Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

The case of the vanishing posts

Jun 09 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I do my best, not even close to perfect, but my best, to support the junior faculty with whom I interact. I also draw on my circle of Women Profs of A Certain Age for some of the stories I tell her. I tell the stories because I believe they are useful to a larger group of people. I *always* change the names, sometimes the gender, and sometimes other identifying facts.

I have, once or twice, combined two people to make one, more coherent story. Anything:

that looks like this, in italic and a grey box is a real quote, from hearing, from my notes, from an email, from a tweet, as close as I can make it to what was said

albeit with identifiers (like my name) changed. Things that I paraphrase, I indicate that I paraphrase. I have probably slipped up, and made a few mistakes in this arena. For those I apologize.

I try to tell stuff in stories, because I know that somethings are easier to understand in stories. I tell stories because I like to tell stories, and because just writing a series of directives (Don't do this! Do this!) seems a bit heavy handed. A story leaves room for people to see themselves, or not, or see others, or not, and take advice, or not. Adding (fictional) names, giving people a voice, or even dialog seems to make for a better post.

But sometimes junior faculty don't feel supported, but threatened. I am tempted to respond by saying "not my intent", but there are times (and I disagree with my lawyer partner about this), heck most of the time, I think intent is irrelevant. It has come to my attention (one a bit ago, one very recent),  that somebody thinks I am writing about THEM. This would pretty funny, because in the recent case it's two separate somebodies at two different institutions. And, in this case, neither is correct. Yet, it is easy to feel threatened, or judged, or just plain insulted when one is a junior faculty. I know that.

So, I've taken a bunch of posts down. Sorry about that folks, but I don't think the loss is too great. And to my dear friends, at my current institution: no, it's not you.



4 responses so far

What do postdocs need to succeed?

Jun 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

In a burst of well-intentioned activity, that would also have the potential to boost the bottom line, our HR (HR!) is spearheading /leading/ waltzing into the fray to design a Training Program for Postdocs.

There is potential, yes, potential, to do something good. I can smell it. Training in teaching, training in grant writing, training in managing a lab: these are all good things to learn. Some people will want some of them, other will want or need other training. At a small place, such as the where I am, it is possible to tailor what we offer to what is needed. These are things no one ever even thought about teaching me, and I learned a lot by making mistakes that I probably wish I hadn't made. No, not probably.

Ah, but the meeting yesterday was magnificent (not really). The way the head of HR presented it was an excellent example of administrative weasel. "I'm only the reporter" and "Other people are making the decisions" and "I'm happy to coordinate", she said. I.e., I'm not going to admit I'm in control, so that if you have problems, you can't blame me.

There are some good people, with good heads, involved, and there are some good ideas, including the list above. There was some discussion about whether NIH would allow this (yes) and whether having a second graduate student track would be useful (yes). Then, without actually saying anything overtly, the admin's kicker came out: well, we could charge tuition for this, and of course, it would be mandatory for every postdoc in our (albeit small) medical school.

That was my WTF moment. To my credit, I did not explode, or curse, or refer to anyone's progenitors in derogatory terms. See: old dogs *can*.

What I did say is that if it were not voluntary, the BigDog PI's would never sign on. Period. In tight NIH modular budgets, NO ONE will want to include tuition. Period. And unless the administration was willing to move money from one ledger to another, I did not see how this could generate income.

I made a passionate speech about putting the trainees first, that any program needs to add value to them. The driving question here should be "what do our postdocs need to succeed?" Not all trainees need the same thing, be they grad student or postdoc. And a new foreign Postdoc may not be ready for any of it, and need something else altogether. I explicitly asked "Is this a money making scheme? Or something to add value to our postdocs so they are more employable?"

I know I reached the faculty. The admin/carpet people had their plastic faces on.

Eternal Vigilance.

11 responses so far

One way to tell you are a grownup

Jun 07 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

... when you wear your lucky socks to a meeting instead of for a test.

No responses yet

Toni Morrison on "The Work You Do, the Person You Are"

Jun 06 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Toni Morrison has a beautiful, short essay in a recent New Yorker titled "The Work You Do, the Person You Are". She talks about a job she had, cleaning house. It is well worth reading. I've started trying to describe the essay, but really, I'd rather you just go read it, it isn't behind a paywall. It will take you maybe five minutes. Ten, if you stop to savor the prose.

When the job got hard, her father gave her some advice, which I quote here:

“Listen. You don’t live there. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.”

That was what he said. This was what I heard:

1. Whatever the work is, do it well—not for the boss but for yourself.

2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.

3. Your real life is with us, your family.

4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

 I was thinking particularly about number 4 on this list. I was thinking about what this means for scientists, for researchers, who often get confused on this issue. They often think they are their work. I certainly have been guilty of that. I have certainly worked hard at  fixing this over the years.

We do get wrapped up in what we do. And sometimes, we argue with our inner Toni Morrison and say: but this is important. I am making the world a better place. To which I reply: of course you are snowflake. I remind you about Mu-Ming Poo (real name) and St. Kern. These people believe they are saving the world, but they are doing so on the back of others. You can save the world. You can do the work well. But...

Repeat after me: You are the person you are. Even Toni Morrison says so.

2 responses so far

Not sure what to title this: but its about NIH proposals, and oh yeah, I haven't lightened up.

Jun 01 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Sometimes the current incarnations of culture wars  spills over into the NIH grantsmanship (grantspersonship?) arena. This happened the other night on teh tweets. I waded in, and may have done some good. DM did quite a bit, and as usual, his ironic sarcasm is often both more incisive and persuasive than my arguments.

The big question was "what do you put in the honors section of your biosketch?". The specific issue was including that one had been an Eagle Scout. (there was also stuff about being in the Miss Texas contest, but we'll let that go for now).

As you may or may not know, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) have had some back and forth about the inclusion of gay (and trans?) members and leaders, in which they did not come out looking terribly good. OTH, having known a few men who had been Eagle Scouts, I know that it is not an easy achievement, its not a trophy for participation, and that many of the stated goals are admirable, and possibly even the kind of thing that might make one a better scientist/researcher in adulthood.

Yet, BSA still has an odor to it, an odor that is not pleasant. I said  something to this effect, and there were responses, in two predictable categories:  firstly, being an Eagle Scout is important, it is relevant, and I am proud of it; secondly, lighten up, its just the boy scouts and they are Good People.

My reply to the first is: if someone objects to the inclusion of this, or any non-scientific "honor" on the biosketch, a reviewer-someone, you could have problems with your application. There are people who don't like the boy scouts, as a result of the inclusion of gays issue. Why go seeking problems? It violates the first meta-rule of grant writing: make the reviewer your ally.

My reply to the second was something like: The Nazis, the KKK, the fascists, were also good people at home, so lighten up in your critiques of them. At which point it escalated to talk about the misogyny at U California and other Bad People, so you shouldn't put in the time you logged in the UC system.

As a reviewer, I would personally have an issue with a  BSA in the honors section. Or something similar.  Not because of the gender identity /sexual orientation issues. But because who the heck puts that they were a boy scout in their honors, when you are applying for an adult thing? I would look at it and think: this guy is stretching it. Is he hiding something that he needs to use this to balance? NIH is not NSF. There is no "public outreach" or "larger impact" part, like still working with the BSA and taking your science to them. The impact in NIH grants is in the Significance and Innovation  sections, where the Sig & Innov have to do with the health care mission of NIH. If I am evaluating the candidate in a training proposal (F/K) I ask myself: do I think does this person have potential as a scientist? Can they do the work they propose?

Now some would argue that becoming an Eagle Scout says something about your ability to get the project done. I do not. It was a long time ago. Lots of people did lots of things in their teen years, before college. I do not believe that those efforts are particularly predictive of current ones. I want to see that you get science done. You want to impress reviewers: publish a paper, have a poster at a national meeting, give a talk at a regional meeting.

But moving on to the BSA culture issues: I hate when someone says lighten up. I am  not a gay man. But I love many gay men, as friends, as family members, as human beings who are important to me. But my specific life is not as important as the idea that gay men are human beings. Human beings who deserve our respect. If there is valid entitlement in this world, it is the entitlement to live one's life free of the humiliation that spawns from other people's narrow religious views of the world, free of the hatred that comes from little closed minds. The BSA did not pass these tests. (Maybe they do now, I've read some things that suggest its different - feel free to add in the comments, but please include some sources to back up your views.)

I hate when someone tells me to lighten up. I hate when someone tells me to calm down. I will not fucking calm down until everyone's right to self-determination is secure.


7 responses so far

Saying thank you

May 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I went to see John, one of my oldest (in many senses of the word, his personal duration, our joint working duration) colleagues in Europe this week. John and other mentor and I (see here) have worked together for over 30 years. Nearly 40, depending on how you count "working together".

To say thank you to both of them, I dug up old pictures. Snapshots. Non-digital. Pictures of animals we worked with, and animals that were pets. Pictures of us in surgery, and laboring with equipment, and the blackboard planning of experiments.  We were all younger thinner and had more dark hair in those days. I scanned them in, and logged onto Shutterfly and made a book of what we've done.

The both loved it. One is Brit, one is South African, but trained in the UK, and stoic doesn't even begin to describe them. Very British Problems could have been written for them, by them., Needless to say, there were rough moments in the past, when I tended to lead with my emotions instead of my brain. But that was a long time ago, and perhaps they learned something from me, too.  They loved the book, and said so to me.

As good as it is to hear thank you, from one's students, one's trainees, and one's children, the reflection back I've gotten from my efforts to say thank you are far more gratifying.

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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

Addiction isn't a moral failing

May 29 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a good, nay, a great, friend who is a chemist. She does work that impacts/has relevance for the drug industry. We are argue about physiology and drug impact on physiology a lot, although neither of us exactly works in that field.

Part of what I know is from my own experience. A little less than 10 years ago I was very sick. In the hospital twice, once to figure out what was wrong (a massive rare infection in bone) and a second time to repair what the infection did (eat away significant parts of bone that were critical for my ability to... well, do anything). The pain, originally and then following surgery, was excruciating. 11 on the scale to 10. I was unable to do anything but lie there and moan.

The docs put me on Oxycodin/contin. In the hospital I had one of those button thingies, but at home I took pills. I was taking very large doses when I left the hospital the first time. The pain was under control,  so it became important to me to Get Off the Drugs before I had surgery, which was about 2 months later. I started gradually which was hard, but going ok.

One day,  about 2 weeks before the surgery, I decided to just stop. It was a mistake. My BP dropped to about 80/50 and I passed out. Luckily, my partner was there, took me to the ED, where I got an IV and a long lecture on going cold turkey. This lesson learned, after surgery, I set a schedule (I still have the little notebook where I kept track of times), and spent a few weeks watching the clock, several times each day, till I could take another pill.

The oxy did not give me a high. It did not make me feel like superperson, or anything like that. All it did was keep me from feeling the pain from the surgery, which involved significant metal implants, and transplant of bone to the metal and the place where the bone came from and the muscles that had to be cut to get to the place bone had been eaten away by infection. Yeah, I was a mess.

I remember sitting there, looking at my notebook, wanting a pill, hoping I got the time wrong, hoping that I could take another pill, realizing, no, I could not. I would go and walk for 2-3 minutes, which is all I could do, and sit back down. By my own, pre-illness standards, I would stop and think how pathetic I was. And then I'd look at the clock again.

But I was motivated. At the time, I had a job loved (albeit with the chair from hell), I had a partner who loved me. I did not have financial worries, or children to take care of.  I had great friends. I had lots of stuff that made life very worthwhile for me, and very little about which I was worried that was urgent. I was motivated. So I could wait, and stare down the clock, and took a pill with relief on the schedule of reduction. It did not bring me above baseline, but it erased the cravings, it erased the pain.

As time went on the pain receded, and the time between craving became longer. I could walk for 20 minutes, and get myself a glass of water without shaking like someone with late Parkinson's.  I rehabbed myself, and it is without question, one of the hardest things I have ever done.

How hard? Harder than writing a thesis, getting NIH funded, training for the swim leg of a triathalon, planning a wedding, planning a funeral, having a baby. But those things? They are all positive, improvement-things. They are things that when done, there is an accomplishment. Healing from surgery, from the drugs, etc? That only brought me back to baseline, and honestly, it was a baseline that hasn't ever been quite where I was before this happened.

(btw- no one ever  figured out how I got the infection. probably walking through the hospital. but it didn't really matter in the end)

So, when the self-righteous talk about "getting off drugs", especially with respect to the current pain-killer crisis, I want to ask if they've ever been there. Do you know what it feels like to look at a clock, waiting to take a pill to end the need? Have you ever had pain that keeps you from thinking, and then the drugs to make thinking possible again, knowing that those drugs are really not very good for you?

My wonderful friend talks about addiction to food, to sugar, to salt. And I say: that's not the same thing at all. Of course we are addicted to food: we die without it. But denying oneself sugar can be hard, and it can make you grumpy and you can feel the need, the desire, and the craving for it. But it is not the same thing at all as what Oxycontin feels like. And certainly, that craving and withdrawal are not the same for the rest of your (non-mind) body.

And for those people struggling with addiction: I had everything going for me when I stopped. I can imagine if one of those things wasn't in place: the partner, the job, the security of belief that my research was important (delusional as that may have been), let alone the security of knowing I could pay my bills, that I had good health insurance, a roof over my head. If any one of those things was not there, I might not have made it clean.

I had a big bottle of pills, that I kept for years, just in case the pain came back. I was never ever tempted to take. It's not because I object to feeling good. I drink wine, and beer, and a cocktail now and then. And it's not because I don't hurt. I do hurt, it's just not like it was then. The oxycontin didn't make me feel good. In the beginning it kept the pain at bay, and then it didn't just keep me from feeling bad, I took the pills because I had to.

The answer the "addiction crisis" right now may partly lie in restricting access to the drugs, more reasoned and thoughtful scrips to people in pain. It certainly does not lie in stricter prison sentences, which will only give us  very ill people going through withdrawal and possibly dying in jail. It lies in looking at the lives that people in pain live, and figuring out how to give them the reasons for getting off the medicine. It means figuring  how to deal with that craving that really has nothing to do with getting high, and everything to do with the cold hard reality of the physical legacy of pain medication.

3 responses so far

When students come seeking help

May 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday a student from the medical class I teach came to me looking for advice. I think mine was the only open door on the hallway. She certainly had not sought me out before.

I knew her because she had failed first year Med School (M1), and squeaked by the in the class I teach 2nd year. As is true of many med school lab courses, its big (150 students, of which about 5 are PhDs, andthere are  7 or 8 people in lab, and a couple of us who lecture, etc), the grading is all computerized, pretty much, so there is almost no subjective assessment, and the bit of grading we do by hand, practical exams, is by IDnumber. So, its not like I have much say in pass or fail. And I don't sit on the committee that hears student appeals for grades. So there is nothing much I can do for a student with grade issues.

It seems this woman has failed her first year again. She had failed two basic science classes (Ithink it had been three the first time through). And she wanted advice. Except she really didn't. She wanted to complain. I kept my best sympathetic smile, plastered on my face, almost till the end.

Firstly, she said that she couldn't believe she failed because "she had really mastered the material. In my study group, you know, I always knew the answer". Secondly "this school is in the middle of nowhere and I had no support during the year, and there was nothing to do on the weekends". And, thirdly, "I was part of this program [one we have to help at risk students, in conjunction with a local college, because this university has no undergraduate programs at all] and it required me to drive to go to work there and I wasted time each week driving when I could have been studying".

Smile still plastered on my face. I didn't mention that two and three on her list seemed contradictory. I did say that failing the exams more than once suggested that perhaps she hadn't mastered the material. She insisted that she had, and that she "just couldn't take exams".

I don't want to debate, here, now, whether board exams for medicine are good or bad, whether we select the best people to be physicians, etc. Whether it is worth changing how we assess medical students, whether it is worth my time to work on changing that is another argument. Certainly this woman isn't going to be in a position to do anything about it.

I did ask her how she thought she could pass the boards (Step I, the exam med students take end year 2/ beginning year 3), if she couldn't pass class exams, no matter how much she had "mastered the material". She returned to point 2, "if I only had support I would have done better".

Then she said: I really believe that if someone wants something badly enough, and works at it hard enough, they can do it. I wanted to say: Then, not once, but twice, you either didn't want it enough, or you didn't work hard enough, since you didn't do it. I did say: You know, I was an athlete in high school and in college. But it was very clear to me, at the end of my 20s, early 30s, (and really much earlier) that no matter how hard I worked, I would never make it to the Olympics. (of course it was obvious much earlier than that).

She answered: Oh, that's different. I really want to be a physician. I know I can be a very good doctor. I am going to apply to go somewhere else.

Is it that different? I don't think so. I think part of what separates good amateurs from professional athletes is a kind of physical genius, which begs the whole question of the separation of physical and mental, since it is the brain that controls our motor systems (and I am perpetually irritated by the words "muscle memory". Muscles have no memory. They are stupid mechanical engines following signals from the nervous system). But its hard to acknowledge that your brain may not work in the right kind of way to pass medical school.

After about 20 minutes of this, I said (still trying to be gentle), is there anything I can do for you?

There was not.

20 responses so far

What does it mean to write "by the sentence"

May 24 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Writing by the sentence is kinda like buying by the piece. You may need a whole lot of something, but you pick each individual one that you want.

Writing by the sentence means crafting each sentence. It means making sure it comes from the one before and leads to the one after. It means, for a grant proposal that each sentence works, does what it needs to, and not much more. It means there are No. Wasted. Words. If anything irritates me its having 2-3 sentences in a row that say the same thing.

This doesn't mean that the same information shouldn't show up in multiple places. When I had the consultant who got me funded on a proposal (here's the post based on his letter of support for me), I mentioned his collaboration in several places (the significance, at least two places in Research Design, and certainly in Vert Animals, as that was his expertise).

Writing by the sentence is one way to achieve making every sentence work hard for you. In fact, making every word work for you. The subject and the predicate need to convey information and not be place holders.

One of the problems of writing by the sentence is that you get bogged down. You get lost. You lose track of the forest, let alone the ecosystem. That's why Darwin discovered outlines. Do the outline first, and then fill in the sentences.

There is much more to say on this, especially examples. But! too many things happening this morning.

5 responses so far

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