Saturday, May 15, 2010

So long, Blogger! (sort of)

The day has finally come... the day that I finally give up on Blogger.

Actually that happened a few weeks ago. After continually encountering issues with Blogger, I decided to move my blog to WordPress. Perhaps this is a cardinal sin of blogging; if so, I hope you'll forgive me and visit me at my new place and update your blogroll. For the time being, I will keep old posts and continue moderating comments here (although I hope to eventually migrate everything). A new post is no up at WordPress!

Updated 8/4/10
In case you land here via who knows where, I'm now blogging at LabSpaces. Drop by for a visit, and you might just find some familiar faces and new favorites!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power(Point) Corrupts?

This morning was a rare occasion where I skimmed through the New York Times while enjoying my first cup of coffee. One of the first stories I saw was this:

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint

The story is about the near obsessive use of PowerPoint presentations in military briefings. It found it both fascinating and entertaining--there are some really fantastic quips and phrases coined by officers regarding the Powerpoint epidemic. Among others, I found this sentence particularly striking:
Commanders say that behind all the PowerPoint jokes are serious concerns that the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision-making.
Although the topics we discuss do not carry the same weight, I could not help but think that we should perhaps have the same concerns about the PowerPoint (or, for the elite few who have broken free of the chains of Microsoft, Keynote) treatment of our research. PowerPoint infiltrates every data presentation time from conference talks to group meetings. It certainly has its utility and, when applied effectively, can bring order and clarity to a presentation that perhaps cannot be achieved by other means.
But how often does that happen?
Instead we end up in lecture mode: the presenter saying "As you can see here...", "I'll address that in a few moments", etc; the audience, at best, following the linear order of the presentation, expecting their question to be addressed momentarily or, at worst, switching to nap mode. And some of the atrocious slides make it all the more difficult to really think critically about what's being said.
What do you say? Does PowerPoint ever interfere with the discussion of science?
And whilst we discuss this bane of our profession, I think a poll is in order!

Note: Apologies for the technical difficulties. Thanks to several tweeps for letting me know! Sorting them out as I can. Thanks for your patience :)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scientiae Carnival, April Edition: Sustainability

Sorry for the brief delay in getting this up. I'm thrilled to present the April edition of the Scientiae Carnival--stories of and from women in science, technology, engineering, and math. Last month I invited bloggers to consider the following:
The theme for the spring 2010 national meeting of the American Chemical Society is Chemistry for a Sustainable World.There have been a number of reports, op eds, and blog posts about a diverse range of challenges in science. This phrase prompted me to see them as questions of sustainability. Whether discussing an individual career, a lab, funding, the academic research system, publishing, peer-review, or scientific innovation, at the heart of the issue is often the question of whether current practices are sustainable and what changes need to be made to ensure sustainability. This also brings the theme of April's carnival. From an individual to a more global perspective, definitions, successes, diversity, barriers... what makes--or breaks--sustainability in science?
Wikipedia provides a great, simple definition of sustainability as "the capacity to endure". A central connotation for this word in today's society revolves around the impact of humans on the environment. Often it's very subtle things--and simple solutions--that affect the world we live in. Aspiring ecologist Karina points to the problem of deforestation that will continue until alternative fuels are readily accessible for everyone. Amanda considers the footprint left by the research we do every day and how we (and vendors) can reduce the size of that footprint.

There are also many issues concerning the sustainability of our professional
and our personal lives. We can learn lessons in sustainability by looking at the lives of role models, and Pat at the Fairer Science blog highlights some of her role model in computing. JaneB suggests a way to assess variability in our lives and careers and how we can use it to understand what doesand doesn't work and the signs along the way. Many women in STEM have done just as part of the "Message 2 a Younger Me" series at Under the Microscope.

Dr. O broaches the subject of
sustaining her personal energy levels given the many demands placed on her. She reminds us that balance isn't about splitting each day or week evenly, but instead it is a dynamic thing that often involves temporarily sacrificing time in one area to focus intensely on another. A similar sentiment was expressed by Elizabeth Blackburn in an interview with ScienceNOW late last year. (You can check out highlights and full audio from the interview with the 2009 female Nobel laureates.)

However, Melissa of Confused at a Higher Level finds that this idea of striking balance, even of this give-and-take sort, runs counter to the
"ideal worker" norm that is emphasized in academia and points out that the pressure does not diminish with seniority. Unfortunately, this "norm" is amplified for women in STEM because the burden of proof remains higher for female scientists as compared to their male counterparts. Ms. PhD points readers to Why So Few?, a recent report from the American Association of University Women (there is great, succinct summary of the report by DrDoyenne at the Women in Wetlands blog). Ms. PhD boils down the answer a la Mastercard style. Before you get into the comments at her post, I will offer this advice from Ms. PhD: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Just as we see disproportionate representation of women at institutions around the world, the same is seen at conferences and forums the world over. Kylie at Podblack Cat has noticed the disparity at recent meetings and considers
what barriers may hinder participation by women and minorities and what audiences can do about it. At Apple Pie and the Universe, Alyssa shares a view from the planning side; she highlights a few interesting, if disturbing, points in working to include women panelists.

In the end, a large part of sustainability--of the environment, careers, diversity--is about evaluating the situation, weighing the options, and figuring out whether or not we're moving toward a sustainable goal. On that note, I leave you with some
words from Kenny Rogers.

Thanks to all of this month's contibutors! I hope that you find some posts (and maybe some new blogs) that get you thinking about sustainability in your life. If you run across any pertinent posts not linked here, feel free to leave them in the comments section. And keep an eye out for next month's theme at
Scientiae Carnival.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Knowing when

Sustaining a career in science--whether at or away from the bench--takes a lot, in fact much more than you think starting off. You need some smarts, a good work ethic, discipline, commitment...

But there's something else you have to learn along the way. It's not something you can learn from a book, a journal, or a mentor. It's something you can only truly from experience: how to read a situation and decide whether you should stay the course or walk away. Sometimes it's an experiment or a project. Sometimes it's a career path or a step along it. Most scientists I know are stubborn--I am one of the worst. We simply don't like the idea of "giving up" or "failing".  This can be a useful trait, yet there are times when leaving the table is the best decision we can make. If we want to stay in the game for the long haul, we better learn how to play. I leave you with the immortal words of Kenny Rogers... backed up by some Muppets.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Reminder: Last day for April Scientiae Carnival submissions

To all you science bloggers out there, today is the deadline for submitting your posts for the April edition of the Scientiae carnival, which yours truly is hosting! This month's theme is sustaining science and careers. Submit a permalink of your post--it can even be an older post that you think fits--to Thanks to all who have participated so far and to all who have been spreading the word!

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I know. Things have been a little quiet around here lately. And honestly, they will most likely continue to be for a little while. Some things just should not be broadcast to the entire intertoobz, and I need a longer cooling off period before I trust myself to write about the insanity in my life without saying some of those things. I also made a decision regarding my career this week that will entail using my few free hours (during which I usually would blog) for other activities.

I will still be hosting April's edition of the Scientiae Carnival. The deadline for submissions is only a week away! Check here for this month's theme and how to submit your post.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Things are... interesting in the Northland. May be changing. But unbloggable :(

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Open thread: Quantity vs. Impact

Manuscripts submitted to Glamor Mags are generally packed full of data. In fact, often one could envision a second paper being written based on what's in the supplementary materials alone. Of course, that might take the manuscript out of the running for publication in Glamor Mag.

So here's a question for you, readers:
  • Which is better: one publication in a glamor mag (as in the Cell/Nature/Science families) vs. two publications in a highly reputable but lower impact factor journal (say along the lines of JBC)?
I realize, as with so many things in life, there is no single answer
here. So perhaps the better questions are:
  • What factors impact your decision, and how so?
Upcoming T&P decisions, grant deadlines, job searches? Competition with other labs? Time from submission to decision? Personnel changes in the lab? Editorial interest?

Finally, if you decide to go for the Glamor Mag publication, how many times to you appeal a rejection before deciding to move on?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I hate it when you're right

Paramed  and I got into a not-so-little tiff last night. We were supposed to be enjoying a relaxing dinner. He was stressed from several insanely busy weeks, at both school and work. I was frustrated because of a number of things going on at work. During the course of conversation, I commented that I realized I needed to start thinking about a backup plan to the tenure track. Things went downhill from there.

That statement surprised Paramed because he'd never heard me express any doubt about where I would end up in my career. It was also not an easy thing for me to say aloud because, as irrational as it may seem, it felt like I was giving up a little bit--though when Paramed voiced that same sentiment, I denied it. He asked what I would do, if not what I've been working toward for years. I responded, "I don't know. There are a lot of options. But I do know that I don't want to stay at the bench if I'm just going to be treated like a set of hands the rest of my life."

"Do you feel that you're treated that way here?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied. "Guru has told me exactly what experiments to do. Before I can even finish a set of experiments and think about where to go from there, he's telling me the next set of experiments that I should do. I don't even know what the big picture is; I've asked and all I got was a bullshit answer." I should note here that as a grad student, I was expected to design my own experiments, to take ownership of my project. Bear still had a hand in guiding the project, but he did this largely by asking questions to get me thinking about it, recommending priority order for experiments that I designed, and sometimes suggesting experiments but in a more abstract manner, leaving the design and interpretation to me for the most part. Perhaps I am idealizing my past experiences, but I have always been more committed to and excited about projects that requires critical thinking (outside of technical troubleshooting) and interpretation. I thought that's similar to what I would get here, but it turns out Guru is a micromanager--and I don't respond well to micromanagement. Anyway, back to the story at hand...

The ensuing argument revolved around the following main points:
  • Paramed was pissed that Guru was making me doubt myself.
  • Paramed was pissed that I was not being assertive and implied that I should stand up for myself and call Guru out when he's spouting bullshit.
  • I was pissed that Paramed was telling me that I was doubting myself and that he was telling me what I should do.
  • I was pissed also pissed that he was not accepting my excuses for me not being assertive.
  • There was back and forth about the correlation coefficient between amount of listening vs. amount of ranting on both sides.
Now only if said argument had taken as little time to fizzle as it did to write out those points. Eventually we called a truce and we got over it.

Of course, after I had calmed down and started thinking about what was said, I realized what had really pissed me off so much: the fact that Paramed was right. Or rather that what he said was true. It kills me that I've fallen back into being so polite and diminutive that I don't take a stand, that I've allowed that monstrous self-doubt to creep back in. I felt that I left grad school as a confident scientist, but I no longer feel that. And it was tough to be forced to admit it. Paramed can be brutally honest--which is a great trait and yet often painful at the same time. I am reminded of an insightful post and am now at the point where I "sack the fuck up and feele extremely grateful for his penetrating insights". Next to decide what to do about it.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Scientiae Carnival Call for Posts: Sustainable Science

Many thanks to Amanda for hosting the March edition of the Scientiae Carnival. If you haven't already seen it, go check out people's thoughts on continuity in science. I am thrilled to be hosting the carnival in April and look forward to reading all the submissions. Even though the carnival broadly covers the topic of women in STEM, anyone is welcome to contribute. In fact, one of my favorite dude bloggers, Abel Pharmboy, hosted last year. Now on to this month's topic...

The theme for the spring 2010 national meeting of the American Chemical Society is Chemistry for a Sustainable World.There have been a number of reports, op eds, and blog posts about a diverse range of challenges in science. This phrase prompted me to see them as questions of sustainability. Whether discussing an individual career, a lab, funding, the academic research system, publishing, peer-review, or scientific innovation, at the heart of the issue is often the question of whether current practices are sustainable and what changes need to be made to ensure sustainability. This also brings the theme of April's carnival. From an individual to a more global perspective, definitions, successes, diversity, barriers... what makes--or breaks--sustainability in science?

To submit posts to the carnival, please email the permalink URL of your post to scientiaecarnival [a] gmail [dt] com by 11:59 pm on Monday, March 29. I will try to have the carnival posted here by 11:59 pm on April 1. I'm looking forward to reading some more great posts!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

File with leprechauns, elves, and the Easter bunny

There's been a lot of discussion, questioning, and 'splaining about the postdoc position: its purpose, why it's awesome, why it suckswhat it's really selecting for, how to change the experience... Personally, I have mixed feelings about the position, in general, and mine, in particular; I suspect this dichotomy comes across in my comments on other blogs. It's not something I have really discussed here, but since at least a few folks come around to learn something about this postdoc thing (not surprising, given I have subtitled this blog "A postdoc's tale"), perhaps it's time I did. Before I go into what the postdoc is about, though, let's talk about some of the big myths surrounding the postdoc.

Myth #1: You have to do a postdoc.
Negative, ghost rider. As a grad student nearing the end of your PhD work, you adviser will almost invariably talk to you about looking for a postdoc position--and from my colleagues' and my own experience, s/he will rarely mention other options. I suspect the reason behind this is that (a) it's what they know because it's what they did and/or (b) they assume all grad students are planning to head down the research track, if not the tenure track. If you have a pretty good idea of the path you want to forge, and you know it isn't the tenure track, then it's worth questioning this dogma. Talk to people in the positions you want to pursue; find out how important doing a postdoc is-or isn't.

Myth #2: There is only one type of postdoc-the academic research postdoc.
Most likely, when you hear the word "postdoc", you think of a PhD working at the bench in a lab with other postdocs and grad students at a research university. However, there are several different flavors of postdoc. You can do a research postdoc in a government lab or with a biotech or pharma company. If you're interested in teaching, there are postdoc fellowships and programs that mix teaching and research or focus on science education instead of research. You can even do a research postdoc at a predominantly undergrad institute; this grants the advantage of working with undergrads on a day-to-day basis. Plus some PUI departments, instead of hiring an adjunct for a semester, first offer postdocs the opportunity to fill open courses. I will confess that I know little about these other types of postdoc positions, as I am the typical research postdoc, but they do exist.

Myth #3: The only reason to do a research postdoc is to take a crack at the tenure track.
Another confession: I once thought that the only sensible reason for doing a postdoc was if you wanted to stay in academia and start your own lab. Sure, some people changed their mind along the way, but what was the point of doing a postdoc if you knew, upfront, that you didn't want your own lab? Turns out this is an absolutely ridiculous view. There are actually several career paths for which a research postdoc is preferred, if not required. Over lunch with trainees, the executive editor of a glamor mag (the science type, not the fashion type) commented that when hiring new editors, they liked seeing postdoc experience, especially in a field different from the applicant's PhD work. The reasoning, I gather, is that an editor should have some idea of how science is done and should be broadly trained, as a vast array of topics will be crossing his/her desk. So you go do a research postdoc, and after a year or two, you decide you're done with bench work; there are many places, both in and outside of academia, where that postdoc might help you get the job you really want.

These are major preconceptions that affect how grad students, postdocs, and advisers view and approach the postdoc. If they continue to be perpetuated, then it is going to be tough to have a productive conversation on the subject. What other urban legends about the postdoc need to be put to rest?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Consistency along an unpredictable path

Continuity. As scientists, it's something most of us seek each day with every experiment. We look for consistency in our results, and when it is missing, we go back to see what went wrong. We search for those self-consistent details in our system, and if something does not meet expectations, we begin thinking of possible explanations, alternative interpretations, missing pieces of the puzzle.

Yet I sometimes have trouble identifying continuity in my life. My early career has sometimes felt like a random walk, bouncing between cities, adding and merging disciplines and skills, tweaking the path of my research and my career, sometimes making big decisions largely on the basis of a gut feeling. The last two or more years have been especially difficult, bringing doubt and guilt about choices I made regarding my career and my family. What seemed at times to be constant change and continual doubt was absolutely disorienting.

There has been one constant through this insanity: my husband, Paramed. Many people talk about the two-body problem--the challenge of organizing and executing two independent career paths, preferably in the same or nearby cities. It's stressful, frustrating, exhausting but can also be exciting and satisfying when things come together; sometimes it's a mix of all these thing. But there can be advantages to this "problem". I haven't had to worry about finding a roommate. There's someone around to help out with the laundry and cooking when I'm swamped...

Most importantly, I get to come home and talk to my best friend nearly every day. And that has been integral to maintaining another essential aspect of continuity in my life: staying true to myself. Training and work--from elementary school to EMS work to research--bring out the type A personality in me. I put a lot of myself into my work--some might say too much. I expect as much, if not more, of myself as my advisers have and do. From my viewpoint, this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But some institutions (like the one I'm in now) have a reputation for changing people--and not in a good way. Or maybe it's just the training process in general that changes people. I don't know. It's easy to become mired in politics, to let the stress get to you, to lash out because of your own insecurities. These things have happened to me and sometimes still do. Paramed knows me well enough to see when this is happening. He has listened to me rant and vent and cry. He has provided encouragement. He has told me when I'm being ridiculous or out of line or wrong (trust me not easy--I was born a red-head, and a stubborn one at that). He has asked me the questions I refused to ask myself. In short, he has been my minder, my Sam, the one who reminds me who I really am. Who I am is just as important as what I do. With help from my friend, I hope that is something that will remain consistent through out my life.


This is my contribution for the Scientiae Carnival
. There are still a few days to submit, so go forth and blog! :)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relationship questions

For those on RSS feed, sorry for the re-publish. I seemed to have mistakenly deleted this post :\

Whilst I am furiously seeing how hard I can push my computer before crashing it (aka processing and analyzing a few GB of data in multiple programs), I thought I'd leave my readers with a few questions. Feel free to elaborate in the comments section.

One point that emerged in the roundtable discussion was that each media outlet serves its own unique purpose. You choose the ones that suit your style, your personality, and the amount of time and effort you want to commit. Facebook has been a way for me to keep tabs on family and friends that I rarely see, but given its casual nature, has never moved beyond that. Twitter and blogging have become my primary connections to the online science community. Twitter is stream of almost constant chatter. It has become a place to exchange snippets from everyday life or share links to interesting articles or blog posts--the sort of things that might be of interest to other people but not needing a full blog post. Blogging allows me to share my views and experiences or to solicit opinions on a given topic. Thus far it has largely been an outlet for discussing the culture and politics of being an early career scientist. It also provides a place for me to develop ideas about mentoring and research issues and philosophies. Plus blogging gives me a chance to write with no limitations, which is necessary to developing writing skills (I might take up some research blogging to hone my science writing skills, as well). I'm very interested in hearing ways others are using social media.

The reason blogging and Twitter have worked so well is that there is a sense of community. We talk about science, but we also throw in personal tidbits along the way. Even if I don't know your real names or where in the world you are, I do feel like I'm talking with "real" people. There is a refreshing level of honesty and personality. And this is where professional social networking sites have thus far failed, in my opinion. I have an account with one or two of these science networking sites. I can't even remember my logins for them. One I would look at maybe every one to six months. Although professional networks will always be different from more casual ones, such as Twitter, Facebook, etc., they suffer from a lack of engagement. (As an aside, the people involved in setting up the NIH-funded $12 million network for scientists would do well to take note of what has and hasn't worked for both professional and open social networks.)

This is where we run into a major issue with convincing other scientists to get into social media. With open networks, anything goes. With restricted networks, nothing is going on. What to do? How do you get skeptics involved? Marketing people and techies are not going to convince scientists and physicians that they should be tweeting or Facebooking or blogging. There are many scientists who are doing great things with social media. These are the people who should be in the room telling other scientists of the utility of these networks.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Why I love blogging

The comments on this post (and others) are a perfect example of why blogging rocks. Some might view blogging as an egotistical thing, and perhaps to an extent, it is. Some might even view my opinions as ungrateful bitchfests. But spouting off into a vacuum wouldn't provide the many perspectives that blogging does. Giving you the benefit of the doubt that you are who you say you are (and given the 'insider' knowledge you express, I think that's fair), I would say argue that I could never, in a face-to-face conversation, discuss the topics and get honest commentary from the range of people and positions represented here. We may not see eye-to-eye all, or even most, of the time, but frankly I'd be disappointed if we did.

In short, you guys rock. Keep on bringing it!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How much am I worth?

Professor in Training recently initiated a discussion about the realities of the tenure track. One of the subplots of the discussion regarded paying postdocs "what they're worth". PhysioProf suggests that the NIH/NRSA payscale is a reasonable approximation of what a postdoc is worth. PiT asks, "What is a postdoc really 'worth'? Is $40K/yr sufficient renumeration for someone who has >10 years of college education behind them?"

As of 2009, the NIH set the pre-tax salary of a first year postdoc at $37,368. The pay level increases with each year of completed experience; the increase, which averages out to approximately $2,000 per year, ranges from about $1,600 to $2,800 (evidently the NIH feels that postdocs gain the most worth during their second year). The NIH periodically re-evaluate and increase paylines for "cost of living", usually on the order of $500/yr.

Many institutions use the NIH payscale to set their own postdoc salaries. (At some point, I was under the impression that any institute receiving NIH funds was more or less required to pay the NIH/NRSA salary as a minimum, but I may be wrong; feel free to enlighten me in the comments.) This provides some advantage to postdocs by setting a minimum expectation. Some institutes, however, take the NIH payline as absolute truth and do not consider for cost-of-living or taxation rates (my own institute falls into this category). Many of the prestigious universities and medical schools in the U.S. are located in cities with much higher than average cost-of-living. Cost-of-living in my current city is about 30% higher than the national average (and my previous city), and the state income tax rate jumped substantially upon my move to BRI. By the time I pay out taxes and benefits, my net income is only marginally higher than a grad student at PSU. Some postdocs end up having to take out loans or use credit cards to supplement their living expenses because of the mismatch between salary and cost-of-living. Of course, when a PI is applying for a grant, s/he can only request up to the NIH/NRSA payline to cover a postdoc's salary. Anything over that payline must come (I assume) from discretionary funds that then, of course, cannot be used for other costs like supplies or travel.

I really don't know what, if any, solution there is. But in wage debates, sometimes we neglect to mention or lose sight of the fact that $40k in one state is not the same in another. This was a consideration that influenced my choice of graduate schools. It is also going to play a big role in our next move. I can't help but wonder if some institutions are missing out on some talented postdocs and grad students for this reason.


I am back from my unintended blog vacation. I thought I would have more time to blog while I was traveling to and staying in my hometown. No such luck.

Paramed and I have been far away from hometown for nearly 7 years now. Somehow, though, holiday visits just seem to get stranger every year. This year time spent with my dad was unusually quiet, strained, and awkward. Time spent with Paramed's family--which is usually full of drama--was surprisingly calm; everyone was on their best behavior for some reason. One night we went to a couple of clubs with Paramed's older cousins--Paramed and I never go to clubs. Most of the week felt too much like wandering around in some parallel reality. I tried to figure the cause(s) for these peculiarities this year. I have a few hypotheses, but honestly, after a few days, I have found myself not particularly caring why things were so different because it really has no impact on me and what I'm doing in the next six months.

Not everything was different. We still got to contend with Paramed's mother putting in requests for a grandchild. It doesn't seem to really matter that, even if we did have a kid at this point, she wouldn't be seeing it often, given the distance between here and there. Or maybe she thinks that we'd move closer if we had kids. Or that I would stop working. Or she would move in with us. I don't know. We also got to deal with the continuous commentary from some of our family about how we needed to finish up and move closer home. At least this commentary has become less guilt-ridden in the past few years. While in grad school, there was usually inclusion of statements about the poor health of family members and that they might not be here next year... I have since grown quite apathetic toward such statements.

This is part of the life of the vagrant academic. "Going home" isn't really going home at all. Paramed and I take our vacation days and money to have a few days of awkward visitation with family a couple of times a year. Maybe one of these decades, we will get to take a real vacation--you know, where you don't know anyone and you're just fine with that, where you spend a week (or more) doing things that make you happy. It's a nice dream anyway.