Presents for this Season

(by potnia theron) Dec 12 2017

Yes, there are little ones and loved ones and old ones who giving even just a little something to will make a huge difference in their life. And, for them, nobody else will.

But, there are other kids with great needs. We all talk the talk about the tax bill, etc.

I challenge to walk the walk and make a difference.

There are many lists of worthy places. Nicholas Kristof always has good ideas. Here's a bit about how to donate effectively (although I don't agree with all of it). Here's a link to his annual giving column.

And here's one of my favorites (h/t @drugmonkeyblog): Donor's Choice. It is a clearinghouse of projects for schoolkids. You can pick an area, you pick high risk or urgent projects. You can pick science or government or phys ed. The requests are itemized to what the teacher needs. You give money, and Donor's Choice fulfills the order and sends it to the school & teacher directly. They are committed to transparency and integrity. They are Good People.

And here's the picture of all the thankyou notes I got, taped up on my office door.


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Words of wisdom of the day

(by potnia theron) Dec 06 2017

Colleague One works on bone strength and growth. Has a notebook labeled "Moment of Inertia"

Colleague Two seeing notebook: You have moments of inertia. I have a lifetime.

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Everytime I hear Carmina Burana: O Fortuna

(by potnia theron) Dec 05 2017

I think of this:

Now you will too.

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From FASEB, links to calling Congress about tuition waivers

(by potnia theron) Dec 05 2017

Dear Colleague:

Congress is working quickly to pass tax legislation. The bill (HR 1) approved by the House of Representatives makes tuition waivers for graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants taxable income. This will increase tax burden for current students and may discourage others from pursuing a PhD. The Senate bill does not tax graduate student tuition waivers. As the House and Senate negotiate final language, they need to hear from graduate students and the research community to ensure that the final bill does not include the tuition waiver tax. Please click here to email your Senators/Representative TODAY. Suggested text is provided but you should include a personal appeal about how taxing graduate student tuition waivers would affect you or your institution. Please also share this alert with your graduate students and other faculty members.


Tom Baldwin
FASEB President




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Things that have improved in (my) life

(by potnia theron) Dec 04 2017

No smoking almost everywhere. (people used to smoke in restaurants and airplanes and stores).

Brewed decalf coffee (although I am coming to question the wisdom of decalf anything, still powdered nescafe just sucks and has little relationship to any flavored beverage).

That I can lecture in comfortable pants and flat shoes. I am lecturing this morning, and was remembering when I first started teaching, that one (if one was a woman) wore heels and stockings and a Nice Outfit. Men wore ties and suit coats. I am guessing men's shoes weren't quite so uncomfortable, but they sure as heck weren't sneakers. And, students frequently judged on how one looked. Not that student evaluations were taken seriously in those days (yet another sub-improvement in the world).

No, not everything is better. And right now many things seem worse, and that makes this list seem a little trivial. There are many things wrong in our world. We need to work towards fixing them. But, sometimes, right now for me, taking a moment to appreciate the little things makes dealing with The Big Things easier.   Amongst the (to the world, but not me) little things: I am well loved by several people, they forgive me for my screw-ups, and will hold me when I feel the world is really dark. Thank you, my friends and lovers. Thank you.


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Visiting other places

(by potnia theron) Nov 30 2017

A few weeks ago I went to visit another place. I gave a talk, and sat on a student's committee. It was a great place, and it seemed to be very lively and interesting and in general some place that would be a good home. I had to remind myself that of course, I was seeing this place at its best. And when people visit my home department, they say the exact same thing. Context is important.


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Tensions in teaching

(by potnia theron) Nov 29 2017

I love teaching. Actually, I used to love teaching more than I love it now. I love teaching best when I am prepared and I know the stuff and I can answer the questions that students ask. Right now, I've got a lot of teaching going on. And I mostly love it.

But, I don't and haven 't always loved teaching. I've had classes with a bad aura/personality/whatever. I once, back in an A&S dept, taught biology for non-majors. They had broken up the 1000 person class into three sections. My  wonderful wonderful friend Tom and I were supposed to teach one section each. It was third quarter (back when there were quarters). We decided to split it into I do five weeks, he does five weeks, and we'd each do the two sections. That was not the problem. The problem was that about 1/3 of the students were pre-nursing (and did not have to take majors first year biology). They only did 2 quarters, and got to drop the the third, which was evolution and diversity and ecology. So the class had been 3 sections and now was down to two, hence only two of us.

Do not argue with me about that: I did not make those decisions, changes in sections, what nursing students did and did not have to do, and how many faculty taught. I did not set up the class, and in fact, organization was a nightmare of about 10 faculty involved in the teaching with the view decisions should be made and things should be done by consensus.

After dropping the third section, it turned out that there were about 50 students in the "prenursing" section who weren't nursing students. They shouldn't have been there, but they were. At that point they objected to the administration about their section disappearing, and how they couldn't possibly fit the other sections in their schedule. The college administration mandated the department to maintain that section. So, my friend Tom and I each did three sections for five weeks. That was a burden, but not the problem. Or The Problem. The guys who did the pre-nurse section for the fall and winter quarters were. They considered themselves mavericks.

If you hate boomers, you would really hate these jerks at the boomer/silent generation boundry. They were going to (and they used these words) "stick it to the man" These are white guys. Middle class guys, who worked for 3-4 hours a day whether they had to or not. No grants, no publications, but hordes of young female students trailing them everywhere. Nearly everybody got A's from them. Their version of "stickiing it", in this case, to protest having to do something so below their dignity as teach these sections, was to chose another text from different from the one used by the rest of the class. The remainder of the hippy-dippy faculty "protested this breaking of consensus, but to no avail. Everyone had "right" on their side.  Unfortunately the functional problem was that their text did not have a section on evolution, and the ecology part was not great.

So, I had the marvelous experience of telling these students that their textbook did not cover the material this term. They wouldn't be required to buy that text, but they would be tested on that material. There was immediate and unrelenting hate of me. Some of it was misogyonist (it was many years ago), so of it was young jerks trying to be clever. I would think: I am a rock of granite and this river flows around me. If self control was a muscle, I got a great workout, three times a week for five weeks. I actually found the two other sections, one of 400 and one of 250 students to be far easier to teach. All I remember of the other section was the dark room, and unrelenting desire to reach the end of my share of the term.

Sometimes when I get up to lecture medical students, first year medical students, and lecture at the end of their first term in medical school I am reminded of that long-ago class. The sparkle of getting into medical school is gone. For the folks who really want to be clinicians, the jump from endless book learning to working with people seems very large at this time. All of us are tired. Yet as one of my wise colleagues says: this is our core mission. We like the research, and even generate the money for the research, but teaching medical students is our core mission. Everything else at the school can disappear: HR, IT, the gym, the counselors, the layers and layers of administrators. In the end: teaching is the core.

Yes, all the other stuff is necessary, and makes the core go better. And these students are first and foremost people, with all the attendant chazerai that all people carry with them. Some of them will get it, and others will take longer. Some will get what I'm trying to do, and others won't. That's life. I need to focus on the core of what I do. And, so, its time to go lecture.

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Thoughts on phd-postdoc-faculty transition.

(by potnia theron) Nov 28 2017

I was looking through the "unpublished draft bin" of this blog, and found something interesting. Its a good story, with a good outcome/update. The original title was: (one of) The real tragedy(s) of the phd-postdoc transition. But that doesn't work any more.

Here's the first part, written Sept 2014

This is directed to be who are doing more "little" science. This is not about the people finding postdocs in Honking Big Labs. This is more about people who are not on the NIH track. People who look to NSF for funding. Ecologists (in the scientific sense, not the public perception of pollution sense), systematic biologists, evolutionary biologists, organismal scientists, botanists, comparative systems biologists, paleontologists.

In the Olden Days, people like this got jobs right after their PhDs. They taught their way through grad school, so they knew how. They wrote NSF DIGs, or Leaky Foundation grants, and had already done the PI-thing. And the rejection-thing, too. Their theses were multiple single-authored papers. By and large there were no postdocs for these people. There wasn't money to pay them. And, yes, jobs were very competitive. There were no adjuncts in those days, and a significant portion of my PhD cohort left the field.

Now, that's just not possible - to get a tenure-track job right out a PhD program for most folks like this. Some scramble and come over to the dark side (NIH-funded work). Some places have set up post-doc programs, with some teaching, and some research, and some space to grow for people in these areas.

Here is the tragedy. Let's put it in terms of Emily. Emily is defending her PhD in the next few weeks. Her mentor is an old friend of mine, but a very old-fashioned field biologist. A very old-fashioned descriptive field biologist. He has trained hordes of incredibly successful students. Emily was marginally interested in something I did years ago, and I had some old (raw) data that had never been published. We worked it up, and got a good paper (she's first on it) in a solid organismal journal. She's got about 5 first authored papers.

Emily hasn't had time to write her own postdoc grant, because she's been finishing her PhD. She got a 6 month teaching appointment, but things are looking grim. Not sure what will happen. If a postdoc is not in a big lab, with lots of projects and funding, you have to scramble to find your own money, and its damn hard to do that while you are writing up your thesis. There are not lots of positions, either as postdocs or as profs, for the Emilys of this world. I don't know the numbers: whether the percentages are different for the organismic biologists vs. the NIH-funded/health relevance postdocs coming out of the big-mega-labs.


OK: back to 2017:

What happened to Emily? As her teaching money was running out, she was contacted by a very new, very good, very scientifically glamorous young faculty who had seed money for about a year of postdoc. I suppose this is the professional equivalent of a hailmary pass. Emily jumped on it. We talked about it as being risky but high potential reward. It was a chance to learn new things, and do a postdoc in a Major Department with the brightest young up&coming in the field.

This was just avoiding the problem of writing a postdoc proposal at the same time one is writing a PhD thesis. It is not common in organismic/non-medical types of research. Emily was both good and lucky.

The position proved to be a good intellectual match. She did lots of good work, got more publications out, and thrived. While there, she developed an idea that was the brilliant offspring of her thesis work and one part of the program of Dr. BrightYoungFaculty. It was funded by NSF first time through, and paid for another 2 years of PD for Emily. Of course, since she was a postdoc Dr. BYF is the PI, and Emily doesn't really get credit for it, despite writing. It's not so much someone stealing your best beloved baby, as not getting credit. This is a touchy area, and worthy of more consideration, but not today. In this case, Dr. BYF is good, and supportive, but still neurotic obsessed focused on concerned about her own tenure issues as much as she is about Emily's future. I imagine that Dr. BYF is thinking that Emily got a job and some pubs and that is appropriate. Sufficient?

Emily applied for jobs last year, and got one job offer, but it had some issues (like expectations that all seed money would be paid back in 3 years through grant overhead), and she turned it down to finish up the postdoc. She's applying again, and I've got all paired appendages crossed for her. She's philosophical about the ups and downs of the postdoc, and perceives the advantages. It is a very mature response, and one that lets her move on, do good work and not get stuck in recriminations and self-recriminations. I'm writing letters for her again, so I'm going to find out what happens in the next chapter.


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A few thoughts on elderly parents (part 3): Dali Lama edition

(by potnia theron) Nov 27 2017

The Dali Lama said to live one's life without regrets. I've always loved that, because it has multiple meanings. Firstly, don't do the things you are going to regret later. Try to live, right now, in the way you wont regret. Think before you act. But also, once you have done thel iving, stop regretting. Move forward. Can't change the past and all that.

And that is fine advice for interactions with aging parents or other rellies.

I was in New York for TG, to visit family, with, alas, no time for friends. But I did make time to visit my aging aunt, one of my father's two surviving sisters. She is in her early 90s, and frail. She wants to do things for me (make lunch, give me ice cream) and it is painful to watch, both because it is so hard for her, and she wants so much to give me things. I finally did reach out, take her hand, and say "Aunt Bas, I love you, just sit down and talk to me. Tell me stories about your mother, my grandmother, and all the family I never knew".

I started visiting her a while ago, when another cousin Amy, with whom I have stayed in touch, urged me to do this when I visit NY. I hadn't seen this aunt in over 50 years, as she and my father were not close. But I try and go regularly and send her letters (phone calls are hard given her deafness, and Skype is out of the question). For my part, I want to help her. Her apartment is a disaster. Not hoarder status, but piles of boxes and old NYTimes everywhere. She said her bills are a mess. I want to sit down and sort them out for her. But she has an adult daughter, Evie, my age, who comes and helps her. My aunt complains about what her daughter doesn't have time for. But, I suspect this is a case of everyone being the hero of their own story. If I was that daughter, and some other relative wanted to step in and help, I'd tell them to get lost. I want to help, but I do not know what I can do, other than visit when I can, and even when its difficult for me to do. I will call my cousin Evie, who I don't really know and I haven't seen since we were kids (which is that same 50 years ago).

I ask myself, now, what would I regret here? I would regret causing any pain to my cousin, Evie, my Aunt's daughter. Her road is plenty challenging as is. I would regret not learning more from my Aunt Bas. She is really the last link I have to their generation. My parents lived in New York when they were young. My mother went to Hunter College. She lived at the 92nd St Y. I do not know much more about their life their, other then a few apocryphal stories about how they met. And that my father introduced Aunt Bas to her future husband. But, my parents, what did they do? Where did they go? What was their New York? I will never know, and I try not to regret not knowing.

So, I will be respectful of my cousin, who is probably in the horrible place I've talked about so many times. And I will visit my aunt, and love her, and see my father in her face and her words and her mannerisms. And I will not regret.


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Even More grant advice... tables & figs

(by potnia theron) Nov 26 2017

One of the things I have always maintained is that one reason old people get less done is not exhaustion, although that happens. It is that vision starts to go to hell in a handbasket. Can you say presbyopia? Reading glasses? argh.

So... my young followers, do not make small tables with 6pt font. I cannot read them. I will resent having  to work extra hard, and strain my eyes to see your table/figure because you are so hell bent on packing stuff into your proposal that there is no room for this critical figure except to be read with a magnifying device (be it analog and handheld, or digital on the computer). Let me add that the worst is when I blow up your figure on my computer and it looks like it was done with crayons.

One guideline for using figures is when the words it takes to explain the image take up more space than the image. Sometimes you need the raw data to prove you can do it. But sometimes you can describe a figure, succinctly and you are wasting space with it. Some diagrams help explain the design, the equipment, a particular relationship. But lots of time they don't. Get someone else to look at those beloved babies of yours and give you some honest feedback.

I've never ever seen a Specific Aims that was improved by including a figure. It may exist. It may be your proposal. But what does need to be in the SA is sufficiently dense and important, that taking the space for a figure, a graph or a table on that page usually is not a good idea. And for heaven's sake, do not put in a quasi-table of definitions. There should not be 10 or even 5 things you need to define in your SA's. If there is one use a clause such as: Bunny Transfiguration, a developmental change that occurs at 6 months of age, turns tadpole bunnies into fully hopping creatures.

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