Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Weird things that happen when you get old

Nov 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a colleague with whom I am friendly. Nay, I would go so far as to say we are friends. She is a lovely person, a great scientist and a committed human being: caring for family, friends and the students. When my Mom died, she was very supportive at work. I have tried to be supportive of her issues in balancing life & work (I say "try" because I cannot judge what was useful or not for her. That is her call). I have certainly read many grant proposals and helped with those.

As you can guess, there is a but coming.

Every time this woman sees me she says something like "are you OK?" or "you don't look so great, is something wrong?". The fact is, nothing is wrong. I am old. When I get tired by the end of the day, I look tired. I don't think I am more tired than I was when I was 30. But maybe I am.  I think that we (as a society and culture) think that looking old often equals looking tired, or looking ill. But, in truth, I am probably less tired, because I am getting better at making sure I get enough sleep and eat well and take care of myself.

I am not sure of this, and I'm certainly not a fixed perspective, but I think things like "tired" do show more on old faces (as opposed to actually being tired). There are things one is better at hiding as one ages: disappointment, for example.

There are times when I have thought older faces are more interesting than younger faces. But then I teach and young faces, when engaged in something they want to do, engaged in something difficult, engaged in learning something they have chosen are as variable and interesting as any set of other faces. Stay away from magazines filled plastic people (usually young). Stay away from news announcers and TV programs where it seems like botox has erased the subtleties that make each human being unique.

When people talk about teaching being invigorating, there may be lots of reasons. Sometimes it is the information and the flow of information. Sometimes its working with other people, different ages, and seeing them grow right before your eyes. Sometimes its just being reminded as to what being human is.

No I'm not tired. I just look like the old person I am. And I am proud of every damn wrinkle, scar and yes, I'm even getting warts at this point.


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Great Quote about why not to tax college tuition

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This post titled "How The House GOP Tax Plan Soaks University Cooks, Custodians And Other Low-Paid Workers", by Daniel Marans,  says:

“What this means is that fewer college employees, and fewer of their children, are going to have the opportunity to attend college because the life-changing benefit of a tuition waiver will become too expensive for them to afford,” Brunson and Austin write. “Of course, just as it does with graduate students, this limitation applies only to those without personal or family resources. Those with such resources will be fine.”

But that's not the great quote. This is:

“And this is why it matters: access to higher education remains the only thing standing between the current United States and a society of hereditary privilege and permanent class divisions,” they add. “The proper term for such a society is an ‘aristocracy,’ and it is precisely what our country was founded not to be.”

My emphasis. Issues based on "meritocracy", even if that's what we want, are fraught with all the baggage of privilege and hidden discrimination. I remember one of the metaphors, dating back to the 70s, most likely: What if there was a race, say 400M. And one of the contestants had chains on their legs. Or a 50lb bag of sand strapped to their back. That's not fair, and immediately you stop the race mid-stride and remove the impediment. But, the race is 10 seconds gone, and the contestant with the impediment is so far behind, that they can't catch up at all. What does one do to make the race fair at this point?

But we are moving backwards from that  point, from even just the societal removal of chains. We don't seem to give a damn that the race isn't fair. That children, children, are burdened. [But of course, the moment we decided that Sandy Hook didn't matter, we decided that children are expendable.]

It used to be education was the first step: let everyone run as fast, regardless of race, religion, etc. But, now, we seem to be content to say: oh yeah, if you really don't like those chains, take them off yourself. That is not what this country is about.

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Follow NIH opportunities on twitter

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

If you are in the NIH ratrace, then following NIH Funding [@NIHFunding] can be helpful. Yes 95% of what is tweeted is irrelevant. But its still better than the days when it came to the library, in hard copy, and you had to go somewhere else to read it.

NIH Guide for Grants & Contacts: funding opportunities & more. (Official NIH Office of Extramural Research account.) Privacy:

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Negotiating for new job

Nov 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This, from the tweets, generated a few thoughts:

Faculty negotiation: 1) Salary, 2) start-up package, 3)HR benefits, 4) Moving expense, 5) space for research 6) Teaching load, graduate student access and support, 7) promotion/tenure process, 8) IPR, 9) Parking/housing/child care and 10) Spouse/partner employment#SfN17

— Addictive Brain (@addictivebrain) November 11, 2017

Hmmm... I disagree with order, for sure. But the first thing to consider is what is the ballpark of the starting place from their side?  If something is "close" to what you want/need, it may be a better strategy to set that aside and put your negotiating towards the things that are not. Thus if the lab space is close, but the salary not, don't argue for an extra 100 sqft, but for the extra $10K in salary.

Also keep in mind that a "final offer", the legal piece of paper won't be made until you and chair have reached an agreement about what the position is and it entails.  Thus your negotiating can be delicate in balancing what you need vs. what the department can offer.

As for order: if you don't have what you need, in space or other resources, to be a success and publish, get funded, in short do your job as a scientist/professor, it doesn't matter how high the salary is right now. If the teaching load is so burdensome that you can't do research, and research is what gets you tenure, it doesn't matter what the salary is, or how much they give you for child care.

You are playing a long game now, and you need to think about what will carry you for the next six years. Which suggests one point to inquire about: how long can I keep the start-up (seed) money. Sometimes it needs to be spent in a window, and sometimes that window is a year or 3 years. That can be a problem if you haven't gotten funded by then.

Also, it is worth keeping in mind that there are some things your (soon-to-be) chair can't negotiate. Things like HR benefits are often determined well above the chair level, and sometimes at state universities they are set by the State Legislature. Ask about them, but don't get hung up. The same can be true of parking/housing/child care. Money is fungible: salary can go to parking, childcare, or moving. And $1000 now for moving (which may seem very important) is not worth as much as $500 more in salary, multiplied over 6 years, and including %age increases.

Teaching load is tricky. In this day and age, jobs are often defined by teaching needs: its where the money for the line comes from. Try and find that out during the interview. If they absolutely need someone to teach: A&P to pre-nursing students, or Intro ecology for a well-subscribed program, your trying to negotiate out of that teaching can result in a final offer not being made.

A good chair will let you know where she/he is flexible in the offers that can be made. What teaching can be delayed or traded? How are salaries set, and what is the range for this level of professorship (lots of public universities have set ranges)? What about space? What about renovating space? One likes to think everyone is negotiating in good faith, and that the chair wants you to come and doesn't want you pissed off. But remember to get it all in writing. The chair you negotiate with today may not be around tomorrow.



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quote of the day: jazz musician edition

Nov 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago. ― Louis Armstrong

Not just musicians.


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One more down side of caring for elderly parents

Nov 16 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There has been a lot of press about childcare at SfN. InBabyAttachMode reposted her excellent post from a while back. This included this link to a document titled Recs for making SfN 2018 more family/breastfeeding-friendly from Rebecca M. Calisi Rodriguez @BeccaCalisi.  The document makes for interesting reading. I can't believe for example, there are no sinks for handwashing in the lactation rooms. [aside: follow @BeccaCalisi, she's good].

We have come a long way in the six years since IBAM went to SfN and even more in the 30 years since my generation was parenting young ones, and left children at home, as there was no such thing as child care, etc at meetings. I perceive this as changes for the good in our society (when sometimes it feels like there aren't any, also no smoking. In the olden days, the poster areas had a heavy bluish cloud of smoke hanging everywhere).

What I do want to point out is that there is no movement, no support and really no on-site alternatives for people who are care-givers for their elderly and demented parents. People still coo over infants (well, many do). And those who are not enamored of other people's children, at least find it tolerable. I suspect if one went through the posters with one's drooling and unkempt parent, it would not be received so favorably. We tolerate drool and pee and bodily smells in kids in ways we do not in adults. Using a "family restroom" in public to change elder diapers is seldom met with tolerance and approval.

I'm not necessarily arguing that what we provide for childcare should also be mirrored in adult-care. But we do need to be aware that all of the social burdens of taking care of others are not just breastfeeding infants.

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George Will gets it

Nov 15 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I'm not a terribly big fan of the op-ed political columnist George Will.

But he's got an op-ed in the Washington Post that makes some good points about academia and the Republican Rush to tax endowments.

Yes, its only the "very rich" universities. And why shouldn't they (as in the very rich corporations and the very rich individuals) pay their "fair share"?

Because [some subset of us] believe that Universities are different from other large corporations. [set aside the concerns that Universities have a product. Set aside concerns that Universities are being run like a corporation. these are important discussions. just not here, not now.]

So before I start on what was good in Will's piece, the idea of universities being different does bring me to one of my problems with Will's piece: its reeks of the exceptional attitudes that the owning class uses to justify it's own existence. The piece uses Princeton as an example, partly because, as Will discloses, he was once a trustee of Princeton. He says:

Great universities are great because philanthropic generations have borne the cost of sustaining private institutions that seed the nation with excellence.

Yes, but also, depending on how far back in history you wish to go, there are some problems with this. Firstly, this excellence was carried out on the back of enslaved peoples. This must be acknowledged. And dealt with. Secondly the definition of "excellence" has evolved with time, and certainly excluded not only people of color (once free), but also Jews, Asians, and in general anyone who wasn't deemed as having the potential for greatness. Even now, there are arguments about the percentage of Jews and Asian-Americans who belong at such great places.

Will has clearly been sensitized. He points out what Princeton has been doing to rectify this, and that legacies (children of alums) are only 13% of this year's entering freshman. And that this endowment drives financial assistance for the those that are not part of the financial elite. I think the Major Private Universities still have a ways to go in addressing these issues, but its a lot better than when I was going to college, and that was better than when my parents went.

Moving past these issues, albeit for a moment, there is value in things that Will says in this piece.  He explains, with some clarity what  "supervisory taxes" are, taxes that are imposed on private foundations, as well as what a "operating foundation" is (link from his article). These are important legal distinctions that impact on who pays taxes and how much. We can turn up our noses at boring legalese, but if you want to fight the battles, you need to know what the ground rules are. This falls into the same basket as getting Al Capone on tax evasion.

But the thing that I found most interesting in the article, especially in the light of the current tax bills working their way through Congress is Will's continuing commitment to small government. I may not believe in small government, nor in the standard libertarian line, but part of what frosts my shorts about the current legislation is that the current hypocrites-in-charge are fine with "reduce government" except when it comes to things that their corporate puppet-masters deem important. Thus, we have a run-away bloated military. Republicans are all about "limiting the budget deficit", except when they are not, for political reasons. Here is the damning paragraph from his piece:

Government having long ago slipped the leash of restraint, the public sector’s sprawl threatens to enfeeble the private institutions of civil society that mediate between the individual and the state and that leaven society with energy and creativity that government cannot supply. Time was, conservatism’s central argument for limiting government was to defend these institutions from being starved of resources and functions by government. Abandonment of this argument is apparent in the vandalism that Republicans are mounting against universities’ endowments.

I am outraged at what the Republicans want to tax and what they want not to tax. The hypocrisy, it burns.

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Interpreting Pink Sheets part 2

Nov 14 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Category: Critiques of Premise. Premise can be hard to interpret what is wanted and what is meant. But basically, you answering the question of "what has been done to suggest that this project is interesting/going to change things?".

This is from Rev 1:

  • While the proposed studies are potentially significant as they may have great translational implication, the proposal suffers primarily
    from the lack of strong scientific premise. 

Here is an example of premise critique (from these reviews, but with subject matter obscured) that is hard to understand. Background: there exists a human pathophysiology (say ConditionA). There is an intervention (InterventionB)that causes some problems (ProbC) . The proposal is to use an animal that mimics CondA, determine the mechanism that makes for the problems associated with IntervB, and proposes a potential way to address those.

It is questionable that the proposed animal model mimics the physiologic problem in [the group of patients proposed here] who have had the standard clinical intervention. The applicant did not make it clear that if the pathophysiology observed in this model [to mimic  the human initial problem, not the intervention] is attributable to the problem human patients, or a simple consequence of making the model. This model was initially developed to test [something else from the PI]. Thus, the previous publications and preliminary results do not support the scientific premise.

How to parse this? My reading: the PI had an model that was good for looking at some other aspect of physiology, but decided that it actually mimics CondA, the human problem. The reviewer points out that the model proposed for CondA has not been validated for CondA. And therefore because the project involved creating CondA and then applying IntervB, the project couldn't tell if the result, ProbC stemmed from CondA or IntervB.

The PI and team could show that their model of generating CondA followed by IntervB duplicates ProbC. The trouble is, are they really testing IntervB?

Rev 2 echoes these concerns:

Scientific Premise: The investigators provide no background or supporting preliminary data in the Significance section. The background provided in subsequent sections is very superficial and does not adequately support their proposed project.

Remember, this proposal did not get discussed. Therefore, Rev 1 & Rev 2 had the same thoughts independently. When our proposals get triaged & not discussed (yes, our, I've been triaged many times) it hurts. Yet, when the reviewers have the same concerns, this is a big red flag being waved.

Especially because here is Rev 3 on premise:

There is no specific statement of scientific premise. The central hypothesis is that [IntervB] causes [ResultC] through three nonexclusive mechanisms... Each of these could contribute to [CondA].

This is exactly the same problem as Rev 1 & Rev2. However, this isn't obvious immediately if you just read through the reviews. The strategy I find useful is to go through a collate the problems across reviewers. Find what each reviewer says about premise, about significance, about innovation. Line up the comments by topic. Then things like this jump out at you.

Writing this and the previous post took some effort on my part. The reason for pointing this out is to say that reading and understanding reviews takes some effort, even when its your proposal, your own best beloved baby. And one must be prepared to perform radical surgery on that best beloved. Here, rewriting to address this problem is not going to be easy. The group needs to consider the model they are proposing and why it works the way it does. But if they just brush off this criticism with a one sentence reply, or include a statement in the significance that says "The premise of this work is.." and re-iterate what they have said before, they will not get funded. Even if they had entirely different reviewers. These reviewers are all saying the same thing and all seeing the same problem. Take this as the gift it is, address the problem, and work towards funding.

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Quote of the day: cold hard realism edition

Nov 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Your whole life people tell you to do what you love. But if you gotta do something else to pay the bills, you don't automatically have to be miserable. --Jeph Jacques


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Looking at Pink Sheets / NIH reviews (part 1)

Nov 13 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

A former trainee, now working with in a medical center/research group/structured environment, asked me to take a look at the reviews for their recently triaged proposal. While I have permission to quote these, I've done everything I can to cover up identities.

There are a number of interesting points worth learning from. In particular, a number of things that were constant across reviews. I have put the reviewer comments in italic to differentiate from my thoughts.  I will  try and organize these into categories.

This is where this post got long, so just one category today:

Category: Obvious things that you should pay attention to ... or ... the reviewers are saying exactly what they mean. This is reviewer 1:

  • Major weaknesses are the dependence of Aim 3 on success in Aims 1 and 2: This is obvious. If you need the results from aim 1 to know what you will do in aim 2, what happens if aim 1 fails? This is a difficult thing, as one is usually trying to build a series of steps. And frequently, what we find in the beginning changes what we find later on. But Aims need to be independent. One way to cope with this is to rearrange what is in each aim so that something you might vary within an aim, becomes the difference between the aims.
  • [major weakness includes]: a lack of scientific rigor. Guys, NIH is serious about this premise and rigor stuff. We were told before and at study section to explicitly mention these words in our reviews. See here. and here. Many of the specific comments in this review are about rigor.
  • Although the clinical need is clear ... the weaknesses outweigh the strengths of the proposal. Ouch. Being clinically relevant is not enough. Being translational is not enough. The proposal must stand on its research merits.
  • For Personnel, I've seen (and written) versions of the following comments over and over. These are all about picking a project that is feasible. Feasible is not an explicit criterion, but it comes up in study section discussion all the time:
    • This team does not have a long history of collaboration
    • The ability of the PI to direct such a large project is not proven.
    • The proposal would be improved by an explicit plan for regular communication and coordination of the efforts in the diverse labs involved.

Here is a list of simple things that should be in every proposal. These are all about rigor of the proposed project. This is reviewer 2:

  • What are controls?
  • Expected results and interpretation are not provided in each aim.
  • Sample sizes are very small. And  the numbers in the human subjects table do not match either those in the research design for Aim 1 or Aim 2. 
  • Sex as a biological variable is not considered.

Which brings us to this reviewer's conclusion for Approach Weaknesses:

  • Thus, scientific rigor and reproducibility are a concern.

Reviewer three continues with this theme. When all three reviewers hit the same point, in this case lack of rigor, one must stop and reconsider the proposal.

The proposal suffers from numerous problems ranging from a lack of clarity, superficial background, and contradictory statements. Details of the actual research are lacking as is identification of who will actually carry out the research

At the end of one of the reviews are the following famous words. Some people see this as a Stock Critique. It can be. But in this case it was the reviewer summarizing why this proposal got "7's" in Approach.

The weaknesses reduce the likelihood that the project will have a sustained, powerful influence in the field.

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