Archive for: May, 2013

Donors Choose end of the year challenge

For a couple of years the science blogging community has been working with Donors Choose to fund raise for schools around the country. These projects include a wide range of basic to specialized equipment that teachers need to improve the classroom experience for their students. Donors Choose has arranged to double the contributions (up to $100 per donation) of donors to the Scientopia giving page between now and June 7th, up to $25000. All you need to do is enter the promo Match Code "SCIENTOPIA" at check out and you will double your impact!

Let's take advantage of this opportunity! You can either follow the link above or use the Donors Choose banner to the right. Either way, the goal is to get some of these projects funded!

2 responses so far

Reader Poll: what's that junk in your trunk?

May 22 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

I'm guessing you can tell a lot about someone by what inhabits the back of their car. At the moment I have the following in my trunk:

2 pairs of rubber boots
1 pair of gloves
2 towels
4 reusable grocery bags that haven't seen the inside of a store in some time
makeshift first aid kit
child's hoodie
emergency diaper and change of clothes for a toddler
small shovel

I'm guessing that others might have a similarly mixed bag of goodies. What objects do you drive around town?

18 responses so far

The elephant in the room

May 21 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

A comment from Emilio Bruna last weeks's post encapsulates a mentality that is common in review recipients, manuscript or proposal.

I actually think a much bigger reason a (pre)proposal might not make it through in one year or panel when it would in a different one is the luck of the draw wrt the three people reviewing it. No one who is an expert in your subdiscipline? Trouble.

Anyone who has ever served in the role of presiding over the review process will recognize this sentiment well. Having had to bite my tongue as authors complained about non-specialist reviewers when I had sent their manuscript out to one or more of their suggested reviewers, I can only imagine the calls POs receive.

But here's the question: Why are you writing a proposal for people in your subdiscipline? This is doubly pertinent at the preproposal stage, where only panel members read the proposals. As a panelist I have often read proposals outside my wheelhouse, but some of those have been among mine and the panel's highest rated proposals. Why? Because if you're writing for you subdiscipline, you're doing it wrong.

24 responses so far

Twitter in the classroom?

May 19 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Now that the semester is done I always find it useful to jot a few notes down for my January 2014 self who will be stressing about getting this class together again just after the NSF deadline. I took a slightly different teaching approach this year, incorporating ideas like Think - Pair - Share and the use of clickers. In the end, I didn't find the clickers as useful as I thought I would. I'm not sure that I would ask the students to spend the money on them in the future. The TPS worked well, however, and I may expand it's use going forward.

One thing I experimented with was using Twitter in the class. I did so on a limited basis, but largely found it useful. I'm hoping to use it more next spring, even holding virtual office hours via twitter. There's a considerable number of blog posts out there on classroom twitter, but obviously not every approach is going to work in every class. My plan is the following, but I would be happy to hear other suggestions.

1) Have times where I am available to discuss class concepts via twitter. I'm not sure whether it's me or the general faculty/student interactions here, but if I have one student show up during office hours all semester, it's surprising. My hope is that I can encourage interaction and discussion over twitter, and that might even lead to more face-to-face time once the students feel realize I'm available to talk.

2) Make non-essential class announcements, like who is going to be presenting on a given day, reminders about certain labs that they need to be prepared for.

3) RT science links related to the class. A large part of my motivation for doing this is to get the students more broadly involved in the community of science. If I can get them to check out a few links, all the better.

4) Assign them to find at least 5 scientist or science writers to follow. Why do all the work myself?

5) Tweet example exam questions.

6) Ask questions that need to be answered in a single tweet, requiring succinct explanations. Maybe that'll cut down on the knowledge barfing on many exam questions, but it'll make them think about word use, for sure.

I'm sure additional ways to interact will come from this exercise, but this is a start. I'm hoping that it will not only encourage the students to interact more, but it'll break down some of the barriers that seem to exist from one side of the podium to the other.

8 responses so far

On review repetition

May 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

One of the biggest concerns I hear about NSF review is that reviews vary from one panel to the next. People who get good scores in one round and just miss funding scream bloody murder when their proposals doesn't score as well in the next round.

"Damn inconsistent panels! Last year they loved it and this year they don't know their ass from their elbow!"

But what if that's a feature, not a bug?

People always interpret their changing fortune in the light of the lower ranking being attributable to a panel that didn't get it. The alternate hypothesis, however, is that the higher ranking panel didn't get it and the second panel recognized a fatal flaw.

I've had a co-reviewed proposal that fell in exactly this situation, but it was the same proposal read by independent bodies, one in IOS and one in DEB. One of the panels loved it and the other was more cautious. It was ranked as "high priority" and "low priority", respectively and the POs involved decided to give us time to respond (i.e. it wasn't funded). I was upset at the time, because clearly the second panel was a group of fecal-tossing, vissionless, bucket-hat wearing ignorami.

So we went after the data they wanted. Hard. And we couldn't nail it down. Why? Because the key piece of data was flawed, and for a variety of reasons, we were not in a position to reveal that before the first submission.

Now, did we use the same data we produced to follow up something just as awesome? Of course. And it turned out incredibly well. But the foundation of the original proposal was flawed and one panel saw it and the other only saw the promise.

Something to chew on when considering anecdata about the variability of the NSF review process.

18 responses so far

You might be deadwood if...

May 16 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Terry, over at SmallPondScience, has a post up about the misuse of the term "deadwood" and how many who are labeled as such are still deadicated to their jobs, but have inadvertently drifted away from what we consider productive colleagues. These colleagues have become driftwood.

You might be driftwood if your teaching relies on concepts that date back to your grad school days more than what you’ve learned since then.

You might be driftwood if you have trouble publishing an article because no solid journal thinks that the topic is important.

You might be driftwood if you are uncomfortable telling your students “I don’t know” because you fear that you are supposed to know.

You might be driftwood if you’re avoiding a specific research agenda not because you lack the tools but because you lack the information.

You might be driftwood if you find yourself disagreeing with most of the junior faculty about research standards or contemporary teaching approaches.

You might be driftwood if you rely on skills you learned in grad school that aren’t being taught in grad school anymore.

I am not the type of person who thinks productivity is strictly based on publications and grant money. I think PIs who give up the grant game and take on other departmental responsibilities are critical to a well functioning department that values education. If one of my less research active colleagues steps up to teach a course that a well funded colleague needs to move out of to maintain their research load, I believe that's a good departmental model. But that's not always how it works, is it?

While I think Terry's assessment might be true for his experiences, I don't think it is universal. Nor are mine of course, but across several research-centric institutions I have witnessed some fairly blatant abuse of tenure privileges. I've certainly seen people who could be described as "mailing it in", but I doubted they would take the time to find a stamp*. To me, those deserving of the deadwood label put no effort into any aspect of their job and cause students to file complaints on a regular basis. While I agree with Terry that there are fewer of these people than legend would lead one to believe, they are not "rare".

So allow me to get the ball rolling:

You might be deadwood if you spend more time on your various litigious activities against the university than any scholarly pursuit.

You might be deadwood if your vacation schedule mirrors that of the undergrads.

You might be deadwood if you haven't updated a lecture, submitted a manuscript or proposal since 19somethingorother.

You might be deadwood if people wonder aloud whether your office is still occupied.

You might be deadwood if you fiercely defend your lab space that hasn't been entered in many years.

You might be deadwood if you haven't had money for research since the first Bush administration, but fight to take on graduate students every year.

You might be deadwood if you accept service responsibilities (under pressure from above) and then never perform that function.

I'm sure readers will have some other definitions.

*While "emailing it in" might be more appropriate to the effort level, it's not clear if these folks know how their email works or even check it if they did.

5 responses so far

Happy 80% day!

May 15 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Today is the day there will be a collective groan across the land of NSF Bio. Roughly 80% of y'all who submitted preproposals to either DEB or IOS divisions will know by the end of the day (directly or indirectly) that you'll not be planning a full proposal for August, but a rewritten January 2014 preproposal. Many of you, myself included, already have that news.

I have to say that my attitude on the preproposals has changed as I have been more involved in the process. I'll admit right off the bat that having funding and not hitting the preproposal process as my introduction to NSF likely plays an enormous role in my reflections on the changes. I am sure I would be terrified as a new PI in the system or if I was facing a >year funding gap. No doubt I will down the road.

However, my experience has been that getting papers written has been incredibly difficult while churning 2-3 full grant applications twice a year. On top of teaching. On top of travel. On top of seeing my family once in a while. One thing the preproposals do is prevent people from sinking a ton of time into a proposal that is not ready for Prime Time. Little consolation, I know, but it's depressing to look at the trail of dead proposals I've left in my wake.

What does leave me uncomfortable is that every crucified proposal is a learning experience. Not only is it giving new PIs grantsmitting chops, it helps to learn How Things Work. For me, this was rather critical experience that I continue to learn from.

So, what is the solution for the new peeps? You're going to have to get feedback informally and from a bunch of people. Find someone who has been on the panel you're submitting to or at least a related panel. Swallow your pride and listen to the feedback you're getting. You may have a brilliant idea, but maybe you're writing to the wrong audience. Maybe the pitch is all wrong.

Oh, and get your ass on a panel.

27 responses so far

Time to hire

May 13 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

More of a polling question today: How long does it take you to hire an employee on grant funds?

At my institution, hiring of different positions go through very different processes. Postdocs? Easy. Technicians? Good luck. Having started the process in March to hire someone in late May, I am facing the very distinct possibility of having to delay the hire because the position has not yet made it through the system. Surely other universities can manage to hire soft money limited positions in less than two months?

12 responses so far

Like it or not, you're in sales

May 09 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It always fascinates me to get different opinion of how this career works. It's part of my interest in blogging and why I find the NIH crowd worth watching. But one thing that unites scientists is the need to sell their ideas. Without being able to pitch your research plan to an audience (whoever has the money) and convince them that you have a worthy investment, you aren't going to be able to continue to do science. Whether you are going for crowd-sourced money, an institutional grant for $10,000 or an R01, your job depends on getting other people excited about what you are proposing to do.

That is part of why it has been so painful to watch the public journeyman science exploits of Ethan Perlstein. In a twitter exchange yesterday, it became clear that not everyone agrees with this. But whether your audience knows the same literature as you should not be the deciding factor as to whether or not your proposal is understandable. And no, this is not ancillary to the science, it's critical if you want to DO the science. These are fundamental aspects of grantsmithing and finding ways to keep a lab funded.

I hear people say, all the time, that so-and-so only got the money because they can sell their work. It is usually said with at least a subtle air of "my science is better, but they're smoother". The reality is that selling the ideas is critical to doing the science. Whether you are trying to get money from the federal government, industry or private donation, you still need to get people interested! Part of that is establishing feasibility based on what you have done, demonstrating you're on to something and making a case that the result is going to be AWESOME. If your response to any question of the work is either "well if YOU knew the literature like I do, you wouldn't ask such a stupid question!" or "Clearly you can't see the brilliance of my work because you're too vested in the current dogma." then you are biting the hand that feeds. Maybe BSD graybeards can pull that off, but it's no way to get established.

I'm not trying to pile on while there is an on-going discussion about the research involved, but if you can't sell an idea in plain language to your target audience you are not going to make a go of this. The sooner one recognizes the simplicity of this point, the better off they're going to be.

Oh, and it also doesn't help if you keep publicly bashing whole fields that review your work.

20 responses so far

Every child....

May 07 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Exponentially increases the probability that one will be sent home from school/day care when you have a heap of shit to do.

4 responses so far

Older posts »