Archive for: February, 2017

How hard you work and the Red Queen: repost

Feb 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I wrote two things, one two years ago, and one about a year ago about working hard, hours and balance. There's been lots of talk on the tweets about how hard people should work. As if should was a real thing. Here are the valuable bits (much more in each of these posts):

Firstest thing:


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.

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.


Secondest thing:

..where that line between "obscene" demands and "strong" demands can be and often is drawn in many places.

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 (the link to the original publication for The Red Queen Hypothesis). 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.

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.

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Some days are just a struggle with old memories

Feb 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the issues of getting older is that there are a lot more memories. Just as someone in their 30s, struggling with a job, a partner's job, maybe a child or two, has a hard time remembering whether this thing happened in when they were 8 or 9, I sometimes have trouble remembering whether it was this student or that who did the study that actually 20 or 30 years later turns out to be relevant for something this student, right here, wants to do.

But those memories aren't the struggle in this title. The struggle is when some memory trips my "mother" or "father" circuit. I spent so many years distancing myself from my parents. They were difficult when I was younger. They totally supported me, my decisions, my career. That was much more than many of my women friends had from their parents. "Darling, if you must have a career, why not be a doctor or a lawyer. Why do you want a PhD in botany of all things?".

I spent so much time distancing myself, exerting my independence, my sense of me. When I finally moved back to the City Where They Lived (and oh, yeah, I grew up) to take care of them at the end of their lives, I had a strong enough sense of self that I did not have to work at being me. That didn't stop me and my father from fighting. That didn't stop me from being totally aggravated by my mother's early dementia.

Now, I would give anything to have a cup of coffee with either of them. To listen to them tell me what to do with my life, how to organize my CV, or what I should be doing about my teaching.

I am not telling you, dear readers, to go hug your parents. Your relationship may never have gone through the spasms of closeness and farness that mine did. Your relationship may be beyond repair at this point. Or you may still be in the phase of learning to be you, and be an adult, and be separate from your parents. Nor am I writing to say "I am sorry" to them. I did the best I could. The path that I took made it possible for me to arrive at the place where I could care for them when they needed it. I am writing for me, for the catharsis. I am writing to say: Mama, Papa, I miss you.

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Problems of sub-infra-under-disciplines

Feb 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Most of us do research that is "trans-disciplinary" or "integrative" in one form or another. In fact, I have always touted that as one of the secrets to getting NIH funding: the careful design of a project that is of interest and importance to your IC's missions/goals, but will still answer the fundamental questions you think are important and gripping. For various folks from my background (evolutionary/ organismic/ ecologic), this is one path to NIH funding.

My NIH-identity does not easily fall into any IC. It's a disease, but one that doesn't have its own IC, like deafness or cancer, or even part of one, like stroke. It's not a well-defined clinician entity, with a large, sub-group, like dentistry or nursing. It's across the agespan, so it's not like Alzheimer's, which is largely a problem of the elderly, or prematurity, which is largely assigned to peds. The fact is nobody wants to fund my particular version of bunny hopping. They have said so explicitly, despite it being a major cause of morbidity and mortality for a number of other significant diseases.

This is very evident in that proposals get bounced around in terms of IC assignment. My poor postdoc in particular got told not to bother to submit the K-award by IC-one, because we're not funding that, any more, and IC-2 said try IC-1, because they do that and not us, and IC-3 never even answered the emails. Time to revise and resubmit.

The response of various people, people in this sub discipline, to this problem is very interesting, in part because of the different perceptions of "why" and what the problem really is.

I have my views. Of course I do.  I think historically this has been a "women's field", like nursing, where most of the clinical practioners were women.Over the  years there has been a lot of lip service to "interdisciplinary" teams, and this may have been true for the folks working with patients But it has not been reflected in attendance at meetings and publications in the flagship journal. Interestingly to me, at least, is that European and Asian societies are more diverse, in terms of discipline, and are much larger. That is, 5000 people at the meeting instead of 500. But that's not where the funding is.

A second problem is, in my view, but with some evidence, that through the 90's and 00's IC#1 (from above) funded a lot of work in this field. A lot of very bad work. Big clinical trials that were ultimately flawed or produced only negative results. Part of the reason for this, in my view, is that they were treating symptoms and not looking for mechanism. This was at a time, when NIH was shifting to mechanism and pathophysiology. At one point, a couple of years ago, one of the PO's from IC#1 basically said this to me, when I was on an in-house study section.

[As an aside, I know lots of people who "went over the PO's head" to absolutely no effect at all. In this case].

SO what is the response of the folks in this area to this problem? There have been two very distinct responses, that I have seen. One might chose to categorize them as Old- and Young- guard. But there are young 'uns in the old camp.

The old guard write editorials in the journal, and Talk Seriously About the Problem at the National Meeting. I seldom am invited to participate in these, because, after all, I am not a clinician. These people cling to their clinical status and research justification. And I work on animal models. (Aside, this is a meeting where I have been criticized for "pretending" that my animal models are relevant, because animal models not have compliance issues, or co-morbidity concerns. Explaining ceteris parabis to these people did not and will not work). But I read what they write and shake my head. Lots of self-pity, lots of "we need PR". Very little introspection as to what has been done wrong.

There is an anniversary divisible by 10 of the journal, and they commissioned a number of articles. Here, to me, is a reflection of the problem. I was asked to write "about animal models". Not about the questions of mechanism I have been working on. Not about the underlying scientific/ neurological/ physiological/ biochemical problems that I address with animal model models. I wrote the article as a plea for understanding pathophysiology and mechanism. You could take out my disease name, and put in "blindness" or "cancer" or "ALS" and it would be entirely relevant (although you'd need new references).

On the other hand, the young turk's response struck me as, well, incredible. Incredible in a wonderful way. Two young, one just pre-tenure, and one just post-tenure, organized a small local meeting. 20-25 people. I was flattered to be invited, and two other olde fartes were there. Everyone else was in spitting distance of their postdoc/residency. Lots of students there, too.

We got the agenda a few weeks in advance. The meeting was NOT presentations by anyone, although you could bring slides on a computer to support points. There were 1-2 major question in each morning or afternoon block, that were starting points. What is the definition of our clinical problem? In terms of physiology, in terms of patients? What is good and bad about how we look at it clinically? What do we need to do to understand this problem? What are the other problems that need to be addressed that we've not thought about? Two intensive days. It was incredible. What do we need to do and how can we best do it? I felt like I contributed to thinking about how to do research, and importantly, came back charged up thinking about what my work means and does and how to make it better. That meeting certainly informed my article about the role of animal research.

The Big National Meeting of this group always seems to me the same people saying the same things. It's small for A Big National Meeting, 400-600 people, of whom <150 present info. One session, everybody there. I have not been excited at this meeting for years. In fact, I'm not going to go this year. I send my trainees (who almost always get to present) and who have a good professional experience. Most of the young turks from the small local meeting will be there, and they are tremendously kind, professionally, to various younger trainees who show up.

But, there are always young people willing to sell their soul for a mess of pottage. The current president of the society is young and should be a rabble rouser and agent of change. He should be part of the Young Turk Group. But he's a physician who has morphed into an old man and espouses the party line.

I judge this group's ability to change the course of NIH funding priorities as small. But the young group? They are understand what research is, what modern, current, NIH priority research is. They are funded, and in fact, they are the ones who will be making a difference in the world, for the patients, for our understanding.


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On Being a Postdoc

Feb 01 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing)

I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.
I wondered if I could ask a question of the group – my mentor has been out of town/the country for the past 3-4 months and will continue to be so for another 2 months (at least). I adore my mentor, but I’m having a hard time getting the mentorship/training I need (we don’t really have a lab – it’s just me) – and at the same time feel guilty for needing anything. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on what are reasonable things for a first year postdoc (in a completely new research area) to ask for from their mentor (for example, regular meetings/phone calls)? What does ideal mentorship/training look like in the first year of a postdoc? Thank you in advance.

So first off, Wally, I do appreciate that there are large places in the world where we, whoever we are, do not feel safe. It's a hard call sometimes, to chose between that perfect job, and going to a place that doesn't welcome who we are, who our family is, let alone finding a group of people who will support us in what we do.

As for getting mentorship. Indeed. I am sure the loyal Scientopia Readers will have Things To Say.

My thoughts: Firstly, ask your mentor for a weekly Skype conference.  This should be possible. It may only have to be 30 minutes (which will make it more palatable). Asking for weekly meetings is not asking for too much. For your part, I would work hard to make those meetings useful. Get a template of some sort, and use it. With some of my trainees, I use four questions:

  1. What are your over-arching goals (this can be either a monthly or yearly or projectly scale, or it can be all of these)?  This, or these, may not change week to week, but it is good to revisit and remind on a regular basis.
  2. What have you accomplished in the past week?
  3. What do you plan to accomplish in the coming week?
  4. What is going to get in the way of you doing #3?

Within each of these, we break it down by project/sub-project or area. If the trainee is doing some teaching or taking a class, there is teaching for each question, and research for each question. If the postdoc has two different papers they're working on, we deal with these q's for each paper.

By organizing what you have to say to your mentor, and making sure you are using the time efficiently, it will not only help you get the most out of the time, but also the mentor.

Secondly, I think it is reasonable, nay beyond reasonable and approaching necessity, to develop some of those over-arching goals, and get your mentor to sign off on them. I think these goals need to be at different time scales, including one for the duration of the training time with this mentor. Then either monthly or multi-monthly goals are useful for making sure the largest goal gets done. These goals can break down by either time period or project period. But they time and scope should have both attached to the goal. So, for example, it could be, if the PD is to learn new techniques:

Over-arching/top level goal: To learn new & specific experimental techniques, to learn how to analyze data these techniques generate and produce at least 1-2 publishable papers per year.

Goal for Winter/Spring 2017 (ie until June): master technique #1 and collect preliminary data that would be sufficient for a small paper. Analyze these data. Outline results and begin writing paper (paper to be done in summer 2017).

Goal for Spring/Summer 2017: work with trainee ZZZ on learning technique #2. Help ZZZ analyze these data, and participate in writing this paper (mid-list authorship). [of course, this depends on a discussion with mentor & ZZZ to make sure this is acceptable and understood by all. Negotiate authorship in advance.]

There are lots and lots of other examples of and articles on how to develop this kind of thing, often called an "Individual Development Plan or Program (IDP). This one is from SCIENCE, which has an interactive tool to help you develop a plan of your own. This one is from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. Here is an article from NATURE. Very important: these goals needs to be fluid, changeable, and modifiable as you go on. That's why including overarching goals, at least briefly, each week, is a good thing. It gives you a chance to let them grow and change without feeling you are smashing your godfigures.

Finally, get rid of the guilt. Hard to do, but a good thing. In this case, it's a waste of energy. Decide what you need. Work on trying to get it. Know that you won't always get the support and mentoring you need. Know that you won't always know what support and mentoring you need. But letting guilt feelings enter into the equation is not going to move anything in a direction you would want to move.


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