Archive for: April, 2017

Is this Russia?

Apr 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Following comment appeared to yesterday's post (my emphasis):

 Misha Koksharov

"Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". " Welcome to Russia.


**NOTE ADDED**: Misha tells me "That's just how scientists have to work in Russia for like the last 27 years (to do some science on very scarce resources)". It wasn't a political statement at all.


The first bit is mine, a tongue in cheek NIH response to the PI nuclear option. Welcome to Russia is Ser Koksharov's response. I disagree. In fact, I think it misses the point, so I'm going to take a moment to clarify.

Lots of people go through all the stages of grief when their funding gets cut.

denial: this must be a mistake, no one would cut my grant this much

anger: those fuckers

bargaining: please, please don't cut my grant this much

depression: I shall never win the Nobel prize without more money 

acceptance: who the heck am I kidding? I am FUNDED.

My comment was about the NIH response is people stuck in anger or bargaining or both. My comment was to the snowflakes who think that they deserve the money that the rest of don't.

My channeling of my inner NIH PO is the response I wrote. It was meant to be (a little bit) humorous. Or not. It's meant to help one get to the acceptance stage. I don't see that as "Russian" or being run by oligarchs. I see it as what a beleaguered NIH staff person, who has 100 PI's calling up and crying and moaning, gnashing their teeth and rending their sackcloth, because they've had a significant cut to funding, does on the 20th such call. Let me say, in all my years, including many on a study section, I have never seen an NIH staff say something as bad as that. Mostly their badness lies in not returning phone calls, or perhaps being short and curt on the phone. In fact, the other day, someone tweeted something an NIH staff said about the worst part or the hardest part of their job being talking to upset PI's (if you've got the original tweet, please add to comments ). See tweet below!

Please keep in mind, the poor soul talking to you about your cuts did not make the decision. They may have had a small say in it, but balancing a budget is something that clearly lots of people can't do. And if NIH has some issues in getting it right, they are still way ahead of Congress.

Sadly enough, the problems with funding, with significant cuts to awards, with low pay lines, predates this administration. There have been cuts due to continuing budget resolutions before, while congress acting like a bunch of spoiled babies (see: they've got high level health care they would deny to others, and can justify it). Yes, funding is worse now. Yes, if the "compromise" with Trump means only a 10% cut to NIH budget, things will get much much worse. Yes, the impact of that worseness will fall disproportionately on the young.

But that doesn't make this Russia.




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Financial Realities and Mentorship:Summer Fellows edition

Apr 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I started this post a while ago, and it got lost in the long list of  Drafts.

But it's come up, because it's time at my almost-MRU for picking summer fellows for research.

Firstly, a word about my almost-MRU. Where I was before at a real high-flying MRU, everyone had money, the students not excepted. The students at that medical school were being trained to be leaders in medicine. They were cosseted and supported and nurtured. They also tended to be rich, by virtue of the inescapable logic that med schools want people who have Done Things, including shadowing of physicians. As one of the students I interviewed here said "I didn't know any doctors to shadow, I didn't have time, working two minimum wage jobs, to shadow anyone".

Fast forward: Potty leaves MRU, goes to almost-MRU in the middle of rural lower-kukamundaville, where someone, really and truly said to me: "You're an XYZ (minority)? I've never met one of those before."

So, back to almost  MRU. It is a medical school in the lower quintile or quartile or something. Someone has to be there, so the upper third or quintile or quartile can sleep easy at night, knowing how good they are.

Almost-MRU fills a niche. They train primary care/family medicine/ people who are committed (mostly) to returning to rural and underserved urban communities. They  try to help financially to help first generation types get medical degrees. The heart is in the right place, the follow-through, not always.

We have a program to bring first year med students into our labs for the summer. They pay these summer fellows $3000. But, as one person who I taught in the fall, and thought would be great in my lab,  said to me: "I'm going back home, because I've got a job that will pay me more. It won't look as good on my record, but I need the money." First generation kids from blue-collar families are acutely aware of the interest clock ticking away on their educational loans.

I have, and will try this year (though almost-MRU doesn't make it easy) to push a little extra money to the kids who work in my lab. And yes, at my age, 22 year olds look like kids to me. They have set levels for these fellowships, and I'm perceived as rocking the boat when I try to do something different.

But I have colleagues who take "fellows"as "volunteers". I have a lot of trouble with this. To me, this is perpetuating all the class distinctions that we try so hard, or at least give lip service to eradicating. On the o ther hand, some of these are junior faculty struggling towards tenure. They don't have a lot of money. They may not yet have a major grant. Some years almost-MRU gave them a fellow, and subsidized this. But sometimes not. Some people have NSF grants, and 3K is not easy to squeak out of that level of funding.

This problem sets up tremendous cognitive dissoncence in my head and in my heart. I just don't know. Everyone is making free choices, but, but, but. I don't say anything, but I  have lost sleep worrying about how I could make this better.

If we are serious about giving everyone a chance, we can't just "hire the best candidate". The best candidate may not have the best record. The person who can do the most good, to my lab, to science, to medicine, to humanity, may be hidden behind a CV of minimum wage service jobs.

I have always found that people who worked what I consider real jobs, McDonalds, cleaning bed pans in the hospital, bathing folks in a rehab SNF, waitressing, fixing cars, selling stuff at Walmart, are actually far better in my lab. I can teach anyone how to do  surgery, how to make an electrode, how to collect data. I cannot, in a summer, teach a work ethic, teach a commitment to honesty and truth and Finding  Out Things.

So I've found three fellows for my lab this summer. We shall see.


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The realities of modern politics and NIH funding: lone PI edition

Apr 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Let's start by defining what I am not: I am not at a MRU. I do not run a flash lab. I do not have multiple grants, multiple grad students, multiple postdocs. Right now, I've got one of each. When I started developing a second project, working with a wonderful young PI who came to me with a great idea, my current postdoc joked that I was going to become a BSD. My response: I would love to be a BSD.

But where I am in terms of running my lab, I don't have a lot of  financial flexibility.

What do I have: great colleagues. A chair, who by and large, appreciates me. This department, my  (relatively new) department is filled with people like me: one grant, small lab. Everybody gears up in the summer, and takes medical students (very serious, hard working, wonderful medical students) on as summer fellows. These are people who are  largely in the same boat as I am.

Last year, after much struggle (and submitting 2-4 proposals a year) I got refunded. Yes, I'm a boomer, and it's allegedly easier for me than thee. I acknowledge the issues that my younger colleagues have, but again, that's another post. I am glad to have this grant, I am doing something that Might Make A Difference for Babies, and certainly is chock full of basic neurophysiology goodness.

There was some initial weirdness from my IC, for which I am now very grateful. The grant started in August, but my IC didn't want me to have an August anniversary date. There are too many grants with August anniversaries, I was told. So, I started August, but they made my renewal May 1. But they did give me the first "full" (after the mandatory 18% cut to all grants in this IC) year, albeit for the reduced time period.

Now if I was a paranoid type, I might think they did that on purpose to make life miserable for me. Or because they didn't Care About Me. Why? Because one of the Rites of Spring is the Annual Congress Screws with the Federal Budget Follies.  In the past, this happened, and I don't remember it impacting me, and somehow NIH muddled through. It may have been that my non-competitive renewals (annual renewals on a 3 or 5 year grant) came at a Good Time relative to the Federal Budget.

But, now, I've got issues. Some major. Some minor.

Minor first: my 2nd year of funding did not come in when it should have. And the idiots in University Accounting sent emails to the postdoc, the grad student and the tech that "because your Grant is over, your personnel form has been terminated". I had some very anxious people inquiring. Sigh. Lab meeting: yes there is enough carryover to pay everyone's salary for at least 6 months. This is just an administrative thing. No, I have redone everyone's personnel form. And no, I'm not, the Chair is not, the Dean is not going to let you go because NIH has not sent next year's money. You are valued.

Major next: well, yesterday the 2nd year came. It has been cut 30% from requested. I looked at the number in disbelief. It was a tight budget to  start with. 30% is more than someone's salary.  More than two sets of experiments. And all the travel.

Pro response: Thank you very much sir. Please may I have another?

2nd Pro Response: write to the guy listed on ERA  Commons as the "financial contact". I have found the people in this role to be helpful and polite, as long as I stay polite. I asked about this and apologized for bothering. "No, it's what we are here for". I got lots of explanation, and only a little reference to the unintelligible rules.

Basically, because the federal government does not have a budget, and we (the people) are operating under a continuing resolution, all NIH awards  (right now) in this IC are being cut. Some IC's are cutting more than others. The cuts, if NIH budget is cut, are likely to be permanent.

I know people who go back and argue for more money. Some PI's go nuclear: I can't do the work with only this money. That runs the risk of "ok, we'll take it all back and give it to someone who can". Maybe there are some really big, really really big BSD's who can do this. Maybe they count on sheeple like me acquiescing, so they can have more money.

Because of the short first year, I've got some carryover to ease through this year. Because I figured out a major experimental cost saving, I will be OK this year and next. But by year 4, I will be having trouble figuring out where to cut. There won't be any fat left.

For my part, I am glad to have my one r01. I am glad to have my small lab and to keep pushing on the frontiers in my small way. I would love to have that 30% back. My department chair would love for me to have the 30% back, as most of it is going to come out of my salary support. It's sure as hell not coming out of trainee salaries, or experimental supplies, or animal per diems. We just keep going.


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Quote of the Day: Power Edition

Apr 26 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Those in possession of absolute power can not only prophesy and make their prophecies come true, but they can also lie and make their lies come true. --Eric Hoffer
When I was in high school, we had to read The True Believer by Eric Hoffer. It's as relevant today as it was in the 1950's when first published. I suspect school age kids don't read anything so incendiary today: Hoffer was not a great supporter of religion and compared Paul in Christianity to Hitler. The main thesis of his book (this taken from Wikipedia) was, for a true believer, "that substance of any particular group is less important than being part of an energized movement."

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Life Choices

Apr 26 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A while back I got into a spat with someone on Twitter. They were advocating for persons with disabilities. I have always tried to do so myself, and in fact, my research can fall in, has fallen in, is considered to be part of, rehabilitative medicine. I have gone to rehab medicine conferences, with my ears open, to learn what I can. Rehab was not my training, but I have worked hard to include it and have done more than lip service in terms of my NIH work. Working with people with disabilities is part of a Venn diagram that includes my work.

One of the things I know is that not all disabilities are immediately visible. And within the community of people who self-identify as having a disability, or a physical challenge, or a mental challenge, there is disagreement and contention about what constitutes disability or challenge. The person on Twitter demanded (and it sure felt like a demand to me) to know  if I had a disability and if so what it was. I responded that again, not all are visible, and that it was beside the point. She immediately blocked me and that was the end of the discussion.

Yes, that's twitter. That's our current view of tolerance. But mostly, I think she did not like the other part of my message, and what we were discussing (using 'discussing' in the broadest and most inclusive sense).

The source of our disagreement was "fixing from the inside" vs. "fixing from the outside". I maintained that "from the outside" would be less effective than from the inside, while acknowledging that everyone has, or ought to have, the right to make the choice to be inside or outside.

The point of this post is not about rights and respect for people with disabilities. The point of this post is being inside or outside and choosing where to be (but of course, its nice to vent about some idiot on twitter). At the time, I thought that being in or out was the point. I thought that advocating for an underrepresented group in academia, or in any nexus, is a function of having respect within that nexus, of having the currency, and credentials and chops to get people to listen to what you have to say. For example, patients can advocate for changes in the health care system, because they have some respect by the group to whom they are advocating. (we can argue about the extent of that respect, by health care providers for the people in their care, but that is another post).

My point, which I did not make effectively at the time, was that people who leave academia, in particular young people who drop out of a degree program, have little respect from, let alone credibility with, those who remain. Just the words "drop out" are loaded with negative connotations. I am not saying this is right, I am just saying it is. What I have seen is an attitude along the lines of "if you can't make it/succeed here, you are not worthy of our attention". Someone who leaves academia is not going to have a lot of success, in my experience, trying to change how academia deals with its problems and bad attitudes. This may be right or wrong, but it's there.

That the unknown Twitter spat-partner wanted to leave academia, in frustration, because, she said, of her disabilities, may be a good thing for her. That is not for me to judge. And I am strong supporter of people choosing. Not because academia doesn't want her, but because, to my sense, her commitment was to changing the world for people like her. I want for people who want to do science, who want to be researchers, to have the option to do so. But if something (professionally, we're not talking about family, etc)  in one's life becomes more important than doing science or research, then it may be time to move on. And move on without prejudice. If academia had been more welcoming to her, if her program had been more accommodating to her issues, would she have stayed? I don't know. I don't know that she knew. But that's getting back into the difference between something being right, or being the way it is.

This is not a statement about what academia *should* be like. It is not a statement about how academia fails (though it did, and continues to do so). This is a statement about living in the world in which we live, and choosing to do what we do.

So why write about this now? Because I have been thinking about why people stay or go from academia. Because I have been thinking about what is *my* responsibility, as a senior person, to keeping people in academia, those who want to stay and are feeling shuffled or herded or pushed out. But sometimes it feels like the voices and messages and information sources are overwhelming. This incident is the just the framework that got me started thinking.

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Apr 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

from Marguerite Bennett @EvilMarguerite

When they were trying to bring Puffins back to islands on the US east coast they decided to do so with dummies. Puffins are very social, and as a result would want to land on islands that already have puffins. The dummies looked real from a distance, but were seriously lacking up close, held up by a single peg. Puffins, being social and wanting to fit in, followed suit.


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zen motorcycles

Apr 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Robert Perisig who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has died. This interview with him is so-so. Image result for robert pirsig

I remember reading his first book in college. It was very big, in thought and impact, and discussed endlessly late at night in cruddy apartments. When I was in college, it was important, even for would-be, wanna-be, gonna-be scientists, to Do Philosophy. I think part of that came from this book.

It's funny, or maybe not so, that I remember little about the philosophical content of Zen, although I do remember lots about the philosophy courses I took in college. I do remember the conflict between world perspectives (whole-entity vs. detail oriented), and how working on one's motorcycle taught one a lot about philosophy. Perhaps if the fixation on detail had gotten deeper into my head, I would have been a better scientist. But its too late to run that ceteris paribus experiment.

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More almost knowing

Apr 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

On the heels of this post I went to visit a mentor. This is the person who taught me to do the experimental techniques that grew into the mainstay of my current lab. The equipment is better, and no more Gould Brush Chart Recorders that put more ink on my hands than on the page. But the direct lineage is there.

This mentor is 90. His wife is 89. Yet, you'd never know it. They are vital active people. Our latest co-authored paper was the first I submitted in 2017. They are models to me on how to age, gracefully, inevitably, and with active decisions about life. That they do not have major illnesses, or dementia makes this possible. But they are 90, and they have many of the concerns that come with being 90.

I missed his 90th bday party, in part, because the idiots organizing it are snobs. He still works every day at the BSD dept in a BSD university. He was not my PhD advisor, I didn't come to work with him till my postdoc, but my degree is from this Very Important Place. With history! And Nobel Prizes! And nationally ranked departments. But my decision to leave a sister-ranked school and go to almost-MRU resulted in a kind of social death reserved for people who leave Manhattan and move to Traverse City. (Do you even know where Traverse City is?). Anyway, they got around to inviting me to go to a party, half way across the country, in a city notoriously difficult to find places to stay, the week before the party. In fact, I found out when I got an invitation for a third colleague (the three of us have published together for over 30 years now), who is old, but failing, and lives in the UK. My email said in part: Can you send us John's email address, so we can invite him, and oh by the way, are you coming? Needless to say, I couldn't make it. But I did feel dreadful about it.

Right after the party, my mentor invited me & my partner to visit him at his vacation house in a gorgeous place. His wife was glad to see me (not always the case), and we had a marvelous time walking and talking and playing with his new dog. This doesn't convey the walks in parks on the edge of rain and storm and cliffs and ocean. It doesn't convey the conversations: catching up on kids and grandkids and dogs and friends here and gone. I realized that I am now the age he was when we started working together. I realized I have people who look up to me, the way I looked up to him. I realized I have taught people much of what he taught me. I miss working with him as much as I used to.

It is not such a bad thing to do to visit the people one loves. If I had all the time in the world, or almost none at all, I think I would go visit people I love.


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If I really knew

Apr 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the legacies of my economics father is reading blogs that are very different from my life and political view. They are infuriating, sometimes, but I have learned.

One of these is Marginal Revolution, which my father would say is written by two rational economists, and I would say is written by... well ... more conservative thinkers. I recommend it as thought well written thought provoking and from a corner of the internet that scientists do not usually traverse.

One of the things I remember was a thought exercise that one of the authors posed (I love the internet. This was from 2005. It was still there.)

If  I thought, nay, if I *knew*  that I was going to die  very soon (a week? A month?) what would I do differently? And if I knew I was going to live for another (very productive) 30 or 40 years, or was immortal in their consideration, what would I do? The author's answer was "travel" to both conditions and the last sentence of the post was "I leave for a solo trek to Machu Picchu July 25. " (aside I am totally pleased with myself that I remembered he was going to go to Machu Picchu).

Lately I have been stuck, almost paralyzed. This would be surprising to anyone who sees me, as I have gotten great swathes of work done. I have done marvelous things with my friends, and I have planned three trips that matter, including ones to see aging mentors (something very important to me).

But I am feeling emotionally stuck. I am feeling time's winged chariot pressing on my back, and yet do not know how to deal with said chariot. So I asked myself: what would I do if I knew my lifespan?

If it was going to be measured in weeks or months, I would do what I think many would. One gathers loved ones close. One is more tolerant of children and partners and the next ring out: sibs and cousins and ex-s. For me, I would try (most futilely, I am sure, having tried before) to contact the brother who has not spoken to me in 30 years. I would tell the people that I love just how much I love them. And then, I would travel.

If it was going to be many, many years, what then? I am not so sure about this, and there is my problem. When one is young, when *I* was young, eternity stretched before me. Oh, there were immediate crises of funding and tenure and partners and children. But one didn't, *I* didn't think about dying and getting things done before the end of time. Who the heck does?

When one is young, even losing people, be it to the finality of early death, the negative unearned run that is someone else's fault, or the unmitigated stupidity of someone you once loved leaving you, may feel like unrecoverable. Yet, one figures out how to go on, one figures out how to pick up one's life and find some joy again. Not everyone. Not every loss. But mostly.

I have found, that as I have aged, and lost people in this, my seventh decade of walking the face of this earth, that finality seems, well, more final. And the emotional buoyancy that has served me so well is becoming frayed.

What would I do if I had 30 more years, of physical and mental health? I do not know.



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Making decisions part 2

Apr 19 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Here is part 1 of making decisions, based on a talk I heard from  Ruth Chang.

One of the points she made, and was made in a early talk in the show, was that decisions are hard because we don't have enough information. Or maybe we feel decisions are hard because we don't have enough information.

I recently had a young friend, the child of friend, who got into two graduate programs and was having trouble deciding which to accept. They were roughly equal in what they offered and the potential, but had different flavors to the program, and what my young friend would end up doing. I repeated to him one of the things I have always said about deciding what college to go to: the things that will make a difference to your ultimate experience, and your ultimate life path are unknowable at this point. Yes, you can maximize that good things will happen (i.e. take the grad school that offers you a stipend, which is non-trivial in the humanities). But, what will make a difference is going to be a casual encounter, a class you don't know that you will take with a professor you don't know exists. You cannot know what will be important, because it hasn't happened yet, and can't really be known.

One of the interesting points that Ruth Chang made about not knowing was that it doesn't even matter if you did know the outcome. Even if you had a video of what would be on either path, that doesn't mean one path is better, they may be equal, but different outcomes. We can't do everything. It's not that one is better, it's that they are different.

Sometimes we can go back and change recharge the path. She did, deciding between law school and philosophy, choosing the former, realizing it was a mistake and going back to the latter. But then, you've already changed the path. Going to get a PhD in philosophy, after law school, is not the same path as going to get the PhD right after college.

But, more often you can't got back and even do both options. This is part of the point from the previous post: make the choice and embrace it. Embrace the act of choosing.

I need to choose, right now, a couple of M1 medical students to join my lab for the summer as fellows. They will do work, learn research, and in some cases, keep a relationship to my lab and research over the next three years. The applications dribbled in last week, and I picked the 6 most promising to interview. Then, Sunday and Monday I got a flood of another 15-20. Yipes! I have to decide if I want to interview more (difficult because I have candidates meet with my lab group, too, as I value the lab group's perspective, and I'm asking my lab group to take their valuable time in making this decision). And then who?

I remind myself, Potnia, old thing, it probably doesn't matter. I've had mostly good but a few bad summer fellows. I can use some criteria to try and make sure I get good ones. But in the end, probably choosing among the 6 I will have talked with by the end of today is probably a fine decision, and that I'm not missing the one who will transform my research. Because, if there was one who could  transform what I do, I doubt I would be able to pick them out of the bunch with an reliability.


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