Archive for: March, 2017

Engineering Joke about Administrators

Mar 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Apropos the last comment about administrators in academia:


A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost.   He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below.   He descended a little bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me?   I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately thirty feet above the ground.   You’re between 40 and 41 degrees north latitude and between 59 and 60 degrees west longitude.”

“You must be an engineer,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman.   “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist, “everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I’m still lost.   Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all.   If anything, you’ve delayed my trip.”

The woman below responded, “You must be an administrator,” to which he replied, “I am, but how did you know?”

“Well,” the woman responded, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going.   You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air.   You made a promise which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems.   The fact is, you are in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

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A few thoughts on the "overhead" political crisis

Mar 30 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm sure lots of folks have lots to say about this, but I've been up to my ears in data, so I've not had time to read all the worthies on twitter and in the blogosphere on this subject. So, just my thoughts:

Reducing overhead, by fiat, by negotiation, by reluctant blood letting, will not necessarily have the end result that The Government wants. Overhead is a major component of research/academic budgets. Yes, they keep the lights on, the air con in the summer, and the animal facilities happy. They help provide seed money to get new faculty going. In the end, something or somebody will have to pay for this stuff.

Will any university, big or small, MRU or almost-MRU or SLAC give up overhead? Not willingly. Reduce overhead? Watch fringe rates go up substantially (fringe rates are allowable in salary/direct costs). Watch pressures on faculty to bring in even more money go up. At places I have been, clinical faculty must bring in their entire salary, either through seeing patients, grants, or explicit teaching. Overhead makes it possible to bring in young clinical faculty, and protect some of their time (in which they better damn well be writing K-awards to cover 75% of their salary).

Money is fungible, as our brothers, sisters and non-binary sibs in economics say. That means while there are things overhead/F&A/IDC can't be used for, if they are applied to things that are allowable, it may free up other money, from other sources to be used for those other things. For example, renovation of space is pretty regulated. So say a University has general funds for renovation but not quite enough for both projects A and B. The PI for project B gets a grant, it has F&A/overhead, and that covers project B, freeing up more money for project A. So universities will likely move funds around in new  and creative ways to support what the admin wants.

For example, from the NIH webpage on policy & compliance (my emphasis):

Office equipment (copiers, laptops, desktop computers, personal handheld computers, fax machines, scanners, etc.) that is used for general office purposes (rather than justified as a specific research purpose) are not allowable as direct costs; they are allowable as an F&A cost.

Where do you think that money for you new computer comes from? You want a new computer, make it come out of directs or do without.

One of the things I have seen kicked around for decades  is the idea that faculty should be sorted into tracks, more so than now. This is not just a flavor of adjuncts. In medical schools where there are small, intense bouts of teaching, this means basic science folks would be "teachers" or "researchers". Teachers (and we have one at almost-MRU) teach not just one subject, but in our department, in nearly every first year course: anatomy, neuro, histology, biochemistry, physiology, cell biology. Twelve months a year of teaching. There is no research expectation, except possible pedagogical research. The admin here would like people to either teach that much (you'd need far fewer) or be bringing in 90% of their salary. That's very different from the scholar/teacher model that is true of most faculty. Reducing overhead would be a push in this direction.

Will changing overhead push research into the middle of America, where things are cheaper? Who are you kidding? What it will do is make Universities tighten their belts a bit, pressure the faculty more, and in general, one more time, increase the selection gradient on younger people, as this money was part of what a Uni could do to get the new ones started. Positions in basic science departments may disappear, clinical departments will become even more polarized into clinical service/research.

Will it save the government money? Well, yes, because it won't be giving this money to NIH. But the end result? Less research. Done by fewer people. Smaller universities. Fewer young people going into research. Will this work shift to corporations? Unlikely. We all know the logic there.

The only small thing that might be a saving moment in this is that the F&A on training grants (F & K awards) is usually much less, often just 8%, across the board. F&A/indirect on R-awards are negotiated university by university, and often hover in the 60-80% range. That means if NIH reduces the number of awards to make them bigger to pick up the difference, training awards may less impacted.

In any case, I hope that the academic big dogs are lining up their big guns to go to congress about this. We little dogs can do our bit, and make noise. But I remember the importance of political activity from an incident, probably well over 20 years ago. There was another recession. There was more belt tightening suggested. One of the things that, in a spurt of pseudo-patriotism, the Governor and State Legislature decided was that the Engineering College at Big-Midwestern-Public-University should stop giving teaching fellowships/assistantships to people who were not American citizens. This would save money! They would support True! Pure Blooded Americans! Of course, they said "we'll just knock that much money out of your budget". It would have been, needless to say, a disaster, since about 80% of the TA's for undergraduate training were foreign. The President of the Uni, as well as the CEO of the Local Big Manufacturing Corporation that hired a significant portion of the grads of the College of Engineering went to the governor and said "are you out of your mind?". And the problem disappeared. Maybe that governor was smarter (doubt it). Maybe he saw the light. Maybe the CEO threatened to move out of state. But this solution just disappeared. It was never mentioned again. And it never came back.




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quote of the day: wisdom of the ancients

Mar 22 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The avaricious man is like the barren sandy ground of the desert which sucks in all the rain and dew with greediness, but yields no fruitful herbs or plants for the benefit of others. --Zeno

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Change is good, mostly, I think

Mar 22 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Change is good. It's been one of my guiding stars. I've written about it here.

Sometimes I've initiated the changes. I've moved several times. I've changed spouses/partners. And sometimes the changes initiate me: I've buried people I love, both older and younger. The finality of losing a person is an ache that is like nothing else.

Change, and all the good things that come from change are accompanied by loss and sadness. They have to be. Change means leaving something behind. Here is something I wrote about the sadness (which is a paraphrased quote from a book I love):

 But as I watch things in my life recede in time, I too wish that the psychic umbilicus would snap and whip my sadness down the long corridor to the void of oblivion.

Right now, things are changing in my life, in my science, in the people I work with. That's the nature of what we do. We nurture, we mentor, we help, and when we get to be close or even just friendly, the people with whom we work leave. Or they die. My oldest, bestest, longest collaborator is turning 90.

I started to write that I am better at the sadness now than I was. But its not better. Its just different. I too change.


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Why I write (elderly support edition)

Mar 15 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I've written a lot about my Mom, her dementia, my caregiving during the process. I've gotten lots of support here, for doing so. I thank you all for that. I feel like this community understood what I meant, and to a large extent what I felt.

Of course, not everyone. I've gotten some good & well meaning suggestions about how to deal with dementia. I've also gotten some stronger, and I suppose equally well meaning if I could get past the instructions on what to do, suggestions.

Here is from a comment I wrote to one of the obviously well-meaning bits on taking care of the elderly:

As for this post, it is about the feelings I have had while taking care of my mother, while watching her die . None of us [who do what I did] is looking for, expecting, or hoping for things to be different. We are telling our stories because that is how we cope.

We are telling our stories because that is how we cope. We read each other's stories so we can learn each other's coping strategies. Please, I don't need instructions on how to be a daughter. I've had plenty of experience.

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Marriage and divorce and women (scientists & otherwise)

Mar 14 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I started a post this morning about generations and anger and the world at large. As I thought back on what it felt like to me, when I was a sprout, a particularly strong memory came to me.

About this time four men I knew, professionally, at work, were getting divorces. One was my dept chair, one was a person with whom I wanted to collaborate, and the other two were co-teachers in then large and topically integrated first year med school class that was my teaching assignment. White privileged men, but all took some interest in mentoring me, and helping me. The dept chair had been very much responsible for me getting the job I did (when most of the other candidates were significantly senior, and already had tenure track jobs, I was just a postdoc at the time). But, in today's climate, let me be clear, there was no inappropriate behavior or pressure. It could be that they were honorable. It could be that I have always given off bristly signals, and have not, am not, and do not give off traditional female signals. No body has ever accused me of being sexy, let alone attractive.

I did not really know any of the wives, having met each once or twice at social things. I was kinda used to this by now. I had been the only women in several programs I had been part of it, and was used to the awkwardness of work related social situations. But mostly these were wives and mothers and women who had given up careers for being wives and mothers (most were Silent Generation, and some early boomer generation women). When I was younger I was more dismissive of women who were not professionals. I'm older than that now. I knew two of them and they struck me as being not very nice to me, but this is through my memory and thirty years of growing up.  The other two were just frosty the figures, no one I would want to marry (not that same sex marriage was remotely on the horizon even then).

But the memory that is strongest is something along the lines of: while I wouldn't want to be married to any of the women, I certainly wouldn't want to be involved with any of their husbands. It made me glad to be where I was (at the time) in terms of my life. Of course, in retrospect, there was not a lot of "work/life balance" in my world at that time. You did science/research/medicine or you did not.  But looking at these men & their lives, set up some major cognitive dissonance, as these were men I (sorta kinda) admired in the professional arena. Yet, they were pretty much schmucks in their private lives.

It was one of my early lessons that people can seem different in different contexts. People *are* different in different contexts. These men tried, a little, to protect me from the only other woman in the department, a toxic senior woman (to whom, in memory, I try to be more generous, her road was likely harder than mine, but really, she was evil).  They helped me to get funded, to start my career, to help me a success. I'm still glad I wasn't married to any of them.



But the


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NIH and IC Assignment

Mar 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

It's doesn't really matter who funds you, as long as you have money.

Some people care passionately about this. I think its a waste of energy.


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Taking care of our elderly

Last weekend I had breakfast with one friend, and dinner with another. They both are caregivers for their Moms. Both, however, have recently moved their Moms from home to assisted living/Alzheimer's units. The medical conditions are different in these Moms, and the personalities were different before the disease.

Yet, dementia brings on changes in personality that are as tough as they are predictable. Some is a loss of executive function, and the ability, nay desire, to say whatever enters your head. I remember "You can't be my child, because I don't have so many horrible genes". Some is anger at loss of function, or bluster for covering up mental lapses. One parent of a different friend became sweet and kind and charming. But that's the only one I can recall that the changes were perceived as an improvement.

My friends are women I've known for a while, the three years since I moved to almost-MRU. They've listened to me go through the pain, yes the pain, of watching my mother slip away. We've talked about this over the years. One friends mother is just in the beginning stages, and the other about a year behind my mother. The emotion burden is huge. And I will admit to feeling some relief when listening to them that these particular stages were over, for me.

One of the moms is angry. All the time. Painfully angry. Demanding people who are gone. Demanding the presence of my friend, all the time. It is hard to leave your crying mother, whether she is angry or emotionally bereft. I know this feeling. The only thing worse is when they forget to ask you to stay, just a minute more. Or when they can no longer scream at you, demand, plead.

The other mom has lost language. At first, language loss, albeit with speech, still, seems a relief. No more harangues, no more ridiculous requests, no more crying for people who have been dead for 20 or 50 years. But quickly,  for children caring for parents, this becomes a new loss. One of the things about AD is that you lose your parent or spouse or friend over and over and over again.

Each stage, each change is a knife in the heart. Some days, leaving my mom, coming home, I would look down at my chest and expect to see blood seeping through my clothes. I would think: this is the worst it can get. My mother was no longer crying for specific people, but tears and tears and tears for unknown sadness beyond words. There is often no way to comfort people with AD. They are angry, and then worse, they do not know you want to comfort them.


My friend, whose mother no longer has language, who is drifting into that twilight where neither mother nor daughter can see anything, showed me a picture of her mom. Here it is, with my friends permission. I took one look, and knew that it was the same picture I had of my mother. Our mothers, who remembering nothing else in their lives, remember being a mother.


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Ways to Run The Lab

Mar 08 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Some of the best insights about how labs work come from people who are trainees with me. I do my best to encourage a "flat lab", with as little hierarchy as possible. Someone (carpet people, from the part of the university where there are carpets on the floor, as opposed to us linoleum/tile people) recently was shocked that I encourage the medical students to call me by first name in my lab. What the heck. That is  a very little thing. There are much bigger things: like actually listening to these students in lab meeting, when planning and treating their ideas and thoughts with respect or criticizing a particular idea or strategy and not the person who said it. My thesis advisor once told me (something like): I can't believe you brought this piece of trash to me and are wasting my time. That was over 35 years ago, and I still remember it. But he's dead.

One of the insights, directly from trainees that I have seen over the years is how uncomfortable "business operation" labs make them. If they wanted to train with a postdoc instead of a PI they would pick the postdoc, not the particular lab. This is likely a reflection of the people who are attracted to my particular brand of lab-chaos or people who care less about being in a shiny lab or doing "cutting edge science" and more about learning something.

I am a fan of "meta-rules", over-arching guidelines that pre-empt having lots of little rules to think about. For grant writing, the meta-criterion is "make the reviewer your advocate", or more aptly "do not piss off the reviewer".

For running a lab and mentoring, one meta-criterion is treat your people like human beings, the way you would want to be treated. You'll make mistakes, we all do and have and will continue to do. But seeing people as people will go a long way to making things work.

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I am exhausted, but other people are more tired

Mar 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Read this: What I Told My White Friend When He Asked For My Black Opinion On White Privilege.

Thank you, Lori Lakin Hutcherson (Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Good Black News).


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