Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Some days are just a struggle with old memories

Feb 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the issues of getting older is that there are a lot more memories. Just as someone in their 30s, struggling with a job, a partner's job, maybe a child or two, has a hard time remembering whether this thing happened in when they were 8 or 9, I sometimes have trouble remembering whether it was this student or that who did the study that actually 20 or 30 years later turns out to be relevant for something this student, right here, wants to do.

But those memories aren't the struggle in this title. The struggle is when some memory trips my "mother" or "father" circuit. I spent so many years distancing myself from my parents. They were difficult when I was younger. They totally supported me, my decisions, my career. That was much more than many of my women friends had from their parents. "Darling, if you must have a career, why not be a doctor or a lawyer. Why do you want a PhD in botany of all things?".

I spent so much time distancing myself, exerting my independence, my sense of me. When I finally moved back to the City Where They Lived (and oh, yeah, I grew up) to take care of them at the end of their lives, I had a strong enough sense of self that I did not have to work at being me. That didn't stop me and my father from fighting. That didn't stop me from being totally aggravated by my mother's early dementia.

Now, I would give anything to have a cup of coffee with either of them. To listen to them tell me what to do with my life, how to organize my CV, or what I should be doing about my teaching.

I am not telling you, dear readers, to go hug your parents. Your relationship may never have gone through the spasms of closeness and farness that mine did. Your relationship may be beyond repair at this point. Or you may still be in the phase of learning to be you, and be an adult, and be separate from your parents. Nor am I writing to say "I am sorry" to them. I did the best I could. The path that I took made it possible for me to arrive at the place where I could care for them when they needed it. I am writing for me, for the catharsis. I am writing to say: Mama, Papa, I miss you.

8 responses so far

Problems of sub-infra-under-disciplines

Feb 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Most of us do research that is "trans-disciplinary" or "integrative" in one form or another. In fact, I have always touted that as one of the secrets to getting NIH funding: the careful design of a project that is of interest and importance to your IC's missions/goals, but will still answer the fundamental questions you think are important and gripping. For various folks from my background (evolutionary/ organismic/ ecologic), this is one path to NIH funding.

My NIH-identity does not easily fall into any IC. It's a disease, but one that doesn't have its own IC, like deafness or cancer, or even part of one, like stroke. It's not a well-defined clinician entity, with a large, sub-group, like dentistry or nursing. It's across the agespan, so it's not like Alzheimer's, which is largely a problem of the elderly, or prematurity, which is largely assigned to peds. The fact is nobody wants to fund my particular version of bunny hopping. They have said so explicitly, despite it being a major cause of morbidity and mortality for a number of other significant diseases.

This is very evident in that proposals get bounced around in terms of IC assignment. My poor postdoc in particular got told not to bother to submit the K-award by IC-one, because we're not funding that, any more, and IC-2 said try IC-1, because they do that and not us, and IC-3 never even answered the emails. Time to revise and resubmit.

The response of various people, people in this sub discipline, to this problem is very interesting, in part because of the different perceptions of "why" and what the problem really is.

I have my views. Of course I do.  I think historically this has been a "women's field", like nursing, where most of the clinical practioners were women.Over the  years there has been a lot of lip service to "interdisciplinary" teams, and this may have been true for the folks working with patients But it has not been reflected in attendance at meetings and publications in the flagship journal. Interestingly to me, at least, is that European and Asian societies are more diverse, in terms of discipline, and are much larger. That is, 5000 people at the meeting instead of 500. But that's not where the funding is.

A second problem is, in my view, but with some evidence, that through the 90's and 00's IC#1 (from above) funded a lot of work in this field. A lot of very bad work. Big clinical trials that were ultimately flawed or produced only negative results. Part of the reason for this, in my view, is that they were treating symptoms and not looking for mechanism. This was at a time, when NIH was shifting to mechanism and pathophysiology. At one point, a couple of years ago, one of the PO's from IC#1 basically said this to me, when I was on an in-house study section.

[As an aside, I know lots of people who "went over the PO's head" to absolutely no effect at all. In this case].

SO what is the response of the folks in this area to this problem? There have been two very distinct responses, that I have seen. One might chose to categorize them as Old- and Young- guard. But there are young 'uns in the old camp.

The old guard write editorials in the journal, and Talk Seriously About the Problem at the National Meeting. I seldom am invited to participate in these, because, after all, I am not a clinician. These people cling to their clinical status and research justification. And I work on animal models. (Aside, this is a meeting where I have been criticized for "pretending" that my animal models are relevant, because animal models not have compliance issues, or co-morbidity concerns. Explaining ceteris parabis to these people did not and will not work). But I read what they write and shake my head. Lots of self-pity, lots of "we need PR". Very little introspection as to what has been done wrong.

There is an anniversary divisible by 10 of the journal, and they commissioned a number of articles. Here, to me, is a reflection of the problem. I was asked to write "about animal models". Not about the questions of mechanism I have been working on. Not about the underlying scientific/ neurological/ physiological/ biochemical problems that I address with animal model models. I wrote the article as a plea for understanding pathophysiology and mechanism. You could take out my disease name, and put in "blindness" or "cancer" or "ALS" and it would be entirely relevant (although you'd need new references).

On the other hand, the young turk's response struck me as, well, incredible. Incredible in a wonderful way. Two young, one just pre-tenure, and one just post-tenure, organized a small local meeting. 20-25 people. I was flattered to be invited, and two other olde fartes were there. Everyone else was in spitting distance of their postdoc/residency. Lots of students there, too.

We got the agenda a few weeks in advance. The meeting was NOT presentations by anyone, although you could bring slides on a computer to support points. There were 1-2 major question in each morning or afternoon block, that were starting points. What is the definition of our clinical problem? In terms of physiology, in terms of patients? What is good and bad about how we look at it clinically? What do we need to do to understand this problem? What are the other problems that need to be addressed that we've not thought about? Two intensive days. It was incredible. What do we need to do and how can we best do it? I felt like I contributed to thinking about how to do research, and importantly, came back charged up thinking about what my work means and does and how to make it better. That meeting certainly informed my article about the role of animal research.

The Big National Meeting of this group always seems to me the same people saying the same things. It's small for A Big National Meeting, 400-600 people, of whom <150 present info. One session, everybody there. I have not been excited at this meeting for years. In fact, I'm not going to go this year. I send my trainees (who almost always get to present) and who have a good professional experience. Most of the young turks from the small local meeting will be there, and they are tremendously kind, professionally, to various younger trainees who show up.

But, there are always young people willing to sell their soul for a mess of pottage. The current president of the society is young and should be a rabble rouser and agent of change. He should be part of the Young Turk Group. But he's a physician who has morphed into an old man and espouses the party line.

I judge this group's ability to change the course of NIH funding priorities as small. But the young group? They are understand what research is, what modern, current, NIH priority research is. They are funded, and in fact, they are the ones who will be making a difference in the world, for the patients, for our understanding.


5 responses so far

On Being a Postdoc

Feb 01 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Wally wrote: (edited a bit for space, but go read the whole thing)

I love being a postdoc – ... we don’t always have choices as to where we live.... Further, some of us belong to minority groups and living in some places in the US (where costs are often far cheaper) is just not particularly safe.
I wondered if I could ask a question of the group – my mentor has been out of town/the country for the past 3-4 months and will continue to be so for another 2 months (at least). I adore my mentor, but I’m having a hard time getting the mentorship/training I need (we don’t really have a lab – it’s just me) – and at the same time feel guilty for needing anything. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on what are reasonable things for a first year postdoc (in a completely new research area) to ask for from their mentor (for example, regular meetings/phone calls)? What does ideal mentorship/training look like in the first year of a postdoc? Thank you in advance.

So first off, Wally, I do appreciate that there are large places in the world where we, whoever we are, do not feel safe. It's a hard call sometimes, to chose between that perfect job, and going to a place that doesn't welcome who we are, who our family is, let alone finding a group of people who will support us in what we do.

As for getting mentorship. Indeed. I am sure the loyal Scientopia Readers will have Things To Say.

My thoughts: Firstly, ask your mentor for a weekly Skype conference.  This should be possible. It may only have to be 30 minutes (which will make it more palatable). Asking for weekly meetings is not asking for too much. For your part, I would work hard to make those meetings useful. Get a template of some sort, and use it. With some of my trainees, I use four questions:

  1. What are your over-arching goals (this can be either a monthly or yearly or projectly scale, or it can be all of these)?  This, or these, may not change week to week, but it is good to revisit and remind on a regular basis.
  2. What have you accomplished in the past week?
  3. What do you plan to accomplish in the coming week?
  4. What is going to get in the way of you doing #3?

Within each of these, we break it down by project/sub-project or area. If the trainee is doing some teaching or taking a class, there is teaching for each question, and research for each question. If the postdoc has two different papers they're working on, we deal with these q's for each paper.

By organizing what you have to say to your mentor, and making sure you are using the time efficiently, it will not only help you get the most out of the time, but also the mentor.

Secondly, I think it is reasonable, nay beyond reasonable and approaching necessity, to develop some of those over-arching goals, and get your mentor to sign off on them. I think these goals need to be at different time scales, including one for the duration of the training time with this mentor. Then either monthly or multi-monthly goals are useful for making sure the largest goal gets done. These goals can break down by either time period or project period. But they time and scope should have both attached to the goal. So, for example, it could be, if the PD is to learn new techniques:

Over-arching/top level goal: To learn new & specific experimental techniques, to learn how to analyze data these techniques generate and produce at least 1-2 publishable papers per year.

Goal for Winter/Spring 2017 (ie until June): master technique #1 and collect preliminary data that would be sufficient for a small paper. Analyze these data. Outline results and begin writing paper (paper to be done in summer 2017).

Goal for Spring/Summer 2017: work with trainee ZZZ on learning technique #2. Help ZZZ analyze these data, and participate in writing this paper (mid-list authorship). [of course, this depends on a discussion with mentor & ZZZ to make sure this is acceptable and understood by all. Negotiate authorship in advance.]

There are lots and lots of other examples of and articles on how to develop this kind of thing, often called an "Individual Development Plan or Program (IDP). This one is from SCIENCE, which has an interactive tool to help you develop a plan of your own. This one is from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. Here is an article from NATURE. Very important: these goals needs to be fluid, changeable, and modifiable as you go on. That's why including overarching goals, at least briefly, each week, is a good thing. It gives you a chance to let them grow and change without feeling you are smashing your godfigures.

Finally, get rid of the guilt. Hard to do, but a good thing. In this case, it's a waste of energy. Decide what you need. Work on trying to get it. Know that you won't always get the support and mentoring you need. Know that you won't always know what support and mentoring you need. But letting guilt feelings enter into the equation is not going to move anything in a direction you would want to move.


14 responses so far

quote of the day

Jan 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

“Some people insist that 'mediocre' is better than 'best.' They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can't fly. They despise brains because they have none.” -Robert A. Heinlein, Have Space Suit—Will Travel    

Or sometimes they just pretend that brains don't exist.

One response so far

the value and cost of doing a postdoc

Jan 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There has been lots of talk on the intertubes about this topic. Much of it has been from folks near the decision points. At my end of the age spectrum, I'm seeing it a bit differently. My perception isn't more right or wrong. It's just different.

So to start, it is import to remember there are choices being made here. As my father used to say to me: no one's holding a gun to your head and saying "be a postdoc or I'll blow your brains out" (or something like that, his exact words fade with time). But, as a good economist would say, The more information you have, the better decision you can make. Be informed about the future. Real numbers about who makes it and who doesn't. PI's let your trainees see what is involved in making sausage. Trainees, get beyond your views (good and bad) about what PI's actually do. And get beyond both your imposter syndrome and your special snowflake syndrome. Neither serves you well as this point.

Arguing that it's not fair to work that hard and not get paid like people industry is fatuous. That's like arguing that gravity isn't fair as you fall out of the tree. The world is. There are parameters, and guidelines and rules and a couple of laws. Anyone making a decision about what to do with their postdoc is (relative to the rest of the world) in a fairly privileged position.

I'm not saying it's an easy choice. Or in fact one that everyone can make in their own best interest... Family, commitment, children, all of these compromise that decision. Let alone fair. Somebody will have more money, brains or good looks and be making a different decision or have the option of a different decision. Being a scientist is  bloody hard work. Hard. Work. I'm not saying you don't work hard. I am sure you do. But its hard work in a Red Queen Context.

My concern here and now is that we (the people picking postdocs) are selecting for wealthy individuals who can "afford" to do this, and keep their lifestyle. We who have some control over the "fairness" may be, could be, aiding and abetting an unfair situation. When all the FLSA stuff was happening and people were looking at raising postdoc salaries, I heard junior colleagues agonizing. If I raise the salary of this NSF postdoc, I will have to cut my experiments. (Remember that NSF grants are an order of magnitude smaller than NIH). Those junior faculty are just trying to survive, too. What angered me, too, were the senior colleagues with five postdocs who decided to let one go to cover the raises of the others. That's a hard decision, keep five at a lesser wage, or drop one, and raise four up? The answer, to those of us who believe that the problem may be too many mouths at the trough, is that you don't hire five postdocs in the first place.

So young padawan, here is the world. You can make a lot more money doing something else. I know lots of people who did. Or you can make less money doing science. It's a hard road. There are no guarantees for those walking it.

 Note after writing: Ola had a comment on the managing people post that says similar things, in a different way. It's worth adding here:

As others have said, as a junior prof you need your ass at the bench and then every other waking hour is writing grants. If you're not submitting 5-6 grants a year for the first few years, you're not doing it right. Yes it sucks! You have to teach, run a lab, manage people, do department politics crap, mentor people, manage money, write papers, and have a life outside the lab possibly including young children. In short, you have to be all of the things to all of the people. This is not new, this is part of the job and has been for as long as anyone can remember.


19 responses so far

Managing People

Jan 23 2017 Published by under professionalism in science, Uncategorized

I saw a tweet about how illness shouldn't impact on PhD funding. It shouldn't.

But here's the conundrum. Let's look at Asst. Prof Young Scientst. Prof Young is about 3-4 years into her first job at some MRU. The joy and exuberance of Having A Job has receded into a haze of teaching and committee assignments and unsuccessful grant applications.

Prof Young has had a couple of meetings with her mentoring committee and the tenure advising committee. They think she's doing just great, for now. But, they remind her that 1) she needs to increase her publications and 2) she needs funding. She knows, and it's tough but feasible. She's on the right track, and it seems in her grasp.

Prof Young is nearing the end of her seed money, but she's been pretty wise and has enough to run the experiments she needs. The last proposal review was enthusiastic, but required more data to support the premise of the proposal. What Prof Young doesn't have money for is bodies. She's had a tech, and has enough money to support the Tech for maybe another 6 months to a year. She had a grad student, but the student left her lab for another lab. So it's her and the Tech. Maybe another grad student will come her way, maybe an undergrad. But she can't count on that.

Prof Young is a right-thinking person, of good intent and action. She had a discussion, several, with the Tech about what's ahead. She's explained the experiments that need to be done for the next grant deadline. So, when trouble comes, it is hard. Very hard. The Tech has an issue. Maybe a seriously ill child. Maybe he's ill, or maybe she's pregnant. Independent of gender, the Tech is asking for time off. Maybe it's only exactly what the Tech has earned. Maybe it's for more than that ("can I borrow against the future?"). Certainly, the Tech can't stay late to finish a running-over experiment. Or come in on weekends. In fact, the Tech now needs to leave early. Often.

Let's be clear the Tech is good. Responsible. Prof Young has watched techs be taken for granted, or even abused, and vowed not to ever be that person. Maybe there isn't enough money or time to hire and train a new tech. Maybe its just the leave to which the tech is entitled, with no extra problems attached.

But Prof Young is looking hard at a grant deadline in three months. Experiments that the reviews were explicit were needed. Skip a cycle? What if its NSF and once a year (some NSF directorates are, now)? What if Prof Young is looking at a mechanism that has an age deadline, and she's coming hard on that limit? Without a grant she will be out of funds for the tech, whose salary she is going to have to keep paying with what little is left of seed money.

What does Prof Young do? I think there are some creative solutions, but, dear gentle readers, please weigh in. I'm curious as to what you think.


31 responses so far

Sometimes my almost-MRU gets it right

Jan 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

My almost-MRU is in a very rural area. I knew this when I came here. I figured I could cope. Last week I had an somewhat less than pleasant interaction with a member of staff who supported Trump, wanted to make sure I knew this, and had many racist/etc-ist things to say. I kept a smile plastered on my face.  Tried to reason, present other views, and, yes, proved I could cope.

But today this message just came from the President's office:

  I am pleased to announce the opening of our all-gender restrooms. Located in XXX (near printing services) and in YYY (near The Very Rich Dead White Man Who Gave Lots of Money Hall), the all-gender restrooms are available to any member of the NEOMED community regardless of the gender with which they identity. Studies have shown that transgender people are highly likely to face harassment and assault when using a restroom that conflicts with their gender identity. NEOMED not only has zero tolerance for harassing or discriminatory behavior, but we are also proactive in embracing inclusion. These all-gender restrooms, which are also handicap accessible, allow NEOMED to be more responsive to transgender or transitioning students, faculty and staff.

Also in the email was:

We also want to remind you that we have several lactation rooms  around the campus. Lactation rooms can be found in ZZZ (not named after anyone); YYY (also an all-gender restroom, which is quite likely causing the very rich dead white man who gave lots of money to be rolling in his grave ); and the first floor of  QQQ building.

I am sure there are lots of unhappy staff here.

6 responses so far

Deciding what really matters to you

Jan 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There was an interesting article in the NYTimes the other day. It was the usual story about turning off your devices. It had a hook from Lin-Manuel Miranda about where his ideas come from (not the interwebz). It had the usual dire stories about people walking into walls, traffic accidents and kids who don't get outside and off their butts. My favorite quote?

One in three people admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.

Maybe sex is overrated. But I digress. There are pros and cons.

What caught my eye was advice that has nothing to do with digital devices. And everything to do with how to live:

Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you, and devote more time and attention to it.

This is not just living your life, but doing your science. On a small scale this is choosing what to do each day, what projects to work on, who to mentor and from whom to seek out mentoring. On a larger scale, this is academic science, an industry career, a family, a life. We've only got one. Choose wisely. Live your life without regrets.

No responses yet

Reviewing for Journals

Jan 19 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

The question of "should I (Prof. Jr. Prof) review for journals? And how much?" is something that comes up all the time. It has, it does, and I suspect always will, come up in my meetings with jr faculty (as chair of promo/tenure/advising committees at various uni's). It comes up in casual discussions with jr and even sr faculty. It got asked of me by one of the tweeps in my online community.

I've edited & organized some of the answers I gave said tweep:


There are advantage:

First and foremost you are going to learn about what else is going on, in stuff close to you, on the ground floor. Yes, yes, of course you could read it after its published, but would you? At the same level that you review?

Secondly, you make friends (sorta kinda) with an AE. AE's always have trouble finding reviewers and when you do this, they like you. They REALLY, really like you.

Thirdly, you may learn something about writing by seeing stuff before publication. What needs to be changed. What you see as mistakes in others that you might have been blind to yourself.

BUT... There are many downsides, and almost all of them have to do with time.

Time, my friend, is your most precious commodity. It is more valuable than summer salary (if possible, but that's another post). You have much to do. We all have too much to do.

The advantages and benefits of reviewing are not linear with the number of reviews. These level out.

Do some, but a few a year. Protect your time. You don't get tenure or promoted for reviewing papers but for writing them.


11 responses so far

quote of the day: Bluehair edition

Jan 17 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

For age is opportunity no less than youth itself, though in another dress, And as the evening twilight fades away The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day. --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
And those stars shine brightly.

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