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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At 5:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YFS, you need a vacation.

Science isn't anywhere near as bleak as you've been blogging it recently.

At 5:28 AM, Blogger dlamming said...

Who doesn't need a vacation? :)

But the real problem is... what happens to their reagents? If their cell lines, plasmids, etc go missing, that's a real loss.

At 8:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science is as bleak as YFS claims. After all, most of her antidotes are observational. What is miraculous is that despite this, we all still try to slog through it.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

Science is bleak. Science for the sake of science is dead.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Milo said...

I have a feeling that the grass is not really greener on the other side, just another shade of brown. I have found that I need to pay attention to the very small things to keep my enthusiasm up. For example, it is assumed that 40-60% of my exploratory chemistry will fail, that is just the rules of the game. So, when I can isolate an by-product and identify it, I am happy. Sure it is not what I want, but it is good information. If I can get a good, well shimmed NMR spectra, well, that is good. If I can learn just one new reaction or mechanism, well then it has been a good day. I find that if you really pay attention to the small stuff, the big stuff just happens on its own.

My mentor, for all his quirks, has a great policy: Take vacation if you need it. If you don't you'll burn out. Simple as that.

As for science for the sake of science, that died after WWII, when public funding really became a reality. No one wants to pay for knowledge if the knowledge does not come prepackaged with an application. For example, no one will pay you to inhibit an enzyme. They will pay you to inhibit an enzyme that could alleviate hypertension. See, useful knowledge.

Of course, one could argue that all knowledge is useful, to which I agree.

YFS has the additional challenge of trying to make a name for herself in a traditionally male dominated sector. And from what she wrotes, it is a challenge indeed. If not a full vacation, then at least a three day weekend, without bringing work home, does wonders!

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Katherine Sharpe said...

Dear YFS,

Pardon the unorthodox comment, but I'm a fan of your site, and I really want to send you an email about something. Would you please do me the favor of dropping me a line at, and I'll let you know what I have in mind?

Thank you!

At 9:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It sounds like Ms. Sharpe has asked you to come up to the big leagues.

Congradulations but make sure you don't compromise your academic standards and become a shill for industry.


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