Archive for: May, 2018

Word Limits, Page Limits, and my secret super power

May 18 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

My secret super power is making things short. It is enhanced by my second-in-line-power which is to write short in the first place. When I finished my thesis, it held the record for the shortest approved thesis in my department. It may still be, but I don't have lots of data to support that statement.

I have often said, here, in the tweets, to all my trainees till their eyes roll back in their heads and they fall out of their chairs in boredom:

Page limits are your friends. They tell how much the reviewer/grant-giver/journal/whatever wants to read. If you are having trouble "fitting it in", it is not the fault of the limits. You are saying too much. They don't want that much.

If you are a full page over, you don't need to go back and edit out single words. You need to go back and figure out which paragraphs can be reduced to a single sentence. If you are multiple pages too long, then you need to figure out what sections can be reduced to a single sentence, or even are totally necessary.

The ability to know what to put in a proposal, and not make type I errors (leaving out stuff that should be there) or type II errors (putting in stuff that isn't necessary), is a skill worth honing.


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Repost: A few thoughts on abstracts for NIH grants

May 18 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

Again, an old one that still applies.

Abstracts, which are now called project summaries, are critical to your grant. Sometimes, that is all that someone who gets to score you will ever read (i.e., the other people on study section who are not your reviewers). Writing the abstract after the rest is done allows you to take the best sentences from elsewhere in your grant combine them, smooth them, adjust them. This should not be too hard to write, after you have written your kick ass grant proposal. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to make sure its good.

As an aside – if you get funded, the abstract is what is publicly available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. If you are applying for jobs, ten to one someone on the search committee will check you out in RePORTER. If you are doing anything within the academic community, someone will check you out. It is very good to have those abstracts readable for all those people who will be checking you out.

I am busy reviewing grants now for an October study section. I have just read five abstracts and it is hard for me when I see how bad some of them are. I want to support these people, I want to advocate for them. I want to see them funded. These are all young investigators (this is a mechanism, in this institute, designed for young investigators, which a separate pot of money set aside for them). But these abstracts makes my job harder. Not that you should care about how hard the reviewer’s job is. BUT… making things easy for the reviewer ups your chance of being funded. I’d like to put 40 hours into each grant and figure out exactly what the PI means. I do not have time for that (nor does NIH expect me to have time for that). But if I understand your grant, it is much more likely I will perceive what is good about it.

These abstracts are not bad in the sense of poorly written and sentences that don’t make sense (though there is some of that). There are problems in the sense of poor choices about what to include, poor choices about what to emphasize and poor choices in opening & ending sentences.

Problems (things not to do):

1. Having divided your summary into categories (not necessarily bad, but certainly uncommon), starting with “Personnel” and discussing the PI in the third person (She will do this…). Did someone else write this grant for you and therefore is talking about you? But more to the point – as a reviewer I am less interested in what you will do, or why you are so lovely, than in why is this project interesting, important, and most of all, significant.

2. Spend 2/3 of the (single) paragraph on the justification for the work. This is too much. I want to know less about the problem, and more about what you are doing for the problem. A good strategy (for SA’s too), with each of these points being 1-2 sentences, max:

  1. What is the overall problem:  Bunny hopping is critical for a happy life.
  2. What is known: The disease XYZ is responsible for all deaths due to bad bunny hopping.
  3. What is not known: XYZ has two routes in which it has the potential to impact bunny hopping, but it is unknown which, or both, are responsible for the failures.
  4. What you are going to do: We propose to test these two models of XYZ and measure their impact on bunny hopping.

3. This issue exists independently, but also as a function of 2. No information on what you propose to do. No hint of what kind of methodology (whole animal physiology, genotyping) you are proposing. What kinds of things will you measure? This again can be 1-2 sentences, but needs to tell me what I am going to find in the approach you propose.

4.Jargon in the abstract that is not defined. This one (or two, or in this case three) word(s)  may be a common word in your sub-specialty, but I don’t know what they mean. Yes, I can look it up, but I’m actually reading your abstract during a boring meeting, prior to reading the whole thing later on, so I can’t. I stop reading yours, and move on to the next one. Of course, when I go back and write my review, I’ll look it up. But in my time-deprived, sleep-deprived world, it means you get one less reading than the others. And I’m irritated. One does not want irritated reviewers.

5. No kick-ass final sentence. Please give me something to work with in my review: The successful completion of this project will make bunny hopping possible for patients who can’t get off the ground. In general, if you can include, in the abstract, sentences like (and no, you don’t have to bold or underline these), you make life easy for the reviewer:

  • The significance of this work is:
  • The innovation of this work is:
  • The results from this project (NOT “if this project succeeds”) will change the world in the following ways…

As I keep emphasizing in the debates about font, white space, etc, that it doesn’t matter what you like, it matters what the reviewers like. This is part of grantsmanship. Do it right and you don’t just pass go and collect $200, you get hotels on Park Place and Broadway and get to get out of the game, and do the science.



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Repost: Grant writing advice

May 16 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

At the old blog (which is still kinda around), I posted a bunch of grant writing advice. Some of it is still useful. I shall repost some here. Now.

As I have said before one of my favorite quotes, from one of my favorite movies is:

There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so. —Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia

One of the other vices of old men, implicit in the advice, is compromise. The non-black and white nature of life is something with which I wrestle . Less now than when I was young. But as I was struggling with my last grant proposal, I was reminded of how grey the world of grant writing can get. And how difficult that grey can be.

There is an axis of risk that runs through life, but I don’t think about it much till it comes to writing a proposal.

high risk <————————— funded —————————> tried & true

This is not an issue of right or wrong, good science or bad science. This is an issue of what gets funded. And please, spare me your pure-boy tantrums about you do science for science, and not what gets funded. That attitude falls into the bucket of the virtues of war. Study sections and program officers and reviewers want to know that you can do the work (not too high risk). And, they want the work to be interesting and exciting, also known as significant and innovative (not too tried and true).

Here is another way to frame it in your head. Rather than black and white (which also has religious overtones, etc), think about blue and yellow. You want green. It bluish yellow or yellowish blue. Now, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Where one can run into trouble of course, is when one considers problems that are reddish-green


Our brains (hard-wired color processing) don’t do well with “reddish green”. Or “bluish-orange” for that matter. What is a reddish-green grant problem? Something you want to do that NIH isn’t interested in (right now): evolution of almost anything, physiology of obscure animals with no human relevance, almost anything to do with abortion, contraception or other hot button topics. Invasive research on children. A study that doesn’t include ethnic diversity and gender balance, when it is a health issue that impacts all. Something for which compromise doesn’t really exist. Stay away. There be dragons and monsters and triage.

aside: my favorite hot button issue is still:


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Community Colleges and how easy it is to make fun of someone else

May 15 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

So there was a quote on the Tweets:

Just learned that not only do community colleges hold graduation ceremonies, they also shell out honorary Associate of Humane Letters degrees. This is the funniest shit I’ve read all day. And I’ve been grading fucking final exams, too.

Really? You think giving degrees is the funniest shit you've read all day?

I have a former-sib-in-law who teaches at a local CC. We got to be close, for a bunch of reasons (she's cool, I'm cool), but also because she's not from an academic family, didn't marry into one, and I understood what she was trying to do. She had been a high school teacher, a great high school teacher, but had done an adjunct stint at the CC, and found she loved it. It was work to get a full time job, get on the tenure track there (yes, they have a tenure track) and eventually get tenure. In doing this, she developed some really incredible programs.

What did she love?

She teaches remedial math, lots of algebra. She teaches calculus to the folks who want it the least but need it, perhaps the most. Some of her student go on to 4 yr degrees in various science disciplines. Some are getting credits for something work related, or continuing education, or hoping to move in their field. Lots are in 2-year programs that require some math to get going: all those other folks working at hospitals and SNFs (Skilled Nursing Facilities), IT programs. Vet Techs. Various criminal justice jobs. Media and visual communication. Work that falls between blue collar manual labor and engineering. Things that are solid jobs.

What did she love? She loved the students. They were older. They were committed. They appreciated the opportunity. Many had another job. Some had two other jobs. Lots were supporting a family. Some had made mistakes in their youth, or at least done things that in retrospect they recognized as compromising future choices. Some were younger, with priorities in partying, friends and minor substance abuse.

What did she love? She knew, deep down and without qualification, that she was making a difference to many people every term. Sometimes they said thanks, and sometimes they didn't. But it was like watching rabbit ears grow: you could actually see the change from day to day.

So, when these people finish, you think they don't deserve a ceremony? They don't deserve to be recognized? That somehow pompous ceremonies are reserved for four year schools? That honorary degrees, the goal of which is to bring somewhat/perhaps distinguished people with possibly something interesting to say, to honor the graduates, is worthwhile? that it's funny?

Crap. The older I get the more I want to honor not the glam stars who discover DNA, but the folks who figured out a way, through hard work, to do something more.


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Mother's Day Thoughts

May 13 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

You cannot get to be this age without having had great love and also great loss.

To my mothers, and their mothers, and their mother's mothers, stretching back through time: Thank you for the joy. Thank you for your gifts. I love you. No matter what.

To my children, all my children, here and gone. Thank you for the joy. Thank you for your gifts. I will always love you, come what may.

Sometimes, I used to have a ritual, like Havdallah, to end Mother's day. To celebrate the separation, and the start of the week and month and year. Not today. I will just be glad when this beastly day is done and gone.


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