Archive for: October, 2014

Lessons from everywhere: furniture factories & universities

Oct 28 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Lance Manion has an interesting blog post titled "They don't care, they just don't care". Its from a book called "Factory Man" about a man who invested in his American furniture store, rather than outsourcing to China. Manion says:

That Taiwanese factory owner seems baffled by American factory owners’ willingness to tear apart their own businesses and tear down their own factories. The only explanation he can come up with for such self-destructiveness  is that his American counterparts don’t know what they’re doing because they’re “naive” or they don’t see what they’re doing because all they can see is the money they stand to make.

What doesn’t occur to him is that the Americans don’t care.

They tear their own companies into pieces. They tear down their own factories. They tear apart whole towns, entire counties that depend on those industries for their economic survival. They tear apart families. They tear apart lives.

And they just don’t care.

This is not much different than American universities. The administration (its hard to call them leaders) wants to be profitable, despite being non-profits. Instead of tearing about towns, they are tearing down disciplines. They can't see what college level sports has become - an industry with nothing to do with education or scholarship. It has fostered a party culture that has less to do with any college's goals and missions and more to do with a late-adolescent desire to chase pleasure at the expense of anything else. They don't care about what is happening to universities, despite their pious claims to the contrary. Manion again:

They don’t see what they’re doing because all they can see is the money they stand to make.

It's easy to critique someone else's goals or desires when they don't align with yours. But the academic situation is more straightforward: there are stated goals and missions that do not align with reality except in admin-speak.  It's not that too many kids go to college; its that college isn't doing what it needs to for those kids.


One response so far

I'm a jaded Boomer and other tails of growing up

Oct 22 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I got another grant proposal submitted this week. Not only that, I found mistakes that The Grants and Sponsored Projects and Funding for Research Office did not. (I worship the G&SP&FRO. You should too, irrespective of age, generation, gender, species, trophic type). This project is a marvelous project. I almost always feel that way about them when they go in (You should too. There is no reason to dwell on the defects, there is nothing you can do at this point, so you might as well rejoice. on the inside).

But what hit me yesterday, when it was finally uploaded to the great NIH maw in the sky, was how jaded I have become. When I was young, and frisky, and irritated by the previous generation, and the leading edge boomers, who had money, and wouldn't 't share, submission was a cause for celebration. Beer, or even a good bottle of wine. I'd buy myself flowers. I'd go out to dinner (a big honking deal in those days). I would take a mental health day and go to the zoo. I still remember a grant I put in with my friend Hal (not his real name). He had come from Very Far Away to give a talk (so that we could work on the proposal), and get the sucker submitted. It was a cool project. It was the days of paper submission and Xeroxing of 22 copies, before color copying. It was the days of collating 6 sets of your publications (the paper versions). It was the days of 25 page limits. We finished, waited for FedEx to show up and take it away. And then we went and had ice cream sundaes for dinner at the local ice cream place. I had cherry-chocolate chip ice cream, with hot fudge sauce and whipped cream. This place's chip ice cream was incredible because they didn't use pre-made chips, but made their own chocolate which they stirred into the ice cream as they made it so the chips were irregular shapes and often quite large. We went home, fell into diabetic coma and I slept for 12 hours. Hal got up and ran sometime in the morning. The grant, needless to say, did not get funded.

I realized as I went to the gym to lift weights last night that I didn't even think of celebrating. It didn't occur to me. It was just another grant proposal submission. Partly, even for me, boomer who controls all the money, jobs, grants, and the very life of those miserable X-ers & Millennials, I still have to write lots of proposals to get funded. I did in the Olden Dayes, too. I run a one-R01 shop, and this is the big renewal.

But also, proposal writing & submission has become something I do. Like department meetings. Like staying out of the line of sight of senior administrators. Like getting a flu shot. I teach once a year (but intensively). I go to dept meetings every month. Writing grants is more often than the former, and not as often as the latter, but more fun than either. Still. Its developing ideas. Its nailing down the experimental design to really get the answers I want. Its the possibilities of science.

My hair is still on fire when I think about doing the science. And I have never really wanted to be young again. I have wanted to be as strong as I was when I was 25, but I sure as hell do not want to be 25 again. But I don't know if want to go have ice cream after every submission, but I think I'll buy myself some flowers today.



3 responses so far

Dreams and Mothers

Oct 12 2014 Published by under Alzheimer's disease, dementia, Uncategorized

I read a marvelous post by activist Deborah Jiang-Stein which is an excerpt from her new book. I don't want to give away the punch line, which is very powerful.

Part of that power was to make me think about lost children and lost mothers. No, not think, feel. I've written some about my mother, who was a powerful mentor to me from when I first thought I wanted to be a scientist. Aside 1: here is a difference between a boomer & a younger: My instinct is to say "when thought I wanted to be ..." and my junior colleagues would say "when I knew I was going to be...". Moving on.

My mother has end-stage Alzheimer's disease. When I moved to my new almost-MRU, I brought her with me. I had taken my last job at the old-MRU to be in the same city as my parents at the ends of their lives. My mother now needs 24-care, and I am extremely lucky that she saved enough money for this wretched end of life. Aside 2: anyone struggling with this issue who would like advice and suggestions based on my history, email me, we can talk. Right now, my mother is not the person who mentored me, fought with me, and over the years said many hurtful things. The person she is now is a different person. This is very hard for my sibs to understand, and they seldom visit her any more.

It's not entirely wretched. She has a little speech, but no language. She cannot feed herself but she loves ice cream. She smiles at me, sometimes. She gets angry, still. And she will occasionally kiss me, though she gets kissing and eating mixed up sometimes. And once when I laid my head down on her shoulder and started crying, she put her arms around me and made soothing noises.

One memory of her, of something that infuriated me at the time. Earlier in her disease, she'd have no time sense and call at all hours. She went through a couple of months where she'd call in the middle of the night and ask about the "little ones" or "my small ones". Sometimes she would be in a panic, not knowing where they were. I learned to say "Mom, I have the little ones. They are with me tonight. They are sleeping but they love you". Sometimes she would ask "are they safe?". Sometimes, she would say "that's good" and then just hang up. Now I hold onto this memory like a worn-out good luck charm.

I am friends with some of her friends, now in their 90's. Women of that generation at any MRU all knew each other. Most are sharp and insightful and a joy to talk with. They tell me stories about my Mom, and often those stories will trigger dreams. In my dreams my mother is intact, and talks to me. We fight a lot, which we did before. But she's there. She's talking to me. And that is enough.

Oh, one of my mother's best comments to me:

Get a PhD, not a husband. A PhD is more useful.


2 responses so far

NIH webinars from CSR about grants

Oct 07 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) will host four Meet the Experts in NIH Peer Review Webinars in early November 2014 to give new NIH grant applicants and others useful insights into the submission and review processes.  CSR is the portal for NIH grant applications and their review for scientific and technical merit.


Webinars Will Each Focus on a Different Type of NIH Grant Application


Webinar Focus Date
Academic Research Enhancement Awards (R15) Nov. 4, 2014
Fellowship Awards Nov, 5, 2014
Small Business Grants (SBIR/STTR) Nov.7, 2014
Research Project Grants (R01) Nov. 10, 2014

All of the Webinars will run from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. EST, including a 30 minute Q&A period.

Viewers Will See Presentations by Five CSR/NIH Experts

  • The Review of Your NIH Grant Application Begins Here
  • What You Need to Know about Application Receipt and Referral
  • How Your Application Is Reviewed
  • Key Things to Know About Your Type of Application (See above list.)
  • Jumpstart Your Career with CSR’s Early Career Reviewer Program


How to Participate in the Webinar

  • Go to to register for the Webinar you wish to join before Tuesday, October 28. You will not need to download special software. You will just need a reliable Internet browser and connection.
  • Submit questions for the Q&A session before or during the Webinar by sending them to the moderator at
  • Go to on the day/time your Webinar is scheduled to run and click on the link that will be provided there.
  • View archived copies of each Webinar via the Webinar webpage. The recordings should be posted within a week after broadcast.

If you have general questions about the NIH application and review processes at other times, please visit the CSR website or the NIH Grants and Funding website. The NIH Information Service can address specific questions.


No responses yet

How to do it all

Oct 07 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Tyler Cowen wrote a piece on time management and recently revised it. I have been reading a bunch of these recently. Some of what he has to say is useful (to me, at least).

Here are my suggestions on his suggestions (Cowen is in italic)

2. Do the most important things first in the day and don’t let anybody stop you.  Estimate “most important” using a zero discount rate.  Don’t make exceptions.  The hours from 7 to 12 are your time to build for the future before the world descends on you.

This is easy to impliment for morning people. But its good advice even for night owls. Even if you are more creative at night, the day can lay significant burdens on your mind and your energy. Get yourself going, shut your door. And do what needs to be done.

3. Some tasks (drawing up outlines?) expand or contract to fill the time you give them.  Shove all these into times when you are pressed to do something else very soon.

When I was teaching a biology department load (3 classes a year, on a quarter/three terms a year schedule) I chose to do all three in one term. Teaching, for me, would expand to fill the available time. By getting it all done at once, I was less tempted to revise every lecture. This is another version of knowing how much energy to put into a task, an artificial assist to help you.

Rahul R. asks me if I would like to revise the list.  I’ll add these:

6. Don’t drink alcohol.  Don’t take drugs.

I find this one difficult, as I like a glass of wine with dinner. But I understand the logic. The older I get the less I want to alter my mind. And I certainly do not want to wake up hung over or in less than full possession of my mind. Its partly why sleeping in on the weekends is a bad idea.Its setting yourself up for jet lag for the rest of the week.

7. At any point in your life, do not be watching more than one television show on a regular basis.

This is easy for me. I don't have a TV. I do realize that I could see things on my ipad/laptop. But its easy not too. On the other hand twitter is an endless rabbit hole into which I can easily fall. I think the idea is to exert enough self-control that you are not passively using TV/Twitter/Graphic Novels as an escape. When I need down time, and can't even read, I sit. With a cuppa, and think. Or not. But I sit. I have a quiet place to sit and think. Everyone needs one. See Virigina Woolf: A Room of Her Own

8. Don’t feel you have to finish a book or movie if you don’t want to.  I cover that point at length in my book Discover Your Inner Economist.

This one took me for-evah. Its like once started I had some commitment to finish. Life is too damn short for that nonsense.

I also have come to believe that multi-tasking is a myth or a chimera or an illusion. I end up doing two things badly. If something is worth doing, to quote Lazarus Long, it is worth overdoing. Do not do things you do not want to do. That is simple to say, and absolutely unrealistic. No one wants to go to department meetings. And I admit to doing something else during the meetings. But for the large things in life, if you don't like doing it, ask yourself why. Why you don't like it and why you are doing it. Really ask yourself. Think about it. Make time in the week to think about things. What you will save, and how you will feel about yourself will change.

No responses yet

Run Your Lab Like a Startup

Oct 02 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Peter Thiel who started PayPal has a book out called Zero to One. Wired excerpted a bit called "You Should Run Your Start-Up Like A Cult". There were parts of the article that struck me as being relevant to running a lab. Let go of the word "cult" for a minute, and listen to some of the specifics he offers.

One of the things he says is "Why work with a group of people who don't even like each other?". Or more to the point, why would a young trainee come to work with you if your lab is full of barely concealed contempt and hostility? I actually don't care if people in my lab are good friends, but respect and support is critical. What I have discovered is that when people in the lab *are* friends, then things go much more smoothly. This doesn't happen by itself.

But how to make it so? This can be a function of PI personality. It helps if you genuinely like people. But there are also things that are more general. You can set a culture in your lab. And you see the people in your lab as people. They have their own dreams, goals, and most of all life. Don't assume anyone wants what you want. No one has to, to be a good member of a lab. Talk to the people in your lab, find out what they do want. Listen to them and hear what they say.

When I was doing the final negotiation for my new job at not-quite-MRU, my soon to be chair said to me "we take service fairly seriously here. But I've found that it works best when people do something they want to do. What would you like to do?". In my upteen-gazillion years in academics, no one had ever asked that before. I talked with him about mentoring young faculty, particularly women and URMs. I talked about helping people get funded. And low and behold, I'm chair of the Promo & Tenure committee, and running workshops on grantsmanship. And I'm not doing the things that make me cringe  or stay in bed too long in the morning (medical school admissions, for example).

When I was interviewing for a new tech here, I asked each "what do you want to do?" and they all said "whatever the job is". It took a bit of insisting to find out who likes animals (cause there is a lot of animal work in my lab), and who is scared of numbers (and there are a lot of numbers in my lab). I now work with possibly the most incredible tech in the world. And no, you can't have her.

There is a flip side to this in the interviewing process. My new MRU has summer fellowships for med students between year 1 and year 2. I saw colleagues who did 45 min interviews with five or six of them. I didn't have the time for that, and just took one who had pestered me from the day I arrived and was recommended by acolleague who had had her in a class. I asked her if she had friends, and two more turned up. I think because the tech is incredible, the postdoc marvelous, etc, that the three of them (basically selected at random) picked up on the culture/atmosphere, and fit in well. This past summer was a very happy place in my lab. And unbelieveably productive. We are writing many abstracts for the small speciality meeting. Everybody wants to go. Together.

Hiring like everything else is a matter of knowing where to stop on the assymptotic curve.

There was more in the article, and it will have to wait for another day.

One response so far