Archive for: February, 2015

Words of Wisdom from Mickey Spillane

Feb 19 2015 Published by under life, time, Uncategorized

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If its a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.


The same could almost be said of scientific papers. Posters. Talks. Your intro sells the current work. The discussion will bring them back for more.

I have found that operating at different time scales is difficult, but necessary. This paper is not just about this paper.

2 responses so far

Things that Frost My Shorts - Interacting with physicians from the patient (or impatient) end of things

Feb 18 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

I had to go to the doctor. The LadyBits doctor. I don't want even to start on how tough it is to get an appointment to see the ladybits doctor. I have to say that I'm not overly keen on seeing physicians in the best of times, and really there are no best of times for seeing physicians. I tried to avoid this by seeing my Regular Doctor, who is a nice person, my age, and with whom I have An Understanding. She calls me Potnia and I call her Jane. She talks to me like an adult and gives me pubmed references for things that I question. She tells me when I'm being foolish but when I disagree with her, and when I'm not foolish, we talk about it. In my mind, this is how all the interactions should go.

But Jane told me that I needed to see the ladybits doctor. And she got me into see an unfortunately young (but fixable with time) ladybits doctor. I did not have to wait two months to see this person, but even in two months, she would not have been old enough to talk to me like I was a human being.

Ladybits doctor started talking to me in baby-words. First I responded using the real names for things. That had no impact. So next I said that I was a professor in a medical school and I really did know the anatomy, physiology and endocrinology behind what she was saying, and that we could use the grown-up words. This did not change how she spoke to me. Ladybits doctor then started giving me advice as if I was an 18 yo virgin who wanted to know if you could get pregnant from kissing. This was not going to solve my problem. I tried to explain that I knew about Stuff, including that you didn't get pregnant from kissing, especially when you are post-menopausal. But she interrupted me at least 3-4 times as I was trying to explain various somethings. I will admit that I am sensitive to this, as the department chair from hell felt that interruption was one of his most important management techniques for uppity women.

In my youth (and youth is almost always distant these days, it seems), I would have said something. I would have tried to be polite while saying something, and maybe succeeded. Older, a bit wiser, and mostly concerned with getting some help, I didn't. I didn't exactly get the help I need, but I have more information than when I started.

The thought that I left with made me very sad. I am tough and can outlast ladybit doctors to get what I need. I know enough of the system not to think that ladybit doctors sit at any hand or foot of any diety. But what about the women (and men) who don't know? People talk about the high cost of poverty, and being able to know enough to get the help you need is just one more, very depressing, part of that. I will do my part in teaching embryonic physicians. I just wish that this ladybits doctor, and all the others, could just see themselves for a minute. Just one minute.

2 responses so far

I am not immune to bias

Feb 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Bias is Not Good.  We need to think about it. I am not immune to bias. I know this.  But the problem of bias just hit home, again, for me.

I am reviewing a paper. Right now (and interrupting myself to write this post). The paper is good. Well written. Robust analysis. Interesting and appropriate conclusions. But as I read something was irritating me about the model proposed.  While I was looking for what irritated me, I realized that it was written by someone I really respect. And the irritation seemed less important. Argh.

Now, I am trying to find the irritation so that I can talk about it in the review. Friends do not get cakewalks.

Recognizing bias is important. What to do about it is not always so obvious.



Postscript: I love it when the young people I care about come through. Before I finished reading, I identified the problem I had, and lo and behold, there was a whole paragraph in the discussion addressing the issue, why its a problem, and what can and cannot be done. The authors (alleged, as it is a double blind review) took the most conservative stance on the problem. My recommendation: publish without changes.

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Working that pseudo-80 hour week

Feb 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

There is an excellent post over at Dynamic Ecology,  a site that I love. The post talks about the hours that scientists and academics need to put in to be successful, to get tenure. Here is a link to a Salon article justifying a 40hr week. The original post is filled with good links to other things, especially a comment from another post about women in ecology.

 As a grad student and postdoc, I thought I worked really hard. But then I made myself start logging hours (sort of like I was keeping track of billable hours, though I was simply doing it out of curiosity). I was astonished at how little I actually worked. It was something like 6 hours of actual work a day. I never would have guessed it was that low. I hadn’t realized how much time I was spending on those seemingly little breaks between projects. -

It's a worthwhile exercise to sit down and actually track the hours you really work. When I was in grad school a friend of a friend was a French woman (she impossibly old and chic and beautiful to me at the time), call her Martine, who had two little children, and was single by choice. Martine was doing a visiting postdoc in the US for 9 months to learn techniques. She absolutely worked only from 8 to 4. Everyone was aghast, and predicted doom and failure. But, I watched some, and talked to my friend some, and it was very clear that when Martine worked, she worked. She did had one cup of coffee at 10:30 or so in the morning. That was it. Lunch was at her desk reading. Martine did not avoid the social relationships that are part of what make a lab work, and the discussions about science. But she didn't go to the gym in the middle of the day, she didn't hang out on the lawn or play volleyball or talk about fashion or movies. She didn't surf the web, which was largely impossible as there was no web at the time.

What struck me at the time, and stayed with me these many years, was that this woman had made decisions about what was important to her, and what she was going to do, large and small scale. I think we're all pretty good at the large scale (get the thesis finished, get tenure, get funded) and the middle scale (finish this paper, write this grant, torture this trainee). But we (and I mean me, too) suck at the fine scale. Look at me, I'm writing this post!

It's tough to be efficient and directed for 8 hours in a row. One way I've found is to make sure that the tasks are heterogeneous. I don't write for 8 hours in a row, or even 4 hours in a row, especially during grant frenzy. I have data analysis. I do some figure design, improvement, tweaking. I work on a powerpoint. It is easier for me, with the attention span of a gnat, to stay focused, when the focus is to different things. YMMV.

A final thought, from my blogmom (hi Mom!), she of untold and sometimes told wisdom:

Work and children and families are funny little fuckers though. If you let them, they will expand and fill every crevasse of your day and leave you with nothing.  Nothing, I tell you.

We all deserve more than nothing.



18 responses so far

Working with A Tech

Feb 13 2015 Published by under life, professionalism in science, time, Uncategorized

One of the hardest things I ever learned as a faculty was how to work with a tech. It was doubly hard when I was young, and the people with whom I was working were within 5 years of my age.  Finding the balance between friend and employee, supervisor and colleague. Its not something for which we get trained.

As is true of trainees, the most important thing may be respect.  Recognize that this is another human being who is both different from you and still shares all sorts of stuff. Its Scylla and Charybdis all over again. Bluish-yellow. For lots of women I know, it has often worked better to veer towards the professional end of the spectrum and away from the "we're all friends in this lab". I have found that getting sunk into the inevitable personal problems that all of us have, that younger folks wear on their sleeves, can upset the flow of work in a lab. For lots of guys, the professional /cold/hard attitude can send the message that you are merely a pawn or stepping stone on my path to greatness.

This is a person who works both with you and for you. That's the balance problem. You have a job. You have a task. You have a mission. Your job and task and mission has short term and middle term and long term parts. A person, a non-trainee person, working with you and for you is going to contribute to all of those parts. They don't have to know everything, but if you treat them like a cog and tell them "what they need to know" they will not be invested in your work. They won't have loyalty towards those goals, let alone to you.

I can't tell you all the small specifics of what to do. In fact, understanding the overarching principles is probably a better guideline. Treat the people who work with you as you would want to be treated. The rest is just NIH funding.


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Things I like: how engines work

Feb 13 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Engines have always fascinated me. Can't explain why. I took my first car apart and (mostly) put it back together again. Here is a wonderful post/graphic on how engines work. The blog itself called ANIMIGRAFS by Jacob O'Neil is incredible has other wonderful stuff about jet engines and audio speakers. Here is one of the images from the car engine page:


He goes through Fuel, Oxygen, Cooling, Exhaust. I love this stuff.

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Uh-oh my grant's got me in trouble

Feb 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

So I went to go read my Specific Aims in the toilet. As one does. Unfortunately I dropped it in. Bad Potty. So to speak.

Here is the incredibly timely email that came today from our Uni (and was resent to me by the tech in my lab):

From: Almost-MRU Announcements Sent: Tuesday, February 10, 2015 9:47 AM Subject: Sanitary Sewer - Reminder

Almost MR University (AMRU) has been notified by the LowerKooKooville County Water Department of concerns regarding “rags” in the sanitary sewer systems. To avoid further damage to the system and contamination of the water supply, we ask ALL MEMBERS of the AMRU community to not flush non-sanitary materials into the public sanitary sewer system.

To educate our community members, we want to remind everyone to only flush toilet paper and human waste. Below is a list of the typical items people flush that can lead to clogged toilets and/or potentially damage wastewater treatment equipment and treatment processes. Please do NOT flush any of these items into the water system:

  • baby wipes
  • cleaning wipes
  • band-aids
  • cat litter
  • chewing gum
  • cigarette butts
  • condoms
  • cosmetics
  • cotton balls and swabs
  • dead pet goldfish
  • dental floss
  • disposable diapers
  • dryer sheets
  • feminine supplies
  • food fat
  • food
  • hair
  • dirt
  • paper towels and napkins
  • prescription medicine

Thank you for reading and adhering to this request.

Dead Goldfish? How did they know it was a pet?


4 responses so far

Co-authorship (and Potty owns up to a mistake in years gone by)

Feb 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

A comment from a previous post:

For those who did stock up data as a postdoc, any advice on navigating authorship issues with previous advisor? Let's assume the data was collected in the postdoc lab. The newbie PI designed and led the work but the former advisor provided key resources.

Note: At my institution, papers co-authored with a former advisor are not counted in tenure considerations, even if the asst prof is the senior/corresponding author.

(also see reply from B. Kiddo, teh bride, who says good things)

Navigating authorship is tough. In general, those kind of hard conversations, where the power is unequal, need to happen with all the usual tough stuff: tact, respect, etc etc. My best advice is to start the conversation with neutral statements of fact like:

I'm getting ready to submit paper XYZ from when I worked with you (in your lab?). Can we discuss authorship?

If it was in their lab, usually they do get co-authorship. And, really, except for emotional things like "I hate that fucker", it costs nothing to add them as co-auth, especially if you get first. And (see below), one needs to get permission/approval from all the authors on the paper.

Most likely the paper means more to you than to them. A good mentor will know that, and a bad mentor can be led to do the right thing. Keep your cool (ha! am I telling this to someone else? me? of the nanosecond fuse?). A philosophy that has served me well, all these long years, is that adding co-authors seldom creates problems. Of course, there is the caveat about "appropriate", and then the determination of appropriate.

When I first got to previous MRU, the Chair from Hell had a policy. For me in particular. He was to be a co-author on all my papers, and I was to include him at 10-20% effort on all my grants. Because after all, we work on the same things, and (yes, this is a quote): " I (that's him) hired you (that's me) to collaborate with me (that's him)". Shortly after, through no effort of mine, MRU re-iterated their authorship policy which included an explicit prohibition about chairs including their names on faculty papers. The grant funding issue did not go away so easily, so I did instead. But I digress...

Here is the mistake from years gone by. I once upon a time had a grad student. Let's call her Amanda. She was older than the other students, but bright well beyond average. She was great at planning, and supervising (she had a horde on undergrads to help with extensive, but relatively simple data collection). What she sucked at was follow-through, follow-up and finishing stuff. My mistake? I did not realize this, and did not lay down rules to deal with the situation. I figured things would go ok, things were going ok, until they didn't. She collected masses and masses of raw data. Enough for several data rich papers. Enough to establish herself as independent of me. But she never got around to the extraction of quantitative data from the masses of raw data.

What destroyed her in the end, was not the lack of output, but that she bent the truth. She claimed a master's degree (which gave her status in the PhD program) but she had never defended, and it was never awarded. One of her committee members found out, and came to me. He wanted to toss her out of the program then and there. I went to her and said "what the fuck, you need to fix this". She got angry and defensive and blamed her old advisor. I said that was irrelevant and it needed to be fixed. She seemed to think I had a magic wand and could make the problem go away. I was willing, and persuaded he committee, to give her space to either go back and defend or to own up to it. No penalty, except that she'd have to lose the extra status and take another course. She said screw this and after 4 years, candidacy, and enough data to sink a ship, she walked away from the program to raise cats (or something like that). She had to take one class, and analyze data and write the thesis. The latter was not going to be hard, as she had a detailed 40-page outline of three papers that could be the thesis. She was capable of writing, well and easily. She just couldn't do it. I counted this as a failure on my part, particularly to the animals whose data did not get published (at the time).

Fast forward a couple of years. I get an ambitious new postdoc in my lab (from another field). Marge is intrigued by Amanda's data. Marge has an idea about the data- taking the raw from one part (not the main part) and looking at in the context of some of the other data collected. Something I hadn't seen. I don't think Amanda saw it (it  wasn't in the outline). Marge goes to it, enters reams of hand collected/written data, analyzes it, and comes up with really interesting results. Writes a great paper. A really, really good paper.

I track down Amanda who has moved to Mississippi or Texas or somewhere far away with her cats and garden. I email her, and attach Marge's manuscript. Marge is first author. I'm last. Amanda is in the middle. I attach authorship regs from where I am that essentially say: everyone who should be an author needs to be an author, and no one who shouldn't be an author should be. I say that as she supervised this data collection (true), but did not collect it (also true), and that the data, although not the hypothesis and question, had originally been conceived to be part of her thesis (which we co-designed), that it was appropriate she be an author.

Amanda was furious, although I am not clear why.  She copied her anger to the Dean, to the lawyers, to everyone. And concluded her email with "I see you tracked me down. I'm living in a beautiful place. If we were still friends, I'd invite you down, but we're not".  I wasted time talking to all the appropriate players (lawyers, deans, ombuds) and the paper came out, in good IF journal (Marge is now jr faculty and doing well). I never heard from Amanda again.

My mistake was not about authorship - I was honorable, and have no regrets. I've published other of Amanda's data, and she is a co-auth on everything. I send her emails asking for input and approval, and hear nothing back. That is a bit problematic, since the corresponding author is supposed to get approval from every co-auth, these days. But choosing between the sin of a co-author who doesn't agree, and the sin of leaving Amanda off, I take the first.

My mistake was in not supervising Amanda better. I did not recognize her issue and step in soon enough. I tend to run my lab a bit looser than many, mostly because I don't want to waste time and energy being a hard ass. When I'd meet with Amanda, she showed all the signs of progressing. But those signs were not enough. Or misleading. I needed to drill down deeper into her work, and I didn't. Picking the right level of interaction with trainees is hard. Making the environment where they can thrive is hard. Figuring out authorship is not so hard. Enni, I hope this is something you can laugh about in ten years.

5 responses so far

Service and the Untenured Professor

Feb 10 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Service ranks even lower than teaching on the MRU scale of goodness and Things To Do For Tenure. Service tends to be tolerated as a criterion, but wink,wink, nod, nod, we don't take it too seriously.

Of course women, people of color, and most assuredly women of color get asked a lot more "to just do this little thing" than white men by administrators who need to point to their commitment to diversity. "See! Look!  every single one of our committees has a brown  face on it".

At my new MRU, they take service a bit more seriously. The med school is small, very small, incredibly small compared to my old MRU.  Everyone has to do something or things wouldn't get done. Not the make work things, but the things that have happen for science - like  IRB and IACUC and radiation safety.

One of the things my current department chair (may he have a long, healthy life and continue to if not enjoy, at least tolerate, being chair for another five years) sees as his role is to find service for people, both old and young, that is age-appropriate, and something they might care about, and thus find not quite so onerous. This to me is leadership - he knows that the good scientists hate admin meetings and hate service but things need to work, and requirements for tenure need to be satisfied. He makes sure that there is something for them, something to which the dept tenure committee will say "check" and the university tenure committee (that makes the hard decisions) will find just right - not too much, not too little time. He is one of the best chairs I've ever seen, in part, because he wants the junior faculty to get tenure, he wants the faculty to succeed and he will do what he can not just to support them but to protect them as appropriate.

He and I agree that for junior faculty the regulatory committees such as IRB and IACUC are good things. They are rule-bound, so no hard decisions, no chance to lose sleep over stuff. They are relatively self-contained in that the work can take place mostly during the meeting, and there is not a lot of out-meeting stuff. They are also very important to scientist-faculty as They Must Happen for continued goodness of life (but don't get me started on regulation stuff). Finally, everyone (as in tenure decision making everyones) knows that they are a time commitment and that the junior person has Done Work for the University.

Anyway to make a long story even longer, when I came to almost-MRU the chair said to me: what do you want to do and what don't you want to do. I  said work with junior faculty is good, and anything that involves curriculum development for medical students is not so good. I had nearly the same conversation with The Dean of the Medical School, who is actually a kinda nice guy and not too slick. I talked with him about setting up a women's council for faculty, something that had been variably effective at other unis I've seen, but with potential.

I've been here, at almost-MRU, for a while now. The Women's Initiative Network (WIN, get it?, and needless to say not my choice of name, but that's what writers call dramatic foreshadowing) is off the ground, has a budget and is now dominated by administrators. They are faculty, yes, but not tenure track. Whether these strong, intelligent and hardworking women are part of MRU's academic mission is a function of how you define academic mission. Some are women of color, and they have survived more prejudice, condescension, and general horribleness to get where they are than I have, and they are a lot younger than me. I respect them, but their degrees are in education and English and business. They are not tenure track and spend their days in meetings and in Organizing Things. I think I would slit my throat before I did their jobs.

But this incarnation of a women's group isn't to help junior women get tenure and navigate the treacherous waters of being an academic while female. They have become a group to "build networks" and "reach out to the community" and do things that I am not sure help one get tenure, let alone things that a young scientist would chose. Or should chose. These are not limited and circumscribed tasks: organizing a women's community healthy heart event. If one wants to be a community organizer (a worthwhile endeavor), one needs to square this with the largely incompatible task of becoming a tenured research faculty at an MRU.

I have listened carefully to the female ast profs I mentor, and it seems they are more outspoken about this than me (you go Millennials). The most succinct comment was "fuck that shit, I want a grant writing workshop".

So last week I spoke with the Dean, and today I meet with the woman in charge of faculty development (one of the aforementioned strong women). They've become Hadassah, or Jam and Jerusalem, or the Ladies Chamber of Commerce. Part time clinical faculty have time and energy for this. Women on the path to tenure don't.

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I can't get funded without ....

Feb 09 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This logical fallacy showed up on the tweets the other day. I can't get funded without publishing more. But I can't publish till I collect more data. And I can't collect more data till I have grad students/money for experiments/time bought out of teaching. And I can't do any of these things without a grant.

There is truth in each of those lines. Except the last one. And maybe parts of all the middle ones.

When I was a grub, not tenured, in a whole biology dept, in an A&S college (ie not med school), there was a more senior guy who moaned about this all the fucking time. He was  tenured, but had been an ass prof for a while. I understand he is about to retire, 20 years later, still an ass prof (no gloating, Potnia). Back in the day fo 30%tile funding levels, he couldn't get funded. (well, someone had to be in the 70%).

Ass prof and I had a ... voluble .. disagreement about what was possible.  I said that even if everyone took everything away from me but my 386 IBM PC (don't ask, and I wont tell), I would still be able to publish. If I had no students, no lab, no tech. I had enough data to put out something. Not great things. Not the the things that interested me the most, but things. Things that could be reasonable publishable paper. He was convinced the system was stacked against him, and that I, a younger faculty, got all the perks and benefits.

As a side, historical note, it totally frosted my shorts at the time that this ass was going to vote on my tenure. He was convinced that I had succeeded because I got breaks as a woman (hahahaha) and being young (double hahahahaha). He did vote yes in the end; I was scary back then, too (my record had little to do with the vote, such was life when the greatest generation ruled).

I could publish in part, because I had done a postdoc, which was relatively rare in my field. In those days, in those fields, one could get a job straight from ones PhD, no postdoc. But I argued then, and now, that a good postdoc is like the last trimester of pre-natal development. All the bits and pieces and systems are in place and functional. What the fetus does is put on weight. Preemies can live, but they struggle. Full term babies are fat and happy and have acquired enough data to carry them through some lean times. Till the lab is going. Till the NIH spigot turns on.

A good scientist needs to have a bit of contingency in their back  pocket. A smattering of data, an idea, a set of simulations that just need to be run about 1000000 times. Going up for tenure with 3 or 4 years of no pubs is Not A Good Thing (see Maria stories...).

So yeah, having a grant makes life a lot better. It buys one the ability to do the really cool stuff (not to mention the breathing space not write another grant for a year or three).

But if your tenure committee/mentoring committee/department chair says "you need to publish more, we appreciate that you've gotten a credible proposal in each deadline, but please, get something out", listen.

10 responses so far

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