Archive for: September, 2011

Strangely apt

Sep 21 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

This 2007 song is doing it for me this morning.

One response so far

Office napping

Sep 20 2011 Published by under [Et Al]

One pervasive academic stereotype is that of the napping professor behind closed office doors. I have to say that I have never purposely fallen asleep in my office (though accidentally, on rare occasion). I think this is more due to lacking a comfortable place to perform such activity, rather than a lack of desire to do so - especially over the last two months.

So how nap-affiliated is the academic set?

10 responses so far

Population, sperm donation and cheaters

The July 29 issue of Science had a special section (paywall) devoted to the changing global population dynamics that showed regional trends and predicted growth patterns over the next 10-15 years. It's a fairly fascinating (and semi-alarming) collection of articles and commentaries that is worth a read. As someone who has just added one more individual to the global population, I was particularly struck by a figure that reported the number of children that families in different areas of the world considered "ideal".

Obviously there are a lot of factors that play into this decision, but I was intrigued that even across Africa, the numbers ranged from 9.1 in Niger to 3 in Egypt. Whereas number from North America were not reported, both the US and Canada average 1.5-2.1 births per woman. It shouldn't be surprising then, that projections for population growth between 2010 and 2050 in North American (and both Europe and Latin America) are dwarfed by that of Africa (and Asia) by an order of magnitude. On average, North Americans just don't have a lot of kids.

But in nature, every system has cheaters - those who exploit the constraints that most in the population live by in order to carve out an advantage for themselves. This is why a pair of recent news stories about sperm donation caught my attention. Only a few years ago it was essentially impossible to trace the number of kids that a individual sperm donor produced. But on 2000 was founded, allowing people to self-identify as donors or children of donors. Although not a complete picture, what the site did show was the potentially enormous population-level effect of sperm donation. In one case, a currently anonymous donor has fathered at least 150 children who have signed onto the site and in another, a man who has allowed contact is now the father of at least 70 children from across the country by the age of 33. Two men, 220 children... and climbing.

Judging at least from the story on the man with 70 children, fathering that many kids was not something he anticipated. How could he? And while he has undoubtedly brought a lot of happiness to the women who could not otherwise conceive, I can't possibly imagine how that is going to complicate his life in the future. But at the same time, the evolutionary biologist in me has to marvel at the reproductive fitness of these guys. Not only are they acting under r selection, but they got paid $150 per donation*.

I am not versed in the pros and cons of sperm donation, nor is it something I would ever consider doing, but the potential for leaving one's genetic mark is slightly mind-blowing. Better become friends with your local post office Mr. Siesler, because that is a shit-load of birthday cards.

*Even a conservative estimate of 200 donations yields $30,000.

8 responses so far

Why is NSF so far behind NIH in social media interactions?

As most of my readers will know, my research focus leads me to spend more of my time honing my NSF-based granting experience than NIH. Whereas I have submitted to NIH and gotten decent feedback, the pool of study sections that would even read an application from my lab is exceedingly small. However, the fact that it is possible for me to send applications to NIH means that I have devoted some time to figuring that process out.

Where I have been really impressed with NIH is the agency's willingness to engage scientists outside of the traditional channels and in a dynamic manner. My first exposure to this was the NIGMS blog, in which (now former) NIGMS director, Jeremy Berg, often posted behind-the-scenes type data on the granting process, which was often fodder for posts by DM. Whereas the NIGMS blog has had fewer posts of that nature since Berg left, Sally Rockey has taken up the reigns from the Office of Extramural Research blog. Hell, the OER is even on twitter!

So the NIH is willing to get it's message out to the blogosphere and twits, providing some truly interesting data in the process. What's more, based on anecdata from this blog, NIH is engaged in reading the blogosphere as well. The "" designation is a regular domain in my site stats, and I rarely post on topics as central to the NIH mission as others. Bottom line, NIH is willing to listen to the unwashed masses and other n'er do wells.

So what about NSF? Well, NSF has a twitter account, but a quick perusal suggests that it simply posts the same things that go out in the email updates that everyone can sign up for (which are rarely illuminating, except when they drop a random bomb). If you want to narrow the scope of NSF tweets you receive, each program area has an account (BIO is here), but it's a battle of meh.

Blogs? It's not clear that NSF knows what they are. They are certainly not employing blogs as an information dissemination tool (that I am aware of, but please correct me if I am wrong), nor does there appear to be much interaction with the blogosphere. We are allowed this table that breaks the funding numbers down, but beyond that the well is dry. In fact, even the numbers published in that table are difficult to interpret because if the mix of "funded" grant types that end up in the various categories. In the panels I am most familiar with, the numbers posted do not remotely match the review summaries I have or the numbers from the PO.

So why is it that NSF has almost no online interaction with its constituency, while NIH appears to be taking this head-on? Time to pull back the curtain, NSF.

6 responses so far

Here's a concept: meeting times

Sep 13 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Dear undergraduate population,

Welcome back, I hope your summer was good. Judging from the flurry of emails I have gotten, many of you are ready to hit the ground running. There are also a LOT of you who have chosen one of the majors in our department this year. When y'all were divvied up, my share of the advisees was a career high 55. That's a bunch of you to keep tabs on and it seems that many of you want me to weigh in on your course plan. It's part of the job and I'll do my best to schedule you in.

But you're gonna have to meet me half way here. If we agree on a time to meet, it means that we are both free at that time. I often schedule my day around the meetings I have, and do what I can to take advantage of the longer stretches I have to get writing done. That NIH deadline is looming, yo.

So all I ask is that you actually show up at the time we discussed. Just because you are free earlier and I am in my office, it doesn't mean that it is a good idea to walk in like you are showing up at The Time We Agreed To. While I don't want to be an ass, there's a good chance I'm going to ask you to come back later. Like, at The Time We Agreed To. Because, ya know, it's The Time We Agreed To.

When in doubt, stick to the plan. There's probably a good reason I said I was busy earlier.


3 responses so far

REPOST: I wasn't ready

Sep 12 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In year two I had an excuse, this year it was just denial (and a new baby) that kept me from bracing myself. Much of this post still holds true, unfortunately. At least the picture does.

Last year the start of the semester was a blur. Everything was new and the onslaught of things to deal with when the semester started was all part of that. I had no point of comparison, so I was ready for anything. Plus, everyone pretty much left me alone to set up my new lab. I was the new guy muttering to himself in a mostly empty room.

As the year wore on I picked up responsibilities gradually and layered them on my workload. The lab also gradually got going and each step was new success. By the time summer rolled around, things were going pretty well and I was getting ready to do a bunch of traveling. Summer was good. Lots of work got done and I finally started feeling like I knew what the hell I am doing in this job. I had the people and procedures figured out and even felt like I could stay on top of the literature without having to do it at night.

Then the summer ended.

I should have been better prepared, but I wasn't. Everything rushed in like a freight train and I saw my precious time dragged down by a feeding frenzy of obligations. Suddenly there are meetings about other meetings. I'm lucky if I get a couple of hours here or there where I can think about the work that I have to get done for me and not for everyone else who needs something. I did not plan well for the transition from summer to semester and now I'm being feasted upon.

3 responses so far

Billboard or petri dish?

Sep 09 2011 Published by under [Information&Communication]

Everyone likes a good pandemic movie, right? At least Hollywood likes to replay this plot over and over again. While I'm not much for the viral-wipe-out movies, I have to hand it to Warner Brothers for their marketing campaign for Contagion. This idea was a pretty good one.

6 responses so far

Is that a trophy tie?

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

Yesterday I was making a half-assed attempt to clean my office a bit before the new academic year and for some reason the tie on my coat rack caught my attention. There's no reason it should have, since it has been in that same spot ever since I moved into this office, but the fact that it has not been touched was part of why I noticed it.

I am not some one who dresses up much. I'll do it when I have to and not look like your 18-year-old cousin wearing his dad's clothes, but ties and I have never really seen eye to eye. Trying to figure out if that was part of the allure of a career in academia or if that career path led me to my tie-distain is a bit of a chicken and egg issue not really worth pursuing, however, the fact that I once thought it would be a good idea to keep a tie in my office is mildly amusing. I mean, how often are you surprised by a high-level meeting with people in suits where jeans and a button down shirt would be deemed insufficient? My guess is that if I ever am in that position, my wardrobe will be the least of my concerns.

Eying that tie sitting around made me wonder if I don't keep it there to subtly remind myself that I don't have to wear one. That for as much as this job can be overwhelming and frustrating, there is also a lot to like - part of which is that no one cares what I wear to work, as long as I have pants on.

Am I the only one with languishing clothing artifacts in my office, or do other people actually use the "dress up" items they adorn their space with?

13 responses so far

Hahaha..... oohhhhhh.

Sep 07 2011 Published by under [Life Trajectories]

Thanks XKCD

2 responses so far

Dear new grad students: One tired prof's perspective

Sep 07 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

The new semester is bearing down and with it a bunch of bright-eyed grad students have come to campus To Do Science. I am happy for these new students and am genuinely excited to get to know them.


There's a few mistakes that one or two will make right away that always leaves the non-n00bs shaking their heads. With that in mind, a couple of do's and don'ts for the newly fledged.

Do's (Almost all of these can be figured out online or in a quick conversation with grad students who have been around for a year or more. It may also be covered in your orientation.)

- Figure out the structure of your program a bit and who you need to talk to with certain questions. Who is the Grad Director? Who is the Chair? Who are the key Admin Staff? What types of questions should be directed where?

- If you're in a rotation system, figure out how it works.

- If you are not, get a feel for the structure of the lab you just entered. Who are the people most related to your project? Is there a postdoc you can talk to when you are stuck? Which students will show you "the ropes".

- Read.

- Are there required classes for your program? If so, get signed up. If not, how many course credits do you need and which classes are the best for your area?

- Get to know your cohort.

- Read.


It is important to realize that your priorities may not be immediately aligned with those around you. This is not undergrad anymore, things are going to be different.

- Don't email busy people on a holiday weekend with the subject line "URGENT" unless you are trying to find the MSDS for a chemical you just drank or spilled on you.

- Don't request permission numbers for the wrong class. Twice.

- Don't expect an immediate response from people on non-urgent issues. And even then, don't get your hopes up or email again after 20 minutes has passed.

- Professors are not the only people who know How Things Work. Don't go to them for every minor question.

- Finally, don't assume that professors live at the university and work 24/7. Many of us* have lives and other things going on. Our personal lives can affect how we approach our job, even if those things are hidden from your knowledge. Take it from someone who hasn't had more than 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep in four weeks, sometimes we're cranky for reason unrelated to you. Don't take it personally.

Generally, it'll take you some time to settle in, but don't expect that you're going to walk in and start running on day one. Get to know your surroundings and the people who can help make your transition easier. A well-run lab has a hierarchy of support and assistance which is there to make sure you have the tools and knowledge you need to succeed, but it's up to you get up to speed.

Now get reading.

* Though not all.

22 responses so far

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