Archive for: June, 2016

Thoughts during NIH study section - part 2 about the role of Mentors

Jun 30 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had a lot of thoughts, so its easier to break them up by topic. This one is about the role of mentors in R-mechanisms from Early Stage Investigators or Early Career Researchers. These are, as the NIH PO repeatedly said, are NOT MENTORED awards. The PO is the one who should know. The PO is the one who is going to recommend the final funding decisions to Council. Thus there is no formal role for a mentor. But, postdocs can apply for this particular award, with the goal "to facilitate moving to an independent career".

So, the role of a mentor is contentious. It produced discussion amongst the panel, and some of the discord among reviewers. The proposed work could be done in a mentor's lab, so that the larger shared resources (for example, expensive equipment) can be shared. But the work should represent a new and towards-independent direction for the applicant. The question of independence itself was seldom an issue. All of the proposals seem to get that right, even the ones with other significant problems.

The biggest concern came with problematic proposals, in the logic of experiments, the logic of hypothesis testing, what the analysis results would mean. When these things weren't strong, reviewers questioned whether the mentors actually looked at the proposal. Yes, the mentor wrote a walk-on-water letter, and made it clear about resources available. But why then, were there such significant flaws in the logic of the proposal?

In some cases there was a large "team" at one place - maybe 2-3 major PI's working on similar issues, with different  expertise. One did proteonomics, one did imaging, one did molecular magic. When there was a proposal from a young person, with letters for all 3 Big Dogs, all R01 funded, there was a fine, and difficult line for the applicant. Reviewers needed to be persuaded of independence of the young person, and that this was not just a ploy to bring MOAR MONEY! into the senior labs. Yet, if the proposal was poorly done, then it was asked, did the mentors have enough time to read the proposal and point out the flaws?

This sounds like a very hard, almost insoluble problem. But its not. One: you must make your proposal as strong as possible. The logic from premise and justification through the hypotheses, testing the hypotheses and how data will address them must be strong. Can the PI do the proposed work? If the PI does the proposed work/experiments/data collection, will the questions be answered and hypotheses tested? The issue of mentor seemed to arise when there were problems answering these questions. So get your mentor's help. The next step is how to show independence when you are working with a mentor.

There a number of things that show independence in this situation. Firstly, having published a paper (preferably with  Young  Padawan PI as first author) that is different, a new direction, or something that distinguishes from mentor(s)'s ongoing  line of work. A published track record is almost always the best thing to support anything you propose to the NIH. Secondly, have the mentor, in their letter of support, state not just that its new/independent, but WHY it is: "I've never thought about including the biomechanics of claw strength in my studies of bunny hopping, until Young Padawan joined my lab and pointed out the significance of this feature". How do you make sure the letter gets written this way? Write it for the mentor. Or given them a bullet list of points to include. We've talked about this before, here.

More on mentors, soon, very soon.

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Thoughts during NIH Study Section - part 1

Jun 29 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I really don't got to study sections as much as I used to. I only ad hoc, that is, I'm not a sitting member but they call me when there's something tor a bunch of somethings with which I can help. It's important, but, (1) I've done it a lot, and the returns to me are diminishing,  balanced with I'm busy with other stuff and (2) someone younger should be doing this (I suggest every time).

When I do go, I just open a file and take notes during the meeting. There is a fine line here. I don't, I can't talk about any particular proposal. But I think that sharing impressions in general is very helpful. Here, then are some thoughts I've had for the most recent go-round.

Keep in mind this study section is for a specific early career mechanism. I totally support separating these. It's not so much that it makes for competition among these young guys, but that it removes any comparison to the Big Dogs. In my experience, even when mechanisms are reviewed separately, for example, all the ESI proposals together, then all the "grown-up" R01s, reviewers cannot help but see different levels of grant-competence and  scientific chops between categories. When I review, I don't say "OK, I'm going to do the ESI ones first, finish those, and then start on the others".  This section was ONLY  NI/ESI/ECR/fellowships.

There were a number of consistent concerns raised across multiple proposals.  (oh how easily ones slips into reviewer-speak). Several times the section discussed the fine line between ambitious (good) and over-ambitious (bad). Did the applicant not understand what is feasible? Do they think they can do 5 or 6 or 7 years work in three? This problem was correlated with the concern of where to draw the line between problems of grantsmanship or poorly written proposals with insufficient explanation and problems of research design. In some sense, this is trying to read the mind of the person submitting the grant: did they just poorly state what they want to do, or do they not know what they want to do? Are they missing a critical part of the design (a variable, an experiment, a control)? Or, is it implicit in the writing if you read it a certain way.

When I have been helping young people, when I see this problem in a proposal, I often hear various versions of "the problem is the page length". In fact, I heard it the other day at a thesis proposal that was required to be in the format of an NIH proposal. Remember the page length is your friend: it is telling you how much information the reviewers want to/expect to/need to read. If you are having trouble putting everything into the proposal, consider whether you have 1) included unnecessary detail or 2) are trying to put too much into the proposal.

Back to study section, as someone said: if they had just reread the proposal one more time, or had someone outside read the proposal one more time and see if it makes logical sense in the way it flows, they might have caught the perceived problems.

There are several pieces of advice that flow from this:

  • Writing does matter.
  • Your perception that your logic is tight is not necessarily true
  • Get someone else to read your proposal. Someone who will tell you what is wrong, both in willing to critique it and willing to put the time in to see what is wrong.
  • The best proposals are "tight", they are focused and they are feasible.






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I hate Grants Accounting because they want me to spend my own money

Jun 24 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I need updates to various software programs that we use in my lab. Graphics programs, statistics programs, editing programs. At my almost-MRU they have decided that programs unless they drive equipment that was purchased on a grant are General Use and therefore can't be charged to a grant. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software? Even if used by someone who is 100%  grant supported *might* be used by someone else (wtf? who is on the computer that is dedicated to the grant?) and can't be charged to the grant.

I was explicitly told "Use your other sources of funding". I hate the bean counters. Though, admittedly in past, I have enjoyed counting beans as a soothing pastime.

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My Bar is Closing

Jun 23 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

My sadness is great. This is the place where I sit and write these posts. Where they play quiet jazz or sometimes not so quiet jazz. Where the wine is good. Where I have my booth. It is an adult bar in a college town filled with bars with sticky floors and gum under the tables and surly wait-staff and way too loud rock and roll so you have to yell to have a conversation.

My friend, the owner & proprietor tried to make it work. But it didn't. Someone is buying it. Someone who owns a bunch of the children's bars in this little college town. I guess it will become another children's bar. But I'm not a kid any more, and I'll have to find somewhere new.

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Hanging in there when you want to quit ... or is it time to leave the party?

Jun 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a friend. A good friend. A friend in his mid-60s. A friend who is a lawyer and works his ass off. He is in single practice, not even a paralegal. That means when he doesn't work, and doesn't bill, he doesn't get paid. He says that he is finally old enough that he doesn't have to spend 30% of his time finding business, although 30% of the business that finds him won't pay in the end.

I was talking about the amount of time I spend writing grants. I've submitted 1 or 2 at each deadline for the last year or so. At my new almost-MRU medical school, I'm 40-60% research,  and I'm still expected to generate that much salary. His view, as someone who supports the mission of the NIH, is that what I do is insane. It's like Obama filing his own paperwork or typing his own memos, he says. Its like giving someone a  sapphire-bladed scalpels (I actually have one of these babies, it is so very fine), and telling them to fix the sink or the sidewalk.

For us, though, the ones writing the endless stream of grants, it is grinding. It's depressing and it's scary. I won't pretend that as a senior person it is as scary as it is to my junior colleagues. It's not. But its not a good feeling, both not being funded and having to write and write and write for every deadline.

But it's still depressing.


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On Moving: inspired by quote of the day, big fish/pond edition

Jun 21 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I've moved several times in my career. Usually these moves are inspired by external event or circumstance. I have moved for partners, for a spouse, to be nearer my parents. Sometimes for science: I spent two years in Australia working on marsupials. But I've learned a lot from each move. The most consistent things I've learned is:  Damned if I am going to move again.

Many people don't move, for all sorts of reasons. Some settle down, have a family and are reluctant to move that family. Some feel they have reached an absorbing boundary: why would I want to leave Harvard/Caltech/BSD-R01 University? Some would like to leave, and don't have the chops to do so.

Here's the quote:

"Interestingly, koi, when put in a fish bowl, will only grow up to three inches. When this same fish is placed in a large tank, it will grow to about nine inches long. In a pond koi can reach lengths of eighteen inches. Amazingly, when placed in a lake, koi can grow to three feet long. The metaphor is obvious. You are limited by how you see the world." - Vince Poscente

Who the heck is Vince Poscente? He's a motivational speaker and "best selling author". Hmmm... Let's just use the quote at face value and not worry about Vince.

One might think the message is you are limited by the size of your pond. And that's probably true to some extent. Big universities have more resources (mostly) and can provide their faculty with either more opportunities (mostly) or fewer limits on their growth (sometimes). It's important to remember that size isn't everything. Or, as my one good friend sez: Size is nothing. And there are multiple ways of measuring excellence and good-fit. And, of course, sometimes its not in academics at all.

One of the things I have learned from moving a lot is that there is not a single scale and metric of what works for me, let alone for someone else. There are lots of ingredients of happiness, and size/quality/supurbity of place is only one of them.

As is true for most things: people are the same everywhere, and there are wonderful unique people to meet in each place. But that character with pony tail and torn tshirt & work boots who always interrupts the dept meetings to tell questionable jokes? Yup there's one of him or her in every department. plus or minus.

At everyplace I've been, there are a few lifers. People who've been in one place since their post-doc or residency. And no matter an external assessment of the place, they are so steeped in the traditions that they become blinded to nuance and the much of what goes on in the wider world.

If indeed, its "how you see the world" and not "how big is your pond", then the best thing that one can do, as best one can, is make sure to see more than one's own pond. I had a partner who did not believe in scientific meetings, and referred to them as "ego-fests". I think there is nothing like going to a meeting and sitting in sessions once or twice removed from your work. Or go to SfN and just wander a brand new poster aisle. Go to ExBio and go to other society posters. or sessions. Hit the plenary talks by not necessary the Big Dogs, but by the folks who are supposed to give Great Talk. You can push the boundaries of your own little pond.


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Jun 20 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I am of an age where my mentors are leaving this vale of tears, depending, of coruse, on how one counts ones mentors.

The mentor who just passed away was a lovely French woman. She had more style in her little finger than I do in my whole body, integrated over 60 years of life. She had done many interesting and important scientific studies, but ones, alas that have been taken over by more modern and recent work. The people who knew her and collaborated with her are largely retired or damn close.

What is important here is that she was good to me. Helped me. Taught me. She was not a "main mentor" - advisor for a degree. I have not spoken with her for many years. The last time I saw her was when I visited Paris with a young person.  She was wonderful and charming, but the young person is gone, and it is a different painful story.

When I was in grad school I heard the Dali Lama speak. He was charismatic speaking in a foreign language. One of the things he said was to live one's life without regrets. That is a powerful thought: do not do the things you will regret, but having done them, for whatever reason, do not regret them.

I have tried to live my live that way. There are very few things I do regret, and those I do are not worth airing here. The ones that involve other people: I am sorry.

But now, I have one more regret. I have not gone back to Paris for years. I have not seen Francoise for years. I regret that.

My Masters, PhD, and Postdoc advisors are dead. Some of those are mourned more than others, by me, at least. Some will be remembered more than others, although that is not a reflection on either the importance of the work or on their importance to their trainees. All made a difference to me. I stop here, now to realize that.

My undergraduate mentor, who helped me get into grad school, and made me a co-author when undergrads were not co-authors, is still alive. I will write to him. It is never to late to say thank you to someone who is still alive.




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quote of the day: William O Douglas and free speech

Jun 17 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter. The audience that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance. --William O. Douglas

Bonus quote (bonus points if you know what the 14th amendment is without looking it up):

No patent medicine was ever put to wider and more varied use than the Fourteenth Amendment. --William O. Douglas

Quiz for the masses: The first amendment guarantees  five rights. Do you know what they are?

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The first amendment, (my numbers)

Congress shall make no law (1) respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or (2) abridging the freedom of speech, or (3) of the press; or (4) the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and (5) to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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Managing your NIH collaborators

Jun 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Do not let collaborators put a biosketch that is not in the correct format in your proposal. We've had the new format for at least 2 or 3 cycles (I've lost track...). It does not meet the meta-criterion of making your reviewers advocates for your grant.

Update (I better call this one, there are quite likely to be more) 1: I still hate right justification, it makes it hard for me to read. But really, right now I am very irritated by numbered references. There are a couple that I want to check. Grr.

Update 2: Do NOT ever ever use emojis, clip art, or handdrawn  diagrams in a proposal. Further, every figure included should convey significant amount of information, more than that words would do in the same space.

Update 3: Holy Cow.

Leave                  some                 white               space.          If you use the smallest font and the tiniest margins and no space between paragraphs, I feel swamped by enormous blocks of black text.

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Important v. Urgent

Jun 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I know the distinction between important and urgent has become trite. But when I was a sproutling, someone explaining the difference hit me between the eyes like an icy snowball.

From the discussion on my last post:

The Other Sidesays:

Wait, are you saying that the postdoc should postpone the experiments and focus on the pubs and his career or the opposite?

  • potnia theronsays:

    No, I'm saying there are multiple demands, with different timelines for payoff. Being a PI means balancing all of these things. My PD is becoming capable of doing that.

It is very easy to get lost in urgent. Sometimes it's easy to get lost in important, and lose track of urgent. I have found that as I age time flows differently. When I was younger, Things had to be done now! Things fell if not into the urgent basket, at least into the oh crap, its time to panic about this, now, basket. As a trainee the perceived and real pressures of getting results, finding a job, and just moving on in life are often overwhelming.

Learning to balance important and urgent is part of the professional skills that PD's learn. They're probably critical to long term mental health. Learning to focus down on one thing, for a space of time, but then being capable of moving on to the next and focusing on that one is hard. But necessary. For my postdoc, yes, writing and getting out papers that demonstrate productivity as a PD is both important and urgent. On the other hand, doing this set of experiments may be less urgent (for the postdoc) but represent something that has the potential to be very important, just not necessarily on the current time line. And, this has given me another vignette to put into a letter of recommendation.

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