Friday, August 31, 2007

Meaningless lipservice

Someone wrote:

"There's an article in that very same issue describing how the NSF and NIH have included new instructions to grant applicants regarding their duty to "mentor" postdocs. I'm surprised you didn't pick up on that."

WOW. What an arrogant comment! Of course I picked up on that.

I didn't mention it because it's meaningless lipservice.

Or were you hoping to see me rant about why it's meaningless lipservice? Here's the rant.

There's no way to enforce that anyone actually does any kind of mentoring at the grant level. It would be more appropriate to build it into departmental-level teaching requirements and tenure review.

Grad programs should evaluate mentors and prevent exceptionally bad ones from getting new students.

Departments should have similar mechanisms for preventing exceptionally bad mentors from getting postdocs.

Along with this might be a rule for limiting the size of labs, since nobody can juggle 20+ students and postdocs and actually mentor them all.

Note that I said exceptionally bad, not just bad, since most PIs suck at mentoring, so far as I can tell.

You could argue that it's not really their fault, they don't know any better, and nobody trains them in mentoring skills.

Gosh, maybe mentorship training should be a requirement for PIs and departments to get grants and accreditation?? There's an idea.

Except that it would probably be about as useful and unwanted as sexual harassment training. Where I work, the institution of annual sexual harassment training just goaded the smarmy PIs to really show off that they know how far they can push it without getting sued.

And while these kinds of things do serve the purpose of informing students and postdocs that they theoretically have the right to complain, it drives home the point that nobody can save your career if you do, even if you're legally protected from backlash.

For sexual harassment, that is. There is no legal protection for backlash from complaining about a total lack of mentorship!

No, this business about writing a section on mentoring is just like what they already do with postdoctoral fellowships.

You can write all kinds of nonsense about the career development activities, yada yada, but so long as you write the correct things in the box, nobody cares if they don't actually exist or your PI won't actually let you do them.

For example, you or your PI can write that there are teaching opportunities, and that makes it look like you're in a good "training environment." It doesn't mean you'll get to teach even one lecture as a postdoc.

The only measure that might make a difference is if NIH and NSF include some kind of bonus points for people who have placed many former postdocs in faculty positions, which they do unofficially already for fellowships. But if they did that officially for all grants, it extends even more favors to senior PIs and unfairly penalizes young PIs. So that isn't a good policy, either.

I'm 100% certain this is exactly the same thing. It's a bureaucratic bandaid, nothing more.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Departments supportive of 'difficult' women?

This article illustrates quite nicely the folly of ranking schools based on quantitative measures like number of articles published in Science and Nature. And that there is no such thing as "a good school." It always depends on what department you're in, which campus, etc.

Obviously these rankings are meant for students trying to decide where to apply to college, but I'm curious as a potential applicant for faculty positions.

Is anyone else curious to know what would happen if we could rank departments based on their sexism? Would something like that actually put pressure on the old boys to clean up their act?

Anyone care to post some anonymous (you anonymous, the school by name) rankings of their own departments? Where would you say yours rates on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most egalitarian and synergistic even with conflicting opinions from strong personality types (probably doesn't exist), 1 being the most sexist, demeaning, lawsuit-deserving place in the world?

Obviously I can't say where I've been, but I'd say the department where I did my undergrad deserved a pretty low rating, somewhere in the 2-4 range. In fact, come to think of it, everywhere I've been has been about that bad...

And you?

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What is academic freedom?

In response to a comment on the previous post, and a note in the
Chronicle of Higher Education about a professor at Virginia Tech who used the massacre as a example in a lecture and then got reprimanded for it, let's use this as an excuse to talk about academic freedom.

Oh, and let me just say that the idea of locking the doors of all the classrooms at Virginia Tech seems a little extreme in some ways, and just common sense in others. Thoughts, anyone? Would you want to be the student or the teacher if there was a chance you could be trapped in the room if there were a real emergency?

In science, academic freedom is usually not nearly as complicated as it is in the humanities.

I think the best recent example is the dispute about whether or not to teach evolution (science) vs. "intelligent design" (humanities).

With the separation of church and state, one might expect that religious studies would be kept out of public schools, but it's not quite so black and white as that.

Although it was never explicitly described to me in any lecture or textbook while I was in school, I always understood academic freedom to be the freedom "to study what you want."

Maybe this also includes "to lecture on what you want" and "to publish what you want", but my understanding is that in most cases it doesn't include those two things at all.

Nor does it include "to get funded to work on what you want."

I guess in the ideal situation, parents would never complain, and no one would worry about what anybody else worked on. Maybe in a scenario where money was endless and jobs and schools were plentiful?

So, not what we have right now.

I'm a little puzzled by this commenter who says you can't have academic freedom until much later in your career. I presume what is meant by this is that, until you're really established, it can be extremely difficult to work on anything outside the mainstream, be that alternative hypotheses or totally weird systems like some kind of primitive octopus.

There aren't any rules saying you can't work on what you want, except for the kinds of rules that say you shouldn't be using some stem cells (thank you, President's religion).

And you shouldn't be implanting them into animals or people without approval, or working on P3 level viruses without a P3 level containment facility. That kind of thing that is as much in the interest of safety as it is research.

Seems to me that in public schools, and especially in the humanities, it can be much more gray. Some books, at some schools, are considered too racy. Etc. But again that gets back to restrictions on teaching, not on studying.

Here is the Wikipedia definition, which basically says that a range of activities should be covered in pursuit of knowledge, which I take to mean that lecturing and publishing should be allowed, but then they add this clause about avoiding controversial matter unrelated to the subject.

And I love the line where they say that tenure protects academic freedom. That made me laugh.

Use your power for good, tenured people, not evil!

So how do you define controversial? Is this stuff about not teaching evolution really controversial, or is it just a bunch of fanatical nonsense? Should we take it head on as a serious threat, or just try to maneuver around it and outlast it?

Should we be moving to Canada? At what point do we declare science in the US lost to the religious nutjobs?

Q: What's controversial?

A: Ever read the comments on this blog?

note added in proof: when trying to publish this post, I got an error I've never gotten before: Your request could not be processed. Please try again.

What, so the censor can get a better look at it? Or did I say something controversial??

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Falling down on the job.

JR sent this comment:


What do you think of these postdocs geting fingered for fabricating data? There was one at Penn a few weeks ago and here is another one from Dartmouth.


"To put 100% of the blame on the postdoc years after they have left the lab has reached a new low. You have to wonder if this is a modern interpretation of the good reference letter/bad reference letter where now if your former postdoc now independent PI is a threat to the mentor PI that you can now be exposed and have your career killed just as it starts to be productive. Just a thought."

Yes, especially since you bring it up and it's not mentioned in the article at all, I I am bothered about the lack of direct accountability for the PIs.

You have to admit, though, that some of that will rub off on the PIs indirectly.

And, it will also be bad for anyone who has worked in those labs since then.

I'm also not sure I think the punishment described in the article fits the crime.

I've probably said this before but I'll say it again. I think that anyone fabricating data is due to only three possible things:

1) mental defect or disease
2) pressure of the current scientific system
3) the arrogant conviction that no one will know the difference

I think this is a fundamental problem with the way the system is set up. Especially with big labs, the PI won't and usually can't micromanage. And maybe they shouldn't.

In some ways I think this is an example of how, as a postdoc, you're essentially a PI with most of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. You're frequently on your own, but they get to claim they're training you. You're basically doing everything yourself, but they get to be senior author on your paper and put your work in their grants. Etc. etc.

So it seems consistent that you get blamed for anything that goes wrong, even though the PI was supposedly in charge. They get all the credit, but never any blame.

In the case described in this article, it sounds like this guy is a great example of someone who wasn't trained properly in grad school about how to handle data processing. You don't pool data from experiments that were done differently. You don't amplify signals that are actually noise. And so on.

Or maybe he tried to fake it all. We'll never know for sure.

But this is a great example where everyone failed. The postdoc failed to seek advice. The PI failed to supervise. The reviewers - thesis committee? and/or journal? - failed to ask the right questions.

Weren't there any other pieces of evidence that seemed inconsistent with the interpretations? I find it hard to believe, if the research were really thorough, that there was nothing else that didn't match.

As usual, we're left wondering how many other pieces of published literature are equally wrong. Is this good for science? For the public that funds our work? No way.

Are we all afraid this could happen to us when we're PIs? You bet. What can you do?

1. Require that everyone keep a good notebook. Run a tight ship.

2. Ask to see the primary data for anything you, as PI, are going to publish. Although this could be a lot of work, I don't think it's unreasonable. In the future, I'd hope that all fields will shift toward always including all the primary data, instead of publishing only the very best hand-picked examples that suit the story.

3. Train people yourself when they first come in, and then let them loose when you're satisfied that they understand what's good scientific practice and what's not. Good labs already do this. Lots of labs do not.

4. Pay attention to the exceptions. Create an atmosphere where inconsistencies are valued instead of punished.

Any time you get a result you don't expect, that's telling you something. Often it's telling you your original hypothesis was wrong, or at least partly wrong.

Other times it says you have technical problems in your lab that are probably not affecting just this experiment, but others as well.

Try to have a lab where people feel comfortable sharing their problems instead of feeling pressured to hide them.

Try not to have a lab where the atmosphere is so miserable, that one spineless person (how common are they? are they more common in science than in the general population?) will do anything to get a paper, get a job, and get out.

I fear it's more common than anyone wants to admit, and it's only going to become more common if the system continues on as it is.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

This too shall pass.

I hope it's okay that I'm reprinting this comment and then addressing it below.

Here's the comment in full:

Dear MsPhD, love your blog, have never commented before -- let me tell you MY situation, and please advise if you can.

I'm starting my 4th year of grad school after three full years (plus three years as a technician) working in a high-powered, MD-driven, hierarchical lab where I was fairly happy. In short, I was driven out of the lab because of a personal relationship I had with a junior faculty in the department - we are now engaged to be married. The PI, a clinical chairman and internationally renowned in his field, told me after 3 years that he could no longer mentor me -- not too much of a stretch, since his idea of "mentoring" was once monthly meetings to inform him what was happening with the project. Nevertheless, I was settled, productive and relatively happy in the lab. Would have graduated ahead of schedule.

I had only a short time to find a new advisor, and went to a lab which I was led to believe was equally well funded, well renowned, etc. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The new lab is staffed with four technicians, one post-doc and one other grad student. The techs run the show, and treat me as a hapless underling even though I've been doing this for 6 years, have spoken at international meetings, and am generally considered at the top of my grad school class. Now I have techs trying to impose their own lack of skill (they can't get an assay to work if their life depended on it) onto me and my project. The PI is approaching retirement, ruled by his techs, and clearly disinterested in moving the research forward in an aggressive way. I don't want to rock the boat, or revolutionize their lab -- I just want to graduate, and I'm one paper away. I feel such rage with my previous advisor over what happened to me, and I feel myself slipping into downright depression over the dismal situation in my current lab, where they have one functional p1000 between the 8 of them. Arrgghhhh!! I don't want to change labs again (i've only been here for 6 weeks), but I'm worried my technical skills will start to slip, and my committee chair (very supportive of me) told me people may start to think of me negatively because of my association with this lab. What to do??


So here is my advice.

Let me first say I totally feel your pain. But hey, congratulations on your engagement! At least your personal life is going pretty well, eh? Try to remember that you are a person before you are a scientist.

So first, I'll give you the bad news, because it's mostly bad news. Then I'll give you the good news.

The bad news is, you might be better off leaving this lab. If it's that bad after only 6 weeks, it's only going to get worse. You have to get out now if you're going to get out, but you better be damn sure that wherever you go will be someplace you can stay.

No matter what you do now, this is really going to be a test of your skills, your strength, and your patience.

It will be a test of whether you were receiving recognition in part because of your first PI's reputation. You may find that the quality of your work is the same, but the impact of your work will be less. You may have to find other, more creative ways to get the recognition you deserve. And you might not get it now, not for this work you've been doing as a grad student, and maybe not for a long while. But you will have other projects in other places, there will be more chances and that part will get easier as you move up the ladder.

The bad news is, no matter where you are, I think you already know this, you just have to suck it up.

Put your head against the brick wall and PUSH.

At this point, in this lab or another one, you're pretty close to finishing, so focus on getting your experiments done. Get your papers published, write your thesis, and get out.

Sounds simple, right?

The bad news is, it will be harder than it should be. It is always harder when you're working with people who know less than you do, and aren't smart enough to know it or even consider your input. It's always harder when you're working with people who don't share your high standards. And if you move again, you're going to lose more time.

I'm going to tell you what other people have told me, and it sucks that it has to be this way, but no matter where you are, you have to do whatever it takes to survive. Hoard pipettes. Work at night and on the weekends when you can hog the equipment.

It sounds like you've already tried to talk to your PI, and that didn't work, so I'm not going to suggest that will solve all your problems. But you might keep trying to gently bring the PI to see things your way.

Meanwhile, you can try to tune out the techs, or better yet, try to get them on your side. Bring in brownies, try to get them to like you, even if they don't yet respect you and take your advice. It's an experiment, but it might work, and it's a very useful skill to develop.

You don't want or have time to revolutionize this lab. I get that. But it's up to you whether you want to try to get them to help you or if you want to take the long way around.

There is no direct way to get where you want to go if the techs are a major obstacle. So you've got to go around them, or through them, or try to knock them down. Going around them might take twice as much work as it would if they weren't there. Knocking them down will be hard unless you have allies in the lab who agree that the techs are a terror.

What do the techs want? Food? Authorship? Long coffee breaks? If you can bribe them to move aside and just stay out of your way, it will be a whole lot easier.

If none of that seems like it will work, get out of that lab NOW and find somewhere that you can work, with a PI who wants to publish papers.

[aside: Not that it matters much, but can't the junior faculty member help you out at all with basic supplies and infrastructure?]

The good news is that you can get through this if you work hard and keep your thesis committee chair on your side. You really only need one person, ideally two, to genuinely support you to graduate, provided that no one else cares enough to try to block you, they will go along with your chair and your PI.

I know it doesn't seem like it now, but working in a 'bad' lab can teach you a lot. You've already learned to appreciate how good you had it in your other lab. You're probably learning all sorts of things NOT to do, like how NOT to be a PI, what techs NOT to hire. Try to look at it as part of your experience that will make you stronger than your peers who have had it easy all along, and some of this information might come in handy later on.

Meanwhile, I'm sure by now you regret agreeing to leave your other lab, for whatever lame reason your lame advisor cooked up, even if it seemed to make sense at the time.

Because by now you know that even with a total lack of mentoring, it's better to be in a lab where you can actually get work done.

These are the tradeoffs we all have to make. Best to learn it now than find out the hard way when you're a postdoc, as a lot of people do.

I'm curious though, did you try to fight to stay? Do you wish you had fought harder? Would you want to go back if you could? Do you think they'd agree to let you go back just for 1 more year to finish up and graduate?

But assuming it's too late now to go back (?), that doesn't mean you have to stop being angry.

USE YOUR RAGE. But also be patient. Being angry can be good, so long as it's not stopping you from getting work done. But don't be depressed. This is a solvable problem, and as a scientist you are a good problem solver. Just look at it as strategically as you look at your research, and break it down into pieces you can handle. One thing at a time, one day at a time, keep moving toward your goal.

Things like this, and much more insidious things, happen almost every year at almost every grad school in the world. You are neither the first person nor the last. It's totally unfair and stupid and bad for science.

Some of us know that we've already lost a lot of good young scientists, just like you, for reasons that have nothing to do with abilities or productivity.

So try to remember that it's not you, it's them. It's a problem with the system. And if you stay in the system, if you BEAT the system, you can move up and change it so things like what happened to you don't keep happening again and again.

After that, find a good postdoc lab, preferably in a different field, and you should be able to put this behind you. Or hey, go to industry if that's what you want to do. Or do something else. But get your PhD first, just to show them, and yourself, that you can.

Put your eye on the tiny flicker at the end of the tunnel, and whatever you do, just keep going. Getting a PhD is mostly a test of perseverance.

And do check back in and let us know how it goes. We'll be thinking of you.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

People who have helped me

A couple of posts ago, someone suggested that, rather than always writing about people who have screwed me over, I should write about people who have helped me.

The first female science teacher I had who liked me was in junior high school. She used to tell my parents that I should be a scientist, but I was embarrassed by the attention in front of the other kids, and really couldn't understand why she was impressed with me. I wasn't more enthusiastic about her class than I was about others, and I definitely didn't feel like I excelled at science. At all. I just wanted to go home and read novels in my bedroom with the door shut.

In high school, my only female science teacher was for a biology class. So she was an influence, even though I didn't realize at the the time how rare female science teachers were, much less science teachers of her caliber. She was outstanding.

I also had a physics teacher who was really patient with me, and I remember being excited about his class because he was very theatrical and always did lots of demonstrations that made everything seem fundamentally important to real life. I wasn't the best student in the class, by a long shot, but I always appreciated that he was not the sort to play favorites and that I was just lucky enough to have a good teacher.

In college, I had a TA for biology who encouraged me to take the hardest classes I could find, and join a lab as soon as possible. That was good advice.

My freshman year biology seminar was taught by a guy who gave a weekly assignment to read a journal article and ask three questions about it. I loved that guy! He treated us like young colleagues who might have interesting ideas, rather than the peanut gallery audience, as some lecturers did.

I worked in several labs as a student, and had several people take me under their wing and answer my stupid questions. A technician taught me molecular biology, and I worked with a very patient graduate student in a chemistry lab. They spent a lot of time with me and I don't know if I thanked them as much at the time as they deserved. I did email them years later to say thank you and tell them I got a PhD. They didn't sound surprised at all, which of course surprised me. But they didn't know how often, during grad school, I wondered how I would ever finish.

I worked with two women graduate students during college, neither of whom is in academia anymore. I find that discouraging, since one was a fantastic teacher, and the other is an incredibly creative person. Both of them were role models, so to see them become discouraged and feel that they had no choice but to look elsewhere, to me typifies the kind of negative signals young women receive all the time in science. To this day, seeing women get beaten down and leave is the most frustrating thing for me.

None of the PIs I worked with were women, until much later. There was a senior female postdoc in one of the labs who always encouraged me. Well actually she told me to go to medical school instead of graduate school, and at the time I just laughed at her, but later I realized why she said that. Especially in the current climate, it's much easier to get funding, even to do basic research, if you have an MD. There are a lot of grants specifically for clinical fellows and researchers, and MDs are generally also eligible for everything PhDs can apply for. So it just gives you more options. But I still think I would have hated medical school. Too regimented.

And I have to thank my best friend from grad school. She knows, but I would never have made it through without her. I count myself very lucky to have made such good friends in grad school.

Even if she does ask me periodically if I'm not sure I don't want to quit.

She has a hard time seeing me suffer, and I know that she can't help asking, even though she knows the answer is always the same: I'm not ready to give up yet. I'm always setting these goals, and saying "we'll see after that, I just want to do this one more thing." And it has been like that for several years now.

After that, it gets blurry. Maybe it's too soon, but it's hard for me to really be grateful to very many people who helped me in grad school or as a postdoc, since most of them did it grudgingly and only because I wouldn't take no for an answer.

I don't count my friends, of course. I mean the faculty and staff whose job it was to help me, as a student.

In most cases, getting help from them was a double-edged sword. Almost every person who inspired me also discouraged me or made my job harder than it needed to be, whether they meant to or not.

There was one female postdoc- also not in academia anymore- who gave me a good piece of advice that I'll always remember. She said when she felt like quitting science, she would go to the library and read non-specialist magazines that talked about other kinds of research, like astronomy or automotive engineering.

Just as a reminder that there was a reason we got into this. Sometimes it's really good to remember how to get excited about the wow-ness of what we do. The forest, instead of the trees.

There have been tons of people who have helped me in little ways over the years. The person who dropped what they were doing to help me find something. Probably hundreds of those. The person who answered a random email from a stranger halfway across the world. At least dozens of those.

But I'm still always amazed by the kindness of strangers. It's not a given, by any means, that people will help you. For every email I've sent and gotten help, I've probably sent three others that came back with an unhelpful answer, or else I never received a response at all. So that makes me really appreciate it when I email someone and the person responds right away.

I've had several collaborators like that, and in every case I count myself lucky that we crossed paths at the right time and had an excuse to work together.

I think the most altruistic people are the emeritus professors, whom I've never met in person but whom I've emailed long after their retirement to ask about some paper they published 20 or even 40 years ago. In most cases they've tried really hard to help me, and it was always clear that they just enjoyed the excuse to talk about science. I've learned a lot from them.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Your figures are my leftovers.

It's that time again. Time to catch up on reading and re-reading, time to decide what's believable, what's admirable, and what's trash.

Although the trend these days in journals like Cell is towards 6-8 Figures + 5-10 Supplemental Figures, with the number of Supplemental pieces ever-increasing, a lot of it is stuff the likes of which I have in my notebook but would never show the light of day.

As in, I thought it was important enough to do, but not important enough to reproduce at publication quality.

In my book, that means I won't be publishing it.

So why does everyone else?

Q: Does it help to overwhelm the reviewers by sheer quantity?
A: Yes, it helps get papers published that wouldn't otherwise be published.

Q: Do the additional data actually support their point?
A: Not usually. In fact, usually the opposite.

Where supplemental data used to mean, "stuff we did just in case" or "negative results but we want to show that we tried", now it means "stuff that doesn't fit with our model but we don't want to highlight that fact" and "lower quality figures and please don't look too closely at them or you'll notice that".

I understand the temptation to throw in everything including the kitchen sink, but what worries me most is the trend toward putting critical control experiments in supplemental, as if they're not important because they're not interesting enough.

One reason science is not fiction is just this:
We don't ever just take your word for it. You have to show the data.

The boring controls are always the most important, because without those, I don't care what nifty new result you got with your nifty new technology.

When you pile stuff up high and trumpet it to the heavens, but the underpinnings are built on a house of cards, it's going to fall down.

Is this what reviewers are coming to expect, that you should include your entire notebook as Supplementary Figures but they aren't going to examine it with as critical an eye as they do the Main Figures?

Huh?? I don't get it. Seems like a waste of everybody's time and a recipe for everyone to be embarrassed.

Maybe this is just one of those weird evolutionary cast-offs on the way to a fully internet-accessible database in the sky where everyone shares all data and science actually progresses at a much faster rate.

Like the first fish that tried to crawl out of the ocean (or whatever it was), maybe this is just an early mutated version of what's coming, and the progeny will be fit to survive.

I sure hope so.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Notes from the loony bin

In the past, I've read lots of books on how to deal with your manager, your co-workers, and random people you meet. How to negotiate, how to network, etc. etc.

As per, you know, what they say you should do "to help your career".

Ok. So. The problem with these books is, they all make one fatal assumption:

that the people you're dealing with are essentially "normal" people, "like the rest of us."

Unfortunately, when you put a bunch of people in a pressure cooker and shake it up, that is not what you're dealing with at all. All kinds of weird things come out in a pressure cooker.

And all you need is one loony in the bin to drive everyone else crazy. You know, how one bad egg spoils the dozen?

In almost every bin I've been in, there's been at least one person who was severely disturbed, for whom the regular medications were obviously not working.

You can't reason with crazy people. You can't negotiate with them, or predict how they might try to manipulate you, because they might not even realize that the inconsistencies in their own stories don't make any sense.

They might try all kinds of things that a "normal" person would never try to do.

Worst of all, even in the case where you might notice blatant inconsistencies, it's hard to know what to do with that information. Call the university hotline? Call a doctor? Call the police?

Lately my favorite, seemingly harmless type, is the person who says one thing repeatedly for a while, only to turn around and say the exact opposite a little while later, without explaining why or even acknowledging that they've changing their mind.

I've tried to sit around and guess the reasons why a rational person might change their mind, and then change the subject when you ask them why.

In some cases it's obvious, just insecurity or you actually managed to convince them.

But mostly it was a waste of time. If the motive is unknown, or what new information might now be in the equation, it's really hard to guess.

It's easy to wonder if maybe they just... forget?

I'm wondering if I need to get some more books on psychology, though. Then at least I might know which are the red flags? So I won't mistake, you know, manipulativeness for mental defect or disease?

Or the other way around.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fair exchange

Someone asked why it's harder for Americans to get postdoc positions in Europe than it is for Europeans to get postdoc positions in the US.

First of all, I don't think I said anything about Europe or Europeans per se, I think I said "foreign". That includes China, Japan, Canada, India, Scandinavia, etc.


aside: I was amused to read recently that India actually is the largest manufacturer of people with PhDs.


But to answer your question, in a lot of countries, there is pressure to leave and do a postdoc in the US. So mechanisms have been set up for that, where a lot of countries have funding explicitly for a postdoc to take with them to the US.

The US has very little in the way of equivalent money for postdocs to work abroad.

And those same countries who send their PhDs over here are not really set up to receive a lot of postdocs (correct me if this is not really true).

But actually the point I was trying to make was about JOBS, as in faculty positions.

The US is one of the only countries that does not openly discriminate and say explicitly in their job ads that preference will be given to citizens, as Canada, France, and a few others do. That doesn't mean Americans can't get positions abroad, because they do. But the implication is that it's harder if you're not a citizen.

I actually know more people who came to America for a postdoc and got a faculty position in the US than I do American citizens who have their own labs in the US.

Really. I've counted.

In the hierarchy of White American Academic (WAA) preferences, it seems to go like this for hiring faculty:

White American male
Foreign male
Some women*
Some minorities*

*but only if absolutely forced to by affirmative action


Monday, August 13, 2007

Turd blossom.

I heard this phrase used to describe Karl Rove this morning, apparently Bush uses it as his pet name.

I love it, I really do. And it so summaries how I feel in general right now.

But now I want to mention something I think I've mentioned before, because it still makes me furious:

The Chronicle of Higher Education refers to postdocs as "students".

Yup, we're lumped in with undergrads, and grads.

I mean, "graduate student" always seemed a bit oxymoronic to me.

But in some places on the site, we're even referred to as "postgraduate students".

How's that for an oxymoron?!

If I've ever thought about leaving academia, the reasons are exemplified by the Chronicle. It's a repository for politics and a shrine to hierarchy.

Is there a single equivalent for industry, a clearinghouse of hirings, firings and rumors? Or are those things just scattered through myriad publications with expensive subscription fees?

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Detection methods: harmless idiots or scheming assholes?

You know how sometimes it's easy to assume a European guy is gay because he's more sensitive and better dressed than your average American straight guy?

The theme for today is: how do you know if someone is actually try to fuck you over, when it's possible they're just really bumbling idiots who are too self-absorbed to care if their actions affect others?

I've realized of late that this is a big problem for me. My gaydar is okay, but my idiot meter is on the fritz.

I've been trying to lower my standards, not expect so much, not be so hard on people, but I think it is backfiring.

Then I don't know if I'm giving people more credit than they deserve? Are they really that clever? Am I really more unlucky than anyone else?

Or am I really surrounded by so much incompetence that it's hard not to end up with fallout all over my face?

Is there really anywhere better? Is this as good as it gets? Can't I just expect to find more of the same no matter where I go, because I'll always have to work with people, and people generally suck?

Nothing like a friendly reminder at the end of the week that I would be very lucky if I could just be left alone to do my work.

Where is that ivory tower when I want to be up in one, and leave all the raving idiots below?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Hey, it worked!

Some of my experiments actually worked today!

Assuming I can go home without any major disasters, I'd say today was a pretty good day.


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trust in research

One of the comments on the last post reminded me of my friend, we'll call her Annie, who quit science partly because the lab she worked in as a grad student was in the business of producing and publishing a giant load of crap.

I was talking to another grad student today who feels the same way.

Ahh, the cycle of research life. It's so beautiful. I'm looking forward to when he pupates.

Another comment mentioned something about how the work "now" (government or industry was implied) is "more rigorous and true" than in academia.

These things, taken together, make me sad. I really do have faith in science, absent of the politics anyway. Not that such a thing really exists outside of my personal vacuum, but hey, most days I like it in my vacuum. Whoosh!

Case in point: I love it when things I did, or ideas I've had, are proven, over and over again, by other people.

Something I proposed in a grad school exam got published by a very respectable lab in a top tier journal.

This amused me no end, because the professor who graded my exam thought my idea would never work, and gave me a low score.

But I'd like to think that, despite one commenter's description of my career as "quixotic" (great word btw, I'll always be amused by insults phrased with good vocabulary), I really do have a good head for science.

Similarly, every now and again I get to do an experiment or read a paper that relates to my thesis project (from the days of yore). It is so gratifying to see people are working on this stuff and taking what I found and making it more applicable to what I really care about: human disease. It is reproducible by multiple people in multiple labs, all over the world.

I love that!

I can see, on the other hand, how sitting in journal clubs and lab meetings as a grad student in a lab that manufactures and manipulates giant loads of crap.... would lead a person to believe that research is mostly crap.

I too have had this experience. Some groups just like to shred everyone else's hard work, while glorifying their own.... crap.

Right now I'm lucky enough to interact with a few people who are genuinely constructive when I ask for feedback on my work. Even the relatively nasty people I can't avoid usually make good scientific sense and my work is stronger for it. This hasn't always been the case, so I appreciate it more now than I would have when I was younger.

I think the key to navigating the sea of information is knowing how to evaluate what's reasonable and believable and what's not.

It's really easy to feel overwhelmed by the literature, for example, and not know what to believe, if you're in grad school or a new postdoc in a new field, and you're not armed with the basics.

I really think the least we can do for students is give them the tools they really need. I always say I've forgotten the vast majority of information I memorized for exams in school, but I know the concepts. I went out of my way to learn the concepts I knew I would need, and that guides me. I went outside the curriculum, I read things on my own, I did whatever I had to do. I didn't get perfect grades and I didn't care. But I learned a heck of a lot of useful stuff.

Most of the mistakes I see people making in lab- on a daily basis, mind you- stem from a complete lack of fundamentals.

I think (and blog) a lot about why smart people leave research and academia in particular.

My friend "Annie" is very smart, smart enough to think critically about other people's work, and her own, and notice the problems.

However, Annie was not so good at seeing the forest for the trees when it came to her thesis project. And she had no creativity for science, which I always found odd since she's a very creative person.

Annie had no ideas for projects of her own, or new approaches that would help her put at arm's length some of the problems with her lab and the approaches her advisor suggested.

One of the things I like best about science is that if you have a good eye for interesting problems, the challenge is in figuring out how to ask the questions in a meaningful way that will give you meaningful answers.

One of the hardest things for me was learning that sometimes you have to go against your advisor to do things the right way.

I'm okay with that now. I've learned that they generally will forgive me if I bring them nice data.

But I have to admit, and maybe not everyone feels this way, but it never bothered me that I have to sort through the crap to figure out what I believe.

To me it's not much different from religion or the news. A lot of it is crap. But I know what makes sense to me, logically and intuitively, and what doesn't.

Actually I got into science partly because somewhere along the way I realized that the stuff in textbooks isn't all true, and that excited me. So I like looking for the holes.

The trick is getting people to relinquish their textbook view of science. Once you get used to the idea that learning is better than knowing, you're halfway there.

I just wish we could get more people to realize this.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ethics question of the day

I don't know whether to file this under NIH, but maybe it's something they should find a way to address.

Which is worse?

a) agreeing to review a paper which you know competes with a colleague of yours (conflict of interest)?
b) not telling your colleague that you know they're about to get scooped by this paper you agreed to review (breach of confidentiality)?
c) both?

How often do you think this happens?

a) rarely
b) never
c) sometimes
d) way more often than you want to know about

On my mind today is the moral aspect of science. Some of us actually do it to try to help improve the world, and in doing that we also feel some obligation to make the academy, as one astute commenter put it, "fairer".

It strikes me as interesting that many of the industry trolls are defensive about their choices. I don't mean to imply that people who go to industry are in any way bad people. I'm just saying it's not what I want. So why the big fuss over what I write here?

There are three major groups of people who have commented on this blog thus far:

a) people who want to see me quit, because they think I'll be happier
b) people who are in a similar boat to me
c) people who are afraid they'll be in my boat soon enough and are wondering if they can get out now

To those of us who are already in the boat, I love the comments in support of improving the academy. I really need to hear, at least once in a while, that I'm not in this alone.

For those who have chosen to leave academics, good for them if they're happier. It's clear from the comments and continuing interest in this blog (and the few who have recently jumped ship, good riddance!) that there's always agony in the choice and some may even still regret it.

But it makes me downright angry when they belittle my wanting to make the system fairer.

Where on earth are they going to get people to hire into their companies if the academy goes away completely? And isn't it a worthy goal to want to make the process of evaluating science and scientists more... scientific? Objective, even?

Okay, so maybe I sound a little martyred some days. I'm sorry for that because it is disgusting in its own way. There are a lot of days when I'm not sure if I should choose to fall on my sword.

I just wonder what will happen if science continues to get worse, and nobody wants to make it better?

Right now in my field, there's a weird phenomenon in progress. Several papers have come out in the last year that all make the same, erroneous claim, for different reasons. It's bizarre because they all use the other papers to support their claim, and none of them address previous publications to the contrary.

I can only conclude that they've all be reviewing each other's papers, and seen each other at meetings presenting the work, so they might have even agreed to publish around the same time, figuring there would be strength in numbers.

What's sad is that they're all fooling themselves, and neither the editors at these journals nor anyone outside the field appears to be aware of it in the slightest.

I've spoken with some of them about the discrepancies and they're just defensive about it, have no interest whatsoever in getting the right answer to the scientific question.

Instead they're closing ranks, and in some ways this is the scariest thing I've ever seen in science.

For those of you who have been reading these blogs, you know that's saying a lot.

It's kind of like groupthink, where they all point to each other as justification for believing something that just isn't true. It must be true because everyone believes it, right?

Since everyone has a job or a grant at stake all the time now, they have every reason to defend their publications and no reason to want to set the record straight.

Is that corruption? Or just a total lack of morality? Aren't those the same thing?

Until we figure out how to prevent things like this from happening, science is screwed, and so is anyone else hoping to get cures for human diseases.

Who knows how long these kinds of fairy tales are going to derail research and send it in the wrong direction? How many papers and grants are going to be triaged because they appear to conflict with "the bulk of the current literature"?

And doesn't anybody give a damn?

And if they did, would there be a way to do anything about it?

It's not as if there's a governing body that would review the evidence and sort out things like this.

(I was going to say Supreme Court until I remembered the recent Ledbetter decision... and I realized that wouldn't solve anything because you can always still stack the courts).

One idea I was discussing yesterday with a friend would be to require a more thorough review of the literature when papers are submitted.

If most editors at the top journals aren't actually educated in the fields they're publishing, and they don't know the politics well enough to realize they're sending papers to all the wrong people to review, the least they could do is check.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007

Dear other readers,

I know you're still out there, despite the embittered industry trolls who seem to hijack every third post.

I promise to try not to get dragged into those debates anymore, because I really don't care what those people think about who I am or what I should do with my life.

To a couple of people who send kindly worded yet still insulting advice, I appreciate that you at least try to word it kindly. But you'll excuse me if I continue to ignore it.

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Rodney Dangerfield Disease: I don't get no respect.

It bugs me when I help someone with their project

and I say "You need to do X, Y and Z because it would tell us if it's A, B or C"

and then they go talk to Famous PI Guy who says

This is very interesting! It is probably A, B or C.

and then they come back and report to me that

"Famous Guy said it's probably A, B or C!"

like it's news and I'm going to be impressed with this Famous Guy's unique insight.

And I don't know whether it was mentioned to Famous Guy that I was helping them, and suggested not just the same idea, but how to actually test it, too.

I understand that the reality of the system is that you have to go talk to a big famous PI, maybe even make them an author, if you want your paper to get published in a big famous journal. I get that. And you have to make them feel included, even if it means pretending they gave you great advice that you had already heard before.

What annoys me is when the person I'm helping doesn't say,

"Hey, I know we talked about talking to Famous Guy, I'm going to go meet with Famous Guy this week and just see what he says about what we've done so far",

you know, just to keep the lines of communication open

And the report afterwards is never, ever,

"Hey, he said just what you said! It's good to know we're on the right track and thank you again for all your help and I made sure to tell him how much you've done for this project."

It makes me wonder why I bother helping anyone?

I guess I bother because I enjoy it, the journey anyway, even if the end product helps someone else a lot more than it helps me, they did more of the work so that's fair.

And I do get little benefits here and there, exchange of reagents and that sort of thing does go more easily when you have lots of good will.

But there's nothing to make me feel stepped on more than the total lack of acknowledgment for my ideas. Maybe because it's the only currency that really matters to me.

I guess people like to use money as a reward, for example, in industry, because this is one way of acknowledging input. But I wouldn't want to get paid off, for example, in exchange for not being an author.

But for now I'm going to hold onto my idealistic hope that this person I've been helping will at least make me a co-author in the end, and that seeing this paper and this person succeed will be reward enough? That I will eventually have this person as a colleague, who will be more secure and more gracious in the future?

That when it's all said and done, I'll be proud to have been associated with this project, even if nobody really knows how much.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

The debate continues: is industry really better?

Yes, I'm sure it sounds like a broken record, both from me and from the commenters.

Funny how commenters usually refuse to read the archives, and so they show up and just ask the same "why don't you...?" questions over and over.


In response to the joke that I "now" have a friend in industry:

I do have friends in industry, quite a few in fact. They've been there for a while. I talk to them frequently. I hear all about industry.

Most of my friends are just as stressed out as I am, since it's never clear if their companies are doing well or if they are, for how long that will last.

If the big drug fails in clinical trials, everyone gets axed. And you're screwed even if you're not one of the people who gets laid off early, because morale goes down like the Titanic. And nobody wants to work in a place like that.

Meanwhile there are no openings anywhere because everyone who just got laid off is out snatching them up.


Despite having been hired with research oriented job descriptions, three of my friends have gotten suckered into doing what's essentially glorified sales and tech support, just to try to keep their companies and their jobs afloat.

Meanwhile they're on LinkedIn, desperately networking, because they've signed contracts barring them from taking a job with any of their current company's clients that they've met while doing sales...!

Gosh, sales and tech support! That sounds like loads of fun!

....Oh wait, I wouldn't want to do that in a million years.

Yeah. No thanks.

As I've said before:

Maybe the people aspects are better because everyone isn't squabbling over pennies like we do in academia?

I'm sure that, like in academia, some places are better than others.

And I'm sure interesting things get done and that I would probably be happy doing them somewhere, if I hadn't found a project I like so much that just isn't application-oriented at all.

Lately I'm more interested in basic principles than I am in applications, but I can certainly see how that would be fun, too.

I guess one component that most people don't mention is my impression that there are more rules in industry.

I know there are very strict regulations on anything that will be used clinically, how the stuff is made and quality control and all of that. I have one friend who has to have someone sign her lab notebook every day, like a notary, to verify what she's been doing and that she's been writing it all down correctly.

Gaaah! That would drive me crazy!

So I might have mentioned this before but... I hate rules. HATE them.


And I'm just not convinced that making more money would make any of my real problems go away, unless I can buy some magic Asshole Repellent Spray that works everywhere and lasts at least 12 hours??

I think I saw some in a boutique when I was on vacation at a spa...

Clearly such things are beyond my budget on a postdoc salary.

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