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.