Archive for: January, 2018

QOTD: Julia Child Edition

Jan 30 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

A party without cake is just a meeting -- Julia Child


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Jen Gunter, GOOP and "follow your passion"

Jan 29 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

I very much like Dr. Jen Gunter's take on ... well, nearly everything she talks about. If you don't know her, she is an OB/Gyn who thinks carefully about sex and science and lots more.

She recently attended a GOOP conference, wielding her lasso of truth. I encourage you to read this post, as it is laugh out loud funny, but still contains much truth that needs to be said. One of my favorite bits was:

The start of the day was very Hunger Games. I felt as if I was walking up to an arena. They gave us fancy slippers and almost everyone put them on except me. If shit got real cult-wise or they tried to throw me out I wanted to be able to run. Katniss would never give up her shoes.

And then there was this, a quote from one of the speakers:

If you follow your passion life takes care of itself.

This just strikes me as almost the most owning-class, privileged, ugly position one can take. Yes, passion is important. Yes we all need to figure out What We Want, and what we want To Do in Life. Very important. But following your passion is sometimes only possible with a full support team (including nannies or cooks or secretaries or lab trainees that make it possible to work that 4-hour day) and, needless to say, lots of money. If you are 17 and pregnant and unemployed, there is not a lot a room for following passion.

Working class women with three service jobs, none of which include health benefits, kids, perhaps an absent spouse, or perhaps a partner that is also working like that, or perhaps has a significant health issue, do not have the luxury of passions. Maybe they get to exercise or have one of their adolescent kids make dinner once in a while. Or get fast food, because there is just no time for cooking.

Someone at the GOOP conference also said this:

A deep spiritual journey can cure anything.

Most of the working class or retired women I know don't have time for a spiritual journey. Their life is too taken up with making it until tomorrow and doing laundry and figuring out how to make car payments.

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Follow-up: More on AREA grants (R15)

Jan 29 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

The first post on AREA (R15 grants) is here. I just received more info from the SRO of the study section on which I sit. It strongly reiterates what I said before, including the three main goals:

Please note that the Goals of this Award are

  • To support meritorious research
  • To strengthen the research environment of the institution
  • To expose undergraduate and/or graduate students to research

Two things worth noting:

 Preliminary data are NOT required in this PA.

This seems consistent with the goals of this mechanism. Lots of people at smaller places will not necessarily have the wherewithal to generate preliminary data.

There is also a new webpage devoted to R15 review guidance:

If you are intending to submit an R15, is well worth looking at this page to understand how the criteria for this mechanism differs from other R-awards. There are explicit questions about student involvement that are not part of other non-training mechanisms. These include, but are not the only questions for each portion of the review (and again, my emphasis):

1. Significance
If funded, will the AREA award have a substantial effect on the school/academic component in terms of strengthening the research environment and exposing students to research?

2. Investigator(s).
Do the PD(s)/PI(s) have suitable experience in supervising students in research?

4. Approach.
Does the application provide sufficient evidence that the project can stimulate the interests of students so that they consider a career in the biomedical or behavioral sciences?

5. Environment.
Does the application demonstrate the likely availability of well-qualified students to participate in the research project? Does the application provide sufficient evidence that students have in the past or are likely to pursue careers in the biomedical or behavioral sciences?


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Time passes

Jan 29 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

It is well known that the perception of time passing is a function of many variables: happiness, health, all sorts of things. But age is one of the strongest. For the youngest it often drags, and for the oldest it runs away before one can hold it.

This week I have been reminded that the generation of my parents is leaving. One of my father's surviving sisters died, although one sister is still alive. My mother's best friend turned 93 and she is frail, although mentally sharp and glad to talk with me still. A friend of my mother's from when I was a small child also died last week. I have stayed in touch with her children. The husbands of all these women died years ago.

Here are some pictures. My aunt who died is in the woman in the two left side pictures. My mother and father are in the two top on the right - my Mom has glasses. The baby in all the pictures is my cousin, with whom I stayed in Israel last year. They were all so very young and beautiful.

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Thoughts while reviewing grants

Jan 26 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Three thoughts right now.

Two thoughts on irritating sods:

Thought 1: Why is it is fracking hard to follow the fracking directions on how to write a grant? Why do you, mister-toolargetomeasure-BSD (and it is not a boomer, for the record), think that the rules (and they are RULES) for the biosketch do not apply to you, and you can list every damn paper you want so that you can show what a prolific prick you are? This is only one of a myriad of little "bendings of the rules" you have done. You have failed to make me your ally. I will make every effort to be fair in my review. But it will be tough to argue for your proposal when others start tearing it apart.

Thought 2: (a different proposal) You have another R01 with four years to run. You have a major NSF grant. You have foundation funding. WTF are you doing writing another R01? Are you really that important?



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The Trainee that Got Away

Jan 26 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Actually, got away isn't quite right. Left in a huff is a better representation. I usually don't lose sleep over this, nor do I feel guilty. But there is a tinge of regret that I could not get through to this person.

Just as parents who say "I love all my children equally" are not grappling with the truth, so mentors who say "all my trainees are equal in my eyes" are not doing the trainees a favor. Get over the axis that runs worst to best, whatever worst and best are. People are different. Zuska did a lovely set of Christmas memories, and this one burrowed its way into my head.

It may sound trite to say "my trainees need different things". Of course they do. But I've also been torn in thinking "I need to treat people equally" because, well, that's what we want to do. But this was brought home to me recently. There were a spate of abstracts and posters going out to a couple of meetings in the last few weeks. And what people needed from me to get those done varied greatly. The marvelous postdoc, who is really functioning as a junior faculty person, needed slight tweaks here and there. Just like I need tweaks here and there. A colleague and collaborator, moving into something new, needed a lot of help. Not with writing, but with the science.

More junior folks needed more help. But it hit me forcefully, that two, getting posters ready, needed different levels of help because of the projects, not necessarily because of who they were. One project nearly did itself, and poof, the poster made sense, needed help with layout and wording and figures for a poster. The other was tough, and had so many levels of re-analysis of data and programming that I just stepped in and did some of it. I can hear the "but trainees should do their own...". But I also think there is a point at which mentor/advisor actually doing for a deadline, when the trainee has been working hard, and there is a problem, is also a valuable teaching opportunity. It says: yes you can get help. No it is not all on your own. Yes, I, the PI, care about both you and the science. Its knowing when to help and when not to that is tough for me. Relatively.

So back to the one that got away. Or left in a huff. I went to the mat for this trainee, in many ways, the professional ones, and the scientific ones. Much energy was expended, by many people. And none of it mattered in the end. Nothing got finished and nothing got published, and a colleague was rightly pissed at what didn't happen, and a collaboration was regretfully (on my part) and a bit angrily (on theirs) terminated. The trainee was furious at me, and shoveled blame onto my shoulders. And, in fact went to another faculty to express said ire (faculty came to me and said, let me tell you all the ways I don't want this and I tried to shut it down, but you should know). Now, years later, lab groups later, I can look back and see all the wasted energy. I guess if you get to be an old farte/blue hair and you haven't had a few of these, you've not really lived.

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Working the NIH: Resources

Jan 25 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

A periodic reminder that the NIH website has a wealth of information to help you.

See here for "Insights from Peer Reviewers and NIH Staff on Putting Together Your Application".


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last bit on outreach: personal efforts

Jan 25 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Potnia, why are you not working towards X?

Where X is: outreach, gender equality, affordable childcare, affordable eldercare, Queerrights, evolution in schools, taking back the Senate, saving the turtles, the rainforests, the tundra, the icecaps?

All of these are things I care about passionately. These are all things I have given some financial support to. Well, maybe not the tundra. Keeping NSF funded, keeping NASA funded, vaccine education, science education, freedom of speech, the integrity of our constitution, a safer and welcoming world for transgender people, the Deaf, people with physical disabililties, people with mental disabilities, the Chesapeake Bay. Women in countries that deny them a vote. Countries where no one gets to vote.

There is a long list of what I care about. My family, my students, my trainees, the young women in my department, the URM in my University. The homeless, the disenfranchised. They are often tree rings that circle out from me – some are closer in my life everyday, some every week, and some not so often.

I cannot do all of these things. I cannot even do several of these things and still be the scientist and teacher and mentor that I consider my primary job. And that is cold, hard reality.

But there is one more thing.

I was talking with a very smart, very active woman of my age, who I met on vacation. She is a prof in a related field, and is Famous. She is very good. She is very active. We were trading war stories, although her sub-field may have traditionally had more women than mine, we are still of an age where we were often “The Woman”. She had changed much in the world and fought for people who could not fight for themselves. I told her some horror stories about the Chair from Hell at my old MRU, and she took me to task for not recording them and “leaking them”. I had thought briefly about doing that at the time, and had rejected it. I was pretty sure that it would cost me my job, and I was not yet ready to leave MRU. I was doing active parent care at the time and I couldn’t up and move for a new job. Or if I had to because I was fired, who would take care of my parents?

(see here and here and here. I think some of my best writing was about coping with my parents).

And therein lies the problem. We all make compromises. None of us is perfect. Sometimes it is cowardice and unwillingness to face what must be done. Sometimes its weighing two things and deciding which is more important, right now. And sometimes we just run out of steam.

If you do not see this, go read Toni Morrison on what mothers will do for children.

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Outreach thoughts part 2

Jan 24 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

A final bit on doing outreach. It’s important. It will save science from the hordes, on the left and the right, who hone their hatred on the whetstones of alternative medicine or Christian righteousness. But, it’s not what we get paid for. It’s not what guarantees our future employment. This is part of what started @JenniferRaff 's discussion. She had a pile of academic work, but felt something needed to be addressed, and did so, despite the pile of academic work.

Yes, that should change. Not the anthro part, but the counting part. And working on the change is also important. That is one thing senior people can do: is make sure that junior people get a fair hearing for tenure. Either that or blow up the tenure system altogether.

There was a blogpost critique of an advice piece to the Executive Platinum Super-Dooper- Overachieving Executive Executive [can't find where I read it, apologies for lack of citation]. How one guy was taking one day off a week. To play with his kids, to take them places, to learn new things and renew himself. Great, says the blogpost, if you have wonderful people working for you, who can up your efficiency so that you can work a 80% week. No body is telling those worker-bees, yes, why don’t you take every Friday off. In fact, when those worker bees have sick children, or parents to take to the doctor, or their own health issues, they get docked if they overshoot their allotted vacation/sick leave/time off.

Yes we should all be doing outreach. I admire Raff that she gets so much done. We should all be changing the system to make outreach count. We should all be doing our political duty to make sure that NSF gets a high level of funding and that people who are elected care about science. If we don’t do these things there will be no science.

The reality of it is that I don’t know many lazy scientists. I don’t know many folks who sit around watching 5 or 6 hours of TV every night, or play Wolfenstein till 2 in the morning. Sometimes, when we look at others we see the duck gliding on the surface of the otherwise still pond, or the Mama Pig lying peacefully on her side, snoozing in the sunlight. We miss the furious sub-surface paddling, or the energy and metabolism it takes to produce milk for 20 piglets.

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Thoughts on Outreach

Jan 24 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Razib Khan and Jennifer Raff had an interchange about outreach. It's a longish conversation, but here is one entry point:

It was about the need to do outreach. There is more in this thread, including:

This exchange got me thinking about doing outreach, both personally (as one of those "senior people" who can't write), but also in terms of the junior people I mentor.

I think that one of the biggest reasons people have for not doing outreach (or only doing outreach because it is required by their NSF funding) is that many of us are swamped by the feeling that I am treading water to stay alive. If I am not devoting 105% of my energy towards the things that: get me a job, get me tenure, get me funded, etc then I will not survive to be able to do outreach tomorrow. The argument that senior people have less of these pressures than junior people is not necessarily valid. There are things that are easier,  psychologically, when you have tenure. But as one goes through life, the logistic concerns shift. If one is not making my children's lunches, doing laundry, exercising and all that overhead that is life, one will not be able to do outreach.  If someone is squeezed between teenage children and demented elderly parents, they may look like a selfish boomer to you, but their story is far more complicated than what is seen every day in the lab. Asking anyone and everyone to do outreach, in the current climate is kinda like saying: you all can have a 4 hour work week, if you are clever enough to acquire enough slaves to support you.

Now, there is no question that outreach is important. Indeed Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson make a difference to the public perception of astronomy in general, and probably physics in specific. It's important to realize that outreach, at the level of NdGT isn’t easy or necessarily possible no matter how much time and energy and love you put into it. IRL, I have written some of those popular articles, and even gotten them published in big-audience places. But getting the kind of audience he has? Not a chance in the world. It is this hard no matter how old you are.

Not everybody is going to be good at that level of outreach. One may argue that a Sagan or a deGrasse Tyson is a relatively rare and talented human being. Neil Shubin got a show based on his “Inner Fish” book – evolution, humans, etc. Neil is good, but it didn’t take off the way Cosmos did. Paul Serreno does a ton of outreach for dinosaurs, but one may argue whether his work, or that of Jack Horner, another dinosaur dude, makes the headlines in the same way. Jurassic Park, with the Sam Neill character based on Horner, probably did more for dinosaur funding than anything else. I know of a couple of other evolution types who’d like to be NdGT, but just aren’t that good. Ed Wilson (Silent Generation) just wrote another popular book on creativity and our brains. Steve Gould. There is a list of folks who try, but succeed at various levels of public splash.

Finally, keep in mind that there is lots of outreach going on that isn't so obvious.  Outreach that is, shall we say, in reach? Talking to schools, publishing locally, even giving money for science in schools. There is a couple I know, who do great biology, ranging from dinosaurs to birds to bats, bone and tissue through evolution and ecosystem. They go to public schools about once a month, every month, every year. They may not impact federal funding or the greater public perception, but if they reach one kid a visit, is that an important difference? By definition, this isn’t going to be visible on twitter.

More thoughts to come.



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