Archive for: September, 2011

Mid-mornin' toe tappin'

Sep 30 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

2 responses so far

Why (specifically) are you here?

Sep 30 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [Et Al]

Time is a precious resource, particularly around major deadlines for grants, manuscripts and teaching. For that reason I sometimes feel a little self-indulgent keeping up on the blog when I am facing a deadline, but the truth of the matter is that it is helpful to me. Not just in that I need an outlet sometimes for jotting my thoughts down, but because it pushes me.

I bring this up because of Tuesday's post over at Female Science Professor and the subsequent comments. FSP simply (in eight paragraphs) asked her readers how her blog (and others) help them. Many of the comments, including my own, provided typical answers about why we are likely all here - to learn about the steps ahead of us and know we are not the only ones going through some of the unique aspects of the academic ladder.

But I would like to take that just a step forward and ask readers for specific examples of how their blog reading helped them with a particular situation or allowed them to take a new direction. For me, I can say that I almost certainly would not have applied to NIH as early as I did (or maybe at all) without this community*. Be it the general granting advice to be found over at DrugMonkey's spot or just having to figure out what the difference between an R01, R15 and R21 was just to follow the conversations going on around the sciencebloggy parts, I got a start on untangling the NIH knot before I even knew I was doing it. And having a responsive community available for the questions the inevitably come up has been instrumental in this broadening of my funding scope.

So what about you, dear reader? What specific way has blog reading allowed you to do something you wouldn't have if you remained unaware of this community?

*So I'm blaming y'all for my current crushing deadline situation.

7 responses so far

NSF sets its sights on retaining women

A new NSF brochure (PDF here) was e-published today, explaining some novel initiatives aimed at retaining women in the STEM workforce, with a focus on women in academia. The brochure includes some recent stats in support of the effort, and NSF lays out its approach to mitigating some of the issues in the following way:

The goal of NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative is to help improve the proportion of women attaining full professorship positions at American colleges and universities by addressing the balance of scientists’ work with conflicting demands of life events (e.g., the birth or adoption of a child, raising children, or providing elderly dependent care). To that end, the agency will:

• Continue flexibility in timing the initiation of approved research grants.

• Continue no-cost extensions of awards.

• Continue grant supplements for research technicians or equivalent to sustain research when investigators need to provide family care.

• Encourage parental medical leave (paid, if possible), accommodations for dual-career couples, and part-time options.

• Support research and evaluation of advancement, attrition, and retention of women in STEM fields.

• Enhance the assessment and evaluation of NSF programs in terms of gender/diversity outcomes.

• Draw on relevant NSF Committee on Equal Opportunities in Science and Engineering recommendations (2010) to address issues faced by women of color in STEM.

• Study and recognize best practices for career and life balance.

• Foster mutually beneficial international research and training collaborations that provide career-life balance opportunities.

• Ensure compliance with Title IX of The Civil Rights Act to prevent gender discrimination in education programs.

• Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER and all post doctoral programs.

• Further integrate and enhance work-life balance practices into additional program guidelines, including for Graduate Research Fellows and ADVANCE, and subsequently through the broader portfolio of NSF activities, consistent with federal guidelines.

• Collaborate with federal agencies and professional associations to exchange best practices, harmonize careerlife policies and practices, and overcome common barriers to career-life balance.

• Communicate broadly to the STEM community, in order to clarify and catalyze the adoption of a coherent and consistent set of career-life balance policies and practices.

• Lead by example to become a model agency for gender equity.

Are they on the right track?

17 responses so far

Sometimes parenting sucks

Sep 28 2011 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

Of the many things I was relatively unprepared for when it comes to parenting is the relentlessness of Keeping The Line. Pretty much anyone who knows anything about kids will tell you that being consistent with what is okay and not okay is essential if you want to cut down on bad behavior and confusion by the child. Sounds all well and good, but staying consistent in a changing environment is like trying to drive at 30mph straight through Manhattan at midday.

Having to send the Wee One to bed early last night because she not only breaking the rules, but reveling in her defiance, sucked. Work has kept me later recently and we don't have much time between getting home and going to bed to enjoy being together as a family. Losing some of that time is as much a blow to us as going to bed early is to her, making it extremely tempting to let things just slide. And we have at times, but Here Be Dragons.

So we Keep The Line. As best we can. And hope the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term cost.

8 responses so far


Sep 26 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I'm becoming increasingly convinced that "multidisciplinary" just means having several bodies of literature to fall behind on.

6 responses so far

A call for tunes

Sep 26 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

Like others in the bloggosphere, I am in the final writing push for the NIH deadline around the corner. Also like the commenters on DM's post, I am the type to spend longer on the writing phase, but because of that, spend less time on editing.

Alas, this writing phase can be a painful one that requires some musical accompaniment, but beyond some recent music I have posted, I haven't run across anything new recently that I can use to freshen my playlist. That's where you come in, dear readers. What are you listening to these days?

14 responses so far

The crazy nastyass grad student

Sep 23 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

All this talk of honey badgers this week got me thinking, which is always dangerous. With this as my input... sleep deprived brain has made way too many honey badger / grad student comments over the past few days. My new narration works out something like this:

This is the grad student. Watch it pipette in slow motion. It's pretty badass.

Look. It runs all over the place. "Whoa, watch out." says that undergrad.

Ew, it's got some cells, oh, it's running a pulse chase experiment. Oh my gosh, the grad students are just crazy.

The grad student has been referred to in the Guinness Book of World Records as the lowest rung on the academic totem poll, but it really doesn't give a shit. If it's hungry, it's hungry... ew what's that in its mouth? Bagels from last week's journal club? Pizza that's been on the counter for three days?

Look at this, there's a college function in the building with free food. The grad student just goes in there and takes what it wants. It doesn't care that the Dean and her assistant are staring at it, it just takes it. OMG those are mayonnaise packets. Grad student doesn't give a shit, it's tearing those mayonnaise packets open with its fucking TEETH. Isn't that disgusting? Mayonnaise packets!

Look at this, it's typing.

The grad student is really pretty bad ass. They have no regard nutrition.

It's eating Ramen. Isn't that gross, Ramen. Grad student doesn't give a shit. It's increasing it's blood pressure by like 10 points, but it doesn't give a shit. Nothing can stop the grad student when it's hungry. Nasty.

There it is, pipetting in slow motion again.

Now, what's interesting is that other academics, like this PI here, just wait for the grad student to make some data and swoop in to cherry pick the findings. "You do all the work for us grad student and we'll just publish what you find. How's that? What do you say, stupid? Thanks for the data, stupid."

"Hey, I want authorship" says the grad student, but PIs don't care. And look, the postdocs do it too. They're like "Thanks stupid. Thanks for running my samples, see ya later."

The grad student does all the work while these other academics just cherry pick the findings.

At night time the grad student is sitting in the lab, because it needs data. Look! Here comes a fierce battle between a grad student and procrastination. I wonder what will happen. There's the grad student, just surfing the web, and then look a new blog post is up. "You shouldn't read me, you have work to do or sleep to get" says the blog, but grad student doesn't care. Grad student reads the shit out of it.

Little does the grad student know, there are comments! There's like 60 comments on the thread and while the grad student is reading the post and eating slightly moldy bread, ew, that's disgusting, there's all these comments to read.

Now the grad student is gonna zone out for a minute, just zone right out. Then it's gonna get right back up and polish off those Doritos someone left in the office. Like nothing happened. How disgusting.

And of course, what does the grad student have for lunch for the next two weeks?


The grad student.

The author would like to thank Dr. Becca for helpful feedback and for contributing text on mayonnaise

13 responses so far

Editorial redemption

Sep 23 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I was recently asked to review a manuscript by an international society-level journal. I have reviewed for, and published in, this journal on several occasions and feel a certain professional obligation towards this particular publication. That said, the quality of the manuscripts I review for them is highly variable, and I have gotten some real poop sandwiches over the years.

The manuscript I was most recently sent was closely related to work I did as a postdoc and bore directly on data I produced then. Based on the abstract I agreed to the review and almost immediately regretted doing so. The thing was a train wreck. The analysis and interpretation of the data were a disaster and the authors blatantly ignored several key pieces of relevant data*, despite citing the papers in the text. My review was not complimentary.

About a month later I was asked by the Associate Editor if I would be willing to review the revisions. I agreed, because it had to be better, no? Hahahaha. Well, they included the data, but the interpretation was still painfully contrived, leading to the same conclusions of the original draft. Once again, I made my opinion of the work clear.

Two weeks later I got an email saying the paper had been recommended for publication by the AE.

There are few things more frustrating than taking the time to do a comprehensive review and then being patted on the head as the AE ignores your objections. At that moment I decided I was taking a break from that journal. We needed a little time to sort through our differences.

A month has past and this week I got an email from a friend who has just taken over as Editor In Chief of the journal. The manuscript I had review was still on the table during the EIC transition and I was being contacted to sort out what was going on with the manuscript. The new EIC had read it and came to the same conclusions I had. Unable to determine why the AE had sent it forward I was asked if there was a step in the communication trail that the EIC was missing. Nope.

After a brief exchange, the new EIC rejected the paper.

I have no idea what the former EIC thought of this situation or the AE in charge of handling it, but knowing the new EIC is willing to directly address quality issues in a hands on way has restored my faith in this journal. Maybe even enough to dig out that old manuscript I have been meaning to send there for a few years...

*Yes, some were mine, but they really were relevant in more than just the "how could they ignore my important contribution!" sense.

7 responses so far

The "right" size for a lab

Sep 22 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

From time to time the topic of lab size comes up in the blog-o-verse, with as many opinions as readers. I've always viewed lab size as highly field-dependent, with both culture and funding levels playing significant roles. For that reason, I was interested on a passage I came across in a text book I am using for a class I am teaching.

The book "Scientific Integrity" is written by Francis Macrina, former Director of the Philips Institute of Oral and Craniofacial Molecular Biology at VCU and current VP of Research. Dr. Macrina is no stranger to NIH funding, with 10 R01s in RePORTER, as well as a number of other funded R-mechs and a P30. Page 44 (third edition) of the text falls in the chapter on "Mentoring", and Dr. Macrina writes the following advice for graduate students seeking a mentor:

There is a point of diminishing returns in the number of trainees who can be effectively mentored. When that threshold is crossed, the ability to responsibly guide trainees is compromised and the viability of the training experience is put in jeapordy

Notice that Dr. Macrina puts no "threshold value" on the table, but again, that is going to depend on many factors - not the least of which are the PI's ability to juggle responsibilities, interest in mentoring and lab training structure. One PI might be ill-advised to take on a dozen graduate students and no postdocs, for instance. But I do think the question of how effective a mentor can be as the lab group grows is an interesting point to consider.

The argument I often hear from those advocating large lab groups often revolves around establishing an effective lab hierarchy as a means to spread the mentoring burden and essentially an "economy of scale" approach to working on difficult problems. The first point embraces the "business model" of running a lab, where the pecking order determines access to the PI's time. Junior grad students report to senior ones, who report to postdocs, etc. The second point posits that by concentrating resources in one place, you maximize the potential of a lab to accomplish great things.

For discussion purposes, I'm more interested in the first point - mentoring in a large group. I don't think anyone would argue against the statement that trainees in a smaller lab, generally speaking, get more direct contact with the PI than those in larger labs. I'm sure there are anecdata out there where this is not the case, but I'm comfortable with the generality here. It's simply a case of the number of mouths to feed. So the question becomes, although a lab's productivity can be managed effectively using a hierarchy, is there also good mentoring happening in the trainee/PI relationship. That is to say, does the PI have the time to fulfill the mentoring commitment that a trainee has the right to expect, or must they settle for mentoring by proxy? And is that a decent substitute?

No doubt that more senior trainees get valuable experience mentoring junior ones, but they are learning to mentor as they go*, so there may be some first-pancake-syndrome. From the junior trainee standpoint, no one wants to be a guinea pig. Would you go to the dental school for a root canal? It may also be the cases that certain trainees have little interest in developing a mentoring relationship with those at the next level down. Also bear in mind that students signed up to work with Dr. HotShot and not her postdoc.

I'm sure there are numerous strategies that mitigate the issues that can pop up as the lab grows and maybe making do with a less-than-ideal mentoring situation is as good as it gets. There will also be huge variance in the number of people it takes to tip the balance between effective and ineffective mentoring, depending on the PI. Based on the work I do, I am unlikely to ever be in a position where this becomes a major issue, but mentoring (or lack there of) is a common conversation topic among large lab dwellers and it often makes me wonder whether they are getting what they bargained for.

Alright, commence telling me how naive I am...

*Although I think PIs are often learning more about mentoring all the time, there is also the benefit of experience.

8 responses so far

Et tu, Honey Badger? Et tu?

Sep 22 2011 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

Folks, kids books are sacred territory. A place where we learn about the world around us and to fear the woods. The are not vehicles for propagating lies, but apparently not everyone got that message. As Ed Yong recently revealed, the beloved story of the honey guide and the honey badger is completely false.

Damnit, Jan Brett. Where is your fact checking?

What. The. Hell? Do a search for kid's books on the honey badger and many books show up, all based on this mythical relationship. I've read the book pictured above countless times to my daughter and now how can I pull it off the shelf again? What other kid's books are lying to us?

Wait... everybody still poops, right? Right?

6 responses so far

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