Archive for: July, 2017

Hard things I have to do

Jul 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I know that some of the posts that you, my cherished readers, like best are those that tell stories. It's a human trait, we like our morality lessons (I almost said lesions, but that's what's on my mind) in palatable myths.

But this post is about things not said. And therefore not conveyed in a story with pseudonyms and hypotheticals.

It is a hard thing not to say things. There are a couple of points and people and incidents that right now, in my PI life, I want to address. There are a couple of specific people I'd like to sit down with and give them whatfor. But I know. I know from the painful lessons of past experience that It Will Do No, None, Nada, Bupkis good or utility, to actually talk to these people or address these issues. It will not move any goal forward. It will not make life easier for any third person involved. It will not change the direction of the University, College, Department or Interest Group. It will not be the first flag planted in the war. Talking would only make life harder.

So I keep my mouth shut. None of these things are a hill worth dying for. Some of these people are short-termers and won't be in my purview in the future. Some of these people I will have to work with tomorrow, next week, next month, over the next five years. So be it.

and ps. this is not a subtle message to those people or a passive-aggressive way of talking to them (they don't read this blog and probably don't know what a blog is). Because the flip side of not talking, is when you do need to talk, and do need to say something, you go up and say  it to the person. Directly.

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Skills a PI needs or a snowflake's chance in hell

Jul 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

H/T to Adam Kucharski

pointing to an article about training in management, titled "Not all PhD supervisors are natural mentors – some need training".

So let's look at a bunch of things.

Firstly, Adam is right. You may think you don't need that "leadership training", because you're not going to run for public office. But you do. There will be at least something worthwhile in terms of dealing with problematic students, techs, trainees and most likely Chairs-from-Hell. In the world of cost/benefit decisions, the immediate benefit may not seem so large, but it can be. It sure beats the school of hard knocks.

But secondly. Oye. This article was not going to convince me that I should get training, let alone work towards being a better human being. The sub-headline on the article is:

My supervisor’s high standards and cold manner made me feel inadequate. If only he had been taught how to encourage me.

WTF? Somehow the mentor is responsible for making someone feel inadequate? This is how legends of snowflakes rise. Reading on, the first part of the article is a litany of how bad the trainee felt. All the horrible and terrible and discouraging things that happened to her that were the mentor's fault. There was not one whit of self-introspection in the article.

Yes, it would be lovely if we all could be Mr. Rogers, Captain Kangeroo, or some wonderful grandmotherly figure (i.e., true, real life course evaluation: Dr. Theron is insufficiently nurturing to be a good teacher". That's not real life. But lots of us are Tony Stark, but without the money and nifty electronic things.

Yes, I do think its worthwhile shopping around for a good mentor. Let me put the list from that post here:

  • Look for individuals as mentors who enjoy their roles and responsibilities
  • Look for individuals as your mentors who are experienced yet willing to listen to your concerns and needs
  • Look for individual mentors with whom you can build a relationship on trust, mutual respect and confidentiality
  • Consider any personal and/or professional biases that they may bring to your mentoring relationship

But, in The Guardian article, the writer put the blame for failure on someone else's (lack of) people skills. Yeah, the mentor was a jerk. No, he wasn't encouraging, and perhaps did cross the line "between constructive criticism and cruelty". Yes, it would be great if every mentor was a psychiatrist and counselor and Buddhist spiritual guide. But they're not. They are human beings with the whole range of problems that human beings bring to the table that is human interactions.

The article concludes with the suggestion that

Academic institutions should develop and require mentorship training for staff at all levels, not just those who are early in their careers.

Let me suggest that this would have exactly no influence on the jerk who was so discouraging. Let me suggest that senior people are pretty damn resentful of being required to take training. Let me suggest that this is the suggestion of someone who is not mentoring or supervising or more importantly swimming as hard as they can to stay afloat in the competitive world of academia. This doesn't mean that such training wouldn't have the potential to help. Go see the first para of this post. But by and large, the BSD's of this world who might need this, if they went, which is unlikely to start with, would go with a phone or laptop full of Other Things To Do.  Required touchy feely seminars and workshops are not the way to change the system.

So grow up. If you want to do science, take some responsibility for finding the people who can help. The writer says she went looking for help and everyone turned her down. Really? She could not find a single person to help mentor her? A single friend, even outside of academia to help her with the confidence issues? I do not have much faith that this person will last long in any endevour. Find what you need. No one is going to hand it to you on a silver platter.

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My knee, or the slings and arrows of time

Jul 28 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

From the report on my knee:

Severe lateral and minimal medial femorotibial joint space narrowing with subchondral sclerosis and exuberant osteophyte formation.

Exuberant my ass.

Ah you runners, beware. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

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The future is coming on strong

Jul 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Every summer I bring 2-3 medical students into my lab. I think of this as win-win. Firstly, I pay them. I have strong views on unpaid stuff (See here). I am constrained by my department as to what I can pay them, but no unpaid fellowships here. Secondly, we, that is my lab and I, try to provide an experience that is more than just bottle-washing, cage cleaning and pipetting of fluids into small tubes. There is some of that. But they are partners, albeit junior partners, in the research.

In return, I can do experiments that take 6-7 people intensively for a month. The wages of sin.

But what I also I get from working with these people, day in day out for 10-12 weeks, is revitalized. I get a different perspective on life and medical school and the world. This is their usually unknowing, gift to me.

Yesterday, I was sitting and chatting with two of the students. The experiments have come to an end. Everybody gets a few days off, after working 18 hr days, and things get a big more informal. One of the women said, who is starting her M2 year, "I wish I was done, I wish I was earning money and seeing patients and being a physician". I smiled and the other student laughed. The student who said this is "alternative". She's a bit older, and she's from a foregin country from which we have not had a student before. Not western europe, but someone who's had a long long path, including many years of interrupted college to get where she is. This woman is a survivor, and a fighter and unbelieveably strong and beautiful, inside and out.

So it was most gently that I said to her: do not wish your present away. The future will arrive soon enough. Before you know it, you will be 62 and your children and grandchildren will be off doing the things they will do with their lives. Hold on to each moment you can.

I understand the rush towards the future. There is still part of me that does. There is still that young and thin and beautiful 17 year old girl inside my not incosiderable bosum. But where did all the time go? All the partners, the children, the papers and projects? How did I ever get to be so old?



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A Question to ask yourself`

Jul 26 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

When you choose a new goal, a new thing which you are working towards (which is goal, but maybe you don't like that word). Ask yourself: does this new thing feel like I've added another weight on my back? Or is it something that I look at and say, hey, that is a weight off my back. Because? Because it solves a problem, it makes something else more clear, its something I've wanted to do and by taking it on, I am know I am moving in the right direction.

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This morning

Jul 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Thanks Steven R. Shaw @Shawpsych


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If I was younger, my shorts, they would be frosted

Jul 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

But, I'm not young. And crap that irritates me, it's there. It was there. It is there. It will continue to be there.

So what now?

I do animal models of a disease entity. As an aside, it also generates data to answer some basic science questions. These questions are of lesser interest to NIH, but drive me.

I review papers of the clinicians who work with the actual human patients, as opposed to my animal patients. They do not cite me, unless in review I make a point of saying: you are ignoring animal work that speak directly to your results, and in some cases, contradicts your results, or perhaps suggests a different interpretation.

The young clinicians, BigDogs in training, cite themselves, their mentor, and a few other people who have spun out of the BSD, BigBig Dog's lab.

Shall I add that BigBigDog is rude as hell to me at meetings? That is, when he's not being condescending about the role of animal research in his clinical specialty.

Why is this short-frosting material? Because its the being ignored part. It's the arrogance of "only our group is worth citing". These guys know the other work, they Just. Don't. Care. Being ignored is what I have battled from day one in academics. At clinical meetings. In discussion groups. In Basic Science meetings, when my stuff isn't shiny enough.

There comes a point when a woman gets tired of it. That's not a good place. There also comes a point where a woman says to herself: "Self, I say, you do good work. You are published. You are funded. Screw the bastards".  That is a much better place.

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I've got your back

Jul 24 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

There was an article about goddesses in the New Yorker last week. Darwin spare us, but not just goddesses, but Mischievous Goddess Parties for little girls with mothers who have more money than sense. Getting beyond the entitlement, I agree that anything that gives little girls power and authority and role models is probably a Good Thing. There is a quote from the article (sorry, can't find a link) from a mother after one of the parties:

I don't think she's latched on to the goddess part yet, but she likes the magic. All kids need to believe in something that's out there to help them.

Kids? Us Grups, too. (Points for identifying classical reference). I remember, clearly and painfully, a time when I really needed the support of my department chair. The old one. The chair from hell. One of the main reasons I left old-MRU. I was "leadership". I had a portfolio and people I needed to support. I had a problem. The problem had to do with getting proposals in to NIH in a timely fashion. In fact, just getting them done in time, without putting an extra-month burden on junior faculty. I was getting lots and lots of push-back from the business people in the department. Really, I was being road-blocked at every turn, and was doing clerical work myself to get the proposals done. Senior vice-chairs should not be doing clerical work.  I should have been spending that time reading & reviewing & editing proposals.  I spent months trying to solve this on my own. I told the chair what I was doing, and got nods of approval, and lots of "atta girl"s. But it didn't work. In the end, I went and pleaded with him. Laid out what wasn't working, why it was problem. How other departments solved this problem, all of which cost money and personnel. And that fucker turned to me and said something like "I have no respect for people who can't solve their own problems". And that was the end of the conversation about this problem. There were more Bad Things between us that happened after this. The problem in submitting proposals went on, with lots of consequences. But the consequences didn't get tied to the problem, and eventually, people just did their own proposals, and frequently, left the department.

What has stayed with me, years and continents later, was asking for help and being so perfunctorily turned down. Painfully turned down. Not acknowledged as working on something that I couldn't solve. Not getting the help I needed to do the job. Everyone wants to think there is someone out there who will help. As one gets older, one becomes more realistic about who or what is out there. It's one of the source of religions and belief in "higher powers". This can be a very comforting source of support, just as belief in an after-life is an anodyne to the slings and arrows of a less than satisfying life in the here and now.

But for those of us who chose to live in the here and now, or at least do not expect help from beyond whilst wrestling with the personal and professional villains, we tend to look to our flesh and blood allies. Ally is a word that has been both lauded and abused within other contexts of late. It has come to carry baggage. But here, I mean it in the most prosaic, unembroidered form. An ally is someone who should have your damn back.

This is the flip side of what do you own? (which ties back to the chair from hell, who didn't know what it means to be an ally). This is the real circle of life, the web of helping people and having others help you. Today's musical soundtrack for this are the symphonies of Sibelius, in particular a motif in the first movement of the 5th symphony. I hear my friends and allies singing to me.

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When does Imposter Syndrome go away?

Jul 21 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Probably never. Especially if you are a thoughtful person.

On the other hand, it does get better. It gets easier, and sometimes you even forget.

Things that help:

  • Keep that folder/list (hard copy!) of good things that have happened to you.
  • When someone says something good to you, write it down, even by hand, and put it in the folder. Date it, timestamp it, draw a fracking picture in the margin. Put it in your memory.
  • When you are giving a good presentation, in the middle, if you can, or afterwards, take a step back and remind yourself of what an awesome job you just did.
  • Look at a trainee, the undergrad you are supervising right now, whilst in grad school, and think "this person is doing well because of me"
  • There's at least one person who believes in you. Think about that person. Smile at them in your mind.
  • Listen to whatever up music you need - the scene from The Two Towers when the elves arrive at Helm's Deep, Eye of the Tiger theme from Rocky, the march from Love for Three Oranges by Prokofiev (this was the music background to a record I heard in Kindergarten for a telling of the Trojan War. I was shocked as adult to learn it was Russian, not Greek, music).

Go ahead and add to the list in comments.


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Thoughts on funding and support for medical schools (part 1)

Jul 19 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Nobody thinks of medical schools as being particularly poor, or in financial trouble. Yet one comment  in an older post, together with a meeting I went to a few weeks ago, got me thinking.

Many people (here, IRL) are outraged that the university would try and make money on postdocs. Although I crashed the meeting to hear about the postdoc stuff, there was another presentation, first, from the chief financial officer. Because this is such a small place, people like the CFO do come talk to the faculty, which was not true of other, larger places. I have found that in MRU, policy, budgets and implementation strategies come down from on high to the plebs. Here, there is at least an effort to share information, although one's ability to actually do anything about it may be just as limited as in the Big Important Universities.

This presentation was based on percentages and compared a number of public medical schools, and some private ones thrown in for contrast. There is an awful lot that can be said about this, stuff that impacts me, the younger faculty I care about, and as a bell weather signal for the future in general. I want to make two points, one data analytic and one substantive about funding. But they're linked.

The statistical point is that he presented percentage data: where the money comes from divided into broad categories. One really needs to see the absolute data as well as the percent data. The broad categories were: tuition, research, state subsidy, and medical income (hospital/professional fees). The biggest difference was the percentages attributable to tuition and state subsidy (large in small schools) vs. research income (large in bigger schools).  The percentages may vary, but the absolute number is close to a constant across schools of all sizes. Tuition and class size are variable. But bigger places tend to have higher tuition and smaller classes, and it works out to a narrow range in the end, certainly the same order of magnitude in dollars. The state subsidy varies, but not greatly. It is a subsidy per student, so while it varies, it will be roughly the same dollar amount. [I want to set clinical income aside for a moment, and just take a look at research. There are many different models, with hospitals separate from med schools, etc etc, and without more information it makes this part of the equation difficult to assess].

So if you look at the percentages, they vary tremendously across Universities, pretty much a function of a size. But I bet that the size of the budgets vary by an order of magnitude. That means if one component is a constant in absolute dollars, that order of magnitude is shifted to the other components. Bad data analysis.

But even looking at the percentages, research is a much smaller part. So the money guys wring their hands and say "the researchers aren't doing enough". But of course, per capita, we are. We are just much fewer in number than at the Big Places. Of course this doesn't translate into policy to either: hire more researchers or provide better support the ones we've got. No, this is part of a justification for developing a two-set faculty: BigDog researchers, who bring in >80% of their salary, and teachers, who teach the equivalent of 18-20 credit hours per term (ie two big med school classes, each term). The model of the teacher/scholar is in danger.

But this is not the end of the analysis. As always, context is important, in this case political context.  States are actively, hostilely, and with total conscious intent, reducing their subsidies to public higher education, including professional schools. It is not a matter of "the states being successful" in reducing contributions. They are being successful at this.

Which actually brings up another point: control of state legislatures is overlooked. But it is critical.  It is critical for being able to call a constitutional convention (and get rid of such pesky things as same sex marriage, birth control, and voting rights). It is critical for support of "extra stuff", like education, clean water, and public prisons. Some of the states, such as Wisconsin, make headlines, when they do headline-making things (like try to get rid of tenure). But as far as I can tell, these trends are pervasive, even in democratic controlled states.

The data for my state, and my tiny medical school are out there with an in your face message: state support has been reduced, consistently, significantly, no matter what percentage or absolute number you look at. If tuition is capped by the states  (which it is here, and in many other states), and the subsidy is being reduced, the difference has to come from somewhere. States, unlike the federal gov't, have bigger problems if they run in the red, and they by and large do not let their univerisities do so. There are many sequellae, many implications, many problems that arise from this. There are people who say that public higher education is not necessary. They say that private schools do a damn good job; let them do it. Private schools have their own issues, which may ultimately translate into the same bottom line issues: the world is changing. We, little ants on the ground, see the part about reduced funding success, NIH grant demographics, extended postdocs. But the issues are greater. As the mother of one of my trainees said at her child's (same-sex) marriage: just because this is possible today, we cannot be complacent.



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