quote of the day: Bluehair edition

(by potnia theron) Jan 17 2017

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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The most important thing to know in life

(by potnia theron) Jan 09 2017

Well, maybe one of the most important.

Know what is important to you, and what is not important. Know what matters and what doesn't.

A corollary to this is:

Choose what you do to be on the path of what is important. Do not get sucked into doing things that are not. This is not necessarily easy, as determining importance and the path to it are not always obvious.

Here is the example from this week that smacked me between the eyes, or actually in the eyes, halfway through listening to the seminar.

Some of my work has not only clinical but clinical-commercial implications and potential. On one hand it is something that really, truly might make a difference to a set of people with a problem. On the other, it might makes some money. Both of these interest me. But how much? And much must I stray from that path of importance to me to get there?

That's the problem with following the path to what is important to you. I can identify things that are. But I am not always sure which of the many paths opening before me will get me there, which are dead-ends, but worthy of trying, and which will drive me nuts.

I was at a seminar about a program that trains scientists & engineers in the development of commercial viability for things that they can translate from bench to bedside, to use the buzz words. The program is a teaching/learning one, sponsored by my state (as in United States) to help local (in the state) universities "realize their entrepreneurial potential". It has about $20K in funds, mostly to travel to the state capital and visit "potential clients". The presentation was by a PI from my school, who with a postdoc and grad student, had done this, and now have a company, have potential, and in fact, are Going To Make A Difference, as well possibly make some money.

What smacked me between the eyes was that this was an extremely efficient way for both The State (of confusion, truth be told) and my almost-MRU to sort through projects that might be useful and make money and bring jobs and whatever pots of gold they see in this process, from those that are not and will not. It doesn't cost them much in time and energy, and at the end the 10 or 5 or 2% that are going to pan out are much more obvious.

What and who does it cost? Well, the PI for starts. No one is paying their salary whilst doing this (if you are in soft money position and one of the reasons to this is to generate support for your work), no one is paying your postdoc or grad student (if you have to carry their salaries), and in fact if you have NIH/NSF money for their salaries, they technically have to do this on their own (hahah) time. It turns out both this postdoc and grad student were industry bound before starting this project, and they were quite keen to get the experience. The PI is a full prof, who had a patent on a molecule that has high promise. This group was one of the winners, that's clear. But they worked very very hard at the program for about 6 months. During this time, however, I am pretty sure that other work on their NIH project, thesis and etc did not get done. I am pretty sure that no new proposals went in during this time frame.

So back to the question at the beginning. Did the program seem interesting to me? Yes, the guys who did it emphasized that the connections they made, let alone what they learned was valuable. But, is it on the path to what I want to do? I just don't know. If my almost-MRU anted up more of the energy to do this, perhaps. If there was salary support for the trainees (and its clear, you need a team that includes trainees) it might be more feasible. But that's not what they want. They want the money makers sorted out from the not-quites. And by even asking these questions, I've entered into the not-quites.

 

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Advice from a Brilliant Young Colleague of Mine

(by potnia theron) Jan 04 2017

This post is my attempt to reduce my grumpiness index. I am *so* damn tired of both self-improvement and how to be a better mentor advice. So, look on the bright side, me and Monty Python. I value my colleagues. Young and old. For what I can learn. I may be beyond self-improvement, but not learning.

One untenured colleague, someone who I mentor professionally, came back from a meeting. She was joyful and charged up and filled with both science and professionalism.

She had had some time talking with a slightly older friend who gave her three good bits of advice. While this advice was intended for a someone 2-years pre-tenure, its easy to morph to fit other stages of academic life.

Thus, at a scientific meeting:

1. Are you going up to talk to the people who will likely be writing letters for you? The ones you suggest and ones you know someone else will suggest to the tenure/promotions committee?

This is also true of people on study sections, the people who will be reviewing your paper. In general, it applies to people who will be in a position to render judgment. Yeah, yeah, we are all totally fair and review everything objectively. But unconscious bias also works towards our friends. The people we know. Having a face on a name is generally a good thing.

2. Have you thought about organizing a symposium for this meeting?

I particularly recommend this for mid-career folks. One of the things that promotion to Full Prof  usually entails is demonstration of "national or international reputation" or "national leadership". Organizing a symposium at a national meeting is one way to do this. Furthermore, you get to invite some folks who might, in the future, write letters for you. Let alone there are scientific benefits from talking with people you think are really good and really smart. Who knows where your science will go.

3. Have you talked to your (other junior faculty) friends about getting invited out to give a talk?

This is also good along the lines of putting a face to your name. Other benefits? Meeting big dogs. If there is someone in the department you're going to that you would like to meet, email them in advance and say "hey, I'm coming to town, and I'd really like to meet you". I often don't feel like I have time to talk to speakers, but if someone takes the trouble to email me, of course, I am going to meet with them. Also, these talks, in judicious numbers (not too many) are good at tenure or promotion time.

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Well, here's another nice mess...

(by potnia theron) Jan 04 2017

Sigh, but I have know Laurel to blame for this one.

 

Damn.... I started this post sometime last year. I have *NO* idea to what mess I was referring. Aging is taking its toll.

So... welcome back, happy new year, blah blah blah. It's good to see you all again.

 

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Serving on a Study Section

(by potnia theron) Dec 19 2016

As it does, there was some discussion on the tweets about serving on study section a bit ago. I've been busy with end of term stuff, so didn't get around to finishing this off till just now.

Firstly, serving on a study section, any study section, is about the best thing you can do to enhance your grantsmanship. The learning is relentless. I, funded now for many years, still learn something new every time I do. Furthermore, the landscape of funding/grant success  changes. You can get some sense of that change from blogs, from NIH, etc, but study section is ground zero for promulgation of that change. You can learn grantsmanship elsewhere (there are wonderful courses - take one), but information and watching the process is dense information. It is efficient for education.

But, I hear you say, I know that Potty. I've done it once or twice (as the NI, or ad hoc'd), but what about long term membership? This is what the tweets discussion was about. I'm being asked to serve on the section that funded me, you say? What to do

[As an aside, I was talking to the SRO for the study section where my stuff mostly goes. He told me that for CSR sections you must have an R01 to serve. In-house, IC specific sections may or may not have different rules.]

I still maintain that serving on a section, doing the four year term is a vastly valuable experience. Some people recommended ad hoc'ing. Some people pointed out that if you are on the section your proposals go to a Special Emphasis Panel (SEP) which is usually a more difficult review (because it's smaller number of people, it's usually on the phone, it's usually a small number of proposals, sometimes only yours). I think this drawback is of less importance than the value from sitting on a study section as a full member.

When I was younger, during my first R01, I sat on a study section for two terms. That meant my 2nd R01 was reviewed elsewhere. I really don' t remember, although at the time it was incredibly important to me. Things were different then, and I don't know that this is possible now. I think I got my first funded by chance? Ha. It was good, but probably would get triaged today. What sticks with me, lo these many years later, is that I learned and benefited tremendously from that experience.

There are other lesser benefits. You get a snapshot of pre-publication science. Where the field is going. You learn about related fields that aren't yours,  but fall in the same general area. You make friends and colleagues and will get input that you just won't get anywhere else. Yes, yes, you can get this at meetings, but the community and social sense that arises here is intellectually much more intimate. If you are young, you are much more likely to have time to talk with people who wouldn't notice you at those meetings. And you may find that your science, your perspective on science changes, grows, evolves. Mine certainly grew, in ways that I did not expect. Being exposed to different ideas and work is valuable. Finding how to be exposed is difficult, and one can waste a lot of time being exposed to stuff that doesn't change you.

A brief word about logistics. When you are appointed to a panel, there is an approval process. After the SRO asks you, and you agree, you send a CV, and Important People Somewhere (depending on the SS) approve you. This process is usually not for the next section, but for 2-3 down the road. So if you've got a proposal in the pipeline queued up for the next round, your appointment isn't going to impact on it.

So, why in the words of the tweet, "mess with something that's good", i.e. Your relationship with the SS, the SRO. So, if they are asking you to be on it, chances are one of the people who liked your now-funded proposal is rotating off. They need your expertise, right? Even if that that person doesn't rotate off now, they will, and probabilisticly sooner rather than later. Approximately 25-30% of a SS turns over each year. Lots of ad hoc's can't or won't serve a real term, so no guarantee that you'll have anything like the same study section on the next submission, anyway, or the same expert reviewing your proposal. That relationship? It's fleeting.

In the end, the benefits (to you, for you) of being on a panel far far outweigh the drawbacks. If you're asked to serve, chances are you are already funded, so moving your proposals elsewhere may not be such a big deal (do you really need 3 or 4 R01's?, but that's a different post).

There have been lots of posts to this end, not just from me, but from DM, etc. But right now, I'm writing this in my corner breakfast place, and there is not Internet. Just do a search on study section and scientopia and get more input.

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Godwin's law, Slaves, Hyperbole and Reality

(by potnia theron) Dec 09 2016

Holy Cow. Quote from the comments:

2-That there are people saying and documenting that the USA has not being an independent country for a long while, and that the legal status of the citizens is that of slaves.

What this brings to mind is Goodwin's Law:

"As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1"

Aside from the fact that there are numerous characteristics that distinguish even the average working class single mom from a slave, this is a truly insulting comparison.

So first, how different? There are lots of social specifics: slaves do not get to chose spouses, and marriage in the church or state of your choice was unavailable. Slaves could not chose where they live, and what they ate. Legally, slaves were property and could not own property (such as a car). Slaves could not enter into a contract, however beneficial or not it is. Slaves did own the fruits of their labor.

And, today, whether you chose to do so or not, whether you believe it makes a difference or not, adult citizens in the US can vote. And those votes can make a difference. We only think about the president, and maybe the senate. But there are lots of local elections. There are school boards that decide whether "alternatives" to evolution get taught, whether high school sports happen, whether art and music classes are available. There may be problems. It may not work everywhere. But I have seen it work enough in places I have lived to know that it can work. If you want it to.

These are the ways in which adult citizens of the US differ from slaves.

But this is not why the comparison bothers me.

It bothers me because such a comparison at its heart is insulting to those who were slaves. Who did not have the rights we have now, even if you think those rights are a sham. The men and women whose children were taken from them, who did not get to practice the religion they were brought up in, whose ability and right to escape and abuser was limited if available at all.

Again, I am not saying that things are perfect, that problems don't exist. I am sure that if you search the internet you can find, in the US or in Europe examples of situations where these things do not work for the "free citizens", where women are abused, and children taken (wrongfully) from their parents. But, they are exceptions, and you had to search for them. It is not the experience of most Americans, who own a car, a phone, the clothes on their backs. Who have the option to send their kids to school. To pick the trade they learn.

Slavery in the US was shameful. The case for reparations needs to be discussed and considered. It is not sufficient to say "those weren't my ancestors". You need to read this article  [The Case for Reparations Ta-Nehisi Coates]. You need to read this book [The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson]. But most of all, when you talk about what is wrong in the US today, for the average citizen, you cannot call it slavery. Get yourself a different word. It is shameful to fail to acknowledge what slavery really was.

 

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Push the fledglings out of the nest

(by potnia theron) Dec 08 2016

This paper (pdf) from the National Bureau of Economic Research, titled "Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?", and summarized here, got a fair amount of publicity when it came out about a year ago.  Aside from the fact it supports everything DM has to say (uh, see here but also see here for other issues of entitlement), there is additional value to understanding the study. I think that the analysis of the results suggests another course of action for PI's.

So what does the NBER paper  say? It is a data-driven analysis of publishing rates in life scientists. They looked at folks who died in the saddle at the height of their prowess, what they called super-stars, but I think of as Big Dogs. They measured changes in publication rates of Big Dog collaborators vs. non-collaborators of  over the time period that included the death of the big dog. They found that publication rates of the collaborators dropped, and of the non-collaborators increased. They also implied that the papers of the non-collaborators are "disproportionately likely to be highly cited".

From their conclusions:

Overall, these results suggest that outsiders are reluctant to challenge leadership within a field when the star is alive and that a number of barriers may constrain entry even after she is gone.

[note: love the use of "she" in the quote]. So what is your average, run o' the mill PI to make of this, beyond confirming what we have always suspected?

I think it suggests a strategy with respect to trainees. I think it suggests moving them on as soon as you can. Now if you are a Big Dog, the data implies they do better with you and co-authoring. But! You might die! You might get hit by a bus, get a glioblastoma, or pancreatic cancer or all of these. What then? Your poor little trainees will be in terrible shape, and suffer more than the amount that they will from just missing you. If you care about their success (an if, I know), they will do better the sooner they are on their own.

But what, I hear you say, what if you are not a big dog? Ah. I am not a big dog, although I am old. I suppose if I was a serious scientist, if I was a good scientist, a serious scientist, really smart and really good, I would be a big dog by now. But alas, alack, I am not. Any of those things. So, for me, small dog that I am, what does this tell me? That my trainees will not necessarily benefit from my co-authorship. But, and this is an extrapolation, they will be poised to benefit more from the death of the big dogs if they are out there on their own.

Actually, this paper suggests nothing of this kind at all. It does not look at the children of little dogs, nor does it separate the children of little dogs from the older little dogs themselves. And actually, when push comes to shove, I am not so much a little dog as a meerkat or an ermine living in someone else's burrow. But that's an aside.

This is a thought about trainees, in general. In general, I think that trainees benefit from being pushed out of the nest. From being pushed to think of their own stuff and develop their own programs. Of course! It is so damn tempting to keep that incredible student or postdoc. They do well. They make your lab not only run, they make your lab HUMMM. But that is about *you* oh mammal of intermediate size. Think about them. Think about what is best for them. And getting them independent, getting them on their own, finding some new trainees for yourself: everyone will benefit. Whether your trainees will be able to challenge the dominant paradigm, publish more or less, and whether in the end the rate of publishing, beyond a threshold really matters, are all things we have and will continue to debate for the near and distant futures. But meantime, independence is the goal of our training, and we are making more type II errors (not seeing independence when it exists) than type I (seeing false independence when it doesn't).

 

 

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Update on Ugh and Double Ugh

(by potnia theron) Dec 06 2016

A while ago I had something to say about Cyagen, which I titled "Ugh and Double Ugh":

This is wrong. This is very very wrong. When did how we look become important?

An update from faithful reader KQ:

Looks like they went through with it. I just received the following email:

Good morning!
Cyagen Biosciences is excited to announce that our 2017 “Smart is Sexy” calendars have arrived! The calendar features over 160 researchers from around the world, and 12 months of promotions for Cyagen’s animal model services as well as custom vectors, virus packaging, and cloning services from VectorBuilder.com.
Pick up a free copy by visiting Cyagen at any of our upcoming vendor shows and seminars, or click here to request a free copy for your lab!
Please contact me if you would like a list of upcoming shows/seminars for the month of December Cyagen will be attending.
Kind regards,

The world is not becoming a better place.

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Problems with Grant Reviews: conflict of interest with study section members

(by potnia theron) Dec 05 2016

The rules about conflict of interest (COI) are not something that most of us think about when we write the grant. After all, isn't that the problem of the study section and the SRO? Yet, there is impact worth thinking about.

Office of Extramural Research (OER) that runs the study sections has explicit rules about conflict of interest for its reviewers. There are two COI's that can have a significant, but overlooked impact on getting your proposals reviewed by people who know about your sub discipline. These are things you need to consider both when you write a proposal, in terms of  who you include,  and when you start publishing with collaborators.

Aside: of course you need to do the best science. Of course you need to include the best collaborators on your proposal, and write with the best collaborators. The point of this post to start thinking about what you do.

The two rules are, from the reviewer's perspective:

  1. You can't review anything from anyone at your institution
  2. You can't review  anything from someone with whom you have co-authored in the last three years.

So when you include a co-I or consultant, you need to remember that any reviewer from their institution, or any reviewer who published with your co-I or consultant cannot review your proposal. One implication of this are the big review/consensus papers that get published with a long list of everyone in the field can create problems. If you have a consultant or co-I from that list, then NO ONE on the list can review your grant. Of course its wonderful to be asked to be one of those authors. It looks great on your CV, and all of a sudden you are only 1-degree of separation from some Very Big Dogs. I am not saying turn down the offer, it's important. But, keep in mind what it means for proposal review. One of the frequent, yet plaintive cries of young ESI folks (as well as older, jaded but-still-brown-hair PI's) is that there was no one on the list of reviewers that new diddley about their discipline.

You can't suggest reviewers for your proposal, but you sure as all get-out can eliminate many. Think, think, think about who you include for those co-I and consultant positions. You need them to demonstrate expertise. Take a look at who is a standing member of the study section you are targeting. (You are targeting a study section, aren't you?). And use that information as you build your proposal.

 

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On reading

(by potnia theron) Nov 28 2016

This morning I was reading a great article in the NYTimes magazine. It was about a cook, a person who is a chef at their own restaurant, putting together a meal for friends, a meal at which she could sit down and enjoy. The recipes are interesting, and some of them maybe worth trying.

But what hit me, when I was done, was the writing. This chef runs some fancy-pants restaurant in New York. I probably couldn't get a reservation there. But when I was reading this, I felt that I'd like to know this woman. I felt that she had opened up a part of herself, and that I understood some of those parts. I could make the leap from chef to scientist and see things about myself in what she said about herself.

I know lots of people who "don't have time for reading". Reading in it and of itself is just a stand-in for getting information, knowledge, stuff flowing into your head. Reading is just an efficient way to do that. To cut oneself off from that flow, to limit that flow to things that one already knows, to things in one's own narrow sphere, is to cut one's self off from life.

We do not know where our ideas come from (for the most part). We do not know what will nudge us one way or the other, in our professional lives, in our personal lives. But if we do not read, we will certainly miss out on many opportunities to be nudged. To grow. To change. Change is good. It is life itself.

 

 

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