Sunday, April 30, 2006

Aha! We have photos!

hello? did this work?

A Quickie

Sorry for the silence lately, but I, like everyone else I know, have been buried in grant yuck all week. The stress and my procrastinating, scatter-brained co-authors has got me thinking about the extreme arrogance of waiting until the last possible second to write something between 2 and 25 pages long asking for anywhere from $20,000 to half a million dollars. So this got me wondering, are the happier scientists the ones who thrive on staying up all night? Do the best grant writers procrastinate?

This prompted my Poll O' the Day (and I swear I'll fix the broken one on the sidebar because I'm annoyed I'm not collecting data!):

Are you a procrastinator?
Yes, by choice
No, by choice
Yes, there's no cure
No, I've recovered from it
No, and I'd implode if I tried it
Free polls from

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

cooking with beakers

Not sure what I think about this. Check out

which had links to:

I like the idea of using labware in the kitchen, I always want the 70% Etoh spray bottle, the gloves, the kimwipes, the timers, etc. Finally broke down and bought a scale but the really precise ones were way too expensive (sob!). BUT, this site looks like it's designed for people cooking up things they'd like to snort or inject. What do you think?

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Monday, April 24, 2006

More Rejection Letter Excerpts

"I am sorry to tell you that we have decided on another candidate for the position of assistant professor. We were very fortunate in having a remarkable number of excellent candidates like your self to choose from. Our final decision depended on the best fit between the candidate and the requirements and needs of our department.

I and the other members of our Search Committee wish you the best in your search for a position and success in your career."

This one seemed especially odd, since it almost reads like I went for an interview and they had it down to me and one other person!

"The Search Committee based its selection on complementarity of the applicant's research interests and strengths with those of our present faculty. We received a very large number of high quality applications for the position. We were all impressed with your research progress and with your plans for the future, but we have decided not to pursue your application further."

This one seems to suggest at least two things. (1) They already knew who they wanted when they advertised the position. (2) They were 'impressed' with me but think I'm too young (translation: need at least 6 years of postdoc experience).

And there were two more this week, both very generic "We regret to inform you that you were not among those selected for interview." (As if, it being April already, I hadn't figured that out by now).

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Pay me less for something I'd do anyway: the great de-motivator

An astute reader sent me this link that talks about how you get what you pay for. If something is viewed as 'cheap', then we tend to de-value it. For example, many of us would do science for free if our quality of life were taken care of (rent, food, car, health insurance, annual 2-week beach vacation). But since we're paid crap for what we do, it just makes it all the more obvious that although our labours are supposedly Valued By Society, they must not be, or we'd be paid more.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Know Thine Enemy

Did anybody catch the interview on the Colbert Report last night with the author of this book?

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On Grad Students in the Humanities

I'm going to say this once, but like most topics here, it will likely come back in a year or so when the readership has shifted.

I don't make a habit of comparing science and humanities grad students because it's not the same. Yes, we have some of the same concerns re: quality of life, time-to-graduate and lack of jobs, but the similarities stop there.

First, the humanities, as fas as I know, have NEVER paid well. So anyone going to get a PhD in literature knows that they're doing it because they love it, and they know the sacrifices involved. (This has the added effect that the numbers of humanities PhDs are self-regulating. As far as I know, there are now more science PhDs than humanities PhDs, but feel free to correct me if you have the numbers.)

In science, there was a time, actually until pretty recently, when science PhDs did short postdocs- or they were optional!- and then were assured of a job in academia or industry. It goes up, it goes down, but in general we've always been better off than humanities students in the employability department. Until recently.

Second, in the humanities, there is no money to pay postdocs. So as far as I know (and I really only know the statistics for my university), there are very few postdocs in the humanities. They get a PhD, and go on to whatever job prospects there are for teaching or writing professionally. They're considered professional when they graduate, thesis in hand. In some ways, I think they're better off because they couldn't do a postdoc even if they so desired (mostly). Moreover, there are alternative, and in some cases more employable degrees in the humanities, such as the MFA. Sure, you have to go into debt to get one, which brings me to another point:

Third, the humanities traditionally select for three kinds of people: 1) Those coming from rich families, and 2) The truly passionate bookworms who wouldn't notice what kind of house, clothes, etc. they have, or 3) The extremely hard-workers who are willing to take assembly-line jobs during the day so they can write their thesis at night.

Scientists have the first two categories, sure, but we aren't allowed to have that third category. We all sign contracts with NIH and NSF agreeing not to work extra jobs to help pay for the house we want to buy.

What I've been saying here for a long time is, science has the potential to be more diverse than the humanities, because we have enough money to employ a lot of people from different backgrounds. In most places, you don't have to go into debt to go to grad school in science.

But the ivory tower is getting higher, and kids from blue-collar families are looking at it and saying, "No thanks, I'll do something else."

That choice gets made at the level of choosing a major, because nobody tells them they'll be able to get a job with a BA in Folklore. There are still idiots out there claiming we need more science majors. Just the other day I saw a poster on my campus advertising an event telling undergrads how majoring in science would help them get jobs some day (???!!). What a joke!!!

And another thing. If you want to write a book, anyone can do it. It doesn't require special equipment beyond a computer and access to some (really good) libraries. Yes, having contacts in departments can help, and if you want to be a literary critic you probably need to have taken some courses in LitCrit and have a good reputation in the field. But it's not like science because you don't need thousands of dollars worth of reagents and equipment to do it: there is no way to do biotech research at home.

Oh and another thing! Science moves FAST. The humanities have been moving, more or less at a steady pace for, say, hundreds of years. People write books. I hope that this will always be so. But nowadays, the rate of writing a book depends more on the writer than the printing press. Still, this has been gradual.

In contrast, molecular cloning revolutionized bioscience so much that bioscience is now completely different every 5 years or so, the way almost every cell in your body turns over at least once every 7 years. As grad school and postdoc lengthen for scientists, this means that science is literally a completely different place by the time you get out than it was when you started.

Choosing a thesis lab and thesis project then becomes something of a crapshoot, except for the very far-sighted (and the very lucky). Consider our current situation: the presidential election was rigged (twice!), and suddenly everyone is out of funding and out of a job. That goes in four-year cycles. We're really at the mercy of some very rapidly-changing variables.

Boy, now that I've started this, I could just go on and on. Here's another example: everybody knows what books are. You're at a cocktail party and somebody asks you about your job. In the humanities, the tools of the trade are mostly ordinary objects that everyone can relate to, even if their particular contents are probably beyond most readers' reach. But in the sciences, we use pipettes and eppendorf tubes and centrifuges, things that sound like futuristic fiction to your average person on the street. So not only is what we do a total mystery to most people, but how we actually do it.

Last night I saw that Red Bull commercial where they're trying to film the Moon Landing and the guy keeps floating away, so they say "That's okay, we'll just shoot it in the studio at home". This stuff makes me furious because it encourages the lunatics who claim we're actually just making this all up. This sort of bullshit, like people claiming the lunar landing never happened, only works because basic science knowledge in this country is so poor.

Thanks again, George Bush. Keep the education level down --> brainwash them -->

I guess my point is, yes we could sit and write a long essay comparing the humanities with the sciences. I guess if I were in the humanities, I would enjoy that sort of thing a lot more! But I always liked Anthropology the best, and even that field benefits from using population statistics. I don't know if there are valid statistics comparing the two groups, because, as someone pointed out, where do you draw the line? At psychology? And because the sample size is so skewed, with (vastly?) more PhDs in science than in the humanities, that's going to make it hard to know how accurate the analyses could be.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Great quotes

It's interesting that this blog has sampled the population the way my research has: some people hate me, some people don't.

I don't know why I provoke such strong reactions from some people.

Why do some people get SO upset, and want to post their anger here for everyone to read? They have nothing better to do? If they don't, they might explode?

Please, people. Don't spontaneously combust just from something I said! I couldn't live with that on my conscience.

Some people seem to get it. If you're truly objective, you've reached that Zen state where you can discuss ideas, even ones that you might disagree with, as ideas, not as reflections of the person who proposed them.

I can't take it personally when people freak out and post here, but I am a little tired of reading all the negative, mis-spelled, non-constructive comments. It really is embarrassing how stupid some of them are, but I guess they feel the same way about me. I'm a bad representation of a scientist, is that it?

Here's another reason I started this blog: because scientists are people too. But nobody seems to know that.

At this point so many of the comments here are crap that I don't know where to draw the line on deleting them. Seems silly to just delete everything negative, but on the other hand, does leaving it all up there just encourage these people to come back and do it again?

In the past I've gotten so many helpful, informative comments that I've never wanted to turn off the commenting feature despite all the negative crap. Posting into the void is a lot less interesting.

But I'm picturing these people in their little cubicles or wherever they are, snickering to themselves as they write these petty little Anonymous comments and rubbing their hands together in a perfect imitation of an evil cartoon character.

It's actually really funny to imagine!

I mean, do you really think you're going to a) convince me to quit blogging or b) convince me to quit science?

For anyone else out there who has experienced these kinds of attacks, some quotes for us:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones.
--John Cage

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

It's not an argument

Hey folks, just trying to lighten things up around here.

I remind you all that I reserve the right to delete any and all comments I find truly offensive and uninformative.

I don't have to defend what I've written here, but I also don't have to discount the comments people have made. Some are more valid than others. I also note that some of the readers- not all, obviously- are smart enough to evaluate the comments as well as my posts.

If you're just here to pick a fight, shouldn't you be at the bench proving how worthy you are? Oh right, I forgot: you're Einstein, just like everybody else.

Funny funny!

Oh, the people who read this blog are a laugh riot.

The comment Newton made- and correct me if this is apocryphal!- about standing on the shoulders of giants, I'm told, was sarcastic.

I figured the comment about Darwin wasn't true, so thank you to the person who gave us a link for that. But hey, as a literary device, it worked well enough for my purposes! And oh so interactive.

The scientists who graciously credit those who came before them, and their peers, are very few. I think most people who have been reading this can agree to that much.

I love the idea of the 'herd of independent thinkers'. I'm not sure how that works but I get your point and I think it's a valid one.

For the person who studied economics and chemistry and says postdocs should form unions: THANK YOU. We are the fruit pickers. I've known this for a long time. Why else do they let us wear jeans to work?

For almost everyone else, HAVE YOU NO SHAME???. Case in point, here's a sampling of the glorious typos and mis-spellings in the many idiotic, though some thoughtful, and some in defense of me, all of them clearly passionate, including the person saying it doesn't matter if you're passionate about what you work on. This is just from the comments posted most recently:


"Try to think of something entreprenorial to do, do it, and quit bitching."

"so we end up staying in school to long ." (this one might be my favorite)

"The point is that intellegent resource allocation must take place, and you seem to have conviently missed this point so you can talk about rhetorical questions and let everybody know what a fruitcake you are."

" So by stating, "I'm irreplaceable" you are implying that you are ideas, technical skills, and project exection are orders of magnitude better than your peers. Am I right? That statement seems ludicrous and sould only apply to scientists whose ideas revolutionize SCIENCE like Newton, Darwin, Einstein."

Here's a hint: If you want to be credible, if you want us to believe that you're smart, USE A SPELLCHECKER. God knows you don't deserve a PhD if a) you can't spell on your own AND b) these helpful little tools, invented by people much smarter than you(!), are too difficult for you to grasp.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Got something off my desk!

Whoo hoo! I actually finished something on my long list of stressful things I needed to get done.

One down, at least two big ones to go. I've always been a sucker for checking things off the to-do list.

To the asshole who wrote me most recently to say that I should leave because Science Will Go On Without Me,

You said I'm not Einstein so who cares if I leave? One of the benefits of anonymity is that you don't know anything about my research. I find it interesting that you assume I'm replaceable. What if I'm not?

I was talking with someone recently about innovation. We were saying it's too bad there isn't an easy way to search Pubmed or Google to see how many projects got dropped because the funding ran out, somebody died, the project exceeded the currently technology, or somebody just quit and no one followed up on it. How many times have you read a paper from say, five or ten years ago, and looked to see what happened next? Only to find that nobody has published anything on it since?

What if nobody publishes anything else on it in your lifetime? Do you go do that research yourself? Or does the lack of that information push your research in another direction?

There are plenty of examples of stories in science that got dropped for say, 30 years, and then picked back up again. Or 100 years.

One of the only things that keeps me in science is knowing- not wondering in the slightest, actually- that my project is something that I can do now, and that science will be better off than if I left.

Here's an interesting story: They found Darwin's copy of the journal that Mendel's original pea-pod paper was published in. Guess which ones Darwin had read? All but Mendel's. Now guess how much farther along science would have been if he had. About 50 years. If the right person isn't there to make the connection, the idea doesn't go away, it just waits. Eventually, if it's the truth, the data will lead back to it.

What you don't realize is, I don't think I'm all that unusual. I'm just more vocal. Who knows what contributions my friends would have made if they had enjoyed the day-to-day of being scientists, if all the sexism and money stress were not factors in their lives?

The world will never know.

I write this blog because I believe everybody has something to contribute. I'm not saying you should care about me. I'm just trying to get you to THINK. About all those people out there, toiling away with little compensation. Most non-scientists have no idea what we do all day.

Unfortunately we don't have the funding to support everyone, so from time to time I make controversial suggestions about what we could do to get the system unclogged. And from time to time, like everyone who reads this blog, I think about quitting. Not because I think what I'm doing is pointless in the grand scheme of things. That was never an issue. I worry about real-life issues like owning a house someday, and I worry whether anybody alive today actually reads the papers I publish (besides the reviewers who trash them). I don't want to be an Emily Dickinson or a Gregor Mendel if I can help it! Everybody in science worries about these things.... don't they? If not, maybe they should.

Einstein was unusually lucky to receive kudos for his work during his lifetime. I'm neither as pithy as Einstein, nor as mathematically inclined. But from what I can tell, neither are you.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

two more interesting suggestions

A couple of people sent me comments, I don't know which posts they were in reference to, so I'm just going to address them here.

First, someone asked me about The X Prize , presumably with regard to my suggestions about personalized genomes (?). I'm not sure what to make of this since the comment was so brief.

a) If you meant I should apply for a job there, they're not hiring scientists directly except for upper-level administrative positions. But I don't think that's what you meant.

b) If you meant I should enter the contest, I think you're crazy at best, naive at worst (or maybe the other way around?). Everybody knows the people who win these sorts of things, like the NIH Pioneer Award , do not win for their great ideas, but for what they've already accomplished and who likes them personally. Translation: nominations for unknown postdocs (like me) are not welcome. Letters from Nobel-prizewinning friends are a MUST.

c) Finally, I don't really like their philosophy. I don't believe that competition is the best way to get the best ideas from the best people. Never did.


Another person suggested I should write children's books. This is an interesting idea to me, since as a kid I loved reading adult books (by which I mean, novels, you dirty minds!), and I don't want or have any kids of my own. So if the person who suggested this wants to expound, feel free. I suspect it was meant to be a sarcastic dig on how idealistic I sound in some of these posts, or something??

Advancing a diminishing payscale

Yesterday, someone told me about a new, old idea. I don't know whose idea it was, and I wasn't sure how to find it online, because I don't know what it's actually called. I'm calling it a 'diminishing payscale' for discussion purposes.

The idea is, pay assistant professors the most, and senior soon-to-be-emeritus professors the least.

Here's the logic:
1. Assistant professors are the most energetic and work the hardest. They also need money the most, so they can buy a home and start having kids (assuming we think increasing the next generation of scientists is a good thing!).

2. Instead of actually increasing in productivity as we get older, our peak is when we're postdocs/assistant professors, and after that it's all downhill.

3. Maybe we'd give people tenure right away, or they'd never agree to a system like this.

4. Older people have fewer expenses, and if they're making less and less each year, it would encourage them to retire rather than hang onto their positions.

I think it's a great idea, but as usual, it's not obvious how it could be implemented at this late date. I've met a few older professors and while some say "yeah, we need to get out of the way so you guys can have lab space", most are terrified of retiring and wouldn't rather work until they die than take up golfing. Personally I can't imagine our generation feeling that way, I think we'll be more than happy to retire if money is not an issue, but maybe that's just my own preference. I can't wait to retire!


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Development Abstraction

An astute reader sent me this link and I thought it might be fun to do a spin-off for the biosciences.

Basically, this guy Joel talks about how the ideal infrastructure is one you don't have to even know about because it works so seamlessly. In his case, the ideal situation allows software programmers to just, you know, write programs.

In our case, what would we want?

1. Unlimited funding. 'Nuff said.
2. Unlimited instantaneous ordering, the sort of thing where you think of it and (some invisible and speed-of-light person orders it for you without asking you ten times exactly which thing you want because they already KNOW what you mean because they're ACTUALLY TRAINED TO DO THIS full-time) it's just THERE.
3. Unlimited instantaneous video conferencing from our laptops all around the world, so any time we wanted to ask our collaborators something, they would just be there and answer our questions.
4. Equipment that is always maintained and working and only replaced when the replacement is actually BETTER. If something gets broken WE NEVER KNOW ABOUT IT because it's someone else's job to order the replacement or better yet, they always make sure we have replacement parts on hand and keep up on whether the equipment is not longer being manufactured anymore...
5. Everything is up to code and stays that way and if it's not, WE NEVER KNOW ABOUT IT because it's someone else's job to make sure the biohazard waste and the radioactive waste and the chemical waste are all taken care of.
6. People who actually train students so we can work with them without having to teach them everything they SHOULD HAVE LEARNED IN SCHOOL.

Feel free to add to this list. What are the major sources of our headaches?

Gee, in the course of writing this, here is my thought: if Joel is right and the Roman army had a ratio of servants:soldiers that was 4:1, how would we be doing if for every actual bench researcher in the lab, we had that many people just doing support staff work (maintaining equipment, keeping things up to code, ordering) full-time?

Can you imagine how PRODUCTIVE we would be if we didn't have to do all this stuff ourselves?

And that's where we get back to the unlimited funding dream. Would we really need more money to do this? Or just allocate it differently by changing the career structure? The current academic system is set up this way for two main reasons I can think of (both valid):

1. Doing the maintenance and ordering yourself teaches you how it all works and gives you an appreciation for how much things cost.
2. It's cheaper than hiring people to do it, especially since theoretically there wouldn't be enough for them to do to keep them around full-time.

But what if neither of these things mattered because cost was irrelevant (say, if we could figure out how to make science fund itself instead of being a welfare state)?


Monday, April 10, 2006

Why ask why? Or, who wants raw knowledge?

Anonymous Coward, PhD (I love the PhD added on there) makes a great point by saying we're tapping into the money system too far down from the source.

Since everybody responded but nobody commented specifically on my little equation notation, here's a kind of flowchart of the money story the way I think about it:

person --> pays taxes --> government --> pays grants --> pays scientist --> finds stuff out --> publishes it

--> publishing company makes money --> drug company reads it --> gets grant from government -->

pays some MDs --> clinical trial --> good results --> publishes it --> publishing company makes money -->

doctors read the paper/salespeople show up at their office --> doctors prescribe the drugs -->

doctors get kickbacks --> patient pays for insurance -->

insurance company pays the drug company and the doctor and still makes a profit--> person is cured -->

person goes back to work --> person pays taxes and leftover hospital bills for the rest of their life. THE END

Not unlike my all-time favorite episode of Southpark, where the gnomes use the business plan:

Collect Underpants! -->???--> Profit!

The scientist only makes money if they get a patent on what they find out, and much of what we find out is not patentable (as far as I know?).

Meanwhile, the government is paying out, paying out. The publishing companies are raking it in. The MDs get paid by the government and the drug companies AND the insurance company and often also get paid directly by the patient when the insurance deductible kicks in.

What fun! (I'm rubbing my hands together like a rich, evil doctor!)

So actually from the way I told this story, our problem is that we tap into the money too early, and the amounts get larger as the process goes on, so it would be better to have multiple buckets at several branches downstream, rather than being too near the source (where it is most tightly regulated)?

But you asked, if we were going to tap into the system higher up, would anyone pay for the raw information?

Idea 1: What if there were companies that employed scientists to fill up giant databases?

Just databases. Not papers. Just data. Then drug companies and insurance companies would pay to use the databases. That might work. It's essentially how market research is done.

Does anybody really want to know anything badly enough to pay for it? Aren't book sales going down? Isn't the internet essentially free (so long as you don't mind Google adsense)?

On the one hand, it seems like the Information Age might work in our favor. Maybe the public really does just want to know. But who could afford to pay for all the equipment we'd need?

Idea 2: We could market ourselves out to do research on individual, disgustingly wealthy but inherently ill (inbred?) families. Each one of these bazillionaire families could have their own team of private scientist researchers working on their own private mix of Alzheimer's, anorexia, infertility, wrinkles and cancer. Or whatever it is that insanely rich people suffer from.

So privatization is always another option. It worked for artists in the Middle Ages.

I'm just saying. We need some concrete suggestions here, people. Get creative.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Quick Questions- short research statements

Two of the 'grants' I'm applying for are actually things where it's very clear that my PI's status (by that I mean, reputation and political standing in the department) matters more than anything I could possibly do. At least, that's my impression (anyone have much experience with this? Internal funding sources?)

Nevertheless, for each of these, I have to write a very short (couple of pages) statement on my proposed research.

My question is, for something this short (more like an essay than a grant, really), is it better to have little subheadings with short paragraphs or even bullet points under them? or is it better to have something more narrative? Keep in mind all of these also want me to bullshit something about my career accomplishments and plans, and all of this has to fit into the page limit.

(Accomplishments= nothing you've heard of
Plans= nothing I'm sure about)

I'm still having major problems describing my project in one sentence. I think I'm stuck because I know no one has heard of My Favorite Protein so they're going to need some explanation before I can explain what I'm planning to do.

Since I'm such a literary personality, my inclination is always to start slow and broad and gradually build or funnel to the specific question. This is sometimes doable for longer grants, but with something 2 pages long, I've heard it's best to get to the point in the first paragraph, preferably the first or second sentence if possible.

Suggestions, anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Does anybody even read these things? Is it enough to have it written in English rather than Klingon?


Fixing the System

I was doing some brainstorming today after talking to a non-science friend. She was asking me the obvious questions:

1. How did the system get so fucked up?
2. What could fix it at this point?

I wrote the following equations (this is how I think these days, rather than complete sentences):

science= technology + people

technology= people + training + resources

people= training + technical proficiency + creativity + communication skills + desire + rewards

training= books + lectures + experience + place to do it + toys to do it with + making mistakes + feedback

What's the goal?

- greater output (faster progress): cure disease, fix pollution, space travel, easier day-to-day, understand the meaning of life and how everything works. Fix the world.

- waste less money

- employ trained scientists instead of having them go to waste (and the money we spent training them)

Where does massive change come from?

from within: revolution of the proletariat

from without: government mandate (fascism?)

Better to do it fast or slow?

realistic: will be slow to implement even if it's easy to throw out the old system all at once.

idealistic: slow risks not going through with it or not making drastic enough changes.

Why would it be slow to implement?

Because it would involve bureaucrats, and they can't do anything quickly.

Why do we need bureaucrats? What do bureaucrats do? Why would it be so bad if we got rid of them all?

- handle money distribution and arrange for infrastructure (construction, cleaning, building maintenance); handle lawsuits from uneducated public/offended religiosers.

- push paper around.

- it's a self-renewing system: they're good at keeping themselves in business. formula: create rules --> hire people to enforce them --> create conflicts --> hire people to resolve them

Why do we need rules?

because people would kill each other without them. i get that.

Why do we need so many rules and bureaucrats?

Because nobody can know it all in detail and they need something to help guide their decision-making (or prevent them from having to make decisions based on all the information at any given juncture).

Who should be in charge?

- not the bureaucrats!
- not the politicians!
- not solely the old established scientists
- input from young scientists is critical.

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Ways To Make Money

The message from Seed inviting me to relocate, and someone's comment about becoming a shill for industry, made me realize my whole life revolves around money right now.

(By the way, I had to look up 'shill' since it's a word I never really knew the definition of. According to my OS X Dictionary Widget, a shill is 'an accomplice to a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthuasiastic customer to entice or encourage others.'

Hard to imagine me being a shill for anything, but I'm sure I've been one unwittingly in the past, so never say never, right?)

So money is the topic today. First off, you should know what Seed offers to pay: zero. At least, that's what I would get paid unless traffic on my blog increases exponentially after the move, and even then it's in the realm of ~ enough to pay the cable bill once a month. So if I decided to relocate, it would be more for the increased interaction with other science bloggers and science blog-readers, i.e. a sense of community (and a little more publicity). (Feel free to weigh in if you're totally for or against it. I'm on the fence for the moment.)

Second, here's what I'm doing for the next couple of months:

Writing, and re-writing, grants.

Nothing works to make you regret your choice of career like grantwriting. Yes, it's glorified, academicized, begging. Or as some of my friends call it, Welfare for PhDs.

Nothing brought home this point so clearly as talking to some friends who work at Intel. Here's what people at Intel get for working there (and now I'm quoting from their webpage, because as a skeptical scientist I had to verify for myself that this is really all true):

Employee Cash Bonuses
Overtime/Commission bonuses
Benefits: medical, dental, life and accident insurance, retirement, paid vacations (including sabbaticals, which are 8 weeks off after 7 years of service)
Stock Options
Training ("In 2005, Intel spent an average of $3,700 per employee worldwide on training and development.")
Education - tuition reimbursement

Now, I have friends who work at big Pharma (Merck, DuPont, Amgen, Invitrogen, etc.) and some of them have these kinds of pacakages, and some don't.

Job satisfaction, from what I can tell, depends largely on what groups you're in: what the projects are, and who you work with. And you have to go along, get along- many of these 'extras' depend on 'performance' , aka how much they like you. But nobody pretends it works any other way. Unlike in academic science, where we're all so Objective, open-minded and Fair.

So we have to ask ourselves, why on earth are PhDs in bioscience willing to work for peanuts (or to be more accurate, Ramen)?

I've always been a big proponent of the idea that when people don't have to worry about the basics, they're happier, more creative, and WAY more productive.

Lately I find myself preoccupied with the concern that I'm going to be unemployed (and therefore, unable to continue living where I'm living now, and possibly unable to repair my car if it should die anytime soon).

I got so preoccupied I started doing a little research on how hard it would be for me to switch careers entirely. Here's what I found out.

Careers where people are needed:
police force
Drug enforcement agency
transportation security (yes, the people who manhandle your bags at the airport)
border police/customs officers
insurance agents
nurses (of course)

Now, at first glance you might think, I can totally see YFS working for the FBI! But no. They are recruiting for chemists and other scientific disciplines, but there appears to be no shortage of bioscience types looking to switch to forensics or something along those lines. Same for the DEA.

Further down the list, while sales is the last thing I'd want to do, I have noticed a disturbing trend among the sales folk hawking pipette pens at our local vendor fairs: they've all done a postdoc. When I graduated from college, I had a friend who went off to do sales with just a BA. At the time I thought, well it's sort of a waste because she's bright, but I knew she'd be good at it because she was very attractive in that way that made you want to try anything she suggested in the hopes that you'd be half as appealing as she was. And at the time, I think most sales reps had nothing beyond a BA. So you can see why I think this is just another sign of the times we're living in.

Further down, I met a woman today who did 5 years of postdoc and then went back to get a management degree (2 more years of school, at her expense). She's now looking for administrative jobs. I also think it's a bad sign when there's more demand for bureaucrats than there is for people to actually do what they're trained for (highly specialized research).

To become even a lowly pharmacy lab tech, you have to have a 6-month certification, from what I can glean.

So there's nothing I could really go and do right now, with the training I have, besides another postdoc.

It doesn't get much bleaker than that.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

The increase in short-lived labs

I was reading up on an unfamiliar field today, and many of the references came from a young, female PI at a nearby university.

Hooray! I thought, maybe I could over there and talk to her in person.

But no. Her lab is gone. She did not get tenure, despite publishing quite a few high-impact papers, and Google has her at any number of companies in any number of locations over the last few years.

It would be interesting to find out the average life-span of the average lab now vs. 20 years ago. My latest (some will probably say ridiculous) hypothesis is that losing these people as resources after they've reached the PI stage is worse than losing them, say, after grad school, because by the time they've had their own lab for a few years, they've published more.

Bad enough, as has happened to me quite often, when famous older scientists who published landmark papers are already dead by the time you think of the ultimate question you'd love to discuss with them (along the lines of, if you could invite anyone living or dead to dinner, who would it be).

I've found that interviewing former academicians is often painful and rarely productive, since these people usually don't remember, and would prefer not to bother trying to remember, much less discuss, the details of their past published work. This is also true, unfortunately, for much older papers of much older academicians, even ones who still have functioning labs.

Unfortunately the scientific method doesn't work unless published papers can truly stand on their own, but that is rarely the case.

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