Monday, August 2, 2010

And the winner is...



Not just by default of being one of only two entries, but because this truly is totally awesome!

And now for some exciting news: Chemical BiLOLogy is moving to the new Scientopia network! With the shakeup at Scienceblogs etc., a group of really interesting people decided to join forces and make a new blog community. I'll be hanging out there from now on, with people like Janet Stemwedel of Adventures in Ethics and Science, Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math/Bad Math, Scicurious of Neurotopia, ProfLike Substance, Professor in Training and many others from Scienceblogs and elsewhere. It'll be like "Friends," where we all live in the same apartment building, have comedic adventures, get into scrapes, and hang out in the coffee shop downstairs all the time! I'm planning to keep blogging about the tenure track, having a kid, grant stuff, etc. but also I am going to try to expand my chemical biology research blogging and highlight interesting stuff going on in that world.

Please update your bookmarks and blogrolls to http://scientopia.org/blogs/chemicalbilology if you want to come find me, these archives are coming with me but also staying at this blogspot location so you'll still be able to dig around in the K99 posts and anything else that you've found useful.

Thanks for giving me such a fun start to my blogging over the past two years, and here's to more kooky stuff to come in my new home!

Monday, July 26, 2010

200th post: who's really bored and wants a project?

Hello readers! This is my 200th post. I was going to try to save it for something special, but I got antsy and decided to use it to start a call for art project participants. I want to get some creativity going here, and am not having much luck with my own head, so I thought I'd try crowd-sourcing instead! Maybe nobody will bite, in which case I'll feel lame for a while and then suck it up and do the project myself. But whatever, here goes:

I want to find an entertaining infographic/illustration for Chemical BiLOLogy to use up in that "user profile pic" thingymabob. A Google Image search for it was BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORING!!!!!! All generic molecules, people in lab coats, dudes, protein structures, BLAH!! I'm trying, but just not getting inspired enough on my own.

BOHHH-RING!!

Let's put our Photoshop and MSPaint skills together and come up with something better. You can make a collage, draw your own cartoon, whatever. Make sure anything you use is in the public domain however, citing sources. Send images to me at chemicalbilology@gmail.com and I will post them. I will most likely make a dictator-like determination of my favorite(s) and may conglomerate multiple offerings to make my user pic. Don't worry about fitting a certain size, make it bigger rather than smaller and I can shrink where necessary. I will assume that if you submit an image to me, you're giving me permission to use it!

Alrighty, let's see where this goes... if it is a FAIL (because I'm not cool enough to have readers who give a crap and have time...) then oh well.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nail on head!!!

Namnezia posted today with a quote that sums up everything I have been trying to teach my lab:
Good scientists will gladly let their pet hypotheses evolve or be discarded if evidence shows up to disprove them. Bad scientists will keep looking for specific data supporting their views while ignoring overwhelming amounts of data that don’t support their views.
Grad students, postdocs and everyone who is learning to be a scientist or trying understand what scientists say, take heed!!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Grant strategery: NSF vs. NIH

So, I decided not to resubmit my CAREER award.

It had been reviewed reasonably well, but there are a lot of other things going on that made it hard to get the best possible revision ready in time this year. On the one hand, both me and the reviewers were pretty excited about my Broader Impacts project, and I really want to see that program happen at some point soon. Our preliminary data is coming along nicely and this project is looking really exciting. On the other hand, that data isn't quite to where the reviewers seemed to want it to be. Plus, my Program (which is new this year as it is) is going through a lot of upheaval and almost comprehensively changing staff, meaning there will be no continuity in pretty much the only place you GET continuity in NSF revision review (since the reviewers are almost always a different set of people, unlike NIH where your grant usually goes back to the same group).

Another major issue for me is that trying to shoehorn biomedical research into an NSF-appropriate framework is really difficult. The entire theme of my lab is disease-related. Sure, we develop technology towards understanding disease, and development of the technology itself can be extracted out as a non-health-related goal aimed towards basic understanding of biology. But to reach its full scope, this work really needs to be focused on addressing the needs in human health research. AND to reach its full scope, this work costs a lot of money to do. NSF budgets just don't go big enough to support the kind of work that would need to go into this project. We do everything from chemical synthesis to expensive analytics to molecular biology to cell culture. Each ONE of those aspects requires about an NSF-level budget total. So, to really do this project justice, I think we're gonna have to go with NIH where even with the standard modular budget we will already be at twice an amount that is pushing the limits of reasonable for NSF.

Sometimes no matter how in-the-hand a bird seems, you have to face up to the facts that you can't feed your family on a chicken when there are two turkeys in the bush, at which you have a pretty good shot if you just let go.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Here we are again: being a stay-at-home mom is the new black

The Times in the UK had this really barfy article in their Magazine section this week (link, although it requires a subscription/purchase) about young "Generation Y" stay-at-home moms, the tagline was "Young. Smart. Stay-at-home. The Generation Y mothers." It had this fashion shoot with these hot 20-somethings and their kids, and interviews where they all shared how they never really wanted a job, anyway, and how you should raise your children yourself and not farm them off to others and blah blah blah. Seriously shoe-puking.

Quotes like this were highlighted: "I like the role of the Fifties housewife. These days everyone's in such a rush to cram everything into their lives." All patriarchy-reinforcing perspective bull-shyster and no balance. The whole thing reminded me of Zuska's awesome paragraph-sentence-post, which, while it was about STEM careers more specifically, perfectly captures the feel of these tired, constantly recycled double-speaks designed to keep our opinions herded towards knowing our place.

I'm all for women having the choice to do whatever they feel is right for themselves, including sticking with the work of raising kids and running a household and not other outside work (if they are privileged enough to not need to do so). But what a sanctimonious piece of crap. None of the women interviewed particularly liked their jobs in the first place. How does that provide a constructive perspective on these difficult choices? Not to mention what it inherently says about women who decide not to have children at all. What a waste of time and printspace. Or, maybe not, if your goal is to keep us on the same-old-same-old track.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Third Reviewer says you hodgepodged it!

Ooooh, we need one of these for chemistry and chemical biLOLogy!! I would love to critique articles in an anonymous environment. Especially those ones that just seem to be making a big crap pile of everything the lab did in the last year in order to publish it SOMEWHERE. Or the kind where chemists bloviate about their ponderous work and stretch it into three papers that should have (maybe) been one (if that). Sometimes it's just too dangerous to do even pseudonymously, since the internet is a much smaller world than you think. But on this website, you can say whatever you think anonymously: compliment good work and call out crappy work. Yay!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Offensive characterizations of diversity in the science workforce

Biochem Belle has articulated this better than I, but I will share here my thoughts on the Miller-McCune article about how the "real science gap" appears to mean a reduction in the white male demographic in the workforce.

It describes exactly what I've seen a lot of people talking more informally about: the system is currently constructed as a pyramid scheme, and it leads many productive, smart people (who don't have the luck factor that helps land a TT position) to go elsewhere and/or leave science because the model is unsustainable. It suggests that we need to figure out how to revamp the postdoctoral experience to be more like a medical residency that trains PhD level scientists for some specific area (and not just uses them as bench monkeys to do our work for us), so they can be retained in a productive capacity and contribute to the growth of innovation.

I can't figure out, though, if it is just telling the story of this pyramid scheme or if it is trying to subtly promote the idea that the 'glut' of foreigners (and supposed 'aversion' of white males to following research careers--their words, not mine!) is the "real problem" here.

from the article: "First, something serious is wrong with America’s scientific labor supply. A prime symptom noted by all: a growing aversion of America’s top students — especially the native-born white males who once formed the backbone of the nation’s research and technical community — to enter scientific careers. Increasingly, foreign-born technical and scientific personnel on temporary visas staff America’s university labs and high-tech industries."

...as if an increase in the diversity of scientists in the US is somehow CAUSING white males to avoid science careers... as opposed to the huge expansion of science productivity in the last 50 years creating a market that incorporates more diverse employees (including the same demographic of white males but also now including other demographics). And, it seems to imply, 'home-grown talent' means 'white males' since the demographic that is causing the 'glut' is implied to be the diverse one (foreigners). I don't see a quantitative analysis of the % of white males in science today, but it would not necessarily be relevant unless the expansion of postdoctoral/graduate opportunities were also compared.

Also disturbing is this quote used in the context of the foreign postdoc "influx": "The director of postdoctoral affairs at one stellar university, who requested anonymity to avoid career repercussions, puts it more acidly. The main difference between postdocs and migrant agricultural laborers, he jokes, is that the Ph.D.s don’t pick fruit."

It isn't clear to me if this article is trying to use those examples as illustrations of how exploitative it can be to postdocs, or to complain about all these foreigners coming in and TAKIN' R JURBS...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Professor mommies on maternity leave

Years ago, before I was a mommy, I asked a professor lady at a "women in science careers" panel if building and effectively managing a strong lab group could help compensate for having a baby pre-tenure and going on maternity leave. She said to me, dismissively:

"They work as hard as you do, honey, they work as hard as you do."

The very strong implication, in the context of the discussion going on and the height of her eyebrows was that dealing with your family meant you were not 'working hard'. Apparently, in her opinion, the following does not qualify as 'working hard'--the process of having a baby, dealing with a newborn and really wacked out hormones while also:
  • participating in faculty search interviews and lab meetings via skype
  • communicating with the lab group multiple times a week via email
  • preparing for and participating in NIH study section
  • critiquing poster drafts/practice talks and attending a conference with the whole group
  • doing pre-work for two grant proposals that got submitted within two months of returning from maternity leave
My lab group worked pretty hard while I was on maternity leave. They each made their own, personal exponential jumps in their understanding and ability to think independently. They each kept largely on track with their research goals. Some of them planted the seeds for new research directions for the lab while I was gone, and they all kept their hands in the dirt cultivating our collective efforts to move our science forward.

This isn't a "pat me on the back, I did so much! I must be superwoman" post. I am not superwoman, and all these things were possible because of the support network I have in place. This is a post to show how, as an aspect of that support network, building and managing a strong group, and providing a good practical example of "making it work" can keep your emergent research enterprise from floundering while you take time to have a child. Because, indeed, they work as hard as you do.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The fun of an international lab

World Cup Time!!!!

We are rooting for Ghana, Mexico and the USA. Unfortunately Scotland, China and Taiwan aren't in it (does Taiwan even have a national soccer team that goes to WC qualifiers?), so some of us are joining our colleagues for Ghana and Mexico or just defaulting to USA. Or, just all of the above because the World Cup is fun no matter who wins.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ira Glass and how I feel about science

In this interview, Ira Glass said this about how they craft the stories for "This American Life":

"being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you."

This is how I feel about science, too, at least from the "thought experiment --> literature poking ---> project idea" perspective, and has also largely been how I operate in the lab. It works for me, and helps me keep from getting too dependent on any particular line of thinking. It also keeps me happy.

BWF Career Awards at the Scientific Interface 2010/2011

The Burroughs Wellcome Career Awards at the Scientific Interface have opened back up! This is a transitional award similar to the R00. While you can only apply as a postdoc, it doesn't provide postdoctoral funding support (as far as I am aware). However it does provide $500K (total) of support over three years to bring with you to a faculty position. It's less money overall than the K99/R00, and also extremely competitive, but anyone here whose work is relevant and who is submitting a K99 proposal might as well adapt it to apply to this program, too! Here is the link:

http://www.bwfund.org/page.php?mode=privateview&pageID=129

I know a couple of people who have gotten or almost gotten these, and they are really nice awards--just more susceptible to changes in the market and the economy than the NIH (they didn't even have a competition last year as far as I know, their funds were way down because of the recession).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Something new and aspiring TT faculty need to know

I might have posted about this before, but the issue recently came up again in an "Ask Dr. Isis," where a struggling tenure track professor was let go at year 4 (before coming up for tenure). People in the comments were surprised that she wasn't given a couple of more years to prove herself, since tenure usually happens at year 5-7.

Here's the deal, that isn't always clear to people applying for (or even ON) the tenure track: almost every institution will put you on a series of initial shorter term contracts. You start with a two-year contract, that will pretty much always get renewed for another two years at the end of your second year. It is extremely unlikely that your department would let you go at that point, when it isn't yet clear whether your funding/publication trajectory is flat or upwardly mobile (thus not yet predictive for tenure success) and when they've invested upwards of $750,000 in those first two years of your position (what with your startup package, salary, student support etc.).

That second renewal at the end of your 4th year, however, is NOT as automatic. Most places will have a fairly serious third year review process, where your progress towards a tenurable package of publications and grants is assessed by your department. If you are not on track to having "enough" (which is an ephemeral amount, nobody will tell you quite what "enough" would be, they'll just tell you if you aren't there yet), you are in serious danger of not having your contract renewed. That's why getting off the ground FAST and publishing least-publishable-units as soon as you INhumanly can is SO important.

Everyone knows the funding situation is really bad right now, and every institution will have different standards for what is "enough," however if you have a bunch of papers published and have applied for a grant at every reasonable cycle, most departments are going to see that as okay. But if you have not published much (only 1-2 by the end of year 3), even submitting three proposals per cycle is not going to save you. You might even almost have an R01 or equivalent grant funded, if you don't have enough papers in the system they are gonna be worried.

So for those of you on the very early TT, and those of you on the job market, make sure you know what the policies are at institutions you are (or interview) at. ASK the department chair what the contractual and third year review policies are, and ASK how many people have been terminated through non-renewal of contract. This question is every bit as important as knowing how many junior faculty did not make it through the tenure process. You want to know how this department guides people (and gives up on people) in the very early stages, too, and not just at the moment of last resort.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ages and stages: using your PI's grants in your own proposals

So, you're a new postdoc or grad student getting ready to write your first proposal for something like a fellowship (say, for example, a K99/R00). Where do you start? Most PIs will happily share past and current proposals, and even encourage you to use them--this can be great, because it gives you a review of their spiel for the story of the lab, a ton of relevant references, covers the main background, significance and motivation points that will apply to many common projects coming out of the lab. For many funding agencies, it's not even considered plagiarism to use their text/figures word-for-word, as long as you disclose the relevant contributions by you and your PI (i.e. what portion of the proposal represents your own independent work and what came from them). There's a huge difference between using common statements and data from a given lab, with attribution where due, and going out to find other labs' stuff to put in your preliminary data, and after all, it saves time and effort and is much more efficient to just use what already exists rather than reinventing the wheel, right? But I think there are several important reasons why trainees should do their work from the ground up, starting as early in their scientific lives as possible.

You need to develop your own deep understanding of your work, and not just become a parrot that repeats what someone else has told you about it. Working from someone else's grant, it is all too easy to just reword phrases they used, use the same paragraph structure substituting different terms for things, etc. But unless you understand it at its most fundamental level you will just sound awkward doing that. My students all got a copy of my K99 when we started the lab, and for their first few written reports (which I have them structure like a grant proposal/committee report hybrid), their intros and motivational descriptions were all just strange, awkward reworkings of my grant. Sometimes the sentences didn't even make sense, sometimes paragraphs were just odd rehashing conglomerations of things I'd said. It was clear they didn't really "get" what was going on. It wasn't until their third or fourth times through writing about things (as well as their completion of a lot of grad level coursework, a grantwriting class and holding their first committee meetings) that they moved up a level. In all those pedagogical experiences, they were being taught how to think and write from the ground up, and it made a huge difference in their fundamental understanding of their work.
*by the way, they know about this blog and I have their permission to talk about them here :)*

Another key thing is to watch out for believing your own lab's hype. Your PI will likely have thought through the rationale she/he presents from the bottom up, reading the relevant primary references that she/he cites and making a case for the work proposed. Some of that case-making always involves setting up straw men and pushing an agenda. If you take your PI's rationale(s) too seriously without doing your own due diligence and going into the surrounding literature, you are at a major risk for believing yourselves too much. As a communicator, sure, you need to "tell a story," but as a scientist, you should NEVER blindly believe your own story. Another thing I saw in my students and postdocs at first was a face value acceptance of my "story" for our science. Heaven forbid, they *believed* me and I had to tell them not to! They were all too ready to assume that I must be right and have the right hypothesis, so for any data that didn't fit, it must be the DATA'S fault, not the hypothesis being wrong. This was both a lesson for them and for me: that I have to be careful--when recruiting people to a lab, you have to convince them your stuff is cool. But as soon as they walk in the door, you want them to start as skeptics and work to convince themselves.

You also need to learn how to write with the training wheels off. Your PI's grants might be a good baby step to help you wobble along, but unless you actually know HOW TO WRITE a grant, you will not have it easy in this business. Even if you know you'll never want to work in academia, this kind of writing is extremely common--my husband works in industry and has to convince higher-ups to approve megabucks projects all the time. He has to use the same strategies to provide rationale for this, both written and presentational. There are a lot of more open-ended training tools and guides you can use (I am a super big fan of this NIH Workbook from Russell and Morrison) that will help you use your OWN thoughts and information from the primary literature to build your case. Once you really sit down and pay attention to what you are trying to say, you will make a lot more sense. One of my students had major troubles with constructing paragraphs that followed a logical plan--he tended to just randomly pile his points in a jumbled order. Then after I returned from maternity leave, he had his first committee report due. I was worried, but when I saw his draft his writings seemed transformed: he was making a lot of sense and building a strong motivation for his project. I asked him if he'd started doing better at using his resources for editing (friends, writing lab, etc.) and he said, " Well, mostly I just started to actually READ what I was writing to make sure it made sense." Another of my students found that the workbook was incredibly helpful to order his thoughts (which, while excellent, creative and awesome tend to miss the page and end up in the aetherland when he sits down to write)--he produced a proposal that was very close to passable once he found the right tool. Voila, not-so-magical progression in both fundamental understanding and ability to communicate.

When it comes down to it, using someone else's writings in your proposals as a trainee just isn't worth what you trade for that time. It's a false economy, since it'll result in setbacks to your depth of knowledge and personal skillset, and you might as well just start early on learning how to do this stuff. You're going to suck at first, and it's always useful to have someone else's writings as an example to see roughly how to construct a document, but you really need to be preparing your own content from your own brain and ruminations in order to get to where you need to be in this business. So just bite the bullet and start reading papers--someone else's grant isn't going to give you all the answers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Unique

I found out today I am the ONLY person in the PubMed database with my combination of first and last name. I'M SO SPECIAL!! Lots of people with my first and middle initials plus last name, though.

On that note, I thought I'd share something super-geeky about myself (unrelated to my publication record):

When I am driving on my shockingly long commute, I often listen to my iPod and when certain songs come on, I daydream complex, elaborate choreography for figure skating to them. I am not a figure skater, never have been, but I always watched it growing up--it was our favorite part of the Olympics. I was a dancer, however, and I love to imagine dancing while going 40 miles an hour and flying 10 feet in the air. So, I get totally into songs like Britney's version of "My Prerogative," (which would be perfect for Johnny Weir) and this Avishai Cohen song called "Continuuo" (the only one I really like off that album), and a song by Bertine Zetlitz called "Broken" (which would be GREAT for pairs)... sailing away in my figure skating coach dreamland where I design the routines and get to watch the beautiful skaters carry them out.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

At loose ends...

Huh. I finished everything up for my grant submission a day early... and now I don't know what to do with myself. Sure, I SHOULD get going on the next chunk of grant-related work (the transition package for my R00), but it's already in a pretty good state for its due date and I'm waiting on progress report data from my lab peeps. So now what? My lab is tired of having me lurking around, but it's too early to make going home a good idea (baby's naptime isn't for another 2 hours or so)...

The end of focus marks the onset of ennui! I need to find something to deal with my withdrawal symptoms, but at the same time, I like the idea of having a break.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A month??!!

Whoa, how has it been almost a month since I last posted anything?? Yikes. I am not doing a good job of keeping up with the blog. I have a post-it note of topics stuck on my monitor, I spend >3 hours in the car everyday thinking and philosophizing about stuff, but somehow I just can't get myself focused enough to write these things down. Maybe it's because I feel like I've been writing proposals non-stop since I got back from maternity leave (or going to committee meetings, but at least that season is over). My lab is a' hoppin', people are working hard and making lots of cool data, various unbloggable things (both bad and good) are going on that I can't talk about.

Oooh, one nice thing as an update to the story about the mythical unicorn land of on-campus childcare: WE GOT IN! Other people's maternity leaves conspired to shunt me up the list from #10 to #1 when an unexpected opening was cracked, and we jumped into the fairyland. This saves me more than an hour and a half a day, and makes my life a LOT better. Now we just have to work on the moving closer part...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Oh HELL no! (update)

Let me just publicly express my fury with Anaspec. They are a peptide reagent company, and sell a number of products to use in peptide synthesis. I have had MANY problems with them over the years, including a $2500 batch of a biotinylated lysine that was sold to us that wouldn't dissolve in the normal solvents and wouldn't couple onto the resin, wasting us thousands of dollars beyond the purchase price of that reagent because of all the failed syntheses and troubleshooting we had to do. Their response? "Our quality control says it's fine, so you must be doing something wrong." Our response? Buy the product from someone else, it dissolves fine and couples beautifully.

Now, these folks recently sold us a bottle of Fmoc-protected phosphotyrosine. My students, at the time still pretty inexperienced in this stuff, tried using it and it wouldn't couple onto their peptides--they kept getting 100% TMG termination where it was supposed to be. TMG termination is what happens when you have an excess of your coupling reagent (when using the uronium salt reagents) over your amino acid. The students say "Well, it looks funny, like it isn't dissolving." I look at their bottle of reagent: IT IS RESIN. Little polymer beads of RESIN. We check it under a microscope: RESIN. Someone at Anaspec dispensed some unknown resin into the bottle that was supposed to contain Fmoc-phosphotyrosine. We take some pictures, get ready to argue.

My student initiates a complaint. They "look into it." They respond that "Our lot is fine." and DO NOT REPLACE THE PRODUCT.

Meanwhile, I am on maternity leave with lots of other things to worry about. I forget about it until today, I ask my student what ever happened about that. He tells me their response. OH HELL NO! You are not getting away with sending us RESIN in place of a material because someone in your company f'ed it up. Sure, your bulk lot of that stuff probably IS fine, because THAT ISN'T WHAT YOU PUT INTO THE BOTTLE. You put something else into the bottle. And whoever did that must be a total moron, because anyone who understands chemicals (especially peptide chemicals) should be able to recognize IMMEDIATELY that the stuff looks more like a polymer bead resin than a white powder. SERIOUSLY, who do you have working there dispensing this stuff?

I am ready to blow a gasket on these people, and they WILL be replacing this with AT LEAST ONE bottle of the actual material. And they will NOT be getting our business again, so help me gawd.

UPDATE: Ah ha, it turns out their QC manager (who managed our initial complaint) left, and the position was vacant for a while. The new guy says he'll replace the stuff right away and hopefully get us the right material this time! They get some points back for how promptly they have responded to me now.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Geeeerrrrosssss

I have been changing so many diapers that I've got the "Desitin finger." This 40% zinc oxide cream is all embedded in my pointer finger cracks, and deeply ingrained under my fingernail. The grossest part? I realized it after I absentmindedly chewed on my fingernail and tasted the weird soapy Desitin taste. Then also remembered that the reason it's covered in Desitin is because I wipe it on my baby's butt. Eeeeeeeeeew.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Repost: The Fate Game II

Repost: A year ago last week I saw my cousin for the last time. A year ago this week I wrote the following post. A year ago three weekends from now, she died. I still cry a little bit every time I remember that she is gone.

If she had gotten sick this year or next instead of five years ago, I would never have had to write this post because she would have had the health insurance to cover her diagnosis in time. Would have, could have, SHOULD HAVE. Thank you America for finally getting serious about figuring this mess of a system out, but don't get complacent because our lives depend on it working.


Miracles can happen. No, not that I've seen one recently. But I heard a story on the radio this morning (from NPR's Story Corps) about a little boy whose life was saved. It was told by a man who had been the little boy, the story of a time when he leant out of his family's five-story window a little too far and lost his grip, a fall he never would have survived, except for the barber neighbor who had come home from work early that day and was at the door to the building just at that moment. In the right place at precisely the right time. He quickly ripped off his jacket, reached out, and caught the boy (who was presumably only about 5.5 ft from the ground by then). He saved the little boy's life, and it became the most important moment in his own life, as well. A miracle for both of them, this unfathomable chance of random events coming together.

This is the kind of miracle I can believe in: the wonder and amazement of the what-ifs, the literally fantastic luck of timing. When the tragic action (of a car, of a slip or fall, of a cell, of a clot) is caught by the reaction of someone with a jacket, who just happened to be there at the right time. Where there is simply an action and a reaction, and no claim of one or the other without its partner. This is the kind of miracle that isn't there for so many, all the people who wonder "Why me?" or "Why her?" So many opportunities for a different fate, missed by miles or by hairs, the extent is no comfort because the outcome is the same.

This is how I feel right now: I have been walking, trying to run, down this street towards the building, watching her fall inexorably and slowly for more than three years like time is molasses. I don't even have a jacket on, and it took so long to process what I was seeing (and denial is so powerful), and I wasn't there at the window and I wasn't there to see the hand slip and I wasn't there to grab it. And nobody else was there either: the doctors guarding the windows failed in their jobs to watch over and test the windows against this possibility (was it their hubris? ignorance? or the age-old problem of who is going to pay for it?). Why do some of these goddamn windows have so many guardians and others are barely noticed? Some very, very good people have tried in vain to reach out and catch from other windows along the way down, like her parents running from floor to floor to floor. Good people set up experimental superstrong magnets that they are trialing to see if they can use to slow the fall or even stop time. But none of these things have worked. We needed either for the windows to be better guarded or for someone to have been there with a jacket at the very first fall of the very first cells going wrong and pumping out cortisol THAT WAS THERE IN HER BLOOD FOR ALL THE WORLD TO SEE IF ANYONE HAD JUST LOOKED. There would have been the time to catch her, and change the course of history.

So here we are now, there is still room for hope. Hope that at the most, the fall is slowed enough to give her time to look around and enjoy the feeling of flying, the beautiful sunshine outside, and all the people down there reaching out their ineffectual arms wishing they could catch her with the sheer force of their love. And at the very least, hope that with the here and now, our unique position in history, that we are on the cusp of something better. We have the opportunity and are beginning to develop the understanding to create tools to be there, at the right place and the right time, when they need it and before it is too late. All we can do is hope for the miraculous: that we are there, with our jackets out, ready to catch people.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Filed under: Ways I don't ever want to have to improvise again

Oh for goodness' sake. My first "real" day back at work, and I had arranged everything perfectly. Even though dad is out of town so I'm flying solo, I got myself ready and fed, the car all packed up, set to go before the baby woke up. Get her in the car, successfully perform our ~2 hour/90 mile one way commute, make it to daycare on time, get to my office before my first meeting is about to start. Meetings scheduled chock-a-block all day, with only about 10 minutes in between at crucial bodily fluid collection times. Get to the first of those 10 minute time blocks, feeling like I'm gonna fricking explode, and:

OMFG I FORGOT THE %$%#@& DROP-INS LINERS AT HOME!!!!1111!!@1!12@!!@!

90 miles away. With no time to even rush to a freaking Walgreens. Let's just say the emergency improvisation involved blotting bags, a heat sealer and some lab tape. A friend dubbed me the McGuyver of moms, and indeed perhaps someday I will be worthy of this title. I totally shudder to think of what will happen if I ever forget the whole pump at home:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nerd Rage Blogrolling: Venkat

Man, this guy is really funny! Venkat, if you made this yourself (and even if you didn't, finding it counts too) you are my new funniest person this week (from GrippingCell):
Keep blogging, dude, you're on my roll now for sure!

Repost: Graduate School Soul Searching

Reposted from 8/2008, right before I started my job as an assistant professor

I spent a few hours this week at a retreat for the undergraduate interdisciplinary scholars program from my postdoc institution (run by my postdoc mentor and another friend of mine), since it was at a center about half an hour from my new house and so it was not hard to pop over for dinner and a career panel session. These kids really are excellent, they go to a top-level undergrad school and got into a top-level research program that gives them some funding etc. Most of them leave their undergraduate career with graduate-student-level experience and some even leave with graduate-student-level understanding. Many end up with multiple papers from their projects, in high-end journals.

It was a lot of fun talking to them and hearing them present their posters, and laughing inside at the contrast between my own understanding of my undergraduate research and how well some of them REALLY GET what they are doing. I barely had a clue, I had good hands and I understood the overall point of what I did but it took until I was in grad school for me to think back and say, "Ahhhhhh, so THAT'S what I was doing..." But still, they are college kids and their enthusiasm pretty well outstrips their sophistication for the most part. The reality check of a long-term project, the weight of being responsible for your own destiny (and the research-life lesson that NOTHING EVER WORKS) hasn't hit them yet.

The theme of our career panel discussion was 'failure.' What do you do when things don't do what you want them to? When suddenly you're not a golden child anymore? When it dawns on you that YOUR ideas have to carry this enterprise, and suddenly your ideas aren't working the way they always did before? When the people around you aren't as supportive or nice, and the care bears undergrad special tea party is over? We all had plenty of stories, the kind of stories that probably just sound to the kids like 'and uphill both ways with no shoes in the snow blah blah blah...'

But in addition to us young faculty examples, there was an alum of the program back to talk about graduate school. As an undergraduate this kid was the star, he got so many papers in seriously good journals and worked so hard, all the while being a pleasant person to be around and staying generally popular. His research mentor pushed him really hard, got things out of him that he didn't know he had, and pulled his level of understanding of the science he was doing to that of at least a mid-year grad student. Succeeding was the norm, reinforcement of worth and purpose was the norm, and everybody talked about how well he would be able to do in grad school with such a start. Definitely golden-child paradigm, and just 3-4 years out of the program, already a legend to all of them.

Grad school however has been a different story for him. Not because he has done badly by any outward measure, or come anywhere close to failing, or even not made enough progress for his program's or his PI's requirements. Instead, it's the waking up to the real process of science and how it works for most people (even most high-level people), the part where hardly anything you do works, you have to keep plugging and plugging away at problems that seem so stupid, and nobody is there saying 'Come on, let's go, you can do it, one more rep' like your personal research trainer. It's having a PI who is much more 'watch and wait,' who leaves things up to you because it's your job to figure them out. And, how it feels when that progress just doesn't flow like it used to.

The room just quietened as he opened up and talked through it all, about coming to a place where you really start to ask yourself 'What am I worth? If I can't do this as well as I thought I could, if I can't make the contributions and have the ideas and jump to the starting line as easily as it looked like I could, am I still worth as much to it as when I could?' He articulated so simply and profoundly that classic struggle of growing up, between the 'ego' (in the psyche-sense not the colloquial), one's self, and relationship to WHY we do science: Because we can? Because it matters? Because people reward us for it? Because we want to know? And watching him let all those other kids in, to see in real-time what it is to transition from being a happy undergrad just having some fun in the lab, and doing really well at it as they all are, to an individual human being trying to find out if they are able to be worthwhile and important to the overall enterprise, was REALLY moving. He helped them to understand what graduate school is really all about in a way that we faculty people (even though we were all only about 10 years older than them) were just too far out to bring to them.

It is so fascinating to see someone grow like that. And although this guy is still in the middle of the hardest, crappiest, soul-searchingest phase of graduate school, you can see that his abilities, thoughtfulness and curiosity will bring him out of it. He really is sharp and an excellent communicator, and he has that fundamental individual reflective drive that makes the highs higher after coming through the darker lows. THIS is one of the reasons I want to be an academic scientist, for the opportunity to watch and be there for people coming around that bend--it's more than a little selfish, mostly for my own satisfaction and amusement, but I can comfort myself that it has value outside of that as well. Whether or not I can effectively help guide them around it will be another story--and besides, it really is something you figure out for yourself or you don't, no mentor can do it for you. But at least I get to have a job where part of my role is to be there to see it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

NSF revisions

I just had an extremely informative discussion with a PO at NSF about revising my proposal. One of the most useful tidbits was that it is actually BAD with NSF to do the whole "introduction to resubmission" thing with all your point-by-point revised items. With NSF, that can call attention to the negatives and keep reviewers (who are frequently different people than reviewed your grant first time around) from recognizing the awesomeness of your revised proposal. The advice was just to revise according to the overall comments and let the better proposal speak for itself.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The mythology of on-campus childcare

You know how when female faculty are being recruited, and the administration and others around like to make sure to point out the WONDERFUL ON CAMPUS CHILDCARE option(s) like a shining beacon of hope for the women of science? How they have one care-worker for every infant, and the little babies get a curriculum of tummy time, teething rings and naps. How it is just one of the things that {insert institution here} does to make life easier for female professors on the tenure track, along with turning off the tenure clock and giving actual parental leave. They draw us in, getting us to trust them that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY, YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL.

But I was e-talking to Isis today about my childcare woes, and she helped me realize the truth. On campus childcare is like the mighty unicorn, with its strong mane and glowing horn to light us to a new age of working motherhood. The unicorn that lives in rainbow land, dancing from baby to baby bestowing its magical wisdom into their tiny brains.

But you see, also like the mighty unicorn, on campus childcare is ACTUALLY NOT REAL. You get to see this cute, rainbow happy place with all (*8 of*) the little babies there (for a campus with thousands of faculty, at least a few tens of whom, if not hundreds, are probably gestating/newborning at any given time... not to mention the tens of thousands of students/trainees) and think "How wonderful! Here's an institution that is ready to support working moms!" But if you look real close up, such as when you're actually trying to get a spot in it, you see that the unicorn is actually a mutated goat with sparkle hair paint sprayed on (please see Figure 1 for illustration--note*: style copied directly from Isis for this message).
When it comes to putting the money and resources into something that would actually WORK for students, postdocs and faculty, it all gets revealed as an elaborate hoax. Just like unicorns, it's a lovely idea but must be a fantasy because your kid will never get to hold one and pet its sweet, shiny hair. You'll have to settle for the former petting zoo pony at best--at least it doesn't bite.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

K99/R00 forum

Hey everybody: I took the excellent suggestion of one of my K99/R00 post's regular commenters, "T-man," and created a forum where people can continue to talk about grant advice and whatever else in a more discussion-friendly format. It is at: http://k99r00-land.motionforum.net/index.htm

I decided to require membership to read/write posts there, to prevent spamming and dangerous links being posted, etc. But you are welcome to register with a pseudonym and you don't have to give any personal information beyond an email address. You can always create a pseudonymous gmail address if you want to keep a secret identity. I'll post links to this around so people can find it, and please feel free to link to it and spread the word yourselves, too!

Monday, February 22, 2010

DOD Breast Cancer Idea award information

I have been going over the recent announcements from the DOD about the various breast cancer funding opportunities and I saw this about the Idea award:

Investigators in postdoctoral positions are strongly encouraged to apply.

The awards are for a max of two years and $375,000 DIRECT costs... so pretty decent and substantial amount to potentially create a truly independent opportunity for a postdoc.

It also introduces a 'collaborative option,' that explicitly CANNOT be with your postdoctoral mentor (read: chance to establish an outside relationship, with money attached, with someone else) where the max allowed direct costs are $550,000. And if your work involves population-based studies (presumably would require lots of patient material or recruitment), you can get up to $750,000.

Very interesting... especially in light of all the postdoctoral disgruntlement discussions that have been going around recently. These awards could be your ticket outta there...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

NSF sad :(

So, finally I got my "declined" email and reviews. It must have been held in the aether of SNOWMAGEDDON for an extra week--it showed up right after they all got back to work.

On the bright side:
  • the panel summary said the intellectual merit has a lot of exciting potential and that I should be encouraged
  • one of the reviewers read it thoroughly, got all the details, loved it, even went as far as to say parts of it were "stunning"
  • the main issues were preliminary data proof-of-concept related (which I can deal with)
  • they thought the broader impacts were great, well-planned and sophisticated
On the less-bright side:
  • it's always disappointing to read reviews where you can tell the person just didn't "get" it and it colored the panel's discussion (even though clearly the others did "get" it evidenced by their individual reviews, so it wasn't necessarily my communication's fault)
  • most of the things they need to see demonstrated are things I provided literature references for previously demonstrated proof-of-concept (which we can see wasn't good enough)
  • I'm still not sure which PO is really my contact, since the "new" one is still listed in Fastlane and was given as the cognizant PO in the "declined" email... but neither of them has responded personally to my check-in emails asking for clarification, and I am afraid to become annoying by bugging them about my revision
Overall, the reviews are really useful and I am looking forward to knocking down the preliminary experiment pins suggested to make this a much stronger proposal. But it was such a weird experience with the communication style of NSF (and less money allowed even for a CAREER) that I am debating whether I should try to submit this to NIH as an R01 as well (which they only allow with the BIO directorate, and I'm now put into the Chemistry of Life Processes box in CHE...)--but hesitate to try asking about it since I've found it so difficult to get a straight answer from anybody. Hmmmm.

Monday, February 8, 2010

It's like magic...

We hit the 6 week mark, and it is like having a different baby. She sleeps fairly regularly, smiles and wants to play when she wakes up, only fusses when she's hungry plus a bit in the evenings when she's getting tired and easily calms down when held.

I'm sure we'll hit other tough phases, and maybe I am jinxing myself to weeks of cranky baby--but this is really lovely. Something major must happen to their brain chemicals and social development within the course of a day or two, making them suddenly feel like other people make them happy even if they don't bring milk.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Seriously NSF... I'm chewing my fingernails off here!

So, I emailed the PO my grant had been switched over to, but that person said that actually it was still assigned to the previous person. So I contacted the previous person by email, but didn't hear back, so I called and left a phone message this week. I still haven't heard back on either phone or email, but the "Status date" in Fastlane has again changed, to yesterday, but no other change has been made in my Fastlane info... so it's still "pending" with the switched-to PO... WHAT IS GOING ON!!! Clearly somebody went in and did something and the date updated... I'm going crazy here!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

200 comments!

ZOMG, my K99/R00 post has passed 200 comments, less than half of which are me answering questions. Thank you to the whole community of followers who have gathered to help answer people's queries and concerns! I am so glad this post helps people who are looking for information on the K99, and I really appreciate all of the help with keeping up on the conversation.

Good wishes to all who come here looking for info on K99 submissions! Come back and share your experiences with us in the comments and keep 'em growing!

(**I'm going to have to find some way to make these searchable or something, lol, like compile a guidebook for download so people can more easily READ these hundreds of comments!!)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I know an Oscar nominee!

Hot damn, an old friend of mine from when I studied abroad was the film editor on District 9, and he just got nominated for an Oscar for his editing!!!

I told him to steal me somebody's goody bag.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sister pride

Also, my sister, a kickass physiology graduate student, won one of these!:

2010 Caroline tum Suden/Francis Hellebrandt and Steven M. Horvath Professional Opportunity Award

New grant reviewer revelation: no "duh" sherlock!

I'm finally seeing how sometimes, as a reviewer, you notice things about someone's proposal that are even cooler than they highlighted themselves. If only they'd recognized the key features of their stuff and presented them in a simpler, more compelling way, your job as reviewer would be a lot easier. When they make italicized statements throughout the "significance" and "innovation" sections that don't actually represent the significant, innovative aspects of their work it is like being led down a big, wide open but uninteresting path through the woods--that just so happens to have a bunch of side trails your leader has mapped that are way cooler-looking, but that they kind of brush off while telling you how well they are mapping this big main road. That's kind of the opposite of what you want to do with a proposal: you want to lead people down the interesting little trails and point out that while you've got a great map for it, the big open main road trail is NOT where you're trying to go.

That doesn't mean I'll dock them significantly just because I had to dig to "get" their proposal and see its potential--but that's why grantsmanship is so important: not all reviewers can figure out your work on their own without you leading them to the most interesting aspects, and if you're not careful your proposal will just look mis-targeted.

I finally get it, lol.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

thought for the day

Book club "discussion questions" at the ends of books always seem like they are written for shallow, cow-people morons to ponder over.

Ooops, sorry if that's offensive, but I don't think any shallow, cow-people morons read my blog--so there we go.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Another NSF antsy pants ponder?

Is it a good, bad, or neither sign if the Program Director assigned to your still-pending proposal changes from someone on the directorate whose research area is not really related to yours, to someone whose research area IS related to yours??

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Family friendly NIH review

Like I mentioned earlier, I'll be an ad-hoc reviewer for NIH in a few weeks. I knew I'd have an approximately 2-month old baby by that time when I agreed to do the review--and figured I'd wing it and figure things out somehow at the time. Now that I HAVE this baby girl around, it was a lot scarier of a prospect than I anticipated seeing as how we still feel like it's a monumental challenge to take a shower and go to the mall with her. I decided to bring a meeting nanny: my sister is going to hang out with us. Luckily the meeting is in the same hotel where we're staying, and it's all very conveniently located with respect to airports, public transport, etc. It's also very cool that the SRO and assistant are happy to help plan my accommodations so things will work out--they've arranged for me to get a room with two beds so my sister can stay with us, and they are letting my stay be slightly more extended so I have more time to deal with traveling with a little baby. Now we just need to reserve a crib for the hotel room, order these fancy "diaper needs" packages that the hotel will put together for you, and we'll be all set! :)

One other cool thing was to participate in the pre-review teleconference with my cellphone on speaker while wearing my pajamas and feeding, soothing and changing a baby. Go technology!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

nervous NSF OCD ticks...

Mine is to check my Fastlane every day, since I still haven't heard anything back about my CAREER application... my proposal has changed program directors twice times now: the first was when it got switched to a different division and program than I initially applied to; this most recent change seems to just be that I've been moved to a different PD within this program... Makes me nervous!!! Especially seeing the "Status date" finally change to being from August to being from the other day, but then to click through and find it still "Pending... under consideration... if you don't hear by Feb. contact PD etc. blah blah blah..."

Bllaaaarrghh!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The birth story

To follow the theme Dr. J & Mrs. H started, and for anyone who is interested:

I went into what I THOUGHT was labor on Wednesday morning (the 23rd)
at about 3:00 am: regular contractions, 7 min apart, that felt pretty painful to me. We waited a while and watched to see if they stayed regular and they did, so we thought it might be getting started. I was scared and excited, because I'd been so anxious to have her before Christmas since my whole family was coming into town. So we called Labor and Delivery and I described things to the nurse, who said "Yup, sounds like early labor, just stay at home until your water breaks or you just are too uncomfortable to be at home anymore." My husband decided to stay home from work (since he works about an hour away), and we got everything together for whenever we'd need to go to the hospital. But then as soon as I hung up the call, everything slowed down and got all irregular. I was so ticked off!! All day that continued, irregular contractions everywhere from 6 to 30 min apart, some stronger-feeling but some very weak, and I got more and more depressed and pissed off at my body for fooling me into finally getting my hopes up.

I tried walking around the block in the crappy weather, going to Walmart just to walk around, bouncing and doing my circles on my yoga ball, going up and down the stairs, sitting against the wall, doing more circles on my hands and knees, EVERYTHING I could think of, but to no avail. I'd just had a good cry after we had dinner, thinking it could be weeks still since I was only just arriving at my Dec. 25th due date, and people have early practice labor that fools them all the time. I went to bed, and was talking to my husband while he brushed his teeth, and all of a sudden I felt this HUUUUUUGE pressure on my left hip joint, like an electric shock, and a big painful pushing on my pelvis from the baby, and then a POP and my water broke! I have to say, the amniotic fluid was nothing like what I thought it would be. What weird stuff.

We called and they told us to come in. By the time we got there my contractions were getting more painful and were fairly consistent, but I seemed to have a cycle of a big one, then a couple of littler ones, then a bigger one again etc. It hurt, but it was manageable, I breathed deeply like my pre-natal yoga instructor/doula taught us and tried to relax through them. I was about 3-4 cm when we arrived at 10 pm, and decided to start out in the shower--which seemed like a great idea until I started shaking all over from being too cold and probably also the contractions too: not very relaxing, plus it seemed like the shower made the contractions MORE painful. By this point I unfortunately couldn't manage anymore through them with deep yoga breathing, I had to start doing the "choo choo" sound we learned from the childbirth class. So we moved to the jacuzzi. I felt better there, and was able to relax more, until again everything intensified another step and I was having a lot of trouble moving during contractions--I just had to hold still and try not to be completely tensed all over. We headed back to our room and I tried sitting on and rotating around on the yoga ball for a little bit, but I could barely even do my circles on
it because I just could not control the pain.

It just got too bad for me, and I decided I needed an epidural--I was having some very bad physical reactions to the pain, like wailing, shaking and throwing up, and I just could not get ahold of things. It was like my body was going into shock, and I was not doing well at all. This was a big decision for me, because I'd wanted to be as natural as possible and also I have a deathly fear/creepy feeling about needles and spines...

Once the epidural was kicking in though, I knew it was the best decision I ever could have made. Suddenly I was physically capable of relaxing, and we were able to sleep from 6 to 10 cm without slowing down the rate of my labor too much: I still made it through at about 1 cm per hour in that time, and started pushing early in the morning on the 24th. I pushed for about an hour and a half, and the experience in yoga (plus my hypochondriacal body awareness) really helped to focus my energy on what muscles to use for pushing, even if I didn't have the same physical urges to do so because of the epidural. So I was pretty efficient even without any feeling down there, and the only downside was the incredibly surreal atmosphere where it still feels like a dream.

It's also so strange to already feel like it happened so long ago (even by just three days later), and to have such strong nostalgia for a process that I don't necessarily look forward to ever doing again. Without pain relief, I don't think I could have managed--I felt like I was going to become unconscious from shock before getting the epidural. But with the epidural, it was more like being on a long road trip where you can sleep in the car, and it takes a while, but it's not very exciting until you get to where you are going.

And for the last three weeks, it's been going back and forth between being lovely, sweet and relaxing, and like being under the control of a cruel sleep-deprivation torture program. The jury is still out on what kind of mommy I am, but I know I am NOT the kind who says "I knew from the first moment that I was made to do this." Nope, rather, I am managing to make myself do it because I know I love this little girl and want her to be happy and well developed. But many of these things I have to do all day and all night do not feel natural/beautiful/etc. at the time. Many are hilarious, like the poop explosions that shoot across the room during (constant) diaper changes--but do I feel like they complete me with ultimate fulfillment? NO. Hopefully I will look back on them with more rainbows than I'm getting right now.

Saturday, January 9, 2010