Saturday, August 29, 2009

At last

Being married brings much joy and stress to one's life-especially when you're both trying to build your careers from the ground.

I've mentioned before that Paramed has a pretty crazy job that he just doesn't love. He's told me that when he became a medic, he never planned on stopping there. He always wanted something more, but for the first 5+ years of our marriage, my career (I freely admit) has taken center stage. One reason we chose to head North for my postdoc was the abundance of colleges in the area. Our plan: Paramed finishes his B.S. (building on prereqs he took at community college while I was in grad school) while I do my postdoc.

This plan has been a source of tension and stress for quite some time now. The stress had nothing to do with the plan itself but rather its execution--specifically how the hell to pay for it and how Paramed was going to continue working full-time while going to school full-time. It's created quite the emotional rollercoaster for months.

And then everything fell into place at the very last minute.

Paramed attended orientation at his first pick school yesterday and scheduled classes (which start next week). And he was ridiculously happy and excited last night. I would put this on par with a researcher getting his/her first grant. Or PhysioProf with a glass of Jameson watching his beloved Yankees slaughter the Red Sox. Paramed was the happiest he has ever been since we moved to the Northland. Actually it was the happiest I have seen him in years, maybe ever. Which made me ridiculously happy.

We're both finally doing what we set out to do. Life in our household is going to be wicked busy over the next few years, but I say, Bring it on.
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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The price of a shiny, newly-renovated lab space

Everyone in my lab is quite excited to be moving to our new lab space for numerous reasons:
  • Currently we have small windows that border the top meter of the lab. We will be trading these in for windows that take up half the wall.
  • Even though we're not moving far, we're moving out of the ghetto. Trust me, it's not particularly comforting to leave work at 7 pm and see a 200-lb. cop running up the street to the building next door.
  • We will not be so isolated (at least in theory) as we will be sharing space with other labs and will now be on the same campus as the rest of our department.
  • We get drawers and cabinets that don't have to be yanked open and wedged shut.

Of course, such 'amenities' come at a cost. There is the monetary price tag (which I don't know), but there are also other costs:
  • More training
  • Two weeks of zero lab productivity for packing, unpacking, and reorganizing
  • Another month trying to figure out where everything has been relocated
  • Less storage space
  • For some members, delayed onset muscle soreness (owing to lifting, twisting, and stretching whilst packing and cleaning)
  • For one member, stitches (thanks to the piece of glassware that shattered in his hand)
  • For myself, exacerbated respiratory issues (from stirring up ten years of accumulated dust--and who really knows what exactly lab dust consists of?)
Oh, the joys of moving...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Are you in it for love?

I had not intended to write so much on the topic of time and workloads and related stuff--as I have here and here, oh and here--but it seems to be coming to mind quite a bit. I was just given a subtle reminder this morning of how I (and I daresay, a large number of us in research) have really 'got it made'.

This morning Paramed came dragging in from work (he's a medic, hence the crazy hours and the alias here). He had gotten about an hour or so of sleep, broken up into 10 to 20 minute intervals, during the past 26+ hours. During those many waking hours, he was traversing the city doing work that is necessary yet mentally, physically, and emotionally draining, often not knowing if he's walking into the middle of a volatile situation, in a part of the city where there are a lot of drunks, drug addicts, and machete-toting gangs. All of this for a job that he doesn't love.

And what do I do? Despite my complaints and whinefests, I work in a reasonably safe, nontoxic (with regard to physical and emotional health) environment with flexible hours, doing something I really love.

Many young scientists (read, grad students and postdocs, myself included) tend to fall into what I call the 'time martyrdom trap'. Manifestations of this trap come in many forms:
  • I can't take vacation because I have to get x, y, and z done for advisor/manuscript/collaborator/science monkey.
  • I just don't have time to eat sensibly/exercise/do other things that place balance in my life because I have too much to do in the lab.
  • I've worked every weekend for the last ________ weeks, or....
  • I've been working 60/70/____ hours a week for _____ weeks/months/years (sometimes followed by the sentiment that this makes us a better scientist/person than our labmate or other colleague who only works 40/50/60 hours a week).
I spent 5-1/2 years in grad school. There were experiments that required long hours. Protein purification extravaganzas could easily call for 40 hours in three days. There was the pain-in-my-ass instrument that, once it was calibrated and working appropriately (which could easily take a couple of hours), I would continue using until it decided it was tired and didn't want to work anymore. There were (and still are) those days when I decided that if I was going to do one of those long/crazy experiments in triplicate, I might as well do two or five of them. If you're doing animal or cell work, there are the days when you have a time point in the middle of the night...

Those things are generally exceptions to the standard, though, and even those we do because of our commitment to the project at hand. There are many occasions when we work late hours or weekends that we do so by choice. Sometimes we convince ourselves or our colleagues or friends or family that we don't have a choice, but if we were honest, I think most of us would realize that we actually do. That we're working the hours we do for the thrill of discovery or the satisfaction of solving a problem. (Or because we're not as efficient or productive as we could be--whether because of e-mail, Facebook, '80s quizzes, or coffee breaks.)

We are geeks and workaholics, but rather than accept that fact, we 'blame' our advisors and our work. Let's face it: At this level, we could get by with a lot less. We could lower our expectations, do the minimum work required, and get a job somewhere.

But we don't. We want more... so we do more.

There are times that my advisor, the funding climate, department politics, publishing, and many other academic gifts drive me nuts. I get pissed off by a lot of things I encounter, but it's often because I have a high level of passion for what I do and what I intend to do in the future. It's taken a lot of time and some sacrifices to get where I am, but that was my choice. I clearly didn't do it for the money or the status. I'm doing it for the adventure, the challenge, the love of science. Several PIs have told me that they have the best job in the world. That's what I'm after.

Very soon Paramed will be starting down a new path. He will continue working his crazy job, but he will also be seeking out his own passion. Being a full-time student and a full-time medic will be tough. It will take time and sacrifice, just as it did for me. But I hope along the way, he finds what I did--a career that he's chasing for love, not just to pay the bills.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Didn't ya mama teach you any manners?

WARNING: This is a rant--which ran longer than I had intended, but I was on a roll. If you don't want a rant today, then stop reading now. Otherwise you may continue.

The title of today's post is the question I so desperately want to pose to about half the people (PIs included) in my department.

The summer months brought a break in seminars, so I had forgotten/repressed how disrespectful/impolite people at BRI can be. Granted, it is not just BRI, although I certainly never noted the punctuality problem at PSU--haven't figured out if that one's a discipline/subfield, regional, or academic affluence thing.

In case your mama (or advisor) didn't teach you any manners (or you just FORGOT THEM), here is Biochem Belle's Guide to Seminar Etiquette (First Edition):
  1. Be punctual. At least make an honest effort. I understand that on occasion, your experiment takes a few minutes longer than expected, someone stops to talk to you on your way out the door, you forget to check the room number before you leave and go to the 'usual' location to realize/remember that it's somewhere else. This may cause you to be a few minutes late. But not 20 or 30. You should NEVER show up more than 15, really 10, minutes late for a seminar. If you are more than 10 to 15 minutes late for a seminar, then you have missed the majority of the introduction which means, unless it is in your specific area of expertise, you're not going to know what's going on. More than that, however, it is distracting AND disrespectful to the speaker and your colleagues. Despite what you may think, you're not that much more important than everyone else.a
  2. Better yet, arrive early. You should not be leaving your office or lab at the time the seminar is starting. You should rather plan for the 'commute' time--sometimes down the hall, sometimes across campus--and give yourself a buffer. It's ok if you're there a few minutes early. It gives you a chance to chat with your colleagues, even if it's just casual small talk, and, yes, generally this is a good thing.
  3. Move toward the center of the row. Lecture halls/seminar rooms are generally set up with long rows. Not the optimal setup, but we have to deal. Thus if you arrive early/on time, move on toward the center. It may not be your 'favorite' seat, but this provides a way for the precisely punctual (e.g. almost late)/latecomers to take a seat without having to climb over top of you and ten others, thus creating another distraction. Don't want to sit in the middle of the row? Sit in one of the first two rows. You'll always have your choice of seat there.
  4. If you must leave early, plan for an unobtrusive egress. Obviously the optimal situation is remaining through the entire seminar. You should, most assuredly, not be one of those butt munches that comes late and leaves early. My rule of thumb is that if you can't stay for more than 75%, then don't come. If you do need to leave early and are aware of that, choose a seat that is close to the exit so that you don't create a huge scene (read, distraction) when you depart.
  5. Turn off the ringer on your cell phone/pager. If you are a clinician, I will concede the fact that someone may need to get in touch with you at a moment's notice. Likewise you may have an ill family member or a pregnant wife. But you're also pretty smart--I have confidence that you can figure out how to put that device on vibrate so that it doesn't disturb the audience/speaker. If you should forget to turn it off, at least know how to mute the thing (so that you don't make more noise trying to get it to stop).
  6. Pay attention... or at least pretend to. Not all seminars created equal. Sometimes seminars are great: The speaker and his/her material is interesting, exciting, coherent... Other times they are a bust: You can't understand a thing the speaker is talking about (even if he/she is a native speaker), there is insufficient background, too much material for the time... There are many points where a seminar can crash and burn (which I will address in a separate post). BUT this individual has committed a significant amount of time to present his/her research to the audience--if from outside the university, we're talking anywhere from a few hours to a day (or more) for travel to and from, time to prepare the slides, time to meet with you and your colleagues before and after the seminar. The least you can do is try to pay attention, which brings us to some additional rules...
  7. Stay awake. If you're too tired to remain conscious for an hour talk, why did you come?
  8. Leave the Blackberry and the laptop in the lab/office. A huge pet peeve that Bear and I share is the under-the-table-message-checking practice that has emerged with smart phones. At this point, I don't care if it's on vibrate. You think you're being 'subtle' with your chin tucked to your chest, staring at your lap. Well, you're not. You're distracting everyone around you with your bright screen and fidgeting. Not to mention (do I really need to say it again? yes, I think so), it is DISRESPECTFUL. If you cannot physically go an hour without checking your email, you've got problems and need professional help.
  9. Don't read papers or do crosswords during seminar. Need I say more?
  10. Don't carry on a conversation during the middle of the seminar. Even if it's about science. Because it is... can you guess... why, yes, it's distracting. Have a question? Jot a note to your neighbor. Or ask the speaker at the end. Or look it up on Wiki-friggin'-pedia or PubMed when you get back to the lab.
  11. Save your questions for the end. Maybe this is just from the field of my graduate work, but unless the speaker indicates otherwise at the start of the seminar, you should save those burning questions until after the completion of the talk--because there's a good chance that your question will be answered or that it will be altered by what's said later in the talk. (PhysioProf and I have been debating the finer points of this guideline in the comments section.)
  12. Regardless of how many 'brilliant' questions you may have, restrain yourself to asking just one or two. There are a lot of smart people in the room who have a lot of 'brilliant' questions. Give them a chance. Pick your top question and ask it. If there is time left after others have had their chance, then you can ask another question.
  13. Ask your question in a succinct but polite and comprehensible manner. It should not take more than 30 seconds to ask a good question.
  14. Don't make the Q&A portion all about you. The worst way to start a question is "Well, we showed _______" or "We observed ________", particularly when what 'you' showed/observed/demonstrated is completely unrelated to what the talk was about.
I will note that these guidelines were written with reference to invited speakers, but in my opinion, guidelines 1 to 10 (and usually #13) apply to any seminar--whether it's a PI from another department or a postdoc or grad student in your department. It's about respecting your peers, colleagues, and mentors. If you can't manage that even for an hour, then don't bother showing up.

Pack rats

Everyone has that relative, maybe more than one. You know, the one that keeps absolutely everything that ever crosses his or her threshold, picking up 'new-to-you' things whether they'll be used or not. In my experience, the pack rats tend to be older relatives, usually grandparents or great-grandparents. Part of this, I've been told, comes from the fact that they or their parents lived through the Great Depression, when times were hard and you came up with inventive ways to use every last scrap that you had. Personally, I think it has as much to do with the fact that they've been around for a while, and chances are, they haven't changed residences in 20 or 30 or 50+ years.

There have been quite a few pack rats in my family. When I was a kid, my family visited my great-grandparents almost every weekend; I think they had every issue of National Geographic going back at least 15 or 20 years. However, my grandmother has probably been the most 'successful' at being a pack rat. She has a walk-in closet, at least two other closets, and two bedrooms full of clothes, shoes, etc. When I say 2 bedrooms full, I mean, dressers, closets, boxes stacked around the room and/or a garment rack--all full. There are probably things that haven't seen the light of day in 30 years. And then there's the basement. One room is full of boxes, again accumulated over a long period of time. Admittedly it was quite useful when my friend and I were moving into our first apartment--we did half our kitchen shopping in my grandmother's basement.

I completely (well, mostly, at least in the case of my grandmother) understand how people accumulate so much... stuff. Shortly after getting married, Paramed and I (with the help of my parents) moved a HUGE Penske truck full of stuff to Grad School City (GSC). We kept pretty much everything when we moved from our first apartment in GSC to our first house in GSC--which provided even more room to accumulate stuff. After 3 years in that house, we moved into a large one bedroom apartment before leaving GSC. I was shocked at the amount of stuff we took to Goodwill and to the dump... and stored at our parents' homes. We got rid of even more stuff when we moved to the Northland (although my grandmother was quite concerned that we didn't have enough stuff to move).

What I find quite amusing and yet bizarre at the same time is this practice in science. Recently I was helping our unofficial lab manager go through stuff in preparation of the impending lab move. There were solutions with dates from more than 5 years ago, new and like-new items that hadn't been touched or seen in years, unopened cases of pipettes dated 1999...

This is certainly not unique to my current lab. Every couple of years, Bear would declare a date for lab cleanup, which actually took 2+ days. We would find equipment, solutions, boxes of samples with initials we didn't recognize... So we'd ask Bear, "What is that?" to which he would generally respond, "Oh, that's my first _________ ." (which was 20 years old and hadn't been used in at least 10). Or we'd ask "Who is XYZ?" which would occasionally take him a minute to figure out.

Some of this is due to 'well-meaning' predecessors who left crap at your bench because 'someone might use it'. I think this is just a way of turning it into to someone else's problem as you run out the door. When I left Bear's lab, I sought out those remaining behind based on their project or techniques and offered what I had that they might actually be able to use. If they didn't want it, there was no common stock of it, and it wasn't exorbitantly priced in the first place, then it was out. Because my successors should sure as hell be able to figure out how to make a Tris buffer, and it doesn't take that long to make it.

Some is due to the "But we might be able to use it sometime" mentality. That I can go with. To a point. Sure, there's a chance that some klutz, maybe even me, will knock over that bottle of buffer QZ from the special kit, but:
(a) the kit usually has some extra
(b) generally somewhere in the manual they tell you how to make buffer QZ
(c) there's no reason to keep near empty bottles
(d) there's no reason to accumulate three or five bottles of the same kit buffer
(e) when poly-whatever bottles start to turn yellow, it's been around for a while and do you really want to trust your samples with that?

I have similar feelings about keeping 10+ year old equipment. With very few exceptions (i.e. centrifuges), eventually equipment becomes obsolete. The parts can't even be used on the current equipment. It can't even interface with a computer. I don't foresee us returning to the pre-desktop computing dark ages, and if an electromagnetic pulse kills all the computers in the country, then we've got bigger problems to worry about anyway. Bottom line, if you've replaced it with something better and it hasn't been pulled out in years, then it's time for that equipment to go.

These behaviors are amusing, yet bizarre because labs are always complaining about not having enough space.

It is quite possible that, when I have my own lab, I will fall into some of these traps myself. I just hope that if I do, someone will look at offending object, then look at me, and say, "Seriously?"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It seemed like a good idea at the time

I submitted the smallish completed application for a training grant this week, so there's one thing crossed off the list. Hooray for the itty bitty victory. Now on to the list of events and things to do (most of which are going on in the next 6 weeks or so... I love my life). Things that seemed like a good idea at the time have accumulated into a "what was I thinking" list:

  • Write an amendment for an animal protocol
  • Finish revising/rewriting the draft of my final paper for Bear (no, I couldn't really do it until this summer because Bear was rewriting another former student's manuscript and wanted mine rewritten in that context. Yes, I suppose I could be working on that now instead of blogging, but my brain has not quite reached that level of functionality yet.)
  • Write/help write 2 to 3 more grants--at least one more fellowship app and a grant for the lab
  • Attend to responsibilities to professional society
  • Prepare a poster? The ? is regarding the fact that no one has explicitly mentioned it but...
  • Department retreat
  • Family visiting-this weekend-which although they are (un)fortunately not staying at our place, means:
    • Cleaning and organizing our apartment over the next 40 h
    • Devising an entertainment schedule (as if I have any idea there is to do in this city that might be considered 'fun' by 2 late-twenties, a 50-yr old, and a 70+ yr old, especially since only half of us drink)
    • Pulling out a massive dose of patience (one of them I have no problem with; the other certainly knows how to try me)
  • Generate the ever-so-important preliminary data for the aforementioned grants
  • Process and analyze 100+ samples
  • Start planning a trip to the 'homeland' so I can get the fam off my back (one of the perils of moving several hundred miles away from a locale where everyone else never leaves)
  • Lots of science reading (I'm so far behind I have no hope of catching up)
  • Learn how to do the in vivo experiments I'm proposing in aforementioned grants
  • Crank up my time on the road (running and biking) and in the gym
In recent weeks, my capacity to blow through some of these things has been hindered by the fact that at least one or two days a week I am at far less than 100% and even reach the point of not being able to remain in the lab because I'm sensitized to a range of particulates and volatile chemicals and some people insist on (a) wearing heavy cologne/perfume to work and (b) doing mouse work at their benches.

Yes, I am whining. And slightly overwhelmed by the size of pile I have accumulated. But I also know that I've felt this way before and still managed to get through it all--perhaps not in the time that I or others want me to, but it always gets done.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to get to that list.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Flying monkeys or rabid squirrels?

Just a couple of the more creative (albeit less reasonable) excuses for how this happened.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why do you hate me?

Curses upon you, PubMed! Some days you are the bane of my (scientific) existence.

You show up on my web browser and invite me to search your 19 million+ citations. Which I do. I put in my search terms and await the exciting and informative abstracts (like those featured here). You return 12,000 hits (including nearly 600 reviews), many of which aren't going to help me. So I add another term, which brings it down to 7000.

Sometimes we continue these iterations until there are only a couple of hundred titles for me to peruse. I begin digging through articles. This is slowed down by your recently acquired habit asking me if I am sure that want to resend a form again when I try to go back to the search results from AbstractPlus (maybe it's a Safari issue, but I'm blaming you). Anyway I look at article titles and scan abstracts until my eyes bleed. Occasionally it's like a treasure hunt and I find a true gem. Other times it's more like a dumpster dive. (Could I please apply a bullshit filter?)

Then there are those times when the above iterations take me from 300 to 15 citations with the addition of one little word or set of quotation marks. Which can be great. Definite reduction in eye bleeding. But sometimes you don't include a really important paper. Sure, you give me that option of seeing all 'related' articles-except that often ends up being hundreds of related articles about every keyword mentioned in a citation.

On occasion, after various search iterations, you give me nothing at all. And then I search what I am certain are nearly identical (if not precisely the same) terms 3 months later, and you provide me with citations I've never seen before. It would be fine-if they were published during the time I last searched and not 5 or 10 years ago. Making me feel like an idiot... and a tool.

What really drives me NUTS is when I search the same things with slight modifications-like searching 'plumcot' or 'aprium' instead of 'pluot'-and you give me completely different things. Sometimes I can't seem to regenerate the appropriate combination of words to pull up a reference that I KNOW EXISTS because I've looked at it before and it is indelibly imprinted in my brian.

Why do you do this to me, PubMed?!?

Do you just like to screw with me? Do you simply take perverse pleasure in torturing lowly grad students and postdocs?

Have I not proven myself worthy?
Do I need a secret decoder ring?
Is there some dark, ancient, mystical language that holds the key?
Perhaps a ritual sacrifice would help?

Somehow I think you're not to be sated. Our war shall continue for years to come.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

I think my head is bleeding

Fruit TartImage by Zeetz Jones via Flickr

... from banging it against the friggin' wall the past two days.

I pontificated this morning regarding the massive and often last-minute time sinks that I've been finding myself in largely due to the actions--or perhaps better said inactions and delayed actions--of Guru.

And it just doesn't stop. Most of the current head banging is grant associated but Guru-catalyzed. On top of the whole timeline issue I described earlier, he either can't make up his mind about what I should be doing or hasn't thought things through in the context of my project that's actually progressing.

I sent my specific aims--key word SPECIFIC--saying essentially that I want to study kiwis in an established in vitro model system. Then I want to study the action of kiwis in another in vitro system, where kiwis have not been studied but maybe more relevant with reference to biology. And then I want to examine (with important collaborators) the possible involvement of kiwis in fruit tarts in vivo. Guru replies that all the in vitro kiwi studies should be one aim with each system as a subaim and then to just mention the in vivo fruit tart model as a possible future direction. This seemed odd so I wrote to clarify. Good thing, as he had decided that we should indeed talk about fruit tarts. Great.

Now we're getting into what should be used as markers when establishing the role of kiwis in our in vivo model. I have my ideas based on broadly accepted markers. They are further downstream and could be influenced at multiple points by kiwis. But they are accepted markers of fruit tarts and are fairly easy to measure.

He wants to use pluots. He is very partial to pluots (perhaps because he is literally invested in pluots). Now, I realize that pluots are associated with fruit tarts in our model. Kiwis are associated with similar models but haven't been studied in our model. But pluots are observed early on, and we're not sure what kiwis are doing. I didn't argue the point with him because I'm new to (a) in vivo models in general and (b) the fruit tart model.

Yet the more I thought about the less sense it made. There is absolutely no evidence at this point for a connection between kiwis and pluots. NONE. Pluots are not the only contributor to the fruti tart. Not to mention pluots are very difficult to quantify. And this isn't just my reasoning. This conclusion was met by our resident fruit tart expert, as well. There's no way of knowing a priori if kiwis will affect pluots and even if they do what that means for our fruit tart. However, if we look at the more broadly accepted, functional markers, then we can determine if kiwis have an effect on fruit tarts--which is of interest to a broader community and to me even in the absence of pluot involvement. If so, then we can step back and examine if there is also an effect on pluots--which is of interest to Guru.

Not long ago, I actually described an experiment to determine if there was an in vitro correlation between kiwis and pluots. Guru responded that he would love it if they were, but they very well might not be, so we should focus on kiwis. Stupid postdoc planting seeds of hope...

What this last bit comes down to is that I was cowed by Guru yet again. And I'm pissed me off. Not so much at him right now (although it would be helpful to have conversations with actual explanations), but at myself. Because I have spent a lot of time going through the literature and talking to the ones doing the work in our lab. They don't have particularly high confidence in some of the previous unpublished pluot work. I know the problems with finding and quantifying pluots.

I feel like I'm starting grad school again. That I don't know anything, and surely Guru must know what he's talking about. But I know better on both counts. I may have a lot to learn about this field, but I know a lot about my project and the related work. I learned how to think critically and solve problems. Plus I realize that many PIs, especially established PIs with larger labs, have their brainwaves scattered over many things, so that they may not think through all the implications and difficulties of what they suggested. Yet when it came down to it, I let Guru batter through my confidence and run me down. Now I have to arm myself and batter my way back. I need to step up and take ownership of this project. It's my career, and I guess it's high time I started acting like it.

*Paramed commented that the pluots and kiwis were giving him a headache. Hopefully they won't affect anyone else too adversely. It was the best I could do at the moment. I'm happy to take suggestions for other non-science metaphors for research.

Request: Please close the time abysses

Dear Guru,

You are a smart, successful scientist. This is one of the reasons that I applied for a position in your lab. There are many good scientists in your lab and interesting projects that are at advanced stages. I realize that at this precise moment, my project is not the highest priority, nor am I your pet trainee--I'm OK with that.

It seems to have not crossed your mind that I am effin busy right now.

My project was really just a glimmer of an idea in your mind with practically no experimental evidence when I started. This involved being cast into darkness where there was wailing and gnashing of teeth--and lots of literature searching. It took me a few months to get the (new-to-your-lab) model system up and running and to find a replicable positive control. A lot of tweaking and optimization was required, due to technical issues and omission of tiny details in the methods of the vast majority of papers in this area (which really isn't that many). Plus I was spending time trying to make your pet project work with your favorite cool and pretty technique (CPT)--and determined it's pretty much hopeless (at least under these conditions).

That was then, this is now. I applied old school technique (OST) to your pet project and have gotten reproducible results that not only provide useful information on your pet project but also provide a potential explanation for why CPT didn't work. That glimmer of an idea that I started is turning into a real research project. It has been producing interesting results for a couple of months that indicate this a project worth pursuing and has peculiar features we had not considered. This makes me happy. I am experiencing the joy of science again. But it also means a lot of work.

Plus you gave me an undergrad student this summer. I had forgotten how much time and work they required.

I know that with your vacation, meetings, company, grant and manuscript preparation, etc. that you haven't been doing as many walkthroughs the lab. Otherwise you might have realized that I am effin busy. Due to/on top of the reasons stated above, I am balls-to-the-wall trying to generate preliminary data so that I can put together a competitive fellowship app in a few months. And (in case you haven't really processed it) we soon have to shut down the lab for an entire week (possibly more) for the move down the street. Although I look forward to settling into our new home, I am effectively hamstringed for a few weeks until I can get my little bastards up and going and happy again--which is why I'm trying to bust out as much as I can right now so I won't be sitting around with my thumb up my ass for a month.

I tell you all this not so much to complain (ok, so maybe to complain a little) but to build the case against all the interruptions-largely of your doing-that are robbing me of my time actually doing science. Such as:
  • lab meetings that take half a day
  • 2 hr meetings with collaborators for which you give me ~48 hour notice of said event and that you'd like me to present
  • after the half day lab meeting, requesting a meeting with the minion and me for that afternoon
  • or my current favorite scenario: after the above meeting with minion, we discuss my project (the combination of which took over 1.5 hr) and you tell me you want to put my name in for a position on a training grant. You tell me I'll need to write a paragraph for it, and that it's due some in about a month or so. No problem, I'll take some of my weekend time to write said paragraph. After receiving a draft nine days later, I essentially get this response: 'btw, you need to write 2 pgs., it's due next week, and you really should get your grad advisor to write a recommendation.'
I am resigned to the fact that none of this will actually change. You have been operating this way for years. Still, a girl can always dream.

Your effin busy, slightly frazzled postdoc,

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Open questions: Teaching and research

My true passion is research. I especially enjoy experimental design and data interpretation and fantasizing about the broader applications of some result.

At this point, I'm somewhat indifferent toward classroom teaching.

Once upon a time, when I was still a young, timid grad student, I imagined that I would eventually end up teaching at a PUI with a research program. I later realized, partially because of something Bear told me, that I imagined that life because I didn't think I could be successful at a research university. Now, lest you think that I am against Ph.D.s at PUIs, I recognize there are wonderful reasons to pursue this avenue... just not for me.

Over the last couple of years, I have begun to define where I want my career to go--namely, an independent lab, most likely at a research university (although I have broadened my horizons a bit). I'm also thinking about what I need to get there.

Which brings me to today's questions for the blogosphere:
  1. For a faculty candidate at a research university, how much teaching experience is required/expected in (a) a college of arts and sciences where there are more undergraduate courses or (b) a medical school where course loads are generally lighter?
  2. How do I get teaching experience, especially when the department I'm currently in is far afield of my graduate work and of the topics I could envision myself teaching well?
My next job search is a few years down the road, but (a) I don't want to be figuring this stuff out during the application/interview process, (b) it takes time to find and line up such opportunities, and (c) time spent teaching would impact fellowship proposals and effort reporting.


A few days ago I was thinking about my lack of productivity this week, largely attributable to attending cool science talks but also failed controls in experiments and meetings with Guru and collaborators (why the hell can't a meeting take less than 2 hrs in this friggin' place?).

After some reflection, though, I realized that it was a very productive week-just not the sort of productivity that generates data... and probably not the sort that Guru particularly cares about... but the sort that is important to me, that provides perspective, affirmation, and evidence that I'm growing as a scientist, not just a lab rat. Following are some examples of what I mean.
When not training the minion or figuring out why his stuff isn't working, a good chunk of my summer has been spent with my head down, nose to the grindstone, trying to crank out data (a) to demonstrate that project 1 is indeed viable and interesting and (b) to have what is hopefully sufficient preliminary data for the fall/winter fellowship proposal season. Being summer, there have been very few seminars to provide even an hour reprieve from my intense focus. So the time that I took last weekend and 1.5 days during the week to listen to some truly fantastic talks about really interesting science was the perfect opportunity to come up for some air and be reinvigorated about science. There was some serious endorphin release, which was just what I needed.
I took the initiative and connected with a PI whose lab is developing reagents with application to my project. It took a little time to build up my courage, but two years ago, I never would have done it.
A conversation I had with a senior investigator at the conference did cause me to reevaluate my vision of where I see myself in a few years. Don't get the wrong impression: The only way I will not have an independent research career/lab is if you pry it out of my cold, dead hands. (OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but I think it adequately portrays my level of passion and commitment to this goal). However, I have been single-mindedly focused on establishing that career at an R1 university. I had never considered non-industry, non-academic research settings, like Janelia Farms, NIH, or Cold Spring Harbor. I realized over the past few years that I am not particularly committed or passionate about teaching. I enjoy sharing my knowledge, but I prefer the thrills of discovery (even small ones) to the 'joy' of teaching. I haven't even taught a lab section since my last year of my BS, and I haven't particularly missed it*. By comparison to academe, there are fewer positions available by virtue of the size and number of these types of non-profit research institutes. Yet it opens up another possible avenue for my future career.

* This is solely a personal feeling and is not intended to reflect a general attitude toward teaching. If it weren't for great profs at the undergraduate and graduate level, I would not be where I am, doing what I'm doing, striving toward my goal.