Monday, July 30, 2007

Weird day.

Found out today that yet another postdoc friend is quitting academia for an industry job.

I'm still in shock. This person is really good, and seemed genuinely interested in science, not super negative about long hours or low pay, and not any more ambivalent about academia in general than I am...?

But I'm also gleeful.

Another one bites the dust! More jobs for me! Yippeee!

And I keep thinking,

Man, they're dropping like flies!

So I'm still processing, I guess, how I feel about this.

Hooray for dead flies?

I also got a reagent from somebody else's lab for an experiment... but it probably won't work.

How do I know it won't work? Because along with the reagent, I got a 15 minute disclaimer about how the protocol for using it doesn't make any sense and how it's not reliable, but that's how they do it, even though sometimes it doesn't work, and then they just do it over again.

I mean, you could say about almost any experiment or reagent that sometimes it doesn't work, and then you just do it over again. But when you emphasize how unreliable it is? Are you kidding me? This is not a good sign.

So, great, thanks! Good thing it's published and that paper is why you got your faculty position, you stupid *$%@!


In other news, another reagent I got from a different lab is also turning out to be complete crap, also has been published and is also the reason another #*%! got a job.

Lucky me, I now have to do a bunch of extra experiments, which will probably never get published, just to prove to my PI that these reagents are crap! Absolute crap!

But it's not as if, when confronted with these data, these *$%& will say, "Oh my god, you're absolutely right! How could we have been so foolish! We should retract that paper right now! How embarrassing!"

No, that won't happen.

And it's not as if confronting them with these data would make them respect me more. In all likelihood, it would only help to further torpedo my career, since they would get mad, get defensive, attack me, hold a grudge, and proceed to tell all their friends to reject every paper and grant I might submit from now until eternity.

[aside: Can you further torpedo something like a career when it's already really sucky? Sometimes it's hard to tell whether you've really hit bottom. I saw a t-shirt the other day that said "Career suicide" all over it.]

In other news, lately I'm so annoyed, I find myself adopting a kind of Dolores Umbridge voice when I'm talking to myself in the lab.

You know, you do it too, when you're alone and juggling lots of samples, you say, "Okay, now what was I looking for?" and any number of other things like that, directed at the pipettes and the tubes. I'm right, right?

Well lately my pipette voice has become freakishly perky, because I'm literally that annoyed, ALL THE TIME.

But hey, maybe it's a good thing. I suspect most people wouldn't know I'm in a permanent state of sarcasm, and would instead be impressed that I've learned to adopt a more Positive Attitude!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Thanks, Hillary.

The best Hillary quote I've heard yet: Pay attention to your hair, because everyone else will.

You go, girl. That's a great message to send!

I like this brief summary after I heard on Meet the Press about how she attended a hair stylist convention.

I realize that she's trying to joke about it, but she's no Kathy Griffin. Seems to me most everything Hillary says or does, everyone takes very seriously.

I guess that can be both a good and bad thing.

Check out this article where they drew attention to what she's wearing (they have a picture) and claimed that she was showing "cleavage" - and made a HUGE deal about it.

I mean, COME ON!

And here I have to tolerate co-workers who make excuses for why they "can't help noticing" women's anatomy at work.

The article contains another gem of a quote, for those of you who might not have known:
"After all, it wasn't until the early '90s that women were even allowed to wear pants on the Senate floor."

Equality, my ass. Americans are so repressed, it's no wonder we're lagging behind all these other countries who have already had women presidents.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Volume 1: Challenges of the NIH system of support

As per my last post, the series begins.

1. Challenges of NIH System of Research Support
Please describe any specific challenges presented by NIH’s support of biomedical and behavioral research such as the current array of grant mechanisms, number of grants awarded per investigator, and the duration of grants."

Let me just describe my perception of this, since I'm only an NIH employee in the most indirect sense. Perhaps it will be useful to some to get the perspective of how much a random postdoc presumes to know about how these things work. Hopefully anything I get horribly wrong will be corrected by alert readers.

Hmm. Specific challenges. Let's see.

The overall goals of the NIH aren't really clear, but I presume one needs to know what those are to know what challenges are inherent in reaching those goals. I guess I always assumed that NIH has two goals:

(1) find treatments for current patients
(2) research future treatments and diagnostics for things we can't catch early enough/don't know how to treat right now

So the challenges of that are to fund both:

a) practical, applications-oriented clinical trials
b) riskier, investigative studies

That's already a tall order.

Problems inherent in all of this:

- A wide variety of research areas requires lots of 'experts'
- Really expensive to fund all this (though only about as much as 1 day of the Iraq war)

I think my favorite image of NIH is the one of the grants room where your printed grant application goes when you mail it in. An RO1 (not that I've written one myself) is a very tall stack when all the copies are put together, so there is literally a room at the NIH stacked wall-to-wall, to the ceiling, with paper.

Of course I'm hearing lately that the new online system is actually more time consuming and disaster-prone than the paper version, so there are inherent challenges just in the basic execution of the steps:

Step 1: receive grants
Step 2: sort grants
Step 3: don't lose anybody's grant or pieces thereof (have heard plenty of horror stories about these things happening with alarming frequency).

Obviously my big complaints, at this point in my career, about the current array of grant mechanisms has largely to do with two things:

1. Why are we funding companies, who can charge money for their products, and foreign labs, who have their own taxpayers, with American taxpayer money when we can't even afford to fund all our American academic scientists?

2. Oh yeah, and while I'm asking, why do we have to pay taxes on our pittance government fellowships in grad school and during postdocs? Do any voting laypeople realize how stupid that is??

3. Why aren't there genuinely independent grants available for young scientists? Why do I have to get bullshit recommendation letters just to get my research proposal reviewed??

As for number of grants awarded per investigator, this is a major point of contention between the Haves and the Have-Nots.

If you Have a lot of grants, you don't see why you shouldn't be allowed to Get More.
If you Have Not a grant, you don't see why the same people get all of them.

From a totally obective, scientificky point of view, you'd think that if grant reviews were anonymous, that would be best.

Then quality would matter most, and if your new grants are good, you'd get them funded, regardless of whether you already have too many or if you've never had one before.

Okay, fine. But. In reality, I'm told, most sub-specialities are so small that grant review sections usually can tell whose grant is whose, even if the names were blacked out, they would know who they were from.

So I think the central challenge of not just the NIH, but science in general, is: CORRUPTION.

There, I said it.

We'd all like the think that science is this inherently noble profession, that we're all honest and just want to get the right answer.

But thanks to the competition for funding and jobs, the NIH suffers from a general mafioso atmosphere.

That is to say, you pay Tony Soprano, and he takes care of you.

I'm not saying there's literally cash changing hands, but there are fancy dinners with lots of wine, and there's definitely an "I'll scratch your back you scratch mine" attitude.

Also true for publishing, of course.

Most people I know have gotten a grant funded (paper published) at one time or another because they knew someone on the committee (one of the reviewers), and vice-versa. Sometimes the same grant (paper) gets a crappy score in one study section, but gets high marks at another one, just because of who is on the committee (reviewers).

That's clearly not fair or objective or scientific at all!

But what are you going to do, have a computer review the grants? That won't happen anytime soon. So far as I know, machine learning hasn't come far enough to parse language and decipher logic at that level.

I still argue, as I always have, that grants should depend on one thing, and one thing only: the work proposed, and how well thought out that is.

It shouldn't matter what you've done before.

You might have gotten a Nobel prize: I DON'T CARE.

You should still have to do the same work as everybody else to prove that your ideas are supported by preliminary data.

Oh, and inherent in the funding challenge is that chicken and egg problem: how do people get preliminary data, if they don't have funding yet?

Simple: they get someone else to pay for it (for example, senior postdocs trying to get preliminary data for when they start their own labs), or they pay for it off one of their other grants.

Nobody really cares how you spend your grant money, so this is totally unregulated as far as I can tell. I know one PI who never, ever works on what she's funded to do, and yet she always gets more grants.

Why is that okay?

I have a friend, a cancer survivor, who asks me things like this a lot. She's an educated taxpayer, so she wants to know things like this. Why, she says, are we funding these people?

I guess this funnels nicely into the question of how long grants should last. Is it better to have short grants and reapply every year or two? Or these long career grants for 5-10 years.

I can firmly say with some conviction that funding anyone for 10 years is BAD. NIH stopped doing this, so far as I know, maybe because they figured this out for themselves the hard way.

Five years is maybe a little too long. I think 3-4 years is probably enough to keep the momentum going. Right now most PIs I know tend to wait around, thinking they've got 5 years, and that's a long time, right?

...And then end up scrambling the last few months to scrounge up enough data- I mean, hound their grad students, techs and postdocs to do last minute one-off, potentially unreproducible experiments just for grant figures.

Do people really do that, some of you might be asking?

YES, a resounding YES.

One of my favorite anecdotes is about the guy who crystallized a protein and put the pictures of the crystals in the grant, and got it funded, only to figure out later that he had purified a contaminant in his protein preps.

But hey, he got the grant, right? And he's under no obligation to tell NIH about his mistake, and no one will check up on him.

So preliminary data doesn't have to be right, it just has to look good.

Which is lame, really, but I guess I would rather that people at least try to come up with preliminary data, than not have any... except for the problem of how to pay for it.

Let me close by saying something I think I've said before, but I'll say it again:

I think writing grants, in principle, is a really useful and- dare I say it?- fun
part of the scientific enterprise, if only because it really is one of the only times we're given license- nay, we're paid!- to really think about what we're going to do next and what our current stock of data really imply.

But the room with paper stacked to the ceiling? The broken online submission systems? They need to fix those ASAP.


Monday, July 09, 2007

Ooh, homework!

I've been tagged to address the latest call for comments on the state of the NIH RFI (that's "request for information" for all you non-acronymites out there).

So here's the assignment, directly quoted from DrugMonkey:

Post the following RFI queries

1. Challenges of NIH System of Research Support
Please describe any specific challenges presented by NIH’s support of biomedical and behavioral research such as the current array of grant mechanisms, number of grants awarded per investigator, and the duration of grants.

2. Challenges of NIH Peer Review Process
Please describe any specific challenges presented by the current peer review process at NIH.

3. Solutions to Challenges
Please concisely describe specific approaches or concepts that would address any of the above challenges, even if it involves a radical change to the current approach.

4. Core Values of NIH Peer Review Process
Please describe the core values of NIH peer review that must be maintained or enhanced.

5. Peer Review Criteria and Scoring
Are the appropriate criteria ( and scoring procedures ( being used by NIH to evaluate applications during peer review? If not, are there changes in either that you would recommend?

6. Career Pathways
Is the current peer review process for investigators at specific stages in their career appropriate? If not, what changes would you recommend?

You can imagine how gleeful I am about this assignment! Muahahaha! (Insert rubbing hands together here). DrugMonkey requests a post on ONE of these topics- needless to say, I can't resist doing them all! And I'll probably do a series out of it or this will just be one really loonnnnng post.

First I'll say what I think the issues are, and then I'll flip to the back of the book and see what NIH actually says for each of these issues. That way we can get at the perceived implications and compare those with that they think they're asking.

Stay tuned.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

What's worst?

When I make lists, I can't help trying to put things in order. So in order of least annoying to most annoying thing that happened to me today, where would you rank these?


- Got <6 hours of sleep last night

- Getting a cold

- Getting cramps

- Can't seem to keep on top of basic chores like washing dishes and putting them away so there's room to wash more

- Equipment broken at work

- Wasting whole day to find that out... and realizing already wasted several days on preparing samples (and precious grant money to prepare samples)

- Collaborators who use crappy reagents and then send figures of that

- People who send gigantic attachments of things that don't need to be gigantic

- Departmental picnics where they require attendance... and then charge a fee for the food

- No mail for 3 days because postal worker seems to think the whole week is a holiday??

- Computer programs crashing

- Left my notebook at work so I can't decode my data

- 3 Netflix videos but none of them appealing right now


Maybe I'll just give up and go to bed. Tomorrow will likely be more of the same, but in theory getting some sleep will help with the top 3 things on this list, even if they're nowhere near the worst.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What's a holiday?

Did you work today (July 4th)?
No, are you crazy?
Yes, like any other day
I only went in to do essential stuff part of the day
My advisor was there so I had to be there too free polls

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Thanks for clicking through!

Whoo hoo! Imagine my amazement when I got home today and found a check- looking like junkmail of course- from Google adsense!

I could almost afford to quit science for.... a couple days!

More likely it might pay for a new pair of shoes... or contribute to my future iPhone fund!

Still, since we get ~ 2 pesos for each click-through, that's a lotta click-throughs!* Thanks for visiting!

And for once, I have good news. Or at least, a good mood.

In general this week (meaning the last 7 days or so) has been pretty good.

Things in lab are chugging along, slowly like a golf cart with an old battery moving uphill while complaining about the weather, but at a detectable rate and in the right direction.

I've been sleeping badly because it has been so hot, which initially always gives me a kind of happy delirium... until it catches up with me and I have a lack-of-sleep hangover. But for this week, as my best friend says sometimes, wheeeeee!

I have some fun work activities coming up soon, or maybe not fun but.... opportunities, we shall see. Some chances, and something to look forward to.

I am for the moment ignoring the fact that I know several people who are getting faculty position offers right now, and some of them aren't even leaving until next year (which I find astonishing). If I had an offer I'd be running toward the door so fast...

And the fact that my advisor is still failing to answer email or be in town, either one of which is excusable, but not both.

No, I'm ignoring all that so I can watch The Closer. Yeeeaaahhh!

*note that this is not an actual number, just something I made up because it sounded funny when I thought of it.

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