Archive for: March, 2016

Taking Time

Mar 30 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

This morning Biochembelle tweeted:


IMG_20160330_083908063It struck me as just right.

When I was at MRU, many moons ago, I lived in the community where the hospital was located. It was shocking to my colleagues. You live where? I walked to work and actually got to know many of my marvelous neighbors, including an elderly man who loved poetry, lived in the house his grandfather had built and had known Civil War Veterans.IMG_20160330_084231266

When I left MRU, I was disappointed that living walking distance to almost-MRU was not possible. On the upside, I now get to drive through countryside and past farms. I see animals every day. There is even a small state wilderness area that is on the way. So today I stopped there.

There is an art to taking care of yourself. There is skill to understanding when you need to stop and walk in the woods. And, when its time to buckle down and work a 14 hour day. Its another Scylla & Charybdis. Too little care and one is useless for accomplishing anything. Too much time away, too little devoted to the science and it won't get done. Finding the balance is hard.

Lots of things in life glorify the extremes. I think of this as the Lord of The Rings effect: good and bad are identifiable by the hair, teeth and skin. The hard hard truth of the world is that optimal may lie in the middle and may lie in balancing and, sometimes, may not be possible. It's also the "pure boy effect": saying that I won't sully myself with something beneath me (like publicity or PR because I am a pure scientist). I once had a partner, a brilliant scientist, who refused to go to scientific meetings because "they are ego-fests for people to show off. If someone wants to know about my work they can read it".

If I have learned anything about taking care of myself, it is that I can err on either side of too much time in either direction. And that I am not always the best judge of what is too much time, but then, neither is anyone a better judge. Life isn't, sad to say, a ceteris parebis experiment that we can go back and see if we made the right decision by re-running it. So, I'll just muddle along and be grateful to friends like BB who provide me with a reality check from time to time.














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The sad thing about being an old witch

Mar 28 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Is that the young 'uns block you the minute you are "hostile" and "not supportive". Actually, it's not really so sad. For me, at least.

Background: Dr. Isis posted something challenging someone who said they were going to quit because academics is so horrible and hostile, particularly to people with disabilities. The person wanted to change it from "the outside". And got all huffy when people suggested "outside" wasn't the best place from which to affect change.

The sad thing is that two of the participants immediately, after 2-3 tweets, blocked me (and Isis, I assume). I was asked if  I was disabled, and when I didn't answer, I was blocked. And that is sad, because I have been, from inside and outside, a supporter of differently-abled people. I do research that touches on able-ism and physical disabilities. They'll never know. They've lost the opportunity to learn something.

It's very easy to see offense at every corner. Lurking behind every tree. This doesn't mean microagressions aren't real. I've seen this: for me, and the bits of intersectionality that I carry with me. I saw this, back before any of you were thinking "science". And I see it now, as an old lady. You want prejudice: being an old lady of any color, race cis/trans, abledness. Old ladies are ugly. Unless they try to look young, in which case they are pathetic. [and no, I'm not saying its the same as being.... or as bad as being... Please].

What bothers me most is the demand to be listened to, without the return courtesy of listening back.


UPDATE: from Bill Hooker @sennoma


3 responses so far

Watching in the background on my extra screen

Mar 23 2016 Published by under Uncategorized




All images © American Eagle Foundation.

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Predatory Conferences: the ugly offspring of Predatory Journals

Mar 16 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I got the following email, marked "urgent" no less:

Dear Dr. Potnia Theron,


The purpose of this letter is to formally invite you to be a Speaker for International Conference on Anatomy and Physiology which is going to be held during August 11-13, 2016 at Birmingham, UK.

The conference will be organized around the theme Advancement in the teaching and research in the field of Human Anatomy & Physiology

The first give-away is that Anatomy & Physiology is not my primary meeting/field. But! This is in England. I had a mentor from Birmingham! There are interesting people doing interesting research in Birmingham. I'd always love an excuse to go to the UK. Then you go to the webpage and discover, its sponsored by Omics. Hmmm... the various "omics" are not really part of the work I do, or anatomy/physiology, so why are they sponsoring this? Then a little tiny bell goes off in my head. I immediately google "Jeff Beall"  and "Omics" and get this hit from The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

The CHE article is worth the read. It points out there are valid and legit OA journals that work on the author-pays model. There are a number of non-trivial discusions, arguments and mmm.. interactions about OA, here and in the twittersphere. This is not about those issues.  This is about the predatory journals that cross the line. Jeff Beall is a librarian who runs an invaluable blog, Scholarly Open Access,  and frequently blogs about predatory entities. OMICS claims it is legit. But as the CHE article & others by Beall suggest, OMICS seems to cross the line. Read about it here and here.

As for their conferences, from Beall:

Now new evidence has surfaced revealing that OMICS, which is also in the business of organizing scientific conferences, has been 1) using the names of scientists, oftentimes without their permission, to invite participants to their meetings, 2) promoting their meetings by giving them names that are deceptively similar to other well-established meetings that have been held for years by scientific societies, and 3) refusing to refund registration fees, even if their meetings are cancelled.

Do not fall for these tactics. If you are a trainee, talk to your mentors about which conferences are worth attending. When funds are limited, its always tempting to go somewhere "interesting", like the UK. And at any point in one's career, getting an invitation is a good feeling. But some good feelings aren't real.







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Writing grants under duress

Mar 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

It may be that the only thing worse than writing a grant is the last throes of submitting a gr ant. And the only thing worse than the last throes of submitting a grant is doing it when you have Darwin's Own Evil Cold.

I do believe that there are small creatures, in my head, with long handled geology hammers. The rustiness of hammersaid hammers is without question dropping little flakes of iron into the middle of my thought processes. They are pounding on all the neurons that are responsible for grant writing. The neurons responsible for double checking that I didn't say anything stupid.

flame throwerThere are also small creatures with cigarette lighters, no, flame throwers, in my head. They are nasopharynxsomewhere deep in my nasopharynx. They are playing some indistinct, throbbing music that quite likely is offensive to everyone. They are, needless to say, finding this whole process tremendously amusing. I, needless to say, am not. Many, many things hurt. I can't even get the formatting right for this post.

I have a marvelous collaborator, and she is doing her best to get the i's crossed and t's dotted and wording such that They Will Give Us Money. It is almost done. Very, very soon, I will go home, and go to bed and have tea and toast. I will sleep until the next millennium and funding starts rolling in.


5 responses so far

More thoughts on my aging mother

Mar 10 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The sadness I feel when I visit my mother is often close to unbearable. But obviously, bear it one must. When I leave I often physically shake, like a wet dog, to shake off the feelings and move into the rest of the day.

But sometimes the feelings stay with me, like a burr on your sock. You know,  the kind that you notice because its got a small itch or irritation from the spines going through to the skin. You reach down and try and pull it off, but it won't come, because it and its 15 sibs are stuck tightly in the fabric of your socks. So you pull on them, and pull the sock away from your leg, and it seems better for about 10 minutes, and then that creeping little itchy irritating feeling starts coming back, gradually until you feel like you can't stand it any more.

Some days, that's how I feel after seeing my Mom. I am thinking about how she was, when intact (a very mixed bag indeed). I am thinking about what she is like now and what I can do to make it better for her (probably nothing, other than visit more). Sometimes I am thinking about how furious I am with my brother and sister who have effectively abandoned her. Yes they know that I am here, and I am watching and taking care. And if I wasn't, I believe that they would step in. Except, except.... the long cathartic paragraph I just erased about my sibs was best as a catharsis, and not necessarily entertaining for all of you.

So I write about my mother to honor her. I write about my mother to remove that burr from my sock so I can get on with my day. I write about my mother so that even if you don't know her name, her accomplishments, or just her, what she has done lives just a little bit longer.

2 responses so far

To the rescue

Mar 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Drugmonkey has thrown down a challenge. So even if he doesn't care about my answer, her goes.

And... in true boomer fashion, I only recognize Tyrion Lannister from his list because I read the books. But...

Dors Venabili
Honor Harrington
Number One
Pyanfar Chanur

Points if you know who these folks are.

oh tags (as long as we are thinking big):


Mike the Mad Biologist


and one of my current favorites: Cartoon Neuron

One response so far

A frustrating grant critique

Mar 09 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I am writing a proposal with a wonderful young scientist. She has lots of skills I don't. I have lots of skills she doesn't. In a system with two parts, she does all of the beginning up through the interface. I pickup at the interface and carry through the second part. The problem we are addressing has a lot to do with sex differences, and things that NIH should be very interested in funding. We've been working up a feasible joint project for nearly 18 months now. We've met at meetings, and skyped for hours. We wrote an R21. I was PI because she was still a (albeit very senior) postdoc. We got scored, but not funded (I was so relieved not to be triaged).

She got a job that starts this fall, but wanted to resubmit after reading the critiques. Which were, btw, good critiques, things with which we could work, things that we could clarify, and not off-the-wall irritating comments. I offered to wait on the resubmission and let her be PI from her new institution. She said that we were ready to resubmit, and we should just go ahead and do it. I was happy to do whatever she wanted.

One of the critiques is "there is no evidence of collaboration between the two investigators". Well, we haven't published together as these are very expensive experiments for all sorts of reasons. We thought about combining data and doing something just to prove we "can work together" but neither of us felt good about that. It seemed like something that you do to please someone else, not anything that would advance science. In the end, I'm not sure that a male PI would get this critique, or that a big dog would. The assumption is that they would make it work. Maybe I'm just sensitive. Its a great project. It has the potential to make a big difference.

10 responses so far

Isis (the scientist) and The Red Queen

Mar 08 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Okeydokey. I wrote this a while ago, and forgot to post it. Ah well. It's still of value and maybe the postdoc/millenial hordes will descend on me anew and tell me "I don't get it". Just like I did when I was young, green and much more sure of what I knew than I am now.

She's back. And with a good message cloaked in her trademarked hilarity.

The predictable discussion ensued about whether it is appropriate to ask for more than a 40 hour work week from trainees, although I rolled my eyes a little and needed a cocktail over the fact we’re discussing a letter from 1996.

The money quote is:

 I have been a long time advocate of “work-life balance” or whatever the heck that means, but I also don’t believe that our jobs can be done in 40 hours.

Not just your field, honey. Almost anything, including computational, theoretical modeling. Her point is well taken: that there is variation. Some mentors are jackasses and make ridiculous demands. Others are not. Some who are don't know it, and some who are know it, and don't care. But where that line between "obscene" demands and "strong" demands can be and often is drawn in many places.

Isis' point about working till the job is done is the succinct statement of reality. Her dean, my dean, all of chairs, are not interested in the hours we work, but the widgets we produce or results (papers, funded proposals) we get. A good mentor works on that basis with their trainees, too. For trainees and for junior faculty, the issue becomes: what constitutes the appropriate amount of end product?

Leigh Van ValenThe Red Queen from Alice became an acceptable model/trope in evolutionary biology visa vi Leigh Van Valen, a character if there ever was one. I did have the experience, and sometimes it verged on intellectual pleasure, of knowing Leigh. Here is the link to the original publication for The Red Queen Hypothesis (Leigh was OA before OA was A Thing). The Red Queen is simply that one must run as hard one can to stay in place, as the RQ tells Alice:

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that. -- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In evolutionary biology, this came to imply that if a species did not evolve, but stayed in place, it would go extinct, given that it was existing in an ever changing environment and competing with other species that were evolving. Van Valen proposed that this was a consequence of natural selection and Darwinian evolution.

In the cultural context of academic survival, it means that if there are fewer places (jobs or grants) than people who want them, one must run as hard as the others who also desire those ends. I am not saying this is A Good Thing, or that it is A Bad Thing. It is merely A  Thing, and to a large extent, A True Thing. One's emotional response to this is, to a large extent, irrelevant. We can all commit to changing the system. We can work towards being different. But, when you are a postdoc, or an untenured faculty, railing against this, tweeting furiously will not change the fact that if you want to succeed, you need to achieve standards. And those standards are often made in comparison to other people who are also running as hard as they can.

I had originally written about another 500 words on this. But I've broken them up into more posts, as they address specific parts of this problem: the 80 hour work week, stopping the tenure clock, and same-sex couples. Keep reading....




8 responses so far

Death and Religion

Mar 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

On Feb 13th, the Sunday NYTimes had a brilliant, lyrical and moving opinion piece titled "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me" by Kate Bowler.

Bowler is a Christian and  a scholar who is dying of Stage 4 cancer. The article is weaves her research on prosperity Christianity (i.e., God wants Me! and You! to be rich). It's also one version of the "everything happens for a reason" and "God has a purpose for everything" life views, views, in my experience, held to no good end by both crunchy left-leaning alternatives and socially conservative, right-leaning devoutes.

There are many quotes worth repeating in the article, including her husband's response to everything for a reason: "I'd love to hear it". One of my favorites (which anyone who has either nearly died, or watched someone they love, someone they cannot image living without, has thought/felt):

Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn't realize I had made.

But I find her message confusing. She is criticizing, it seems, the people who say "for a reason" when there is obviously not one, other than, as she points out, the fragility of the human body. Or the confluence of events and genes over which one has neither control nor even knowledge. She talks about the use of "blessed" and how it blurs gift and reward. Which is it? The gift she says, is the acknowledgement that "I could not do this by myself". Why are we wondering about an external entity stepping in to do something for us mere mortals? Why for this mortal and not that one? Is this mortal better?

She implicitly criticizes the reward interpretation:

But it can also imply that it was deserved. “Thank you, me. For being the kind of person who gets it right.” It is a perfect word for an American society that says it believes the American dream is based on hard work, not luck.

Actually, this is probably closer to what really happens, it's just calling it a "blessing" is a bit odd. Step up and take credit for what you've done in life. Isn't the world as a large complex multi-multi-multi-dimensional interaction among humans and other creatures and weather and inanimate objects, that might all have trajectories and reasons, but to each of us, be a dreadfully random set of effects?

Bowler dissects the damage, the emotional and spiritual damage, that those beliefs bring. The message: follow these rules and God will reward you, is okay, except when it isn't. At the end of her opinion piece she is still admiring the daily lives of believers, finding them inspirational, "stubbornly getting out of their hospital bed and declare themselves healed".  But what about the damage? What about the people who die in shame, who can't let go? What about the children who die senselessly? Is that part of God's plan? If some deity brings you prosperity, because you pray, but the next day, a drunk driver kills your child, is it because your prayer was not pure enough, not strong enough? Please tell me what is the good that comes from a young child's death?

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