Archive for the 'becoming an adult' category

Lawyers and Scientists and Substance Abuse

Jul 17 2017 Published by under becoming an adult, life, Uncategorized

In the NYTimes on Sunday, there was an article about a BSD/high performing lawyer, who was a substance abuser, and ultimately died of it. It is a sad story, eloquently told by his ex-wife, Eileen Zimmerman, who just didn't know, till after he died.

There were a number of quotes in the article that hit me. The ex- said: "None of this made sense. Not only was Peter one of the smartest people in my life, he had also been a chemist", as if being a chemist or a scientist and knowing what the effects of drug addiction are would make a difference. Substance abuse, proclivity towards substance abuse, genetic or social, probably doesn't respect smartness. It also doesn't seem to respect socio-economic status. As I have said, addiction isn't a moral failing. Its really much more  complicated than that.

But there were a number of criticisms of the social and professional climate of being a lawyer. Lots of these apply to scientists that I found compelling and worth thinking on. The article was very good, in that it tried for statistics, as much as they exist. And the author went and talked to many people who know about the problem. One of the things people said was that law, the practice of law, includes an environment of not telling, not discussing problems. She quotes a psychiatrist as saying "as long as they are performing, its easier to just avoid [talking] about it". Not just drugs and alcohol, but personal problems in general.

There was quote after quote that could be talking about scientists I've known. One thing that hit hard, amongst they many that did, not for lawyers but for all the young scientists I know was this quote: "I can't do this forever, Peter often told me, I can't keep going like this for the next 20  years". The desperation of working like that will take its toll.

In the middle of the article, there was a bit of comic relief, for me, though not necessary for the lawyers.  She quoted a lawyer, Will Miller, a recovering addict from Bellevue, WA, that there are, of course, other stressful occupations, like being a surgeon, but none of them are as bad as being a lawyer. My dear Mr Miller, the most stressful occupation in the world is the one you are in, when its not going well, and the wolf is at your door.

But it is another bit by Mr. Miller, the former addict and prosecutor, that prompted me to write this post. He said that law school encourages students to leave emotion behind, "take it out of their decisions". Sound like something we all know? If the law is not supposed to be based on emotion, neither is science. Science more than the law? Depends, I suppose, on whether you are a scientist or lawyer. And for heavens sake, future physicians are actively taught to distance themselves from feelings, lest they get swept away in the pain and agony of their patients. Being "emotional" in science is attacked on two fronts. The first is that science is logic, exact, empirical and objective. Emotions are none of these. But second, a more subtle thrust, is that certain people, certain ethnicities and genders and other identifiers are considered more "emotional" than others, louder, less "cultured" and "refined". These people aren't going to be as good scientists as others.  It's one more way of  judging the quality of one's work by these kinds of personality markers that are, in the end, orthogonal to what one produces as a scientist.

The article doesn't forgive, or even suggest that forgiveness is part of what needs to happen. Nor is it only finding fault with the culture of law as it exists right now. But the brutality, much of it self-inflicted, the requirements to succeed in law, is part of what is at the root of substance abuse. And these same pressures and viciousness of culture, produce substance abusers in all directions in many more fields than law.

None of this is really any different from what I have seen since graduate school, and later as faculty, in my peers, my mentors and my trainees. The article is a good one, and I do not fault it for being about lawyers, for it is a compelling story, both in general and in specific for this person. There is much wrong with the system and there are many things that need fixing. Part of that fixing has to come from all of us, all of us looking beyond our immediate needs and doing what we can to change things.

 

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Update: See this about physicians.

2 responses so far

Ah the self-righteousness of people who have a death grip on the truth

May 30 2017 Published by under becoming an adult, Uncategorized, women

We have all read the stories about sexual predators in academia. Just those words "sexual predators" says it all. I do not dispute those. I do not even want to argue about the wisdom of getting drunk. Period. The wisdom of getting drunk, by anyone, in any situation that has remotely professional overtones is a very different kettle of fish. Nor am I remotely interested in defending or excusing these (largely) men, though I know of a distinctive case, years ago, in which a woman was the predator. There may or may not be cases of people wrongly accused, but those need to be considered on a case by case basis. We need to guard against both type I and type II errors, and recognize that controlling for one may impact on the other.

What interests me is that in one case one of the accusers is not a young person who experienced abuse but another, older, male professor not directly involved in the problem. This other professor went to great lengths to obtain evidence against the first prof, and has now written a number of editorials about how wrong the abuser was. This is a situation where someone, outside the course of events, someone not at all involved or in the line of authority for the particular abuses or alleged abuses, decides to take up finding evidence and prosecuting another, all in the name of "truth". The prosecution by Mr. A has been public, in the press, and certainly outside of anything resembling due process. It is relevant that one of the several cases did get due process, and the abuser was formally censured as guilty, though never admitting so. That particular case, as far as I can tell, had little to do with Mr. Accuser, but was considered on the merits of the individuals involved.

I laugh at this, but ironically, because I actually knew Mr. Accuser. Quite simply, he was a notorious bully in years gone by. It may not have been sexual, but he was aggressive and whether intentional or not, he did things to ruin other careers. I am sure he would argue that his actions and words were on principle, and it was the science he was attacking, not the person. But, that's not quite how the people on the receiving end saw it at the time.

Has Mr. A. done some good, any good? Possibly. Are the things he has found true? My instinct is to believe the young, or now not so young, women who have come forward. People are lauding him for "uncovering the truth". Yet, I cannot read his statements and op-eds without thinking of what I know. Mr. A is a bully. He may be cloaked in self-righteousness here, but he has done exactly this to others. All in the name of science.

Has he changed? I certainly admit the possibility that he has grown, and that he is trying to expiate his sins. But, is there any remorse in what he says, any acknowledgement of what he might have done? None that I can find in his writing. To me, it reads like Mr. A. has jumped on a bandwagon, seeing, if not glory, at least a lot of attention, his name in print, and glorified given the current political winds. In this case, he may have done some good. But what if he applied this to someone who is innocent?

To ask why someone does something is fraught with problems. We often don't know why we ourselves do something. Still, I am filled with sardonic? even caustic? mirth at watching Mr. A dance. I hope that deep down, somewhere, he knows why he has done what he has.

 

 

 

 

4 responses so far

Paying for your science - OPM

I just read the original post that prompted a set of tweets that in turn prompted this one from me. Dr. Edward Hind is a postdoc who has spent a lot of his own money doing science. He's also someone who left a more lucrative career to do science. This says he is someone who has looked at the options and made a choice, choosing something he wants that produces less income.

I think the problems, nay implications to the field,  for paying for your own science are significant.  It begins to sound like an initiation fee. Or a system in which one can buy their way to the top. It may exclude people from the lower socioeconomic end of life, and make it much tougher for those in the middle.

But totally unaddressed in Edd's column is who can, let alone the slippery concept of should, pay for these "extras" (which aren't really extra) and where is the money going to come from?

I'm an olde farte. I've been faculty in a variety of departments. They all had money issues. They all had budget shortfall issues. Even the "rich" clinical department had money issues. While that department generated squillions of $$ in clinical income, the med school imposed a "tax" on the clinical departments, in the form of "if you do not bring in X$ in grant overhead, the amount we consider appropriate for your size, you need to give us the difference from your clinical income". Follow the logic and you can feel the leadership being squeezed. Actually, they just made the calculations as to the cost of research faculty and decided on the optimal (in their view) balance of faculty that generated income, and cost them money.

In A&S college departments the budgets were a joke. There is no money in those budgets to cover much of anything, including paper clips and pens, let alone meetings and publishing. When Xeroxing no longer was an issue because of teh interwebtubes, the pathetic allotment for teaching copying disappeared. The A&S Biology department I was in had a small endowment dedicated to graduate students. There were frequent debates as to whether that money should support grad students so they didn't have to teach in the summer and could do field work or whether it should send students to meetings or buy supplies so they could do research. The latter is important in a department where students are their own PI's and not working on their advisor's project.

And there's the problem. What should limited money be spent on? Yup, we pay for professional stuff. But who else should pay for it? The departments? They are making hard decisions about seed money for new hires, money to support grad student research, and how to support junior faculty who didn't get funded at N-3 years counting to tenure, but with a little more money might get enough papers out to get funded next round. They are debating spending money to hire someone to cover teaching (like the postdoc in the department who didn't get a job) for the dude going on sabbatical, so that somebody else doesn't double their teaching load to cover a critical course.

So, you say, the departments should ask for money from the College? Departments are doing this All The Fucking Time. And when they get the money, we just go back to the problems in the paragraph above. The colleges should dictate how the money they give to departments is spent, and  demand that the departments cover the extra costs of everyone from students through postdocs and faculty? Let me tell you how far that would get. Department budgets may be pitiful, but its one of the few tools a chair, a well meaning, hard working chair has to effect change. They are not going to be happy to accept either funded or unfunded mandates from above. This is independent of whether you think that covering a postdoc's meeting costs is a useful and optimal use of any extra money.

Now, Colleges have lots of money, you say. Tuition is going up. But where is that tuition money going? There is a lot of debate about what college budgets are  covering. I've not seen a single clear answer that explains what is happening. I do know that administrative staffing has risen far faster than academic staffing. But plush presidential suites and salaries don't really account for differences in college/university income. There are lots of things colleges spend money. Should they be going to central administration and asking for money? Colleges are doing this All The Fucking Time. Run through the argument above, but with  slightly higher numbers and change "department" to "college" and "college" to "central admin". Do you think Deans would be any more enthusiastic about unfunded mandates on their budgets than chairs? If so, you don't know any Deans. And they are far smoother, by and large, than chairs at arguing their way around budgets.

My current department (basic science in a medical school) has the same concerns and issues. I know some because my current chair (may his health and good attitude last for a very long time) is open and has discussed much of the issues with the faculty. He gives each faculty member an allotment for meetings, memberships and the like. Its on the order of $1000. This year, I spent my money sending two trainees to a national meeting airfare and registration. Yup, I kicked in the rest for them out of my pocket. I didn't go, but if I had I would have paid myself.

Do I want my chair to put in more money to this fund? Nope. This is not an MRU, but an almost MRU. We are not the first choice for really good young people looking for a tenure track job. We've had people scooped out from under us by MRU's that offer 30-60% more seed, even when we meet the request of the candidate. My department has a choice to make: what do we support with the limited money that we can allot? Its a hard decision. We make one choice, and actually some of the faculty don't agree (especially when the hire is in another area than their own). But what investment, and that's what this money is, an investment in the future of the department is going to maximize the life and careers and future of all the constituents? That is not an easy question to answer.

The bottom line comes down to something simple from Econ 101: there are unlimited needs, desires, wants, and limited resources with which to fill those needs. I too would love it someone gave me $20K year to pay for publication and meetings and students and taxis. But I want really good junior faculty in the department more than I want those things.

OPM? Other People's Money - what should pay for all the things we want.

4 responses so far

So I didn't get a fundable score, either

Feb 24 2015 Published by under becoming an adult, grantsmanship

Here are things that I am grateful for, right now, when I didn't get a fundable score:

1. I am old enough not be totally incapacitated for 12 to 48 hours with grief and depression.

2. I am mature enough that I am not going to beat myself up and say that I'm stupid, that I'm incompetent, that my science sucks.

3. I have enough self control not to go out and get 3 gallons of expensive ice cream and eat it over a period of a few hours till I feel even more miserable about myself.

4. Nor am I going to take it out, in one form or another, on my current partner. I am not going to pick a fight, so I that can say that no one cares at all about me. No one in my life right now deserves that.

5. I am not going to blame: the molecular geneticists, Millennials, clinical idiots who don't like animal models, GenX, Sally Rockey, the study section chair, the reviewers, my mother, men, or anyone else. Not because they aren't at fault, but because it doesn't matter. Fault is irrelevant here. Getting funded is the goal.

These are all things I have done in the past.

It will be a while till I get pink sheets (reviews). I will read them. I will be unhappy. I will try & rewrite (as a new grant, of course).

Meanwhile, it's time to trot out ideas for proposals B and C and work on making them presentable, i.e., submittable.

My heart goes out to all the young people who are in the same boat, folks who haven't learned what I've learned about responding to being trashed by study section. Because it hurts a lot to be rejected.

If my thoughts help, great. That's why I write this blog. If they don't, well, my heart is still with you, whether you want it or not.

 

 

16 responses so far