Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Medical Schools That Get It Right

Mar 06 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

From the President of my University:

Dear Near-MRU Community:

 The recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the others that have preceded it, have given pause to many, particularly our students.

 As you may know, students and others around the country are planning walkouts, teach-ins and other protests in the coming weeks to push for solutions to prevent future school shootings.

 A nationally organized walkout―#ENOUGH National School Walkout―for students, teachers, school administrators, parents and allies has been planned for Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at 10 a.m. The walkout, which will last for 17 minutes (10 - 10:17 a.m.), is designed to engage Congress to pass legislation to keep communities safe from gun violence.

 Several our student groups have asked for Near-MRU’s support of their participation in the National School Walk Out. They invite all faculty, staff and students to walk out of class at that time in solidarity.

 As a result of this request, we want Near-MRU students, staff, faculty, and others to know that the University supports their engagement in matters of importance to them, particularly those things that are of public health and wellness concern, provided that such engagement does not disrupt the University’s ability to educate and operate safely.

 Specifically, we support anyone who wants to participate in the #ENOUGH National School Walkout and assure all that grades or any other academic or business decisions will not be impacted in any way, as a result of participation in this peaceful protest.






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Jumping off into the unknown

Feb 14 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a good friend who is a much better human being than I am. She is generous, with her time and her affection, her intellect and her street smarts about life. Let’s call her Susan.

Susan did a PhD in a prestigious place, and a postdoc even more so. But not in a particular sexy and shiny subfield. It involved Live Animals that were not mice or rats, but answered questions that crossed fields. She managed to get the respect of both places, and was funded by both subdiscplines, but much more NSF than NIH. She is respected and has done good work. She got married to another scientist, had kids, and made a bunch of compromises. She’s in her mid 50s now and what’s important, was a woman at a time and in a place where there weren’t many. She was an adjunct before the word and concept had evolved.

In fact, she’s been an adjunct for 20-ish years. And she’s just tired of it. She’s retiring, which as she tells it, is a bit fiscally risky. But she’s tired. She has had 5 year contracts, which while more than many of the current adjuncts in social sciences or humanities get, but its taken a toll. She’s been funded, which has been life and death for her.

I can’t say that I think much of her husband, but then no one has asked me to think much of him, let alone my opinion. She’s a better scientist. Her kids are more or less launched in life. She can point to a body of work that is good, and important, and made a difference. He’s still a jerk, in my book. He has set down some rules about where they might go. I am pretty sure these are not consistent with what Susan might want. But again, no one is asking me my opinion.

What amazes me is that she doesn’t know what comes next for her. I’m actively thinking about retirement, but one of the things that keeps pulling at me is that there is nothing I love as much as I love doing science. She and I had a long skype the other day, and I wish I had taken notes. We are different, but she still had much insight for me. There was lots of wisdom floating in the air. And I, alas, did not capture it.

Susan is leaping off into space. Yes, it is a leap that has a good safety net. She’s not going to starve. She’s not going to be on the street, sleeping in a sleeping bag under the underpass. But she doesn't know what else comes next. And maybe you could fault her for "running from" as opposed to "running to". Yet, I admire her. To know what you want, and what you don't want, really know, is a high achievement.


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Thoughts on reviewing NIH proposals: What is the difference between a 2.0 and 3.0 in initial score?

Feb 10 2018 Published by under grantsmanship, Uncategorized

There are lots of posts (some mine, some from others, more worthy correspondents) about the current state of NIH scoring and its relationship to funding.

The general and consistent message is that, yes, funding is hard to get. You need to put in the best possible proposal you can. You need to pay attention to grantsmanship issues, because that can help. But I want to move beyond that.

I've often commented that sometimes the difference between a discussed but not funded and a funded proposal is almost random. That this is one of the times grantsmanship matters, and what I consider one of the most important meta-rules: make the reviewer your advocate.

So study section time is coming up. I got a set of proposals to review, and I'm done. My reviews are posted, and many of colleagues have posted too. This produced a lot of reviews for me to look at, and I was seeing them in the light of recent twitter discussion.

I haven't seen a score better than 2. But I also haven't seen any 9's, or even anything >8.1. This is, in part, because we are explicitly told to balance our distribution, and make 5 the mean/median. Start with a 5, and go up or down from there.

Looking at the 2-4 range might be helpful. These are proposals that will be discussed. The difference between a 2 and a 4 is now the difference in getting funded. What are the words used that distinguish between the 2s and the 3s and 4s?

Here is something I saw more than once:

"Overall, while hopping disorders in elderly rabbits is a topic of importance, the work is viewed as incremental in nature and not that particularly innovative"

I did not review this proposal. This was a study that received a "2" in approach, but a "6" in innovation. A good reviewer may have more detail on why it is "not particularly innovative". I've seen things like:

These results have been established for adult bunnies, and the only difference in this proposal is that the study population is elderly bunnies.

The significance could be very high: we may want or need to know this for elderly bunnies. But the innovation is not. Here is another critique I've seen concerning innovation:

The proposed techniques and approaches have been used by this PI and study team for many years, thus not particularly new or innovative, other than being used for this project in elderly bunnies.

I am not sure this is particularly helpful, as most PI's use the same basic techniques. This critique produces the cry: "what am I supposed to do? this is what I do". There is the sentiment expressed that "reviewers are just looking  for problems". I do not think this is true. Instructions to reviewers are to  start with a "5" in every category and move up or down. I have read the complaints of people who say "I got a 3 or a 4 but there were no weaknesses."   A 3 or 4 may have no weaknesses, just not enough strength to boost it to a 2. So how then you ask, "am I supposed to improve this and get funded?".

To answer that, let's start with the NIH wording on innovation for R01s:

Does the application challenge and seek to shift current research or clinical practice paradigms by utilizing novel theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions? Are the concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions novel to one field of research or novel in a broad sense? Is a refinement, improvement, or new application of theoretical concepts, approaches or methodologies, instrumentation, or interventions proposed?

And we are back to the discussion of last month, and last year, and honestly, last decade. NIH reviewers are not in the business of making suggestions on how to improve your proposal. You may want that. You may feel you are owed that. You may think that it is unfair not to give you that kind of help. And of course, you may have any feelings you might want to have. But those feelings will not change reality. The job, the role, the assignment to reviewers, from NIH, is to evaluate proposals and provide justification for the scores that they give.

The view that something isn't innovative because it does nothing beyond change the population is sufficient for NIH standards, but tremendously frustrating to the PI applicant. The reviewers are not supposed to tell you how to make it innovative, only judge whether it is or not.

Back in the olden dayes, when grants were 25 pages long, reviews unstructured and everyone wore suits to study section, there were unlimited resubmissions. One (but there were others) of the reasons NIH decided to go to first 2 resubs (3 total) and eventually 1 resubmission was the view that "reviewers were writing the proposals" and telling PI's what they needed to do.

In fact, I think not telling a  PI how to make a project innovative is A Good Thing. It opens up room for creativity and insight and change. If reviewers and study sections said "do this", well of course you would. And then the reviewers would not so much be evaluating your ideas and projects, but proposing their own.

The best place to go to figure out how to change your proposal are those questions and guidelines that NIH gives the reviewers (here!). Make it possible for the reviewers to answer yes! yes! yes! to those questions. The proposals that have turned me into their advocate are proposals that I want to make sure my reasoning about why this is A Damn Fine Proposal is clear, and upfront and persuasive as possible to my fellow reviewers.


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Professionalism and Integrity on Study Section

Feb 05 2018 Published by under Uncategorized

There was some discussion on the tweets lately about What Happens At Study Section. Given that NIH triages 50% of the proposals, that is does not discuss, making that cut is important. Part of the discussion concerned whether one of three reviewers could "sink" a proposal.


A procedural note (which was cleared up on the tweets, but I can't find it and it's worth repeating here): if a proposal is triaged, there is no "voting outside the range". Voting outside the range is something that happens after a discussion and after final scores are given by the reviewer. If a proposal is triaged, no one votes and there is no range to be outside of.

In the study sections on which I have sat, since triage has become a thing, there is a list of triaged proposals that is circulated prior to review. ANYONE, not just the reviewers of a particular proposal, can call for review of a proposal (before the meeting) and move it to the discuss group. Moreover, there is another chance to do this during study section meeting.  I've seen moving from triage to discussion at nearly every study section, even from the non-reviewers. If someone feels strongly about a proposal, they can force the discussion.

Discussions tend to be complex things. If someone feels very strongly about a proposal, they can try and drive the discussion. This tends not to happen. I have seldom seen anyone be irrationally negative about a proposal. And almost always, everyone who says something negative, tries and balance it with what they do perceive as positive about the proposal. I have seen more strong very positive reviews.

"Voting out of range", for those who don't know, happens at the end of the discussion. The three (or sometimes four) reviewers each give a final score, and indicate how they have changed from their initial score, based on the discussion. Then the chair asks if anyone is voting out of the range of the reviewers. This is for the non-reviewers, as the reviewers set the range.   It happens. As DM indicated, it's often more than one person, and more often towards a worse score. My sense is that it frequently occurs when non-reviewers think that a problem raised in review is more serious than the reviewer thinks it is. They often explicitly indicate this verbally (which is how I have come to think this).

In general, IME, preliminary scores tend to have a wider range than final scores before voting. Most reviewers are not only listening, but actively engaged in discussing the proposals. Although I have heard the words "I am excited by this proposal" and "I am disappointed in this proposal", by and large, reviewers are not irrational or overly emotional about proposals. They tend to base their reviews on points of substance, and follow the NIH guidelines on reviews.

If you haven't seen the (very extensive) guidelines for reviewers, it is well worth looking at before you submit.  This link is a real rabbit hole, but one worth pursuing. For example, the guidelines for an R01 include:

How will successful completion of the aims change the concepts, methods, technologies, treatments, services, or preventative interventions that drive this field?

And I have read proposals that include the text:

Successful completion of these aims will change the treatments available for dysfunctional bunny hopping.

There is absolutely nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with telling the reviewers what they are looking for in your proposal.

It is easy and often emotionally satisfying to be angry at Study Section and especially, IME, Reviewer #2. They Don't Get It. They are prejudiced against bunny hopping studies. There was one Reviewer who sank my study.  These things are not impossible. They are just not likely.


3 responses so far

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.

2 responses so far

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?



12 responses so far

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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