls to see whether it could be put to some use. Turns out that it could and it joined the ornithology "bird on a stick" collection*. The creature's death was not totally in vain.

A few days pass and I hear a thud. Another bird and an untimely fate. But being the curious person I am, I went to check it out. What I found was another hummingbird, laying on its back all akimbo, with it's long tongue laying sideways like a bad characiture of a dead bird. I grabbed some paper towels** and picked it up. When I did so its neck lolled about and it let out a pathetic squeak. "On death's door" I thought and went to call the bird on a stick guy.

I placed the bird/towel combo on my desk and looked around for the phone number. Not where I left it, hmmmm. While doing so, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye - something was staring at me with cold dark eyes. From my desk the bird peered at me. "Oh shit, I'm going to have to put it out of its misery" I thought. Sure a broken neck but not dead yet! But since ornithology is not my thing, it would seem that my appreciation for the resilience of bird necks was soon to be my undoing.

With pity in my heart, I picked the bird/towel pile and considered how I might dispatch of a bird to end its suffering. Perhaps sensing the danger, the bird suddenly looked a LOT more lively. And angry.


They may be small, but you still don't want to piss off a hummingbird. Fast sharp beaks, yo. (source)

Now I'm holding the bird/towel hybrid and the bird starts to squeak. A lot. Realizing that I may have been premature in my calling the time of death, I put a second hand on the towels as the bird decided that it no longer wanted to be wrapped in a paper toga. My office has both high ceilings and a big ass window = essential impossible turf to catch a flying bird.

Must. Get. Bird. Outside.

Down two flights of stairs and outside, all with a squeaking bird in my hands and students wondering what the hell kind of perverse experiment I was doing. I got through the exterior doors in just enough time before the bird freed itself and flew off like a bolt.

Moral of the story - stunned birds can look like dead birds, but it's best to double check before you bring them into your office.

*And in case it's not clear, the bird is not standing on a stick, but more resembles a popsicle. Reason # 5684 that I don't work on animals.

**I have no idea when this is the choice medium of transfer for dead birds.

22 responses so far

Repost: What to expect in the first year

Mar 22 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The new crop of TT faculty are just now starting to accept positions for the fall. With that, I thought it would be a good idea to repost some advice to those new people that originally went up on Feb 18 of last year.

Obviously, there has been some discussion around these parts about becoming new TT faculty and how prepared people actually are. With that in mind, I thought I would provide a Top Ten list of things that I wasn't as prepared for as I thought I was when I arrived in my job.

10. Walking into an empty room and knowing you have to turn it into a functioning lab in relatively short order is a bit overwhelming. In a lot of ways, it is a fun challenge, but remembering EVERYTHING takes some serious work. It helps if you walk around your postdoc lab and list everything you see, right down to the tube racks and brushed in t he sink. Ordering things will consume you for the first couple of months.

9. Balancing finishing up postdoc projects with launching a new research program can be difficult. It's easy to drop your past and concentrate on the new stuff, but getting those last few pubs out the door helps mask the productivity gap of setting up a new lab. Also, doing this sooner than later means you will have to spend less time searching through old files trying to remember things that were fresh 6 months earlier.

8. Meetings take more of your time than you can imagine. Even from the very early stages it is worth picking a day or two during the week and removing them from your schedule so that nothing breaks up that day or days. It doesn't seem like it right away, but after a few months you'll be asking yourself "why I can't I get anything done during the week?" and the answer will be because you don't have any blocks of time longer than two hours. I know the idea of it seems ridiculous, but it happens.

7. Trainees are enormous time-sinks in the first 6 months. You may or may not have grad students or a technician starting in your first year, but whenever they do show up it is surprising how much of your time becomes dedicated to making sure they do things you want them done and keeping them on the right track. This gets better as more people join the lab, but one needs to be careful of the game of "lab technique telephone" which can occur if you have trainees teaching trainees.

6. Politics. Some places will be worse than others, but figuring out where people stand and being sucked into numerous discussions on how your university runs is also a massive time suck in the beginning. Steer clear of as much of this as possible, but you can't dodge everything unless you start wearing a Teflon suit to work. Then people might give you a wide berth.

5. Everyone wants a piece of you. While you still have that new faculty smell, everyone wants their pound of flesh. You'll be asked to give seminars in the relevant departments or nearby universities and maybe even some guest lectures in classes. You'll be asked to attend different events by administrators so they can show off their new hire and the university will try and "orientation" the shit out of you with events and training sessions. Other faculty will want to blab on for days about "how things are here", etc, etc.

4. Nothing in research works in a new lab. At least, this has been my experience. Everything will be slightly different than the environments where you learned the techniques. The machines will be different (even if they are the same models), the water will be different, the tilt of the Earth, whatever. It takes time to trouble shoot everything in the new digs and the routine protocols you once performed will have to be tweaked.

3. Where once you had one or two grants to apply to per year, now you're chasing the world. As a postdoc there are a couple of grants that one can directly apply for. Maybe your PI asked you to help with other grants as well. As a new PI with your own ideas to fund and in need of money, you'll start applying for far more than you thought. I sent in 7 grant applications in my first year. That's a lot of writing, a lot of adjustments and a lot of rejections only to start over again. You don't carry that kind of load as a postdoc.

2. Making a name for yourself takes a lot of exposure. As a new PI, it's important to get the word out quickly that you've started your own show and you're moving forward with new ideas. In addition to letting people at your university know who you are, you need to do the same at the international level. Publications from you new lab are not going to come out for at least a year or two, so you have to get out to meetings and work the conferences. You have to network for yourself now, so start booking flights.

1. You're the boss. You now control your fate in a way you previously have not. Your ideas are under the bright light, your writing has to fund the lab, your personnel decisions will make or break you and your blood, sweat and tears will determine everything in the next 5-7 years. You'll have some support, but ultimately it all comes down to you. Your trainees depend on your success as much as you on theirs and their jobs and careers are in your hands. Somehow this reality didn't really sink in for a bit, despite postdocing with a pre-tenure prof who was very open about the ups and downs of things and I'm not sure it can be fully realized until you're in the position. One can be aware of it, but living it is different.

I'm sure others will weigh in with things I've left off the list, and this is in no way comprehensive, but all of it combines to make for a pretty crazy transition from being a trainee in a lab to calling the shots. It's easy to look over this list and think, yup, I know all that. The problem is that it's the cumulative effect (not necessarily additive, btw) that makes being pushed into the deep end so jarring.

15 responses so far

Spring Break is for profs

Mar 21 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

When the term "Spring Break" comes up, most people think of college students. Images of Cancun, Palm Beach, sun, drunken debauchery, activities that will send the campus use of antibiotics soaring for the next few weeks, etc. But while the concentration is on warm and sunny locales, all over the country there are professors sighing in relief.

I'm fucking behind. Behind in what, you might ask. Every-fucking-thing. In the last month I've shifted from doing everything last minute, to doing everything a minute late, then doing everything a week late. I'm convinced that the reason for Spring Break has nothing to do the Great Tropical Protist Swap, and everything to do with allowing professors to pop up from stacks of paper like gophers in the prairie.


Get your own official Prof Spring Break Whistle here

I need the break this week in a big way. There's a dozen things that I need to finish up and it wouldn't hurt to be a lecture ahead of my class once in a while. But above all, I need some down time. This weekend was the maybe the second no-work weekend I've had stretching back to well before Christmas and the last one took me a few days to catch up from. This week, on the other hand, is remarkably quiet. I even have multi-hour blocks to do stuff for myself. It feels odd.

The final stretch to the summer is almost upon us. There's light at the end of that tunnel and Spring Break is the final rest for the last leg. Use it wisely or burn out before the finish.

5 responses so far

The Day Care Dance

Mar 18 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Life Trajectories]

Sick kids are shape shifters. At any given time you are left guessing how sick they really are, because they will go from appearing to be on death's door to running around and singing, all within the span of an hour. Lethargic to laughing, and back.

As a parent, the question we have to answer on a regular basis is whether or not a child is okay for day care. The problem is that "okay" can take different forms depending on the demands of our lives. It sucks, but the reality is that there are some days where we are willing to push the envelope because our schedules are jammed up and the consequences of one of us staying home is a missed deadline, canceled class or some other undesirable result.

I know that in the grand scheme of things, making sure the Wee One stays healthy is more important than any of these things, but this is where the shape shifting comes in. Sometimes it is virtually impossible to determine how sick a child is. No fever but a cough? How bad is it? Sometimes she's better by the afternoon, sometimes not, but predicting the end result is harder than filling out a winning March Madness bracket.

Day cares are half full of sick kids all the time because all parents are weighing these decisions almost year-round. If we took a day every time the Wee One looked like she was a little sick we would both burn through our sick and vacation time by April every year. So, we play the game and hope not to lose too badly.

Yesterday we lost, but today I get to snuggle with a cuddly kid who is in pretty good spirits for someone as sick as she is.

7 responses so far

Conferences all atwitter, but are we speeding public ridicule?

Mar 14 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

While I still have not joined twitter, the meeting I am at is being live twittered but both audience members and one of the organizers. Being curious, I've been watching the hashtag to get a better feel for how this works. So far it's been "meh".

One thing that did catch my eye, however, was the activity around one of the presentations in which the speaker tried a joke that fell fairly flat. While I am not familiar with most of the people here, I get the impression that the speaker was well known and some good natured jibes lit up the twitter feed. I am assuming that it was "all in good fun", but without knowing the players I can only guess based on the content.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. There's no question that these types pf conversation happen at meetings and likely that those giving the speaker a ribbing on twitter would do so in person at the next break, but I can't help but feel slightly unnerved about the fact that it is in an archived public forum this way. Maybe I'm being over-sensitive, but it seems that the opportunity for things to be taken the wrong way or snowball into something larger than the original intent as the person was giving their knee-jerk wittiest possible 140 character take on the proceedings, makes the medium even less appealing. Obviously it is up to the tweeter (twit?) to be conscious of misinterpretation, but I think there is ample evidence that many are incapable or uninterested in applying said filter.

I can see value in live-blogging a meeting and providing some interpretational value to the presentations as a useful exercise and I could even understand the usefulness of following the twitter stream for a conference one can not attend, but I still find myself uncomfortable with the immediacy of twitter and the lack of apparent digestion and context.

Perhaps I'm just taking the first steps down my inevitable path to grumpy old man. Now get offa my lawn!

13 responses so far

Not my people

Mar 09 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the funny things about this business is how different groups have such different cultures. No place does that come out more than at some of the smaller, more specific, conferences that bring together a community that knows each other. If you've ever been a regular at one of these meetings, you'll know what I mean.

I'm taking off this week to join one of these meetings, but one in a community I'm just getting into. These are not my people. I'm the outsider, busting into a group that has been citing each other and collaborating for years - bringing my approach to their system and trying to shake things up a little.

As much as I enjoy the small meetings that I try and get to because of the familiarity and discussions that always break out, I also look forward to these opportunities to be the new guy. Some of the most amazingly productive meetings I have ever been to have been those where I had never met any of the other participants before getting there. Sometimes a little fresh blood in some of these meetings makes a huge difference, and sometimes being that fresh blood leads to a hole host of benefits, including collaborations you never see coming.

Looking forward to it.

13 responses so far

Graphic.... Wednesdays: The 7 stages of grading

Mar 08 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

EDIT: Apparently it's Tuesday.

I'm not convinced I'm going to make it until Friday, so this is early.

1) Immobilization: "I can't believe how many tests I have to grade. Why did I do essays? Am I a masochist? I can't wait a few days before dealing with those."

2) Denial: "Do I have a thick accent or speak in another language during class? The students don't seem to have understood anything I have said. Am I in the right country? Where am I?"

3) Anger: "Why are my students trying to kill me? We went over this concept for 20 minutes, had a lab on it, and 40% of the class gets the answer right?"

4) Bargaining: "Maybe if I grade a few, then reward myself with something, it won't be so bad. Three exams, then ice cream. Mmmm, ice cream."

5) Depression: "Why am I even doing this? Am I horrible teacher? Do they tune me out? And why did I eat so much ice cream?"

6) Testing: "Maybe if I curve juuuuust slightly, I'll avoid a riot."

7) Acceptance: "Whatever, it's one test. Where's the scotch?"

14 responses so far

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