Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My first invited seminar!

It's pretty darn exciting--I've been invited to give a seminar at a SLAC with a strong chemistry program, by somebody I don't even know yet! I'm really looking forward to it--my undergrad degree is from a really similar institution and I value that kind of education. They've encouraged me to bring recruitment materials, which I will definitely be doing. Describing my work to undergraduates and connecting it to relevant things they have been learning is one of my favorite types of communication, so it will really be a fun talk to give.

I did a little happy dance when I got the email. Hopefully it means my lab webpage is working its magic, if people have taken a look at what we're doing and have been getting interested!


Monday, December 29, 2008

Why DO we do this to ourselves?

Al Anine asked "What if I work hard and do well but still don't wind up with a decent faculty position?"

I can't give you any good answer--nor can anybody, which is what I am sure you are finding! There's no magic formula to success as a Ph.D. scientist. I think the best strategy is to go with everything you've got for whatever it is you want, but be ready to explore other options at all times. Learn more about 'alternative careers' (which really just means the huge range of other Ph.D.-level jobs outside of being a professor). It's funny that those are considered the "alternative," because there are a HELLUVA lot more of those jobs than there are faculty positions, and they are much more enjoyable and natural for most people in the world, as well. There are, what, like a few hundred faculty position openings a year in America? And in bad economic times, that shrinks considerably.

When I was looking for faculty jobs (and found it REALLY hard, it took me almost two years of applying), I thought a lot about 1) if I really wanted to do it, and 2) if it was worth the crazytrain I knew I would be stepping onto. I did thought experiments where I explored how happy I might be able to be in other jobs that used my Ph.D. skills, and the answer was overwhelmingly "VERY HAPPY." In the end, the exact right faculty job DID come along for me. But I wasn't waiting to bank on that: right about at the same time as I found this job and applied for it, I was also setting myself a deadline of the following spring. That if I didn't get a position in that round of a few applications I sent out, and/or if I did not get awarded my final try at the K99/R00, I was done trying to make it in academia. I would start applying for industry and other types of jobs instead.

I love writing, I love planning, I love communicating about science. I love translating complex concepts for people who need to be able to understand them (like my family who has been working so hard to understand my cousin's cancer and her treatments). There are SO many other things I could do that would let me do that. I think it's always good to just keep an open mind and be ready to maybe not keep on hanging on to that dream if the practicalities are killing its joy and severely impacting its attainability. When I let go of the stress and desperation of being so monomaniacal about that dream, I was finally able to think on a level about it that was more realistic and made it more achievable.

But just like relationships, it was all about right place-right time for each of us. I could have been perfectly happy with other job fish in the Ph.D. sea, I'm sure. Just like how breaking up with your first "true love" can be the wake up call you need to find out enough about yourself to actually WORK in a relationship, having to change your perspective on a dream can help you wake up to what you're really capable of doing and enjoying, and leave you open to other possibilities. Once I was much more comfortable in my applications (for the job and the grant), I was able to just show them who I was and see if that was what they were looking for. And it was.

Course evaluations are awesome.

So, I got my first set of evaluations from the course I helped teach this past semester. It's a big organic chemistry course required for entrance into the professional school, so the students are pretty driven to succeed (which can be a good thing and a bad thing when teaching them such a difficult beginner subject). There were ~280-300 students in the class, and about 260 of them responded to the course evaluation survey (we give a little bit of extra credit for participation in that, it seems to work). Overall, I got a good grade from the students. Most of them strongly agreed or agreed with positive statements about me, and most of them gave me an A or a B when asked to grade my teaching performance. So quantitatively, I did okay for my first experience teaching a subject I have never had a class in to 300 people!

The written comments were the best though. Overall the most common response to "What was the best feature of Dr. X's teaching?" was something along the lines of "She went at a good pace, was easy to follow, explained things well and her notes were really helpful." However, my most favorite responses were:
  • "Her facial features. She is probably the most beautiful teacher I have ever had."
  • "HER HOTTNESS (two T's)" **(sic--"two T's" was NOT added by me, lol)
  • "She's much better looking than Dr. Y. She also goes slower"
  • "she's pretty damn hot"
  • I was not a student in her lab **(I did not teach lab--I lectured to them in class for about three weeks)
  • "Honestly I do not really remember"
  • "meh"
  • "I really liked how she taught in lecture. I felt she taught the class like we were stupid and had no clue about what she was saying, which really helped me make sense of what I had read before class." **(is this a good thing or a bad thing??)
It was also amusing how even though the positive comments tended towards the "pace and explaining were good" theme, the negative comments were overwhelmingly about how I would take the overhead away before everyone was done copying it down and "pace was too fast and you should explain things better" (even though we barely made it through my allotted set of subjects, and even had to skip a few things, because I was going pretty dang slowly in reality). I think what I really need to do (and that some of them noticed and suggested) is to balance the lecture topics better, to not drag through the beginning stuff so that we have to fly through other things at the end.

Having such a big class can be really hard, but it also makes for much more amusing evaluation responses because everyone feels more anonymous. I had a really good time reading these, and I think I did learn a lot from them--I'll have to see how the themes change over the years, and hopefully I'll always get a few reinforcing my own inner belief in my "HOTTNESS."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

What does a Ph.D. mean, anyway?

I was inspired by the January Scientiae theme, which is "as one door closes, another one opens. Likewise, as one door opens, another one closes." I myself have encountered many such doorway choices that I won't go into now. But I recently had to be ultimately responsible for a choice like this for someone else, and I was/am extremely uncomfortable with having to make this decision at this stage in my experience--however, I do think it ended up as the right thing for the person, and hopefully this post will help me flesh out why I can trust this for myself.

I have no idea what I really know about any of this, other than having gone through grad school and watched a few other people do it. On the near-eve of my first real year of helping people through this process I have been pensive. Pensive about what a Ph.D. is really all about and how I can presume to have any idea of how to make decisions about whether someone should be doing a Ph.D. or not. It's not a complete crisis of confidence, because when I really think about it I think I DO have a pretty good idea of what it should be about, and I have some reasonably mature perceptive skills that I think will allow me to get to know people deeply enough to help them find their path. (BTW: We'll all laugh at my hubris whenever I come back to this saying "OMFG, what the hell was I thinking? I have no idea what I am doing..." right?)

But really, as intangible as it is (besides the heaviness of a thesis), I do think there is a way to describe what a Ph.D. is really all about. It's about more than being smart (brilliant even), being good in the lab, being able to plan and perform experiments--it's even about more than being dedicated and wanting it (or thinking you do) more than anything else. All of these things are required, but there's something else that comes together in the full process of a Ph.D. and it needs to encompass all of them plus a special quality of independence and leadership that must emerge from the way you put together all the parts:

Notice how the Ph.D. is brown, because of all the crap you go through to get it.

Yes, it is a special thing. It is a desirable thing, this degree. It's an exceptional thing, that not just anybody should be able to do. That is what makes it a valuable degree, and why people put themselves through some hell to get there. BUT it is not the only way to personal and professional success, in science or the rest of the world.

It also does not necessarily groom and point someone right in the direction of leading an academic lab. There are many, many other productive, constructive, amazingly enjoyable, high-pressure, cutting-edge ways to use a Ph.D--but that's a topic for another blog and another time.

Nope, a Ph.D. (even for somebody who has been working on getting one) is not necessarily the best way to go. There are things you can only find out about yourself during a process like graduate school, and so it is almost always still worth the experience. But not "making it" through DOES NOT have to be a failure. It should be an opportunity to find out what your true skills and strengths are, and how to maximize them and strategize around your weaknesses. The door should open to learning what you do and do not enjoy about your work, and do and do not feel are the "real you" and what you can really do. Sometimes that means you end up opening the subsequent door that takes you through to what a Ph.D. can offer you in your future, but sometimes that means you need to decide to leave the Ph.D. door closed and try one of the other ones in that foyer. So many grad students never even know those other doors are there! They miss them because of the blinders they have on for the track in front of them. But that track means NOTHING if it doesn't make you truly happy (in some part of your body/heart) and doesn't lead to something that fits your skills.

It's true that you close that door, that maybe was kind of left half open by your PI/department before you were really ready (and maybe irresponsibly, since they really are supposed to help guide people to the right doors not just try to push them all through the same one... or open it and leave, and see who of the people dropped in the shark pit make it to the other side...). But you open up a lot of other doors that lead to doors and doors. The philosphical opportunity given to every grad student is to get trained in some science and look closely at themselves, and the next part has to come from the student her/himself: to decide honestly and candidly if they can really put together all the parts of that Venn diagram I made, and if those things would really get them to a place where they would USE them to their full advantage and cosmically justify all the investment put into developing them (by themselves and their mentors). So, deciding not to go through that door and letting it close can be the most important, liberating chance that ever came along (other than the chance to learn that much about yourself in the first place). It does NOT need to be a failure--it should be able to become an opportunity.

I hope that if there is ANYTHING useful I can offer to my students beyond a space in the lab and some money to do stuff, it can be a realistic and honest outlook on how to find where you can add value to your own life and the world in ways that don't necessarily mean following "the track." While still maintaining my desire and responsibility to promote excellence in training graduate students, and inspiring people to find the joy in being a Ph.D. scientist (I know that will make a lot of you laugh).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Also: Science proves it--beer goggles are REAL!


Effects of Acute Alcohol Consumption on Ratings of Attractiveness of Facial Stimuli: Evidence of Long-Term Encoding
Author(s): Parker LLC (Parker, Lycia L. C.)1, Penton-Voak IS (Penton-Voak, Ian S.)1, Attwood AS (Attwood, Angela S.)1, Munafo MR (Munafo, Marcus R.)1
Source: ALCOHOL AND ALCOHOLISM Volume: 43 Issue: 6 Pages: 636-640 Published: NOV-DEC 2008

Abstract: Aim: A strongly held popular belief is that alcohol increases the perceived attractiveness of members of the opposite sex. Despite this, there are no experimental data that investigate this possibility. We therefore explored the relationship between acute alcohol consumption and ratings of attractiveness of facial stimuli. Methods: We investigated male and female participants (n = 84), using male and female facial stimuli, in order to investigate possible sex differences, and whether any effects of alcohol are selective for opposite-sex facial stimuli. We tested participants immediately following consumption of alcohol or placebo and one day later, in order to investigate whether any effects of alcohol persist beyond acute effects. Results: Attractiveness ratings were higher in the alcohol compared to the placebo group (F[1, 80] = 4.35, P = 0.040), but there was no evidence that this differed between males and females or was selective for opposite-sex faces. We did not observe marked effects of alcohol on self-reported measures of mood, suggesting that the effects on ratings of attractiveness were not due simply to global hedonic effects or reporting biases. Conclusions: Alcohol consumption increases ratings of attractiveness of facial stimuli, and this effect is not selective for opposite-sex faces. In addition, the effects of alcohol consumption on ratings of attractiveness persist for up to 24 h after consumption, but only in male participants when rating female (i.e. opposite-sex) faces.

Thank you

It's a little early for an introspective New Year's post, but I'm still thinking a lot about this semester and how things have gone and how much I've grown up. And on my way in this morning, I was contemplating how much blogging has affected this (and my processing of it). I started reading blogs right around the time I accepted my faculty position, beginning with Female Science Professor (suggested by happycat: thank you happycat!), doodling along to Drugmonkey from there, and eventually troodling (I made that word up) through into a whole array of interesting, thoughtful, insightful and moving writers (some of whom are on my blogroll but there are others I have forgotten to list). It opened a new world for me, where people were talking about exactly what I was worrying and angsting about, where I felt a stylistic resonance and an inspiration to start recording my own thoughts and experiences. I never knew I would want to be a blogger, and I never thought I would find blogs that are so right-on that I care about reading and want to keep up with.

So much of this is directly or indirectly because of all of you. My enjoyment of this experience, and the birth of my awareness of what is going on with my job and transition, have been actively and advantageously affected by my readers and commenters, and those who write about this crazy world of science. I just want to thank you all for that.

Monday, December 22, 2008

One more first semester lesson

So, if you're at an institution that gives TA support for grad students (i.e. almost every institution), make sure you know the procedures and timing for requesting your people get put into the TA support pool.

I realized today (when the TA assignments got emailed around) that in our department, PIs have to request that first-year students get put on the list before they've even officially joined a lab, just before the end of their final rotations... so somewhere along the line I was supposed to know that! But I never asked, I kind of just assumed they were magically supported by TAships or somehow during their first year while their status in a lab was still kind of in limbo. Luckily for me, some administrative scrambling has ensued to rescue my screwup and make sure my student will be supported next semester, but this is not the kind of mistake it is a good idea to make too many times before you come up for tenure.

So LESSON OF THE DAY/SEMESTER: Don't assume anything about TA support, it makes an ass out of (pretty much just) you.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

First semester roundup

So, this is the last week of my first semester as an assistant professor. I seem to have ended up in situations where I learned a whole bunch of the lessons of this job in the first few months, including the usual normal stuff, but also some early lessons on the hard stuff.

I had to learn how to hire people with little guidance, and as a result ended up hiring someone who didn't work out and having to learn how to terminate someone.

I had to learn how to handle a grant deadline happening during the same three week timeframe as lecturing/teaching responsibilities, and how to (barely, knife's-edge) balance those two incredibly time-consuming processes day by day, one step at a time.

I had to learn how to keep being the teacher and the motivator in situations where everybody is frustrated and confused, and things aren't working that you KNOW should work and have worked before.

I had to learn how to mentor a more advanced student through a last chance, and the final decision (from the committee and myself) that a Ph.D. is just not going to happen. That just finalized this week, and has been an immensely emotion-wracking, stressful experience. Ultimately I had to make a decision for the futures of both the student and the lab, and it was really hard. I'll probably write more about it sometime, but not now.

I have yet to learn many, many many things. I am sure I hardly know the 0.1% of it. It sure seems like an awful lot to add into the normal stressful process of starting a new TT position--but what is EVER normal about this job, anyway? Hah.

I already feel worlds beyond where I was three months ago. The difference between talking and thinking about it, and living it and looking people in the face and having to BE a leader, have made a pretty major impression in me. My perspectives on myself, what I can do and how to make myself do it, have changed. There's still really far to go, but I feel like I am in the right place. So far I haven't had to anywhere near kill myself or ruin my marriage to do it, either, so I am cautiously (blindly) optimistic that I have set myself on the right trajectory.

We'll see what lessons come from second semester!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frameworks for science communication

Well, I did it again: flurry of posting followed by week of silence. This assistant professor gig is pretty crazy, y'all. I am in love with it though, so I don't mind.

I've been ruminating on communication of scientific ideas. I've been watching a number of people at various levels struggle with and/or succeed/fail at communicating about science. I think there haven't been many good ways to teach the philosophy of science communication, and as a result most students have to kind of learn it piecemeal by having their work critiqued obliquely by others (oblique critique!) without a lot of discussion of HOW to build a scientific argument either in writing or in an oral presentation (for funding, for presentation, for teaching, for publication or other description of work done).

How do I know what I know about how to put together these things? How can I pass that along to my students and mentees? How can I get them to improve their work products in a way that also improves their abilities (and doesn't just mean I do their damn jobs for them)? How do I help them build their own mental framework from which to better communicate their understanding of, use of and work in science?

On my long drive in this morning, I drew this picture in my head of how I do this:

This so-called 'fiction' is not really a fiction exactly. It's more a communicative, rhetorical-type device related to the "strawman" strategy. Here's the deal: you build an argument by assembling a bunch of parts. These parts need to cover certain bases:
  • the whats: what is the problem?
  • The whys and wherefores: importance, difficulty.
  • The hows: how do people do it and how will I do it?
The key strategic issue is to lay those parts out smoothly and creatively. You always want to start with the whats, whys and wherefores--the description of the issue and why people should care about it. Then you want to describe what is known about it and how that knowledge was obtained.

If you line these pieces up right, you should leave a hole in the middle that you, and your reader/listener, can CLEARLY see the shape of: this makes your hypothesis/aim/goal jump right out for you and them! Now, you describe the shape of that hypothesis/aim/goal (which remains the hole), describe YOUR approach to it and show how your approach will perfectly fit that hole, highlighting all the unique, novel features of what YOU have to bring to it. BINGO: instant solid argument.

You can emphasize things like "Look at this special dent my approach makes into that missing piece on its importance to humanity!" and "My novel technology/model system will fill SIGNIFICANT gaps left by others and the problems with how people have been doing this!" These are those little touches that make you more special, that make people go "Wow, this person knows what they are talking about and has a cool idea!" rather than, "Huh?" or "Who even cares about this kind of widget?"

You can use the same framework to describe work in the past tense, too--rather than what you WILL bring to the hypothesis hole, you describe what you DID bring to it. You always leave room for little bumps you missed and spaces that aren't QUITE filled in your shape (future work, caveats, etc.) because NOBODY'S PERFECT AND NO QUESTION EVER GETS FULLY ANSWERED. That's science, you're not god(s).

Not only that, but this framework structure works at all the layers of the document/presentation you are putting together: you can map the whole shape of the overall argument this way, and you can break down each little sub-argument, section and paragraph into this kind of a puzzle. IT'S JUST LIKE FRACTALS!!! My favorite thing. If you know how to mini-ify your concepts and arguments as communication modules, you can build ANY kind of argument you want by just knowing where to go get some parts!! VOILA!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I love it when...

My lab calls me at home at 9 pm because they have a question about an instrument, and they apologize, but they don't realize all I care about is that THEY ARE STILL THERE WORKING ON STUFF, and that's why they are awesome!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I am the peptide master!

It turned out to be a series of adducts that shows up when you have a certain component in your mobile phase and a certain set of residues in your peptide, and only on certain instruments apparently, because it used to be fine on the machine in my old lab. The only way I could figure it out for sure was by making this crazy spreadsheet of all the possible adduct combos and charge state series that went with them, and finally found the matching patterns in there for every single peptide we've had the problem with.

In other news, I am sleeping at the lab tonight: husband is out of town for work, roads are icy and treacherous, no point in making a dangerous, slow (2h each way in these conditions) commute when there's nobody to go home to. I have my Ikea pull-out couchbed and a change of clothes, and I am rocking it total nerd style in my office!

So far it has been pretty awesome to actually be able to get a ton of shit DONE because of being on my own for a good solid five hours. Things such as SOLVE THE PEPTIDE MYSTERY now that there aren't any pesky kids around lab! (just kidding for Scooby-Doo effect--I love my labkids, they are all wonderful)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving experiment

I'm gonna picture-blog this one, because it's just not the same telling this story without the images, and I am lazy about thinking and writing right now (too many proposals to write tomorrow! Need brain energy conserved!).

I know before I have talked about how being too wife-y (you know, stereotypes, baking, worries about perception that may just be me being paranoid) freaks me out sometimes. But the truth is, I *LOVE* being domesticated, I love cooking and baking, I think of it like planning large experiments and art projects, with multiple components that have to be coordinated and a lovely outcome where I get to show a little bit of my personality (unless I screw it up and it's gross, then it gets to be a funny story, but I'll brag that this doesn't happen very often). We hosted our family Thanksgiving at our house, and I got to wife-out completely all day, and it was awesome.

I work better with a plan (and so does my family, although they still spend the whole time going "What am I doing now? What about the potatoes? What is happening with the *insert name of dish here*?"), so I totally nerded out and formulated a set of protocols and a schedule detailing the phases of the day:

Close up on my "phases" schedule:

Having the schedule meant that everything got done on time and I didn't have to stress out.

The parts were prepped:

The pre-cooking got done:

everybody got to play Rock Band while the heritage Bourbon Red turkey cooked:

And we had a good old Midwestern, euro-tinged Thanksgiving dinner on our new wedding china (pretty much the only time we'll be using this stuff...right?):

I even flexed my artisan baking skillzz, making a pretty awesome chocolate cake (with ganache icing and pomegranate seeds), kind of just so I could use my cake stand, but also because my Scottish husband thinks pumpkin pie is disgusting:

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Utterly confusing gremlin problems

So, it turns out that the problem that ruined my week is something much different than I thought it was, and maybe not the same kind of experiment-killing gremlins I thought at first.

See: we make peptides here, and the way you characterize peptides is by HPLC-mass spec. It tells you 1. how many components are in your crude material (hopefully less than 2!) and 2. the molecular weights (and thus identities) of those components. When you make your own peptides, you generally know which amino acids you added and in what order, and you also know what reagents you used that might have given strange byproducts.

The most common problems are a) deletions: missing an amino acid here and there for some % of your crude material; and b) terminations: chemical side reactions that stopped your peptide dead after some particular amino acid. Both of these give predictable products, so you can do fairly simple detective work to determine the source of a problem (made wrong concentration of solution, reagent was going bad, etc.). Thusly, uninterpretable LC/MS data, that gives you a mass or masses that have nothing to do with what you tried to make, is extraordinarily confusing because unless gremlins changed your amino acid solutions around, THERE IS NOTHING ELSE THAT IT COULD BE.

Our result had ONE peak in the UV trace from LC/MS--that pretty much means it's one compound (unless other components coelute, in which case they'd have to be pretty damn similar because our LC gets fantastic peak resolution)... and the mass spectra associated with that peak ARE COMPLETELY WEIRD. I have plumbed the depths of my knowledge of molecules, ions and fragmentations and have been completely and utterly stumped. I've also found that this strange behavior is exhibited by ONLY, but ALL, peptides with a certain sequence at their C-terminus, through a number of analogs I looked at. I also found that even my CONTROL peptide from my previous lab, which had NEVER looked like this before, is showing the same wacky thing. Given that this control peptide was stored lyophilized at -20 for the whole time, there is next to NO chance that it actually chemically degraded, and besides, the MALDI-MS (which only shows whole peptides in linear mode) is NOT showing the same thing, it looks fine there.

All of our other peptides that don't have this certain sequence are not showing this behavior, they look totally normal. So whatever I am seeing has something to do with this certain sequence, and my new-lab mass spec (which is a different brand than my old-lab one). I checked everything like the source voltages etc. and matched up as many of them as seem possible to match up to the settings on old-lab MS. Still no change in the spectra. SO WEIRD. There are only certain relatively predictable fragmentations one would expect here, and none of them explain my crazy ion series.

I ended up calling in the experts on this one, and so hopefully we'll get to the bottom of this crazy gas-phase ion chemistry mystery. I am at my wits end with trying to puzzle it out, and my poor lab staff is all new to peptides and mass spec so they are completely confused.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Actually, Science DOES think about these things.

I don't know much about this field, and of course there is no conclusive discussion (because there hasn't been one of ANY neurological issue so far in science and medicine--we're still working on figuring out how everything about neurochemistry systems work). BUT it is simply not true (as suggested by JLK in a comment about Ambivalent Academic's post in response to mine) that it's all a "myth" that women experience strange and disruptive neurological symptoms as a result of hormonal changes.

Unless there was some major debunking study that I just didn't happen to find in my Pubmed search for 'hormone levels pms,' it looks to me as if plenty of people are trying to understand this and clinicians take it pretty seriously.

I haven't read Fausto-Sterling's book so I cannot comment on what evidence she provided for her apparent assertion that "PMS does not exist." But if she thinks it doesn't, she must be as fucking lucky a lady as JLK, to never have experienced these feelings of someone else inhabiting her body dictating her response to the world around her. I'd like some of what she smokes, please.

On being a woman and a leader

I am certainly the one, and I know enough about myself to know that I am also the other despite the strange, intangible confusion that I sometimes feel as a result of the former. Today I'm going to write about biology--my own biology and biochemistry, how it goes on in my life and lab and which I study quite subjectively in myself without any good positive or negative controls, and without nearly enough systematic data (although I wish I could get it!).

See, all the fighting of the good fight, all the discussions about what rationally and objectively should be done as a leader and in difficult situations and when managing people and when running projects etc., all of it becomes like a jello tower of unsureitude at certain times when my hormones change who I am. And that really is what it feels like: you go from one week of being like a razor cutting through the bullshit and carving this amazingly solid beautiful map of what is happening now and where it needs to go... to suddenly overnight wondering how you ever managed to understand anything, seriously doubting the abilities of the people around you, your own abilities, and your ability to even assess other peoples' abilities. You, who are outgoing and friendly and comfortable with people (even difficult people), good at getting what you want and need, turn into an awkward, laugh-too-loud and make weird non-sequiter comments, detail-forgetting airhead, who comes down like a bolt of lightning on anyone who does something stupid. I feel all of this from inside, and some of it shows outside. It changes who I am.

I can't understand things, I can't make decisions, my confidence is gone, my anxiety is huge, my perceptions of people are obsessive and threatened and/or judgemental...

Or are they? Or is it just my own perception of myself that I am wrong? Is it that I can really see the truth and am not blinded by my usual feeling of wanting to be nice? I JUST CAN'T TELL. The worst is how you can't tell.

The scariest part is how I never even know where these waves of body-snatcherism come from until after the fact when the chemical cloud has shifted and my brain is not being overwhelmed by WHATEVER it is that causes this (is it a LACK of estrogen? An OVERABUNDANCE of progesterone? Or just the IMABALANCE or SHIFTING of the two and whatever other ones like prolactin or lutein that are all pummeling or not pummeling as usual or WTF is going on). Because of human biology, this thing that comes over me from these hormonal shifts really does change who I am, my fundamental brain chemistry that determines how I interact with my environment.

So what does this mean for me being a leader? I do, and I have to, fight my way through these things. I suppose other people probably just see them as a part of my personality, the natural range of behaviors I present, probably don't even really notice the difference--but it's so upsetting to feel from the inside that it's some other thing taking over making me somehow different from who I really am and who I want to be, for a significant portion of my life (~25%). And how do I trust myself to lead, and to make the right decisions and judge appropriately and productively from this kind of mindset? Isn't this the fundamental question we all try not to think about and don't know what to do about? Because I might be different and less fair when my hormones change me, and then how can I be trusted to be in charge?

I'm asking this devil's-advocate-facetiously, of course, but it's a real question, and so far the discussions on women as leaders try to set this up as a non-factor and push it out of the way, because it's a freaky problem--both unsolveable and non-understandable. What does it really mean? Does it mean we A) can't make the right judgements, or does it mean B) we have some extra-special supernatural-natural abilities to make even better judgements during the times of harsh no-bullshit critical feelings? It certainly adds another cosmic dimension to the difficulties of leadership, and science too since it gives me such a feeling of ineptitude and mental thickness.

I really don't know, and it is just so stressful to not know, and to find that no matter what you accomplish, how good you are at people, everything else: there will still be recurring, unavoidable days when you're a little kid again feeling like you just said something really dumb in front of the grownups (stupid), or threw a rock at the defenseless neighborhood weirdo out of spite (pointlessly mean) (and no, I never actually did that but that's what it feels like).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bad day

This felt like such a good week, and then it ended with one of those utterly confusing problems that just makes me feel like gremlins have to be sabotaging something.

Crappy, stupid problems.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Whoa whoa whoa just a minute here...

Young Female Scientist clued me in to the discussion about Obama appointing Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary.

This is so disturbing to me! I used to work with Project Exploration, a non-profit promoting the involvement of inner city kids in science, particularly through Sisters for Science where I did after school presentations for girls and just generally hung out at retreats and such as an example of a woman in science. (More clues for those of you interested in who I am). The Obamas were strong supporters of the program, and I know at least Michelle attended one of the big fundraising events for PE over the last few years. They have smart, with-it young daughters, and I bet it would really piss them both off to know that this guy might think their daughters might just be inherently not smart enough to be whoever and whatever they want to be.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

My little ducklings

I have such a strong mother hen instinct--its hard for me to let go and just let the people in my lab get on with things. But I've been trying very hard this week to just give my rotation students and new post-doc the basic instructions, point them at the manuals, and say "Go for it and come find me when you get stuck." So far, it's working well: they are all coming along much more quickly and showing me their capacity for figuring things out and independent learning. This benefits all of us: they learn more and learn faster when they have to figure things out, and the sooner I feel confident and comfortable with their initiative, the sooner I push them to be more productive, and the sooner I let them do the cool stuff.

Of course, not everyone can be managed this way: some people need much more hands-on, direct training and interaction, and really need their every move to be monitored. That seems to correlate strongly with visual memory skills: the ones with bad memories can't remember what they did when and why, and consequently need way more controlled, involved management to be successful (SOMEBODY'S got to know what the heck is going on, and if they don't, it has to be me). I wish everyone could have the sharpitude that (of course) *I* have, but sadly they just can't.

It's hard to decide where you draw the line (for their continued employment) when someone can't function independently in a complex context, and I guess that's part of what makes for different roles in a lab. It's an essential characteristic of a Ph.D., but not so common among the non-PhD wanting/getting/having crowd, so my expectations have had to change. At previous institution, all of our technicians had that special 'excellent grad student' quality (which is why many of them didn't stay with us long...) and so I guess I got spoiled. But at new institution, not everyone in support roles is quite as independent. That's okay, I can work with that--it just takes more time to get used to, and makes me unsure of how high is reasonable to set the bar.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

K99/R00 awards and the NIH New Innovator Award-UPDATED

So, I was exploring the options for the New Innovator Award pre-application, and saw the following text in the 'Eligibility' section that gave me some concern:

"PDs/PIs must meet the definition of “new investigator.”... Current or past recipients of K awards are eligible except for the following: K99/R00 or other Independent Scientist and other non-mentored career awards (K02, K04, K05, K24, and K26)."

This concerned me a lot, because while they said we'll still be considered 'new investigators,' one of the the things I have been worried about is that this won't really turn out to be the case, and the K99/R00 might be secretly/under-the-table causing us to be considered 'well-funded' in that against-the-rules kind of way. This seemed like an affirmation of that potential shift in attitude about it, and that worried me.

BUT it turns out that after more discussion, they at NIH decided that they had gone the wrong way on that issue. I emailed the program director of the New Innovator award, and got a really reassuring response: they changed their minds on that and they will be updating the PA soon. So apply away this Dec/Jan, Kangarooers!

UPDATE: It's official! http://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-RM-09-004.html

BTW: There are finally some metrics showing up on these awards, some discussion here. They also totally stole some of my assertions about how good a K99/R00 application can be for you even if you don't get it! :P Heh.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Data data data!

We have some really cool-looking preliminary microscopy data from the work that one of my students is doing right now. It's looking like we CAN use one of my ideas for something I tried in my post-doc and only got half-ass started. It's still in the 'fuzzy picture, kinda sorta starting to tell us something' stage, but the controls are helping us get more confident that what we are seeing is really there. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but I'll show you a sneak preview picture of our slightly better looking version:

Like I said, still kinda fuzzy and have a lot of background, plus the objective isn't ideal for what we are hoping to show. But it represents a very cool new direction for me, and the independent demonstration of the student's ability to get some shit done and learn some new techniques, so it makes me happy!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Thoughts on an 84-mile each way commute

A long commute isn't so bad. There is so much time to think. In the good old Midwest the roads are so straight you don't have to think about turning your steering wheel, so your mind can wander. I have an almost daily chance to update my strategic plan in relation to the events of the week. So far, I have planned out my 3-month goal for my first manuscript here, my 9-month goal for the next one, thought through the potential projects for all of my current rotation students and how they would interact/distinguish from each other, practiced my lectures a few times through, and created and forgotten several brilliant ideas for our research directions. I remember most of them though.

Having lived in the city for so long, it is incredibly pleasant to be in the country. I get to watch the sunrise over the fields every day, and I feel the passage of the time through the gradual color changes in the trees along the multiple river banks I drive through. I have made friends with the various animals at the little farms I pass each morning: Hello baby horse! Hello piggies that sleep in a pile in a shed! Hello llamas that hang out by the rock! Hello paddock of goats climbing and coating every available surface! They make me a little bit happy every day. And overall, I am just so incredibly happy to be where I am right now, I can sacrifice that three hours a day that I lose to the car and try to take advantage of it as a recalibration time.

It is beautiful here, I am a country girl at heart I guess. I like the quiet and the nature, and today, all is right with the world. Ask me again next grant deadline and I might have a different answer for you, however.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Riddle me this

In the context of a conversation I have been having elsewhere (and by the way any family who read this: it's not our family e-list, it's a different debate), I thought I would open up this idea to you smart people. I am arguing with someone who thinks rich people should be allowed to get richer, and some welfare debates blah blah blah. My response is that...

"I just don't believe that the majority of people on welfare "don't really need it" or are "just lazy."

Where are the studies and statistics that can show the relative distribution of need vs. exploitation in the welfare system? If you know of some, please by all means post them. Personally, all I have heard of are anecdotal examples and all of those that *I* know are people who really did need the support (e.g. a friend of mine with cystic fibrosis who can't work, e.g. my cousin who has cancer, e.g. the really smart undergrad who works her butt off for me and has a kid so she needs medicaid, e.g. my other cousin who also went to college with two young children as a single mom and needed help to support her through college so she could go on to start her own business as a midwife which is how she contributes to society now, or e.g. the soldiers who came back from Iraq and have trouble getting a job and need mental health care because they're all fucked up).

So, if "WAY too many people take advantage of it," who and where are those people and what percentage of the total do they represent? And in a cost/risk-benefit analysis, is their percentage IN THE NUMBERS big enough to trade the good it does for the rest for? People need to get beyond this perception bias that it's all about crack whores exploiting the taxpayer, and take a realistic look at the statistical profiles of welfare users.

And also, I don't understand this idea that "redistributing the wealth" is some how PENALIZING the super-rich. The only way they GOT to be that rich was by being able to use the infrastructure provided by this country, and exploit holes and loopholes in a financial system that allowed them to accumulate more and more and more profit in their investments at the expense of industrial sustainability--profit that for the last 10 years has been completely inflated and pretend and empty, built on the backs of lies and bad auditors. It was a cancer on the financial system--their money is like tumor tissue. YOU CAN'T LOSE WHAT NEVER SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOURS IN THE FIRST PLACE. This is the money that was supposed to belong to the families who worked in America whose jobs were taken away to China and India so that these rich people could get higher profits on their products and services, and that should have been invested into making housing ACTUALLY affordable instead of this fakeass cheat-version of affordable that screwed this all up.

Between the two of us, my husband and I make pretty well into six figures now. We are more than comfortable, we are pretty well-off with solid investment plans and can buy just about anything we want for fun almost anytime we want, and we still won't be "punished" by the 'redistribution of wealth' plan. So the people who they are talking about getting punished are the people far beyond what most people would consider normal, or necessary even to have a very good life with lots of luxuries. This is NOT money they get from hard work, it is money they get from growing money out of money in a financial system that just demonstrated itself to be so rotten that its bottom fell out.

The money that gets redistributed will end up back in regular peoples' savings accounts, their retirement plans, and what they spend into the economy, so the "lose the rich people and lose the economy" argument is completely bogus."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Razzafracking Comrade Physioprof

Insists on continuing to tag me for these fricking memes. I HATE MEMES. Don't you know I am too contrarian for this crapola?


Well, here goes:

1. Link to the person who tagged you.

2. Post the rules on your blog.

3. Write six random things about yourself.

4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.

5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

1) I have performed as a dancer on stage with Weird Al Yankovic in front of more than 10,000 people.

2) I am totally repulsed by unidentifiable animal product food, but I can eat burnt hot dogs.

3) When I was a teenager, like 13-14, I used to spend hours making little tiny to-scale saddles and bridles for my model horses which I would then sell via BBS forums.

4) I have a Charles Rennie Mackintosh tattoo.

5) I have about an album's worth of songs either partially or fully written and some even recorded, that I will probably never do anything with besides sing to myself in the car during my ridiculously long commute.

6) If I didn't pluck my eyebrows, I would have a unibrow.

Well, there aren't very many people for me to tag--I doubt I will get to six. But I'll list okham, kigarwoods, ethidiumbromide and nat blair to start. OOH UPDATE: I figured out I can ad dmy cousin and her husband to this tag: Reuben Sandwich and Jackalope Ranch.

On not knowing precisely how to do the work that is being done in one's lab

Post-docs and grad students (which I was JUST A FEW MONTHS AGO folks, before you get up in arms about how "the (wo)MAN is just trying to keep us down and just doesn't UNDERSTAND US") tend to have this feeling that their work somehow should not belong to their PI, or anyone else but them as the person who PERFORMS the experiments. This was just brought up in all the discussions surrounding Chalfie's being left out of the Nobel group for GFP, and gets vented about a LOT in the science blogosphere, since this is a place that grad students and postdocs can come and let out their frustrations without the danger of repurcussions or those uncomfortable interpersonal experiences that would ensue from trying to bring these up in person with your PI.

But thinking that the beauty of science and discovery is all about some individual striving to do something only they can do, with some cartoon, superhero version of intellectual 'purity,' is just deluded, self-important and pretend. If wishes were horses and great scientific breakthroughs could be achieved through THOUGHT experiments, then maybe that could happen in a vacuum universe. But the reality is none of us ever do anything on our own. Not even our own thinking. Even our private thinking and problem-solving skills are shaped, molded, influenced and ultimately built upon frameworks created through our interactions with other people: ESPECIALLY those mentors and advisors and teachers who have been particularly important to our lives. So, no: nothing you ever do is TRULY your own work and your own creation. That's just the fundamental bottom line of being a social organism.

Aside from that esoterii (did I make that word up?), there's the issue of infrastructure and teamwork. Yeah, see, the thing you come to understand once it is YOU in charge of stewarding the multi-millions of dollars that are required to keep a lab in operation is that GUESS WHAT: everybody has a distinct role, and nobody's jobs should overlap too much otherwise it gets redundant and wasteful of resources. Sure, I could stand at a bench next to my post-doc and we could each run parts of the overall experiment, or we could act as eachother's reproducibility checks and each do a set of replicates. And then I would know intimately what it took to produce the data that we used to support our work.

I could also go back to take classes and/or work on and learn myself all the various techniques and special skillsets that come in, either from those people or from someone else, and become an expert in every single action and strategy ever performed or taken in my lab. I could metaphysically absorb more and more and more and more information and skills and expertise until I expanded into a giant. But then what would they do in my lab? If I already knew how to do everything, why would I hire anyone else? Why not just do it all myself?

Because being the PI of a lab isn't about knowing how to do everything in the world. It's not about becoming the intimate expert on threads of detail. It's about leading a team, finding people to fill knowledge and skill gaps and managing them in a way that best combines their skills with the resources around them to produce emergent creative phenomena. It's about not redundantifying who does and knows what, so that each person's time and skills can be best used to move the whole group forward towards: 1. finding things out, and 2. making sure you can afford to keep finding things out. While I must say that I am quite vain about my abilities to understand just about anything (and I have lots of practice--if you saw my publication record you might scratch your head with how random and varied it looks)--I recognize that it is NOT NECESSARY for me to be able to run the experiments for a given thing in order to use that expertise in my research. Not necessary, and not efficient: it would be a waste of taxpayer money and lab resources for me to duplicate the skills of people on my team.

I could not have articulated this three months ago. I never had a problem acknowledging the contributions of my PIs and mentors and always automatically considered them a part of my work, anyway. But before I started managing this amount of resources, and became responsible for putting together and shepherding a team of people using those resources, it just wasn't as clear. And, don't think I don't understand the situation of having a bad mentor, a selfish or inept PI. I know that just as well as the next girl from experience, too. But I can see the difference between the POINT of PI-ship and the bad apples. And if you are unable to see the forest because of all the frustration you have with the trees in your way, try taking a step back to remember that you could not have gotten into the woods without support from SOMEWHERE (there's no such thing as a free lunch or a free thought) and you won't be able to get OUT of the woods without depersonalizing things and seeing where you and others fit along the path. And you won't be very good at making paths until you can see how they have been made for you.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Accounts, shmaccounts!

This is the funniest little guy EVER! (click for source)

Not much to say this week

I haven't had much to say this week. Which isn't true, I just haven't had the mental wherewithal to come up with good ways to say what I have to say. In general, I feel like my head is finally above water after these first two months of crazy town. It's not like any of this is any less crazy, but it doesn't make me feel like I am gonna get a house dropped on me any minute any more.

I have three, THREE rotation students starting next week! And a postdoc starting the week after that. And another postdoc for whom I'm preparing an offer letter, who wants to start in January. This is to add onto my already six-person-strong group, HAH. Although four of them are undergrads, some of those four have been extremely helpful and productive so far. All of my undergrads are wonderful, and each contributes their own unique thing to the lab--but the three ladies in particular have been incredibly competent and independent, and have shown their funny and endearing personalities right away. They are also work-study-cheap to free, which makes them such a lucky addition to the early stages of things here.

I absolutely love the idea of having a big group--I'm pretty good at mental multi-tasking and I have a nearly razor-sharp memory for project details so I haven't had a problem with THAT kind of scatterbrainedness in the past. Hopefully that will hold out once these people and their projects get more sophisticated and varied. I look forward to the day when somebody in my lab publishes a paper where I only have the faintest clue what it was actually about, where I have to read their manuscript drafts to fully understand the awesomely in-depth work they have done on our communal topic. That's when I'll know I've REALLY made it.

One semi-serious worry though: during my budget discussions to decide what I could afford to pay the second postdoc, we saw that some really funky, fishy-looking stuff seems to be going on with my start-up accounts. My business manager thought I couldn't afford another person--which sounded awfully funny to me since I have been keeping an informal tally of my expenditures and should be WAY fine, like completely more than fine, so I was like, "ummm, huh?" So we looked a little closer at my start-up accounts.

For one, there was a strangely innaccurate total amount originally deposited into them... My offer letter said that a certain portion would be there initially and another certain amount would be added in July 2009. There was also an agreement that the second certain amount would be coming from the Cancer Center here, and that all got worked out just fine after I got here. I sort of assumed that Cancer Center amount referred to the July-designated chunk... if so, then I should have had the other first certain amount deposited in total at the beginning. However that amount is NOT the total of my dedicated start-up, but NOR is it the first certain amount minus the second certain amount minus the Cancer Center portion. SO..... the upshot is, HUH? And since all of our accounting is being done via this fuzzzugging RIDONKULOUSLY BAD new SAP system, it is godawfulfrizzicking impossible to follow the money trail and find out WTF is going on.

For two, while trolling through that trainwreck of an accounting system, trying various kinds of searches in an attempt to get the information altogether (which we find, is actually not possible with this craptastic software), we did find some lists of debits from my accounts that have weird doublings-up, with different order numbers but the same dollar amounts, and no apparent description of why. We also found that when we search one way with MY account number, my colleague's name comes up--it labels the account "So-and-so Resrch Incent" where that So-and-so is the other person that was hired on the same time as I was. Aaaaand our start-up amounts were a bit different... which could be why my business office helpers seem to think tht I am running out of money when there is no way I should be already based on the accounting I have been keeping for myself... so....... something weird is going on and I'm going to have to get to the bottom of it. What a pain in the ass.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

No wonder health care costs so much in this country

And THIS my friends is one of the biggest problems with America and health today:

KFC $10 challenge

It is cheaper to buy fast food fried chicken than to cook for yourself.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I hate memes but Physioprof is MAKING me do this.

Can You Remember The Day That You Officially Became An Atheist?

First of all, I wouldn't necessarily call myself an "atheist" in what has come to be the colloquial use of the word (which is more towards 'anti-theist' than atheist). More in the sense of being a-theist, the same way that molecules that do not rotate waves of light are a-chiral. 'It' or 'higher power' just are not a part of my modus operandi or philosophy of myself or the world. The universe IS what it is, and how it is constructed and how the parts relate and connect. I have no inner drive to anthropomorphize it. Our feelings and emotions are all created by complex chemical interactions, and I don't need to ascribe any meaning to that other than that it is pretty cool you can get such emergent behaviors and outcomes out of the same set of chemicals and biomolecules.

So, nope. I do not remember the day I fully arrived at thinking this way. It was a gradual realization that it was not necessary for there to be anybody out there, and that even if there was something/somebody, it didn't need to care about us and vice versa. It's irrelevant. And all the usual excuses for why there "must" be some "purpose" (so we have a reason to be good people and not eat each other, so we have a reason to help poor people out, so we have a reason to get up in the morning, so we have a reason not to sleep with each others' wives and husbands) are BS. Those are things that make sense for the overall social functioning of a group of organisms with our complexity and unless we are too dumb to realize the direct survival benefits (and unless we are just fundamentally selfish and/or broken), there is no NEED for some construct telling us to do them OR ELSE. But then, I suppose that illustrates the need for the construct: most people cannot handle the idea of there being nothing other than what IS. Me, I'm fine with that realization.

Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?


How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?

I don't remember the precise 'last time,' but I was an active member of a Baptist Evangelical church and youth group in high school. And I remember really believing it all at the time--aside from always having a level of discomfort with circular arguments, and never believing that homosexuals were going to go to hell (and never quite believing in hell at all really), I did think at the time there was something there that I was talking too. I always did have a sneaking feeling that who/whatever *I* was talking to was not the same as who *they* thought they were talking to, since the one I talked to would never be burning the non-believers in hell because that was just unfair given the power differential and lack of direct evidence.

Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Nope. Puzzlement, however, perhaps did. I just didn't understand why anyone would WANT to believe the modern interpretation of the traditional materials. I studied quite a lot of theology and Christian history in college, since I went to a Catholic liberal arts university. And the more I studied where all these ideas and constructs came from, what they ACTUALLY said, how they were compiled, published and disseminated, the more I was confused about WHY people would want to cling to them as a way of feeling comfortable in the world. Seriously, most of that shit makes God look like a crazy, mercurial, arbitrary asshole who just does things to people to make his points without any fairness or TRUE judgement about his decisions (like a few PIs I know...). And there, the excuses are usually that it's because 'his ways are mysterious' or some crap. But frankly, any 'higher power' that treats us as if we are too stupid to understand its decisions so that it can do whatever it wants whenever it wants is just a hypocrite. And I am confused and baffled to think that people WANT that, but there you go: they either don't think about those parts of what they are professing to believe, or they make excuses for it, because having someone/something else to blame and fall back on for their actions and decisions (good and bad) makes life easier for them.

Here is a good one: Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

Huh? Why is that "a good one?"

Do you want to be wrong?

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if I am wrong, or if I want to be wrong, or what. Things work the way they work, they are beautiful that way and we don't even know the 0.0000000000000000000001% of it. It's cool the way it is, and my opinion about it makes not one iota of a difference to the operations of it all. (Unless that physics question about whether when you look at a particle you affect it is more apropos than we realize--maybe I'm making a bubble universe right now just by describing aspects of how I think the universe works...)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

First peptide synthesis!!

We started our first synthesis today with our synthesizer! We took a picture for posterity:

My lab manager set it all up and one of my undergrads was there, so we dragged her in too.

Since I bought enough high-grade TFA for the next ten years (12 x 4L bottles because the price was better by the case!) we decided we'll have a party when we use up the last bottle called the "Last Bottle of TFA Party" and we'll get this old picture out and reminisce about the old days in the lab.

While I'm in a celebratory mood I also wanted to show you all what I decided to do about Marc Jacobs not selling my original 11-year-pine-for bag anymore. I decided to use my 'personal funds' part of my first paycheck to get a different, but equally beautiful one instead! I LOVE it! It has made me incredibly happy so far, so I guess money can buy happiness sometimes:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I sent all my parts to my grants administrator, and she's getting it all put together to go through our internal process before submission by the sponsored programs office on Thursday. Yay!

It's just a little R21, but it has inspired the beginning of a mutually agreeable, constructive collaboration with another professor in my department and helped focus the plans of the grad student who is looking to join my lab after trying things out this fall. I'm really proud of how it went from being an outlined idea of hers into something that fits very well into the development of my research program and takes suitably small, feasible steps while retaining some pretty fancy-pants innovation. We even had a little bit of preliminary data that came from our first few experiments here over the last couple of weeks.

First one from new lab! Since the K99 doesn't really count as "new lab." I have to say, I truly enjoy the grant writing process even with all the technical frustrations and the hassle of fitting in the time to work on it with everything else. It's definitely the kind of stress and focus that gets me fired up to kick ass. I think I'm in the right job.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Screw you VPN, you suck a big fat behind. So damn slow from home that there is no point in even using you. Taking five minutes to save a Word file. Not saving when saved to, so that updates get lost. Interrupting the flow of thought that is so hard to finally get into when we're writing these godforsaken things.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Uh oh!

I just got back home to find our Roomba had shut itself in the bathroom and run its battery down by frantically bumping in circles for who knows how long.

Poor old Roomba! It probably played the saddest little song to call out that it was confused and getting tired!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Getting somewhere

My cousin Nora had some scans for her metastases the other day, and many of them are stable! I am super excited about this. She has been trying a lot of different things: "Sir Spheres" nanoparticles to target leaky tumor blood vessels, Abraxane (a version of taxol that comes pre-packaged in a little albumin delivery system), cyber-knife (gold-nanoparticle-guided targeted radiation therapy), Sutent (an RTK inhibitor) and good old-fashioned clean living with lots of extra vegetables and nutritional supplements. All of these things together seem to be making some progress, something we had not seen much of in the past few years of her experience.

Things aren't all smooth sailing though. There are other things going on in there that still need to be dealt with.

Even so, it is fascinating, exciting and beautiful to see all the hot topics in my research area come together to actually directly affect the life of someone I love very much.

You go Nora!! Someday we will make the Nora mouse with some of your tumor tissue that they froze down from before, to find out WHY all these things worked for you, and WHY it isn't doing as much on others but for now, let's just celebrate that they seem to be making some difference! Keep me up on what else gets figured out.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Chemical BiLOLogy

The funnest part of my journey from being a purely synthetic chemist into a chemical biLOLogist has been coming around to the point where I actually start understanding the biLOLogy part of things. I've been thinking about this as I work on writing an R21 proposal on a type of biological system I know practically nothing about. Chemical biLOLogy is fairly loosely defined as it is, that's why my tagline is "nobody knows what it really means."

It essentially means MAKING and using chemical tools that you then apply to biological systems in order to understand their function--rather than the traditional understanding of medicinal chemistry, which is more about making chemical tools you use to try to kill bad cells and/or protect good cells, or biochemistry, which is more about studying the chemical behaviors and properties of biological systems. So really it's just a classification along the gradient between those two things, and they are already just classifications along the gradient between hardcore chemistry (using the molecule as your basic unit of study) and biology (using the organism as your basic unit of study). It's all about FRACTALS, people, fractals whose philosophy of structure just keep repeating in expanding/microscoping versions as we go up or down the magnification of the basic unit.

Defining oneself as a 'chemical biologist' just means that you have to think more about the biological system than whether or not you can kill it. You have to start understanding biological systems organization and connectivities, and see places that you could manipulate them by knowing how their molecules work. Most chemical biologists get started by not really understanding the biology--I know I did. I was able to translate molecular principles into a few baby step biological systems (enzymes, their mechanisms, their products, e.g. biochemistry--they were all molecules so their processes made sense to me) in my head, and eventually get to the point where I could make something to go after an activity that was more mechanistic than the "death" level. The more I read and tried things, and the more systems I started to think about, the better I came to understand this fundamental underlying common thread that: really, if you can find, define and categorize the basic units of a system, any system, and how they interact according to the principles of whatever scale you're looking at (which always comes down to molecular physical properties if you zoom in close enough), YOU CAN UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.

That's where the fearlessness comes from. I know full well I won't get everything about a new idea right away, and I'll have to take the time to apply those translations so I can define and categorize the parts, but I know HOW to learn it. I know I won't remember the jargon, the terminology, and will have trouble calling things the right process and the cool kids might laugh at how I didn't even know what a Tak Mak was (true story). BUT I just don't care, and am not afraid to ask for that kind of information, because I know that when it comes down to it I can figure out how it is really working and see it for all its beauty, and sometimes find parts of it everyone had taken for granted and poke at them until they do something different, interesting and cool.

That's why I love this so much, and it has only been recently that I have felt my own personal evolution occur, from being someone trying to kludge around with basic biology to starting to see the finer details. It is such a good feeling to take a totally new kind of biology, start reading about it, and start seeing how all its parts fit together and get the gist of the workings so you can start going deeper into the particulars all within just a few days of starting to think about it. That's what chemical bilology training should be all about: teaching people to find the systems organization in things, characterize their molecular principles in your head, and think of them as nodes to explore, perturb and manipulate--no matter what degree of complexity the system comes at you with.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Faculty assessment

My institution is going through a big push to structur-ize and formalize many bits of language surrounding an overall "strategic plan." Since this is going on in layers at all levels of the organization, part of that means our department needs to participate. This is coming from the Dean, who got the directive from the President. So in other words, we gotta do it. We (with me coming in at the end of the process here) have been working to satisfy their requirements for a "Faculty Assessment System," which needs to include a portfolio-based reporting system for each individual's progress as well as a rating system of some kind to quantify whether people are meeting the "minimum" requirements. It makes for some long, contentious debates in faculty meetings. It also eventually comes down to a discussion around part of the fundamental philosophy of academia: how do you quantify the multidimensional achievements of someone who contributes to a huge range of essential activities in any meaningful way? What makes someone in a faculty position "a success" or at least "satisfying the minumum requirements" in a way that you can have in a spreadsheet when it comes to assess everyone at the end of the year?

Clearly it is nearly impossible to quantify. It's nearly impossible to even categorize thoroughly. There is a natural, instinctive resistance to the idea of quantifying or dissecting it from the more experienced faculty who know full well how differently each person brings their contributions to the table in a good department. On the other hand, those of us at the beginning (especially us supernoobs) kind of like, at some level, the idea of having a framework within which we are explicitly expected to operate. Rather than all the vague handwaving about having "enough" papers or "enough" grant money or "enough" teaching contribution that usually makes the tenure process so hard to navigate, we liked the concept of having some formalization to the assessment process... everybody's main problem (ours too) was with how to QUANTIFY that as a set of metrics.

So how could the professorial animal be metric-ified? We have a few computer science/biomodeling types in our department, maybe somebody could devise an extremely complex algorithm that could appropriately score and assign weight to all the various components of a successful faculty career, in some kind of Venn diagram shape so that if you contributed particularly strongly in one category you would balance your deficiencies in others... create the mathematical representation of ACADEMIC SUCCESS, the Plato "Idea Professor" that could be born in each of us as either a functional or dysfunctional Dr. Horse. That we could dutifully use to plug in all of our parameters, it could chug away on a Linux box somewhere for a few weeks, and spit back out to us a quantification of our own personal FIT to the model.

But it would still be just that: a model. Models never fully represent their living instances. They never take all the parameters into account. They sometimes show false positives, false negatives, and always come down to a bottom line that cannot fully describe the thing they are trying to assess because of emergent behaviors that no one was expecting when they created the model. So we would have to get to the point where we incorporate some kind of machine learning into the model, so it can adjust and change its mind and take into consideration other factors that were not known at the beginning and so on and so on...

And by then, we might as well just be a group of people with expertise in the matter thinking deeply, talking thoroughly and deciding upon it.

Which is great as long as you are in a department with people you trust, who you know have everyone's best interests in mind, and who have a track record of helping each other hold down the fort. That's the way my department is now. I just can't guarantee it will stay that way over the years, and so I still like the idea of having something formalized in a document (even if the complicated algorithm part would never take off).

Monday, September 29, 2008

So... hard... to keep... up...

I'm trying not to lose it as I spin the teaching plate along with everything else. I know, boohoohoooo you'll all say--get used to it, suck it up, this is your life now. I still like it, I just need a minute--just a minute. I haven't had time to sit down and think for a while, and it shows. I need to do a lot of writing: we are trying to submit an R21 for Oct. 16th (mostly just for the heck of it, because you gotta start sometime, but for other reasons that are about a training opportunity for someone in the lab). It could be a pretty cool little project, so I hope we get some money for it. But if not, we're still okay for now and I have the K99/R00 in place to tide me over until I get my first R01 through the works. There are also a couple of internal small grant opportunities coming up in the next few months, for which I have some ideas that I have been talking to others about and gotten some encouragement.

The EQUIPMENT part of the lab is pretty much all set up. Now it's PERSONNEL setup time. I've been training the (great) undergrads in a few experimental jobs, and getting the grad student up to speed on some things. The lab manager started today, and I have high hopes that he will be a godsend. Very capable person, takes initiative and just sorts stuff out. Interested in the research too, and looking forward to helping me with experiments.

We started growing cells last week! We will hopefully be doing our first assay on Thursday unless the cells die! The cells are the easiest part of things to get going fast. We have done a pretty good job of setting up our operation though--it's kind of like one of those time-lapse movies of setting up a circus or a fair. I wish I had a good snapshot of "before" in the lab, though, to show everyone the contrast between then and the "after" state we're in now. I really am proud of it, we got an awful lot of large, highly technical equipment set up within the space of a month. And as stressful as teaching is right now, I still feel like this was the time to do it. Life is spinning out of control anyway, there might as well be one more thing going on. The discipline of studying organic reaction mechanisms and stereochemistry is good for me, and kind of Zen--I can meditate on R/S nomenclature and chair/twist-boat transitions (and how to help pre-pharmacy students soak up a real understanding of them) while I drive my ridiculously long drive to and from work. Yeah: did I tell you all how I live an hour and fifteen minutes drive (84 miles) away from my institution, AND have to go across a time zone where I lose an hour in the morning? Yeah. Hah. /cry

I have very little insight about all this, only that it is all flying past me at a million miles a minute and I need to keep trying to learn my strategies for getting actual work done and keeping my mind focused. It's happening very, very fast. And boy am I glad I went to all those orientations, because they were the last time I remember getting a chance to THINK. I need to make sure I attend more seminars, so I can do what everybody else does and use them to plan my own work.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I just spent a few hours this afternoon helping some students with the course content while they prepare for their first exam, which is tomorrow. I love it, but it completely obliterates my ability to focus on anything. I find a few things particularly stressful about the way my partial participation in this course have shaken out:
  1. I have absolutely no idea what goes on in the labs. I don't know what their lab homeworks are all about, or how the concepts are getting explained to them in lab for how to do things in the homework and lab reports. I don't have time to go take the whole course with them and participate in labs, so I am totally useless at helping them figure out the labs, and I am not likely to become useful anytime soon.
  2. The study methods involve working from previous example exams, which don't sync up with where we are at in the course this time of this year. They end up being incredibly stressed out and wasting a lot of their time and mental energy trying to understand how to do these problems that they have no reason to be able to do yet.
  3. Since I don't have a lot of time to spend on this aspect of things this year (and have not been asked to spend much time--my "official" duties are only a total of 10 hours of lecture) it stressed ME out a lot to find I don't know how to help them understand the stuff that isn't my direct responsibility or for which I missed the associated lecture by the primary professor. I end up needing to do quite a LOT more homework in order to be able to help them understand things that I a) haven't thought about in detail in years and b) mostly have my own internal, instinctive cartoon explanation for anyway.
I'm sure anybody who has had to develop and teach a whole course is saying "Boooo freaking hoooo!" but hey, the point here is that partially team-teaching a course that was developed and is administered by someone else without looking like a total moron and being mostly useless to the students is a LOT more work than you think on paper. I'm trying to make sure I get involved in as many aspects as possible so I can keep up with these things but by then it's like I might as well be teaching full-time. Oh well, I still love it, I just want to make sure I don't end up leading anyone astray by having the wrong way of explaining things to them so they miss out points on their exams.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

10^6 Comment meetup in the corn!

I'm excited that I am pretty sure I can go to the Illiana version of the blogger meetup idea. I guess one of the upsides of being at a MRU within a couple of hours of another MRU in the middle of the country in the midwest is that we don't have much to do on the weekends, and we are all friendly people, so we're enthusiastic about hanging out! Go Midwest, go corn!

Friday, September 12, 2008

This picture just makes me laugh

The look on her face is really funny.

What isn't funny, but puzzling and I don't know if it is meaningful or not... is that I hadn't seen any pictures of her before this morning. I've been a little out of the loop--I had a rough idea of what she looked like, but no mental image. I had only heard what she had to say, and I didn't like it. I don't like how her first out-of-the-gate things to say belittle the contributions of somebody who I respect A LOT. There's more but I won't go into it here.

Now after looking through a roll of pictures of her, however, I can't help but like her more because she wears hot shoes and has a seriously stylish coat. Because she is well put together and her hair looks good. Because it looks like she wears Bare Minerals foundation and her glasses are pretty modern. BUT THAT'S THE ONLY REASON I LIKE HER BETTER: BECAUSE OF WHAT SHE LOOKS LIKE AND HOW SHE DRESSES.

Isn't that kind of disturbing? That my style-sense unconsciously goes "Okay, you're in the club because you look like one of the cool kids, even though I TOTALLY DISAGREE with most of the decisions you would make for our country."


**Source: http://d.yimg.com/us.yimg.com/p/afp/20080910/capt.cps.noa97.110908012343.photo02.photo.default-512x492.jpg?x=359&y=345&q=85&sig=.w18pmEu9BVVEWL8xDY92w--

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Science in Art

I'm really tired after giving my first talk on campus as a faculty member, at the retreat for the Cancer Center I am a part of. For some reason it was newly terrifying--even though I know this stuff inside and out and have talked about it before. I think it has just been too many months since I last gave a talk, and being the new kid is always scary. It was cool though, I got good questions and interest from people. Looking to fire up some collaborations that should be really interesting and move my science forward.

In other news, my good friend is getting some awesome attention for his fascinating and beautiful art projects, here is a link:

Chicago Artists Month 2008 Featured Artist

He was interviewed on Chicago Public Radio last year to talk about his "Audible NMR" projects, which are really cool. It's really exciting to see him get recognized for this stuff!

Monday, September 8, 2008


I learned my lesson about how much I need a Blackberry (and a human personal assistant) yesterday. Here's the setup: This weekend was my sister's bachelorette party up in 'City to the North.' I live about four hours drive from this city, and the city where I did my postdoc ('Big City') is about halfway between. My new department head was hosting a "New Faculty Welcome" reception at his house for me and the other new professor on Sunday afternoon/evening. I had it in my head that this was starting at 5 pm ET and going until 7 pm.

I figured this weekend was as good a time as any to kill an extra bird (mole) and pick up all my frozen cell stocks from Postdoc Lab. I could go up to City to the North, hang out with the sis and fam (mole #1), drive back through Big City and pick up cells from Postdoc Lab to bring to New Lab (mole #2) and make it over to the department head's house in time for the reception to hang out with all my new colleagues and meet some of their spouses (mole #3). I especially wanted to bring those cells by hand, because the last shipment of my cold stored stuff that my lab manager tried to send from Postdoc Lab got totally screwed up by FedEx--two boxes got mysteriously returned to her with no notes or info from FedEx on why, and the other two made it to me but three days late and all thawed out. I was NOT gonna take that chance with my cells. So I had the perfect plan. Nevermind that it involved a total of about 12 hours driving over the course of two days and multiple time zones and social events, hey I could do it.

I got a vague foreshadowing of my moronitude when I realized last Friday at about 3 pm that I didn't have my LN2 storage set up yet, so where was I going to put these cells once I got them here? Luckily my downstairs colleague was extremely helpful and offered me some space in his storage tank. Knock that problem off the list, mole whacked.

Everything else was fine (drive to City to the North, Bachelorette Brewery Cruise fun, etc.) until I got (i.e. actually arrived onsite) to the part where I pick up the cells. I found out a) my ID card no longer opens the door to the building and remembered b) oh hey, I gave my lab keys back! How do I get in here? Everyone I called from Postdoc Lab was voicemail-direct. Thank goodness for my lab setup consultant, she had the phone number for my favorite undergrad, who was able to bike over and let me in. It gave us a nice chance to catch up, too! Mole captured, de-frazzled and placed in whacked area.

Drove back to New Lab, got into colleague's LN2 space, put cells safely away by about 4 pm. Went back up to office to hang out until husband arrived for transport over to reception in my honor at boss' house... phone rings at 4:30.... it's the host, my boss, asking if we were coming... "Yes indeed, [Husband] should be here any minute--it starts at 5 pm, yes?" ... "No, actually, it started at 3..."


The mole I had carefully put in my pocket, labeled with a 'fragile!' sticker and kept fed for the last few weeks (I was really looking forward to this, I like my department and wanted to hang out with people--I even remembered to tell my husband about it RIGHT AWAY, so he knew it was happening and that he had to be there, I am not always so very good at that), had TOTALLY ESCAPED and was now biting me on the finger because I had gotten it completely wrong! We ended up being an hour and a half late to our own party, and I feel like a complete tool. Everyone was very nice about it, but I still feel so dumb. I am now in the process of full electronical integration so that something in my bag will help me better manage my moles. It's Blackberry time alright.