The ego blows that are NIH reviews

(by potnia theron) Oct 21 2016

Recently on the tweets:

I wish to be fair to Sean, who is thoughtful and was trying to make a specific point:


@pottytheron I really am not talking about her score, or the outcome.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016



@pottytheron no, and to be clear, I'm not complaining about outcome. I don't think those *particular* critiques are good for the NIH system.

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016


The NIH process favors large laboratories. Solo theoreticians have a rough time. But we need theoreticians too. @drugmonkeyblog

— Sean Eddy (@cryptogenomicon) October 20, 2016

Sean felt that these reviews discouraged, significantly discouraged to the point of leaving science, a promising young scientist. He said that these reviews were another straw on the camel's back.

I do not know the person to whom Sean refers, and can't even take a guess at who it might be. But I've seen this story many times. Heck, I've been part of it on both sides. I've given what I thought was a fair review that probably wounded some young scientist to their very core. I remember when I was that scientist. Truly, even in those golden olde dayes, there were NIH rejections, and some of them had unpleasant comments that were a bit beside the point. And a critique to my mother, in the 70's or 80's: Why should we study heart disease in women, since we know how it works in men. This would be a waste of funding. Ah, there has been some progress.

My response here, longer than a tweet is twofold:

First, the substantive claim: that NIH does not care about "small science" or solo-practitioners or small-dogs.  This is just blatantly not true, as much as NIH can be said to "care" about anything. NIH may not prioritize theoretical or small lab, but it does not penalize for it either. I don't have DataHound's data on this, but I have always been small, and I've mentored people who stayed small (one trainee at a time, no tech). They get funded. They do. NIH does support theoretical work. I know theoreticians with funding.  But they publish, even if most of their papers are single -authored. Yes you publish less when you do not have an army generating data for you. But probably one paper every other year is not sufficient, no matter what your science. Please don't tell me about the snowflake nature that makes more than 1 paper every other year impossible. Shades of Maria. It may be wrong. It may be cruel. It may not promote the best science and research. BUT... if you want to survive, get tenure and be part of this world, you must publish.

Second, the response of a junior person to rejection and review comments that range from cruel and hard to silly and stupid. It happens. I would love for this to be a world where we all sing Kumbaya all the time. But its not. Expecting the world to take care of someone's ego is not a good strategy. Sometimes those comments are not meant, delivered or in reality as ugly or nasty as they are perceived. My unvarnished truth (for example, "concerns exist that with this level of productivity, this PI may not be successful if funded") may be your hurtful ad hominem ("I am publishing as much as I possibly can"). Your blisteringly obvious hypothesis is totally opaque to me. Everyone hates peer-review, but damned if I can think of a better system that would be less biased, less idiosyncratic, and produce less garbage at the end.

Everybody gets rejected. Everybody. Again, the world is far from perfect, but if you want to give up after your first rejection, you are not going make it. Your first grant rejection is nothing compared to what is coming your way.


3 responses so far

Friendship and a death grip on truth

(by potnia theron) Oct 21 2016

Again, a post written two weeks ago, only now being posted:


A friend of mine, years ago, going through a divorce from their (very liberal, right-thinking) ministerial spouse, once mused that while the spouse loved humanity, it was people in specific that this spouse could not stand.

I reminded of this as I watch the (near-adult) child of a dear friend go through hell. This child, who I have known for years, is a good person. But this good person did something wrong. There was (minor) injury to another.  But the child's community of peers has judged, and found this near-adult child wrong. The situation has a lot of she-said/she-said, and it is not clear where the exact truth lies.  Yet, the peers of this child have piled on, saying things like "I cannot possibly be friends with someone who has done what you have done" and "until you admit your sins, and truly repent,  I can only turn you into the police". (note this was not a police-actionable deed, and let me add that race was not an issue). There was much public shaming and harassment and the near-adult child is devastated and left college

I am sad that these young people, the friends of the child, the lover of the child,  have drawn this line so stringently, so harshly. No peer has stopped and asked to hear the child's side of the story. The lover of the child has said "I need to let you go so we both can move on". No peer has said "yes, this was bad, but I love you anyway".

The question of when you forgive someone, when your love and relationship is more important than a single deed, is not necessarily black and white. There are things one may not or  cannot forgive: rape, murder, torture. But smaller transgressions? There needs to be room for a person to say "I did this wrong thing, and I am sorry" in the company of friend who will say "I love you, especially for saying this". Part of the problem comes where you draw the line between unforgiveable and forgivable. Young people, in my perception, often have more trouble with that line.

If I have learned anything, walking this earth for as long as I have, it is that I can be wrong. That my judgements, my clear-eyed views of the truth are often more cloudy than I know, at the time, even now. That sometimes caring for a person, even a person with a history of not caring for you, is not just an objective good thing, but something that makes me better in more ways than I know.

My hope is that these young people, years from now, maybe only months, will look back, if not in shame, at least in a larger understanding of their standards for love and friendship and support. My hope is that the young person, the child, will not be so injured as to turn around and do this to others.

S'hana Tovah, to my Jewish brothers and sisters, to my brothers and sisters of all faiths, and to my brothers and sisters who profess no (organized or otherwise) faith. May everyone have a friend that stands by you in time of need.

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Repost: What do you own?

(by potnia theron) Oct 20 2016

One of the most important things one does is write letters of recommendation. They may not get read. They might be ignored. But then again, they might not. One of my favorite old posts is "What do you own?" So, I'm putting up here, as a starting point for thinking about writing letters for others:


What do you own?

When you are a grad student you own your thesis. period. Maybe you are lucky and have an undergrad who is helping you with some of the tedious pars). And while you may care about the undergrad, you don’t own their success or failure.

When you become a postdoc you own the project. Maybe you own part of a grad student’s career – because what happens to them reflects back on you in ways that the work of an undergrad doesn’t.

When you become a TT person (or sometimes, in some very big labs, a senior postdoc fellow, who is figuring out a non-TT career), you own the lab or your part of the lab. You all of a sudden own the careers of a technician, and any trainees you’ve got. What they do reflects on you. And what’s more you own your career, in a way that wasn’t really so obvious when you were a postdoc and you just owned a project.

The transition to ass prof (as opposed to a full ass prof) is a bit more subtle. You can continue to own your lab, the classes you teach, and your family (remember them?).  Or you can do more and start owning other junior faculty.

Now obviously I mean “own” not in the slavery sense, or the apples for the grocery store sense. I mean it in the “take ownership of a problem or process” sense. It is a way of identification of things for which one takes responsibility. It is the sense in which another person’s successes or failures not just reflect on you, but are things that you truly care about, prioritize and work on. Understanding what you do and do not own is a critical ability for academic success. Not to mention personal mental health.

One way of assessing leadership (another douche term), that is now so corrupted that it can mean anything from inspiring and directing others to achieve more than they could on their own to have double digit R01’s), is to see what a person thinks they own.

When you are a junior faculty and own your lab, you can be very successful with trainees, they got lots done, they get jobs, you’ve got lots of grants that make all this possible. But their successes still have your name on it. Mature “ownership” (if you will) means that when you start working with other junior faculty, that you work towards their success, and that to you, their success matters, even if you do not get your name on their papers. Even if you are not included for 10% effort on their grant. Even if your department head will not acknowledge your activity as part of your job.

This is harder. All of the previous ownerships had some assignable outcome (papers, grants, invites to sit on study sections), most of which can show up on your CV. When you take ownership of other faculty, or even other groups of people (as the Chair of the Support for all those XX, Brown, disabled or  people we have to let in, even though we wouldn’t live next door to any of them, unless they were rich and good-looking), it may turn up as “chair of the…” or maybe not even that.

The decision to do something like that is a decision based on knowing what kind of person you want to be. You do it for you, when no one else is looking. Maybe you do it because someone else took a risk and did it for you ages ago. Maybe you do it because you have a spiritual basis for such behavior (I will admit to being hugely suspicious of this one, but acknowledge that it is possible). Maybe you just like helping. But to me, that's part of leadership or maturity or whatever  – when you recognize that as a senior person you’ve got stuff to share, and ways to help,  and acknowledgement of ownership doesn’t matter.

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How do I know what is the right thing to do?

(by potnia theron) Oct 20 2016

I wrote this several months ago. I had forgotten it.


My mother is slipping out of this world (see these posts: here and  here and here and here). I've written a lot about my pain and hers:

I too want Mama

Winter of her life is now

Snow on hair and mind

I see her once or twice a week. I care for her when I see her, but that's almost more for me, as there are others who care for her where she lives.  She is in a good place, a safe place. She is being taken care of by people who have a calling to take care of her. But almost every time I leave her I think: should I being doing more?

And then the internal dialogue starts:

"Should I be doing more?"

"But what else could I do?"

"I could go see her every day"

"That would be very difficult, and end up taking 60-90 minutes out of my already over-filled time"

"But I waste so much time... maybe this instead of reading sci-fi at night"

"Would it matter to her?"

"How can I possibly know what matters to her?"

I do not think that I am alone in this dialogue. I would guess that every aging child, every adult child who cares for their parent, whether they have the resources I do, or whether the demented (or not demented) parent is living at home in too-small of a space, has this discussion with themselves. To take on the care of a parent, one must already have made a commitment.



6 responses so far

Things to never ever ever to do in writing your NIH proposal

(by potnia theron) Oct 07 2016

Never ever fudge your publication record. Even if you are absolutely 100% totally sure that this paper will be out before study section, do not claim something as "in press" or "accepted" when it is not. Do not claim 14 pubs when your pubmed online bibliography has only 12.

A (slightly) more subtle corollary of this advice: if you submit a revised version of a proposal, it is not a good position to have the same four papers "in prep" or "submitted" that you did in the previous version (or even in a different version) that was 9 months to 2 years ago. If you haven't moved the papers in a year, take them off of your biosketch.

Study sections see these things. They comment on them. It reduces the confidence in everything else you say.

17 responses so far

References for allies (and would be allies) of transgender people

(by potnia theron) Oct 04 2016

The child of a friend has come out as transgender. The letter that the parents wrote brought tears to my eyes. I do not have permission to post it here, but to paraphrase: we love our child. Our child's choice of gender does not limit or change that love.

What the letter did contain, that I can repost here, is a set of links for people who want help with accepting and supporting transgender people of all ages: Trans 101 from GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Tips for Allies of Transgender People, also from GLAAD an article from Time Magazine explaining how to talk to and about someone who is transgender   A Guide to Gender and Identity

Finally, I again recommend Deirdre McCluskey's memoir:

The parents end the letter with a reminder that a question that would make you uncomfortable, will likely make a transgender person uncomfortable. That holds for questions you would ask of anyone.

2 responses so far

More advice to junior faculty (grant writing edition)

(by potnia theron) Sep 27 2016

How many times do I need to say this??

You can argue about font (Ariel gives you the most bang for your buck, but what the heck, you like Georgia, I don't care). You can argue about which citation method (I prefer Author, date, but will tolerate numbers. I understand you want to save space, but remember, it is easier for me, the reviewer to read author, number. Ask yourself, what is more important: the space you save, or my comprehension of what you say?) to use. You can argue about justification (although justified on the right *will* add weird spaces in the middle, your choice, gospodin).


You need to leave some white space. If you push the spacing to the limit (i.e.lines vertically crammed together), and minimize the margins to 0.167 inch, and leave no extra space between paragraphs (an extra 6pts looks nice), you will have massive, Soviet blocks of text. My eyes will glaze over and I will not appreciate the gorgeousness of your ideas, your logic and your prose.

I want to fund you, young junior faculty, young untenured padawan. Really I do. I want to give you a score so that you can go forth and prosper. But, dammit, sometimes I feel that I am fighting an uphill battle.


21 responses so far

Junior Faculty Strategies (part 1)

(by potnia theron) Sep 20 2016

One early, early lesson I learned was that most everyone, faculty or private sector, has to do service. Service is (very broadly) the stuff you do to help keep the institution going. Or the discipline going. Or the society going. It's writing grant reviews and paper reviews writ large. Nobody pays for it, yet it's necessary professional work.

My Famous, Very Important thesis advisor used to crow with delight that he avoided such things as they wasted his (incredibly important) time. Yet when you find people who knew him in his less famous youth, it wasn't always quite that way. Nice to know.

Part of this lesson, articulated best by my current (and very good) chair is that taking the bull by the horns, also known as being proactive, makes service more tolerable. Figure out what you want to do, and then say this to the person making the decsions about what you will do, and what you assignments will be.  My chair's view is that someone doing something they choose, they want, is going to be more successful for the department, for the individual, for everyone concerned, than forced or assigned to something they don't like. I admire chairs that get it right. They have a delicate job of balancing tasks that need to be done with people who might be able to do them while supporting the ones that are good enough to do things outside that list. Bad ones don't give a hoot, and care only about how it looks outside (i.e. The former chair from hell).

So, one thing for which I have always volunteered, even as a senior person who could tell the chair exactly from whence he has emanated, is tenure/professional development for jr faculty. Since arriving at almost-MRU I've made changes, some of which I made at my former MRU place, observing the success of such changes. Most things involve meeting more often with jr faculty, giving them more feedback, and showing them successful versions of other people's CV's and tenure files. Some of these changes I get credit for. Others, well there's that familiar odor of credit going to the biggest dick on the committee. In this case, this committee, I am glad that there are no dicks, but the guys often still get the credit for the work. It's just a bad smell. (aside: I truly have reached the point in my life where I Just Don't Care. Or, as folks around here say: there are no more fucks to give. My reward is seeing people move through the system, good people who need help in figuring it out, and in the end are successful. It's nice being a BlueHair).

What I don't get, are the junior faculty who ignore our  advice. It's very much "our" and "us", as I've worked towards the committee speaking with one voice. I've finished a set (of about 6) meetings, and during the course (this is the mid-year meeting, another innovation, twice a year, mid-year  is the one NOT before annual reviews, much more informal) of these meetings things that happened to us, the committee:

1) jr faculty did not bother to update their CV and file, despite being told to multiple times.

2) faculty who in discussions, go off on tangents, taking time to trash other junior faculty as "destroying their science". Really?

3) Faculty who out and out lied to us about what they have done (do you think we don't know? really?).

In general, it boils down to how you, Mx. Jr. Faculty, take our advice. I love it when your argue back with us. I love it when you say: this is what I think for these reasons. We (the committee) have changed our minds as a result of such discussions and that goes into the letter we write that goes intro your folder.

But to sit there and nod, every six months for 4 years, saying of course, and then absolutely ignore our advice? Makes no sense to me. Let alone what will happen at tenure time.


9 responses so far

Anger, self-discipline and living the examined life

(by potnia theron) Sep 15 2016

I am back to dealing with stupid people, ageist people and most of all people who do not see older (ie in their eyes not-pretty) women. I get angry. Oh do I get angry. I am much better with anger now than I was 10 years ago, let alone 30 years ago. I hold on to this, from the Buddha:

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.

This is often attributed to the Dalai Lama and stated as :

Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

So how not to feel anger? This is the problem. More wisdom from the Dalai Lama that I found whilst looking for original quote:

Responding to a trying situation with patience and tolerance rather than reacting with anger and hatred involves active restraint, which comes from a strong, self-disciplined mind.

Or as a former partner used to say: Aye Yai Yai. Strong mind. Check. Self-discipline. Working-on-it.

Years ago, when there were women's groups (we called them "encounter groups" which is now SO out of date that it doesn't even sound bad anymore), we discussed how to confront scary situations (like talking to your boss or coming out or something like that). One of the things this group, my group, did was do other scary things, things we did just because they were scary. Jumping off a high dive board. Roller coasters. Sky-Diving. All done with friends, with support. Those were hard, but they made many of the other scary things easier to do. It didn't make them less scary. The talking to the boss stuff is and will be and always was scary. Just doing scary things made it easier to do other scary things.

So, I shall endeavor to practice self-discipline. In eating! Then maybe when I have to deal with self-discipline because someone refers to me as "old and useless" I will not want to punch them quite as much as I do now.

5 responses so far

Choosing one's path in life

(by potnia theron) Sep 14 2016

We all spend a lot of time thinking about choosing a path through life.

My grandmother did not have this luxury. She was sent, by her mother, to work in a factory when she was about 7 years old. So my first step today is acknowledge my grandmother and her life, and understand what she did that makes my life today possible.

The genesis for these thoughts is a quote I stumbled across.  I really don't like it:

By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.―Zelda Fitzgerald

I don't like it because it is fatalist. It doesn't specify  age, but it suggests whenever one does find a direction, no matter what age, it is too late. I reject this now, and I rejected it when I was 30 and feeling time's winged feet even more strongly than I do now.

This quote does, however reflect one underlying truth, the sense of wasting time, of regret for things not done, the anxiety of passing time that plagues people of every age. What I felt at 20 and 30 far more than I feel now, at 60.  And, yes,  it is true that in many ways paths narrow through life. At 60 one does not have the time stretching in front of them off to a little unseen pinpoint in the future that one does at 20.

It is very tempting to me to fall into the trap of that quote. To think "I'm old and there's not a lot of choices left to me". And more poignantly to think "there's  not enough time left to do something new with me and my life". To which my inner self replies with one of my favorite Dalai Lama quotes (from when I heard him in my youth):

Live life without regrets

It works on multiple levels: live right now so that you will not regret anything in the future, but once you have lived life, do not waste energy regretting what you have already done. If I had done otherwise with my life I might not realize the things I am tempted to regret now.

So I come to another Dalai Lama quote:

Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.

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