Archive for the 'life' 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.



Update: See this about physicians.

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Taking care of our elderly

Last weekend I had breakfast with one friend, and dinner with another. They both are caregivers for their Moms. Both, however, have recently moved their Moms from home to assisted living/Alzheimer's units. The medical conditions are different in these Moms, and the personalities were different before the disease.

Yet, dementia brings on changes in personality that are as tough as they are predictable. Some is a loss of executive function, and the ability, nay desire, to say whatever enters your head. I remember "You can't be my child, because I don't have so many horrible genes". Some is anger at loss of function, or bluster for covering up mental lapses. One parent of a different friend became sweet and kind and charming. But that's the only one I can recall that the changes were perceived as an improvement.

My friends are women I've known for a while, the three years since I moved to almost-MRU. They've listened to me go through the pain, yes the pain, of watching my mother slip away. We've talked about this over the years. One friends mother is just in the beginning stages, and the other about a year behind my mother. The emotion burden is huge. And I will admit to feeling some relief when listening to them that these particular stages were over, for me.

One of the moms is angry. All the time. Painfully angry. Demanding people who are gone. Demanding the presence of my friend, all the time. It is hard to leave your crying mother, whether she is angry or emotionally bereft. I know this feeling. The only thing worse is when they forget to ask you to stay, just a minute more. Or when they can no longer scream at you, demand, plead.

The other mom has lost language. At first, language loss, albeit with speech, still, seems a relief. No more harangues, no more ridiculous requests, no more crying for people who have been dead for 20 or 50 years. But quickly,  for children caring for parents, this becomes a new loss. One of the things about AD is that you lose your parent or spouse or friend over and over and over again.

Each stage, each change is a knife in the heart. Some days, leaving my mom, coming home, I would look down at my chest and expect to see blood seeping through my clothes. I would think: this is the worst it can get. My mother was no longer crying for specific people, but tears and tears and tears for unknown sadness beyond words. There is often no way to comfort people with AD. They are angry, and then worse, they do not know you want to comfort them.


My friend, whose mother no longer has language, who is drifting into that twilight where neither mother nor daughter can see anything, showed me a picture of her mom. Here it is, with my friends permission. I took one look, and knew that it was the same picture I had of my mother. Our mothers, who remembering nothing else in their lives, remember being a mother.


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The joy of marvelous colleagues

Mar 06 2015 Published by under collaborators, life

I've spent a few  days  working with four of my most wonderful  and favorite collegues/collaborators. We've been working on a database/NSF grant for the last couple of years. It is not my most favorite research (and hopefully they are not reading this to find that out). But,  working with them has made me care about the science far more than I would have otherwise.

There are lots of reasons we chose what we do. There is a point at which  it just comes down to "this is interesting because X, Y,  Z", where XYZ don't have a meta explanation of their own. Or because it would be cool to cure cancer,  make disabled children walk, understand how mankind  evolved. But why is that interesting?

The impact of collaborators is often underestimated. These folks  have made me think about all sorts of things, and I cannot exactly explain why. They are open and they like to eat cookies.  One went to visit Duke and sent me this picture:20150225_133816_resized




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Not all Republicans are scum

Mar 04 2015 Published by under life

Take this CPP: (its all about the generation)


But the trend is there, the trend is there.


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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.

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Saying Goodbye to Your Parents

Mar 01 2015 Published by under Alzheimer's disease, dementia, life, parents

Ann Patchett is an author whose novels I find compelling. Her novel State of Wonder does a good a job of capturing some the joy and a wonder of field work. The novel is set in South America, and I did field work in SE Asia, but the novel held me.

She has a column in Sundays NYTimes called "Finding Joy in My Father's Death". I love her writing, the stories she tells. I love that she can pull me into what she is thinking. But now, as my mother is very very slowly dying of Alzheimer's disease, I do not want to read other people's views. There is a lot of talk about AD right now, given the academy awards, and I find that I turn the radio off. I  don't want to know more about it. I feel like I know everything I want to know, need to know, except how much longer will my mother live? How hard is this going to be for me and my sister? How much more indignity will this wonderful brilliant woman have before she finally shuffles off her mortal coil?

But I glanced at Patchett's op-ed and read the first paragraph and I was hooked. From the op-ed:


In Costco, I told Felice that I would do everything I could to help my father, but that I had resolved not to feel sad.

“He’s still alive,” I said, thinking he might last a few months. “I’ve decided to wait and feel terrible once he’s dead.”

“Or not,” she said brightly, and gave me a hug.

Or not. Or not. More:

“What if you’ve thrown a dinner party,” I said. “And at 11 o’clock your guests got up to leave. The dishes were still on the table, the pans were in the sink, you had to go to work in the morning, but the guests just kept standing in the open door saying good night. They tell you another story, praise your cooking, go back to look for their gloves. They do this for three years.”

Please don't say, but this is your mother, not a house guest. Please don't say, but this is a life, not a dinner party. The person who my mother was, professor and brilliant do-er of cross-word puzzles and reader of murder mysteries and knitter of gorgeous sweaters is gone. There is someone there. Someone who is contiguous with her. Someone who sometimes looks like her, but not always. The woman with whom I fought and argued, the woman who hurt me and who I surely hurt in return, is not the woman I visit and feed and comfort.

There is very little left of my mother. There are still things in which, I believe, I think, I hope, she takes joy: ice cream, a hand to hold. Why think? There is no language left, no expression or communication. I do not know what she sees, I do not know that we understand how AD interferes with the signals from eyes to brain.

Patchett's post was a little ray of light for me. A little help in thinking about my mother.

I do not know how to end this blog post. Hopeful? "And as long as there is a person there, I am still her daughter, and I will still care for her"? or coldly realistic? "She has certainly taken years at the door to leave the party and it is painful and hard and cruel". Both are true.

I have no idea what I will feel when she is gone. Hell, I don't know what I feel right now. The world is not a fair place, to old people  dying slowing or to young people figuring it out.

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All life is a cost-benefit decision, even if you personally eschew capitalism

Feb 27 2015 Published by under life, time, Uncategorized

Forget the capitalism part, that's just trolling.

There is a convo on the tweets about paying for stuff that are "perks" or marginally necessary for what one does professionally.

As scientists, for the most part, there will never be anyone else to pay for many of the science things you wish to do. This ranges from going to meetings and staying somewhere other than a hostel with hordes of unwashed and stoned teenagers to journal subscriptions to page costs to duct tape with little animals on it.

I am not going to sit or stand or lie here and say "this is worth paying for and this is not". There are certainly extremes that are relatively easy to decide (forgo the duct tape and pay for your own coffee on the road). But whether something is "worth it" or not is a totally personal decision. Whether to dip into your shoe budget or cigs budget to buy that duct tape is not a decision anyone can make for you. The value you place on a Friday night beer vs a Monday morning fancy coffee vs flying or driving to a meeting is something everyone decides for themselves.

That of course, makes some of the decisions even harder. And many are not trivial at all. One example: people who are on a 9 month, academic year salary, do you teach in the summer? Depending on the university, the union and other factors one can earn 10-30% of ones academic year salary. That is not small potatoes. But, you still have to teach for that money. Sometimes the teaching is easy, and sometimes not. Sometimes even if its freshman bio, or remedial M1 physiology, and something you can do in your sleep, it will suck the life out of you. Even if its only in the mornings, you are too mind-fracked to do real science in the p.m. Sometimes the decision gets more complex. You add in the cost of daycare for little ones vs. salary in vs getting another paper out before tenure. These are tough decisions. And they are decisions that you weigh for yourself. They are based on your ability to parse time efficiently, stay on track and not run yourself into the ground.

The important thing is to understand that you are making a cost/benefit decision. Do I want to teach or write? The next most important thing is to be able to assess the costs and the benefits with some accuracy. What is a new car, better day care, a night out once in a while worth to me? The third most important thing is to remember that money is just a counter in your to translate those cost/benefit decisions. It is not anything more than that. Money means buying this or that. Money means my students don't pay me in sheep wool that I have to spin and then weave into a pair pants. I have always found it useful not to think "I need (to earn, to acquire, to beg) another $Xk", but to think about what that $Xk means to what I can and cannot do. Yes, this is the tedious "do a budget" thing, but it is important when you make these cost benefit decisions and comparisons. Just like time, money slips away. In fact, in organizing my younger academic life, I far more frequently that at any other time in my life thought money is time.

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Words of Wisdom from Mickey Spillane

Feb 19 2015 Published by under life, time, Uncategorized

Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If its a letdown, they won't buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.


The same could almost be said of scientific papers. Posters. Talks. Your intro sells the current work. The discussion will bring them back for more.

I have found that operating at different time scales is difficult, but necessary. This paper is not just about this paper.

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Working with A Tech

Feb 13 2015 Published by under life, professionalism in science, time, Uncategorized

One of the hardest things I ever learned as a faculty was how to work with a tech. It was doubly hard when I was young, and the people with whom I was working were within 5 years of my age.  Finding the balance between friend and employee, supervisor and colleague. Its not something for which we get trained.

As is true of trainees, the most important thing may be respect.  Recognize that this is another human being who is both different from you and still shares all sorts of stuff. Its Scylla and Charybdis all over again. Bluish-yellow. For lots of women I know, it has often worked better to veer towards the professional end of the spectrum and away from the "we're all friends in this lab". I have found that getting sunk into the inevitable personal problems that all of us have, that younger folks wear on their sleeves, can upset the flow of work in a lab. For lots of guys, the professional /cold/hard attitude can send the message that you are merely a pawn or stepping stone on my path to greatness.

This is a person who works both with you and for you. That's the balance problem. You have a job. You have a task. You have a mission. Your job and task and mission has short term and middle term and long term parts. A person, a non-trainee person, working with you and for you is going to contribute to all of those parts. They don't have to know everything, but if you treat them like a cog and tell them "what they need to know" they will not be invested in your work. They won't have loyalty towards those goals, let alone to you.

I can't tell you all the small specifics of what to do. In fact, understanding the overarching principles is probably a better guideline. Treat the people who work with you as you would want to be treated. The rest is just NIH funding.


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Mental Health

Feb 05 2015 Published by under life, time

There is so much stuff on the web, that I'm not surprised when I find something new and interesting, in this case a blog called Conditionally Accepted (Space for scholars on the margins of academia).  There is a good post on being pregnant while academic. The blog posts from a variety of folks, not just science, on a variety of topics. I found a post titled Acknowledging the "one-body problem" (from Dec 2013) by Eric Anthony Grollman.

I liked this one because it was more than the usual story of I was mentally healthy, and then I did a PhD and the horribleness of the experience destroyed me. And then... either (a) I woke up and left academia and I am very happy today or (b) I didn't wake up and I still struggle and its horrible. This post acknowledges that its hard, but that there are things you can do.

In the middle of the post he asks:

What are you doing to ensure that you will even be alive long enough to get tenure, become full professor, or leave/retire from academia to start a second career?  What are you doing to ensure that you can achieve these career goals and be happy, and have a life, and feel healthy rather than depleted and frazzled?

Sometimes I feel that we (in RL, in the blogosphere, in twitterland) are surrounded by so much negativity that I want to say: what the fuck are you doing here, anyway? If this is all so horrible, why, why why?

The post goes on to offer ways to think about dealing with mental health problems. How to think about what you need (and he makes the important body that your body and brain are not separate entities and that you should go take that bathroom break).

Every time I hear someone say that they stayed up all night, that they pushed beyond physical comfort, I cringe inside. Yes, there are times when you need to push more. But way too often we (yes, that's a we) trade working longer for working harder/smarter. Thirty minutes of exercise does more for mental health than an extra two hours of editing that proposal.

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