Archive for: April, 2011

I guess the Dean wasn't joking....

Apr 29 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

...when he said he would be fine with giving anyone who didn't get tenure a big office with plenty of light.

6 responses so far

Building a better blogroll

Apr 28 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Just the other day I was chatting with another blogger and both of us realized that we had not recently stumbled across new blogs that had caught our attention. This is not because new and interesting blogs are not out there in abundance, but rather neither of us had been very adventuresome in our blog spelunking as of late. Much like any routine, you get stuck checking the same blogs you always have and move on with the things that need to be done.

With that in mind, I'm inviting you to shamelessly plug your blog, or one you read but feel is under-appreciated, in the comments section. I'm looking to build the blogroll, so which blogs are rockin your socks recently?

42 responses so far

Ethics, personal views and chosing collaborators

Choosing collaborators is an important part of the scientific enterprise. You are agreeing to combine forces with someone to tackle a scientific problem, but there is often much more than just the science involved. Everyone has their ways of doing things, quirks and general differences about the way they approach their work. Sometimes these differences mesh together nicely and a collaboration sails along, other times they do not.

When it comes to the work side of things, usually you can get a pretty good feel for how your potential colleague will work with you. It's rare for me, for instance, to strike up any collaboration with someone who I am not familiar with from either the literature or through personal connections. I would say the latter is also far more common than the former. But sometimes personal connections reveal far more than just what people do as scientists.

So, my question for today is: How much does someone's personal life affect your willingness to collaborate with them?

For instance, if the person held strongly opposing social views to those you believe in, would that make you reconsider working with them? What if you were aware that they cheated on their taxes? Their spouse? How about if they have a substance abuse issue? What if you found the person socially intolerable? What type of personal baggage would make you look past the science and decide that a potentially good working collaboration is not something you might consider?

Is it all about the science?

24 responses so far

How to waste a lot of time

Apr 26 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Step 1: Have a desire to start a new graduate course. You must be ready to sink a lot of time into this process from the very start. The process may look simple from the start, but you have no idea the tortuous path on which you are about to embark. This is page one of a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

Step 2: Look for forms and instructions on your university website.

Step 3: Unearth half a dozen overlapping and contradictory sets of instructions and as many forms, all as unfillable PDFs.

Step 4: Check with Chair of the Graduate Curriculum Committee and receive instructions on which from to use.

Step 5: Painstakingly fill out the form.

Step 6: Get Dept. Graduate Committee approval.

Step 7: Get Dept. approval.

Step 8: Get Dean's signature.

Step 9: Get the form back with signatures, but with no indication as to who to send it to.

Step 10: Receive conflicting instructions about where the form has to go, so make copies and bring it around campus.

Step 11: Get it to The Course Maker only to have them look at it and say "This is the wrong form. You need to use a different and far more intensive form for what you are trying to do."

Step 12: Ask how the fuck this was supposed to be clear to you based on conflicting "official" instructions and different advice from the Chair of the Graduate Curriculum Committee.

Step 13: Get told that you will be sent all of the right information, only to receive an apology email stating that the website was indeed a problem, but here is the form and you need to start back at step 5. And oh, BTW, you missed the deadline now because the new form was due last week and won't be considered until the fall.

Step 14: Remove bottle of Scotch from desk drawer....

7 responses so far

Lecturae Terminalis

Apr 26 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The day has finally arrived that I give my final lecture for the year. It's not the last class period of the year, but due to some other things on the syllabus, this is the last lecture I need to deliver. Based on the liberal translation for the title, clearly it is not on Latin, but I always pick a final topic that I enjoy so that I can end the semester teaching something I like.

Overall, this class been far smoother than its first iteration a year ago. Rather than spending many nights awake into the am, I found I was able to make minor changes this semester and deliver the material more effectively all the same. There are still changes that need to be made and I have already put together next year's syllabus, which I have substantially re-arranged. This year, however, I finally felt like I was one step ahead.

I'm making changes to the material and to the way it is presented. I'm modifying some of the key assignments, augmenting the lab with some new material and changing the grading policy. I'm re-organizing several of the lectures and including summary questions at the end of each for discussion to drive the main points home. I cover a lot of material in my class, and I'm hoping the adjustments I am planning will allow the students to assimilate the information more easily. I also think it is a happy medium between respecting my time and providing the students with more tools to grasp the material. I'm not going to be making study guides or practice tests, but I am willing to summarize each lecture if they are willing to join the discussion.

Not coincidentally, I'm finally starting to view teaching as less of a burden and actually thinking I could enjoy it. Last year was strictly survival and this year was the first time I could look at the course more objectively and determine how I could make it what I wanted rather than a bastardized version of what someone else had taught previously. The modifications I'm making to how the course is run and taught will give me the most flexibility and reduce the ancillary shit that has made this semester a lot of work. Next year I anticipate I will finally own this course, rather than the other way around.

3 responses so far

Repost: Increasing your academic visibility

Apr 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Originally posted last summer, but relevant now for people starting up next fall and people who are relatively new.

One of the key things every new PI has to do when you start a new lab is to get the word out. You gotta let people know where you are and what you are working on, which is why doing the conference circus circuit is really important early on. But, there is a lot more one can do and I'm really starting to see the benefit of one major thing.

When I first got to Employment University, my department asked me to take on the seminar series. At the time it was a bit hodgepoged and disjunct so I think they expected me to invite a couple of people here and there and call it a day. I had, however, been in charge of a seminar series as a grad student, so the task wasn't particularly daunting and I quickly realized I could use it to my advantage.

I sent out a request within the department for suggested speakers, and as per expectation I only got a few. That gave me freedom to pretty much ask anyone I wanted to see give a talk. I made a list of all the heavy hitters in my field within my geographic "sphere of invitation" and started working through it. I knew I was going to do the seminar series for at least two years, so I was able to spread these talks out so it wasn't blatantly obvious what I was doing.

In the process of hosting some big name folks to the department I have had the opportunity to not only increase interest in my filed within my department, but also get on the radar of some key people from other institutions. This is paying dividends both at conferences when I get the opportunity to catch up with these people and meet friends of theirs, but also because people tend to return the favor and invite you for a seminar at their institution.

More recognition + more invited talks + more interesting (for me) talks in my department = win. It can be a pain in the ass sometimes, but coordinating the seminar series can have huge up side if you use it to your advantage.

5 responses so far

Sciparenting and expectations

Apr 22 2011 Published by under LifeTrajectories

Jade has a post up over at LabSpaces about why she isn't a parent and views a career and being a mom as mutually exclusive activities. It's a personal and subduedly emotional post that I would bet a lot of people can identify with. On the other side of the coin, you can also find posts on being a scimom by Dr. O, Janet and Gerty-Z, as well as other links within those referencing the #scimom hashtag started at It's Not a Lecture.

In Jade's post she indicates that it was growing up in her household and watching her mother deal with the stresses of parenting is what convinced her that motherhood was not for her. Unlike the Jade's commenter who goes all self-righteous about parenting, I don't think the kinds of things you have to do to be happy as a parent with a career is something that everyone needs, in order to fulfill their lives. The guild of parenting is not unlike that of academia, where the default assumption is that if you do not conform to the in-group measure of "success" then you have certainly failed.

Balancing careers with kids while maintaining a good relationship with your partner is way harder than you might think before plunging in. It's easy to get selfish about accomplishing your own goals and we all fall into that trap at times, putting huge strains on our relationships. No one can be everything to everyone at all times, we all make small sacrifice everyday in some aspects of our lives. The key is to rotate those sacrifices so that you can give more to what is most critical on a given day. Some days you need to get things done at work that can not wait. Some days you'll need to miss a deadline to be with your sick kid or help out your partner or just to spend time with both because it's important. As a result, you're gonna miss somethings at work or at home that you really don't want to, but that's the game. The perfect parent who can do everything rides a unicorn to work and never has to sit through a meeting that wastes their time (The latter being the more rare of the two).

But why is this the pinnacle of success? Whereas I agree that no one should ever feel like they can't have kids for career reasons, there are plenty of people who actually don't *want* to have children just like there are a ton of people who don't actually want a tt position (shhhhh). The default opinion expressed by Jade's commenter yannisguerra is the same bullshit that PIs so often spew onto their trainees, but sometimes not wanting something is a feature, not a bug.

I forget who said this or where the conversation happened, but a recent parent mentioned that they were never so avidly pro-choice until they had a child. Wise words.

18 responses so far

Sink, swim, or..... water wings?

Apr 19 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the things that fascinates me about academia is the diversity of training environments and philosophies. Whereas some labs are genuinely run by people who should not even own a hamster (let alone be responsible for providing a good environment for the development of a scientist and person), most PIs have a method that they feel is effective for getting their people to where the PI believes* they need to be.

In the last 6 months I have been an examining member on three different thesis committees, all with very different levels of PI involvement in the final product. Knowing the different PIs, I can say that each is engaged in the research their students are doing and meet regularly with them, but each to a very different approach to the student's thesis and presentation.

The lifeguard: In one instance it was clear that the PI had been through several thesis drafts with the student and made significant editorial changes along the way. As a result, the thesis was a very complete document without much for the examiners to deal with on that front. Interestingly, it would appear that being too well put together can have its downsides, as one committee member wondered aloud to me prior to the exam whether they should be congratulating the student or PI on the quality of the thesis.

The mildly attentive parent: In this case, it was clear the PI had a hand in the final outcome, but that the writing was largely the student's work. The committee had a bit more to focus on, in terms of the editorial side, but I felt like this was better received than the thesis mentioned above because the perception was that there was more ownership from the grad student.

Good luck with that: On the other side of the spectrum is the PI who let's the student write the whole thing and send it out without the PI providing much or any feedback. As a committee member, these are the ones you fear. Sure, maybe there is the exceptional student who writes science like they were born doing it, but this is not the norm.

Obviously if the student has published several chapters already PI input becomes less of a concern because it has been invested along the way, but it is common in my field for students to have some chapters that are not submitted for publication just yet. Whereas I can see the perspective of wanting the students to stand on their own two feet at the end of the road, I think my own philosophy tends more towards the middle. Just because someone is earning a graduate degree doesn't mean that their training as a communicator of their science is done.

Or perhaps PI involvement is just a function of career stage.

*A view not always shared by the trainee

8 responses so far

Dealing with proposal rejection

Apr 18 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

NSF BIO panels are meeting right now, or have met in the last couple of weeks, depending on your panel of choice. That means funding decisions are working their way through the system and notifications will be forthcoming in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, ~90% of are going to be disappointed in the results. Also unfortunately, I have a LOT of experience being in that 90%.

While I have no problem providing advice for proposal writers based on my experience from both being on an NSF panel and through making (and theoretically, learning from) many mistakes along my path of grant writing, one of the biggest things I have learned is how to deal with proposal reviews for an unsuccessful proposal.

The first thing I do with my reviews is print them out and read them over fully. I've talked before about the NSF rankings and what they mean. I get the whole "these reviewers don't know their ass from their elbow" thing out of my system and put the reviews away for a couple of days. Then I'll go back to them and read them again, while making a list of things I need to address and things I got right. What did the panel focus on? What were common flaws perceived by more than one reviewers? How can I fix those? Will it require data or a change in the focus of the question being asked? What proposal flaws did they not come out and say, but are between the lines? What are the strengths to build on? What did reviewers not understand?

Once I have a good list, I use that instead of the reviews as a guide. For one, it separates any emotional reaction to the reviews from the revision process, but it also gives me a handy check list and reminder of what I need to address and clarify. After that, I'll set up a phone appointment with the PO. This is critical for getting a better feel for how the panel conversation went and why certain points became focal issues. It is also essential for advocating for the changes you plan to make and getting a read on whether the PO thinks those will adequately deal with the concerns. Take notes.

I can't stress enough how important it is to bounce ideas off the PO. More than once I thought I had a new strategy figured out only to have the PO say "but that's not going to address XXX". Whereas I was initially frustrated by some discussions I had with POs because it felt very one-sided, I was ignoring the subtly of the language they have to use. Talk about your revision ideas but even though you'll be doing most of the talking, you have to listen carefully to the reaction. Remember that they know exactly what people did and did not like about your proposal and that information may not appear in your panel summary, depending on how it was written.

Funding rates are not good right now, so it's important to make every application count. Remember that if there were parts of your proposal that the reviewers didn't "get" then you need to clarify the language there and make sure it is obvious what you want the reviewers to take away. It is YOUR JOB to make sure even the most distracted reviewer walks away from your proposal convinced it can work, because you have everything to lose if they don't. Your PO can help you figure out the direction to take your research questions, but you need to package it up all purty like.

24 responses so far

Senator Jon Kyl performs >90% of US abortions*

Apr 13 2011 Published by under [Politics]

I don't usually spend a lot of time on politics, but how can I ignore the Republicans taking their war on Planned Parenthood up a notch? Maybe you saw it on the Daily Show or Colbert Report last night or perhaps you caught the Twitter buzz... OR maybe you don't 'get' Twitter and you're in bed by 10:30 because you have a 3 year old who watches the clock in the morning from her bed until she can yell "THERE"S A 6 ON THE CLOOOOCK!" Hypothetically, of course.

Wherever you sit, it's worth checking out this video just to get a flavor of the utter bullshit the GOP is trying to push on teh sheeples.

Doing >90% of US abortions or 3%? I mean, what's the dif, right? Luckily, the explanation is simple - Jon Kyl's assertion as part of the congressional record "was not intended to be a factual statement". Now I'm not gonna sit here and argue that even half of what is said on the floor of congress is a cold hard fact, but ffs.

If you have a few minutes to spare, it's worth checking out the Twitter hashtag #notintendedtobeafactualstatement (no, you don't have to have a Twitter account, just follow the link). But for those of you, like me, who have not submitted their 140 character soul to a corporate entity, feel free to play along in the comments. Perhaps something like....

Senator Jon Kyl is Charlie Sheen's tiger blood dealer*.

Senator Jon Kyl writes all those "Nigeria Prince" emails*.

Senator Jon Kyl cares about the non-white, non-rich people he was elected to represent*.

*Not intended to be a factual statement.

11 responses so far

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