Archive for: October, 2017

(somewhat uncomfortable) thoughts on visiting Mt. Vernon, home of George Washington

Oct 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Tl;dr version: George Washington owned enslaved people. There is no such thing as a “good slave owner”. Yet, there are Good Things that POTUS1 did, and the truth is complex and uncomfortable (for people not descended from enslaved people) and one's response to such contradictions is not easily resolved.

I was in DC for study section last week. My partner came at the end, so we could have a short holiday. My first choices of tourist things to do are the National Air & Space Museum, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery and the Hirschhorn Museum (especially its sculpture garden).We spent one day Seeing Art and then one day doing the History Things a lawyer who is passionate about the Constitution and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would chose to do. For this trip, it meant that we went to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home, love, and yes, southern plantation.

I had been there as a child, and now it’s quite different now. It’s a Destination, an Educational Destination. Some professional museum person has applied the principles of modern museuming to Mt. Vernon. Very interestingly, it is not a Federal US, or government site. It is not part of the National Park System, and in many places they note that they take no money from any government. In its current incarnation, it was established in the mid-19th century by a group of do-gooder ladies who lunch. They purchased it, and renovated it, and got professional historians and archeologists involved in it. These ladies, and their cognitive descendants made some important choices about the place, including that the history of the enslaved people who lived there be not only preserved and presented, but honored.

So a couple of things about Mt. Vernon, for reference: it is the home that George Washington built and designed and turned into the place he loved best in the world. He expanded the land holding greatly, and it included four outlying, but contiguous farms. It was a functional place: raising crops that were sold (for a profit) as well as the meat and veg and fruit to sustain the constant flow of visitors to see him.

Here is a distribution of the people who lived on the property. And, interestingly, this is directly from their museum. Yellow are Washington family, Red are free or indentured people, usually skilled, who worked there. Green are enslaved people.

There are two aspects of my problem, which is stronger than discomfort. Firstly, and most importantly, George Washington owned enslaved people. Owned. Owned. Enslaved People. People who were enslaved, and had nearly no autonomy or choice in their lives.

Secondly, how this was handled in presentation at this place. When visiting, one can chose from multiple secondary tours (after the first tour of the mansion house), and one of these was “history of enslaved people at Mt Vernon“, which is what we decided to do.There were many good things in how information was presented, which in fact can be traced back to the vision of the (largely white) founders of this place: they insisted that the enslaved people’s lives be included, represented, described and highlighted. Here is their history of the development of the site and while there are good things, it is also painful.  All of the people who spoke to us at the Mt. Vernon did not use the word “slave”, but always said “people who were enslaved”. These were people, human beings, who were enslaved. The “people” comes first.There is a shrine to the enslaved people (one of three photos I took), and ongoing archeology to discover what we can about their lives.  After, I felt there was glossing over and telling some of the “good” stories (the enslaved woman who escaped, the ones Washington freed), and not enough about the horrors. My partner felt differently, and that led to lengthy discussion on our part about what we saw and how our perceptions of Washington changed.

So, what did we come to? There is no such thing as a “good slave owner”. Washington was an acute, perceptive and successful businessperson. But he owned human beings. He was responsible for the break-up of families, and probably other atrocities, but we didn’t get told about many of those. He did not, for example, let enslaved women who spun wool take small bits of wool to repair their clothes (one set in the spring and one in the fall) and the clothes of their families. When he discovered this happening, he started weighing the wool before and after spinning, so these people would not “steal from him”.

He owned human beings. This thought was, and continues to, bang around in my head. How could someone do this?

Ah. How could someone do this? Someone who believed and wrote and fought and risked his life for “freedom and liberty”. Did Washington not see these people as people? It is frequently said that Washington operated within the context of his time. This is undoubtedly true. He was a Virginian and he had, essentially, a plantation. What did people think in those days? We can only know through writing and records and those indicate complexity.  Yet, it was not so complex for the Quakers and people like John Adams (who had his own litany of unacceptable behaviors and positions). There are people at that time who knew that "Slavery was wrong" and all human beings deserve dignity and freedom.

But this brings to the crux of my unease? Unhappiness? Something stronger, but I can’t find the word right now. There are many things wrong in America today, but there are also many things that are good. And some of that goodness, and the ability, nay right and freedom, to object to the wrongness, can be traced back to the founders of the country. There is no question that Washington did things that were important, and had ramifications that have resonated down through 250 years of American history. Without him (and Jefferson), would America still be part of Britain? Would we have gently eased into independence (like Canada) or in fact our lack of independence kept the British Empire intact, up until the point it fell to either Kaiser Wilhelm in WWI or the Nazis in WWII?

My partner says playing those games is futile. It has, I maintain, produced some excellent science fiction, but indeed, does not necessarily give us insight into how we should think about Washington. My partner says, we need to look at good and bad, we need to see the whole story.

And that is where I am right now. The Lord of the Rings is easy: good and bad are, if not defined, at least marked, by the quality of skin and teeth and hair: good is clear and bad is, well, yucky. Characters can have flaws (Boromir) or doubts (Aragorn) or amusing flaws (Gimli), but they are ultimately good and their skin is clear. Orthodontia is an entitlement of Good People. They come through in the end. We love those legends, the stories, and the glorious movies they make.

The trouble for adults, and all right thinking human beings, of course, is that it is not that simple. And human beings are an amalgam of good and bad, or sometimes good and evil. Are Jefferson and Washington’s statements and formulations about freedom less valid, if applied to all human beings, because they didn’t chose to include all human beings?

In my head, I try to balance this with “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”. Many chose to live with the knowledge of a child kept in the closet. But the ones who walk away, could they walk away if they didn’t know of the closet? If they didn’t have the contrast between the beautiful life and the enslaved, suffering child, would they have the option of making the choice? Is there any justification for the existence of the suffering child? What if the child only existed in the past? And you were not part of that past?

Here is the other pictures I took. It is from the museum about the history of enslaved people. These are the names of the people on glass, with Mt. Vernon in the background. They are not good pictures. But they were the ones that I took.



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Repost: A few (more) thoughts about interacting with NIH study-sections

Oct 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A post, from my olden dayes, in which, following study section, my perception suggests retains a high value.




One of the most important things a PI needs to do in the proposal is persuade the reviewers that they love the proposal. The goal of writing a proposal is to turn your reviewers in advocates for your proposal. The reviewers need to believe in the proposal (and to a lesser extent in you). They need to think that it is critical to fund this work, for the field and for NIH’s mission. These days, you need two advocates. One advocate in the face of two nay-sayers, or two luke-warm-sayers, looks like an outlier.

It cannot be said too many times – when you resubmit think carefully about what you chose to argue with. Big things (changing from an animal model to a human clinical situation, for example, or from Parkinson’s disease to stroke) are worth fighting against, especially if you have a track record in the original model/disease. If the reviews suggest a “lack of enthusiasm”, get a senior person to help you assess whether the lack of enthusiasm stems from the model system or from the hypotheses/etc or something else.

But if the objections are a suite of small things – change the response variables you are measuring, the number of experiments you do, even what treatments or interventions you’re proposing – CHANGE them. Remember grants are grants not contracts. You can *still* measure what you want as well as what they want. As one of the wise young faculty said to me: you can be right and proud and unfunded, or you can acknowledge that maybe the reviewers might know something and change the proposal and be funded.

I perceive lots of seeing the study section as your enemy, as full of greybeards and bluehairs bent on preserving their status and the funding of their friends. This is a huge mistake. If you write while harboring the thought that you are fighting the system, it will be in your proposal, in your response, in a thousand little things that someone will notice. No one will want to be your advocate. Most of the gb/bh’s are not as evil as presented in the blogosphere. Lots are really trying to help in the little ways that they can. Many take the time to be on study section so they can do what they can in a system they’d like to change. You might actually learn something from them. Learning what advice is  worthwhile is not just a valuable skill, it is a survival skill.

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My day for surveys

Oct 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I got a survey, sent to people who were on study section from an independent scientist to ask about Sex as Biological Variable (see here and here).

Some of their questions were posed as "did proposals treat SAVB appropriately, yes/no" when the answer was "sometimes". Here is what I told them at the end:

The last few q's are difficult in that some proposals did and others did not, yet the questions are framed as all or nothing. Many/most proposals dealt with SABV appropriately. A few did not. Those were pointed out, and that was considered in the scoring.

In my experience (over 10 years on various study sections), the SABV policy has changed how proposals deal with sex.

Further, as a brief bit of history: My mother sat on study sections in the 70s & 80s. She was also part of a large (epidemiological) project that, at that time, was rejected to study heart disease in women because "we have the answers for men".

The world has changed.


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Follow up to Study Section

Oct 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

We always get a short questionnaire following study section: did it work well, was the expertise appropriate, etc. This year there was an interesting set of questions (with radio buttons to rank):

Meeting Logistics

The availability of caffeine and light refreshments would make face-to-face study section meetings more efficient.

The availability of caffeine and light refreshments would increase the likelihood that I would serve on upcoming panels.

My response to NIH:

I'm old enough to remember when there was caffeine and light refreshments. It has always seemed to me to be kind of stingy not to do this. For heaven's sake, do you think the paltry honorarium we receive compensates for the time we spend? It's less than minimum wage for the time I put into proposals. I do this because I am committed to the process, because I have benefited from the process, because I believe it is important. The idea that coffee would be a bribe, or that a bowl of candy would change my votes is absurd, and insulting.


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tensions in grant writing

Oct 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There is in an inherent tension to all researchers: if funding is <20% or even < 10%, you have to get many proposals, either resubmits, or different projects, to get funded. Yet, just sending in any old thing without sufficient attention to quality, means that you can put in 100, and none will ever be funded.

Everyone always says: you need to get your best possible proposal in as often as possible.

I'm just seeing lots of proposals that are just not clear. It's not necessarily grantsmanship. Sometimes its the writing of explaining what the PI wants to do. Sometimes its the logic of what is being proposed. Sometimes it's either proposing to do too much, or writing too much.

Advice? get the meanest, nastiest, cruelest colleague you know to rip apart your proposal before you submit. If not the whole thing, at least the SA's.

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tensions in grant reviewing

Oct 12 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the fundamental tensions during study section meetings to review NIH proposals is the desire to discuss a proposal extensively versus the need to review a larger number of proposals in a short period of time.

Reviewers are committed, but also want to get home. People want to give sufficient time for a thorough discussion, but the SRO (scientific review officer – an NIH employee who runs the logistics of the study section) and the chair (a seasoned member of the study section) are quite aware of the time constraints. More time on this application will likely turn into less time for that one.

Reviewers assigned to an application often have Views. The non-assigned members (IME) want to understand the pros and cons laid out for them. This pushes towards longer discussions. And nearly every study section I can remember was running late.

What does this mean to you, oh proposal-writer? The best proposal you can craft is more likely to be sufficiently clear that there isn’t a debate about what you meant. You don’t want your proposal to get into a lengthy discussion. As the chair of this study section said: the more discussion that occurs, the more flaws tend to get pointed out.


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Just when I thought it was safe to review grants

Oct 08 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Oye. I just got a grant that uses my lab's current model to review. We (me and my marvelous lab group) pioneered this model. It would not have worked without lots of help from the brilliant Postdoc and the (now-gone) SuperTech and the  hard-working and creative (current) techs. More to the point, Brilliant Post-doc (BPD) has several (4? 5?) first authored papers, and a handful (2? 3?) med-student trainees have others.

So, I know the PI on the proposal, but not we do not collaborate, so no conflict of interest. I don't own the model, of course. The proposal is doing something different. But the premise (and NIH does care about premise) is based on those 4-8 pubs. I tried to take a step back and think: if not mine, would I care? And, the answer is: if I knew, "care" is the wrong word, but I would see it as a flaw in the proposal. This person is claiming that this model is appropriate for this question, and that appropriateness is something established by my lab.

Does it matter? To me, not really. I am an old farte. To my postdoc? Hell, yes. It is very, very, very important.

But mostly I know that this PI knows the work. We go to the same small clinical meeting, and we are two of the very small number (5% 10%?) who do animal based work. Everyone is in the audience (no concurrent sessions [brief aside: "sessions" "trump" so many beautiful words ruined by today's politics]), and last year or the year before one of her students gave the talk right before BPD gave a talk using this model. The description of the technique in the proposal is nearly identical to what we've published, but in a different species.

What is going on in her head? Does she think citing BPD is going to somehow make her work less? I am sure if I asked her she would say something like "oh, what you do is so different, I am working on baby bunnies, and you are doing geriatrics". So what is going on in her head? She forgot?

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Things that make me (very very) happy: grant reviewing edition

Oct 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I've got a whole passel of NIH proposals to review. They range from in my backyard to a bit afield. I'd say more than half, but not all, are rehashing of the same old thing. They consider one aspect of the problem (bunny leg anatomy) but ignore all sorts of other stuff (muscle physiology properties that govern how the anatomy actually works). Everybody includes the statement, in bold italic, that "this research is innovative because no one has ever looked a bunny legs in exactly this way".

But! But! I am finishing my review for a marvelous proposal. It is a very young (1rst year prof) who is paired with the absolute perfect intellectual/content co-I (who is also pre-tenure). In this case, the PI is an engineer who has designed all sorts of prosthetics for cats and dogs and elephants with different non-hopping problems. She has a truly innovative idea for bunnies that can't hop, based on bunny brain function. Her co-I is a bunny clinician, who deals with baby bunnies with brain injuries, etc, but she does see old bunny patients.  Two incredibly productive young women, with a great idea that might really transform clinical practice. They don't seem to realize how much this also might move some of the basic paradigms that underlie our understanding of hopping in general, but I can point that out.

I am so excited by this proposal I needed to write this post to tell all of you out there: the solution for elderly bunnies is in sight!

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(my) Best Opening Line for a Seminar

Oct 04 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I went to NYU to give a talk. I had a great time, and was impressed at the engagement of the students.

Opening line:

"I've always wanted to perform on Broadway, and I thank you for giving me the chance"

(Yes, the building had a B'way address).

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