Thursday, October 23, 2008

More and more about less and less?

Dear readers, I want to disabuse you of a common assumption: that all life-science PhDs are about such narrow little areas.

I was struck by this because about a week ago, our lab interviewed a wannabe postdoc who came and gave a seminar on his thesis work.

It was a good talk. But it was NARROW. It was so narrow, in fact, that I was struck by how rarely narrow it was. I can't remember the last time I saw such a highly specialized thesis project.

In my experience, nowadays we have the world at our fingertips. Most PhD students want to learn lots of techniques, so they can ask lots of different kinds of questions. Most want high-impact papers, and for that you need some bigger picture experiments.

So I just wanted to put this little rant out there. WE'RE ACTUALLY NOT AS NARROW AS YOU MIGHT THINK.

And if you find yourself writing a thesis about a single protein or gene, with no context or in vivo function whatsoever? Try to see the forest for the trees.

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Atheist tag.

I got tagged to do an interesting post.

1. Can You Remember The Day That You Officially Became An Atheist?

No. I'm pretty sure I was born one. I always viewed religion as a curiosity, sort of like bugs.

2.Do you remember the day you officially became an agnostic?

Yes. I started having, rather than the persistent deja vu that plagued my young adulthood, increasingly frequent prophetic dreams. It was kind of spooky.

It goes like this. I dream something very vivid, or get an image while meditating (which I do purely for relaxation purposes), and write it down.

And then later, sometimes that day, sometimes a few days, sometimes months later, the thing I had by then completely forgotten about happens. Initially I always think it's the usual deja vu.

So whenever this happens, I think, huh? That can't be true! So I go back and check my notes.

But it has happened enough times that I started to wonder. And I've had similar experiences with things like Tarot cards predicting that certain types of people would come into my life, and in every case they were very unusual phenotypes, not the sort of thing that could easily be ascribed to random chance.

Do some people have special powers, a third eye, something like that? Am I one of them? I don't know. If I am, I haven't figured out how to use my powers to my own advantage!

So it's totally crazy, and I think I'm pretty objective about it, but it does make me wonder if there isn't some kind of order to the universe.

And I always liked the Gaia hypothesis (learned about it in high school biology class).

I do like the idea that there is some kind of balance. But I don't depend on it. Whenever I catch myself thinking "everything happens for a reason", I have to be honest, it's only when my life is going well. When it's not, I have to admit a lot of shit happens for no good reason whatsoever. Shit just happens.

But hey, plenty of people in my life in need of karmic payback. I would love to believe it was coming, good and bad, that we all get what we deserve even if nobody gets what they want.

3. How about the last time you spoke or prayed to God with actual thought that someone was listening?


4. Did anger towards God or religion help cause you to be an atheist or agnostic?

Nope. I don't think so. But I do think I was looking at the evidence as, I can't believe in an angry or vindictive deity, and I can't believe that an all-powerful being (such as a deity would have to be?) would create or abide by a world such as this. I think from a young age I concluded that, the world being what it is, if there ever was a God, it's dead now.

5. Were you agnostic towards ghosts, even after you became an atheist?

I don't know. So I guess the answer is yes. I've never seen a ghost, but I've met lots of people who have. I've had dreams of people who died, but I never ascribed those to anything other than my own desire to see them again. But that's not to say that I might not see a ghost myself someday. I guess I try to be open-minded, more and more in my old age I've seen things that have made me think that's the only way to be. I'm closed-minded only toward closed-minded people!

6. Do you want to be wrong?

Ever? Or do you mean about religion?

In general, yes I do often go the pessimistic route but hope that I'm wrong.

But on the religion thing, no, unless it really is true that there was an all-loving, all-fixing God who was, I don't know, gone on vacation to another galaxy (in a UFO) and bound to reappear and say, "Oh shit! What happened here? I can't leave you alone for one minute!" And everything would magically improve?

Somehow I doubt it.

I've recently discovered the Eastern religions that believe God is in everyone, and that makes more sense to me. A more humanistic good.

I think all we can do is try to fumble our way through life, and I think for some people religion is like a security blanket. Something to hold onto when everything is scary and we all feel lost and hopeless.

I also think science is a bit of a religion, in the sense that you have to put your faith in our ability, as philosophers and experimentalists, to learn something about life through the methods we have devised. I'm really a relativist at heart, I think we do the we best we can, but a lot of it will turn out to be not quite right in the long run, and that's okay.

But it doesn't mean we should stop trying, does it?

Some days I wonder if my general inability to have faith, to feel faith and execute the program [.\Faith], will eventually extend my general disillusionment to encompass all of science. I guess when that happens, I'll have to quit doing it. Lately my fear is that, if my main inspiration was to help people, and I have lost faith that anything I do will help anyone, doesn't that mean I should choose some other way to improve the world?

I'm also an existentialist, always have been. I think it's most likely that you get one shot, and when it's over it's over, just unconsciousness and the great big black. So I've always had that same sense of urgency that Dr.Jekyll&Mrs.Hyde mentions, what I think of as the "This is it" drive.

Which is probably where my perpetual frustration and impatience stems from. If I thought I had all the time in the world, that would be one thing. I have only this time, this life. So I do what I can.

I tag FSP, Unbalanced Reaction, and Geeka. If you're reading. And it's okay if you don't want to do it, I don't really believe in tag.

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Collected random tidbits of fuckedupedness.

Watched the various pundits this morning and had this thought:

If Sarah Palin were Dan Quayle, would guys like Colin Powell be supporting McCain?

How much of her being an idiot is amplified in people's minds by the fact that she's female?


From the NOW newsletter, Kim Gandy apparently said at the 2008 NOW conference:

"The next president needs to make economic equality for women a priority. This includes promoting educational opportunity, workplace equality, ending job segregation, educational segregation, [emphasis added] and promoting participation in good paying careers, like the STEM careers"


From one of the pundits this morning, they said Barack Obama's campaign defines "middle class" as individuals who make over $200,000, or over $250,000 for couples.

Implications of that:

1. Dear Kim Gandy, mrphd + msphd make a combined income yearly of less than $80,000.


Nobody can guarantee we'll get jobs doing what we have been training to do.


2. Is the assumption that the man makes $200,000 per year, and the woman makes $50,000 per year? Is it??? Because that's what it sounds like from those numbers!?!!

3. Where are the republican pundits getting these numbers? They're not front and center on the Obama campaign's website.


A recent study on the career paths of PhDs from the Yale graduate program:

Only 1 out of 30 from a top bioscience department obtained a tenure-track faculty position. I found the link over at a blog called Sandwalk.


A disturbing secret of the job market, and sign of the extreme fuckedupedness of the current postdoc system:

I recently learned that several of the people I know who were able to get faculty positions in the last few years did it by having funding.

How did they have funding, you ask?

They wrote R01s with their PIs, which many of us have done. The difference is whether it says this in your recommendation letter (which nobody reads unless your CV already looks spectacular!), vs. whether the postdoc co-author was listed as co-PI on those grants.

Why is this fuckedup, you might ask?

1. Postdocs are not eligible to apply for R01s. I think this is a major problem with our current system.

2. Senior PIs are having trouble (and rightly so!) getting multiple R01s.

Listing a young scientist as co-author is just a new way to exploit the system.

The PI gets credit for "promoting" young scientists, plus they get money when they otherwise wouldn't.

And did I mention that in most cases, the postdoc does ALL the writing, and the PI just adds his name [the only examples I know of involved male PIs]?

3. This is becoming an expected qualification for an assistant professor position, at least at some schools, and particularly in the current economic climate.


We need to have a system, and it has to be transparent and consistent. It can't be fair if it's based on unwritten rules.

4. At least at my school, but I suspect at many others, making this a promotion requirement is a massive catch-22. You can't write the grant unless you're promoted; and you can't get promoted until you get the grant. Some major string-pulling has to happen behind the scenes to make these kinds of arrangements.

In other words, don't expect to get to do this unless you work for a powerful PI.

5. It favors the favorites (and in most cases, this means it favors the men). I've seen different versions of these kinds of scenarios play out.

One is that only the favorite guy (let's be honest) in the lab gets to be co-PI.

Sometimes other postdocs (god forbid, some of the women!) would benefit more from writing a grant, either because they need the boost to their careers, or are more senior, etc.

Often, multiple lab members contribute substantially to the grantwriting and submission, but only the favorite guy gets official credit.

Another scenario I've seen is when a senior female postdoc does the same amount of work as the favorite guy, but she gets screwed when she leaves the lab.

For Favorite Guy, it is seen as an equal partnership or a friendly competition. Communication lines are open, reagents are shared, etc.

For Former Female Postdoc (FFP), the PI reneges on their agreement about who does what going forward, and FFP can't afford to get into a turf war with Former PI. Former PI does not keep her informed, and refuses to send agreed-upon reagents after FFP leaves.
And there's nothing she can do. Former PI controls everything from who speaks at meetings, to who publishes in what journals, to her chances at future grants.

What's an FFP to do?

If the only option is to not attempt to write a grant with the PI, she's screwed.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Hunker down.

It's funny how these things happen all at once.

I had some major shit going on when 9/11 happened. It lent an even stranger perspective to the already-nightmarish quality of my life at the time.

Now I'm seriously wondering about switching careers and how I'll make a living, not to mention giving up on what I've been working so hard for, and look what happens to the stock market.

My timing, as usual, is perfect.

So I woke up this morning with the clock-radio blaring about the latest drop, and I find myself grateful that I have, at least for the moment, even a piddily salary coming in. At least for a few more months, anyway.

Then I was thinking about some of my friends and other people in my lab.

And I realized, it could be a lot worse for me. I should be grateful.

I could have a mortgage or a house that I needed to sell. Thankfully, I don't.

I could be leaving now, instead of later. At least I have a little hope that things with the market might get better (?) before the shit really hits the fan in terms of my employment options.

I could be one of the grad students who is about to defend, but has not yet found a postdoc position (or an industry position, good luck with that).

I could be my friend who is already unemployed (whether I helped her with her interview or not was, as I suspected, irrelevant).

I could be my friend clutching a Canadian passport and talking about how her industry job is in such a specialized niche, she's going to have to get out soon before her company goes under. She's ready to run in a split second if McCain gets elected.

At least what I have on my side right now is: uncertainty.

Which in some ways, means I still have lots of possibilities. At least my fate is, at least not yet decided.

It's not clear what I should do, and that was kind of driving me crazy. So it actually makes me feel a little better than the rest of the country is also in a panic!

More consolation: if I fail now, I can blame it on the circumstances. Who's to say that, even if I had done everything perfectly, this same series of events wouldn't still have torpedoed my chances?

So I find it oddly comforting that the world is slipping on its axis.

It's hard not to picture the doomsday scenarios. The ones where our landlord suddenly decides to kick us out, but we can't sell any of the stuff we thought was at least worth a little money, because nobody is buying anything, so we have to leave it out on the street. What a waste that would be. Then we would have to leave, with nothing more than we can carry.

In these scenarios, the world turns black and white, like old movies.

Or as a friend put it, in the worst possible case, we're a whole generation of people who will have to move back into our parents' basements.

We'll have to do this either because we have no savings and lost our jobs, or because our parents' retirement savings are worthless, or both.

Won't it be fun, to hunker down with our families? You know how I love my family!

So I've got that "waiting for the other shoe to drop" feeling, which is kind of silly since I think I've been kicked in the head enough lately.

Now I'm expecting that any one of the following would really seal our fate:

a) a pandemic, like the bird flu in Germany jumping from chickens and ducks to humans

b) another hurricane or other natural disaster that costs the country a fortune and sends more people scrambling for a place to live

c) someone to attack the US while we're clearly not ready to respond

In that last scenario, I picture myself and mrphd having to join the Army.

Do you think they'd give me lasik surgery? That would make me so much more useful, at least in a military capacity.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Control needs to control.

So there I was, sitting on the toilet, reading an article in TIME magazine (accidentally delivered to our house, we don't subscribe).

The article was by someone named Lev Grossman, for whose name I apologize. What a sad name.

The article was about Candace Bushnell's latest book, which I had no intention of ever reading (and still don't).

What caught my eye was this section about the book:

It has an actual Weltanschauung-- it gets at the deep truth of shallow people. Women control men with sex. Men control women with money.

I have read and re-read those sentences over and over, trying to figure out what to make of them.

I can't tell if Lev Grossman thinks this description of the battle of the sexes applies to all people? Or only shallow people? Or only the people in the book?

Or, assuming it's not just bad writing but the fact that I live in an elitist academic bubble, what if it's not just that Lev Grossman who thinks this explains real life, but everybody?

Is this what most people really think? Is this how the world actually works, and I just missed the memo?

Coincidentally, while I was thinking about this, a friend sent me this other article in TIME about a recent study on how much gender actually matters for things like salary.

And that kind of blew my mind. In a nutshell: if you could change just one variable, and that variable happened to be gender, it would explain an awful lot of shit that women deal with in the workplace.

It's a flawed study, yes, but it's a very interesting concept. Doing an actual controlled experiment. Amazing.

Particularly with regard to the question about men controlling women with money, this seems to be true. Being of the fairer gender is sufficient to incur all kinds of hell upon you.

And all this talk about jobs and the economy has me thinking, more than ever, about who has money and who controls it.

But back to this question about women controlling men with sex.

Are we living in a rerun of some earlier time, some Pleasantville where women wear only dresses, spend all day cooking dinner, and are never anything more than mothers and wives?

Maybe even worse than that, am I failing to exert the one power I do have? Should I be flirting with my advisors and recommendation letter writers in order to get what I want? Should I harass my male students?

Clearly, that's not going to happen. I would rather be the wife at home than the secretary who has to sleep with her boss to stay employed.

But hey, that's just me.

But the point is, one of our major problems is that men fear us, because they don't understand us. And by doing that, they imagine differences where there aren't any. So in order to deal with that fear of the unknown, men try to control us. With money.

And for the most part, it seems, they are succeeding.

It's a man's world, they say. It certainly feels that way.

So speaking of reruns, let's see, where were we when this all happened before?

1868 15th Constitutional amendment makes it a federal law that black men have the right to vote; women are not allowed.

1920 19th Constitutional amendment gives women the federal right to vote.

So if that's at all predictive, assuming Obama wins, it will still be another 50+ years before we have a woman president?

Woman = (man) - (50 years of my life wasted waiting for men to get a clue)

Yeah, that feels about right. So by that math, my career will be picking up speed in another 2 decades or so.

Unless McCain is elected and dies the first week in office. Then we'll have a nutjob creationist woman president for a week, before she is assassinated.

And then all hell will break loose. Won't that be fun?

Or am I just being optimistic.

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