Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I remember first hearing the word dichotomy in college and thinking it was a wonderful way to discuss a concept I never had a word for. Since I've been thinking about internal conflicts this week, it seems fitting.

This morning The Today Show made me keep the tv on to hear this story about a kid who wants to cure his own rare form of cancer .

This story is very inspiring. I especially love the part when the interviewer is sitting with him in the lab and says something like, "Wow, it seems like such a time-consuming process, such an arduous task?! But this is cancer research?!"

That made me laugh. Here's to toiling in obscurity!

This kid is obviously motivated. He and his mom started a research foundation, and they obviously really care about getting something done.

This is literally research with life-or-death consequences.

And I thought, Gee, maybe I should be working with people like this?

Instead of the people I work with now, who are only in it to try to beat the rest of the ants to the top of the anthill.

I was thinking about how Lance Armstrong set such a good example with his own foundation, and how this is starting to become more of a trend.

I like that patient advocacy is getting more publicity.

The dichotomy is this: no matter how wonderful the funding intentions, the research is only as good as the people who choose which projects to fund.

I've met a couple of Armstrong fellows, and it just makes me wonder what kinds of applications these private foundations get?

The other dichotomy: I want this kid to succeed in curing his own cancer, I really do.

But I think it's unlikely that it will happen fast enough to help him (the average survival time with chordoma is 7 years).

Cynically, I think that if it's like everything else in research, people will claim their work is relevant to chordoma just to get the money.

They're not going to be honest with this kid and his mom when they talk about the expected rate of success for their proposals.

Part of what got me thinking about this was the dichotomy mentioned in this week's Nature about how the Nazis funded medical research.

On the one hand, lots of research came to a screeching halt because of the Nazis. Many researchers left Germany, or were forced out, or killed.

On the other hand, lots of researchers tweaked their research just enough to make it sound appealing to the Nazis, and took the money.

To me, this is just an extreme example of what goes on here and now. Everybody looks to see what's getting funded, and then tweaks their research programs and proposals to go where the money is.

The capitalists among you will say, "Well yeah, that's the point. How else are we supposed to attract researchers to work on the areas we think are important?"

Speaking of capitalism, I was talking about this the other day with a friend who wants to quit academia and start a company, and why that seems more appealing. The logic goes like this:

NIH, PIs and universities all suck at managing research money. There's a ton of waste.

We were talking about how much more could get done if anyone actually cared.

Hence the question, if it were really all life-or-death, would it be different?

We don't train people to manage money and employees when we train them to work at a bench, but it should be part of the training.

At the end of the day, when you get to the top of the anthill, it's the most important part of your job.

The ants at the top don't seem to know the first thing about how to do it.

But being a double-major in economics might not help you, because the normal rules of economics do not apply in research.

In other words, academic research dollars are monopoly money. They're not good for anything outside of research. It's not a free market.

You can't invest grant money. You don't even have that much choice about what you can buy.

You can't haggle over prices. There's not enough competition to drive research supply costs down. Sure, some things have gotten cheaper, like pipette tips and sequencing.

But if you want to buy an HPLC or a microscope? Forget it. You're lucky if the thing you want is made by more than one company.

And at most universities, if you made the mistake of hiring somebody awful, you can't even fire them.

There's no system of accountability, and nobody can figure out how to start one.

In contrast, if you start your own company, you manage the money, you hire and you fire. How you want, who you want, when you want.

Sounds pretty good, right?

It's not that simple, of course. Even if I wanted to work with a private foundation, I would still need an academic appointment somewhere, because to actually do research, you need infrastructure.

Infrastructure is expensive.

Just ask my friend who works at a startup, who is still begging and borrowing things from us at the university.

It's a strange ecology, this place with the funding agencies feeding the companies and the universities, and the universities feeding the companies, and the companies feeding the universities. It seems very unstable right now. Even as some people are telling me to "go to industry", I know there aren't that many jobs in industry, either.

It has to evolve, or collapse.

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At 3:05 PM, Anonymous CC said...

I like that patient advocacy is getting more publicity.

I dunno -- while I don't have a huge amount of respect for the process of distributing public research funding, I find it hard to imagine that terrified, clueless "advocates" will do a better job. And they're free to toss around their own money however they like, but I don't like the sway they're getting over how public money is allocated.

They're not going to be honest with this kid and his mom when they talk about the expected rate of success for their proposals.

It's not so much "dishonest" as it is the usual self-absorption of scientists. They genuinely do think that they're going to produce a couple of Western blots, after which the finding of a cure will be a mere detail of implementation.

BTW, "dichotomy" has nothing to do with the way you keep using it.

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lance Armstrong is a complete scumbag. He left his wife after she stood by him during his cancer treatment. He topped that off by leaving Sheryl Crow during her fight with cancer.

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course it is unstable. Systems far from equilibrium are the only ones with any real dynamics. Homeostasis is not a desirable end for research.

At the very top of the system are people who know how to do enough of the money/time/personnel management to make it all work. Or they bring into their lab middle managers (research faculty, lab coordinators, part time admins - whatever they need help with) and then work through them. If they were better at the non-researchy parts of their jobs than they needed to be, they would probably be doing something else.

The more time I spend around the people you so despise (the mostly older, mostly white, mostly men), the more I realize that there is a huge benefit to having been in the game for 20+ years. And a huge benefit to the system for retaining these individuals who have seen so much and actually have some wisdom and perspective.

And I'd like to point out that my first independent grant application got triaged. So I'm not walking through this process with huge blinders on. I'm just slogging through writing a second application and revising the first. It's what you've got to do.

Also, the funding agencies will be moving more money toward contracts and away from grants. It will take some time, but accountability will be imposed from above. Its a shame that they have to do this to deal with the relatively small number of bad eggs.

But really, why not start a company? Oh, right. You don't have a product that would compete in the external, non-academic marketplace...

PS, there only has to be one job for you. You don't need them all.

At 6:55 PM, Blogger EcoGeoFemme said...

Sometimes, spinng your research to match the interests of funders is not so bad. IMP, the reason my work is funded is a little bogus, but I still think it's important to do because the topic has much broader significance. Anything we learn about it will be useful even if it won't solve the problem it is funded to address.

At 7:47 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

I agree with about 98% of what you wrote.

My one 2% disagreement is that one thing I enjoy about being in academia and being a professor is that I do have control over who I "hire and fire" within my own research group. I try hard to recruit talented people to come here for graduate school, and then to recruit them to my own group (and keep them happy). Likewise when hiring postdocs and recruiting undergrad researchers. I feel I have pretty good control over the composition of my group, and that's who I spend a lot of time with.

And, fortunately, I have only rarely had to get someone to leave the group. Some in that category were grad students who did not pass their qualifying exam, and I think (hope) it was for the best for them that they moved on and found something else where they could be more successful.

Anyway, good post. I think about these sorts of things when I get a grant -- why the heck am I getting all this money and am I doing something useful with any of it?

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this has nothing to do with your current post...but I was leafing through your past blogs with amusement and thought I would drop a note. I just finished my PhD in biomed and it was tough - for various reasons that echoes similarities with your experiences. It was a difficult decision, but I finally decided that if I wasn't happy doing research, then, I not continue down this path (academia). It's just not worth it. I have to say, I haven't felt this happy and free for such a long time. When I read your blog, I really empathasize with you and wonder, why don't you consider trying something else?

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

CC, are you just having a really bad day or something?

I can honestly say that I have seen scientists openly state that they are lying about their research in order to get money. Some of them will do whatever it takes to get the money.

Anon 3:40,

Good points, all.

Anon 5:47,

It takes energy to maintain homeostasis. But that is an interesting point about dynamics. I don't want to argue about that today, but I will think about it some more.

I would disagree about people at the top bringing middle managers who are necessarily good. Middle managers tend to be only as good as the people hiring them.

So far as I can tell, it just gives the people at the top permission to ignore all the problems as beneath their concern.

And the vast majority of lab coordinators and admins that I've seen.... sucked.

They don't understand what's going on, and neither do the people at the top.

Worse than that, they don't care, and they don't want to learn.

NOBODY gets money for their first try on their first grant nowadays. So don't feel bad about that. You're definitely doing the right thing, slogging away.

Contracts vs. grants is an interesting point. I wonder if you would write more about that, or give us a link?

I like your point about only needing one job. Some days I can visualize the needle. Other days it just seems like a stack of hay.


Absolutely. But it's a continuum. And, to borrow a phrase from a political party I hate, a slippery slope. Ethically speaking.

a physicist,

I agree with 100% of what you wrote. I would like to think that if/when I hire people, and keep them happy, I will be happy too.

What drives me nuts is working in other people's labs who are not so good at hiring or noticing when people aren't happy. Where I work, the main problem is staff, not students or postdocs (who tend to turn over whether you want them to, or not). Staff get something even worse than tenure, which makes them nearly impossible to fire or even discipline.

In some cases they started out great, but got bored or otherwise went bad along the way. It's kind of a nightmare.

Anyway you sound like my kind of PI.

Anon 9:22,

I think about it a lot. The main reason, which I've mentioned from time in time in other posts, is that I like my project and I don't want to give it up just yet.

Most of the time, oddly, when I think about trying something totally different, it's when things are stuck and I wish I had quit earlier, when it would have been easier. It is always easy to see in hindsight when would have been the perfect quitting point.

But usually when things are stuck, I can see how they can be fixed, and then I want to try to finish my experiments just to get the answer. Just not to leave all these loose ends.

Lately I am questioning whether the answers & tying up loose ends are really worth the rest of it.

The cycle of "what about this?" to "can we do it?" to "it's not working" to "making it work" to "here's the answer" is not as exciting for me as it used to be.

And nevermind the "who's gonna pay for this" and the "who's gonna publish it" !


I'd like to think that if I had more help with the "can we do it" and "making it work" stages I could enjoy the rest for a long time, and put up with the $$ and the publishing problems that go along with all of it. But I don't know anymore.

I was talking to a student yesterday who said her stuff only works when she thinks it won't. I used to be like that, but I've gone past it and into the zen state of realizing that nothing works- experiments, career - until I can really distance myself from all of it, to really not care anymore. I tend to be too emotional and it gets in my way.

But when you don't care, you, um, don't care. And that's not really fun at all.

But I guess that's why they call it work?

At 11:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He topped that off by leaving Sheryl Crow during her fight with cancer.

That's untrue. Her cancer was after their breakup. But if you don't want his money -- hey, more for the rest of us.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous a physicist said...

Ms. PhD -- yeah, what drives me nuts is watching "other people's labs who aren't so good at hiring or noticing when people aren't happy." We recently denied tenure to someone with that problem, and it was frustrating to watch. Even though several of us tried to convince that particular PI to change his ways, he didn't listen.

Anyway, part of why I wrote my post is to give you a reason to continue in academia (knowing that you are thinking about this). I'm not saying everything is rosy, and pretty much you have an accurate view of lots of it. But I'm pretty happy that most of my day is spent teaching my own class (which I have lots of control over) and working with my own research group (which I have a lot of control over). The amount of time spent dealing with bored/bad staff, bored/bad/deadwood faculty, isn't so much, even though we have plenty of those people here. They just don't dominate my day, most days.

So, not to say you should definitely continue on in academia, but just trying to say that there are some positives. Mainly in that you can actually start correcting some of the flaws in the system, at least at a very local and personal level within your own classes and lab group.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

a physicist,

well I say watching, and I don't want to play the victim here, but really I am. Some of these labs I'm frequently ranting about are labs I have worked in/still work in.

True that these crappy people mostly don't dominate my day in the sense that I don't have to see them for the whole 8-12 hours that I'm here. But when you're at the mercy of always sharing everything, and have no control, they can literally ruin your day with just one act of selfishness. And depending on which day, that can ruin your week (or month if it takes 2 weeks to replace the thing they used up/year if they did something to jeopardize the whole lab's functioning-!).


Anyway, it's really sweet of you to remind me of the positives, I appreciate it. I had kind of a comically bad day, nothing awful, but nothing really went very well at all.

Maybe I'll blog about it later/tomorrow. Right now I need a beer and some dinner (and a little ranting to someone who can appreciate the details I can't post here!)

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i was extremely unhappy as a grad student, mostly b/c my boss was very inefficient with the lab budget and kept hiring awful people. awful scientifically moreso than personally.

now i am a postdoc and the bad hiring decisions haven't gone away. the only difference (at the moment) is i am in a very rich lab, and we can afford to have them. i am frequently annoyed but having money to buy your own secret supplies makes it somewhat bearable.

my experiences and watching others' experiencse give me the impression that crappy people will never go away. they are at all levels and at all institutions.

At 5:37 PM, Anonymous Abel Pharmboy said...

Hey YFS, sorry I haven't been commenting but I've been lurking a bit - having a career crisis of my own.

But your story of the kid wanting to study his own cancer reminded me of an old post I had about a med student of my friend's (Tyler Curiel, then at Tulane) who was diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma (SNUC) and wanted to study it. The story got picked up by NPR and the WSJ but Andy died. Andy's cell lines were recovered by Tyler post-Katrina and brought to San Antonio where Tyler is now cancer center director.

I guess my point is that no matter how well intentioned the efforts, the problem is bigger than any one of us and working together with minimal ego is the best way to true progress.

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi are you the same blogger as

I noticed this post here appears on that blog also, only partly reworded.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger Hannah said...


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