Archive for: August, 2016

Managing Techs: Part 1, a case study

Aug 22 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

DJMH said in a comment to the last post:

I would like to know why you thought it was appropriate to involve the tech in this. You're the manager, and you put the tech in the uncomfortable situation of possibly ratting out a co-worker.

This decision, and in fact, management of techs, is very much a function of who the tech is.

In the last post I didn't include some background, etc, (like that post needed more length, anyway). So, here's some relevant information that when into my managing techs, in general, and this one in particular. I am, as readers know, old for these parts (being the internet). I'm doing my best to uphold Boomer Honor, which according to some is oxymoronic. Or just plain moronic. I've been a prof for about 30 years, and been pretty steadily NIH funded since the beginning. I've had 7 techs in that period of time, but some years with no tech at all. And they are all very different people, with different goals and different skill sets.

Also relevant is that I run a small lab. During the year, it's me, a postdoc, a tech. Now I've got a (yes, a, as in one) grad student, who is an MD/PhD, which is about the only kind of PhD student I'm willing to take at this point. In the summer I get another 2-4 summer types, and we really ramp up the experiments.

But irrespective of size I try to run a lab that in today's lingo is "flat". I try and reduce the hierarchy and the effects of hierarchy, as appropriate for people's goals and skills. This is much easier in a small lab. I involve the tech and postdoc in everything that is of even remote interest to them. Of course there are things, such as each other's salary, that they don't have to know. But we meet as a group and talk about what people are doing, and everyone gets some say in what they do. Yes, there are things, such as the nitty gritty of extracting data from electrophysiology recordings, that no one wants to do.

So why did I involve the tech in the problem of Jane? Firstly, it was Tech who brought the problem to me. She is the one who signs off on the time cards, something she & I discussed and agreed upon. Secondly, if Tech had said: I don't want to do this, it would have totally, and appropriately, fallen to me. But this particular person, Tech, is functions very much as a "lab manager", and is incredibly good with people.  She had set up the complex schedules for our summer experiments (which involve extensive human  labor, often working in pairs), and really knew the summer students. She was outraged that someone would take advantage of the lab in this way. She was outraged that someone would behave unethically.

In this situation, in this case, it did not occur to me NOT to include the tech in the problem. Even if I had discovered the problem, and I decided that I needed to be the one to handle it, I would have presented it to both the PD & Tech and gotten their opinions on what was happening, and what should be done about it.

Yet, I would have done this with all the techs I have had over the course of my career. There were some who were professionally younger, as opposed to chronological age. There were some who were computer/electronic wizards, but not so great in managing people. But by having this  tech talk to the student first, it was one way to defuse the situation (if it was an honest mistake), and keep the inquiry casual.

If I had endless & bottomless money (hahaha) I would hire people of many different skills, and have lots of people with lots of different abilities. I'd have a programmer and a people manager and a data processor and an animal wrangler. But despite what some people think, even aging blue-haired profs don't have endless money, and hire the best they can and work with what they have.

So in hiring a tech, one needs to ask oneself, what is the most important thing  I  need in my lab, right now, to get the data, papers, results, I need for this stage of my career? Early career people have different needs then recently tenured, etc. Talking about how to hire and how to manage is another post. Stay tuned.




10 responses so far

Hard Things a PI Must Do

Aug 19 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I had to terminate a student working in my lab. The work this student, call her Jane, did was good. When she worked, she worked hard. She was committed to the project, and thought about it carefully. She made contributions. Why did I let her go? She lied on her time card. My problem? At this point, it is not whether I was right to let her go, but when is there enough information about the problem to let someone go. The problem was how long it took me to do this.

My super-tech found problems with Jane's hours and time card about several weeks ago. Tech spoke with Jane and explained the problem. Jane swore it was an honest mistake, and it wouldn't happen again. Tech started keeping informal track of hours Jane was in the lab, and found more discrepancies between time card and hours. Our building has a ID swipe-in system, and we  got security to give us the exact time she swiped into the building. Lots more differences between swipes and self-reported time card. Tech and had long walks discussing the problem. Tech and I had many cups of coffee debating what to do. One of the smartest things I did was involve Tech, because she thinks clearly about this kind of issue (not to mention thinks clearly about data and experiments and implications and the lab in general). So on a Thursday about two weeks after first discussion, Tech and I sat down with Jane to discuss issues with Jane's time card. Jane again said "honest mistake". I explained carefully and in some detail that if she was in the lab, with medical supplies, life animals, and critical data, I needed to know that she was absolutely honest about everything. I explained that I needed to trust her on all accounts, and that lying about the little things (like hours worked) made it difficult to trust for the big ones. I next said "what do you think we should do next?", we being me, Jane, Tech. Jane looked at me like "huh?". I prompted again, "what happens now about the hours you didn't work?".  Jane said, with this nudging on my part, that she would take the hours in question off of her time card, and she did that afternoon.

I was uneasy. How many chances? How likely is this to be honest error, as opposed to someone gaming the system? What is the value of her work, does an extra 30 min a day matter? Or is honesty about this a binary thing, either you're pregnant or not?

On Friday, after the Thursday talk, Jane said she was going to work on the weekend to make up the hours she had to lose for the hours she had to take off her card. There was certainly enough work to make this valuable. Besides, as Tech pointed out, this gives her a chance to either do it right or do it wrong.

On Monday morning, we saw Jane claimed about 6 hours on Sat and again on Sun. Tech was suspicious because it didn't seem like there was that much work done. So we got the swipe/ time of entry records. Jane had come in 45-75 minutes later than she put on the time card. This baffled me and Tech. We had shown her on Thursday that we were cross-checking her time card with swipe data. Why on earth would someone do this? So Tech suggested, and then insisted that we look at the security videos that our police keep of cars coming & going from the parking lot. I hesitated (more work for more people), but Tech said "more data will be more convincing". This is possible at our small university, and in fact, security didn't mind doing this. The records showed that Jane had been at work for about 1.5 hours each day.

This made it easy on Tuesday to call Jane in and say "pack up your stuff, we are terminating your employment. Right now". In retrospect, we could have terminated her after the first instance and saved ourselves lots of time by. But, I didn't know at that point. Maybe it was an honest mistake. That's the hard part in this. As @BatesPhysio sez: managing people is often the hardest part of being a PI. By the end it was clear that Jane was cheating. Period. I really wanted to ask her: what the heck were you thinking? I didn't. I just said "go".

What astounded me was her response. No apology, no explanation, no reasoning.  All she said was "did you think my work was ok, and would you still write me a letter of recommendation that says so?". No remorse. No acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I got a subsequent email that said (and I am quoting here):

I forgot to ask you upon termination if we could discuss the standings of any future employment references regarding the quality of work I did while I worked for you. If you are willing to be a reference for me in the future, I would request that we mutually decide what information could be shared with any potential employers.

Mutually decide? I wrote back:

Jane, I am willing to be a reference, if you wish. But the contents of a letter of reference are not something that is negotiated in advance. I would and will answer all questions about you honestly. Potnia

I have not heard further from her.



21 responses so far

Mistakes I've Made as a PI: Mentoring Trainees

Aug 17 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The current mistake was in how I hired students. It's relevant to current Postdoc Salary issues, to which I'll return at the end of this post.

In the summer, we (my department, other labs in the med school here) take summer students into our labs. Some of these are med students, some other clinical professional students or college students, and there's even the occasional high school student. These folks can be paid in a couple of ways, but the two big ones are on a fellowship (an amount regulated by the university that isn't very good, but its better than volunteering, something to which I object) or as an hourly employee. NIH grants will not pay student fellowships. People paid as part time on an NIH grant need to be an employee, and make at least minimum wage. Fellowships, by the way, work out to less than minimum wage in my lab, where the students are seriously involved in the work.

I make all of this very clear, including different categories (and when possible offer students the choice), before students start. I tell them, no I discuss with them, what working in my lab entails: the hours are long, some of the work is less tedious (data collection), some of it exciting. I tell them the upsides: fellowship students can go to a national meeting, at my expense, if they get an abstract accepted (and all who have submitted one have been accepted), their name goes on the papers to which they contribute. Finally, I give them names of former summer students and tell them to go talk to them. I trust the former people to give accurate information, good and bad.

This summer, I had two students on fellowships. The third person, Jane, was hourly, and on my grant. All students worked long and hard hours, as is the case with large animal work. The first two were wonderful, did well, and will get their names on at least one paper. They are back to their student lives this week, and I will miss them.

These two were acutely aware that Jane was making more than they were. Jane turned into a disaster (which is another glorious post all on its own).  The disaster was not because Jane was in a different employment category. The disaster was Jane not being honest. But even if Jane had not been a disaster, the two categories was the basis of my mistake. Having two categories made for bad feelings, and a number of less than totally smooth incidents in the lab.

It may be possible to have two categories. After all we have postdocs and grad students and technicians of various levels and skills. My mistake was not differentiating between them more cleanly. And having not distinguished between these two categories might have contributed to the disaster, but it also could have happened anyway. I won't know. Life is not a ceteris paribus experiment.

It seems obvious now. People doing the same job, with roughly the same experience, should not be paid significantly different amounts of money. I should have distinguished between the jobs this summer, and there were lots of ways to do that. For example, fellowship people work fewer hours. Fellowship people do more reading, more development of ideas, more presentations in journal club. Fellowship people get  "a project". Hourly people wash bottles, and take on more grunt work. But making this distinction is not necessarily easy, and it's obvious only in hindsight. If one gives fellowship people a "good experience" one can end up spending more time designing, implementing and assessing the experience, and not getting the science done.

Why is this relevant to postdoc salary issues? Well, my med school, wrestling with the postdoc hours/salary problem has decided, will likely decide, to have two categories of post-degree research employment, names to be determined. In one, with salaries below the $47K threshold, there will be set hours and, allegedly, set tasks. Overtime will be limited to what the PI (who is carrying the salary) can afford, but in general discouraged. These people may have to clock in and out to demonstrate hours worked. The other category, over the threshold, will be able to (what a verb) work unlimited hours. There are going to be two categories of job, two categories of postdoc, and ultimately two distinct duties/assignments. Leadership believes that distinguishing between these categories will be possible and produce only minor problems.

I know that there are currently different levels of pay for postdocs. Some differences are due to age and seniority, some due to cheapness of PI, some due to passport-of-postdoc-origin. I am not defending nor condemning those. But the proposed scheme will be different in that two postdocs, maybe even in the same lab, of roughly same experience may end up with distinctly different jobs at distinctly different pay. Leadership often does not perceive the problems that PIs wrestle with in the trenches between benches.

However! Fear Not! There are ways to cope in advance, things that are worthwhile in general being a mentor.  Lay out specific project and duties. One of the best is to develop an IDP for each person (which probably is important to do anyway). Here's one from FASEB. Here's some NIH info on IDP and postdoc success. And the SCIENCE careers page which has lots of stuff on IDPs, including tools for the postdoc to use.

I'm not sure this would work for summer students who are here for 10-12 weeks in different categories. I suspect in the future, I'll solve this problem by having one or the other employment, and avoid the problem. Which, of course, will just free me up to have other problems.


31 responses so far

My kind of woman

Aug 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized


Yes, yes, she was a Republican. Yes, yes, she served in the Nixon Administration, being the highest ranking woman in his administration (Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission). Picture is from 1988, and yes, my mother bought me a similar blouse with a tie-scarf in one of her attempts to make me dress professionally. But how can you resist this:


 She was the first woman to cover maritime news for The Sun and quickly proved she could hold her own on the Baltimore waterfront. In 1954, when a dockworker compared her nose to a ski jump, Mrs. Bentley punched him in the jaw.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Bentley.

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Changes to NIH submissions

Aug 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

From time to time NIH makes changes in the process and rules for proposal submission. The most recent ones are changes to acceptable appendix material. Appendices used to be nearly mandatory, and now they are quickly becoming rare birds.

Change number one is the elimination of almost all appendix material.  


New Policy Eliminates Most Appendix Material for NIH/AHRQ/NIOSH Applications Submitted for Due Dates On or After January 25, 2017

Purpose: This Notice alerts the scientific research community of plans to eliminate most appendix materials for applications submitted to the NIH, AHRQ or NIOSH for due dates on or after January 25, 2017.  Application instructions will be updated by November 25, 2016 to reflect this change. 

The Notice also clarifies:

·         Status of appendix materials in peer review

·         Allowable appendix materials

·         Consequences for submitting disallowed appendix materials

What I perceive from reading this is best summarized by the intro:

All information submitted with an application except the cover letter, assignment request form and appendix information are assembled into a single application image for funding consideration.

So, first the exceptions. The cover letter and assignment request are the things that inform NIH about your proposal, not things the reviewers need to see. This means the stuff reviewers see should be in one large package.

The next sentence:

The different sections within the application image are specified in the application instructions and correspond to the standard review criteria.

is the key justification for no appendices. What the reviewers need and get is in the main application. So:

All information required for the peer review process must be contained within those designated sections of the application image, unless the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) specifies otherwise. 

Bold this in your head. Everything reviewers need is in the designated section. And if you were unsure:

Information that expands upon or complements information provided in any section of the application -- even if it is not required for the review -- is not allowed in the appendix unless it is listed in the allowed appendix materials (below).  


Unless the FOA requires that certain information be included in the appendix, failure of reviewers to address appendix materials in their reviews is not an acceptable basis for an appeal of initial peer review (NOT-OD-11-064).

This means do it right or else. No special pleading. This is a recurrent NIH theme. If you are late, we don't care. If you need more space, we don't care. If you screw up, it is you that has screwed up.

Then comes the list of things that might be acceptable for appendices. A few have to do with clinical trials. Others have to do with surveys, informed consent, data collection instruments. There is the usual if FOA specifies things, then that is OK (you do read the FOA's for your submissions, don't you?).

Change 2 clarifies what you can send after NOT-OD-16-130fact, also known as Post-Submission Materials for Applications.


Changes to the NIH/AHRQ/NIOSH Policy on Post-Submission Materials for Applications Submitted for Due Dates On or After January 25, 2017

Purpose:  This Notice simplifies and consolidates current NIH and AHRQ policy concerning post-submission materials, and extends this policy to NIOSH.  Post-submission application materials are those submitted after submission of the grant application but prior to the initial peer review.  The policy is based on the principle that, for the majority of applications, the only post-submission materials that these agencies will accept are those resulting from an unforeseen event.  The policy on post-submission application materials is not intended to correct oversights/errors discovered after submission of the application.

There is a list of what is acceptable. Mostly these are administrative things likes revised budget pages, bio sketches for changes in investigators, changes in institution, tenure decisions, and the occasional video. Often this is used for extra publications that support the proposal. Here is the rules on publications:

News of an article accepted for publication since submission of the application, which must include only:

  • List of authors and institutional affiliations
  • Title of the article
  • Journal or citation (if available)

Copies of articles, links to articles, or any other materials related to an article accepted for publication will not be accepted as post-submission materials, unless specified in the Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) for which the application was submitted or a special Guide Notice.

Basically, it seems that you can let them know you got published, but you cannot put the article in, nor an active link to the article.

There are also other materials acceptable for various kinds of training grants and fellowships, as well as conference grant applications. Again, most of these are administrative and not changes to the substance of the proposal.

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What I did when someone stole my baby

Aug 12 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Here is the first post, written in throes of agony.  Note MC is the mutual colleague who gave me good consul  and LA/BD is what I referred to the person who stole my baby.  Probably worth reading the first two parts for context on this. First, what I sent to her. Stuff in [brackets] are comments to you, gentle reader, an not things I actually said. This is also edited down a bit, taking out sciency-stuff.

Hi [LA/BD],

I just saw the paper from your group on [description of my last grant proposal that you stole]. I really liked it [OK, I didn't really like it, I did like the science well enough, though]. I’m sure you know this is something I’ve been interested in for a while. I’m interested in exploring a potential for collaboration for looking at the neural basis of [this topic] both in animal models and translated to humans.  

Firstly, I’ve attached an older paper, where I [did something very much like what you did in your paper, but didn't bother to cite me...], but using a different paradigm than in your study. I’m working on a more sophisticated version of this technology and have some preliminary data in animals. Eventually I'd like to do a more clinical study using this technology. This could be one place we could work together.

Secondly, it might worth doing something similar to your study, but in animals, where we could collect much more detailed physiologic data, [examples of things she can't get in humans].

Finally, I’d love to do this in some other animal models I’ve developed, and measure the impact of any intervention [on other clinical entities]. Let me know what you think. Maybe we can take some time to talk at MC's big thinktank in the Fall.


Short clarification, MC, the mutual colleague, is hosting a small one day meeting, calling it a thinktank, to discuss what the interesting questions are, and how we can foster collaboration amongst individuals for various (mostly younger) people doing this work. I think me and LA/BD are the only Olde Fartes invited.

Her Reply:

Hi Potnia

Great to hear from and I would welcome the opportunity to discuss using this in your animal model, its very hard to get at mechanisms in humans so this would be great.  Yes, lets discuss at MC's group meeting .  Thanks for sharing the paper, this would be an exciting thing to do,


There is much more snark that could be said. But taking the high road here will get more science done.

3 responses so far

quote of the day: Henry Kaiser (not the guitarist)

Aug 12 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

These only work for people who are secure in themselves:

I make progress by having people around me who are smarter than I am and listening to them. And I assume that everyone is smarter about something than I am. -- Henry J. Kaiser 
When your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt. --Henry J. Kaiser

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quote of the day: different views on enthusiasm and energy

Aug 05 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes rise to the stars. Enthusiasm is the sparkle in your eyes, the swing in your gait, the grip of your hand, the irresistible surge of will and energy to excite your ideas.--Henry Tor


A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.--John Muir

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Aug 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

this is just a test...

4 responses so far

Thinking about dementia in our elderly

Aug 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I have a friend, seldom seen, with a wonderfully improbable name, who lives in California. She is a pyschologist who worked in what was then called "old-age homes", and now have other names. But its still the same place: where we send/where they go when the elderly in our society can't cope on their own any more.

Some of these places are lovely and supportive, filled with caring staff and activities and wholesome, delicious food. Some are not, and are nursing homes that smell of strong disinfectent, because there is not enough time and not enough staff to clean all the incontent residents. Over the last 10 plus years of taking care, to various degrees, of my parents, I have seen many of these places. When I live in the big city, in the inner city near MRU, I went from time to time to visit people who had lived on my block, people who didn't have either money or family. It broke my heart to be in those places that took Medicare, and see how little that money bought.

My mother was both good and lucky. She saved and saved her whole life, and now has enough money to be in a place that pays the staff more than minimum wage. It smells fresh and clean, and not like disinfectent, or worse, vomit and urine. My mother has almost no motor skills left. She can't walk, let alone stand, she can't feed herself or dress herself or take care of herself in any way. She can indicate likes and dislikes by spitting food out. The people who care for her are kind and gentle and understand that people with dementia are not always nice, but that it is the disease talking.

My friend from California, when her kids were grown and out of the house, decided to stop working with the elderly and go back to her first calling, working with very young, pre-language children (of variable ages). She said to me: the problems are the same, independence, and lack of skill. But, she said, even with the most damaged children, there is hope. Their trajectory is upwards. With the elderly, it is not.

I see my Mom frequently enough that I do not notice all the graduatal changes. Even if I'm gone for a week or so, the course of loss in people with dementia is saw-toothed, up and down, backwards and forwards. But in the now nearly years since I moved to nearly-MRU, and brought her with me, she has lost. There is no language left, and almost all her speech is gone. She doesn't try and tell me jokes in her nonsense, child-babble. She did trying singing a few weeks back. A couple with a electric piano and microphone came to the place she lives and sang songs I remember my mother singing to me when I was a child. My mother sang along to Chattanooga ChooChoo. She tried to do the HokeyPokey. But that was months ago, and she has not done anything like that lately.

What do we as a society do for people like my Mom? It is very clear how little we do for people who were not as smart and lucky and hardworking as my mom, who saved enough to buy the care they need. As my father the economist used to say: there are never enough resources for everything everybody wants. We do not have enough for the children in our society. And one can (and some have) argued that children, and their upward trajectory are more worthy of our resources. Others say that everyone looks out for their own interests and those interests are dictated by stage of life. I am not sure that when I was in my 30s and struggling with family and early career that I would have cared very much at all about the elderly. Certainly all those people opposing Obamacare, let alone Medicare aren't thinking about their own old age.

We ignore the poverty in our midst. We ignore the needs of not only the sad children at the fringe of society, but the people who have handicaps and are disabled. We ignore the elderly,  for whom a visit and a hug mean everything at this point. We want beauty and turn our heads from things we do not perceive as beautiful. And our elderly, with dementia, with no skills or resources to argue for themselves,  the elderly on their downwards trajectory are some of the least beautiful people in our society.

I do not disagree with any person chosing how to spend their personal and earned resources. But I do believe as human beings we must, as part of our humanity, give away some of those resources, be it time, money or energy. Give away with no hope or expectation that something will come back to us because of these gifts we give away. This is not some personal life-long balance sheet for the gifts we received, being born where we were. This is part of what it means to be a human being.

Visiting the elderly with dementia is scary. You can't really argue with them. They insist you are their dead mothers. Or children.  Or their evil dentist (that was last week for me). They have no executive function, and curse like sailors and when you come to visit they tell you  to go to hell. They have clothes with food stains on them, and are more interested in dessert than talking with you. Or they start crying and beg you to take them home, because they are lost and this isn't the Right Place.

But in our incredibly busy lives, our lives fighting to get funded and published and get a job, there are others who are much worse.  Make a 30 minute visit this weekend. No one will know. You won't get any brownie points, a raise, or even recognition. But inside you will know that you've done something good. And someone else, someone else who may not even know, someone else's life will be better.

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